Would you like cliches with that?

I was reading the monthly newsletter from my favourite bookshop, Infinitas, today. It lists all the new books out and reproduces the blurb for each to whet your book-buying appetite.

When you read a whole lot of blurbs in one sitting like that it’s like getting a big shiny needle to vaccinate you against the dreaded cliche disease. After a while you just don’t notice them any more. Everything is “epic”, all the evil villains are “hell-bent on destroying everything that [insert name of protagonist] holds dear”, etc, etc. It all starts to sound the same after a while.

So there I was, scrolling half brain-dead through a tide of “mismatched bands of saviours” and heroes who had to save the world “but could he save himself?” when one sentence leapt out at me.

“Hidden hands pluck the strings of tyranny like a fell chorus.”

I boggled at that one for a moment while I tried to picture hands, hidden or otherwise, singing like a chorus. Where are their mouths? Exactly how many hands are we talking here? More than a pair, clearly. Where does one find all these disembodied singing hands? And they can pluck too, not just sing. Such multi-talented little hands.

I stopped skimming then and went back to look at the rest of this blurb more carefully. There were “dire portents” plaguing people’s nights and assassins skulking. “The hunters have become the hunted.” (But what are they hunting? Talent scouting for performing hands perhaps?) Then there were strangers arriving, bards singing “their tragic tales” and “somewhere in the distance … the baying of hounds”.

But wait, there’s more! “All is palpably not well.” No – really? What gave it away?

By this time I was feeling very sorry for the author. I know nothing about him, but I’m assuming he can write better than this. Most likely the marketing department came up with this deathless prose, and now the poor guy has to cringe every time he sees his own book. Apparently there are also “ancient crimes … clamouring for revenge”. I think I’d be clamouring for revenge myself if I were him, for crimes against the book-buying public.

The blurb concludes with the assurance that “this is epic fantasy at its most imaginative”. Quite possibly. Pity you can’t tell that from reading the blurb. Though that bit about the hands takes a special kind of imagination, I guess.

It makes me wonder about blurbs, though. Yes, they often draw on archetypes or tropes as a way of packing a lot of information into a short hook. But how much is too much? How many cliches can you pile on before it becomes unintentional parody? If I read that on the back of a book I was browsing, it would be back on the shelf as fast as my non-singing little hand could manage. Hardly the desired effect. Am I expecting too much?

Mamma mia! He can’t sing!

The whole family went to see Mamma Mia today. Such fun! I could happily see it again tomorrow.

I wouldn’t take Baby Duck again though. He likes his movies animated and got pretty bored. He spent a lot of time climbing all over me and making very loud comments in all the quiet bits, like “that lady looks like a naked chicken!”. The girls loved all the singing and dancing, though Drama Duck got a bit frustrated because we kept laughing at jokes she didn’t get. She is so desperate to be grown up.

My husband had hysterics every time Pierce Brosnan started to sing – and I use the term loosely. The first time he did it I was terrified he was going to have a stroke right there on the screen. His face went bright red and he looked as if he was going to burst a blood vessel. It’s not that his voice was bad – he could carry a tune all right – but it sounded forced and unnatural. His second song was in front of a huge crowd of extras and I just felt embarrassed for him.

Not that it spoiled my enjoyment of the movie. It was even kind of a relief to find that he wasn’t perfect after all. I mean, how can any man be that pretty? It’s not right. But it makes you wonder why they cast someone who can’t sing in a musical. Still, I’m not complaining. Between him and Colin Firth (who can sing) there was plenty of eye candy. And the songs are so good it’s hard to go wrong.

I’ve been an ABBA fan for more than 30 years, though for much of that time it was too daggy to admit. Even my beloved likes to belt out a chorus of “Waterloo”, though he’s usually so lyrically challenged that “Happy Birthday” is the only song he can remember all the words to. Now we get to indoctrinate our children. (Ah, the joys of parenthood.) Though we might have to wait a couple of years before Baby Duck’s little mind is ready to absorb their greatness. Those naked chickens can be so distracting.

On the merits of healthy competition

Today I face the lowering realisation that Drama Duck will probably finish writing her first book before I will. Her opus is a teenage mutant ninja turtles story and Baby Duck is her Number One fan. She has written two or three chapters today alone. Each chapter is read with great expression to her little audience, who greets each new instalment with as much enthusiasm as the crowds on the wharf clamouring to hear the end of one of Dickens’ serial novels when the ship from England arrived.

Her output is certainly better than mine lately. I only have two scenes to write to finish the first draft, but I’m in that slack “what the hell, it’s school holidays” mood. Much more fun to shoot hoops with the girls, or take the kids to the movies, or shop, or – or anything, really. Anything rather than write.

Hang on, why am I writing this novel again? Because I love to write? Hmmm. So how come I have to force myself to sit down and do it?

I always thought it was just me being lazy, but my travels on the internet show that many writers are masters of the noble art of procrastination. So maybe I’m not a freak of nature after all (or yes, maybe I am, but it’s nothing to do with the writing; thank you so much for that kind suggestion).

Anyhow, the race is on. See the motivating power of competition? Almost as good as watching a deadline go whooshing past. Am I going to let myself be defeated by a nine-year-old? No! I spit on nine-year-olds! (Sorry, Drama Duck, that’s just one of those writerly metaphor-type thingies. I wouldn’t really spit on you.) I eat nine-year-olds for breakfast! (That’s another one.)

And anyway, I already have finished a novel – when I was 13. And it filled three whole exercise books. So there.

The Art of Racing in the Rain

I am not the slightest bit interested in car racing. Would I willingly read a book featuring car racing? Not in a million years. Yet I have just read such a book and I absolutely LOVED it. I gulped it down in one sitting then sat there going “wow!” for a while. Then I wanted to read it all over again, more slowly, so I could savour it. I wanted to run out and buy a copy for everyone I know so they could all share in its brilliance. And I really, really wanted to have written it!

The book is The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. I heard about it on the internet – that it was good, and that it was narrated by a dog, which was intriguing enough to make me buy it. Luckily no one mentioned the car racing, or I might not have.

Enzo, the narrator, believes that when a dog dies, if it has perfected life as a dog, it will come back as a human. As a result, he makes a very careful study of the humans in his life so that he can learn to be one. He is chatty, funny, philosophical and very observant in an innocent way. His voice is distinctive and endearing. Seeing the human experience filtered through his eyes is fascinating. Even though some dreadful things happen to his family, his native optimism and faith in his owner mean that the book is always hopeful and leaves you feeling uplifted. If that sounds corny, that’s my fault, not the book’s. I find it hard to explain why I loved it so much.

It even made me look at Two Planks with new eyes. Could there be a philosopher hidden in that furry blonde head? Then I came to my senses and thought: “Nah!”

Part of it was the brilliance of the writing. It was so tight – nothing was in the book without a reason. Everything had significance – especially the car racing, which formed a beautiful metaphor as well as its practical function in the plot. And he made it sound interesting – even fun! If Stein isn’t a fan I’m in even more awe of his skill.

Now I have to get my hands on his other two books. I’ve decided to read less fantasy and try to branch out a bit more. This was certainly a flying start for that resolution. Anyone got any recommendations of books they’ve enjoyed lately?

A rose by any other name

Today I bought a netball ring on a stand for the girls to practise their shooting. At least, it said it was a netball ring, but in fact it’s the size of a basketball hoop. It also came with a net to attach to the ring, a la basketball. I asked my husband not to put the net on when he was assembling it, since netball doesn’t use a net and I figured the girls would be better off practising the way they would be playing.

But he put it on. When I asked why, he explained that Baby Duck had insisted.

“You have to have a net,” Baby Duck said, “because it’s netball. If you don’t it would just be ringball.”

Ode to lost sleep

Look at these cute feet — Baby Duck at two months old. Who would have thought that five years later they’d have turned into instruments of torture?

I’ve noticed a funny thing about small children. In daylight they seem so soft and cuddly, all plump little legs and sweet rounded faces. But in the middle of the night they sneak into your bed and they’re suddenly all hard angles and nasty pointy bits. There’s nothing quite like being woken from a sound sleep by a vicious elbow jab to the kidneys.

And then they do the starfish thing, arms and legs sprawled across the bed, so that mum and dad are crammed into 10% of the space while the small pointy thing luxuriates in the other 90%.

Baby Duck is a master of the art. I’m pretty sure he grows extra legs at night too. There seem to be a lot more than two knees jammed into me. I feel like the meat in the sandwich crammed between him and his father. Sometimes he doesn’t even leave me enough room to lay my head flat on the pillow.

I suppose I’ll miss it when he grows out of this stage, but then again – maybe not. When you’re expecting your first baby you know you’re in for some disturbed nights. What nobody tells you is that it can go on for years. You go through the baby thing, the weaning thing, the waking up in the night (every night!) crying for water/cuddles/toilet/whatever-they-damn-well-please thing, the coming-into-your-bed-every-night-thing, then just as you think you might finally be getting it under control, along comes Number 2 and it starts all over again. Repeat as many times as your sanity allows.

In our case, Drama Duck is nearly 10, and we’re still woken up every night by Baby Duck, so a night of unbroken sleep is only a fading memory. I figure once he grows out of it we might have as much as five years of good sleeping before we get to the dreaded “waiting up for teenagers to come home” stage. Can’t wait! For the sleeping bit, that is. I can definitely wait for the teenager bit. Everyone who’s been there assures me that part is much worse than the original sleep-loss stage.

That’s another thing they don’t mention at antenatal classes. It’s all “how exciting, your first baby!”, when they really should be saying “are you mad? you’re creating a teenager!” At least I get to practise on Drama Duck first. Heaven help us all when it’s Demon Duck’s turn.

Living in Fantasy Land

Dymocks’ latest Booklover catalogue includes a fantasy-style map titled “Journey through the magical lands of fantasy”. Five lands are marked on the map, with a list of authors assigned to each land, grouped according to what type of fantasy they write. The groupings are “High magic & epic quest”, “History & myth”, “Sorcery & intrigue”, “All ages” and “Urban”. (Clearly I need to read more urban fantasy, as I’ve only read two of the authors on the list.)

Dymocks have done this before, and it’s a handy way to discover new authors. They’ve included quite a few Aussies but, as an Australian bookshop, I would have liked them to make a bigger effort to push Australian authors. I realise such lists can’t be exhaustive, but where, for instance, is Sara Douglass? She sells ’em by the truckload. Why not mention Justine Larbalestier under the “All ages” category? And what about Glenda Larke? I must have read a gazillion fantasy trilogies, but I’d never read one where the showdown with the ultimate bad guy comes at the end of book 2 instead of book 3 until I read her Isles of Glory trilogy. It was so refreshing to find a different take on the usual format.

The other thing that struck me was: why is JRR Tolkien the first name on the “High magic & epic quest” list? Don’t get me wrong, I adore The Lord of the Rings. It’s still my favourite book after all these years, he’s the father of modern fantasy, I know, I know, but come on! If there’s a single person out there in reader land who hasn’t heard of him by now, they must have been living under a rock. Is it really necessary to put him on the list? It’s like saying to someone, “Oh, you like religious stories? Have we got the book for you! It’s called the bible – you’ll love it.”

Another interesting thing I noticed – the majority of the names on the “High magic & epic quest” list are male, whereas all but two on the “Urban” list are female. Any theories about that? I have a few but since I haven’t actually read much urban fantasy I’d probably be talking through my hat.

And yes, I do spend quite a lot of time poring over the pages of book catalogues. No, I don’t need any help getting over my addiction, but thank you for asking.

In which I apologise for cornering the world market in green paint

If you’ve had trouble finding green paint at your local hardware store recently, sorry. That was me. Who would have thought it could be so hard to pick a colour for one piddling little feature wall? With all that practice at combining colours for quilts and scrapbook pages it ought to be easy, but the green sample pots continue to mount up. My beloved reckons we’d have enough to paint the whole house green if we just combined them all. Such a helpful man. This is why I make the decorating decisions at our house.

When I can decide, that is. So far we’ve had greens that belonged in a lolly shop, greens that were too dark, greens with too much yellow, greens with too much blue and the dreaded green-that-looks-like-something-the-cat-sicked-up. The perfect Goldilocks “just right” green remains elusive.

On top of that, I don’t think the young guy at the paint counter is talking to me any more. Admittedly he’s not exactly on my Christmas card list either after stuffing up a previous paint order, but still. On yet another trip to the paint department recently Drama Duck was with me. He was in the middle of helping us and had just turned away to find some more colour samples when she said in one of those thunderous stage whispers kids use:

“Mum! Don’t trust him – he’s the one who gave us the wrong paint before!”

“Do you want to get us thrown out of Bunnings?” I hissed back.

Then, last weekend, the whole family went along (yes, we have a very exciting social life). The five of us walked up to the paint counter, saw he was the only assistant free, wheeled in unison and walked straight back out again. Plaintive cries of “but why are we going?” from Baby Duck floated in the air as we disappeared. With moves like that we could join a marching band.

But I think I’ll have to start going to another Bunnings.

Surprise!

Baby Duck was giving me a cuddle the other day when he looked at me lovingly. “Mum, we bought you a DVD for your birthday.”

I managed not to laugh. “Really? Don’t tell me what it is – it’s supposed to be a surprise.”

“It had a dragon on the front,” he said. “But I can’t remember what it’s called.”

What kid hasn’t done this? My mum still tells the story of my brother announcing, “Daddy! We bought you some slippers!” the minute Dad walked in the door, despite many promises to keep it a secret. And that was more than 50 years ago.

Or there was Drama Duck’s classic effort when she was about 6, and we’d bought an umbrella for her daddy’s birthday. Having heard the story of my brother’s slip-up so many times, I was very careful to impress upon her the need to keep the purchase secret. I didn’t have a great deal of hope, but I figured it was worth trying. I also warned my husband on the phone that we’d been shopping, and he should try to discourage any attempts to reveal all.

Sure enough, he came home from work and I heard her run to him. “Daddy, daddy! I’ve got a surprise!”

“Remember you can’t tell me what it is,” he warned.

“Oh, it’s not about the umbrella,” she assured him. “This is a different surprise.”