Looking for something to read?

Looking for something to read? Here’s a few books I’ve read lately. And look – they’re not all fantasy novels!!

Hello From the Gillespies by Monica McInerney

 I bet we’ve all received one of those Christmas letters that makes the writer’s life and family sound disgustingly perfect. The main character of this book, Angela Gillespie, has been writing them for 33 years, but this year she lets off steam. Instead of the usual picture-perfect image, she tells it like it is, complete with worries about all four of her children, her fears for her marriage, and her imaginings on what her life might have been like if she’d married someone else entirely.

She never means to send it, but of course fate intervenes and the damning email gets circulated to all the usual recipients. The whole family starts falling apart, and just when it seems things couldn’t possibly get worse — of course, they do.

The relationships between the characters are well done and feel very natural, although the three adult daughters act a lot more like teenagers than supposedly mature women. But their different problems and stories are all interesting, and once the tables are turned and they have to help Angela instead of the other way around they manage to pull together and create a happy ending for everybody.

An enjoyable read, and nice to have a woman in her fifties as the protagonist for a change. Young love is all very well, but it’s not the only flavour around.

Broken Homes by Ben Aaronovitch

 

If you haven’t read Book 1, it’s called Rivers of London (or Midnight Riot in some parts of the world), and I highly recommend it. It got this urban fantasy/police procedural series off to a flying start.

Broken Homes is the fourth book about the adventures of London police constables (and apprentice magicians) Peter Grant and Lesley Mai. I enjoyed the previous books in this series more than this one. Maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention as I read, but whole chunks of the plot didn’t seem to have much relevance to the story. There is a long section at a rather menacing night fair on the banks of the Thames, for instance. All sorts of magical types are wandering around, but nothing seems to come of it.

As usual, the worldbuilding is detailed and convincing but the story doesn’t pick up pace until about halfway through. The last section was tense and thrilling, and it ended on a truly shocking cliffhanger, one that I never saw coming. It makes me nervous about what will happen to Peter and Lesley in Book 5 …

Dead Famous by Ben Elton

 

I’ve read this one before, but it’s still fun to reread. It’s a highly entertaining comment on society’s current infatuation with reality TV, and features a “Big Brother”-type show with the addition of a real on-screen murder. At least half the housemates have a motive, so the curmudgeonly old detective assigned to the case has a tough job ahead of him. It’s a clever whodunnit, and the final scene where the detective reveals the murderer with some prime-time television theatrics of his own is great fun.

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

 

And just to prove that I occasionally read Serious Fiction, we come to Burial Rites (my book club made me do it!). If you like a happy ending, this is not the book for you. This is the story of the final days of the last woman to be hanged in Iceland, and it doesn’t get much grimmer than that. Not only is the subject matter dark, but the hardscrabble lives of all the characters and the bitter climate of Iceland only add to the general feeling of misery that pervades the book.

However, it is beautifully written, and it’s worth reading just for that. Kent brings this harsh world alive in all its icy beauty, and she digs deep into the lives of her characters, illuminating both the flaws and the virtues that make them human. Not a cheerful read, but a good one.

3 ways to liven up your next dinner conversation

We are big believers in sitting down every night together for dinner and chatting. The ducklings are old enough now to be amusing dinner companions, and we have some good conversations, despite Baby Duck’s occasional derailments into Minecraft or Lego territory.

However, Baby Duck can sometimes take a loooooong time to eat dinner, and even the best conversations tend to trail off, leaving us all staring resentfully at him, waiting for him to finish. When that happens we have to get a little creative, and we have three tried-and-true methods for getting the party started.

Charades

An oldie but a goodie. Maybe it’s corny, but it sure can be fun and even quite young kids can join in. I have rarely laughed so much as watching the Carnivore try to get us to guess “The Bourne Identity”. What he was doing looked illegal in at least forty-three states.

“Three True Things”

I don’t know what this is really called, but I call it “three true things”. Everyone has to take it in turns to say three things that happened to them that day. Two of them must be true and one should be a lie. Everyone else then picks which thing they think is the lie.

The kids love this one! The trick is to make the lie believable enough that no one identifies it – or else pick a true thing that seems outrageous. The family gets quite creative trying to outsmart each other, but it’s also a good way to get some details of your children’s days, particularly if they’re the sort that says “all right” when you ask how school was.

The Sentence Game

I read about this on Joshilyn Jackson’s blog recently. You need a sheet of paper and a pen. The first player writes a sentence at the top of the page – the more oddball the better. Then they fold that sentence out of sight and pass the paper to the next player, who reads it then attempts to draw a picture representing the sentence. This gets passed to the next player, who can only see the drawing, not the original sentence. They then have to write a sentence that represents the drawing, and pass it to the next player who draws their sentence and so on.

So with our family of five, we get sentence-drawing-sentence-drawing-sentence. Depending on whose turn it is to draw, the final sentence can closely resemble the first one, or have nothing at all to do with it.

Let me give you an example.

Demon Duck wrote: “The Neanderthal came alive out of the painting” and passed it to Baby Duck.

He did a real cracker of a drawing, with lots of careful details:

So the sentence I wrote was quite close to the original: “The caveman jumped out of the painting and came to life.”

Then we came unstuck. It was the Carnivore’s turn to draw:

 Not too bad, but he lost Drama Duck completely. Her sentence?

“The cave painting of the goat and the sheep(?) and the early human sent an arrow of super powers to the caveman nearby.”

Okay, now it’s your turn. Baby Duck gave me a sentence and this is what I drew. What sentence would you write to describe this drawing?

 
 

3 great writing tips from Baby Duck

Baby Duck and I were chatting about writing on the walk to school this morning. I said I was hoping to get a fair bit done on book 3 of the Twiceborn trilogy today, since yesterday was the first day I’d worked on it since Friday, and I only got about 1100 words done.

“So are you going to start writing as soon as you get home?” he asked.

Low blow! This kid knows me too well.

“You should do that instead of spending all your time reading random websites on the internet, you know.”

Yes, I do know. In fact I tell myself so many times every day. I thought about telling him I was building up my presence on social media, but I knew he wouldn’t accept any such namby-pamby excuse. Writers write!

Except, you know, when they don’t …

“Sometimes it’s not so easy to just sit down and write,” I said. “You have to know whatyou’re going to write first, and I’m not too sure yet where the story is going.”

“Then why didn’t you spend time on the days you didn’t write thinking about the plot?” he asked.

This is why Baby Duck will probably be a better writer than me one day. This kid is organised. I mean, scary organised. He comes home every day and sits straight down and does his homework without being told. He starts his assignments weeks in advance. Weeks! It’s not natural!

I flailed around a bit more, put on the spot by my eleven-year-old son.

“Well, I know what’s going to happen in a general way. But it’s hard to plan, at the really detailed level you need for scene-writing, exactly what’s going to happen. Whenever I start thinking about it I usually get distracted by a million other things.”

“You should start at the end and work backwards,” he said. “Then you’ll know where you have to end up.”

So there you have it, straight from the mouth of my tiny writing guru:

  1.        Resist the temptation to goof off on the internet. When it’s time to write, write.
  2.        In between writing sessions, plan what to write next.
  3.        If you get stuck with plotting forwards, work backwards from the end instead.

I should hire the kid out to writers’ conferences.

What about you? Do you have any good writing tips? Anything that works for you as motivation, or to get you past a blockage? Struggling writer wants to know!

The bathroom: most creative room in the house

I was going to say it was the “most productive” room in the house, but I didn’t want anyone leaping to the wrong conclusion.

Baby Duck came in as I started writing this post.

“Why is it the most creative room in the house? Oh, I guess because you spend so much time sitting there.” Then the most evil grin spread across his face. “Or should I say …”

I quickly cut him off. “Sitting is fine.”

Cheeky kid.

“Where do you get your ideas?” is a question writers hear a lot. My number one answer in general is “in the bath”. When I’m drafting a novel I hop into the bath nearly every night. Something about the relaxation of it – or maybe the sheer boredom of sitting there with nothing to do or look at – prompts the ideas to flow. I can almost always rely on a nice long bath to give me a breakthrough when I don’t know where the story is going next.

But that’s in general. Today I want to tell you about the time when a bathroom gave me a very specific idea, which became the genesis of my forthcoming novel Twiceborn.

It was on a visit to a Gold Class cinema. If you’re not familiar with them, they’re a very swish movie-going experience. There are only about forty seats in the whole theatre, and they’re big reclining armchairs grouped in pairs with a table between them. There’s a separate bar area where you can order meals and drinks to be brought to you during the movie. Obviously it’s more expensive than a regular trip to the cinema, but it’s a nice luxury for the occasional treat.

They also have separate toilets, which are a lot more upmarket than the ones for general movie-goers. Spacious and gleaming, they feature beautiful tiles, automatic taps – and the ones at our local Gold Class have the most enormousstalls. The first time I visited one I remember thinking, wow, these are like personal change rooms. You could do anything in here!

Which of course started the wheels in my little writer’s brain turning over. I pictured a pregnant woman entering such a stall, then stripping off her clothes to reveal the pregnancy was only a prosthesis, which she then removed. Then she dressed in a new outfit, complete with wig, and walked out of the bathroom a completely different woman to the one who walked in, deceiving the people who were watching for her.

Who was this woman? Who was following her and why? I knew she was in danger, but not what form the threat took.

I needed a lot more ideas to make a book, but that’s how books grow. You start with one little glimmering of an idea, then you hurl a whole bunch of other ideas at it, till something new and sparkly results from the collision.

That scene in the bathroom became part of the first scene of Twiceborn. A whole 90,000- word novel resulted from one moment of marvelling at the size of the Gold Class bathroom stalls.

Best bathroom visit ever.Where do you do your best thinking? Ever had a great idea in a really odd place?

“Cheese that’s whipped excites me” and other misheard song lyrics

When I was young, one of my brother’s favourite albums was “Band on the Run” by Paul McCartney and Wings. My dad happily sang along to the title track “Sand on the Rug”.

Of course, being the annoying person that he was, he continued to sing this just to be irritating even after it was pointed out to him that he’d misheard the lyrics.

Everyone’s probably done this at some stage (misheard song lyrics, that is, not intentionally set out to annoy their offspring). After all, pop singers don’t always have the best diction, even when they’re not purposely mangling words to fit a rhyme or rhythm. Yes, I’m looking at you, Mr Elton Extra-Syllable John. “No Sac-ar-i-fice” indeed!

I was guilty of it myself only this week. The girls and I were discussing current songs and “All About That Bass” came up. I’m busy singing “I’m all about that bass, ’bout that bass, no trouble” when Drama Duck gives me a pitying look.

“You know it’s actually ‘no treble’, don’t you?” she says.

Hey, that makes so much more sense!! But honestly, have you heard that song? It still sounds like “trouble” to me!

It wouldn’t be the first time. I have a long history, dating back to my preschool days, of blithely singing something that’s completely wrong.

There used to be a show called “Romper Room” on TV back when I was knee-high to a grasshopper. Every day they did the same activities, sang the same songs, and I happily followed along. One song they sang began: “Bend and stretch, reach for the stars”, and I always sang the next line “Here comes Juicily, there goes Lars”. Despite my mother’s best efforts, she could never convince me that the words were actually “Here comes Jupiter, there goes Mars”.

Demon Duck cracked me up recently by confessing she’d made a mistake with the lyrics of Rihanna’s song S&M. There’s a line that goes “sticks and stones may break my bones but chains and whips excite me”. One of her friends had heard her singing it and pointed out that Rihanna is not, in fact, excited by “cheese that’s whipped”, as she had thought.

What about you? Any misheard lyrics you’d like to ’fess up to? Don’t tell me it’s just my family!

Dr Who and the Disappointing Dinosaur

Well, the new season of Dr Who premiered last night, complete with new Doctor Peter Capaldi. The verdict at our house? Overall, a resounding “meh”.

Baby Duck thought it was great, but his logic works like this: I love Dr Who. This was Dr Who. Therefore I loved it.

The Carnivore, about halfway through the episode, said: “If this was my first ever episode of Dr Who, I’d never watch it again.” Ouch.

I’m keeping an open mind about Peter Capaldi. He spent a lot of this first episode dazed and demented from his regeneration, so we don’t have a clear handle yet on how he’s going to play the role. There were some amusing one-liners and a great rant that give me hope I may one day come to accept the loss of Matt Smith (sob).

But the writers did him no favours, with a pretty ho-hum episode. It started off quite promising, with the Tardis arriving in Victorian London inside a time-travelling T-rex, which then chucked it up into the Thames.

Cool! You can’t get a much more dramatic entry than that. Plus, what’s not to love about a dinosaur in Victorian London? I was intrigued to see where they were going with this.

Sadly, the answer was “nowhere”. The dinosaur played no more part in a story that dragged its way through many not-very-exciting conversations to arrive at last at a mildly interesting cyborg plot.

The whole dinosaur thing reminded me very much of how the advice to “start your story with action” is sometimes misinterpreted by beginning writers. It can’t just be action for its own sake, and it mustn’t be action that has nothing to do with the bulk of the story which follows. No high speed car chases that turn out to be dreams, or murder scenes which are actually something being watched on TV by the main character.

No dinosaurs which have nothing to do with the rest of the plot.

The writers of Dr Who are definitely not beginners, which makes it all the more surprising. Let’s hope the rest of the season only has surprises of the good kind.

 

Did you watch it? What did you think?

Even dragons have to cut their toenails

 

This is the very first dragon I ever bought myself, in those long-ago days BC (Before Children), so I guess you could say this little guy kicked off the collection. We were on a romantic weekend away at a very swish hotel in the Blue Mountains. It must have been winter, because it was snowing when we arrived late on Friday night, which is something we Sydney-siders rarely get to see, and a huge log fire burned in the massive fireplace in the foyer.

The Blue Mountains are only about an hour’s drive from where we live, but they feel like another world. They’re much higher and colder than Sydney, so they get the occasional snowfall in winter. They also feel about fifty years behind the rest of the world in terms of architecture and the pace of life there. Little towns are scattered among thousands of hectares of largely untouched bushland. There are no Macdonalds anywhere in the Blue Mountains, a fact of which the residents are very proud.

It was all very atmospheric, but so f-f-freezing outside that we spent nearly the whole weekend in the hotel. Browsing in the gift shop, we found some quirky little dragon statues. There’s a  big artist community in the Blue Mountains, so I’ve always assumed they were made by some talented local, though I don’t know for sure.

I couldn’t resist the absurdity of this one, sitting there cutting his toenails with such a look of concentration on his face. I guess dragons can’t spend all their lives terrorising castles and kidnapping princesses. At the end of the day, someone still has to do all those domestic duties, like cleaning the lair, bathing the baby dragons, and attending to matters of personal grooming.

This one looks so comical he always makes me smile. He also reminds me of a time when romantic weekend getaways for two were still an option.

The Blue Mountains feature in my forthcoming novel, Twiceborn – complete with dragon. Not the cute kind that sits around cutting its toenails, though! The beautiful Mountains take quite a beating – all that bushland plus dragonfire … not a good combination.

But if you think that’s bad, wait till you see what happens to the Sydney Harbour Bridge!

Dragons of New Motherhood and Sleep Deprivation

I’ve been a big fan of dragons for as long as I can remember. Sure, I wouldn’t want to meet one in a dark alley, but in books, movies and art I find these overgrown lizards endlessly fascinating. Years ago I started collecting dragon statues. I thought I might share a few with you, and the stories behind them.

First up, meet the dragons of New Motherhood and Sleep Deprivation.

These were a gift from the Carnivore, our first Christmas as new parents. Drama Duck was about eight weeks old at the time, and we’d just spent probably the longest six weeks of our lives coming to grips with this new little person in our lives.

This new little person who categorically refused to sleep.

It turned out the poor little mite had silent reflux, so every time we laid her down to sleep her gastric juices rose up and burned her oesophagus. But because there were no outward signs (hence the “silent” part of silent reflux) we had no idea and were at our wits’ end. The Carnivore spent hours every night rocking with her in the rocking chair and reciting accounting principles in the hope of boring her to sleep. (She now says this is the root of her dislike of maths!)

I remember one horrendous day when she cried for nearly twelve hours straight, only stopping for feeds. I was beside myself. My mother-in-law arrived after a teary phone call to find me sobbing on my bed. She took the baby so I could eat and reassured me that things would get better.

I found it hard to believe at the time! But at the six-week check-up with the paediatrician, he diagnosed the problem and things rapidly improved.

But I’ll never forget that feeling: hormones running rampant, consumed with worry and overwhelmed by being responsible for a helpless beloved baby – and trying to function on about three hours’ (broken) sleep a night. New motherhood can certainly be challenging, particularly with your first. You have no idea what you’re doing, and can hardly believe they let such an unqualified person leave the hospital with this precious but perplexing little creature.

But by the time Christmas rolled around we’d started to get the hang of this whole parenting thing, and I was thrilled to receive this gorgeous dragon mum and her new hatchling. They came from a glass blower in The Rocks in Sydney, so they’re one of a kind, and a lovely reminder of a special time in our lives. Becoming a mother for the first time is a shock no amount of preparation can ready you for – but it also brings a joy you could never imagine.

I don’t know how dragons feel about it, but that mum looks pretty pleased with her little one. Maybe baby dragons are good sleepers?

What about you? Do you collect anything? Stamps, buttons, tea cups? Anything unusual? (You can tell me, I promise to keep it a secret!)

Or do you have any “new baby” stories to share? If you’re a new mum, congratulations … and I hope your little one is a good sleeper!

Elsewhere, on the glorious Internet …

Haven’t done one of these posts for a while! Baby Duck doesn’t like too many linktastic posts, and since he’s my main audience I like to keep him happy! But I’ve come across some interesting tidbits in my travels across the glorious Internet this week, so I thought I’d share them with you.

First some exciting news for Baby Duck and the legions of Dr Who fans out there: the new series starts in Australia on Sunday 24th August! I have a worrying suspicion that I won’t like Peter Capaldi as much as Matt Smith, but I’m keeping an open mind. The BBC has some photos from the first feature-length episode “Deep Breath” here.

Next, something that would have rocked my teenage self to the core: the dragonriders of Pern may be coming to the big screen! Warner Bros has optioned the whole series. Admittedly, movie options come and go all the time, and don’t necessarily lead to a movie, but still! I think it was the Pern books more than anything else that fostered my lifelong obsession with dragons. One day not too far away there will be a new dragon book in the world, written by yours truly, and Anne MacCaffrey’s marvellous series is partly to blame.

And speaking of writing: Tansy Rayner Roberts does a great interview with writer Foz Meadows as part of the ongoing “Snapshots” series. Foz voices her disquiet with the idea that everything about your life pre-baby should cease to matter once you become a mother. “You can love your children without being ready or willing to sacrifice the most integral parts of yourself on the altar of motherhood.”

This really resonated with me. My children are the focus of my life, but even so I was hanging out for Baby Duck to start school so I could start writing again. In the end I couldn’t wait that long, and snatched writing time while he was at preschool or watching TV. It’s so important to have some identity other than “mother”. I think it’s good for the kids too, to see that mum is a real person with goals and dreams that don’t revolve around them.

 Real people – even grown-up people – should have a little fun in their lives too. Author Kristen Lamb discusses the lack of “play time” in the lives of adults and is very wise on how our modern “all work and no play” culture is bad for creativity.

But luckily, creativity isn’t dead! For a beautiful burst of colour, check out Faith’s gorgeous quilt. It’s a fresh modern take on the old faithful “flying geese” pattern. Love it!

G is for Green

In A Fantasy Alphabet, G is for Green by Jay Lake.

 
 

I have to admit, my interest was piqued almost as much by the negative reviews I’d seen as by the blurb of this one. So there’s proof for worried authors – even bad reviews can sell books! Since people have varied tastes, one reader’s reason for disliking a book may be exactly what someone else is looking for.

In this case, several people complained of the structure of the novel, others didn’t like the protagonist, while still others bemoaned the sado-masochism. Okay, there may have been a touch of that, but that person who complained of “bestiality”? That word – I do not think it means what you think it means, to quote Inigo Montoya. I didn’t hear any cries of “bestiality!” about the movie Avatar when the hero got it on with the pretty blue lady with the tail. In fantasy, possession of a tail doesn’t necessarily make you a “beast”.

However – moving on! Green is the story of a girl sold into slavery as a very small child and raised to be the concubine of a tyrant, and how she manages to wrest her destiny back from the control of others. “Green” is the name she gives herself when her owner names her “Emerald”, as she refuses to accept his label but has been addressed simply as “Girl” so long she’s forgotten her own name.

This is typical of her fighting spirit. Though she loses most of her native tongue and retains only the barest memories of home, she is determined to get back there. She is ruthless and single-minded, and despite all the punishment a harsh system throws at her, she never lets go of her defiance and purpose. It is ironic that those who have enslaved her are actually creating the means of their own downfall in the skills they beat into her.

I had to take a couple of runs at this one. What I expected would be the plot for the whole novel came to a sudden climax about a third of the way through. Then it seemed a whole new story started as Green moved to a different continent where she met completely new characters and developed new story goals. It was oddly unsatisfying, and I stalled there on the first read. So those reviews complaining of the structure did have something of a point.

But the writing was good and the themes interesting, so I gave it another go a few months later, and found that the story did eventually circle back around to where it started, and what had seemed a little disjointed and episodic in fact was not. You have to trust Lake on this one. He’s not a formulaic writer, but he does produce a satisfying ending to an interesting story if you stick around for the whole ride. Worth persevering with.