Tuesday, December 27, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: The Spider Goddess by Tara Moss

First posted at awritergoesonajourney and  Boomerang Books.
The Spider Goddess by Tara Moss
a Pandora English novel
Pan Macmillan
ISBN:978-1-7426-1003-0

There’s a new designer in town- and she has Pandora in her sights. Who knew the fashion industry could be so venomous.

It’s now been two months since Pandora first moved to the mysterious Spektor to live with her equally mysterious Great-Aunt Celia. And it’s certainly been anything but boring. She’s encountered counting-obsessed vamps, ghosts, zombies and a myriad of characters she never thought possible.

Now there’s a new threat to New York, and Pandora seems to be a beacon for the strange and unexplained.

I had mixed feelings about the first in the Pandora English series but my final feeling was that I was looking forward to seeing the next in the series.  Unfortunately the old brain box was working rather sluggishly for a while there after the brain surgery and only now am I getting to writing up my review of this second Pandora English novel. Sorry about that.

I suspect one of the reasons, probably the major reason, why I had those mixed feelings about The Blood Countess was that I was not expecting this from Tara Moss, being used to and a fan of her crime novels.

With The Spider Goddess, I was much happier. I felt some of the problems I had with its predecessor had been addressed (not that I am arrogant enough to suggest I am the reason why they were addressed!) and along the way, these added to the greater development of the larger plotline. For example, cartoonist Charles Addams gets a mention in such a way that I half-expect him to play some sort of role in a future novel.

There is definitely a creepy feel to the story but not to the point that I would be uncomfortable with younger readers getting their hands on the story. I have given a copy to a young friend, fully expecting this young adult to also enjoy it.

I felt Pandora was a stronger character this time, adding to the story. I also liked Moss’s exploration and use of various mythologies. But it is a paranormal story, after all. I even found myself feeling a little sorry for Pandora and her feelings for the deceased Lieutenant Luke – bit hard to see a relationship developing with a ghost who only seems to be able to appear in certain places.

I enjoyed this novel and read it quite quickly.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Action, humour and humanity: Born Fearless by Big Phil Campion

first published at Boomerang Books 

Review -  Born Fearless by Big Phil Campion

Anyone who follows international affairs to even a basic degree would be aware of the existence of private military operations in places like Afghanistan. But we don't hear a lot about how these operators actually work. Born Fearless is a fascinating account of life on that private circuit by one of those right on the circuit's razor edge.

Phil Campion had a brutal upbringing. I think it is fair to think Campion could have easily gone down a much darker path but as a youngster he ended up in the army. Clearly one to get easily bored by the regular, the mundane, Campion found his place in the elite forces, culminating in the SAS. This proved a good background to enter the private military circuit.

This account provides a good account of life on that circuit as well as what lead up to it. That bit I enjoyed. What I didn't enjoy as much was Campion's regular reminding the reader of his 'years in the military.' Phil - I know you were in the army and respect you for it. But I didn't need reminding of it so frequently.

At times I also found myself wondering about Campion's sanity. He was operating in a hair-raising, dangerous environment. And he loved it but without becoming an utter psycho, for which I respect him even more.

This is a fascinating account of an aspect of life that very few of us will ever see (or probably want to!), with action, humour and humanity. It should have quite wide appeal.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

OK, here's what's ACTUALLY happening (or not) with the surgery

It has been a while since I had a rant and I think this is a good one.

Back in May, an alert and conscientious radiographer (or whatever they're called - the ones that do the X-rays) pointed out to a doctor in the Emergency Department at Calvary Hospital here in Canberra, that there was a suspicious shadow on one side of a just-completed brain scan of my noggin. A second scan confirmed the presence of an aneurism. Calvary not being equipped for that sort of neurosurgery, I was referred to the Canberra Hospital.

Jump forward a few months. By then I had seen the neurosurgeon twice, been referred to Royal Prince Alfred in Sydney in expectation that the aneurism could be treated by far-less invasive procedure called 'coiling' only to have RPA advise that my particular little beastie was too broad and therefore unsuited to the procedure. So I was down for the full brain surgery. Come September I was finally booked in for surgery on 20 October and to attend a pre-surgery clinic in late September.

One of the joys of my life (not) is to have a thing called Crohn's Disease. For the last five years I have been treated by an immune-suppression drug each eight weeks by IV at the Canberra Hospital. This particular drug regime has been fantastic in keeping my Crohn's under control, especially compared to the previous few years which contributed to my finally being kicked out of the public service onto invalidity. That's actually over five years, people, so we could be excused for thinking that this would probably appear somewhere reasonably prominiently in my hospital records.

I saw the surgeon twice and there is no way at all that I would have failed to tell him what medications I am on, including that eight-weekly administering of the immune-suppresant. I also saw his registrar at the clinic in September and I not only told him about that drug, I even told when my next scheduled appointment was for. No concerns whatsoever.

Come my next drug infusion on 15 October, five days before the surgery, I informed the doctor examining me prior to authorising the treatment, that I was scheduled to go under the knife on the 20th. His precise response was "that's not a problem."

On 17 October, I called the Gastroenterology unit to enquire about the possibility of having my next infusion done in Victoria as I was intending travelling down there to recuperate with family after my brain surgery. They went into full panic mode. "You can't have surgery so soon after that drug infusion!" An urgent consultation with my gastroenterologist was to occur and a return phone call promised that day. By late afternoon, not having heard anything, I made contact with the gastro myself. He confirmed that the surgery had been cancelled and advised that due to the presence of the immune-suppressant in my system, any post-surgical infection could well have killed me and that I should have never been given it. At this point I was told the surgeon had no record of my being on that particular drug. Huh? Don't any of them listen to what their patients say in answer to their questions? Or read their own hospital records?

The next day, the hospital's Surgical Bookings called to ensure I was aware that my admission for the next day (surgery the day after) had been cancelled and made a new booking for admission on November 16 and surgery on November 17. This was a direct hospital response to the surgeon cancelling the October surgery.

On November 14, someone called me at home, identifying themself as one of the surgeon's team and wanting to confirm what medications I was on. They confirmed that surgery was this week.

November 15, I received a call from the Gasterenterology Unit, advising that in accordance with my gastro's instructions, my next drug infusion had been delayed to December 21, four weeks after the scheduled surgery.

Come November 16 ie yesterday, I duly turned up at the hospital - five minutes early even. The Admissions area was expecting me, worked through all the paperwork and sent me up to the relevant ward. But the ward staff said they had no knowledge of me coming at all. But not to worry, they had a bed spare.


The surgeon's registrar came and saw me two times, the second being to discuss the procedure in detail. Now I am told that rather than going through a smaller hole through my forehead as previously described in detail by the surgeon, the procedure is now to pretty much remove the left-hand side of my skull, exposing the entire top of the brain. Yikes. "Are you sure about that?" I asked, indicating what the surgeon had described. "No, it is definitely being done this way," was the answer. I was then advised that I was first on the operating list for the following morning ie today. Pretty reasonable assumption that it was all going ahead, one would have thought.

The registrar then made a surprise third visit. He had just spoken to the surgeon who had stated he was not expecting me until next week and he refused to operate until next week. Bare in mind that I had already been admitted and was by then laying on the bed munching the solitary sandwhich which was all they could scrounge up for my lunch. And this was afterall the surgical appointment made by the hospital, presumably in line with the surgeon's instructions.

With this being the second cancellation, I was not best pleased. To put it mildly. To be perfectly honest, I was now so pissed off that I quite honestly wanted to punch someone in the face. And I am not a violent person. Noisy, yes, but not physically violent.

Cutting the story a little shorter (believe it or not), by later that afternoon I was talking to the registrar once more, now by telephone. Now the story changed. It was confirmed that I had been scheduled for surgery today but after my admission yesterday, the surgeon simply changed his mind. After my admission.

I am a full-time university research candidate. In second semster I had paid tutoring work lined up but once it became apparent that I was to have surgery during the semester and go MIA for some time, that opportunity was lost. While I needed that money, I thought it was a fair trade off so that I would have the surgery behind me and be back on feet enough to be able to attend family functions later in the year.

Once the October date for surgery was confirmed, I immediately applied for a formal Interupption to Study with the university. What I was not made aware of until later was this meant that I was deemed not to have been there all semester, thus losing credit for any and all milestones achieved during the semester. So the best part of a semester's work has been largely wasted.

With these delays that are all 100% the cause of the Canberra Hospital, I lost my paying job for no good reason as I could now have done that tutoring job. With surgery scheduled for today, I had to now stay in Canberra until after December 21 when I could get my next drug infusion as it was 'impossible' to transfer the treatment to Victoria. I sure as shit cannot afford to head down south as planned and also have a return air flight to get the drug infusion. Only now the surgery has been postponed again to next week, pushing that infusion date back to December 28. So now not only do I lose that care and support from family post-surgery, not to mention missing the eighteenth birthday of my niece and god-daughter, I am not even allowed to have Christmas with my aging mother and the rest of the family. Unless of course I delay the drug infusion even later, but by past experience, by that time I would be just about reduced to crawling onto the return plane - that's how sick I can get, quite quickly.

Let us not forget that despite the involvement of the surgeon, his registrar and another doctor employed by the Canberra Hospital, it was only the intervention of a non-medical person that saw me avoid being operated on in such a potentially deadly situation. 

Now when discussing things with the registrar by telephone yesterday, he told me that they cannot be held responsible for changing circumstances. Excuse me? What changing circumstances? Has the surgeon or the registrar seen me since the surgical appointment was made? No. Has there been any form of medical examination post-15 October? No. Has there been so much as a blood test to indicate that there was too great a presence of the drug still. No.

What an absolute load of bullshit.

I suffer from depression and related mental health issues. This building myself up for surgery and making many arrangements and other accomodations, only to have it twice ripped out from under me by hospital screw-ups, is having a pretty detrimental impact on that mental health. Trust me on that one!

I hit the roof with a very senior hospital adminstrator late yesterday. She first tried to tell me that I would have only been bumped from the surgery list in order to accomodate a more urgent, life-threatening case. Now if that were the position, I would most certainly have not been complaining. I'm probably not going to drop dead tomorrow from this beastie in my head and if someone else's life was going to be saved by pushing me back, then fine. Except that wasn't it at all! I already had it from the surgeon's registrar that he had simply changed his mind. And the registrar admitted that he couldn't guarantee that the surgeon wouldn't change his mind again next week as well.

This senior person assured me I would have a return telephone call from her by about 1pm today with a full explanation as to what the hell is going on. It is 6:38pm as I type and nope, no call. Nor an email. Nothing.

It should also be noted that I previously instructed the hospital that after another issue regarding this particular surgeon, I did not want anything to do with him in future, thanks very much. Guess who they kept putting on the case. Clearly my wishes amount to jack shit.

Now if this lot cannot read their own hospital records to know what drugs I am taking, are incapable of taking note of what I have told them in three seperate appointments about what drugs I am taking and yet another doctor authorise the continuing use of that drug despite being told of surgery occuring in five days time with only the intervention of a non-medical person saving me from potentially being killed by their negligence, not to mention this fart-arsing about with surgical appointments and changing of minds after my admission, is it any wonder that I am having major doubts about their ability to actually remove the side of my skull and go digging around in the old grey matter without totally fucking me up?

Oh - and has the hospital ever apologised for any of this? Well the gastroenterologist did in that phone call back in Octobedr, but it wasn't his fault or that of his staff. In fact it was an alert member of his staff who possibly saved my life. But the hospital in general? Nada. The surgeon? Don't be silly - he won't even speak to me but just send other people to fuck me around so why should I expect him to say sorry? Never mind that his negligence just probably would have killed me.

I am taking legal advice to hopefully sue their collective arses off. And seeing my GP asap to try and arrange someone else.

Congratulations, ACT Health, for yet another stirling effort! It really takes skill to so consistently and utterly FUCK IT ALL UP.

URGENT UPDATE - with apologies to Kellie Lang of Canberra Hospital. She has rung me at 7:04pm, working quite late, to give me an update. No, things are far from sorted out yet, but she is taking this very seriously. Unfortunately I am too pissed off still to be bothered with editing hence this postscript.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Big win for Aussie small press!

first posted at awritergoesonajourney.com

There are still some schools of thought out there that think writing is really pretty easy. You just write a novel (easy-peasy) and major publishers are all sitting around, nervously biting their nicotine-stained fingernails as they wait for your manuscript to appear on their desk, at which time they will hand over a check with a suitably large number of zeros on it somewhere. Preceded by some number bigger than zero. Piece of cake. At that point, you can comfortably resign your ‘real’ job for the luxurious life of an author.


Sad to say, I did actually have a supervisor, when I still had a ‘real’ job, who honestly thought pretty much along those lines. She was quite certain that it was just a matter of course that I would finish a novel and be able to promptly resign my job (to her relief) on the large advance I would be given.

The reality of course is that it ain’t anywhere near that easy. Apart from the fact that writing a novel is damned hard work, getting published is a damned sight harder.

The often overlooked part is that of learning to be a publishable writer. Very few of us are able to just sit down and write that novel that publishers are all busting to sign up. We have to learn our craft, just as any apprentice does. For many of us, that learning experience and apprenticeship comes from the short story or novella. We have to learn how to craft a story, learn how to tell it in a compelling way that will draw the reader in. And we need to get experience in getting published, in pitching our work to publishers/editors, in editing and working with said publishers.

This is where small press comes into its own. The world of speculative fiction has a long history and tradition of small press producing anthologies of short stories in particular, which for many aspiring authors is the first entry into that magical world of actually seeing your story in print. Australia has its own strong tradition of small press.

In recent years the number of small press offering opportunities to Australian authors seems to have dipped a bit. For example, Cat Sparks decided to call it a day with her highly regarded Agog! Press in order to concentrate on her own work. Eneit Presswere sadly forced to call it a day for reasons we shan’t go into here as I have blogged furiously about this previously.

So it was great news to see Alisa Krasnosten win the World Fantasy Special Award – Non-professional at the World Fantasy Convention for her continuing work at Twelth Planet Press. This doesn't just proves the good work Alisa and co are doing there at Twelth Planet, but reminds us that the independent, small press are a vital and integral part of the Australian publishing scene.

Congratulations Alisa and keep fighting the good fight!

Ross the Repellent
(Overlord-in-training)

Friday, November 4, 2011

Procrastination as inspiration

Sometimes when writing, the words just do not want to come. I refuse to concede it as being writer's block but rather that it is just my aging brain being lazy.

On those occasions, and this is one of them, I find it can help to just switch track and start writing something else - anything. So I decided to write this blog post. Sure, it is a form of procrastination yet it can help get those sluggish brain cells to start firing thus is a form of inspiration - sort of.

It is an absolutely glorious day, brilliant sunshine, the warmest day of spring so far here in Canberra. I have the workshop room of the ACT Writers Centre to myself. Outside, the Gorman House Markets are in full swing. Now when I say full swing, I should note that it is one of those days that just make people drowsy and a number of the stall holders are displaying just that.

Deciding to halt for lunch a short while ago, I headed over to where the main food stalls are. Being such a warm day, I decided to forgo my usual papusa - a cornmeal pancake stuffed with cheese and beans, smothered in a delicious hot chilli sauce - and went for an Italian crepe stuffed with spinach and fetta, with a squirt of lemon juice across the top. These are also very tasty although it amuses me a little that I now willingly eat something with spinach in it whereas as a kid, getting me to eat it was no small feat. But at that corner of Gorman House is the Embroiderer's Guild who had a craft sale on in their rooms. So I just had to poke my nose in there. Before I knew it, I was having a conversation about cross stitch (something I do to occupy my hands of an evening and keep me from going insane - the cross stitch that is, not the conversations). And now I think I have gone and committed myself to joining them of a Monday evening to sit and stitch with them.

Coffee from my preferred vendor was lovely as always and he even slipped a bit extra coffee in for nothing to help fire me up.

The other attraction is a secondhand bookstall. I should be banned from them as I have more books coming in than I can cope with anyway. Fortunately for the sake of my bookshelves, I flipped through his collection of secondhand CDs instead and came away with a full version of Mozart's The Magic Flute for only eight bucks. I have only ever had excerpts of that before. This lovely opera is now issuing from the very tinny speakers of my laptop.

Now this procrastinationesque activity seems to have worked of a sort. Words are starting to flow a little more easily now. Time to close this blog down and return to the other, real writing.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Welcome to the dark side

There is an attraction to being a performer. Why else do so many young people secretly dream of  being rock stars? I know I did.

I tried being a musician and I was brilliant apart from the slight drawback of being virtually talentless. I did a little amateur theatre years ago. I think the most memorable bit of that was wandering around one evening in the foyer before removing the stage make up, only to be told that make up really suited me.

Last Friday evening I experienced that amazing thrill, the rush of being in front of a crowd in a packed venue, performing and getting laughs that were intended. The energy in the room was amazing and just lifted you up, bringing out even more manic energy in me. Perhaps not surprisingly, Robin Williams is one of my comic heroes. While I most surely am not anywhere near as funny as he is, I can relate to his manic bounding around. And how tiring it is. I felt exhausted by a set only some seven minutes long. It was all that adrenalin and manic energy pumping through the system.

Now I understand why people do it, getting out there to make people laugh. Fortunately I never got into drugs so cannot compare it to a drug high. But I know I never felt that good when I was still drinking.

Comic DeAnne Smith said to me afterwards via Twitter, 'welcome to the dark side'. I understand what she means. I want more!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Joys, laughs and tears (almost)

Today has overall been one of joys.

Firstly, I received a lovely offer from the Chair of the ACT Writers Centre, El Presidente Sylvia. No, not that sort of offer - minds out of the gutter you lot. It was yet another offer of transport to and from the hospital next week. And to water the plants. And look after the pets. And do the ironing. Well, the transport is organised, housemate looking after my straggling African Violets and no pets. But there is the Ironing Mountain waiting.... Nah, I'll do it next week. Maybe.

Then there was the most wonderful statement from another friend. I shall not mention her name to save embaressing her. But Lisa Fuller - whoops, wasn't going to say that, was I - offered to come and stay during the surgery itself when the brain surgeon is amusing himself turning my head into a colander. "That's what we do in my family," she said, "and your family now mister."

I was almost tearing up over that. Truly. What a truly lovely thing to say. Unless that means I am now expected to be taking out the rubbish at her place, washing her better half Ben's car or something like that.

This evening was my first outing to an open mic comedy night. It was at The Pot Belly, a bar in Belconnen. Now I haven't been there since I sobered up about ten years ago. I suddenly had a fit of the giggles, comparing the coffee in my hand to the terribly, terribly drunken state that I think I was probably like the last time I was there. The mere fact that I cannot entirely remember that last visit, probably says volumes.

So my first real outing doing comedy. Quietly forgetting a very forgettable attempt many years ago when I did not have the faintest idea what I was doing.

Having a bit of a memory problem these days, I made a memnomic on the back of my hand so I would know all the gags I was supposed to be doing. Except I couldn't remember what half the bloody things were supposed to be. But I got some laughs. And I had some fun. A special thank you to the two lovely young ladies, Rachel (?) and Maddie, who laughed at everything. I felt better about the memnomic afterwards when one of the other performers showed me the small essay he had written on the back of his hand.

A big part of the reason why the night went so well was the MC, Marie Helou. Marie is a working comic who divides her time somewhat between Canberra and Sydney although she is based in Sydney these days. Now Marie has been working very hard for three months now, trying to teach loonies like me, how to do comedy. Every Thursday, into the car to drive down from Sydney to teach us at the Belconnen Community Arts Centre. Marie has put a LOT of time and effort into this and we really, really appreciate it. Marie is funny and an all-round sweetheart. I'll leave it to her to make the short jokes and boob gags. I was going to post a piccie of Marie with the link to her page at the Comedy ACT website, but ever since this blogger thingy upgraded its shit, I cannot seem to load pictures properly at least half the time these days. Including this time.

Thanks Marie. XOX

Also thanks to Tim who has been doing all the hard work for the Mindscapes Festival as part of the ACT Mental Health Week activities. Tim has been a great support in making this all happen for us.

Onward to our big gig at the Civic Hotel this Friday evening.

I suppose I ought to think about going to bed. Sometime. Eventually.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Maudlin notes, thank yous and unexpected results...

I have been in something of a maudlin mood of late, concerning the forthcoming surgery. What if it doesn't go right? The surgeon could sneeze just at the wrong moment when he has a length of my grey matter pulled out of my head. And so on. In reality the procedure has a much higher chance of things like stroke than other trips under the knife. So I have been taking care of a few things like getting in touch with a few people juuuust in case the worse did happen - I would hate not to be able to communicate with them properly again afterwards.

Well, one author I admire wrote me a lovely note back. To preserve her anonymity, I shall just say thank you anonymous-statuesque-former-model. :-)

At the same time, I have been hiding said fears behind my usual exterior of nonsense. Well, that's just what I do, OK. However this has had some unexpected results.

As I have regularly referred to this as getting a labotomy, one of the university staff thought I was actually being lobotomised and was wondering how I was going to be able to continue my studies. Whoops.

A dear friend in the US, knowing my usual habit of talking drivel, thought all of these comments about getting holes drilled in the head were just more of the same. She received quite a shock to actually receive a serious email from me about it and realise that, no, I'm not actually joking. And I made her cry. Whoops again. Sorry Bailey - didn't mean it - promise!

Sunday, October 2, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Salvation's Reach - Dan Abnett

review first posted at A Writer Goes On A Journey

Salvation's Reach
Dan Abnett
Gaunt's Ghost 13
2011
Black Library
ISBN (UK) 97881844168200
ISBN (US) 9781844168217



Blurb

The Tanith First-And-Only embark upon a desperate mission that could decide the fate of the Sabbat Worlds Crusade in the thirteenth book this popular Imperial Guard series. The Ghosts of the Tanith First-And-Only have been away from the front line for too long, listless and hungry for action. But the proposed raid on the mysterious Salvation's Reach is so hazardous, it's regarded as a suicide mission. Haunted by spectres from the past and stalked by the Archenemy, Colonel-Commissar Gaunt and his Ghosts embark on upon what could be their finest hour... or the final mission.

Review

Dan Abnett is widely regarded as one of the best military sci fi writers in the world today. And I agree.

The release of another novel in the Gaunt's Ghosts series is a reason to settle down with a cuppa in a comfy chair and get lost in the universe of the 41st Millennium.

In terms of the military action, Salvation's Reach is every bit as crisply written as its predecessors. Plenty is happening by the reader is drawn along without any difficulty.

Ibram Gaunt continues to be the hard-bitten warrior and leader, fighting in the continuing Sabbat Worlds Crusade. Fans of Gaunt will no doubt enjoy this next instalment.

I was however puzzled by some things. By the time I had reached the end, Gaunt and his men had fought their way across a couple of battles with the survivors mourning the loss of their fallen comrades. And I was left with a disquieting sense of 'so what?' A number of elements were introduced into the story that by story's end, had not seemed to drive the plot forward in any real way. While these will no doubt play a role in future instalments, I felt the story arc would have been stronger for bringing these out more in this particular instalment.

For a nobody like me to be seen to be criticising someone with the credentials and success of Dan Abnett, probably seems the height of arrogance. I certainly didn't dislike the novel and generally enjoyed reading it. But at the same time I have a guilty sense of being a school teacher writing 'can do better' on a report card.

Sorry.

BOOK REVIEW: You'll be sorry when I'm dead - Marieke Hardy

review first posted at Boomerang Books
 
You'll be sorry when I'm dead
Marieke Hardy
2011
Allen & Unwin
ISBN 9781742377261

Marieke Hardy became a much more visible presence on the Australian landscape with her  regular spot on ABC Television's First Tuesday Book Club. But of course she had been around for much longer than that, writing for The Age and elsewhere, including the Australian Writers Guild's magazine, script writing and acting when younger. She is clearly a fascinating individual and I looked forward to finally getting to review this book.

This is less a biography and more a collection of shorter pieces about aspects of her life, some of which previously appeared in print in shorter form.

I had expected to be entertained and I was certainly not disappointed. Hardy's prose is every bit as sharp and bright as her verbal barbs on television. I was quite literally laughing out loud in places which is unusual for me even when amused while reading. I had started writing down some memorable quotes for use in this review but there was simply so many of them. But referring to Alan Jones as 'that little cockstain' was just priceless.

This read was not all giggles and smirks. There is a darkness to Marieke Hardy as well and she was not afraid to explore this in places.

There was a passing reference to Hardy's great-Aunt Mary. I am old enough to remember the often outrageous and always funny, Mary Hardy when she was a fixture on Victorian television. Her tragic demise was surprisingly typical of many 'funny' people – surrounded by people yet alone and very sad. At the risk of sounding like a pompous, amateur headshrinker, I felt a sense of the same coming through at times in Marieke's writing.

This is an adult read in many respects and some of it is somewhat confronting. And I loved it.

“You'll be sorry when I'm dead” will definitely be going into my list of recommended reading from 2011.

Hoss Ramilton
(not my real name – read the foreword to get the joke)

Saturday, October 1, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Ghost Platoon

first reviewed at Boomerang Books

Ghost Platoon
Frank Walker
2011
Hachette Australia
ISBN 9780733626432

Blurb

In 1969 a ragtag unit of 39 men were thrown together at Nui dat, Vietnam. It didn't even have an officer or sergeant in charge. A rugged ex-Royal Marine, acting corporal, stepped forward to take the lead. The platoon found itself involved in a high-risk ambush and under Riddle's leadership, came through unscathed, leaving a trail of enemy bodies behind. Yet afterwards, the platoon was disbanded and the army then spent decades denying the unit had even ever existed.

More than forty years later, Frank Walker details what happened at that ambush and why the army buried their existence, and the secrets that went with it. His findings are a shocking indictment of the long-term effects of war.

Review

If you are looking for a book full of heroic, Gallipoli-esque mythology of the Anzac digger, then this is not the book for you. This is an ugly, nasty story. Sadly, it is also a true story.

Walker has used his years  of journalistic experience to dig deep into this story of why Defence officials for decades denied the existence of this single platoon. And it is not a pretty picture.

Some of the material received during the investigation simply beggars belief. For example, there is no sign of an official Headquarters diary covering the activities of this unit and this time frame. Among the excuses subsequently offered up for this inexplicable absence, was the suggestion that perhaps the HA staff concerned were not aware that they needed to keep a diary. What complete, utter nonsense. And I am being exceedingly polite with that description.

Another serious alarm bell goes off when it is revealed that the service records of some of the soldiers concerned, suddenly show them being transferred to another battalion – when no such actual transfer ever took place. It was a simple fabrication.

The continuing denials etc arose out of Defence concerns way back in 1969 that these soldiers may have been involved in what may be seen as an atrocity, born out of circumstance. That would never have done at a time when the Vietnam War was becoming increasingly unpopular in Australia.

In tracing the stories of a number of the soldiers involved in this platoon and the battle, the truly awful effects of war on the frontline infantry soldiers in Vietnam are seen only too badly. Alcoholism, depression, violence, inability to cope – these poor bastards wore the lot. Not much of a reward for what was still essentially voluntary service, even among the conscripts who still had to volunteer for overseas service.

This is not a history as such but it is still a factual story backed up by witnesses and other evidence.

It was not an enjoyable read. Parts of it are simply too raw to be enjoyable. But it is essential reading for anyone wanting to understand what these soldiers went through in Vietnam and the aftermath for many. And it is also an eye-opening indictment of how politics of the day can echo on decades later.

Bureaucratic cover-ups and sly tricks are certainly nothing new. In order to save a few bucks on future war pensions, bureaucrats had my grandparents sign documentation stating my uncle was being discharged fully fit in 1944. All my grandparents wanted was their son back home again and signed anything to make it happen. In reality he was a complete mental case from PTSD and never worked again. No pension. No support. Just a few medals and a flag on his coffin when he died in 1965 at age 42.

I have no doubt this sort of thing happened in respect of World War 1 and Korea, just as it clearly happened in respect of Vietnam.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Marieke Hardy, Fire Engines and Coffee

This is my second attempt today at posting this entry. My computer really dislikes me at present.


Today I had an appointment with the headshrinker. A new one to be precise. I suspect my last one was unable to continue coping with mental delinquents like me and ran screaming from the building.

A strangely conscientious Ross arrived early. Well, to be honest, I was five minutes late for the time I thought the appointment was for but was actually twenty-five minutes early for the actual appointment time of 1pm. Except the appointment was no longer for 1pm at all but had been rescheduled and could I please come back at 3pm.  Although there was no 'could' or please. "You vill report back here at 3pm and you vill be on time for Doktor Mengeler."

Fortunately today's post had delivered a long-awaited copy of Marieke Hardy's biography, You'll Be Sorry When I'm Dead. Another reviewer got hold of our review copy before me and enjoyed it so much that they had difficulty in letting it out of their hands. But I have it now so all is forgiven. Now it was hardly worth my time to now traipse across town to uni only to be there for five minutes only for it to be time to start traipsing back again. So I settled down in the cafe on the building's ground floor for lunch and reading.

As I was soon chortling out loud, I elicited some strange looks from other people, particularly when I managed  to snort Coke Zero out my nostrils (not regular Coke as I'm on a health kick or at least that's my story and I'm sticking to it). This is a lady who writes like how I would like to but Marieke does it so, so very much better than me.

Just then, all hell broke loose. Alarms began shrieking, hammering and pounding like an entire punk concert on speed. Something was up! Had terrorists struck? Or worse, had someone else pinched my idea of letter-bombing the Mental Health knobs?

Strangely, I seemed to be the only one paying any real attention to this alarm. The cafe staff just spoke a little louder as they continued dispensing coffee and sandwiches. The couple at the table next to me merely introduced plenty of 'Pardon?' and 'What?' to their discussion.

Well obviously it must be a drill, I decided. But the noise was becoming too much for me so, like Elvis, I left the building. Now that's something I would like to do for a laugh one day; pay someone to make an announcement over the PA in a busy public place that 'Ross has left the building - repeat - Ross has left the building.' I could then amuse myself watching people wonder who the hell Ross is and why should they give a toss if he's in or not.

As I utilised the egress (I suspect that is grammatically incorrect but I think it looks good, so there) I heard then saw a fire engine approaching, all sirens, lights and bravado, which then pulled up beside the building. Yet there was still a conspicous absence of anybody else leaving the building even though it was clearly more than just a drill. Odd, that.

I retired instead to Smith's Alternative Bookshop. Interestingly I am yet to determine exactly what the alternative is to books that they are selling. Particularly as there are in fact books for sale inside. But Smith's does a good coffee and as anybody who knows me is aware, that is a good way of getting my attention. Somehow the flamenco version of I Did It My Way in Spanish playing inside, lacked quite the same degree of excitement of fire alarms and engines.

I now had a soothing coffee and a comfortable place to continue reading Marieke. Now to see if she could make me snort coffee out my nostrils.

P.S. I didn't snort coffee as I was now forwarned but still kept chortling aloud.

P.P.S. Having just reached the chapter describing Marieke's heartbreak at the demise of  the Fitzroy Football Club, I am now irretrievably in love. Go the 'Roy Boys!

P.P.P.S. The health clinic neither burned to the ground nor was letter-bombed.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: In the Best Interest of the Game

review first published at www.boomerangbooks.com.au

In the Best Interests of the Game

Darrell Hair
HarperSports
2011
978 0 7322 9288

Cricket umpires are a strange breed. And it’s hard work. Just umpiring informally for an hour or so at a time when official umpires are not available can be hard enough, concentrating every single ball just for that period of time. Yet umpires at the first class level have to be ‘on’ for six or more hours in a day’s play. Blowed if I know how they do it.

A good umpire is barely noticeable if they are doing their job well, but should be more-than noticeable when needed to be. As an observer, I have always seen Darrell Hair in that light. He was courageous enough to first raise concerns about the bowling action of Muttiah Muralitharan back in the 1990s, later calling him for illegal bowling deliveries. In the wake of later testing of Murali’s action, the law-makers changed the rules to permit up to 15 degrees of movement in the elbow during delivery, a single degree more than the amount of movement adjudged to occur in Murali’s delivery of his ‘doosra’. Not that I have ever seen an umpire issued with any measuring equipment to ensure every delivery does not exceed that degree of movement. The concerns of Hair (and others) were obviously justified but simply later by-passed in what I thought was a pretty pathetic piece of fence-sitting by the authorities.

Hair covered the Muttiah Muralitharan episode in a previous hard-hitting book although it again receives a little coverage towards the end of this latest title. This title however covers the other major incident in Hair’s career- the refusal of the Pakistan team to return to the field in 2006 leaving Hair and his fellow umpire in the match, Billy Doctrove, little option under the rules than to award the match to Pakistan’s opponents, England. This refusal to return to the field was in protest at the umpires jointly agreeing that the ball being used by the Pakistani team had been tampered with and under the rules, awarded a five-run penalty to England.

The subsequent treatment of Hair by his employer, the International Cricket Council, in the wake of the ball-tampering affair, was absolutely appalling. The ICC breached so many fundamentals of the employer-employee relationship, it simply isn’t funny. A subsequent tribunal appeal by Hair saw the ICC quite rightly being absolutely ridiculed for their behaviour and ridiculously contradictory evidence. I think it quite fortunate over their monumental cock-ups.

This book is every bit as courageous and uncompromising as Hair himself in his pursuit of what he believes to be right and ‘in the best interests of the game.’

Monday, September 19, 2011

a thought...

While I refuel on some coffee, I decided to do a little reflecting.

The Internet is a wonderful thing. No, I am not referring to the fact that I must be seriously challenged in the genital area, judging by the number of emails I receive offering to increase the size of my offering in that department. For that matter I must also obviously suffer badly with erectile dysfunction and am in need in several gross of watches.

I am talking about the way it can help us connect with people.

I have just had a conversation with someone via Twitter. She is in Canada (British Columbia) and I'm down at the other end of the world in Oz. We all just take that sort of thing for granted now, but she and I are thousands of miles apart, never met in person yet here we are, chatting like old mates. I remember as a kid, Dad giving me an old radio that had a shortwave band on it. I used to delight in hearing these strange languages coming through the ether to emerge from the crackling old speaker. Yet now I am just so blaise about being able to pretty much instantly talk to anyone, anywhere.

For the record, my friend is artfullyangie, a pretty kewl artist (http://www.artfullyangie.com/) not to mention being pretty darn cute as well.

And that is probably my deep thought for the day.

BOOK REVIEW: Germline

review first published at http://www.awritergoesonajourney.com/

Book Name: Germline
Author/Editor Name: T. C. McCarthy
Book Series: The Subterrene War
Number in Series: 1
Publication Year: 2011
Publisher: Orbit
ISBN: 978-0-356-50041-6

Blurb
War is Oscar Wendell’s ticket to greatness. A reporter for the ‘Stars and Stripes’, he has a pass to the front lines of a brutal conflict over natural resources, where genetics – the germline soldiers – battle heavily armed troops deep beneath the icy, mineral-rich mountains of Kazakhstan.

But the front is nothing like Oscar imagined. The genetic soldiers are more human than he’d bargained for too. Hooked on a dangerous cocktail of drugs and adrenaline, lives are beginning to blur. And if Oscar doesn’t find a way out of the chaos soon, he may never get back.

Review
 
I dislike trying to sum up a novel in a single word but on this occasion it is not hard to do so: brutal.

Initially I was expecting something along the lines of space opera or military sci fi but I was a long way from right.

This is a future where the USA is the aggressor in a war for mineral resources. In a short time, losses on both sides are horrific, despite the introduction of the genetically engineered super-soldiers. On the US-side, these are all identical teenage females, which if they survive to age 18, are killed due to increasing mental stability. Yet these female genetics were more successful and stable than attempts with males.

After Oscar has a brief relationship with one of the genetics, he finds himself being interviewed by two men from the Department of Defence who explain they are trying to increase the mental stability of the germline soldiers.

“To make it so they don’t get attached to men like you. If we can do that, we have a product that’s useful over a greater period of time and, consequently, worth more to the Defence Department. It’s all about lowering production and maintenance costs and making a larger profit. Commerce.”

That is about the coldest attitude towards human life and war as you are going to get.

Oscar goes through Hell – both on earth and his own mental torment. We see an already flawed individual fall even further.

In reading, I found myself thinking of two particular influences: the filth and horror of the World War I trenches and the drug-fuelled desperation of some of the US draftees in Vietnam.

Desperation is a repeating theme through the novel, desperation in the battle lines among the soldiers, leading to a variety of responses. I am left with the impression that McCarthy researched his subject well.

This is not a ‘nice’ read. But it is a compelling story all the same. In places I was reminded of Sebastian Junger’s powerful narrative about the current fighting in Afghanistan, ‘War’.

I definitely want to see where McCarthy takes this story in future instalments.

BOOK REVIEW: Allison Hewitt is Trapped

review first published at http://www.awritergoesonajourney.com/
 
Book Name: Allison Hewitt is Trapped
Author/Editor Name: Madeleine Rouox
Publication Year: 2011
Publisher: Headline
ISBN: 978 07553 7912 5 (Trade paperback)

This is one of those oddities, a story originally serialised in a blog. Unlike others, I have seen in that form, this does really take the pattern of a string of blog entries, complete with comments from ‘readers’.


The story did draw me in, aside from confusion on my part arising from having just finished reading another zombie novel. To quote John Travolta from one of his very early roles, ‘I’m sooo confused!’ (and if you can pick up what reference that is, you’re an old fart like me!).

There is plenty of action with shambling zombies being cut down by axe, shot in the head, belted with baseball bats, teed off on with golf clubs and burned. While we don’t see quite the same level of social breakdown that is often typical of the apocalypse-zombie genre, we do see things like armed vigilantes. And those Black Earth Wives were just plain creepy.

Unlike many others in the genre, we learn little about where the original infection came from, or least not until a partial explanation in an epilogue of sorts. Or perhaps that is being saved up for the next book?

I have to be honest and admit that I did not find it quite as funny as some others apparently have. But yes, there were indeed sarcastic throwaways.

I did have a practical issue though. With all of these zombies being cut down everywhere and left to lie where they fell, there should have been one hell of a stench from all that rotting flesh. Or did the other zombies eat their own ‘dead’? It was never clear to me.

This won’t go down as my favourite zombie novel. But it was interesting and quirky enough to make me want to read Roux’s next book which is due out later this year.

Ross the Repellent

Sunday, September 18, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Thanquol's Doom

Review first published on http://www.awritergoesonajourney.com/
 
Book Name: Thanquol's Doom
Author/Editor Name: C. L. Werner
Book Series: Thanquol & Boneripper
Number in Series: 3
Publication Year: 2011
Publisher: The Black Library
ISBN: 9781849700849
 
Backstabbing. Duplicitous. Paranoid. Scheming. Treacherous. Self-serving. Cowardly. You name it, the term can probably be applied to the skaven, the giant ratmen of the Warhammer world.

The Grey Seer Thanquol probably represents all that is nasty about the skaven, thus in his mind, is truly a fine specimen of skavenhood. He becomes one of those horrible villains that you just like to read about and see him come undone.

Having narrowly survived his unsought adventures on the tropical island of Lustria, Thanquol, in his never-ending quest for self-advancement, finds himself thrust unwillingly into war against the engineer dwarves of Karak Angkul. The dwarves are a particularly hated enemy of Thanquol's, courtesy of the dwarven Slayer, Gotrek, aided by his human rememberer, Felix, having previously thwarted Thanquol's plans in the past.

Thanquol was first created by William King in the early Gotrek & Felix novels, before being continued in that series by Nathan Long. But it was C. L. Werner who was given the task of creating the spin-off series, Thanquol & Boneripper. The Grey Seer has gone through several rat-ogre bodyguards, all called Boneripper, and now the skaven engineers of Clan Skryre have gifted him with the re-animated remains of the original Boneripper.

One of the things I enjoy about the skaven is the technology emerging out of Clan Skryre, which has a steampunk feel to it. That of the dwarves has a similar feel, although not powered by the corrupting warpstone as so much of the Skaven technology is. So it was interesting to see the two clashing once more.

Werner has taken that existing character of Thanquol and expanded it while remaining true to the original. In fairness, the constant changing of Thanquol's attitudes to suit the immediate situation was laid on a little thick at time. But nonetheless, in Thanquol's Doom the story of Thanquol continues and even deepens a little.

I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Ross the Repellent

Character development

At workshop with Fiona McIntosh a few weekends ago, Fiona stressed the importance of having a strong female character in the story somewhere, at least if you want something with commercial potential.

As I continue to steadily plod along with Blood Redemption, my urban fantasy, I realised that the female character with the strongest character potential was not nearly well enough developed.

When I am thinking about characters, I need to be able to clearly picture them in my mind. Once I have an idea of them in mind, I usually go looking for a physical model to help further build them on. With female characters in particular, flipping through celebrity picture sites can be very helpful. With the proliferation of paparazzi etc, we can see people pictured in formal poses, movement, even in positions they may well rather not have been captured in. It is a little more subtle than my other approach of sitting in a public place like a coffee bar and watching people.

I had reached a point in my story where I needed this particular female character to come more to the fore. That was when I realised that I was a long way short of having developed her in my mind. The name I had was bland. I had mislaid previous notes about her and could remember virtually nothing of them. Most importantly to me, I could not picture her in mind. Being quite visually orientated, I need that image to be able to start hearing them, understanding them.

So I shoved the work aside and started trying to have a mental conversation with this person who was pretty much a complete, hidden stranger. I thought about how I was using the character in the story, what role they were to play. It started coming together a little but still pretty much a fuzzy, indistinct person.

Sometimes I find just walking away from things and forgetting about it for a bit, can be a good way to allow the right thought to weasel its way into the frontal lobes. There was a pile of DVDs in a pile so I began sorting through them, making sure discs were all supposed to be where they should be. The cover of one caught my attention. I studied it. This seemed promising. I grabbed a disc and slipped it into the player. I skipped through portions of some episodes, looking at the actor in question. That was the one, the look that worked to give me a visual to keep working on.

Refill the fountain pen, grab a notebook and start scribbling. The character now swiftly began taking shape. Not quite the same as the character played by the actor in that particular series, but it wasn’t my intention to just simply copy.

Having discovered my character and had her story, I felt a sense of excitement, wanting to write about her.

Oh, and the actor and series that gave me the needed nudge? Anna Torv in Fringe.

Kernels and inspiration

Some time back I had the opportunity to interview US author, Diana Gabuldon. While discussing her approach to writing, Diana revealed that she develops a novel as groups of individual kernels of writing, eventually pulled together into the finished product.

Late last year I had the opportunity for a fifteen minutes one-on-one with author David Malouf. After briefly discussing my university research project, Malouf encouraged me to write scenes as they occurred to me, not waiting to begin writing.

As my urban fantasy continues to take shape, I find that I am increasingly applying both approaches.

Being one of nature’s anal-retentives, my tendency is to want to start at the beginning and write straight through to the end. But inevitably, sooner or later, I find myself stuck. When that happens, my work usually stalls. But what rule says I am only allowed to write in that linear fashion?

Over time I have slowly realised that creativity means being prepared to go outside that natural inclination, relax the inhibitions and let go.

As a result, lately I have found progress with the novel is becoming increasingly productive and meaningful by taking a particular part of the story and writing that as an individual kernel.

I use the yWriter program (a freebie and a little ripper!) to develop and write the novel. If a kernel does not fit into the chapter and scene structure already in place, I can slot it into a ‘yet to be assigned’ chapter. As things continue to develop and grow, these kernels seem to naturally fit somewhere in the expanding structure.

When I find myself thinking about a new piece or kernel, I start writing on it as soon as I can, if possible. At the least, I make some notes ready for when I can start work on it. And those project notes have their own place within the yWriter structure.

This seems to be a good way for me to write, although only time will tell just how effective it ultimately proves to be.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Perhaps we are exactly where we are meant to be...

A brief word while I re-caffeinate myself.


I have had reason recently to reflect on a few things.

I love comedy. I admire immensely comedians who can do the crazy, way-out stuff that practically makes me wet my pants with laughter. Perhaps not surprisingly, I wanted to do it as well - stand-up. But I simply had no idea about how to do it. I did some work with Tim Ferguson early last year in a weekend workshop which was a great help but when push came to shove, I simply could not face it. This was more than the usual fear of public speaking - I have had enough practice at that over the years to be comfortable in front of an audience. I no longer need to make a dive for the rostrum to hide the fact that my left leg was quietly doing its own Elvis Presley impersonations. But getting out there and doing comedy proved to be too big a thing once I finally was faced with the opportunity. The state of my nerves and my sheer bravado are simply not what they were in my pre-breakdown days. So it seemed that opportunity had come knocking and gone.

In mid-October, I finally make that debut as a stand-up. And this has come about in no small part, due to Tyra Banks of all people.

You see, I was working backwards to come to that realisation.

This comedy opportunity came about after I saw a quite discrete poster advertising a 12-week comedy workshop program for people with mental health issues. Well, I certainly qualify there. I saw this poster at uni where I am currently working on a Master of Arts by research.

This Masters opportunity arose because I previously studied at the University of Canberra back in 2008, doing a Graduate Diploma in Professional Writing. It was that which lead in 2010 to a senior member of the staff encouraging me to return to do these research studies.

I was only able to return to uni full-time back in 2008 because I had been thrown onto the invalidity scrapheap the year before. Those studies were part of my pursuit of my dream to be a working writing.

While I had wanted to be a writer for some years and had a small but slowly growing portfolio of published work, it was during my all-too-regular sick leave prior to the forced retirement on invalidity that I found myself watching Banks's talk show, Tyra. In fact I found myself watching it quite regularly. And yes I am both honest enough and shallow enough to admit that it was the attractions of the delectable Ms Banks that initially drew me there. That and being too sick to do much else and too bored not to watch some daytime television. And on one episode, Tyra's big message was about the importance of having and pursuing your dream.

Having a lot of time on my hands back then, I did a lot of thinking about that. Being a writer was my big dream so why not pursue it much more vigorously than I had been to that date. The invalidity, as painful, upsetting and both morally and spiritually catastrophic as it was, provided me with that opportunity.

So it was by taking on board Tyra's message and deciding to pursue that dream which has indirectly lead to another dream on the verge of being realised. Which recently made me wonder if in fact I am exactly where I am meant to be, right at this time.

Peace and out

Sunday, September 11, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: The Edinburgh Dead





This review first published at www.awritergoesonajourney.com.


The Edinburgh Dead
Brian Ruckley
Orbit
2011


The blurb
In the starkly-lit operating theaters of the city, grisly experiments are being carried out on corpses in the name of medical science. But elsewhere, there are those experimenting with more sinister forces.

Amongst the crowded, sprawling tenements of the labyrinthine Old Town, a body is found, its neck torn to pieces. Charged with investigating the murder is Adam Quire, Officer of the newly- formed Edinburgh Police. The trail will lead him into the deepest reaches of the city's criminal underclass, and to the highest echelons of the filthy rich.

Soon Quire will discover that a darkness is crawling through this city of enlightenment - and no one is safe from its corruption.

The review
When writing an historical novel, even one delving into a bit of gothic horror as this does, the danger is always that of making sure you have your history spot-on. That has been a significant reason why I tend to steer away from it myself, because the moment you do get it wrong, nitpickers come flooding out of the woodwork to have a gripe. Like me.

From the interesting interview with the author located in the rear of the book, Ruckley describes his basic idea stemming from the thought that what if the infamous body snatchers who turned to murder to supplement their supply of corpses, Burke and Hare, were dealing with more than supplying medical schools? The novel only touches on Burke and Hare but does relate a particular ending to Hare which unfortunately overlooks the fact that there were supposedly confirmed sightings of him in England at a later date. That was my little historical nitpick.

From discussions with a friend of mine who knows Edinburgh very well, the descriptions of the New and Old Towns rang quite true, as did the policing of the time.

It is unfortunate that I have only not long finished reading and reviewing another historical novel also with a backdrop of body snatching, albeit in London. That protagonist and Ruckley’s protagonist have a number of similarities as does aspects of the plot. Please note that I am not suggesting plagiarism or anything of the sort, but merely that once you enter a historical setting like that with a protagonist who is a veteran of the Napoleonic wars, and there were plenty of those, the chances are that more than one writer is going to have similar ideas. But not all readers are going to have also so recently read a similar book.

The pace of the story drew me along pretty well until the closing stages which fell a little flat with me. There were also a few points within the story that puzzled me a little as to what they were intended to be doing. For example, an obviously darkly magical charm is placed in Quire’s room but we never really find out exactly who put it there or what it was intended to mean other than something dark and nasty was probably in Quire’s future.

If you like the mixture of history and gothic, then this is worth a read although it will not be making it into my final list of favourite books of the year. But then I can be a picky bugger.

Great workshops at Conflux

That orgiastic delight of speculative fiction writing and fandom, Conflux, is being held in Canberra at the end of this month - see www.conflux.org.au for more details. Especially have a look at the workshop program - some great stuff there and you don't have to sign up for Conflux for all of them. Definitely worth checking out, people.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Another form of writing practice

Learning never ceases. That point has kept getting forced home to me again and again over the years.

I have always like to make people laugh although I was never particularly good at doing it. I was fortunate enough to do a weekend workshop with comic maestro, Tim Ferguson, early last year and learned a great deal from that. Tim encouraged attendees to try stand-up comedy as it helped you learn more about the mechanics of making people laugh. I was determined to give it ago but when the opportunity did come, I wimped out completely. More truthfully, I panicked and couldn't go ahead with it all.

So that seemed to be pretty much that.

A couple of months or so back, I saw a poster advertising a program of comedy classes targeted at people who have or have had mental health issues. Actually I only just happened to see it among the other mess on the noticeboard because I stopped to use a drinking fountain beneath and tie a stray shoelace. Otherwise I would probably have never noticed the thing. Being a formally diagnosed loony, I thought that was for me.

Apart from having a bloody great time, it struck me that this is really a condensed form of story telling. The joke has a set-up (topic, attitude, premise) and then the gag itself which hopefully gets the laugh. And you have to carefully look at what words you are going to use, how to put them together, the all-important timing. This has become another form of writing practice.

Just as discovering poetry forced me to start looking more closely at my word choices and mental images I am trying to create, so the comedy writing has further reinforced that even more strongly.

It really is a great learning experience, not to mention one heck of a lot of fun.

The end result of the workshop program is a gala performance in the company of other, working stand-up comics. Hopefully this will be recorded by someone and I can post some choice bits to YouTube or somewhere.


Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A Plethora of Plenty!

One of the joys of having conned my way into book reviewing (unpaid but, alas, you can't have everything) is receiving a new batch of books in the post. The lastest consignment to arrive is from The Black Library in the UK, having found their way to the colonies, Down Under.

This box in today's post was simply full of goodies and has me wondering just where to start. The selection includes:

- the latest in the Horus Heresy saga, The Outcast Dead by Graham McNeil who is among my favourite Black Library authors



 - an audio book 'Red and Black' - just the thing to slip into the walkman when I head off to the bus stop tomorrow morning


- Nocturne, the third instalment in Nick Kyme's The Tome of Fire Trilogy; now where did I put my notes from the first two?


- joy, oh joy - another Gaunt's Ghosts by Dan Abnett! Salvation's Reach - and it is in hardcover which always leaves me feeling that I am reading a 'real' book

Thanquol's Doom - yet another Thanquol & Boneripper novel by C L Werner - oh boy!

The Red Duke - also by C L Werner and these vampires definitely won't be 'sparkly'

The last in the box was the paperback edition of the Sabbat Worlds anthology of short stories. I have to confess that the hardback edition of this is still in my reading pile waiting to be properly read rather than just occassionally  being dipped into as I have so far.

With the sheer volume of books that come through, let alone a whole box of Black Library goodies, there simply is not enough hours in the day to read everything. But there is no doubt that I shall be reviewing at least two of these.

All reviews will be posted to www.awritergoesonajourney.com as usual as well as posted in this blog. So stay tuned!

Like an over-indulged child at Christmas who is faced with a plethora of pressies - which one shall I open first?

REVIEW: Legends - the AFL Indigenous Team of the Century

I have made it a rule not to review books written by people I know or books they have been associated with producing. But I have decided to make an exception to that rule. Well, I made it, so I can break it.

A friend of mine works at Aboriginal Studies Press. I was intrigued to learn that Lisa was involved with production of this book about the Indigenous Team of the Century of the Australian Football League. I shamelessly picked her brains about it over coffee from time to time.

The book was released the other week. I was thrilled to have Lisa present me with a copy, complete with autographs in the front collected by Lisa's long-suffering partner, Ben (thanks mate!) from some of the luminaries present at the launch.

As I grew up, initially coming from a not-particularly-sporty family, I became a passionate follower of Australian Rules Football. That was when I began to realise that there were footballers playing at that elite level who came from an indigenous background. Barry Cable was one of my absolute ideals as a player. He seemed capable of anything. I still vividly remember the first time that the Krakouer brothers came over to Victoria with a team from Western Australia to play in the then-preseason competition of the old Victorian Football League. They simply cut the opposition to pieces.

Some of the truly great players of the game come from an indigenous background. We're talking names like 'Polly' Farmer, Cable, Jim & Phil Krakouer (at least when they were in the same team together), Maurice Rioli and more. It is great to see so many of them collected together in this book. I hadn't realised that umpire Glenn James had been included in this Indigenous Team of the Century. Often better known as 'Jesse' James, 'the quickest book in the West' for his propensity to not take any nonsense and report players, in some respects James took an even bigger step by becoming an umpire rather than a player.

It is only while reading this collection that you realise just how tough a road some of these men had to travel, football in at least some cases being a path to a better future.

Legends - recommended reading.

Monday, August 29, 2011

If you can't stand the heat...

I recently came across something that disturbed me somewhat, and it left me wondering just how silly and naive some writers are.

An internet market for speculative fiction that is run from the USA, increased its rates for fiction up to professional rates. This is a bold step as it increases your ongoing operating costs. At the same time, it potentially elevates your publication into the stratosphere of being one of the 'professional' markets. The other side of the coin however is that any publication increasing its remuneration to authors, immediately starts receiving many more submissions, increasing turnaround times and workload.

It should be noted that increasing author payment rates does not mean there are more slots for stories opening up, just more money for those authors whose works are selected for publication. If more submissions are being received for the same number of slots, then there will be a corresponding increase in the number of pieces not selected for publication. One would hardly think it took Einstein to work that out.

It was very disappointed to find that this market now began receiving some very hostile 'how dare you reject my work!' responses to their 'thank you but not for us at this time' rejections. Hey - if you want to be an author, then I have news for you. Get ready for and used to rejection! It is just part of the game.

The writing world is full of stories of top-level writers whose works were rejected. JK Rowling's Harry Potter was rejected by something like eight or twelve publishers (depending on whose account it is) before being accepted. Stephen King's Carrie was rejected so often that he famously threw it out. It took his wife retrieving it from the rubbish and insisting on he try again before King's first novel was finally accepted by a publisher. The list goes on and on. Rejection is simply part of the game. If you cannot handle rejection of your work, then I'm sorry, writing isn't for you.

I have to admit that I did not respond well to one rejection for a non-fiction piece, but in that case I had been lead to believe that they wanted the piece in question. That difficulty was smoothed over and I now have an excellent working relationship with that publication as an occassional freelance author for them. However if I had responded with 'how dare you reject me, you scum-sucking pigs that wouldn't know quality literature if it bit you on the arse', do you really think they would want to be bothered with me now?

During a brief flirtation working in the visual arts in 2010, I found some aspiring visual artists responding in much the same manner because their work was not accepted for a particular exhibition. 'But I submitted my work therefore you should have accepted it!' seemed to be the attitude. However, like filling a fixed number of slots in a publication, a gallery has only so many places in which to exhibit artworks.

A professional takes these things on the chin, learns from them. I learned that from some of the best. Having a hissy fit because a publisher does not think your work is right for them at that time is not how a professional operates. Was it truly as good a piece as you could do? I was disappointed to receive a rejection for a story one time - until I later had another look at it. Oh dear Lord - how could I have possibly let something go out with THAT many mistakes etc in it! The human reaction is all too often: if it looks crap then it probably is crap. Getting past those errors to the story itself, now looking at it with fresh eyes I realised it was not nearly as good as I originally thought it was. Have you had others review the piece and critique it before you sent it out, by which I don't mean having Mummy say 'oh that looks wonderful, darling!'

Becoming a published author ain't easy, at least in the majors. Having hissy fits that a particular publisher isn't falling over themselves and breaking out the brass band for your short story, ain't helping anyone. If you can't stand the heat, get outta the kitchen.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

A Heartfelt Thank You

Since  announcing that I now have to undergo the full brain surgery option to have my aneurysm fixed, I am really quite touched by some of the concern that is being shown to me, in particular on how I am going to cope post-surgery while I recover, with numerous offers of assistance, visits to hospital and so forth. One dear friend warned me to expect provision of home-cooked meals and the latest sci-fi movies to watch.

Yesterday yet another valued friend informed me yesterday that she had told her other half that if Ross needs somewhere to stay where he can be looked after when he gets out of hospital, 'he's moving to our place.' There was even an offer to drive me down to Victoria to stay with my family.

I hope all that won't be necessary, but all the same I am really touched and appreciative.  It is only when you really need them that you find out who your real friends are.

Because I am not very good at these things in person, a heartfelt thank you to all.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Book Review: Wrecking Crew by Caesar Campbell


This review first posted at www.boomerangbooks.com.au.

The sub-title of the book is ‘the brutal true story of the Bandios’ legendary sergeant-at-arms.’ ‘Brutal’ is no understatement. If anything, ‘brutal’ has been a simple fact of life for Caesar Campbell.

This was a compulsive read once I had started, unable to put it down. It held an almost horrid fascination like going past the scene of a terrible car accident and just having to have a look.

At times I found myself being oddly drawn to Campbell through his love of and loyalty to first his family then the biker club he was the founding member of in Australia. Then he would casually relate something such as the collection of fingers he used to keep in a jar of formaldehyde as souvenirs of people he had bashed. So I found I was bouncing between grudging respect and shocked exclamations that the man is a complete psychopath.

The book is an eye-opener about the world of the ‘outlaw’ biker. They really do see themselves as a world apart from what is the norm for the rest of us. It also shows how that world began changing in the wake of the Comancheros ambush of the Bandidos at Milperra in 1984, with many members of both clubs in prison for murder and manslaughter. It was no longer the tight little world it had once been.

Quoting Campbell...

“When I started out in bikes, you joined a club because you wanted mateship, and you wanted blokes to ride with. And for hardcore blokes like and my brothers, the outlaw bike club was the last place you could go to enjoy that territorial rivalry that went on between clubs. It was like being a Viking or Scotsman highlander. Not that we went around bashing people willy-nilly, but we loved that atmosphere of tension. The feeling that trouble may be just around the corner. ...whenever you were riding through another club’s territory, there was always the thrill that you might get stopped and end up in a punch-up. We fed off that.”

We also see how Campbell was betrayed by another Bandido, bringing an effective end to his time there. As far as he is concerned, Caesar is still on leave of absence from the club (part of their surprisingly rigid code) and therefore is still a Bandido, even though the man Campbell made the agreement with took the details with him to the grave without revealing it to members of the club.

This is not a pretty story. Far from it. Readers will find themselves by turn repulsed, respecting, upset and horrified by the story of Caesar Campbell.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: The Edinburgh Dead

This review first posted at www.awritergoesonajourney.com

The Edinburgh Dead
Brian Ruckley
Orbit
2011

The blurb
In the starkly-lit operating theaters of the city, grisly experiments are being carried out on corpses in the name of medical science. But elsewhere, there are those experimenting with more sinister forces.


Amongst the crowded, sprawling tenements of the labyrinthine Old Town, a body is found, its neck torn to pieces. Charged with investigating the murder is Adam Quire, Officer of the newly- formed Edinburgh Police. The trail will lead him into the deepest reaches of the city's criminal underclass, and to the highest echelons of the filthy rich.

Soon Quire will discover that a darkness is crawling through this city of enlightenment - and no one is safe from its corruption.

And wot I fink is...
When writing an historical novel, even one delving into a bit of Gothic horror as this does, the danger is always that of making sure you have your history spot-on. That has been a significant reason why I tend to steer away from it myself, because the moment you do get it wrong, nitpickers come flooding out of the woodwork to have a gripe. Like me.

From the interesting interview with the author located in the rear of the book, Ruckley describes his basic idea stemming from the thought that what if the infamous body snatchers who turned to murder to supplement their supply of corpses, Burke and Hare, were dealing with more than supplying medical schools? The novel only touches on Burke and Hare but does relate a particular ending to Hare which unfortunately overlooks the fact that there were supposedly confirmed sightings of him in England at a later date. That was my little historical nitpick.

From discussions with a friend of mine who knows Edinburgh very well, the descriptions of the New and Old Towns rang quite true, as did the policing of the time.

It is unfortunate that I have only not long finished reading and reviewing another historical novel also with a backdrop of body snatching, albeit in London. That protagonist and Ruckley’s protagonist have a number of similarities as does aspects of the plot. Please note that I am not suggesting plagiarism or anything of the sort, but merely that once you enter a historical setting like that with a protagonist who is a veteran of the Napoleonic wars, and there were plenty of those, the chances are that more than one writer is going to have similar ideas. But not all readers are going to have also so recently read a similar book.

The pace of the story drew me along pretty well until the closing stages which fell a little flat with me. There were also a few points within the story that puzzled me a little as to what they were intended to be doing. For example, an obviously darkly magical charm is placed in Quire’s room but we never really find out exactly who put it there or what it was intended to mean other than something dark and nasty was probably in Quire’s future.

If you like the mixture of history and Gothic, then this is worth a read although it will not be making it into my final list of favourite books of the year. But then I can be a picky bugger.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Book Review - Gallipoli by Peter Hart

Gallipoli
Peter Hart
2011
Profile Books

review first posted at www.boomerangbooks.com.au

Here in Australia we are more used to seeing books on Gallipoli presenting a much more Anzac-centric focus on the Dardenelles campaign of 1915. It comes as a surprise to some to learn that the Australian and New Zealand troops were just one part of the multi-national Mediterranean Task Force and greatly outnumbered by British troops. Also making up the force were French, Indian and even troops from New Foundland (although the latter do not get a mention from Hart).

It is also not as well appreciated as it should be in Australia that the landing on April 25th, 1915 at Gaba Tepe, which later became known as Anzac Cove, was just one of a number of landings on the Gallipoli peninsula, both real and diversionary. Anzac Cove was also far from the worst of the landings - that dubious honour is held by the British landing further down the peninsula at V Beach.

Something that really struck me in this account was just what a great job the Turks did, particularly in the confusion of that first day. The invaders were often held up by far fewer numbers of troops who admittedly held the high ground yet were not that well equipped. The fire discipline of some of those units lead some of the attackers to believe that they were facing machine guns when the few Turkish machine guns were not brought into the line later in the day, depending on where the need was believed greatest. At one point a British advance was held up by the sight of a line of Turkish troops, laying on the ground ahead of them. If only they had realised that the Turks were out of ammunition and only had the bayonets left to fight with.

Hart is far more condemnatory of British planning and conduct of the campaign than is often the case with British researchers and authors. He also condemns aspects of the Anzac landing, while still paying the compliment of how remarkable was the grimly determined Australian and New Zealand grasp on their toehold.

It was also interesting to read some accounts by British seaman that shed some light on a significant aspect that greatly increased the confusion of the Anzac landing.

While this book does not flow or read as well as say, Les Carlyon's Gallipoli, it is far from the dry read that you might expect from a professional historian. For anyone with an interest in the larger picture of the Gallipoli campaign, this title is definitely worth a look.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Rule of Three

I was recently reading something by a noted author but it just did not seem to be grabbing me at all. This puzzled me as at first glance, it seemed well written. After some re-reading, it finally dawned on me what the problem was.

Some time back I was able to interview the author, Diana Gabaldon. One of the things we discussed was the Rule of Three as it applies to writing. In short, repeating things three times will make a reader remember it, such as a plot development - but be a bit subtle about it. Similarly, the Rule of Three applies to use of the senses in writing. We have five - use three of them in a scene to really hook a reader.

In this book that I was reading, I realised that the author had focused predominantly on just one sense - sight. They had described in detail what things looked like, but rarely what things sounded like, how they smelled, tasted or felt. So the scenes tended to be one-dimensional which was why things were not grabbing me in any real way.

So the moral of the tale is to make sure I use three senses in a scene when I am writing. The dark dungeon becomes much creepier when we know that it also smells like the corruption of rotting corpses and we can hear the skittering of rodent feet across the slimy flagstones.