About Me

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Perth, Western Australia, Australia
I am based in Perth, Western Australia. You might enjoy my books - The Dagger of Dresnia, the first book of the Talismans Trilogy, is available at all good online book shops as is Book two, The Cloak of Challiver. Book three, The Seer of Syland, is in preparation. I trained in piano and singing at the NSW Conservatorium of Music. I also trained in dance (Scully-Borovansky, WAAPA) and drama (NIDA). Since 1987 I have been writing reviews of performances in all genres for a variety of publications, including Music Maker, ArtsWest, Dance Australia, The Australian and others. Now semi-retired, I still write occasionally for the ArtsHub website.

My books

The first two books of my trilogy, The Talismans, (The Dagger of Dresnia, and book two, The Cloak of Challiver) are available in e-book format from Smashwords, Amazon and other online sellers. Book three of the trilogy, The Seer of Syland, is in preparation.I also have a short story, 'La Belle Dame', in print - see Mythic Resonance below - as well as well as a few poems in various places. The best way to contact me is via Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/satimaflavell

Buy The Talismans

The first two books of The Talismans trilogy were published by Satalyte Publications, which, sadly, has gone out of business. However, The Dagger of Dresnia and The Cloak of Challiver are available as ebooks on the usual book-selling websites, and book three, The Seer of Syland, is in preparation. The easiest way to contact me is via Facebook.

The Dagger of Dresnia

The Dagger of Dresnia

The Cloak of Challiver, Book two of The Talismans

The Cloak of Challiver, Book two of The Talismans
Available as an e-book on Amazon and other online booksellers.

Mythic Resonance

Mythic Resonance

Mythic Resonance is an excellent anthology that includes my short story 'La Belle Dame', together with great stories from Alan Baxter, Donna Maree Hanson, Sue Burstynski, Nike Sulway and nine more fantastic authors! Just $US3.99 from Amazon. Got a Kindle? Check out Mythic Resonance.

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Places I've lived: Manchester, UK

Places I've lived: Manchester, UK

Places I've lived: Gippsland, Australia

Places I've lived: Gippsland, Australia

Places I've lived: Geelong, Australia

Places I've lived: Geelong,  Australia

Places I've lived: Tamworth, NSW

Places I've lived: Tamworth, NSW

Places I've Lived - Sydney

Places I've Lived - Sydney
Sydney Conservatorium - my old school

Places I've lived: Auckland, NZ

Places I've lived: Auckland, NZ

Places I've Lived: Mount Gambier

Places I've Lived: Mount Gambier
Blue Lake

Places I've lived: Adelaide, SA

Places I've lived: Adelaide, SA

Places I've Lived: Perth by Day

Places I've Lived: Perth by Day
From Kings Park

Places I've lived: High View, WV

Places I've lived: High View, WV

Places I've lived: Lynton, Devon, UK

Places I've lived: Lynton, Devon, UK

Places I've lived: Braemar, Scotland

Places I've lived: Braemar, Scotland

Places I've lived: Barre, MA, USA

Places I've lived: Barre, MA, USA

Places I've Lived: Perth by Night

Places I've Lived: Perth by Night
From Kings Park

Inner Peace Blog

Inner Peace Blog
Awarded by Joanna Fay. Click on the image to visit her lovely website!

Versatile Blogger Award

Versatile Blogger Award
Awarded by Kim Falconer. Click on the pic to check out her Quantum Astrology blog!

Fabulous Blog Award

Fabulous Blog Award
Awarded by Kathryn Warner. Click on the pic to check out her Edward II blog!

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Sunday, 8 December 2013

Book review: The Book of Common Prayer by Alan Jacobs

The Book of Common Prayer: A BiographyThe Book of Common Prayer: A Biography by Alan Jacobs

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

American academic Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor in the honours program of Baylor University, a Baptist institution in Waco. Texas. He was previously the Clyde Kilby Professor of English at Wheaton College, where he almost became an institution in his own right, spending thirty years in the post. He has been compared to CS Lewis: a fair comparison, given his interests in classical literature and religion. He has, in fact, written on Lewis, with particular reference to his children’s books, in his 2006 opus, The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis. Nonetheless, Jacobs brings a contemporary perspective to his work, as is apparent from the book under consideration here, The Book of Common Prayer - a Biography. It is his thirteenth published book and it forms part of Princeton’s series Lives of Great Religious Books. There are already nine books in the series, with the promise of another dozen or so to come, covering the principal religions of the world and including works as disparate as The Book of Mormon and The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

The subject matter has been discussed by several other works, notably Sussex University’s Professor Brian Cummings’s comparative study The Book of Common Prayer: The Texts of 1549, 1559, and 1662 (OUP, 2010). One might suspect that the present work is in some measure Princeton’s response to the Oxford opus: the two works, however, similar though they superficially appear, serve different purposes, Cummings’s book being largely a study of the earliest versions of the texts while Jacobs takes a more straightforwardly historical approach, covering more ground in less detail. He traces the BCP’s origins from its beginnings in Tudor England to its transportation to the colonies and its recent history, with particular reference to its adaptation and development in the USA.

Although this is a scholarly work that will be of interest to church historians and students of Theology and Religious Studies, it will also be appreciated by laymen of similar interests. As a lapsed Anglican with a deep interest in Shakespeare and his life and times, I found it a joy to revisit Archbishop Cranmer’s beautiful prose. What was it about this era, that it could come up with the wondrous works of the Bard of Avon, the metaphysical poetry of John Donne and his contemporaries, the King James Bible – and the BCP? Or to give it its full title in 1662, The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church according to the use of the Church of England together with the Psalter or Psalms of David pointed as they are to be sung or said in churches and the form and manner of making, ordaining, and consecrating of bishops, priests, and deacons.

Consciously or unconsciously, Cranmer utilised techniques that creative writing students of today struggle to do half as well – repetition, balanced antithesis, metaphor – all these and more Cranmer called into service, setting a high bar for later writers of devotional texts. It matters not what Christian denomination one follows: the solemnisation of marriage invariably begins with ‘Dearly beloved, we are gathered here together…’ or something similar that closely echoes Cranmer’s words. Modernised versions of Cranmer’s text, or modern efforts to rewrite the Latin of the Mass into English, such as those that followed the Second Vatican Council, fail miserably when compared to the beauty of Cranmer’s work. Alan Jacobs makes us very aware of our debt to Cranmer.

The Book of Common Prayer – a Biography is well set out, easy to follow, well-referenced and indexed and pleasing to look at. The only thing I did not like about this book was its ’handle’. It’s a good size and looks attractive, but the dust jacket feels like some nasty synthetic fabric, even though it is definitely paper! However, dust jackets are easily removed or covered by some other material, and it certainly wasn’t enough to make me set the book aside.

The author runs a Tumblr blog for the book at  http://bookofcommonprayer.tumblr.com/

This is a five-star book. Thank you, Professor Jacobs, and thank you, Princeton University Press.

Alan Jacobs The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography

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Thursday, 5 December 2013

Here's a meme that's doing the rounds

To play along, just answer the following three questions…

• What are you currently reading?

• What did you recently finish reading?

• What do you think you’ll read next?

I'm currently reading several books. Since I've had a Kindle I've found I'm happy to skip from one book to another, although not without conscience as I'm not a natural book-hopper. In the past, if I ever read two books at once, one of them would be fiction and the other would be non-fiction of some kind. Now, however, I have become a promiscuous reader, dipping into one book after another as the fancy takes me. It's so easy when you can get a new book without leaving your chair - and excellent for reading on public transport! My selection at the moment includes The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge; Catalina by DannyFahey; Daughters of Icarus by Josie Brown; The Emotional Thesaurus by Becca Puglisi and Angela Ackerman; Saxons, Vikings and Celts by Bryan Sykes; Dangerous Women, (an anthology edited by George RR Martin and Gardner Duzois); Hal Junior: The Missing Case by Simon Haynes, William Shakespeare's Star Wars, by Ian Doescher and Kinslayer by Jay Kristoff.

The book I most recently finished is The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography by Alan Jacob. I shall write a review when I've had a few days to think about it. It's actually a biography of the prayer book, not of a person, and it is of considerable interest to me for several reasons. You'll find out what they are when the review turns up here!

What shall I read next? Well, I have a To-Be-Read pile taller than I am, and it will not get any shorter because I keep buying more. The newer books are nearly all in Kindle format, and it's just too easy - they are inexpensive and can be downloaded onto my Kindle with just one click on Amazon! I feel guilty for book-hopping and not finishing some of them in a timely manner, but I suspect that this is the new pattern of reading for many people. It has its problems, of course - if I leave some of the books alone for several weeks I find I can't remember which one is which! However, I am getting behind with Marianne de Pierres's output - I haven't read the last two Tara Sharp novels yet, and de Pierres has a new Sci-Fi Western
called Peacemaker coming out soon,  so one of these could be my next read. Here's the cover of the latest book, to whet your appetites!

Please pick this meme up and run with it if you want to - and do leave a message on this post to tell me where to find your answers!
Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Hormones and Reading

Last weekend, I attended a very interesting day at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers Centre, in Greenmount, which is on the outskirts of Perth, Western Australia. There were two workshops, both run by Perth author Nikki Logan.

The first one lasted three hours, and was about how reading impacts the human brain, and how to enrich your writing by helping readers to get the absorption experience they crave. Nikki provided us with interesting info on the bio-chemistry of arousal. We're not talking sexual arousal here, you understand, but arousal of all kinds - the visceral arousal of a good thriller, the emotional arousal of romance, the intellectual arousal of a mystery, the sensual arousal of erotic fiction and the creative arousal of speculative fiction, Of course, you can have more than one kind of arousal in a novel, and intellectual arousal can go with non-fiction, too, so it's a good thing for all writers to know about.

When I posted my doings to Facebook, one of my friends was a bit uneasy, and she asked in a comment. 'Do you think it's ethically right to chemically addict people to your (plural) writing?'

The fact is that when we sit down to get absorbed in something, certain hormonal activity will occur. So knowing how to get people absorbed is helping them to have that experience. You know what it's like when you really get into a book - sit down to read at 10.00 AM and next thing you know it's 2.00 PM and you're starving so you have to go and get something to eat, but you resent leaving the book! It's all because of Dopamine and his mates, and that's what I wrote in reponse .

My friend responded with "'helping them have that experience" sounds like manipulation to me! There have already been great and gripping books where writers didn't consciously do this.'

Indeed there have, but they were written by frighteningly talented writers who knew instinctively how to get those hormones flowing. As a craftsman writer, I have to learn how to do it. The experience for the reader is the same, whether the writer does it consciously or unconsciously - and it's the experience that readers want! It's no different from film techniques, where they deliberately set out to scare you, make you laugh or have you on the edge of your seat with excitement. It's the hormones that do it in all cases and it's the very reason that readers read and viewers view! 

I understood where my friend was coming from, though. There was a time when I refused to go to the  movies because I resented 'having my emotions manipulated'. Yet I still read books and listened to music! I told a friend why I didn't go to movies and she burst out laughing. 'Don't be silly,' she said. 'That's exactly why I go to movies!'

The penny dropped. I realised that it is the job of the creative artist in whatever field to manipulate the emotions - to make us laugh or cry, to make us know what it is like to be chased in the dark by a nameless horror, to rejoice at the birth of a child, to grieve at a death, to make us remember the joy of lying on the beach and getting sunburnt with our first lovers ...

In short, all the arts are about the human experience. At the end of a good film, ballet, opera, play, piano recital, rock concert, book or art exhibition, we should feel something. And, if it's an especially good work, we might have learnt a new way of looking at our own experiences of life and what makes us tick, both individually and collectively. Yes, we are paying to 'have our emotions manipulated'. And that, my friends, is a very good thing, and I want to learn how to do it well. If you want to learn, too, hie thee to yon Amazon and buy Nikki Logan's book, The Chemistry of Reading.

Nikki's afternoon workshop was about Marketing and Branding. I learnt a great deal from this too, and that's great, because as I have triumphantly announced, I have recently sold my first novel to Satalyte Publishing. I came away from Nikki's second workshop with lots of ideas on brands, promises and position statements, among other things. Watch this space as I try some of them out!

Emotions picture by Toddatkins (http://batonrougecounseling.net/managing-emotions/) [CC0], via Wikimedia
Monday, 28 October 2013

Book review: KE Mills's Rogue Agent series

This very entertaining series is well worth a read. I enjoyed the first book, The Accidental Sorcerer, most, but its sequels are almost as entertaining. In this world, things never quite go according to plan, and we swing from breathless tension to belly laughs and back again as we watch the crazy scenarios unfold.

As we have come to expect from K.E. Mills and her alter ego, Karen Miller, we find well-drawn characters, each with enough personal idiosyncrasies to keep a team of analysts busy for months. Theses crazy adventures involve Gerald Dunwoody, an eccentric third grade wizard who turned out to be a mage, and his trio of equally zany friends, Monk Markham, Princess Melissande of New Ottosland and the craziest bird on this or any other planet, Reg. Avian though she may be, Reg is perhaps the best-loved character in the series. She comes across as a small, feathered person, not a talking bird. Likewise, Gerald is one of those completely unbelievable characters who nevertheless makes the reader suspend disbelief cheerfully, because in spite of his incredible antics, he comes across as quintessentially human, with all the fears and foibles that entails.

Mills/Miller has a notable skill for depicting believable male characters. In the second book, Witches Incorporated, however, she chose to focus on the female of the species, by and large with considerable success. But there were times when the women and their antics did not quite ring true, and I found myself wanting to see less of them and more of Gerald. Perhaps this is a purely personal thing – Gerald already had my heart and I was disappointed not to see more of him in this book.

But he's back front and centre in book three, Wizard Squared. and we also get quite a bit of his friend Monk, who, it seems, has been lumbered with the job of saving a world. On an alternative version of their world, our quartet finds that whatever we know and expect ain't necessarily so. Other versions of ourselves might have taken other decisions and become something other: perhaps even something deadly other. A psychopathic version of a gifted mage does not bear thinking about, and thereby hangs a pretty good plotline.

Mills/Miller has an indubitable flair for inventive plots. She also has bouncy, chatty style. There are plenty of smiles and quite a few guffaws to be had along the way, and even a few tears when we realize the quartet will not be unchanged by the experiences they have on the alternative world. This is the 'darkest' book of the series to date.

The fourth book in the series, Wizard Undercover, picks up where book three left off. Just as things seem to be getting back to normal (although what's 'normal' in Gerald's world is open to question) an international crisis is brewing. Disguised as Melissande’s private secretary, Gerald sets off to save the day. As with all these adventures, though, there are many slips between intention and denouement!

There may be more books in the series, but Karen Miller is such a prolific writer that there's no telling what she will come up with next!
Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Well, here's a turnaround!

Seven weeks ago I was grizzling on this blog that maybe I was wasting my time and perhaps I should give up trying to get my novel published. Would you believe that less than four weeks later I received an offer of a contract for The Dagger of Dresnia from the good folk - no, not the good folk that live in the forest, but the good folk at Satalyte Publishing in Melbourne.

I did not allow myself to get excited: after all, the first publisher I approached, some nine or ten years ago now, went broke the following week, and it's mainly been a downhill slide since then. But today I received my contract back with publisher Stephen Ormsby's signature, so now I'm permitting myself to get a bit excited. Just a little bit, mind you. It's never too late for things to go wrong. Or too early.

If I look underneath my pessimism, though, I find that I have a good feeling about Satalyte. They are a start-up company, but already they have signed some fine writers, including fellow Perthite Bevan McGuiness, who is a well-repected professional of many years standing. What's more, Stephen Ormsby and his wife Marieke are enthusiastic about their new venture, and enthusiasm and skill are what's needed to keep a ball rolling once it's been bowled.

It is touching to see how supportive my friends are. Within a couple of hours of putting the news up on Facebook, I had nearly 150 comments and 'likes' on my announcement, and because my Facebook statuses turn into Tweets, I was getting congratulations on Twitter, too!  And at the Society of Editors meeting tonight, I was warmly congratulated all over again. I am much blessed in my friends, both on and off social media.

Now starts the hard yakka of getting the book into top shape before turning it loose in the wild. I know from already-published friends that finding a publisher is only the start of the journey. I hope The Dagger of Dresnia and I can walk the road ahead with our heads high and our feet firmly on the ground. With my lovely friends to cheer me on, I know we'll do just fine.
Sunday, 13 October 2013

Book Review: Wind Follower by Carole McDonnell

Wind FollowerWind Follower by Carole McDonnell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This review first appeared in the now-defunct webzine, The Specusphere, in October 2009.

Wind Follower is Carole McDonnell's first novel, but prior to publishing this book, she was already established as a reviewer and essayist. She has also written poetry and devotional pieces, mainly for Christian journals. Her Christian faith has also informed her speculative fiction work, and this is very apparent in Wind Follower.

The story is an adventure-romance, set in a richly imagined world. Boy (Loic) meets girl (Satha), boy loses girl, boy goes to ends of earth to find girl, and finds his own true purpose en route. The setting is a kind of alternate Africa, or perhaps it stands for any country ripe for colonialism. McDonnell has analogously incorporated all the earth's races into her continent, representing them by the very dark Theseni; the lighter coloured Ibeni, the slant-eyed, yet sometimes red-headed Doreni and threatening all of them, the invading Angleni.

The Juno imprint is noted for its strong female lead characters, and Satha, the heroine of Wind Follower, carries the role well. She has to deal with more perils than Pauline, more trials than Job: in fact at one point she is so obviously an avatar of Hagar, Abraham's concubine, that we are looking for someone to play the role of Isaac. But although the book has a curiously Old Testament feel to it, the parallels are not distinct: McDonnell's references gently investigate possibilities and move on, as we follow the journeys of Loic and Satha through alternating first person chapters.

Mc Donnell is a fine writer, and Wind Follower leads us to expect even better things from her in the future. The story is burdened, however, by a certain falling down between two stools – or actually in the middle of a circle of stools. We have a classic epic journey, involving a romance and a coming-of-age story; an equally classic captivity scenario, in which the enslaved person survives through her own fortitude and resilience, and a rather self-consciously overlaid effort to show that faith conquers all. At the end, we learn that the Tribes never succeeded in uniting against the Angleni and remained the underdogs, yet they rejoice that the Angleni brought their own true religion, encapsulated in the Lost Book, back to them.

And here's the problem. What readership is Wind Follower aimed at? Many Christians, black and white, are likely to balk at a theology that is very like that of Christianity, yet does not follow it nearly closely enough for the tastes of fundamentalists. On the other hand, many fantasy readers of whatever ancestry will reject the book's overtly Christian allegory, and some black readers who are not Christians may be dismayed at the oblique suggestion, normally propagated only by the conquerors, that as long as invasion brings True Religion it is acceptable. Yet still other readers, not all of them Christian, will feel uncomfortable at the idea of spreading a what is supposed to be a religion of peace through invasion and, the conquered people having accepted that religion's tenets, ignoring them in order to rebel against the invaders. Like the Old Testament, Wind Follower abounds in mixed messages, and this is why it falls in the middle of those hypothetical stools.

Yet there is probably a niche market for books like this one, and it is, I would venture, among Christians who are not fundamentalists and who are willing to consider that perhaps parables can be spoken in the language of fantasy as well as that of religion. A tall order, perhaps, but I hope McDonnell finds this readership. An author who can produce a work such as Wind Follower deserves to have an extensive circulation.

McDonnell can be found on Facebook and at http://www.darkparables.blogspot.com. Her work will not be easy to find in Australia: however, Wind Follower can be found for sale at online shops.

View all my Goodreads reviews
Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Book Review: Broken Homes by Ben Aaronovitch

Broken Homes (Peter Grant, #4)Broken Homes by Ben Aaronovitch

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Another romping detective story from Ben Aaronovitch. I didn't love this one quite as much as its predecessors - it lacked some of the humour we've come to expect from Peter Grant and his odd collection of colleagues and competitors. It's a good read, all the same, and I shall await the next volume eagerly because this one ended with a bit of a cliff-hanger. A character we've come to know and trust might have gone over to the Dark Side! Don't keep us waiting too long, Ben!

View all my Goodreads reviews
Monday, 9 September 2013

When sitting, just sit

I've just returned from a nine-day Vipassana retreat.

'You've just what?' I hear my non-Buddhist friends ask, so some explanation is no doubt in order.

Vipassana, or Insight meditation (also Mindfulness meditation, although not everyone likes the translation of Vipassana as Mindfulness) is a technique that calms the mind and body and allows us to see things more clearly. What we see first is our discomfort, but soon we start to see our thoughts,  reactions and emotions, which can also be very painful at first. The value lies in the development of the ability to see these things without judging ourselves or others, so we learn to act more skilfully in everyday life.

There is a great deal more to Vipassana meditation than this, but these facets alone make the practice the most worthwhile endeavour I have undertaken. From being a psychological mess twenty-five years ago, I have learnt, through applying the strict personal honesty that Vipassana demands, how to manage my emotions and be more open and caring in my dealings with others.

The practice goes back some 2,600 years, to the time of the Buddha. From its Buddhist roots, Mindfulness has spread into Western thought, especially in the field of psychology. Meditation teachers and psychologists versed in the technique now have corporate clients who want their staff to learn Mindfulness. It's powerful stuff.

So how do you do it? Well, you go to a nice quiet place with a few dozen other people, then you sit and walk in silence under the direction of a teacher. That's all there is to it, but it takes self-discipline to refrain from speaking, to sit with your eyes closed for an hour at time, to walk so slowly you look as if you're doing some weird form of Tai Chi, over and over again for at least 12 hours a day for a week or more.

This was not a hard retreat. It was held at the beautiful Jhana Grove retreat centre, about an hour's drive south of the city of Perth. This has to be the five-star hotel of retreat centres - individual rooms with ensuite, lovely gardens, the poshest meditation hall I've ever sat in, and a kind, caring teacher.

The first Insight retreat I did, back in 1991, was a boot camp. The teacher was the late Namgyal Rinpoche, a tough teacher. He wasn't uncaring - it was just that he wanted us enlightened - NOW! Under his strict regime I learnt how to behave in a retreat centre (silent at all times, no eye contact with other retreatants, move slowly and mindfully at all times) and how to walk so slowly I almost fell over. He wanted us to take an hour to walk twenty paces, I never managed that, but I came close.

Rinpoche was an interesting man. Canadian by birth, he was ordained in both the Theravadan (where his name was Anandabodhi) and Tibetan traditions (where he was recognised as an incarnation of a high lama). He had what bordered on a psychic ability to read his students. I remember a fellow retreatant putting his hand up in class one day (the one hour of the day when we could speak, if we had a question!) to ask what turned out to be something I wanted to ask, too. Rinpoche listened to the student, then turned to me and said 'And I don't want to have to say this again!' before answering. That kind of thing happened all the time with Rinpoche.

One day, he took us rookies (there were four of us) to his quarters and taught us the four Brahma Viharas - the practices of friendliness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity. They have remained the core of my practice ever since.

Since then I have attended twenty-odd  insight retreats, but after all these years I am still a beginner. This recent retreat was my first in some time. I've moved around a lot in recent years, and my daily sitting practice has slipped. My concentration is poor and I am plagued by sleepiness. I've kept telling myself that my practice would come back as soon as I had chance to do a retreat, but that proved not to be the case. It was only on Saturday - the last full day of practice - that my sitting sessions showed the odd moment of clarity. It was as if it was the first day of a retreat, not the last.

At his closing talk, the teacher, Dhammaruwen, said that not only must we have a regular daily practice, but also do regular retreats and belong to a practice group. As so often happened with Dhammaruwen, I felt he was speaking directly to me! He has a lovely light touch as a teacher, often poking gentle fun at the bad habits of 'yogis' (retreatants or practitioners) and sometimes I squirmed under his little jibes as they were so often things I noticed in myself! Ouch.

Dhammaruwen is another unusual person. As a child, he chanted Buddhist scriptures in their original language, Pali, before he had studied them. He still chants beautifully. Had he not become a meditation teacher he could probably have done very well in opera!

Dhammaruwen and I have sat with some of the same teachers, notably Bhante Henepola Gunaratana at the Bhavana Center in High View, West Virginia, USA, and Joseph Goldstein. The world of Insight Meditation is a small one, and at almost every retreat I find I meet someone who has either sat with the same teachers or been to the same centres as I have. In the 1990s, I was on staff at both the Bhavana Center and the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, which Joseph Goldstein founded with Sharon Salzberg and Jack Kornfield two other teachers I regard highly.

I did very different jobs at the two centres. I arrived at the Bhavana Center expecting to be a housekeeper or a kitchen hand, but on the first morning Bhante G. announced that I was to be the new cook! Now, cooking is something I avoid like the plague. I cannot cook, have never been able to cook, and had then, as now, no desire to learn how to cook! I told Bhante that I couldn't cook but he obviously didn't believe me. After a few days of stir-fries and salads, I expect he realised I'd told the truth!

I felt sorry for the monks, for their one meal a day must surely have been a highlight. I did my best, but I suspect they were all very relieved when a Thai woman turned up and took over the cooking, and I moved on to IMS.

I was the Registrar at IMS - a very busy job as we ran nine-day retreats almost back-to-back for nine months of the year, with the remaining months being devoted to the famous three-month retreat that so many yogis aspire to attend. When I worked there I could sit as much of each retreat as my work allowed, and I took full advantage of that. 

These days, I just buy lottery tickets now and then in the hope of winning enough to pay the 3-month retreat fees and my air fare to America! But even without a winning ticket, after what Dhammaruwen said, I intend to make at least one retreat a year a priority in my budget. I don't want to lose my practice again.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Time for another reality check?

Some of my old posts get a fair number of hits. One of them is a meme that originated with British author Charles Stross - Reality check: So you want to be a writer , which I wrote in December 2008. I just reread it and realised that I've progressed very little since I wrote that post.

In fact, it's now five years later, and I still haven't sold a novel. A couple of short pieces, yes, and lots of reviews and feature articles. But although I've had a lot of praise from various quarters for my novels - still no sale.

I read a book a year or two back that listed all the things that might prevent one from being published. I was able to tick the right boxes for all except the last, which said (and I paraphrase) - One last thing: if you're doing everything else right, and you're over fifty, it may well be your age. Publishers want to get at least twenty years out of an author, and once you're over fifty that is less likely to happen.

Well, I'm certainly over fifty, and have been for quite a while. What's more, I've never made any secret of the fact.

It's starting to look more and more as if self-publishing is the way to go. I know I have written a perfectly good, if conventional, epic fantasy, and I know a lot of people would enjoy reading it. What's holding me back is the knowledge that most self-published books (and, incidentally, most books from small presses) sell less than a hundred copies, and that wouldn't cover the expenses of self-publishing, even just e-publishing. So I'm in a bit of a quandary.

The inner discusssion continues. Will I or won't I? I'll keep you posted.
Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Book Review: Prickle Moon by Juliet Marillier

Prickle MoonPrickle Moon by Juliet Marillier

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Juliet Marillier is that rara avis - a writer who can move from novels to short stories and back again with ease, producing reliable work on both fronts. Her work is never less than excellent, and Prickle Moon, a collection of short stories, is just another example of her thoroughgoing professionalism and craftmanship.

Some of the stories have been published before. One favourite in this category is 'Twixt Firelight and Water', which gives us an insight into the later years of a couple of characters in the early Sevenwaters books. In contrast, the title story. 'Prickle Moon', is a brand-new tale but an equally lovely one, about hedgehogs and passive resistance: you'll have to read it to find out how they fit together!

Another favourite, for me, was 'Angel of Death', also a newly-written tale, this one about a man and a dog. It would have been very easy for this story to be overly sentimental, but the character of Dan, the conflicted, war-torn protagonist, is so well-drawn that no hint of melodramatic mush could find its way into the story. It's one of those rare yarns I have added to my mental list of unforgettable short stories.

There are sixteen stories in the book, each one with something to offer. One of the beauties of the collection is that it gives the author a chance to show her versatility. Dare I say that there is more variety in this slim volume than in the rest of Marillier's oeuvre in its entirety? She is not constrained here by the almost obligatory trilogy format of the professional fantasy writer. She has let her imagination run free not only twixt firelight and water but through wind and rocks; through forest groves and city streets and suburban homes; through settings Celtic and modern and many times between. Some stories do not even contain a speculative element - but all are eminently readable.

I fully expect to see Prickle Moon shortlisted for awards, and to be a nice little earner for the clever folk at Ticonderoga Publications as well.

Disclosure: I had a small hand in editing some of the stories in this collection, pre-submission, and I am known to be a Marillier devotee. But if you are also a Marillier fan, or have been intending to check out her work, do take a look at Prickle Moon. I'll be very surprised if you don't agree with me that this is a top collection! If we were allowed to give half stars this one would have four and a half from me.

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Book Review: Reunion by Joanna Fay

Reunion (The Siaris Quartet, #2)Reunion by Joanna Fay

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is Fay's second book set in her richly imagined world peopled by three races, including winged beings with all the hopes, joys and failings of our own kind. We have travelled forward in time since Daughter of  Hope, but as some characters are immortal the territory seems familiar.

Joanna Fay is, in fact, an award-winning poet as well a novelist. Once again, we see this poetic bent and wonderful descriptive gift, as well as one of most fertile imaginatons in the business, put to good use.

Reunion leaves us on a cliff hanger: readers will be waiting impatiently for the other two!

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Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Book Review: Shadowfell by Juliet Marillier

Shadowfell (Shadowfell, #1)Shadowfell by Juliet Marillier

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The following review has been adapted from one I wrote for the now-defunct webzine The Specusphere, in July 2012.

Juliet Marillier has many fans, who are spread across all five continents and the seven seas as well. Her work has been translated into many other languages including Mandarin, and one of her strongest fan clubs is based in Portugal. Her work is largely set in the British Isles (Wildwood Dancing and Cybele’s Secret, being set in Europe, are exceptions) so just what explains Marillier’s worldwide popularity?

I would suggest that it is her likeable characters. Her ‘leading ladies’ are all young, strong, efficient and hard-working, and the men who love them are noble, kind and honest. There is, too, the popularity of Celtic mythology and culture, which constitute the main influences on Marillier’s work. Her flagship series, Sevenwaters, is set in Ireland, as are several other of her tales, but for this new series she has moved to an imaginary country named Alba, which we quickly realise is a re-imagining of Scotland.

It’s Scotland, Jock, but not as we know it. Alba is a country beset by wicked magic, wielded by King Keldec and his Enforcers. All other magic is forbidden, and magically gifted citizens are mind-cleansed to sway them to Keldec’s will. In the process, some of them have their minds almost wiped out. Neryn’s grandmother was one of those so ruined, and now Neryn, who has been able to see and talk with the Good Folk for as long as she can remember, must flee northward in search of sanctuary at a place only spoken of in whispers, if at all, Shadowfell.

It is a hard journey, and a long one. Neryn has many tribulations en route. She does have help, not only from the Good Folk, but also from a stranger named Flint. But which side is Flint on?

As usual, Marillier’s characters are clearly defined and individual. One does recognise similar ‘types’ from other books of hers, but each hero, each heroine, differs from all earlier ones through their well-defined personalities and backgrounds. What they have in common is a gift for magic and the desire to do good. The settings, too, are so lucidly described that there is no way we could confuse the mountains and forests of Alba with those of Marillier’s Ireland. Likewise, the magical characters are different: here we have, for instance, the highly original ‘stanie men’ – beings of rock who can only be set free to perform a task by someone with powerful magical gifts. Someone like Neryn.

Shadowfell is an easy read at under 350 pages, and can thus be expected to appeal to girls as young as twelve or thirteen. However, it will also provide a good read for their mothers and grandmothers, to say nothing of their brothers, for many Marillier fans are of the male persuasion, despite the fact that there is always a strong streak of romance in a Marillier book. But the romance is only part of the story. There are also journeys, battles and magic, and strong male characters that will appeal to both genders.

If you have not yet tried Juliet Marillier, you will find Shadowfell a very good jumping-off point. The series is currently set for three books, but if it’s as popular as Sevenwaters there could well be many more. The second book in the series, Raven Flight, has just been published, and I will review that one ASAP. Earlier this year,  Ticonderoga publications  brought out Prickle Moon, a delightful collection of Marillier's short fiction. That one is also on my list of books to review, which, sadly, grows longer by the week.

To learn more of Juliet Marillier’s writings and to see some lovely fannish artwork, go to her beautiful website

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Saturday, 20 July 2013

Book review: Wolfblade by Jennifer Fallon

Wolfblade (Hythrun Chronicles: Wolfblade Trilogy, #1)Wolfblade by Jennifer Fallon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This review first appeared in The Specusphere in May 2006

Jennifer Fallon is one of the brightest stars in the constellation of Australasian fantasy writers. She is in good company: shining alongside her we find several women writers of international repute, including Sara Douglas, Cecilia Dart-Thornton, Lian Hearn, Glenda Larke, Fiona Macintosh, Juliet Marillier, Karen Miller and Marianne de Pierres. Each has a unique style, and all are worthy of recognition as fine writers by anyone's reckoning. One or two of them might prefer to be thought of as primarily literary or historical writers, but surely it's time for fantasy to stop being the genre that dare not show its face? Writers of their calibre can hold their heads up in any assemblage.

Fallon is not only a good writer but also a prolific one, often bringing out more than one book a year. Wolfblade is the first book of her third trilogy, The Hythrun Chronicles, a prequel to her earlier Demon Child Trilogy, and if Wolfblade is anything to go by, the series will be eagerly devoured by anyone who appreciated the earlier work. It features some of the same characters, including Lorandranek, King of the Harshini, and his champion, Brakandaran the Halfbreed. They figure in the subplot, which centres on Wrayan Lightfinger, a thief turned sorcerer turned thief again, with some good laughs being provided by a brace of eccentric shape-changing demons.

The doings of the otherworldly Harshini contrast nicely with the almost Machiavellian twists of the main story, whose central character is Marla Wolfblade, sister to the degenerate and perverted High Prince of Hythria. We see Marla forcibly married to a man not of her choosing, and over the course of the book we watch her grow from a silly teenager who can hardly open her mouth without putting her foot in it into a crafty stateswoman determined to become the real power behind the throne of Hythria. Along the way we are introduced to plenty of other intriguing characters, including a couple of frighteningly dysfunctional relatives-by-marriage of Marla's, and her devoted servant, Elezaar the dwarf, who teaches his mistress the subtle arts of deception and one-upsmanship essential to a ruler. All Fallon's characters are clearly and surely defined: we see how they affect events and how they are affected by them, so plot and characterisation bound along hand-in-hand. By the time I reached the book's surprise ending I was sorry to say good-bye.

I only have two small quibbles with Fallon's work, which is well-crafted, easy to read, pacey and gripping. First, she sometimes presents events from the point of view of a dying person. She is not alone in this once-unacceptable practice: the illustrious Guy Gavriel Kay is regularly guilty of it. For this reader, at least, it completely destroys suspension of disbelief. The other quibble is with her invented languages. Hythria must be on another planet, since we have never read about it in our history or geography books! How can it be, then, that its people have such an Indo-European looking vocabulary? 'Court’esa', meaning a slave trained in the sexual arts, is altogether too much like 'courtesan' for credibility as an Exotic Word. And names such as 'Bylinda', 'Frederak' and 'Mahkas' border on the ludicrous.

These criticisms apart, however, Wolfblade promises to be the first book of another captivating trilogy. (If only we were allowed give half-stars on Goodreads!) Long may the muse dwell with Jennifer Fallon!

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Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Book Review: The Twins of Saranthium, books 1 & 2

Awakening (The Twins of Saranthium, #1)Awakening by Lara Morgan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Book one of The Twins of Saranthium trilogy.

Since these two books came out, Lara Morgan has been very busy with a new project – a series for young adults, The Rosie Black Chronicles. The promised book three of The Twins of Sarantium has therefore had to take a back seat, but I live in hopes of its eventual publication. 

(The material below orginally appeared on the now-defunct website, The Specusphere.)

An excellent first novel. Morgan's setting, characters and story ideas quickly catch the reader's interest. What if people had flying serpents to ride through the skies? What a god returned to his world after thousands of years to seduce those serpents into fighting against the people who rely on them, in order to bring the populace under the god's dominion?

The trouble is, with the proliferation of fantasy in recent years, it's becoming harder and harder to come up with truly original twists on the old tropes. We have several of them in Awakening. Twins separated at birth – tick. Dragons as mounts – tick. (Calling a dragon a serpent doesn't make it one, if it has legs and feet and claws.) Poor orphan trying to fulfil her dream of becoming a Rider – tick. In short, we've seen most of Awakening's components before, and will no doubt see them again. That will not detract from the value of the book for many readers. Let's face it, the reason the tropes hang around is because they make good copy. Readers will always want stories about disadvantaged youths, dragons and wicked supernatural characters, and it's an old saw but a true one that you've got to give the public what it wants.

But we can, I think, realistically hope for greater things from this obviously gifted writer. She has promised us more gods in book two, and looks set to give us a clash worthy of the Titans themselves. I hope she will also give us a tighter, less predictable story, with stronger build-up of tension – like many first novels, Awakening suffers from mid-book drag.

Betrayal (The Twins of Saranthium, #2)Betrayal by Lara Morgan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Book Two of The Twins of Saranthium Trilogy

Betrayal is in many ways more assured than its predecessor, demonstrating that Morgan is settling into her craft. The trilogy tells the tale of how twins Shaan and Tallis are called upon to save their world from a god gone mad. At the end of book one, Shaan was forced by the crazed Azoth to liberate the powerful Birthstone, which he needs if he is to dominate their world. We find that the Birthstone has left Shaan with very special healing skills. The twins know Azoth is not to be trusted, but can they put their faith in the four other gods who oppose him? It seems that on their world, the gods are indeed crazy.

To defeat Azoth, Shaan must take a devious route, one that appears to set her against the very people she is trying to help. Tallis, meantime, grows in strength as a warrior and a leader, and by the end of this book we see him as a potential saviour. His growth into power contrasts cleverly with Shaan's apparent descent into confusion.

Once again we have wonderfully imagined scenery and beautiful renditions of the link between serpent and rider. The battle scenes are as good as any I’ve read, and I was left with a sense of anticipation, convinced that there is an almighty cataclysm coming in book three.

However, as with book one, there is a feeling of being lost in the middle of the book. There is quite a bit of journeying around to little effect, resulting in loss of tension. Even so, the final scenes lead the book to go out with a bang and I am really looking forward to book three.

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Sunday, 30 June 2013

Book review: Just Desserts by Simon Haynes

Hal Spacejock 3: Just Desserts
Hal Spacejock 3: Just Desserts by Simon Haynes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This review first appeared in the now-defunct webzine, The Specusphere, in January 2008.

Hal and Clunk are back! (Did they ever go away? Their fans would say not.) Again they create inter planetary mayhem and somehow manage to come out unscathed. Well, almost unscathed. Simon Haynes is a master of the close shave, contriving to rescue his unlikely heroes from all manner of danger, including their own stupidity, with nothing worse to show for the adventures than the odd bruise or blazing headache.

As usual, it is Hal, the human half of the partnership, who is the stupid one: his metal off-sider, Clunk, is both the brains and brawn of this outfit. Without Clunk and good ol’ Navcom, Hal would no doubt be drawing the dole on some obscure planet while he drinks his coffee and dreams his Walter-Mittyish dreams. But with the help of his long-suffering nursemaids, Hal actually manages to live out his dreams, albeit precariously, and that is perhaps half the charm of this series. There is a bit of Hal in all of us. He often embarrasses us, frequently annoys us and repeatedly amuses us. And in the end, he saves the day, convincing us that no matter how limited we seem to be, we might, one day, win out over forces more powerful than we are.

In this episode, Hal and Clunk are pitted against a robot enemy who engages hit men to see them off. In fighting for their lives and their cargo, they find themselves stewarding aboard a shuttle, risking arrest for impersonating army officers, enjoying all the fun of the fair while shying at coconuts and making utter fools of themselves at a formal dinner. How Haynes dreams up his improbable scenarios is a mystery to an unimaginative clod like me, but I’m glad he does it.

This is the third book in the series and there is a strong possibility of more. This brings one to wonder just how long a writer can get away with the same formula. Mind you, this is a formula that works – and it sells, too. Many a writer would like to dream up such a formula. Yet now Haynes has really hit his stride, one feels that perhaps he could start to take the odd risk; to play with the formula and subvert it – or lift it to greater heights than even Hal might dream of. The potential is certainly there. But meanwhile, enjoy another fast and furious ride with Haynes's zap-happy, zany rapscallions.

Between books, readers can continue to follow Hal and Clunk on their blog: http://haldiary.blogspot.com/ Their official biographer also has a blog: http://halspacejock.blogspot.com/ and a website http://www.spacejock.com.au/ They are all worth checking out.

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Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Book review: Wonders of a Godless World by Andrew Mc Gahan

Wonders of a Godless WorldWonders of a Godless World by Andrew McGahan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This review first appeared in the now-defunct webzine, The Specusphere, in January 2010

Allen and Unwin, Sep 2009: ISBN 978-1-74175-809-2

Andrew McGahan is a mystery man. He does not appear to have a blog or a website — and he hasn't, so far as I can tell, written any other science fiction. Yet he's been around for fifteen years and has produced six novels and three plays. And he burst onto the SF scene with this very different book — immediately winning an Aurealis, even ousting Sean Williams, the undoubted King of Aurealisland.

Whatever else our mystery man may be, he is undoubtedly highly versatile. His first novel, Praise, won the Australian Vogel Literary Award. His third, Last Drinks, won a Ned Kelly Award for crime writing, and his fourth won multiple awards including the Miles Franklin and a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. This dude is one seriously talented scribe.

Did he intend to write science fiction when he began work on Wonders of a Godless World? Or is he, like Margaret Atwood before him, somewhat bemused and embarrassed that he should win awards for genre writing? To win any award is a noteworthy event: to win awards for crime and science fiction as well as the highest literary ones must be very rare indeed. Not bad for a guy who left uni before finishing first year to work on the family farm.

Wonders of a Godless World is a good read. It does have certain literary features, such as having no named characters (not many genre writers would dare to try a trick like that, at least, not in a full-length novel) and we are never quite sure whether the events in the story are real or only happening in the mind of the protagonist. But it is certainly speculative, and it works.

The gist of the story is this: the orphan finds she can hear the foreigner speaking inside her head. The archangel, the duke, the witch and the virgin start behaving strangely and bizarre deaths occur. Although the archangel is not really an archangel; nor is the duke a duke, nor the witch a real witch. And as for the virgin – well, let's say she's not a virgin by the time the climax arrives (Yes, bad pun, I know…)

The blurb claims this to be a head-stretching story and one can only agree. It questions the nature of consciousness and even of what we call reality. Highly recommended, but don't expect it to be like any other work, speculative or otherwise, that you have ever read.

To learn more about Andrew McGahan, you have only to Google. There is an article worth reading on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_M...

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Sunday, 9 June 2013

Out of the madhouse

A friend recently posted on Facebook –‘Been looking for freelance writing/proof-reading work in
London. Amazed at how many jobs are advertised as “unpaid but providing a wealth of experience and a well-known name for your CV”.  Next time I need the plumber, I'll tell him I won't pay for him to fix my tap but he can certainly list my name on his website. Actually, I might just try that at the supermarket.’

I know how my friend feels. I get the odd query from a first-time author with inflated expectations, asking if they can pay me a percentage of the book’s take instead of paying up front. No way José – I know how much most self-published authors make, and that’s 'very little'. If you self-publish, you must be prepared to do it for love. Even authors published by the big houses might not make a living wage – it’s said that the average author in Australia earns less from writing than they would on the dole. And given the tough economic times and the state of flux of the publishing industry, it's going to get worse.

It’s not just writers and editors who suffer, either. In all the arts, there have always been more good people than available jobs. It's more apparent than ever today, and part of the problem, I think, is that the tertiary institutions are turning out too many graduates. These graduates have to create their own employment, and usually their projects can’t be realised without some kind of subsidy. Or they work in community theatre for nothing. Or they self-publish books. As one of my writerly friends puts it ‘Centrelink’ (Australia’s social security department) ‘is the biggest patron of the arts since the de Medicis’.

As long as there is cheap or free labour around, the arts will remain a buyers' market, and inevitably, this 'amateurisation' of the arts will continue. Yet if you are an artist of any ilk, you are probably also a rugged individualist. An office job would drive you insane. Routine bores you, and lack of a creative outlet can make you severely depressed. Furthermore, trying to be creative while selling your soul to the system is a sorry task.

It’s a conundrum, and I don’t think it’s a new one. As Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote: ‘The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the collective. If you choose to fight, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened ... but no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.’

Nietzche is also reported as saying And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music. May there always be those few of us who do hear the music, either as creators or consumers of the arts. We might be thought insane – but I do believe we keep the rest of society out of the madhouse.
Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Dance like nobody's looking

I recently attended my very first Middle Eastern Dance Festival. Middle Eastern dance, especially belly dancing, is very popular in Australia, and several states hold annual festivals. The Western Australian one, founded by Keti Sharif  enjoys national renoun. Several hundred participants turned up at the Juan Rando Dance Academy in Subiaco  to attend workshops for four full days, with four different classes running simultaneously. There were two evening performances and a one-day market as well.

Barbara Wolfencamp (Zahraa)
Guests-of-honour were Ozgen from Turkey and Tamalyn Dallal from the USA. I was fortunate enough to get places in workshops with both these fine artists, as well as those with Australian doyennes Belyssa   and Zahraa (Barbara Wolfcamp). It was a fitness trial for me as it’s been many years since I’ve danced for four hours a day, but although I was tired and sore I managed all the classes and did not notice my concentration slipping until the last couple, when I felt I was struggling a bit to stay focused and pick up unfamiliar material.

A quick rundown of the workshops' content – on Thursday I did Barbara's class on various Persian styles of dance. I especially loved the classical section as the movements are smooth and graceful and the music has varying time signatures. (Here in Perth the Egyptian style predominates and most of the music is in 4/4 time.) After lunch I took Ethnic Potpourri with Tamalyn, who taught us moves from Ethiopia and Zanzibar, among other places. Tamalyn has a wide knowledge of various folkloric styles, as has Belyssa, whose class I attended on Friday morning. She taught us moves from Morocco, Nubia, and the desert Bedouin tribes, some of which are very earthy. Very earthy indeed, in fact.

Then it was back to Tamalyn for an improvisation class using tools such as 'writing' our names with various body parts and drawing on the four elements together with the idea of 'consistency', thinking of substances such as honey and dark chocolate! It took me right back to my days at WAAPA,  back in the eighties, when I did a class of that kind several times a week.

I had a day off on Saturday, having realised before I registered that at my age I was probably not going to be able to sustain four days of classes, and I returned on Sunday with energy renewed, which was just as well because that was when I had my only workshop with the indefatigable Ozgen! Once again I was reminded of my days at WAAPA, but this time it was character classes that were recapped. Ozgen concentrated on Turkish Romany dances, and some of the steps are very tricky. The steps themselves would not be too hard, studied one at a time – most of them can be a seen as variants of what in ballet is called a pas de bourrée - three steps that travel in any direction. However, the time signatures of 9/8 and 5/4 were very challenging, and there was a lot of material to cover. 

Tamalyn Dallal
My mind had become a tad fuzzy by the time the last class rolled around, this one on Orchestral Taqsim with Tamalyn. She is very knowledgeable about Middle Eastern music and instruments, so this class was a fast study in music as well as dance.

Overall, the WAMED festival broadened my knowledge and understanding of Middle-Eastern and North African ethnic dance, as opposed to the more commercial ‘belly dance’ which owes as much to Hollywood as to the Middle East. I hope I will still be fit enough to do it again next year. I was very pleased to see that there were at least a dozen women of about my own age, proving that dance is not just for the young and beautiful!
Monday, 20 May 2013

Book Review: The First Law trilogy by Joe Abercrombie

The First Law TrilogyThe First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Blade Itself 2006 IBSN 9780575079793
Before They Are Hanged 2007 ISBN 9780575082014
The Last Argument of Kings 2008 ISBN 9780575077898
All published by Gollancz

This review originally appeared on The Specusphere, a now-defunct webzine, in 2008

In The First Law, UK fantasy writer Joe Abercrombie has produced one of the most impressive first trilogies ever to hit the market. It is remarkable not only because of its brilliantly complex plot and characters, but also because of its fearless investigation of the dark labyrinths of the human condition. Here be no dragons, and hardly a mage or a McGuffin is in sight, either. Instead, we have a blood, sweat and tears tale of the first water, incorporating, as the author puts in on his web site 'all the grit, and cruelty, and humour of real life'. Good and evil depend on who’s talking. Good actions are not necessarily rewarded and neither do the bad guys always get their comeuppance. In fact, there are no real 'bad guys': rather, we see the skilful and unskilful behaviours of which we’re all capable held up to us as in a dark mirror of gut-wrenching veracity.

Abercrombie doesn’t write dialogue: he writes characters, and they speak to us. They speak of our own foibles and failures, sins and successes. What’s more, he writes fight scenes where valour and chivalry are in very short supply and love scenes that are heart-aching because we see all too clearly that nothing, not even the flawed emotion we call love, can save us from our own blindness. Technically, Abercrombie achieves this through his deep understanding of the close third point-of-view. Immersion in Abercrombie’s invented world is not optional.

The trilogy is centred on a man the author calls the 'thinking man's barbarian', one Logen Ninefingers. For the most part, Logen does what he has to do and does it well, with as much—and as little—exertion as is needed. Yet in battle he can be a berserker, when his alter ego, The Bloody Nine, takes over and he is as likely to slaughter friend as foe. The story is not only Logen’s: other point-of-view characters include Collum West, a career soldier; his friend, the spoilt aristocrat Jezal Luthar; Glokta, a war hero turned Inquisitor – and Ferro, a runaway slave whose only interest in life is vengeance. Each one has friends and foes and as they interact with each other’s milieus we begin to understand the politics of their world as well as their interpersonal relationships. We meet Bayaz, First of the Magi, and his hapless assistant Quai; Ardee West, Collum’s wayward sister; Brother Longfoot, who will steer a team led by Bayaz on a quest to find the magic stone that will destroy all the enemies of Bayaz, and an assortment of self-seeking politicians and military personnel. But be warned: none of these apparently stock characters turns out to be what they appear.

In book one, The Blade Itself, war is in the air and many look to the return of Bayaz to save them. We see Bayaz gathering his team together and realise the conflicting interests his presence arouses. Book two, Before They Are Hanged, shows the struggle of the poorly-trained and equipped Midderlands army against the Northmen who have invaded their province of Angland. It also deals with the quest of Bayaz, and has the most surprising ending that any quest story could possibly have. Book three, The Last Argument of Kings, deals with the war’s climax: an army of religious fanatics led by flesh-eating priests is attacking Midderlands, but their army is still in Angland and the king, newly elected and disastrously married, must hold out until the fighting force returns.

And 'The First Law'? The expression refers to the injunction against using magic from the Other Side. What are the consequences when that law is broken?

Abercrombie can only be compared to George R.R. Martin, but he is, thankfully, rather more succinct, having managed to squash his story into the customary three volumes. And you must read all three books, in order, as close together as possible, if you are to get the most out of this epic. Although each book is well-rounded and skilfully crafted, none truly stands alone. It matters not: once you embark on this tale you will not want it to end.

If you like your fantasy harsh and gritty, can stand a great deal of death and destruction, and if you don’t want everything tied up in neat packages with 'happy ever after' stamped on them, you must read this trilogy.

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