Time for a confession

landscape of rooflines
Earlier this year, my son was the State winner for the ACT and NSW in the 2017 Somerset National Novella Writing Competition.

For those of you who said you’d like to read his novella, here it is, on the Somerset site: The Confession of Father Cosimo by William Pieper.

It’s the tale of a 16th Century Jesuit priest, who travels to the small village of Montello del Lanzigo for two reasons, and discovers that the right thing to do isn’t always clear.

Read and enjoy, and if you know any school-aged writers, you can pass on the details of how to enter the 2018 competition (with a deadline of 1 December 2017) via that first link.

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Weyrd and wonderful: Corpselight by Angela Slatter

Corpselight by Angela Slatter and other objects

Sirens and Kitsune and Norns, oh my!

I swear, the capital of the Sunshine State has never looked better than it does in this fabulous urban fantasy crime thriller.

Back in the day, when I was working for the Gold Coast Libraries and reviewing books on their blog, I waxed a little bit fangirl about Trent Jamieson’s Business of Death trilogy, in part because that wonderful series is set in my home town of Brisbane.

So imagine my delight, last year, to read Angela Slatter’s Vigil, which has harpies on the Kargaroo Point cliffs, Norns in the West End, and so much more. It’s a glorious, dark tale full of myth, monsters and a very nasty vintage. You should definitely read it.

Needless to say I was looking forward to the sequel.

Corpselight delivered all it promised, and then some. It walks the fascinating line that the best urban fantasy always teeters on, showing a hidden underworld of magic sliding along with the mundane and recognisable real world. An insurance investigation sounds ordinary enough, but when the claim comes under “Unusual Happenstance” and involves supernatural mud inundation its rather more intriguing – and dangerous.

I’ve been reading a lot of Lois McMaster Bujold lately, and like some of her books, Corpselight considers motherhood from a number of different, and often dark, angles. It’s not always sunshine and butterflies in Brisneyland, of course, and it makes for gripping reading.

I’m looking forward to Conflux 13, at the end of the month, because Angela Slatter will be there – and I might just have to wax a little bit fangirl to her.

BTW – I wrote a post about brephophagists, the word for people who eats babies. It doesn’t come up much in conversation. The Creative Commons image, by Andrew Bossi, is of the baby-eating statue in Bern, Switzerland. As far as fabulous backstories for characters go, Verity Fassbinder (the heroine of Corpselight) has a cracker: her thankfully departed dad was a Kinderflesser – a child butcher – catering to Brisbane’s Weyrd communities more disgusting dining tastes. Nasty and, for dark urban fantasy, absolutely pitch perfect.

 

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Boxed up joy for Book Week

It’s Book Week according to the Children’s Book Council of Australian and my social media feeds, which are full of adorable photos of kids dressed up as their favourite fictional characters. I’ve noticed a proliferation of commercially available costumes this year – mostly Disney, DC and Marvel trademarked apparel, with the occassional “classic” movie-styled character included, such as Alice in Wonderland or Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. Is this new, I wonder, the marketing awareness of Book Week? Or have I been the amazing Captain Oblivious for the last couple of years? Anyway…

I’m not going to get all grumpy and whiny about how watching a movie is not the same as reading the book. We all know it. Anything which gets kids reading, though – even if it’s *shudder* princesses – is a good thing. So rock the frocks, boys and girls, or the lycra, and then read the book. All the books.

In the spirit of Book Week, and of using movies, comics, and TV shows as a gateway to a lifelong love of reading, here’s a sight guaranteed to gladden the heart of book lovers, librarians, and Whovian geeks alike.

This beautiful book box is in a quiet street in my neighbouring suburb. The front door opens to reveal a treasure trove of books, free for the taking, to suit the tastes of children, teens and adults. Oh, yeah! I love book boxes so much.

So from my happy place, I say happy book week, everyone – read, enjoy, and share the book love.

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Micro fiction*: On Valas Rock the Seals Cry

seascape off Phillip Island Victoria

The sea was all he had and if he couldn’t escape it, he’d die.

Callan hated the sea, and the life it forced on him. He hated the house which crouched by the shingle, caught between rock and water. It was no pearl, of smooth layers built by that friction, only damp and dank as a cave. He hated the land behind it – all brackish pools and stunted grass, and far in the distance a line of trees which taunted him.

Most of all, he hated the roar of Valas Rock. It voiced its pain across half a mile of cold sea, as the waves broke on it, and the seals cried, and the gulls screamed, wheeling overhead.

Callan woke each night, choking on salt spray. He lay in the dark, thinking about the death at his side and listening to the rock’s cry and the tide of his brothers’ sleep-drenched breaths. He didn’t fit there. His family fished, until the sea took them. She gave up her quicksilver harvest, but netted their lives in return. He wouldn’t pay the tithe, as his grandfather had done, and his uncle. He wouldn’t go out in the boats.

“What do we do with him?” his mother asked.
“He’s no use to anyone,” said his father. “Like one shoe, when the other’s lost.”
Her answer had been tears. Did she think, as Callan did, of the other shoe? Mhara, who had slipped from the womb at his heels, gasped for air, and died.

His sister, Mhara, who waited beside him in the dark.

He wandered among the sedge, moving closer to the dark trees, willing them to make sense. Each day he resolved to walk to the trees and keep on walking. Each night found him on the shingle, staring at the sea. What would happen if he left? Would Mhara remain? Would he always be alone?

On the last night of his sixteenth year, the sea lay quiet, like a whipped dog. A mist rose, moaned, and swelled with a sound both soft and unbearably sweet. Did it call wilful girls to swim to Valas Rock and take on fur – which they later shed so they might dance in the moonlight for the Sea Queens?

At Callan’s shoulder the air sighed. Did they call to his sister’s ghost? Had Mhara kept him by the sea, so she might hear the song and leave him? Was it Mhara who urged him to the boats, and Mhara who sped them across the black water, so he wouldn’t think on what he did?

Valas Rock basked silent in the moonlight. He clambered over its broad back, to crouch by its crescent of sand. A cold touch caressed his shoulder, then nothing stood behind him.

Alone, he shivered.

The seal girls danced at the edge of the water. They were luminous and beautiful, with unbound hair and lithe naked bodies, sinuous as kelp. Their fur skins lay on the sand, discarded where the girls had stepped from them. Callan inched towards the nearest pelt. It was softer than anything he’d held, and warm to his touch.

He tucked it inside his shirt, feeling the delicious weight of it above his belt. The fur caressed his bare skin. It was fair exchange, wasn’t it? He gave his sister’s ghost, and in return he’d take a seal girl. Then he wouldn’t be alone. He’d go away from the hated sea, past the dark trees, and take the girl with him. Callan studied each of them, willing the dance to end so he might discover whose fur he held.

***
The Sea Queens breached, water streaming over their majestic forms. Rona raised her arms to welcome them from the deep. They rolled and leapt. Flukes slapped the surf and barnacled tails flashed in the moonlight. Their whistling song praised the dance, and called the selkies to slip into their skins and join them in the water.

Rona ran towards her fur, but it was gone. She turned and turned again, frantic. The others splashed and leapt – back to the inky depths without her.

A young man stood, from the shadow of the rocks, and held out his arms. Rona’s gaze travelled from his smug grin to the lump in his shirt. She whirled to the sea, and a cry tore from her. His arms came around her, and he clamped a hand across her mouth.

“You’re mine now, my beauty,” he whispered against her ear.

But the sea was everything, and without it she’d die.

 

* Ah, selkies! I love them so. I wrote this piece for the recent Gamma.Con micro science fiction story competition. It had to be under 800 words and sci-fi or fantasy. I didn’t make the shortlist of ten (you can read them here), but I was happy with my tale – even if my heart hurts for poor Rona.

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On the shoulders of giants

With our awards for speaking about being on the shouldrs of giantsLast year, I wrote about winning the ACT Rostrum New Speaker of the Year award with my speech on the topic of Silence. I was delighted when, this year, my son entered the new speaker competition and won the award.

It did, however, mean that we had to speak in competition last night, on the topic of On the shoulders of giants. Well a picture’s worth a thousand words – and there’s the outcome: William took home the New Speaker award, and I took the plate for the 2017 Speaker of the Year.

If you’d like to read the 1000+ words I delivered on the topic – about how reading fiction lifts us to the shoulders of giants because stories are awesome and the human brain is amazing – here they are:

Let me tell you about a giant.

“Every afternoon, as they were coming from school, the children used to go and play in the Giant’s garden.”

It was so lovely it made them happy, but when the giant returned after a seven-year absence, he was not happy to find them there.

“’What are you doing here?’ he cried in a very gruff voice, and the children ran away.

‘My own garden is my own garden,’ said the Giant; ‘anyone can understand that, and I will allow nobody to play in it but myself.’

So he built a high wall all round it, and put up a notice-board.

TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED

He was a very selfish Giant.”

It’s easy enough to be selfish – our own things are ours, whether they are gardens or books or ideas. But to stand on the shoulders of giants means we must share ideas, because it is the knowledge and understanding gained by those who have gone before us, which lifts us to the level of a giant’s shoulders and allows us to see further, and clearer, than we otherwise would.

The story I began to tell you, The Selfish Giant, is one of Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales. I thought, in speaking on the subject of being on the shoulders of giants, I would begin with a literal giant, written by a literary giant, to consider how the metaphorical giant of the great body of literature raises us up, so we can see further, and understand how to be better human beings.

I have read The Selfish Giant many times – and each time, even though I know the fate of the giant, it reduces me to tears.

How can Oscar Wilde, dead for almost 117 years, make me cry?

I know I’ll find the giant under his shroud of blossoms, at the end.

How can any story or poem, especially the ones I am familiar with, make me cry? I know that love will end, friends will betray, lives will be lost. I know that the dog will die.

It’s no surprise.

If we come right down to it, all of these stories are just strangely shaped black squiggles on a white page. What gives them such power?

We usually speak about seeing further from the shoulders of giants in relation to science. And science can help us understand the power of reading fiction. Research into the human brain says we’re primed for language, but not for reading.

So, it’s a slow process, the initial decoding of the letter shapes, and the sounds, progressing to recognising whole words, and the brain making the connection between the spoken word and the written one. But, if you’re lucky enough not to struggle with reading, if you ‘get it’ and become a fluent reader, with a good vocabulary, something extraordinary happens in your brain.

Your eyes see squiggles, but your brain comprehends not just the word, but the meaning, sometimes the multiple meanings, and the implications, and the images and the ideas.

You fall.

You are immersed in the story.

Your perception literally changes – MRI studies indicate that the parts of the brain used for spatial placement and physical activity are activated when you read – in other words, you know you are sitting on the couch with a book, but at the same time your brain perceives that you are in the drawing room at Longbourn, that you are on the battlements of Minas Tirith, that you are being chased in the dark on your way home from your school’s Halloween pageant.

So the act of reading about something stimulates the same neurological regions as doing that thing. Stop and think about that for a moment.

Think about the things that you will never do, would never be able to do, whether it is catch the golden snitch so your Quidditch team can win, or fight yourself free of slavers on a brig off the coast of Scotland with the assistance of a Jacobite rebel, and realise that reading lets your brain feel as if it has done those things.

Reading puts you in another person’s shoes. It lets you perceive the world through the eyes of someone who is not like you. To feel what they feel. Not just figuratively – science tells us this is happening at a biological level.

You might be thinking, so what?

What difference does that make?

That gift, that opportunity for empathy, is the moment where you are lifted, beyond yourself, and put on the giant’s shoulder.

Theory of mind is a psychology term for being able to understand that you have beliefs, desires and intentions, and that others also have them, and that theirs’ may be different to your own. Someone with a strong theory of mind has greater empathy, and is more compassionate, more likely to volunteer in their community, and more tolerant of diversity. It’s someone who can see over the walls that we build around ourselves – the selfish walls that we think will protect what is ours, but which only lead to misery.

Reading fiction develops your theory of mind. Fiction gives you greater empathy because it lets you see the world through another’s eyes.

Yes, it can make you cry – but it’s worth it.

I am not, and I will never be, a man, a king, and a hero.

But when I read the words Tennyson’s gave Ulysses:

It little profits that an idle king, by this still hearth, among these barren crags, Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole unequal laws unto a savage race, That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me”, I do know him – I understand his longing, his melancholy, and his frustration.

I will never be a 19th century Russian landowner, but how can I read Tolstoy’s description of Levin looking at Kitty, in Anna Karenina, and not be affected by his love: “He stepped down, trying not to look long at her, as if she were the sun, yet he saw her, like the sun, even without looking.”

I am not a selfish giant. Oscar Wilde’s tale cautions us against selfishness, against walling ourselves off from others. We only have to look around us, at the world today, to see the danger of building walls – the danger of being selfish, and having no empathy.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, Jane Smiley, described the job and ambition of a writer as being to develop a theory of how it feels to be alive.

By sharing their theories, writers allow us to go beyond our personal walls – to use the books we read to build a ladder to reach the shoulders of giants. With them, we can develop a theory of mind from many different viewpoints – male and female, black and white, rich and poor, young and old.

Oscar Wilde also said we are all of us in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars. Reading helps us develop our understanding of others, our empathy for them. It helps us be less selfish. Reading lets us climb out of that gutter, and onto the shoulders of giants.

And as a passionate reader, I tell you, it’s from the shoulders of giants that you get the very best view of the stars.

Get away from the water

Get away from the water: writing and the subconscious and frogs

Last night, my pleasant dream segued into nightmare.

It started with family and friends, relaxing by a garden pond, enjoying afternoon tea. Then, something moved beneath the ripples. I looked closer. Closer.

And there were … bad things in the water.

Deathly-pallid, slimy things, writhing and flapping. Skimming beneath the surface and edging towards the shallows, as the water spread wider, and it became apparent that to get past it, we would have to go through it. *

Look, knock yourself out with some dream analysis – I don’t mind.

But I’m pretty sure I know where this slimy slice of subconscious was coming from.

I was whining yesterday that I have too many stories jostling for room in my head. I’m 66,500 words into my fifth manuscript, and trying to finish the first draft. I had my fourth manuscript critiqued by the talented local spec. fic. crit group last month, and I’m itching to get back to the next edit of that. I’m working on my critique of another member’s novel for this month, which requires focused reading. And I don’t write a lot of short stories, but I’ve currently got two rumbling around, bullying my brain and demanding to be done.

I made the foolish mistake of saying I should tie a toad to my head to extract the stories (it’s a medieval cure for headache), and then sit the slimy little sucker on a keyboard so it could type the tales up for me. And wouldn’t that make a great story?

It’s only a short hop, skip, and a splash, and I’ve got baleful, unblinking eyes peering at me through dark, rippling water.

So, enough analysis – I’d better get to work before the water rises any higher.

*Don’t worry, Sophie – I know you made it out. Megan, Alex and Gaia, sorry … but we weren’t going under without a fight, I’m sure of it.

Flash fiction* – Taskforce Z

 

They come in the night.

They always do.

You wake, blinking against glare. Sunlight shouts off the white plastic shroud which encases your neighbours’ house.

You stand at the window, your fingers splayed on the glass like a gecko’s translucent pads. Your gaze traces the line of the temporary fencing to the front barrier, where a pale blue banner is attached to the metal mesh.

You can’t read it from your window, but you know what it says. You have seen dozens like it, scattered across the suburbs. The government insignia is white, and so are the words – Viral Response Taskforce.

First the plastic. Then the droning whine of the generator as it pumps in the decontaminants. Later, the demolition team will scrape the site bare, leaving a gap in the street like a missing tooth.

There’s no sign of the neighbours.

There never is.

 

*Another Tiny Treasure I wrote for Noted Festival. This one won’t have the same resonance away from Canberra, which currently has lots of houses like this – although it’s the Asbestos Response Taskforce at work, removing the houses which were insulated by “Mr Fluffy”. Creepiest name ever…

Flash fiction* – Autumn Witch

autumnwitch

She preferred maple leaves of fiery orange and yellow, or heart’s blood red. Sometimes, she found a perfect bruised purple leaf, veined with red-gold arteries.

She placed them all on her wide, white windowsills, for the sun to dry. Their memories of moisture evaporated, and they became brittle and bitter. As they baked, she seasoned them with regret.

No more dancing in the fresh breezes of Spring. No more whispering through Summer’s lazy heat. They crinkled, arthritic and crabbed, as she crooned to them of lost vitality, and stolen joy.

By the time the trees were bare, she had an army of clawed furies, which her winds could send to do her bidding. Their desiccated hearts yearned to scratch at tender flesh, and spill the hot blood which might, she promised them, be as sweet as the sap they remembered.

 

*Last week I mentioned writing some flash fiction for a Tiny Treasures event at Noted Festival. I thought I’d share my pre-prepared tiny stories here, rather than have them whirled away and lost, like fallen leaves…

Fiction makes heroes of us all.

heroesA couple of weeks ago I went to an evening event for adults at the National Museum. It was the latest in their Night at the Museum series, and this one had a Heroes and Villains theme.
scarWe were encouraged to dress up, make masks, shoot Nerf bullets at the ninja balloon targets, and ‘fly’ against the green screen, as well as learn a bunch of stuff about historical heroes and villains, forensics, and much more.  I had a whole packet of fun.

Mmm – see my fake scar!

The next weekend, I was hanging out with the lovely CSFG peeps, at the Noted writing festival. We were making bespoke flash fiction for anyone who wandered up and wanted it, or passers-by could grab one of the pre-prepared stories. I had a great time, escaping off into tiny little stories, and so did everyone else.

flashfic

Thoughts on escapism have been fermenting in my brain ever since. They keep rising to the surface, executing Kraken-esque rolls, only to sink back into the abyssal depths. What keeps throwing me off, is all the memes on the theme of ‘to hell with this adulting gig’ which flit across my social media awareness.

I don’t want to talk about unicorn frappes, and fidget spinners, and the trend for immature behaviours in adults. I don’t want to discuss man-child tantrums from people in the public eye. I don’t even want to consider how sitting in the dirt making mud pies is arguably more fun than doing the dishes. Those aren’t my preferred method of escape from the trials, tribulations, slings and arrows of day-to-day life.

I like fiction.

Made-up story worlds are my access-all-areas pass for fun.

Now, that can spill over into real life with a little villainous cosplay.

But, I’m happiest reading or writing fiction. And, if I could judge from the delight on people’s faces, as they received stories written just for them, I’m not alone in that.

Of course I’m not alone in that.

Even better, reading isn’t just harmless fun – it’s good for me. It makes me smarter, gives me better problem-solving and lateral thinking skills, and helps me develop empathy. My reading is practically a public service.

It’s so good in fact, that it kind of makes me a superhero.

Which doesn’t mean I can’t have a little fun, and play the villain.

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A sensational method of immersion

fountainAppeal to all the senses is excellent writing advice, and yesterday I discovered it’s fabulous advice for curators, too.

I spent a few glorious hours at the National Gallery of Australia to see their exhibition of a magnificent collection of art and objects – aptly named treasures – from the Palace of Versailles. Marble busts, gilded Rococo statues, paintings, tapestries, furniture, fans, plates, and more – it was certainly a feast for the eyes.

But I take my hat off to the NGA curators, who have thought well and truly outside the box, and incorporated elements to appeal to all the senses.

The main doors had an avenue of urns and plants, which hinted at the sumptuous treasures within. At the exhibition entry I was greeted by a massive photograph of the Hall of Mirrors, complete with two of the gold and crystal candelabras from Versailles. It looked like I was there. Better, it smelt like I was there. The foyer is scented with an orange blossom fragrance (Louis XIV’s favourite flower) designed for the exhibition by master perfumer, Francis Kurkdjian.

It’s fabulous, and instantly evocative – the gallery equivalent of grabbing your readers’ attention on the first page.

hall mirrors

And the rest of the story did not disappoint: clever staging; brilliant use of lighting; evocative music; and audio-visual elements that added depth, sound, and movement to what could otherwise have been static displays. The manipulation of space was wonderful and subtle – a massive room revealed the scale of the carpet and tapestries, but this was balanced with smaller spaces showing domestic details.

dragonI particularly enjoyed the simulation of the garden maze – with walls covered in dense artificial leaves – as a backdrop to the lead statues, such as this dragon.

The magnificent centrepiece of the exhibition – the 1.5 tonne marble Latona fountain – has a room to herself. I entered the antechamber area – fascinating with its details of the hydraulics necessary for Versailles fountains, and display of bronze and brass piping and nozzles – and rounded the wall to … wow.

So, the stature of the goddess Latona is gorgeous. But, as the assistant director of the NGA, Adam Worrell, said in an article in the Canberra Times:

“We didn’t want to bring her as an art object, put her in a room and say, ‘Look how beautiful she is’. We actually wanted you to understand what her life has been at Versailles,” he says. “If we do our job properly, you’ll actually get a sense of standing at the Versailles fountain, looking at the sculpture. If we get it right, it’s definitely going to be the highlight of the show.”

They got it right.

The panorama image, at the top of the post, really does not do it justice. The images behind the statue flow and change, and together with the sounds, create the illusion of  bright movement, and rushing water, and all the decadent, sunlit glory of a sumptuous pleasure palace.

Magnifique!

And, just when I was thinking that the only senses left to satisfy were touch and taste, I emerged into the gift shop, and found feathers, and linens, and silks, and Moet, and chocolate, and tiny berry macarons, and a hundred similar delights.

I came away from the gallery absolutely inspired. I can’t recommend Versailles: Treasures from the Palace highly enough. The exhibition is on until 17 April.

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