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Must write more cat poems

I'm slightly surprised and thoroughly delighted that that august institution, the NSW School Magazine, has bought another Cat Poem from me - a longer one this time. That makes one cat poem already in Star*Line, and two forthcoming in the School Magazine.

Oddly, it's NOT one of the, ahem, three cat poems that I read at Continuum 8 (which was a marvellously warm and friendly Con, and all praise to the organisers). I was one of four people reading, in a batch including Kelly Link; I'd been deputed to read something suitable for kids, and I wasn't all that enthused about the idea of reading MY prose after Kelly's prose. Cat poems seemed the perfect answer, given that all sf fans (except, apparently, Felicity Gray) love cats, plus something suitably horrific if there weren't any kids in the room (and there weren't, so I finished with the icky squishy poem that I wrote ealrier this year for Keira). And people (notably Janeen Webb and the aforementioned Kelly Link) were surprisingly nice about the poems.

Must write more cat poems. Where's that muse???

Over the years, Russell has written Quite a Lot of SF lit crit, including a third of Strange Constellations: A History of Australian Science Fiction, and four or five million entries on Australian and worldwide spec fic for important reference books, and long intellectual articles about Broderick, Egan and Turner, for example. But this year he's received a very welcome nomination for the Atheling Award for a short, sweet blog review of Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (http://metamagician3000.blogspot.com.au/2011/09/currently-reading-jonathan-strange-and.html). I'm putting a copy of the review below, for anyone who'd like to read it here in my blog, without slipping along that link to his blog.

The other exceedingly worthy nominees are Liz Grzyb and Talie Helene, for "2010: The Year in Review", in The Year's Best Australian Fantasy and Horror 2010 (Ticonderoga Publications); Damien Broderick and Van Ikin, for editing Warriors of the Tao: The Best of Science Fiction: A Review of Speculative Literature (Borgo Press); David McDonald, Tansy Rayner Roberts and Tehani Wessely for "Reviewing New Who" series, in A Conversational Life; and Alexandra Pierce and Tehani Wessely, for reviews of Vorkosigan Saga, in Randomly Yours, Alex. If you're eligible to vote for the Ditmars and the not-a-Ditmar Atheling - if, for example, you're a member of this year's Natcon, Continuum 8, to be held in Melbourne in a few weeks (!!!), here's an easy link for voting for your favourite Short Story, Novel and all the rest: http://ditmars.sf.org.au/voting/index.html.

And here for your delectation, below the three suggestive asterisks, is a copy of Russell's review from last September, when we were about to head off for the World Fantasy Con in lovely San Diego (a trip enlivened immeasurably by the Qantas strike/lockout).

Currently reading: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

I've just finished reading this huge, generous, intimidating book, which had been sitting on a high shelf to my right, glowering at me, for many, many months. When I opened it, several days ago, I knew very little about Jonathan and Mr Norrell, except for its impressive record of major awards (including a Hugo Award and a World Fantasy Award) and nominations (including appearances on the Booker Prize long list and the Whitbread Award shortlist). I'll now go and read some of what others have said, but meanwhile here are a few first impressions of my own ... made as spoiler-free as possible for those of you who have not read the book but would like to do so.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is set in Europe, mainly England, during a period that is wonderfully familiar to most readers of literary fiction: the first decades of the nineteenth century. Much of the action relates to the war against Napoleon (who knew that magic had such a large role in his downfall?), and the social setting resembles that of a Jane Austen novel. Indeed, many of the book's incidents could be fitted quite seamlessly into one of Austen's narratives. There are also references to the Romantic poets - well, especially Lord Byron, who appears as a minor character. Susanna Clarke also apes the prose style of Jane Austen to an extent, with a similar knowingness and suggestion of detachment.

For most of us - most lovers of English literature - few historical settings are more comfortable than this, which eases the author's task in creating a plausible, detailed, lived-in world where her characters may love, puzzle, strive, and compete with each other for power and glory.

Strive and compete they do. The main characters - the eponymous Jonathan Strange and his tutor, Gilbert Norrell - are magicians, set on reviving the practical use of magic in Britain. As the action begins, we learn that magic has declined in recent centuries and is now studied only in a theoretical and historical way. Apart from Mr Norrell, who soon makes his presence felt, magicians are now more like historians or literary scholars, with no pretensions of commanding supernatural agencies or forces. This changes, as Mr Norrell sets about reviving the practice of magic, though he is an obsessive, fastidious, nervous (not to mention sometimes callous) control freak of a man who wants to do this only on his own narrow terms. He is determined to keep the art of magic to himself as far as possible, and to channel its future development within what he considers safe and acceptable boundaries.

Though Mr Norrell soon gains political influence, things go wrong when he resurrects the dead wife of a benefactor - not understanding the price that he accepts, or foreseeing the misery that he will cause her. When he takes on a brilliant, headstrong pupil, Jonathan Strange, the two of them soon come into philosophical and actual conflict. Meanwhile, there are greater powers at work in the world, operating to undo the happiness of them both.

Despite its enormous length (over 1000 large-format pages), Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell never flags. Somehow the author manages to produce new plot twists every chapter or so, sustaining surprise and suspense to the end (though the ending itself is perhaps a bit soft and whimpery after so much that has gone before). The sense of generosity and solidity is maintained by its aping a form of old-fashioned and over-fussy scholarly biography, complete with frequent footnotes, some of them very long (these typically tell their own diverting stories, peripheral or tangential to the main narrative). Thus, the novel is itself presented as work of theoretical magic, as that is understood within the diegesis; it constructs a history of English magic over the decade or so of the main story, while embedding this in a more elaborate history that covers centuries.

The two main characters appear suitably larger than life, yet also flawed, complex, rather destructive, at times, of themselves and others, and in some ways all-too-recognisable from ordinary experience. The less important characters - some of whom actually become very important indeed as the narrative expands and gels - appear rounded and sympathetic, as they get caught up in magical perils and complicated schemes. Even the small cast of truly villainous men and other beings who plague the rest, bringing trouble and chaos, appear vivid and plausible enough, if not exactly likeable.

For maximum reading pleasure you need to be open to fantasy narratives and preferably familiar with the historical setting, though the latter is not strictly necessary - no particular demands are made on readers' historical knowledge, and what needs to be explained gets covered concisely and effectively.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is pure entertainment, though perhaps with a certain vision of human nature (gentle and compassionate, yet, I think, a little cynical). It is not didactic and does not attempt to be life-changing. No one's values will be transformed, but the book is certainly amusing as well as slyly perceptive. If this sounds like what you want in a novel, go ahead and give it a try. I totally enjoyed it, and am glad I set aside a bit of time for it, at last.

And it need no longer glower at me from its shelf, demanding my attention - that's a relief.

-Russell Blackford

Meet a dragon!

So, the May issue of Orbit (the edition of the wonderful NSW School Magazine for 10-11 year olds) has gorgeous pictures of a magical circus on the cover, and the headline, "Meet a dragon!" And I didn't twig that it was MY magical circus story until I read the lovely note from the editor that was in the envelope.

I particularly like the little cartoon of two chickens at the end, with one saying to the other, "I feel like this is the beginning of the most amazing book. I wish there were ten more chapters." [Edit: the cartoon is at the end of the story in the mag, not on the covering note. As the esteemed Thoraiya Dyer says, "That's EVEN BETTER!"]

And, yes, I'm writing that book ;)

Advice Needed, all you keen gardeners

So, we got back from the US yesterday. The garden looks pretty good (indeed, lush), but the ^%$# ants have been farming aphids on the lovely strong baby soybean plants that I'm growing for edamame. The top leaves are all sucked-dry and pale. Does anyone know what I can safely spray on beans to control aphids? I'd use white oil on roses, but not sure if the beans can cope with it. There are far too many to squish by hand, which is my usual low-toxicity method.

I've picked a 3kg (7 pound) monster veggie, which I *HOPE* is an odd throwback zucchini, not an unripe selfseeded watermelon, which would be a terrible shame. It's zucchini-shaped, but all the seeds I planted were the lovely pale sweet ones usually called Lebanese Zucchini here. This is mottled dark green all over. No dark-and-light-green striping, as on most watermelon. (The little Sugar Baby watermelon that was ripening when we left has been hollowed out, doubtless by hungry cockatoos of parakeets or other brightly-coloured fruit-loving native birds.) I'll post a photo when I'm more compos mentis.

Jason and Medea and Jason

My Jason-and-Medea story, "The Sacrifice", is in the latest Aurealis (47, now up on Smashwords). Can it be a coincidence that it shares the issue with a story by the lovely Jason Nahrung?

Just for the record, "The Sacrifice" is a retelling, but it's not JUST a retelling. The whole sacrifice idea in it is mine, all mine, mine, I tell you. Modern people don't tend to take Medea seriously either as a Bronze Age priestess of Hekate or as a powerful sorceress, but the ancient Greeks certainly did, and found her quite scary. I hope that they would like what I did with her.

I just found out, totally by accident, that my cat poem "Their Quantum Toy" - which is on the back cover of the new Star*Line - is one of editor Marge Simon's three Editor's Choices from the issue. Yay!
     This is not merely a rather thrilling honour (especially nice on a day when I've already been told I've sold my eighth story to the NSW School Magazine); it's also terribly useful, because anyone who is interested can click through the link in the TOC and read it there (free). Apparently it will be archived there on the Science Fiction Poetry Association site for the duration, as my grandparents would have said.  "Their Quantum Toy" is last in the TOC (because it's on the back cover), so you'll have to scroll to the bottom of the page to find the link. And here's the page: http://www.sfpoetry.com/sl/issues/starline35.1.html.

"Furry Little Demon"

I'm exceedingly happy that my cat-in-ancient-Athens story, "Furry Little Demon", has been accepted by the wonderful School Magazine.

Catlovers amongst you, used to middle-of-the-night yowling and bringing in of inappropriate prey, will not be surprised by the title.

Apparently the cats of the era were small, sweet, striped and spotted - much like this adorable mosaic beastie:

For Hadley Rille Books' sixth birthday, publisher extraordinaire Eric Reynolds is doing some amazing special offers. For a few days, the Kindle version of The Priestess and the Slave (and many other fine HRB titles) is ridiculously cheap remarkably inexpensive at only 99c on Amazon, here
And here's a photo of Eric holding up a copy:

Selected San Diego WFC Highlights

1. The launch of the lovely Delia Sherman's The Freedom Maze, where I was lined up behind Patricia McKillip to buy a copy from Ellen Kushner. How cool is that?
2. The walrus at SeaWorld. Absolutely gorgeous. Huge, yellowish and with a broom for a face. And did I mention huge?
3. The pubcrawl organised by Jetse de Vries and Jim Minz. We though there would be thousands of people, but it turned out to be a very select group. (Hi, Griffin! Hi, Rob!) Russ and I dropped out after the first two bars, given our degree of jetlag, but I managed to sample a few interesting ciders, and Russ had some local San Diego beers. The group miraculously stumbled on the Space Exploration Society shop (how cool is that?), where we bought some very fetching T-shirts.
4. The Air and Space Museum. (My Dad would happily live there, I suspect, if he ever got to see it. Mum, not so much.)
5. Russ was on a panel about villains with Len Wein. How cool is that?
6. At the Mass Signing, we sat on a small side-shoot of the Hadley Rille Books table, very close to many lovely Hadley Rille Books authors. The delightful Alison Goodman sat with us and signed some books and many huge posters of her new triumph Eona. The wonderful Elisabeth Malartre and Gregory Benford also sat with us and offered helpful suggestions for alleviating my deeply tedious migraine. The photo below was taken, we all think, bu Alison Goodman. Unfortunately, Gregory and Elisabeth aren't in it, but Eric Reynolds appears in the back row thanks to a primitive version of photoshoppy stuff. (Yes, Heather's holding up the photo.)
7. Everything else.

Yay! Year's Best Aussie Fantasy and Horror!

The nice parcel lady just brought a lovely fresh new copy of the Ticonderoga Year's Best Australian Fantasy and Horror 2010 (edited by the lovely Talie Helene and Liz  Grzyb) to my door. Not only does it have my poem "Mirror" in it (originally printed in the Midnight Echo edited by the delightful Lee Battersby) as the ONLY POEM, but it also has my story "Adam" (printed in Kaleidotrope #9) in the Recommended Reading List. (The wonderful Ellen Datlow also recommeded it in her own online list.) 
     And, yes, there are MANY MANY EXCELLENT STORIES by all sorts of wonderful writers, including too many of my friends to mention individually - but I have to mention my very dear friend Janeen Webb, and her story "Manifest Destiny", which I thought was the outstanding story in Gillian's anthology Baggage.