Saturday, 23 January 2010

And they all lived hap ... aargh!

Don’t you just hate it when you’re in the middle of an interesting dream and someone wakes you up? And then you never get to find out what happens???

This morning I was blissfully asleep, dreaming I was browsing in a bookshop. I found this gorgeous picture book about a little black chicken. He was drawn very simply, just a little egg-shaped blob with stumpy wings and two dots for eyes, but really cute.

Every day all the chickens gathered in a clearing in the woods to see Mr Fox’s magic show. Every day Mr Fox made one of the chickens magically disappear, which the other chickens thought was cool, but our little black hero was getting suspicious. So he decided to run Mr Fox out of town.

His plan was to scare Mr Fox away, so he gathered up all the plastic bottles and styrofoam hamburger boxes the chickens left littering the clearing after the show every day. He turned all this litter into styrofoam chickens and arranged them in the trees of the clearing. There was a great illustration of all these ghostly white styrofoam chickens perched in the trees at night, hundreds of them staring accusingly out of the dark.

The little black chicken climbed into the trees too and began a ghostly squawking, pretending to be the voice of all the dead chickens, so when Mr Fox came out to see what was going on he’d be terrified, thinking the ghosts of all his victims were after him.

Unfortunately Mr Fox wasn’t taken in. Even though it was night time, the moon was out and it was easy to spot one black chicken among all the white ones. It was as Mr Fox stared hungrily up at him that our hero realised he was now stuck in this tree with no escape and maybe this hadn’t been such a good idea after all.

And then …

“Brring brring, brring brring.”

No, I am not attempting to render the sound of a phone ringing. Those are the actual words that were spoken into my sleeping ear.

Torn from my little black chicken story, I opened my eyes to find Demon Duck kneeling on my bed, her mouth next to my ear.

“Brring brring,” she said. “I’m your alarm clock. It’s 7:26. Time to get up!”

Aaaargh!! Now I'm left with a whole bunch of unanswered questions. Does the little black chicken make it?? Does Mr Fox get his comeuppance??

And why on earth am I dreaming about styrofoam chickens???

Monday, 18 January 2010

Health by stealth

If I had been so deluded as to make a New Year’s resolution to get fit and lose weight – I only say if, mind you, since I certainly wasn’t – if I had been so foolishly optimistic about my own intestinal fortitude, then I might have been busy exercising and setting targets and denying myself peppermint chocolate. And really, what’s life without peppermint chocolate?

Since I am not so deluded, I have instead been sneaking up on myself. Yes, it’s my new plan – better health by stealth. I think I should trademark that – Health by Stealth™! The new path to a better you! No more weighing yourself, or feeling guilty and miserable when you eat that slice of cake, or miss a day of exercise because it’s too hot/too cold/the planets are in the wrong alignment. Never go near a gym! Perfect for people who don’t like exercise!

What is this wonderful plan? I hear you cry. And why are you not already flogging it on late-night TV?

It's fiendishly simple. Pretend to everyone, but especially to yourself, that you are not trying to get fit or lose any weight. You see? Am I not cunning?? No pressure. No angst. If I happen to go for a few more walks than normal, well, so what? I like walking. The fact that it may have some effect on my health and/or weight is neither here nor there. If I keep myself so busy I don’t have time to stop and snack, it doesn’t mean I’m trying to lose weight. I just have lots of things to do. And if I’m making sure to eat enough fruit and yoghurt, well, I’m just trying to look after myself. The fact that it makes me too full to fit in the chocolate is just a side effect.

And no, I’m not going to weigh myself. I’ll know if any of these things I’m sort of accidentally doing behind my own back are having any effect when my clothes start to feel loose.

But how does this work if you don’t like exercise? I hear you cry.

I’m glad you asked that question! I don’t like exercise that’s boring and repetitive. Especially if it hurts as well. So gyms just don’t work for me. All that squatting and pumping and feeling the burn. I like walking because there are always nice gardens to admire and people to say hello to, or you can just zone out and think about writing. I like dancing too, though that’s a little harder to organise. I need fun things I can do at home. Hula hooping is a good one, because it works up a sweat plus it keeps me interested as I try to learn new tricks. Check out some of the amazing things people can do with hoops here.

I’ve never been a runner because I’m just not fit enough. I can barely jog for a minute before my chest explodes and I have to stop. But running has the same advantages that walking does, of being outside, nice things to look at, etc, and I do like a challenge, sooo …

I found this cool site, Couch to 5k. That’s me: couch potato extraordinaire. It claims that even slobs like me who can’t run can work their way up to a 5km run using this program.

Now obviously I can’t commit to that, because then I’d have a fitness goal, and angst and disappointment and self-loathing blah blah blah. So if anybody asks – especially me! – I’m certainly not doing this. But I might just happen to do a little running while I’m out walking, and if it happens to follow the same pattern as the program mentioned on Couch to 5k, well, gosh! What a coincidence.

And if I was trying to lose weight, I’d probably like some encouragement, some feeling of community. I could go and read a site like Five Full Plates, where five very funny ladies are documenting their weight-loss challenge. But since I’m not, I just read it for the laughs.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Favourite books of 2009

I read 54 new books in 2009. New to me, that is, not necessarily new in 2009, though many of them were. Quite a few old favourites got reread too.

I enjoyed most of them – the ones I don’t enjoy tend not to get finished – but here are a few of my particular favourites in case you’re looking for something new to read.

I took the plunge into a new field this year and started reading paranormals. The Carnivore did too, and he’s actually read more of them than I have, so it’s not true that these kind of books only interest women. One series we both enjoyed was Carrie Vaughn's Kitty series, which starts with Kitty and the Midnight Hour. Kitty is a late-night DJ whose talkback show centres on the supernatural, a topic she’s well qualified to discuss, since she’s a werewolf. Each book in the series is a stand-alone adventure in Kitty’s complicated life but they also show interesting developments in characters and themes over the series. Lots of fun to read.

I read a lot of Young Adult this year. This stuff is not just for kids! I’ve read so many great YA books this year I couldn’t pick a favourite.

The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness, for instance, has the most awesome first line:

“The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say.”

How could you resist reading on after that? The premise is fascinating too. Todd lives in a world where men are afflicted by “the Noise” – they broadcast their thoughts constantly and uncontrollably, so there’s no peace or privacy anywhere. There are also no women, since they were all killed off by the germ that caused the Noise. At least, that’s what Todd has been brought up to believe. But just shy of the birthday that marks him officially as a man, he discovers everything he’s been told is a lie – and then the killing starts.

A warning though – it has a shameless cliffhanger ending, so you might want to wait till you get your hands on the next books in the trilogy if that bothers you.

World Shaker by Richard Harland is a YA with a completely different feel, though it too deals with a young man’s discovery that his whole world is a lie. Col’s privileged life aboard the massive rolling city World Shaker is very British and proper. Think cups of tea and cravats. Col’s grandfather is the Supreme Commander of the juggernaut, and Col takes his place at the top of the food chain for granted until the night an escaped Filthy bursts into his room. She begs him to hide her from those who would torture her and change her into one of the zombie-like Menials.

Col is both fascinated and repelled; he has never in his sheltered life seen a Filthy or the frightening Below where they work. He hides her in spite of his certainty that Upper Decks people would never stoop to torture, but of course he’s wrong, and his entanglement with the Filthy girl opens his eyes to the truth of his privileged world and the rottenness at its core.

The worldbuilding is phenomenal, with the marvellous World Shaker itself, the Victorian culture, even the way they speak and think very convincing.

Another culture I love to visit in fantasy novels is the Asian-inspired one, and Alison Goodman’s The Two Pearls of Wisdom is a fine example (also published in other countries as Eon: Dragoneye Reborn, Eon: Rise of the Dragoneye or just plain Eon). I’ve actually read this one twice this year, having just reread it this week, and it’s well worth a second visit.

Eon is struggling to complete the harsh training necessary to become a Dragoneye, one of the lords who communicate with the powerful spirit dragons that protect the realm. Struggling because he’s a cripple, but also because he is actually a she – a secret that would prove fatal if anyone should discover the imposture. But when the Mirror Dragon returns after an absence of 500 years and chooses Eon as its Dragoneye, Eon is suddenly thrust into the centre of a desperate struggle for the emperor’s throne, and the secret of her gender is no longer the most dangerous secret she has to hide.

Vivid characters in this one and interesting themes of loyalty, honour and identity and how gender impacts on them.

And for more on themes of identity, how about an amnesia book or two? I’ve read quite a few books where the main character has total amnesia and is trying to rediscover the truth about themselves – it seems to happen in fiction a lot more than it does in real life, thank goodness. It’s a storyline that never gets old for me. It’s like the ultimate detective story.

The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E Pearson is a YA science fiction take on the theme. The mystery at the core of Jenna’s identity caught me completely by surprise and was very cool.

What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty is a mainstream adult novel asking the same question: who am I really? When Alice wakes up in hospital after an accident at the gym she’s forgotten the last ten years of her life. As far as she’s concerned, she’s happily married to the love of her life and expecting her first child. It’s a bit of a shock, therefore, to find she has three children and is in the process of divorcing her husband. What went wrong? And what aren’t people telling her about the best friend she doesn’t remember?

This is Liane Moriarty’s third book and I’ve enjoyed them all. They’re layered with good characters and subplots. They may only deal with the small dramas of a woman’s life, but they do it in a big way, addressing universal themes of love and loss.

Liane is a Sydney girl, too, and her books are set in Australia, which is a nice touch for us Aussies, when so many books we read are set in America. I used to work at the same company Liane did, though our paths never really crossed. It gives me a special interest in her career – but, trust me, her books are worth your time no matter where you live.

A couple of other books I loved last year that also weren’t fantasy (see, I do occasionally branch out!), were gods in Alabama by Joshilyn Jackson and, for sheer good fun, Agnes and the Hitman by Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer.

I’ve read three of Joshilyn Jackson’s books and loved them all. They’re all set in the deep South of the US, full of marvellously colourful characters living in dysfunctional families. Her writing is beautiful, insightful and witty. Incidentally, she also writes just about the funniest blog on the internet, Faster than Kudzu.

In gods, Arlene hasn’t been home to Alabama in ten years. She promised God she’d never go back – just as long as he kept his side of the deal and made sure no one ever found the corpse of the guy she killed. Now someone’s looking for him, which forces her to go back and face the past, her African American boyfriend in tow. And that’s not going to go down well with the family.

Agnes and the Hitman is fun from start to finish, the literary equivalent of eating a whole box of chocolates at once, only without the feeling-sick-and-guilty-afterwards part. Agnes, a feisty chef, is catering the wedding from hell in her own dilapidated Southern mansion. If that’s not bad enough, men keep appearing in her kitchen trying to kill her. Luckily one of these strangers turns out to be Shane. He’s a hitman too, but he’s on her side, sent to protect her by a shady uncle. Mayhem and romance ensues.

Glenda Larke’s The Last Stormlord I already told you about here, but it remains my favourite adult fantasy of the year. Amazing worldbuilding – a real treat for fantasy lovers.

The Margarets by Sheri S Tepper made my brain hurt, but in a good way. I had to work hard for this one. It’s complex but immensely rewarding science fiction. At various parts of her life, different aspects of Margaret’s personality split off and disperse throughout the galaxy, taking on different names and living different lives. One is a queen, one a healer, one a slave. One is even a man. Their stories intertwine throughout the book until the finale, when all the different Margarets must come together again to save mankind.

Putting it so baldly doesn’t do the story justice at all. It’s richly imagined and detailed, and each of the seven stories would make a good book just on its own. Deep and surprising.

I didn’t read much science fiction, but another of my favourites was sf too – Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon. I’ve only read her military sf before, so this one was a surprise. It is a deeply moving exploration of the questions: Is autism a disease that should be cured? And if you were offered the possibility of a “cure”, should you take it, knowing that, though you might be “normal” afterwards, you might lose the very things that made you “you”?

Lou, a man with high-functioning autism, faces these questions and tells his story in his own voice. You feel as if you’re really inside his head, seeing the world with all its frustrations and difficulties the way he sees it. And yet you can also see that the life he has is a good one, and the often astonishing capabilities autism brings him are not things to be thrown away lightly.

It’s an amazing insight into the mind and life of an autistic person. I can’t help thinking that this book could have been a bestseller like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, another book with an autistic narrator, if it hadn’t been marketed as sf. The only science fiction component of it is that a cure is available for autism. Everything else is perfectly mainstream. Yet other books with more sf in them, like The Time Traveller’s Wife, get marketed as mainstream and make a killing. The Speed of Dark deserves a much wider audience than it has. Hell, it deserves to win literary awards. Even if you never read sf, you should read this book. It will blow you away.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Dinnertime jackpot

One look at Baby Duck’s stick-thin body will tell you he’s not a big eater. Sparrows have bigger appetites. A common scenario at our place involves everyone sitting around for half an hour after we’ve finished eating, watching him endlessly chew his food.

So if he is ever not the last person to finish a meal it’s a cause for celebration. And if I’ve really hit the dinnertime jackpot it’ll be because I’ve managed to find a recipe the whole family enjoys and will eat without complaining or negotiating which disgusting bits they can leave.

The dinnertime jackpot is a moving target. You might think that by now I would have a good repertoire of meals that all the ducklings will eat and enjoy without involving any trips to MacDonalds. Ah, Grasshopper, your innocence of the ways of children is amusing.

Just because they like something this week doesn’t mean they will still like it next week. Demon Duck’s list of fruit she will eat is rapidly narrowing till soon she’ll be living on air. We’re always saying to her “Since when have you not liked mandarines/peaches/watermelon etc? You used to love it.”

So I’m crossing my fingers that tonight’s universal approbation for curried chicken salad continues for at least a few more weeks. Baby Duck finished before I did and proudly displayed a very clean plate.

“You must have liked it,” I said.

“I didn’t like it,” he said. “I loved it!”

Then he came over to give me a somewhat greasy kiss from all that yummy barbecued chicken and added, “Just like I love you for making such a good dinner.”

Yep – that’s the jackpot all right.