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22 January 2012

published by Whortleberry Press, January 2012. trade-paperback. Reviewed by Steve Johnson.

This is a nice little book, well presented, attractive cover, competently edited, and with mostly well-chosen stories. A couple were weak, notably The Bouquet, which was more a slice-of-life than a real story (remember beginning, middle, end, actual plot?) slightly clumsy, and rather too twee for my taste. Reading this anthology and noting which stories Lyn liked was interesting. My own favorites had to be Child-Trim and Jenny, both went in a direction not immediately obvious, and with Child-Trim I really liked the way the author used emails to carry the story. Jenny too was clever, nicely rounded ending of exactly the right length, and satisfying to this reader.
After them I enjoyed Lyn’s story and one by another kiwi, (Kiss the Frog) as well as The Love of Jacob Bleek, and My Teddi – the Oedipus influence there was subtle but clear and just sufficient to make the story. I enjoyed this anthology enough to go to Lyn’s “author copy” shelves and borrow several more Whortleberry anthologies to read. I find that Lyn’s taste and mine are almost opposite, she preferred the stories by Alyson Cresswell, Janett Grady, Ken Staley, Elizabeth Creith, and Sherry Chancellor, but as they say, that’s what makes horse races.
And a final note. I found this anthology proficiently bound, presented, and well laid out. However I saw a letter in Whortleberry Forum that said otherwise, based on the contributor receiving his print copy in poor condition and apparently claiming that the editor had chosen to send a spoiled one. Have his dealings with the editor led him to believe she’s an idiot, and a miser who, rather than waste a ruined copy, has insultingly sent it to a contributor?
Writers don’t return to a venue where they’re so treated, and no sensible editor would give them that impression. Just as no editor would continue to accept a writer who has shown his open disbelief in the editor’s professionalism. It’s always better to inquire privately about such events and accept a logical explanation. This very silly email will hurt the writer far more since most contributors, knowing the editor’s professional integrity, will accept her version of events, and I would expect other editors who see it, or who are told about it, to be reluctant to draw upon themselves similar personal attacks.

A week that was pleasant enough for this writer. One story rejected – it appeared to be more a case of they didn’t like my style (because they liked the story) but it was clear that if I rewrote the work and returned it they’d have wanted it nearly halved, and written in a leaner, more basic format, which was exactly what I hadn’t wanted to write. Not that I’m bothered. A story of this type can take a dozen submissions before I find an editor who likes the work as it is. But, as I’ve said to new writers who protest this sort of rejection, “he who pays the piper calls the tune.” Your solution is to sell it elsewhere, not to sit around whining about it.
To balance that I had two acceptances on first submission. One for a Valentine’s anthology next year and another for a mystery anthology also for 2013. The editor loved both works. Now that’s the sort of response I really enjoy.

Yes, it’s the geese again. Last week I walked past their water trough and noticed to my surprise that it was only half full. That was peculiar, it’s been doing little but rain several days each week for months, and the down-pipe from the woodshed roof feeds directly into their trough. I investigated, to find that the ballcock connector was missing. That was… ah, yes, well, I could guess what had happened and drat that gander! Last time I cleaned out the trough I returned it to its position reversed so that the connector was at the front. I knew what had gone on after that. Stroppy the gander is a fiddler, if there is anything at all to fiddle about with he does that, and as his beak is powerful, and he’s relentless, at some stage he has managed to detach the darned connector and, of course, that left a hole through which the trough had half-emptied from then on. Next time I go into town I’ll either have to buy a new connector or before that I’ll have to think up a way to fill in the hole, (and then reverse the trough again so that the connector is at the back where he can’t find it.) Until I acquired geese about 23 years ago I had no idea just how many things they could do with their beaks, but I’ve been learning ever since…

15 January 2012

I’m getting two blog posts for the price of one with this entry. My latest author copy arrived in mid-January. A very nicely presented copy of Strange Valentine, the newest anthology from Whortleberry Press, and in which I have a short story. The anthology has a good lineup of work, amongst which I was pleased to see a story by a friend of mine. We’re an “incestuous” bunch in New Zealand. She and I have appeared in the same anthology several times, and this year she is publishing a book of mine via her non-fiction press. I’ve also submitted to a number of markets she’s emailed me. But it’s pleasant crossing each other like that, it gives you the feeling that you aren’t writing alone – and if I ever did feel that way, the steady trickle of writers visiting Farside would change my mind. But I felt that since I was in the book it might be a good idea to ask a friend to review the anthology instead. So in the reviews section in a week or so you’ll find a review of Strange Valentines. Steve’s opinions differ from mine, which makes it interesting to read and see how someone else felt about my work and some of the stories I liked. Happy reading.

I was talking with a friend a while back and she mentioned how easy it was to mishear something. (That’s true, for years and years I misheard the weather forecast as “Rogue Snowfall Warnings’. It was about twenty years before I realized that what they were telling you about was actually “road snowfall warning”.) But misinterpretations too are are easy.
I managed one many years ago that could have led to unfortunate consequences. At the time I had a motorbike and was a blood donor. I have ABrh+ and had just had that checked, to find out that the Blood Service was keen to have me come in and donate every 12 weeks since that group isn’t common, but as it’s used for special transfusions it was very much wanted. So I began. I worked for the post office at the time too, and the easiest way of doing things was to tell my boss that I’d be in half an hour late, go to donate first, and then tear off to work on my motorcycle.
Each time I donated I’d be fed a cup of tea and a scone, and solemnly warned – as I departed the building – “Don’t climb ladders and wave your arms about.” I’d get my motorbike and head off to work. And for several years as I rode away I wondered, why on earth did they think that I would climb a ladder and wave my arms about? I mean, you might possibly climb a ladder, but why would you then stand on the top rung acting like a demented windmill? Who had they known amongst their donors who did that? Did they fall off so that now they warned everyone not to do it?
In fact it wasn’t until a decade later when I could no longer donate blood (I’d developed a dangerous vitamin deficiency) that I was chatting to a friend who still gave blood, mentioned this baffling order and he fell about laughing.
“You daft hap’eth. They meant don’t climb ladders or make a lot of arm movements. Some donors get dizzy after they give blood, and using an arm a lot right after that can start it bleeding from the site again.”
“Oh,” I said cheerfully. “Well, I didn’t climb ladders or use my arm too much so it was okay.”
“No,” Johnny said with awful sarcasm. “You just got on a motorbike and zipped though central city traffic in rush hour. It’s a wonder you’re still around to tell the tale.”
In which he was probably right, but then I’ve always been lucky – either that or my guardian angle works a lot of overtime.

The geese’s gosling got into trouble. I’d been out in the morning checking what Fawn Girl was doing in the hen house, (she’s gone broody again on a clutch of eggs – not all hers – as I discovered.) I came back and left the gate open, the geese all squeezed under the gate that’s before that one, found they could now go further – and promptly did. I went out that afternoon to call the feathered gang in for dinner, gave the usual yodeling calls and a dozen hens, chicks, and a rooster, all came tearing in from different directions. No geese. Hmmm. I guessed at once where they were, walked around the corner so that they saw me, got their attention, called again, and three geese, one gander (named Stroppy because he is) and the gosling all charged towards me. I retreated, tossed food in the usual place and then discovered that someone was stuck. The adults had all gone around the gate, Junior had gone in a straight line and was now in a corner, trying to get to his family through narrow bars and finding that he’d grown.
(Goslings do. Mine are partly Sebastopol, goslings are close to adult size in three months, and the adults are large geese. Junior’s doubled in size in the past two weeks and no longer fitted between the bars as he had a couple of times before. He was having acute separation anxiety and his father was having a meltdown.)
I went behind the gate, shut it after me – I know how paternal the gander is – and scooped up Junior who screamed as if I was dismembering him. His father immediately went ballistic, bouncing off the fence dividing us, shrieking abuse (which I definitely will not translate) stuck his beak through the bars, hissed like an exasperated cobra, and made – threats! I then realized that Stroppy was about to climb right over the fence and take his warfare to a whole new level. I can handle him normally, but not when I have my hands full of frantic gosling. I dropped Junior over the fence very smartly, Stroppy bounced off the barrier once more, making bloodcurdling promises about what he’d do if I laid hands on his baby again, and took the whole family off up the lawn. I sighed. Goslings are idiots, that wasn’t the first time I’ve had to assist one, and it won’t be the last, and sooner or later I’ll be too slow and that gander will get his beak into me. Oh, well, life as a farmer.

13 January 2012

paperback, published Arrow Books in 2004. Reviewed by Lyn McConchie.

Yes, I recently purchased this book full-price, but that was for a reason. Three months earlier I raided one of our charity shops and discovered two Lyndon Stacy softcover (tradepaperback) books for 50c each. At that price how can you lose? I bought both books, took them home, spent a very happy evening reading until all hours – and discovered another writer who can write convincingly about the world of horses.
(Something that’s infuriated me (in fantasies) before now. It’s amazing how often it’s clear that the author has read a book and assumed that s/he now knows all about riding and horses. S/he doesn’t! I’ve seen books in which a grass-fed horse is ridden for day after twelve-hour day without a break, in which a horse is galloped for hours and comes up fresh as a daisy after a half an hour rest. One in which a small light woman riding barebacked at a full gallop, scoops a good-sized adult male onto her 16-hand stallion without even slowing. Oh please… and it annoys me.)
Lyndon Stacy doesn’t fall into any of the obvious traps, and manages to tell a very good mystery at the same time. I really liked the two I bought so much that I promptly phoned Barbara’s Books up in Auckland (a wonderful shop with even more wonderful owners) and asked for two more Lyndon Stacys. They arrived over Christmas and I read them both. She does tend to go in for tomes, Deadfall is close to 500 pages, and while I felt that perhaps a small amount of judicious pruning might have been good – that’s me, I prefer books that are a little shorter – but this was still an excellent example of the sub-genre of “horse mysteries.”
Most notable in this sub-genre is of course, Dick Francis and now his son Felix, there’s also John Francombe, John Welcome, and a handful of others. The interesting thing about Stacy being that while most of the other writers came to writing from being professional riders, this author didn’t, and it hasn’s affected her ability to write most convincingly about racing, eventing, steeple-chasing or show-jumping, at all.
So, Deadfall. The story begins with Lincoln Tremayne arriving after dark at the place where he keeps his horse, to be run off the road by an unidentifiable vehicle traveling at high speed and with no regard for other road users as it leaves the property. Simmering with anger, he enters his stable to discover that it’s been burgled, a lot of expensive horse tack stolen, and, worse still the young daughter of the owner is lying unconscious, having been struck down by the thieves. Much excitement ensues. Frantic parents, concerned older sister, ambulance, and suspicious police who’d like to know just when Tremayne actually arrived.
It isn’t the first time that stables have been plundered. Good quality horse gear is expensive, hard to identify, and easily re-sellable. (Something that probably applies in almost any country.) The question is – once Lincoln Tremayne starts digging – which assorted other incidents are related to the attack on Abby Hathaway, who is now in a coma in hospital with her recovery uncertain? And then Lincoln discovers that the replacement bridle-bit he has bought for his eventing horse, Noddy, is actually his own property, an item that was amongst those stolen when Abby was attacked.
It goes on from there, he’s attacked, threatened, attacked again, and threatened some more, throughout most of which events he’s also completed bewildered. He doesn’t think he’d been doing anything to bring all this down on him, so why it is happening? There is a very nice family background, both of his and of the Hathaways, side excursions into the dog-racing world, and that of Stately Homes open to the public. The author serves up a good mystery, involving characters, and backgrounds with interesting sidelights. All four books thus far have gone onto my “permanent shelves section”, I’m expecting another of her “horse mysteries” and I’m also considering other books by the writer which are not set so solidly in this “horse” sub-genre, because she can write.

5 January 2012

No, not the weather, my Ocicat. And right now he is not pleased with me. Yesterday I fired up the computer to write a quick letter – remembered around 11am that before Christmas I’d been invited to submit a story to a new anthology edited by an old acquaintance, and checked the details. Hmmm, interesting. And that sparked a thought…and another…and…I found that I was unexpectedly writing a new short story. That would have been fine, except that Thunder hadn’t expected it either. He’d had an early breakfast, he’d like an early lunch – and I was writing, and when I do a cat must not interrupt under the feline/human writer treaty.
After a couple of hours I glanced at the clock, realized that I had to put the mail out for the rural delivery, saved to disk, and raced outside – where I was loudly petitioned by the feathered creatures. If I was outside, I should feed them. Now! With my mind still back in 1855 I hurled the hen’s pellets at the geese, the geese’s wheat at the hens, and shot back inside to continue writing. The mail car arrived at the gate an hour later and honked. Drat, that means they have something I may need to sign for. I scuttled out, collected a parcel of books…and went back to the story – dimly aware that Thunder had come and gone twice. (Good boy not hassling me.)
I finished around a quarter to five that evening, and as I filed the final version, “someone” appeared. I was eyed sternly. The sort of look that you give someone of whom you’re quite fond, and you’ve just discovered how badly they’ve disappointed you. I apologized, provided food, cuddles, fresh water, and three cat treats. I was forgiven – after a while.
However today I got the sheep in to be shorn and was then involved in acting as rouseabout for the shearer. I came back inside smelling of sheep, washed, and went to write letters. Once again, as my furred friend pointed out once I stopped three hours later, he’d been ignored. He may be out of luck there for a while. An editor friend has just made inquiries about another book. If we end up doing that, he’s going to have a lot more days in which I’m typing – and he’s having to wait for lunch or dinner. That’s just how it is when your human is a writer.

3 January 2012

The major newspaper published about an hour away from Farside keeps suggesting that local farmers could be in for a drought. This goes to show just how many micro-climates we have in New Zealand. A drought… it’s possible. But considering that the last three months here have seen the following precipitation – October 163 mls, November 96 mls, December 150 mls, and in the first few days of 2012, we’ve already had 32mls here. I’m not seeing a drought. In fact if that’s what they call a ‘drought’, heaven help us all if it rains.

John Christopher (real name Christopher Samuel Youd) was born in Lancashire on April 16th 1922. His surname is of Dutch Origin. Writing as John Christopher, the British author is best known for his SF (adult and YA) novels which have won a number of awards. For completists – Youd has written under his own name, and under the following additional pseudonyms: Stanley Winchester, Hilary Ford, William Godfrey, William Vine, Peter Graaf, Peter Nichols, and Anthony Rye.
To my mind the great strengths of Christopher’s work are his backgrounds and characters. At a time when quite a number of authors were producing ‘end of the world’ novels, Christopher managed to come up with fresh background angles, and characters that were far from perfect but very believable.
In The Death of Grass he begins with two small boys taken to spend time on their grandfather’s farm after a long family estrangement. The grandfather considers both and makes an arbitrary decision to leave his money and land to one of the children only – as the child who wants to farm and will be good at the work. The boy, David, does inherit and settles to a solitary life as a farmer at Blind Gill, an extremely isolated and closed-in farm which can be easily fortified. The other brother, John, becomes a Civil Engineer, marries, fathers a girl and a boy and who – crucial to the story – has a good friend, Roger, who works for the Government.
In China a catastrophe is developing as a virus attacks the rice crop, and attempts to kill the virus only result in it becoming far worse, mutating into a new form that now kills grass, wheat, rice and other similar species. In a year patches of it are appearing in England, and rationing begins. Roger then comes to John and his family to say that there is a Government plan to kill a major portion of the big-cities’ populations so that the remainder of the people might survive, and that if they get out of London immediately to avoid the bombers they may be able to reach David’s farm.
It requires the addition of two people, a gunsmith and his wife, to the party so that they will have weapons, and killing is required to get them out of the city and retrieve their children who are in boarding schools outside London. As they trek across the country towards David and sanctuary at Blind Gill (acquiring hangers-on as they go) they realize that with civilization failing they must, when necessary, cast off their own civilized behaviour in order to survive. They reach the farm, find that the expected welcome is not there, and they have a brutal choice. To force entry, or leave and die.
This book has a number of characters, all diverse, and each fully-rounded as a person. In places it was savage or as savage as a book published in 1956 was permitted to be. And while not graphic, Christopher certainly managed to make such events as theft, murder, rape, (including that of a child,) and the characters’ choice of abandoning children to die, clear to a reader.
I was caught through the book by the characters’ growth and changes, and by the alterations in character as those who had been decent men and women were worn down to elemental animals fighting to live and protect their families. The author also holds up the suggested shape of the future for those who survive, and I found that shape was believable, even likely. This book is a fine piece of writing and I re-read it regularly.
The World in Winter was another solid book. And it did what none of the others in the sub-genre had done, (or none that I know of) it had the refugees from much of Europe and Britain fleeing to Africa, with some excellent and unpleasantly clear-eyed chapters on what it would be like to be despised refugees in the countries there. Towards the end of this book a group of Nigerian soldiers and a TV producer, with the main white character, are on an expedition back to England, and detour (after mechanical problems with their hovercraft) to one of the Channel islands. (I have often wondered if this chapter was not the spark behind Christopher’s book written three years later, A Wrinkle in the Skin.)
In that book – A Wrinkle in the Skin – a massive earthquake occurs which produces dry land between Britain and France, and leaves the Channel islands high and dry. Most of the population are killed in their homes, and while never specifically covered, the definite impression is made that this quake has ben worldwide and has wrecked the whole of civilization.
However the story is about one man, the boy he rescues, and finally several small groups and single people they encounter. By restricting most of the events to small numbers and a comparatively small area, Christopher makes the book intimate, and while you aren’t always certain that you like the main character, Matthew Cotter, you do understand him.
This ability to show you a person, his/her backgrounds and motivations, was one of the author’s great strengths, and he tends too, to take a theme angle that isn’t what you expected. I recommend in particular The Death of Grass, and A Wrinkle in the Skin.

Bibliography

The 21st Century (1954) (short story collection)
The Year of the Comet (US title Planet in Peril, 1955)
The Death of Grass (1956), Michael Joseph (UK) US title – No Blade of Grass (1957), Simon & Schuster (US)
The Caves of Night (1958)
A Scent of White Poppies (1959)
The Long Voyage (US title The White Voyage, 1960)
The World in Winter (US title The Long Winter, 1962)
Cloud on Silver (US title Sweeney’s Island, 1964)
The Possessors (1964)
A Wrinkle in the Skin (US title The Ragged Edge, 1965)
The Little People (1966)
The Tripods trilogy (expanded to quatrology, 1988)
The White Mountains (1967) Macmillan (US); Hamish Hamilton (UK)
35th anniversary edition, with revised text and preface by author, Simon & Schuster, ISBN 9780689855047 (2003)
The City of Gold and Lead (1967) Macmillan (US); Hamish Hamilton (UK)
The Pool of Fire (1968) Macmillan (US); Hamish Hamilton (UK)
When the Tripods Came (prequel) (1988)
Pendulum (1968)
The Lotus Caves (1969) Macmillan (US); Hamish Hamilton (UK) ISBN 0-241-01729-7
The Guardians (1970)
The Sword of the Spirits trilogy
The Prince In Waiting (1970)
Beyond the Burning Lands (1971)
The Sword of the Spirits (1972)

In the Beginning Longman (1972) ISBN 0-582-53726-6
Dom and Va (1973)
Wild Jack (1974)
Empty World (1977)
The Fireball trilogy
Fireball (1981), E. P. Dutton, ISBN 0-525-29738-3
New Found Land (1983) Dutton (US) ISBN 0-525-44049-6. Gollancz (UK),
ISBN 0-575-03222-7 (1986) Dutton (US) ISBN 0-525-44227-8; Viking Kestrel (UK), ISBN 0-670-81030-4
A Dusk of Demons (1993)
Bad Dream (2003)

Film and television adaptions
The Death of Grass was made into a film, No Blade of Grass, in 1970, by Cornel Wilde.
The Tripods was partially developed into a British TV series.
Empty World was developed into a 1987 TV movie in Germany, Leere Welt.
The Guardians was made into a 1986 TV series in Germany, Die Wahter.

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