Thursday, 26 February 2015

Book review - Astro Is Down In The Dumps, by Susan Day

Susan Day's Astro books are all charming, but this one is something special.

Designed to educate young children in defensive strategies against depression, the book follows a day in the life of Astro, a dog who has become depressed. Astro's dog friends arrive to visit him, and each one describes a technique that can be used to overcome or prevent depression.

The theory behind Astro's friends' suggestions is all very sound, and the verse format, as well as being quite delightful, will go a long way to ensure the lessons learned remain in a child's memory. The technique of 'teaching verses' is a very old one, and it's old because it is effective.

The illustrations are plentiful, suitable to the text and well done, and there is just nothing to criticise about the work, particularly when one reaches the end and finds an activity sheet that can be used by each child to reinforce what has been learned, personalise it to his own situation and create a ready-made action plan for himself to use should he ever fall prey to depression.

This is a truly wonderful resource for any parent. A gift that can help to make your child proof against one of the most frightening threats of modern life.

In the back matter, I learned that proceeds from the sale of this book will be used to fund a project to provide copies to every school and library in Australia. I hope the project succeeds, because it is a truly valuable book and should be disseminated as widely as possible.

Astro Is Down In The Dumps, along with Day's other books, is available from AMAZON and SMASHWORDS

Monday, 16 February 2015

Music Review - Bernie Manning, Volume 5

This album moves more into personal territory with most of its songs drawn from Manning's personal experience. It's a mix of spoken poems with musical backing and actual songs. Of the latter, the dominant sound has a retrospective feeling - a lazy, cheerful sound that I associate with the music of the early 1970s. This  comes out particularly strongly in Living The Dream and Call Me Crazy.

The spoken poems are all delivered by Manning himself, with sung vocals performed by Bruce Haymes except for a single track (Bluesman) sung by Jeff Burstin. In this we see a continuation of the shift that started in Volume 4, away from the gravelly, masculine sound of Burstin towards the softer tones of Haymes. I will admit to preferring the latter myself.

In a nicely symmetrical arrangement, the first track (Water) is about birth and the last (Dave), a tragic recounting of a friend lost at sea, with death. This was a particular favourite of mine; the wistful recounting of the missing man's disappearance avoids the trap of cloying sentiment and thus is more powerfully sad than any overblown wailing could achieve.

It wouldn't be Bernie Manning without some ironic comment on modern life, and this is most notably given us in The Office Monster. Listening to this wonderfully evocative track, I felt almost faint with relief at having escaped the awfulness that is modern office life, the hermetically sealed, stale-aired environment and the press of bodies crammed into too little space.

Sadly, there were once again no Secret Men's Business tracks. I did rather wish some had been included. Manning shines as an humourist and I don't believe gives himself enough credit for how funny those monologues are. I still hope to see their return in future records.

Bernie Manning's Greatest Hits Volume Five, and also Volumes One, Two and Three and Four, is available from  Bernie's own website.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Book Review - Understanding Your Dog by Susan Day and Rocky

This short and charming book give us a run-down on what dogs are all about, from a dog's viewpoint. It's well written and nicely illustrated, and, best of all, within the humour are buried many very true and important facts that all dog guardians should know.

Understanding Your Dog is available from AMAZON and SMASHWORDS.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Book review - 1,000 Awesome Writing Prompts, by Ryan Kinder

This book promises 1,000 awesome prompts and that's pretty well what it delivers. There is little actual text, most of the book consisting of the prompts themselves, but what there is is well and sensibly written, and the uses of the various types of prompts are clearly explained, without any hint of the patronising tone that often mars writers' toolbooks.

These prompts can be used to provide an easy and fun start for the novice writer, or for a 'writer' who imagines himself to be suffering from so-called 'writer's block'.  For the developing writer, or one who wishes to work on a particular skill, such as dialogue or visual description, they will be invaluable.

Even for the seasoned writer, this book is a useful item to have in the toolbox. The section on 'rippers' (which I call elements) is beautifully explained and any writer, particularly one working on short fiction, can benefit incalculably from this concept, which of course can be used in an almot infinite variety of ways. For less serious use, there's the potential for fun party games, and with a little thought, even a drinking game could be constructed around the drabble prompts.

There are a few typos, and one or two of the prompts are repeated, but overall the quality is excellent and the book is well organised and presented. I add it to the toolkit section of my library with great pleasure.

1,000 Awesome Writing Prompts is available from AMAZON.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Independent Authors - My 2014 Honours List

This is my personal Honours List for 2014. The best of the independently published books that I read in that year. Congratulations to all of the authors.

Now be aware, this is not books published in 2014. It's books I read in 2014. Some of them had been around before that. I'll be presenting them in the order in which I read them, within genre.


Dreams of the Ringed Vale (Luthiel's Song #1)
Robert Fanney
Published 1 April, 2005
My Review

Seized (Pipe Woman Chronicles #1)
Lynne Cantwell
Published 1 March, 2012
My Review

Fissured (Pipe Woman Chronicles #2)
Lynne Cantwell
Published 18 August, 2012
My Review

Tapped (Pipe Woman Chronicles #3)
Lynne Cantwell
Published December 2012
Katy Sozaeva's Review

Gravid (Pipe Woman Chronicles #4)
Lynne Cantwell
Published 19 March, 2013
My Review

Annealed (Pipe Woman Chronicles #5)
Lynne Cantwell
Published 22 May 2013
My Review

Going Home (Witchwood Estate #1)
Patti Roberts
Published 2013
My Review

Ferntree Falls (Witchwood Estate #2)
Patti Roberts
Published 15 April, 2013
My Review

Cursed (Witchwood Estate#3)
Patti Roberts
Published June 2013
My Review

Timeless (Witchwood Estate #4)
Patti Roberts
Published 2014
My Review

Crosswind (Land, Sea, Sky #1)
Lynne Cantwell
Published 23 November, 2013
My Review

Undertow (Land, Sea, Sky #2)
Lynne Cantwell
Published 20 March, 2014
My Review

Dragon Sword
Susan Brassfield Cogan
Published 5 May, 2012
My Review


Sex, Lies and Corned Beef Pies
Georgina Ramsey
Published 9 February, 2014
My Review

Sorority Girls With Guns
Cat Caruthers
Published 31 January, 2014
My Review

The Dragon Who Loved Water Lilies and Other Funny Stories
Oleg Medvedkov
Published 6 June, 2012
My Review

Bitch And Famous
Cat Caruthers
Published 15 July, 2014
My Review

Leonardo Acebo
Published 17 July 2012
My Review


Marlene and Sofia - A Double Love Story
Pedro Barrento
Published 1 July, 2014
My Review

The Art Collection; Three Short Stories
Carla Sarett
Published 1 January, 2014
My Review

Student Body
Rafeeq O McGiveron
Published 14 February, 2014
My Review


The Dog Hunters
David Bell
Published 1 July, 2013
My Review


Rabbletown: Life in These United Christian States of Holy America
Randy Attwood
Published 17 July, 2011
My Review

Rubberman's Cage
Joseph Picard
Published September, 2014
My Review

The Universe Builders
Steve LeBel
Published 1 August, 2014
My Review


Hard Whispers
Pamela Martin
Published 13 December 2013
My Review

Waking The Dragon
Pamela Martin
Published 29 April 2014
My Review


When Love Feels Like A Pocketful Of Snails
Georgina Ramsey
Published 8 July, 2014
My Review


Haiku In The Night
Ben Ditmars
Published 1 December 2012
My Review


Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels
J Warner Wallace
Published 1 January 2013
My Review

Catholic to Christian: An Exploration of Catholicism and One Man's Journey from Darkness into God's Wonderful Light
S Slawin
Published 26 January, 2014
My Review

Saturday, 7 February 2015

50 Shades of Rewrites - Alternative Genre Treatments

Everyone on Facebook lately seems to be talking about these books:

I've read a lot of vicious criticism, both of the books themselves and of the relationship they evidently portray. I have to say 'evidently', for I've not read a line of any of them myself. My friend Simone offered me her paperback copies, but I declined, relying on the unanimous statements of practically everyone I know, both writers and non-writers, that they are rubbish. Given that, and given my compulsive behaviour which means that once I start reading a book I have to finish it no matter how awful it is, I thought it was safer to leave them alone.

I did, however read THIS ARTICLE, which provides a wonderfully detailed synopsis of the books, obviating any incumbency I might have felt to sacrifice myself on the altar of research.

Rambling Curl's entertaining and informative article focussed on the relationship portrayed in the books. My focus is more literary. It seems to me that there are many ways in which Ms James could rewrite this book and improve it, just in case critical acclaim is more important to her than enormous amounts of money. Or, for that matter, how anyone else could rewrite it. A lot of what I'm seeing in the Indie scene seems to be rehash after rehash of the same tired old themes, and here's one that we already know sells. If it's true, as so many people say, that James lifted the whole thing from a fan-fiction site, I don't suppose she will mind if someone else coat-tails along on her concept.

1. Literary fiction.

In this version, the book could basically portray the same events, but from the viewpoint of Christian Grey instead. It would be full of flashbacks to his abusive childhood and internal monologues about how much he hates himself and how helpless he is in the grip of his insanity. Optionally, for a left-bank intellectual twist, you could narrate the story from the point of view of his cat.

2. Comic fiction.

Make it funny. From Curl's synopsis I doubt it would be all that hard to do. Of course you'd have to strip Grey of his brooding dignity, and you'd really need to remove scenes where his victim actually gets hurt. Over against that, you'd be free to introduce all kinds of silly crap that doesn't happen in real life. (Caveat - you actually have to be able to write to do this one).

3. Epic poetry.

Pick a verse form, and transpose the entire book into it. Various verse forms are suitable for this. My personal favourite is the Spenserian Stanza, but that's rather difficult. If you haven't written this kind of thing before, the Beowulf model might be a better choice.

4. Historical Fiction.

Choose some period of history, and set the whole thing in it. A downside of this is that it is a hell of a lot of work to write historical fiction. If you already know an historical period really well, that would be a good starting point.

5. Fantasy

Make Christian Grey a Dark Lord. Make Ana an Elven Princess. Add some swords and an ancient evil stirring beneath a mountain, and you're good to go.

6. Detective Fiction.

Start the book with Christian Grey bludgeoned to death in a locked room. Tell the rest of the story in flashbacks etc. You need a detective character. 

7. Children's Literature.

Make Christian the School Bully. Make Ana the new kid in the school. Take out all the sex bits. In this version, Christian MUST get his comeuppance, preferably in a way that results in some personal growth for Ana.

8. School Story

As above, except that it is a boarding school. Ana will have to be a boy or Christian a girl, but that hardly matters. The bullying is likely to be more psychological than physical.

9. Christian Fiction

The book can start out as normal, but Christian should be gradually redeemed by his growing Christianity. There should be a happy ending. You may choose between C and A getting married and living happily ever after, or either or both devoting themselves to a contemplative monastery/the mission field.

10. Steampunk

Set the whole thing in Victorian England. Add some random technology based on clockwork and/or steam engines. (Caveat - for this option, you need to know Victorian England and its society really well. Otherwise you will come a cropper, like Gail Carriger).

11. Suckporn (a.k.a. Paranormal Erotica)

Make Christian a vampire. You don't need to do anything else.

12. Space Opera I

Set the whole thing on a spaceship. Give Christian a wisecracking robot sidekick.

13. Space Opera II

Set it on a planet where Ana has crash landed in her spaceship. Make Christian a tribal overlord. 

14.  Science Fiction

Set the whole thing in a technologically-driven future society. Give Christian a wisecracking robot sidekick. If you're feeling really adventurous, make Ana a robot too. Be sure to include references to Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics.

15 Splatterpunk

Juice up all the bondage scenes so that instead of just raping her, Christian removes some of her body parts without anaesthetic, and/or makes extra orifices for the purpose. Be sure to describe everything very graphically. 

16 Ghost story

Make Christian a ghost. Duh.

17 Superhero Fiction

Make Christian wear a silly costume. He will need a secret lair and some henchmen. At the end, Ana must be rescued by a man wearing tights and a mask.

18 Western

Make Christian a rancher. Make Ana a virtuous widow. At the end, she should be rescued by a righteous, clean-living cowboy. Be sure to include lots of horse riding and shooting. When rewriting the sex scenes, bear in mind that everyone back then wore combinations.

19 LGBT fiction

Either make Christian a woman or make Ana a man. Duh.

20 YA Paranormal Fantasy

Make Christian a werewolf. Optionally, make Ana a werewolf too.

Alright, I lied. I've only given you 20 instead of the 50 I promised. But hey. Bored now.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Book review - Bloom, by Cathy Jackson

This book opens on a very dark and difficult scenario, that of vicious domestic violence and cruelty. The whys and wherefores of the situation are left unexplained, as are the strange acquiescence of the protagonist in her abuse. I felt this was a flaw in the work; it seemed to me unrealistic that anyone, absent severe pre-existing emotional damage, would succumb so immediately to a major domestic violence situation as is depicted in Bloom. The addition of some backstory to account for this, possibly in a prologue, would to my mind have made a great improvement. The violence itself was portrayed with stark and shocking realism, and was very well done.

The abuser is soon enough removed, in a rather deus-ex-machina way, and the main part of the book deals with the developing relationship between his wife and the man she has met. This follows a fairly steady course, and the remainder of the book develops at a slow, calm pace, with few surprises. I found it, again, somewhat unbelievable that a person who had survived years of the very severest physical and emotional abuse could apparently bounce back from it with few, if any, lasting effects. To make the whole scenario work well, I felt, Phoenix needed to have been damaged almost beyond recovery. As well as being far more believable, this would also have given the book some of the dramatic tension that I felt it rather lacked.

Aside from the believability issues I have mentioned, Bloom is a very pleasant book, about nice people who find a happy ending together. Like so many independently published books, it would have benefitted from tighter editing and proofreading. 

Bloom is available from AMAZON and SMASHWORDS.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Social Experiment - Wearing a Hijab

I've been ill. Not anything life-threatening, but a fairly vicious ear infection that has disfigured one side of my face quite badly. No doubt it will be temporary, at least I hope so, but in the meantime I haven't cared to leave the house. It's quite surprising how one feels somehow shamed by a facial disfigurement. As if one were going to be judged. Silly really, but there it is.

So I have been fairly well housebound for a few days, and not getting out with my dog, and the other day I happened to see a thing on Youtube where some women (not Muslims) went out for the day wearing hijabs to find out how it would feel. It wasn't really a very good video, they didn't go into any detail about interactions they had, they just talked about how they felt wearing it and a lot about how they felt about male domination (which suggested to me that perhaps their understanding of the whole issue was a little simplistic), but they did demonstrate how to put one on correctly, and that was what stayed in my mind. I do love to learn a new skill.

Now it's not that I would mindlessly copy stuff I saw on Teh Interwebz, truly, I wouldn't, but there I was stuck inside, and it was a beautiful day, and I remembered that thanks to Youtube, I now knew how to put one on.

Half the battle is having the right SIZE of scarf. One of the things I'd learned from Youtube is that for a hijab, you need a lot more than an ordinary headscarf. It's really more along the lines of a pashmina. Well, I had one of those, and it was a beautiful cool day, so off I went to dig it out. It took me a few goes to get it right, and I'm not sure it quite covered all my hair at the front, but that didn't matter really, because it was the side of my face I needed to conceal, not my hair. At this point I was not thinking in terms of a social experiment; I just wanted to get out with my dog.

Anyway. Got myself kitted out for the walk. Poo bags, check. Keys, check. Sunglasses, check. Liver treats, check. Off we went in the sunshine, Princess Emily almost dancing with pleasure at getting out in the daytime.

This is a picture of me and Emily. As you can see, she is quite striking.
Now Emily is something of a local celebrity, and is very well known, and of course because she is usually seen out and about with me, pretty well most people in our suburb know me by sight as well. I'm accustomed to a pleasant greeting from everyone we pass, even if they are strangers.

The first person we passed didn't return our greeting, but I didn't really think much of it because she was probably a stranger to the neighbourhood. But then we came to the little park. Not the one where Emily plays, but the one we walk through to get to it. It has a set of children's play equipment so there are usually a few people there. Normally at least someone will rush over to pat Emily. But no - the five or six adults who were there today glanced at us, then quickly away. Okay, that was weird.

When we reached the big offlead park, various people were taking walks. There was one man with a little dog, also offlead, but he saw us, turned away and walked on. Now that was strange. This park is one people come to from miles around to exercise their dogs offlead, and it has a friendly culture; people always speak to other people with dogs. Not this time. He walked briskly off, his little dog, obviously summoned, trotting obediently behind him, looking wistfully back at Emily. Poor Emily didn't understand, but I stopped her from running after them. I never let her bother people if they clearly don't want to engage.

Other people we encountered on our walk were the same. All the same. A quick glance and their eyes would slide away quickly into the middle distance. The norm is a friendly greeting and comment on the weather, at the very least a smile. That's how we roll in that park. It was as if people were afraid of making eye contact with me.

By the time we got home I felt unclean, a pariah. Our walk wasn't as long as usual because I was starting to feel very uncomfortable and Emily, bless her, picked up on my mood and went very quiet as well. I think we were both relieved to close our front door behind us again.

What I've taken away from this experience is that perhaps all those people who've told me that there is subtle bigotry, subtle discrimination that someone who isn't a member of the target group usually isn't aware of, were actually right. I've often been told this by black people, and generally I've put it down to them having become oversensitised as a result of actual bigotry. But now I see that it really does happen. Before this walk, I would have been willing to bet money that a Muslim person walking around in our suburb would have exactly the same experience as anyone else. Sure, no one said anything rude to us, but there's a quiet way of excluding people that is unimaginably powerful. Unimaginably unless you've experienced it.

My resolution from this is to be more aware of how I'm reacting to people who may be different-looking. And I'd like to invite you, my reader, to join me in a challenge. When you see a lady in a hijab, or a man in a yarmulke, or anyone who looks 'different', MEET their eyes and smile. Just do it. Because you might be the only person in their day who does.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Book Review - Alouette's Song, Second Edition, by Andrew Jonathan Fine

Inspirational fiction is traditionally couched in terms of a romance, with an occasional mystery. Alouette's Song is the first I've seen that combines inspirational with traditional science fiction. It should be an encouragement to anyone who'd like to write inspirational fiction but doesn't want to fit into the usual romance mould. This new edition has been considerably tightened up, and avoids the main flaw I found in the first edition.

Viewed as science fiction, it's a strong piece of work, very much in the tradition of the early Heinlein. Purely on this basis I feel sure the book will find an enthusiastic readership. It's exciting, it keeps moving and it resolves very nicely.

Read as inspirational fiction, though, Alouette's Song really shines. Perhaps because that's a genre that appeals more to me, or perhaps because inspirational/SF combination is rare, or perhaps because it's so nice to see inspirational fiction based on a faith other than Christianity, but none of these things fully accounts for my reaction to it. It's a deeply moving and informed story of a young man's struggles as he tries to ‘level up’ his observance of his religion, and very, very well done. Although not Jewish myself, I found a great deal of it personally relevant and helpful. I honestly can't recommend the book enough on this basis. Towards the end, a very nicely done explanation of the basics of Christianity is also given, although the main focus throughout the book is on Judaism.

I did feel the four young protagonists were a little too perfect; a bit too superhumanly good and self disciplined and moral, a bit too wise for their ages. This was particularly the case with Dorothy. I found her self-conscious superiority, at the age of nineteen, very hard to take, and it prevented me from finding her at all a sympathetic character.

Over against this, I absolutely loved the use of the multiple points of view with first person. It was very well executed, and almost never did I need to flip back to check who was speaking. I particularly liked the way the villain was portrayed, saving him from being a cardboard villain.

Overall, I liked Alouette's Song very, very much and I look forward to seeing more from this talented author.

Alouette's Song is available from AMAZON.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Book Review - Strange Courtships, by Carla Sarett

Devotees of the Barbara Cartland school of romance will not enjoy this book. There's nothing sloppy, nothing trite or hackneyed in this sparkling collection of stories. As always, Sarett's work is informed and enlivened by her acutely penetrating observation, and her immunity to pretension of every kind.

From the sweet, strange String Theory, to the achingly sad A Strange Courtship, to my personal favourite, Victor's Proposal, and at all points in between, Strange Courtships takes us on a tour of some of the less-travelled possibilities of love. It's a good illustration of what I sometimes think is the difference between a Real Writer and a mere producer of paperback fodder - that ability to see something different even in the most ordinary of situations.

I often see people in writers' groups remarking that some subject (love, zombie apocalypses, vampires, murder etc) has been 'done to death', and that there is no new thing under the sun. This book is an answer to, and a complete rebuttal of, that view. It serves as a reminder to us all that there is always something rich and strange, if we have but the talent to write it.

These stories deserve from me the ultimate accolade: that I wish I had written them myself.

Strange Courtships is available from AMAZON and SMASHWORDS.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Book Review - Deoccupy My Racism, by Isham Samuel Crozier

This is a very ambitious project, a didactic novel unpacking all of the issues around bilateral racism in an institutionally racist society. This kind of thing is not easy to do, and Crozier's effort is very creditable. I would have liked to see a little more story to form a setting for the content, but all in all a good job - a readable book with a likable protagonist. The content is laudable, and I was impressed at Crozier's calm and rational treatment of a very controversial subject.

The book is a little rough and would have benefitted from editing. Inappropriate punctuation was its main fault in this regard, but an editor might also have advised on pacing and presentation. I found the technique of putting all dialogue in italics without any speech tags at all wearing; it is unnecessarily demanding on the reader and, at times, confusing. There did not seem to be any particular reason for it, and replacing these passages with some more traditional treatment of dialogue would go a long way to make the book more readable.

Deoccupy My Racism can be downloaded free HERE, in a choice of azw3, epub or mobi format.