Monday, September 22, 2014

A Review: Miss Hyde, by Imogen Bold

I’d like to begin by saying that I quite enjoyed this book. It was a pleasant, easy read, founded upon an interesting concept.

Miss Marion Jekyll is the daughter of that famous London doctor created by Robert Louis Stevenson in 1885. (The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was first published in 1886). She knows nothing about her father’s research. He died when she was very young. The story takes place when Marion is nineteen years old and staying in Vienna with her guardian, Mr Utterson, and chaperone, Miss Krummacker. We learn very early on that Marion is required to take medication to control what is described as her ‘epilepsy’. While in Vienna, she encounters a young man, Andor, who mistakes her for someone else, his sweetheart Irina, daughter of the Count and Countess von der Heide. (Note the not-so-subtle family name.) Marion soon discovers that she has a doppelganger living in Vienna, and becomes involved in a world of espionage, conspiracy and assassination.

At the same time, she begins to discover that her ‘epilepsy’ is, in fact, something else, and she struggles to contain/control the ‘Miss Hyde’ that she discovers within.

The story is set in 1873, but in an alternative Vienna, in which there are to be found unusual technologies which place this book within the ‘steampunk’ genre.  This Vienna is part of the Austro-Magyarian Empire, rather than the Austro-Hungarian Empire. For those readers who may not be aware, the Magyars are a people primarily associated with Hungary and whose language is Hungarian. So this is a nice way to set this reality apart, while retaining links to our own history. This alternative reality allows the author to mess with history if she so wishes. I wasn’t really convinced by the steampunk elements of the story. I felt the story would have worked perfectly without them, and that they were, therefore, a little gimmicky. They may play a more integral role in the sequels that are obviously on the way.

The story is narrated from the first person point of view of Marion. Her character is well-developed and she has an interesting voice, which is perhaps more modern than the 1873 setting might suggest. I didn’t mind this, and thought it would facilitate the reader’s identification with her. The ‘Miss Hyde’ character is not fully explored here, but probably will be in later volumes. There is an obvious sense in which she has to slowly emerge.

I found most of the minor characters interesting and multi-dimensional, although I thought the Crown Prince was perhaps a caricature. The main male character, Andor, who also inevitably becomes Marion’s love interest, I found rather shallow and uninteresting.

There were elements of the plot, especially around the romance, and concerning the identity of the real villain, which were rather too conventional. There were also some minor plot points which I thought were a little too contrived. There were hints within the story of the dirtier, grittier underbelly of this society which I would have liked to have seen developed further. Perhaps this will come in later volumes.

While this book has obvious shortcomings, it was quite enjoyable and interesting. It is also more competently written than many of the self-published books I have been reading recently. I give this four stars.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Notorious Trolley Thief

People are odd. You may have noticed this yourself from time to time. I sometimes wonder how we have managed to be so successful in the evolutionary stakes.

Not long ago I was participating in a local writers’ festival. A temporary bookshop was being set up in one of the function rooms of the hotel where the festival was being held. I had several boxes of books that I wanted to make available for sale. About half of them were my own publications, and half were the latest anthology produced by my writers’ group, and which I had edited. All in all, there were just over two hundred books, in boxes of various sizes.

I located the room where the bookshop was being set up. People were zipping around the room, busy being busy. I dared to catch the attention of the woman in charge and ask if a trolley was available.

‘No,’ she said. ‘You will have to use one of the trolleys used by hotel staff to take baggage up to people’s rooms.’

Okay. I could deal with that. I returned to the lobby of the hotel, but there were no trolleys around, and no staff of whom to make enquiries. The staff at the check-in desk were all very busy. I wandered back to the bookshop, musing about a possible plan B. Would I have to carry the boxes in, one by one? I would probably have no choice.

Then, in the bookstore, I spotted an empty, unused trolley along one wall. I shrugged and made a beeline for it. I could see no reason not to use it.

As I left the room, someone shouted. I turned to see the woman in charge chasing after me.
‘You can use that,’ she conceded graciously, ‘but bring it back!’

Darn it! My plan to steal this trolley and add it to the secret stash I was accumulating in my garage had been foiled at the last minute! It had been my plan to whisk it away, then return with seven heavy boxes of books balanced on my head. I wanted to say something to the woman. Several things. Such as, ‘Why didn’t you tell me this trolley was available?’ Instead, I gave her what may have been a smile and said, ‘Of course.’

Several things went through my head as I loaded the trolley and returned to the bookshop. Why had she said no trolley was available, when clearly there was? Were there rules about trolley use of which I was unaware? Was there, perhaps, a weekend course on trolley use that I should first have attended? Perhaps only those holding a special licence could operate this trolley.

Then, why would anyone want to steal a trolley? Was this, I wondered, some special, new design in trolleys that she did not want copied. Did it have special features. Anti-gravity, for instance? Was there a secret compartment hiding top secret government documents?

And, further, why did this woman think that I might want to steal her trolley? Did I have a reputation, unbeknownst to me, as a closet trolley thief? Or, just a thief?

Thanks to this woman, I shall now be on high alert for trolley thieves, as this is obviously a much more widespread problem in our society than I had hitherto imagined.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Real and Present Danger?

I’ve been hesitant to write about this because there is a feeling abroad that if you raise questions about this, you are somehow being un-Australian, not a team player... Not part of ‘Team Australia’ to repeat one of our Prime Minister’s endless slogans. At the very worst you are being na├»ve.

I am talking about the sudden supposed increase in the terrorist threat, here in Australia and in other countries throughout the world. And, very specifically, about the uncovering of the alleged plot by a group of ‘members’ of ISIL here in Australia to capture a random civilian off the streets and behead them. (As an aside, how does one become a ‘member’ of ISIL? ISIL claims to be a nation state. It would be rather as though I were suddenly to declare myself a ‘member’ of the USA.)

Now this is undoubtedly a terrible thing. No one wants this to happen. It may be appropriate to ask questions about whether such a large force of police was necessary to counter this threat. I certainly think we should weigh carefully the evidence supporting this claim when it comes before the court, and the people charged have a right to a fair trial. But clearly, preventing such an atrocity is to be applauded.

But the point of such a murder is to create a mood of fear within the community. It doesn’t require the carrying out of the deed to create that fear. Those who plotted this act—if indeed they did—have already achieved their goal. With, I might say, the help of the media and the government. But I am not unduly afraid. Yes, I could be seized and murdered by a terrorist. But before this threat was paraded before my eyes, a few days ago, I was in danger of being murdered in the street by a non-terrorist. I was in danger of an accidental death from a whole range of causes. The level of threat to me, and to each of us as individuals, is only greater today than it was a week ago by a minuscule quantity, if at all.

It is not my intention to play down how callous and inhuman such an act would be. Like most of us, I find it difficult to comprehend how one human being could even consider committing such an act against another human being. It also, unfortunately, doesn’t surprise me. Nevertheless, I do not now feel under any greater personal threat today than I did last week, or ten years ago. The danger to me and to each one of us is not significantly greater.

So, to those who seek to strike terror into my heart by plotting or carrying out such a heinous act, or any similar act, with respect to me, you have failed completely. On I go, living my life exactly as before, with scarcely a passing thought for you.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Life in ’Strahlia

Someone recently asked me via LinkedIn what it was like to live in ’Strahlia, er, Australia. This is a very difficult question to answer. It’s ‘like’ one thing for me, but ‘like’ something else for someone else. It is undoubtedly different living in Melbourne or Sydney than it is living in Cairns. It is different living here, than living one suburb over. There is no single way of living in Australia that sets it off from other parts of the world.

There are, of course, images from TV and cinema. I haven’t watched Home and Away since my children were quite young, but the fact that it is set in ‘Summer Bay’, and that in fact it always seems to be summer there, is bound to give a somewhat skewed impression to the rest of the world. Not everyone, young or old, spends every available moment at the beach, surfing. Personally, I hate the beach. It’s one of the last places I would ever want to be.

Then there are the ‘Crocodile Dundee’ (Paul Hogan) and ‘Croc Hunter’ (Steve Irwin) caricatures that seem to have such broad appeal overseas. I may be wrong about this, but my impression is that Steve and Bindy Irwin are far more popular overseas than here in Australia. Just to set the record straight, most of us don’t go around wrestling crocodiles or capturing highly venomous snakes.

Another image of Australia is that we are heavy drinkers, and perhaps we are. But so are people in many other western nations. According to World Health Organisation data, based on per capita drinking Australia is ranked eighteenth in the world, although we are ranked well above other countries that might be considered culturally similar to us, such as the UK, New Zealand, the USA and Canada.

Another image is of our sporting prowess. I think it is probably fair to say that in many sports we rank much higher than our population would predict. Our medal tally at the Olympics (let’s pretend the 2012 Olympics didn’t happen) is usually disproportionately high. So yes, sport has a very important place in our culture.

In other areas we have been very fortunate in the past—areas such as health care, education, personal freedom, economic prosperity, national security. My impression is, though, that in many of these areas we are rapidly falling back towards the field. While many other nations may continue to look with envy on Australia, I think overseas perceptions are lagging somewhat behind the reality. Perhaps our own perceptions too. A nation often clings desperately to its own self-image, long after that image has ceased to be reflected in reality.

Most of the time day to day life—even in Tropical Cairns, nestled between World Heritage Rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef—is pretty much the same as in most other western nations. Most of us live in cities or suburbs. We work, we eat, we sleep and then we work again. Despite ‘Summer Bay’, life here is not a perpetual holiday.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Capitalising on Capitals

As a writer you are probably often wondering: to capitalise or not to capitalise? Clearly there are some areas of confusion, as well as some grey areas. I would suggest looking at one of the major style guides for directions on this, but I will highlight a few common issues here.

‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’ (and their variants, as well as similar terms) are among those that writers often get wrong. Do we use upper case here, or not? Always, or only sometimes? There is a fairly simple rule or guidelines here. If ‘Mum’ is used in the place of the person’s name, use upper case; if it is used generically, use lower case. A good way of testing this is to substitute the name. Consider this example: ‘The other day I went with Dad to the zoo.’ My dad’s name is ‘George’, so: ‘The other day I went with George to the zoo.’ Clearly ‘Dad’ here takes the place of the name ‘George’. But consider this: ‘The other day I went with my dad to the zoo.’ If we substitute the name: ‘The other day I went with my George to the zoo.’ Clearly this doesn’t work. (Note: there are a few places, particularly in the UK, where people do sometimes speak about ‘our George’, or ‘my George’; but this is not the norm.)

This rule also holds for other titles, such as ‘Auntie’ and ‘Uncle’. It starts to get a little grey when we think of other titles or terms of endearment. For example: ‘Are you ready for bed, sweetheart.’ Should this be ‘Sweetheart’? It is, after all, used in place of the person’s name. But we are unlikely to say, ‘I went to the shops with sweetheart,’ unless this is actually used as a nickname. We would almost certainly say: ‘I went to the shops with my sweetheart.’ So, as a general guideline, I would suggest not using upper case for these kinds of endearments or titles (this includes ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’).

A similar rule applies to official titles. When used in conjunction with the name, the title should be capitalised. Thus: ‘I went with Captain [or Doctor] Smith to the zoo.’ It should also be capitalised when used as a form of address: ‘How are you, Captain [Doctor]?’ But it should not be capitalised when used generically. ‘After Captain [Doctor] Smith and I went to the zoo, the captain [doctor] had to rush back to the base.’ There are some grey areas where we are not entirely sure whether a word represents an official title. For example, is ‘postman’ a title? Should it be capitalised in a sentence like this: ‘I went with Postman Pat to the zoo.’ (Yes, I know you must be thinking I spend a great deal of time at the zoo.) If so, then what about ‘milkman’? Perhaps to avoid ambiguity we might find a way to reword cases such as these: ‘I went to the zoo with the postman, Pat.’

Another area of interest is brand names. Official brand names and trademarks should always be capitalised, unless... And here it becomes a little grey again. In some cases, brand names have assumed a generic character. In the USA (I believe) people often refer to any vacuum cleaner as a ‘hoover’, even though ‘Hoover’ is actually a brand name. In fact, ‘to hoover’ is now a verb. In such a case, the capital can probably be dropped, unless quite specifically referring to that brand. When this transition occurs is where all that greyness creeps in, and perhaps it is best to err on the side of caution. In Australia, we refer to pretty much any container in which to keep things cool as an ‘esky’, even though this is, in fact, a brand name. We similarly refer to a bottle in which to keep things warm as a ‘thermos’—again a brand name. Perhaps these should be capitalised. Or perhaps we could use a different term: ‘cooler’, instead of ‘esky’, for instance. ‘Coke’ is one I come across quite often. It is often used generically to refer to any similar cola drink. I think, however, that the Coca Cola Company still very much regard this as their trademark. ‘Coke’, I would suggest, should be capitalised if it is referring to that particular brand of cola, while ‘cola’ can be used as a generic term.

What about animal names? This also causes people headaches. Should I capitalise ‘woodpecker’? Not unless I am also going to capitalise ‘dog’, ‘cat’, ‘tiger’ and every other noun referring to a type of animal. These are generic terms, and should not be capitalised. The same holds for breeds of dog and cat, etc. It is ‘cocker spaniel’, not ‘Cocker Spaniel’. The exception to this is if one of the words is a word we would otherwise normally capitalise, such as a place name. Thus it is ‘German shepherd’, rather than ‘german shepherd’ (or ‘German Shepherd’). The dictionary can often help here. For the more scientifically minded among my readers, the scientific name of an animal (or plant or bacteria, and so on) should be written in italics, giving the first word (the genus) an initial capital, but not the second word (the species). (Sometimes there are also subspecies names, but let’s not get too technical.) Thus a tiger is Panthera tigris.

I sense that some of the writers whose work I have edited have given up on this, and have opted for a more random approach. Hang in there! There are rules and guidelines which can help you through this maze. And in those grey areas I will leave you with two words: be consistent.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

A Review: Shadow of Worlds by JD Lovil

This is quite an ambitious undertaking in many respects. The idea of shifting between parallel worlds (loosely based on ideas from Quantum Mechanics) is not a new one; but the epic style in which this book is written is something new, at least to me.

Although written as a first person narrative, from the point of view of Rafe, a ‘walker’ (who can travel between worlds), the narrative is more often in the style of a mythological epic. The story moves from one strange world to another; the characters are themselves epic (many being ‘gods’) and the events, particularly those of the finale, occur on a meta-cosmic scale. The scenes are often painted with very broad brushstrokes, with little detail. Occasionally there are ‘closeups’, so to speak, of Rafe, and his interactions with his fellow travellers and others. But even many of these have a larger than life feel to them.

The story itself is somewhat conventional: the world or, in this case, the worlds are threatened by some nasty kind of something from the outer edges of reality, which is doing something a bit nasty to the more human-like bits of reality, and will probably end in the destruction of everything. The details are left vague. The good guys are summoned together to confront this threat. There are a few interesting little glimpses of other worlds and some of the characters’ back stories along the way, but these are subsumed beneath the larger narrative.

For the most part, the other worlds through which the main group of travellers pass—the more or less human (and lupine) contingent—are very sketchily outlined. Too much detail of too many such worlds would have become tedious, and no doubt cracks would have shown in the natural, political and social laws of these worlds with too much scrutiny. This is, therefore, quite a wise decision on the part of the author. Nevertheless, something on a smaller time/place scale would have been welcome. Because everything is so epic, and the story moves so quickly towards the denouement, the characters never become very real. This includes the narrator. I had no sense of connection with them. They were never placed in any jeopardy that made sense on a simply human scale. The destruction of everything everywhere for all time is not the kind of threat that I, as a human being stuck in one reality, can really identify with. I didn’t really much care whether the good guys won or lost. I would have cared more if I had known two or three of them more intimately, and they had faced a more intimate and personal threat along the way.

While I admire the scope of this book, and the free run that it allows the author’s imagination, I would have preferred that the focus be on the non-epic, with the epic as the backdrop against which this more intimate story was told. The best SF and fantasy works precisely in this way. As regards the author’s imagination, in some ways the freedom he allows himself is excessive. He has created a setting in which pretty much anything goes. I would prefer a little more discipline and structure, within which his imagination could operate. It is also difficult to take seriously any potential threat to the main protagonist when he can (apparently) go anywhere, or shape reality in any way he chooses. The author runs the risk of making the characters and their circumstances so far removed from the lives and concerns of the readers that they have no interest in them and no way of identifying with them.

On a more technical note, there are places where the author loses control of his grammar, particularly in his use of the tenses of verbs, and when marrying verb with subject. I would recommend more thorough copy editing/proofreading in subsequent volumes in the series.

I give this three and a half stars, but round up to four for sites without half stars.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

‘Yes I can, yes I can.’ ‘No you can’t.’

‘Anything is possible.’
‘You can be anything you want to be.’

No it isn’t.
No you can’t.

With the best will in the world, parents, teachers and society in general have repeated these propositions down the years. Set your mind to it, work hard, and the world is your oyster. You can achieve anything. No you can’t. At least, most of us won’t and can’t.

Of course there are people in the world who do achieve great things, often from very small beginnings. We hear about these people. We admire them. We make them our role models. Of course we do. It’s right that we should. Unfortunately, what we don’t hear about are those who set their mind to it, work hard... and fail. For every inspirational success story there are probably 999 failure stories. Perhaps we should add a few nines to this. These stories don’t quite make the news.

Not everyone has the same opportunities, and not everyone has the same innate abilities. I am going to be better at some things than others. Part of the path to success is first of all to identify our available opportunities and to work within our limitations. This does not mean that we are stuck in some kind predetermined class or caste system. Many of us will break out. There will be opportunities to expand our opportunities. But, while the sky might not be the limit, there are limitations.

Unfortunately the pervading attitude that everything is possible has created four difficulties for people today. First, it has created unrealistic expectations. There is only so much room at the top. Jobs are a resource, and there are simply not enough of the ‘best’ jobs to go round. It would be an absurd world in which everyone strived to emulate Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, in which everyone wanted to be a ‘pop idol’ or a brain surgeon or a corporate lawyer. Then, within each of these ‘top’ professions, there is only limited room at the very top. The success of some at achieving this position will inevitably be on the back of the failure of many, many others to do so.

The second thing we have done is create an unrelenting burden of competition for these top positions within these top jobs. The economic world sees competition as an unqualified good. It isn’t. It borrows this concept from evolutionary theory, in which the fittest survive. Supposedly, competition produces the ‘best’ people for the job. This is nothing more than ideological claptrap. Were I inclined to be less polite I might invoke bovine excrement at this point. Unfortunately, those who fill the best positions in the best fields do not necessarily reach this position on merit. It would, perhaps, be rather cynical to suggest that they rarely do. In nature, competition is often avoided. While some animals fight, and fight to the death, most avoid such confrontations after a symbolic encounter. Let me see. As a lioness I can fight that lioness for her prey, or I can move over to the next patch of savannah. But there will never be many lionesses, in any case. There are always only a few positions available at the top of the food chain. And, in general, gazelles don’t aspire to become lionesses.

The third thing we have done is create this hierarchy of jobs in the first place. We have achieved this by both social and economic means. I can understand why jobs which require longer and more specialised training tend to result in a higher income, but I wonder if the income differentials that actually exist are justified. For some time I worked with people with disabilities. This was hard work, physically and psychologically. I was required to undertake some very unpleasant tasks... for the minimum wage. It would be hardly surprising if I were to be a little resentful of another profession which charges the minimum wage each thirty seconds or less. I think a strong social argument could be mounted to the effect that the work of a disability support worker is more valuable than that of most solicitors or CEOs. But our society shows little evidence of valuing such work, beyond the occasional word of praise: ‘Oh, I so admire you for the work you do. Here’s a ribbon for your contribution to society.’ We have made some jobs seem more important or more attractive than others, often with little justification.

The fourth difficulty we have created with our shallow platitudes is in failing to teach people how to deal with failure and disappointment. These are all but inevitable. It doesn’t mean you give up. It doesn’t mean you sink into the abyss. It doesn’t even mean you have to settle for less; because we first have to unlearn the lesson that, if I don’t become the number one box office star and win two Oscars by the time I’m twenty-five, I’m settling for less. Becoming a teacher is ‘less’... How exactly? Becoming a carpenter, a sales assistant, a road sweeper... Who has convinced you and me that these are less? It really depends on the value system we adopt, doesn’t it? Is our current hierarchy of jobs the only one, or even the best one? I will fail at some things. I won’t be a very good sculptor or shepherd or disability support worker. I will probably fail at even more important things, such as being a good friend or a good partner or a good human being. Failure is a valuable part of life.

The important thing is whether, when I fail, I am willing to get up, dust myself off and try something else, perhaps even something ‘less’. Positive thinking and a positive attitude is not the sheer act of will power that some people seem to preach: ‘If you believe you will succeed, you will!’ If you don’t succeed it must be because you didn’t try hard enough or believe deeply enough. I smell manure again. Real positive thinking and a positive attitude means being able to accept my limitations and my failings, without being totally destroyed by them. It means being ready and willing to give something else a go.