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Monday, August 11, 2014

Review: Randall Crane and the Whitechapel Horror, by Mark Weir


I am not a huge aficianado of the current swathe of vampire novels, although I did read Anne Rice in the early years. Because I am not familiar with the current trends in this genre, I cannot really comment on where this offering from Mark Weir fits. I can say, however, that this is not in the YA category. No sexy teen vampires here. Rather, this is a vampire novel in the more traditional vein, with sunlight-fearing, holy water- and wooden stake-vulnerable, rather smelly and decrepit vampire types. This is set in the latter part of the Victorian era in London, during the 1880s--not long before Jack the Ripper terrorised Whitechapel. The London presented here is itself decrepit and smelly, not to say a little vampiric.

Randall Crane, the title character, is himself a vampire, turned sometime in the previous century. He attempts to `live' a more noble life than many of his ilk, trying to avoid feeding on humans as much as possible. We are told of his conversion and a little of his back story, but most of the story takes place in 1880s London, where Randall finds himself investigating a series of vampire slayings--mostly of prostitutes--in cooperation with a detective, Thomas Grantham. He and Grantham strike up an unusual friendship. The villain of the piece is a nasty, ancient vampire rather incongruously known as Spring-Heeled Jack. Other villains lurk in the background, but I will say nothing of these to avoid spoiling the plot. Entangled with the murder mystery plot is another of political intrigue.

The book is competently written, with no obvious gaffs or clangers. Some of the scenes of the London of the day and the characters who inhabit it are quite evocative. Indeed, these minor characters are often more interesting and colourful than the leads. There are some well-developed scenes, leading up to key events. However, I would have to say that I found the final scenes rather predictable and `Hollywood'. The plot is a little slow to develop, and the narrative becomes bogged down at times in rather tedious dialogue. The writer is clearly trying to reflect what he imagines to be the style of speech of the day, formal and wordy. While I appreciate the effort, it becomes turgid at times.

Neither of the main characters, Crane or Grantham, really grew on me. Neither was as interesting and colourful as the minor characters, either the villains or their victims. Crane in particular is rather dull. The most interesting part of his story was the back story. But in the present he has little personality or character. Nor, in the end, despite the title of the book, is he the main character here. I think Grantham deserves that title. He is more interesting than Crane. Nevertheless, his personality is somewhat overshadowed by his role.

There are a few minor anachronisms in the story. There is reference to an emperor in France, but France had been a republic since 1870. Someone smokes King Edward cigars, decades before the Edward for whom they are named became king. Someone plays discs on a gramophone some years before they were invented. These are minor--but to someone like me--irritating oversights.

This is clearly the first in an intended series of books--yes, yet another--and the seeds for the sequel are rather unsubtly sown in the last few pages. If the series is to go forward successfully, I think the character of Crane needs to be made much more interesting, if not charismatic.

While some things weigh this book down, some of the well-written scenes and interesting minor characters lift it slightly. Three and a half stars from me, but I have to round it down to three for those sites that have yet to invest in half star icons.


Saturday, August 9, 2014

Buy Direct

I am trying a new experiment on my website: direct sales of my ebooks. I was hesitant at first because it seemed rather complicated technically. How would I handle the payments? How would I facilitate the downloading of the files? I didn’t particularly want to deal with the thousands of email requests I would receive­­—cough—once I made the announcement that the books were available. With a little research and ingenuity I was able to automate the process, at least at my end. Now I just have to sit back and watch the money roll in—cough. Sorry, there seems to be something caught in my throat.

There is at least one obvious advantage to direct sales: cutting out the middle people. The consumer pays less, and I make more per sale. What could be better? PayPal takes a small percentage, but the rest is mine. However, there may well be pitfalls. I began a discussion on one of  LinkedIn’s forums to see what other people had to say, based on their experience. Three issues dominated.

The first was security. How would I prevent someone passing the book along, or perhaps even selling it on other sites? There is software that can be purchased (I believe) to make the files secure; but I wasn’t keen on forking out for that. The truth is that these security measures can be cracked by anyone with a little determination. The DRM on Kindle books is easily removed (I’m told). So theft is potentially a problem anyway. But is it? I would be quite pleased if someone thought my books were worth stealing. In addition, there is that oft-quoted adage from Tim O’Reilly: ‘For a typical writer, obscurity is a far greater threat than piracy.’ No one seems particularly concerned that people pass on physical books to friends. Or that libraries loan books.

The second issue was the problem of generating traffic to the website, but this is a furphy. No one who doesn’t already know me will find my ebooks on Amazon or Smashwords. It is no easier directing traffic to my books on those sites, than directing them to my own site. In any case, so that people will find my book on Amazon and other sites, directing them to my site is my first step. That is the only economical way—in terms of time management—to alert people to all the avenues for purchasing my books, electronic or physical. So nothing at all is lost by also offering direct sales from that site, while there are potential gains.

The third concern was how to deal with customers who might have difficulty downloading a file, or transferring it to their e-reader. I don’t know yet whether this will be a problem. People have my email address should they have a problem, and in such cases I can email them the file. I can even email directly to their Kindle if they give me the address. (I’m not sure if that is possible with other types of e-reader, but I imagine so.)

A fourth issue, and one that affects my ego more than anything else, is this. Direct sales from my site will go unrecorded. Even when I sell millions—cough—of copies this will go unnoticed in the world. I will never make the best-seller lists. This might be a problem if perceived sales generate additional sales, which they probably do.

So this is an experiment. I have nothing to lose. If anything interesting comes of it I will let you know. In the meantime you can purchase my ebooks directly from here.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Here come those 'dole bludgers' again

During this last week here in Australia, Senator Eric Abetz [I’m sorry, I can never hear that name without picturing ‘Erica Betz’], the Employment Minister, announced that people who were on unemployment benefits would be expected to apply for forty jobs per month—that’s one in the morning and one in the afternoon, apparently. Apparently, unemployed people are generously being given the weekend off. Oh, and, by the way, that includes those people who are going to have to wait for six months before even qualifying for any kind of unemployment support.

There were 741,700 people officially unemployed in Australia as at the beginning of July 2014 (and this doesn’t count those who have long since given up, or are looking for work without registering for unemployment benefits). According to the Federal Government’s own job vacancy report (http://lmip.gov.au/default.aspx?LMIP/VacancyReport) there were 17,400 job vacancies in June 2014. Assuming that there are the same number of new vacancies each month for the next twelve months (a very generous assumption, I would think) there will be 208,800 job vacancies during that time. Also assuming that unemployment doesn’t grow during those twelve months (another generous assumption), twelve months from now 532,900 of those who are currently unemployed will still be without a job.

If each one of those people who are currently unemployed has to apply for forty jobs per month, that generates 29,668,000 job applications per month—for 17,400 vacancies per month.

And now let’s come back into the real world. One job application in the morning and one job application in the afternoon... I wonder, has Senator Erica Betz... er, Eric Abetz actually had to apply for a job lately? To prepare a decent application, specifically tailored for a specific job, requires work—at least hours of work. It is not simply a matter of changing the names, place and dates on the form. If I were unemployed I would be required to apply for a broad range of jobs with a variety of employers in diverse fields—if for no other reason than that there will simply never be forty job vacancies a month (and probably not in an entire year) which match my actual qualifications. There is no one-application-fits-all. To apply for a job in some fields requires not hours, but days of work. [This is certainly true in one of the fields for which I may sometimes be qualified—evolutionary biology.]

Or does Eric Abetz mean by a ‘job application’ nothing more than a cold telephone call or a form letter and CV sent to a range of businesses? Yeah, sure, I can waste my time and the time of those businesses by doing that, day in and day out. Yeah, that’ll work.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Some Anthological Questions

We had a discussion recently in the committee of our local writers’ group concerning our next anthology. Every second year or so, the group puts together a collection of writing from within the group, and sometimes opens this to people outside the group. Some years external grant money is available, and this usually comes with some constraints. Perhaps the theme has to be a specifically local theme, or all the writers have to be local. Sometimes we have been able to publish without the assistance of a grant.

Our discussion concerning the next anthology meandered around the idea of a theme and a title. Being the annoying person I am, I suggested that constraining the anthology to a theme generally obliged people to write something new, specifically for the anthology. Occasionally an existing piece might fit the theme, but most often not. This may or may not be a good thing. But there are probably people within the group who like to write in a specific genre which may never fit the theme. Perhaps we could encourage people to submit work they have already written, without limiting the anthology to a specific theme or type of writing (fiction vs. creative non-fiction, for instance).

The other issue concerned the title. As far as I am aware—and I haven’t been around for many of the anthologies—the title has always been chosen before any of the contributions have been seen. The cover, too, has always been predesigned. Again, being annoying, I suggested that this was to put the cart before the donkey. I don’t know about you, but I often don’t come up with a good title until the piece is finished; and certainly not a cover. I suggested that the title and cover should come last.

So I was wondering, what is the general opinion out there concerning these issues:
  • Should an anthology have a theme?
  • Should the title and cover design wait until the collection is put together?

Incidentally, you can purchase the group’s latest anthology, Lost in Mangroves, at Amazon.com (and affiliates) and Createspace:

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Australia, let’s rethink the asylum seeker issue.

For an asylum seeker to be considered for refugee status, they have to be outside their country of origin. In most cases, these people will have left their country and entered a neighbouring country ‘illegally’. Australia is lucky in that it does not share a border with a major source-country of refugees. (It would be interesting to see Australia’s reaction if there was, in years to come, an influx of refugees from Papua New Guinea or Indonesia. Would they still be ‘stopping the boats’?) So almost all refugees come to Australia via a third, or transit, nation.

Prior to 2012, Australia’s annual refugee intake stood at 13,750. In 2013, the previous government increased that to 20,023. We need to put this in context. Australia’s total annual immigration numbers are capped at 190,000. Thus, even at the upper figure of 20,023, the number of refugees represented only around 10.5% of our total annual immigration numbers. When the current Abbott government came to power they immediately lowered the annual refugee intake back to 13,750, around 7.24% of total immigration. Many of the 96% or so of ‘legitimate’ migrants are probably wanting to come to Australia for a ‘better life’, be that for work purposes, to be re-united with family, and so on. They are certainly not fleeing danger. Thus, the vast majority of immigrants to Australia are, in fact, ‘economic migrants’.

In Indonesia, in January of this year, there were 7241 asylum seekers and 3,026 people who had already been granted refugee status. It’s worth noting that the number of asylum seekers is not much greater than the number by which our refugee intake was reduced when Abbott came to power (6,273). How many of these refugees and asylum seekers has Australia taken? According to a report in The Guardian (April 18, 2014), between September 2013 and January 2014, 360 people were accepted for resettlement, ‘mostly’ by Australia. This represents something less than 3.5% of these people in four months. Is this good enough? Is it at all surprising that the people waiting in Indonesia become frustrated and impatient, and try to make their way here by ‘illegal’ means?

Although it is usually claimed by those who support the strict border control policies of the Abbott government that this is intended to prevent the loss of life at sea, we are right to be somewhat sceptical about this. Are there not other ways of achieving this? Has either side of politics seriously considered any creative alternatives? I would argue that Australia could easily absorb all 3,026 recognised refugees from Indonesia, as well as all those asylum seekers who are later granted refugee status, in addition to its current intake of 13,750 (or even 20,023). The total number of migrants to Australia could easily be lifted to 200,000; alternatively, the intake of those economic (non-refugee) migrants could be reduced. Furthermore, I have no doubt that, in cooperation with the Indonesian Government, Australia could greatly increase the rate at which the asylum seekers’ claims are processed in Indonesia.

By taking these refugees from Indonesia, and by expediting the process of assessment, the asylum seekers and refugees in Indonesia would be given realistic hope, and perhaps, just perhaps, that too would stop the boats.

So why does neither major political party in Australia want to try this? Would the Australian people at least be willing to consider such a solution? If not, why not?

Monday, July 7, 2014

Review: In Strange Worlds by Brenda Cheers

*WARNING: SPOILERS*

As a general rule, I don’t like to give away too much about the plot of a book when reviewing. However, in this case it is very difficult to say what I think needs to be said without doing so. So, you have been warned. There is already a sizeable hint in the blurb about this book on the Amazon site, and even in the title, so perhaps I am not giving too much away. The Amazon blurb says: ‘Just as Meg is about to discover the truth about this new world, she finds the rules have changed yet again, and she is back where it all began.’

Meg Atkins wakes up in hospital, after having apparently undergone a caesarean, to find everyone else in the world—including her newborn child, the rest of her family and her friends—dead from some kind of disease—or so it appears. We follow her journey as she tries to cope with this fact. She proves to be amazingly resourceful and resilient. She travels north from Melbourne, to south-east Queensland, where she seeks to make a life for herself. Eventually it becomes apparent that she is not entirely alone in the world, and is joined in her life by Luke and Connie. She also encounters Derek, a paediatrician, and some less savoury characters. Things take a strange turn when they are visited on their small farm by some strange ‘men’ who seem not quite human, and who begin to undertake some medical procedures and to monitor the health of these survivors. Throughout all this, Meg has the sense that their lives are being manipulated by someone behind the scenes, and who communicates with them via their dreams.

The narrative is written in the third person, exclusively and very intimately from the point of view of Meg. The quality of the writing is quite good here: clear, concise, straightforward. It does not rise to great literary heights, but suits the very intimate third person narrative style, which differs little from a first person narrative. Although it is third person, it really reflects Meg’s voice. This is further accentuated by the use of entries from Meg’s journal. The interweaving of straightforward narrative with journal entries, and of present events with appropriately placed elements of Meg’s back story, works well to create a clear picture of Meg. She is an interesting character. Flashbacks to her earlier life show her as somewhat weak, lacking in self-confidence and dependent. But in this new life she reveals herself to be strong, decisive and able to take drastic action when necessary without hesitation. I thought the author glossed over rather lightly the impact on Meg of waking up to find everyone dead, including her children. She is separated from her husband, with whom the children live. Her reaction upon seeing her dead daughter is not quite convincing; and she doesn’t even look in on her dead son. Yes, she gets drunk, but then seems to virtually shrug her shoulders and move on. I felt the author was in too much of a hurry to get on with the ‘serious’ part of the story.

The other characters, particularly Connie and Luke, have their moments of reality, but serve more as background against which to see Meg, rather than as real people in their own right. I ended up with the sense that people and relationships were not particularly important to Meg, and I wonder if this was the impression the author wanted to leave. I had the same feeling when she ‘woke up’ again, back in a world similar to her own real world, in which she has just given birth to a son, to which she shows an amazing indifference. Yes, I can understand that she feels no connection with this child of whom she has no recollection of having carried for nine months; but her plans to simply leave the child—and her husband to whom, in this new version of the world, she is still apparently happily married—behind make her seem very callous. Nor does she seem particularly concerned by the fact that she is unlikely to see Connie and Luke, and their four children, ever again. There is a passing reference to finding Derek, but not so much from any sense of personal connection with him as to verify the reality of the world in which she had lived for the past two or three years. I think the author needs to be careful not to sacrifice these more personal elements in favour of the probably more exciting—and easier to write—mystery/adventure elements of the story.

The plot of shifting into alternative versions of reality—parallel universes—is not at all new. There are shades of Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes here, as well as episodes of TV shows such as Sliders and the Stargate franchise. In terms of this specific plot, I wondered why the author had chosen this particular parallel reality—in which everyone else suddenly mysteriously died—for the first part of this story. I found myself wondering whether this idea came first, and the author only subsequently thought of the parallel worlds idea. There were several elements that left me dissatisfied. First, I thought it extremely unlikely, based on the evidence she had, that the protagonist, Meg, would come up with this as a possible explanation for what had happened to her. Perhaps later, after two or three subsequent shifts, this idea might occur to her, but not now. Secondly, this provides no explanation at all for why the events in this world have occurred, or, indeed, what is actually going on. As an explanation for ‘why did everyone die’ or ‘who are these strange not-quite-human men’, ‘I must have slipped into a parallel universe’ is no explanation at all. This left me very frustrated. Will we ever know what was going on in that world? This is part of the problem with a series, which this will, in all likelihood, become. I know at least one sequel is on the way, if it is not already available. If the explanations for this first world later become apparent, then this is really not a series of standalone books, but one book in several volumes. This would require that I make judgements about the plot only when the entire story is told. At the moment, though, this is all I have to go on, and it left me dissatisfied. I was also disappointed that the fate of Luke and Connie was unresolved. Will we learn more about them later? I don’t know.

There is another point in the plot that concerns me. It has to do with the ‘rules’ that are operating in the world the author is creating. When Meg makes her first ‘shift’, her life in the new world is entirely continuous with her past life. Her memories are intact. There is nothing, in fact, to indicate that this is not the same world, in which something terrible has occurred. However, when she makes the second shift, back to ‘this’ world, she has no memory of her ‘current’ life in this world. Her consciousness, if you like, is that which she had before the first shift and in that previous world. After this second shift, she doesn’t know where her husband works, she doesn’t remember carrying the child. The past has changed. This, then, is a very different ‘shift’ from the first one. To be consistent, she should have woken up again in the hospital having just had a caesarean, this time into another different world: the past would be the same, but the present and future different. The author needs to have clear in her mind what rules are operating here. Already we have seen two different kinds of shifts, one where her past remains unchanged and one where it doesn’t. I was left with a sense that the author may not have thought this through, which also added to my impression that the whole world-shifting idea was only developed after the everyone-dead idea.

It should be clear why I needed to discuss the plot in some detail, because it is here that the problems lie for me. I had a few other issues with less important plot points. For instance, as someone with solar panels on the roof, I know that when the mains power fails, the solar panels won’t operate. Not so in the author’s world. I have this and a few other minor quibbles. But the more important points I have discussed speak to the coherence and consistency of the story. Not knowing whether these points will be addressed in the future makes it difficult to give a star rating. However, I am inclined to give it 3.5 stars. I think it’s slightly on the upper side of this point at the moment, so I will round it up to four stars where required.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Our Fragile Democracy

I am really concerned about our government here in Australia at the moment. I know the rest of the world doesn’t give a fig about our government; and perhaps most Australians don’t, either. Nevertheless, my concerns are now way beyond the usual party-political differences that plague this country. It would be easy to dismiss my concerns as those of a radical lefty, but I really hope that those who situate themselves on the right of the political spectrum will take the time to stop and listen and think. This is not just about which political sports team we happen to support.

These comments are again inspired by the government’s response to asylum seekers, but the issue is much broader than this. At the moment there appear to be two boatloads of asylum seekers somewhere in the Indian Ocean, seeking to make their way to Australia. I say ‘appear to be’ because the government is refusing to say anything, refusing even to confirm the existence of these boats. The Australian people are being told nothing about this situation; we know nothing about the government’s response to the situation, or about the current state or ultimate fate of these asylum seekers. The silence is being maintained on various pretexts, none of which should be convincing to the members of a democratic society.

Silence is one of the main tactics of this government. I think the government believes that if it says nothing about this and a range of other issues, they will eventually simply go away. And what frightens me is that they may be right. People have short memories. In a day, a few days, a week, the issue will have been forgotten as another issue seizes our and the media’s attention. Furthermore, whatever they are actually doing will be a fait accompli before we know about it (if we ever actually do). A totalitarian government often tries to silence its opponents. The Abbott government is being much cleverer than that: it is silencing itself. Any objections that are voiced are simply descending into this well of silence. Opponents end up shadowboxing. The government offers us only vague, empty, paternalistic assurances that they are doing the ‘right’ thing. We are expected to take their word for this. I don’t. The silence makes me very suspicious. They are hiding their actions from public scrutiny. Unfortunately, any outrage that is currently being expressed will eventually die down. Those of us who continue to shout will be made to appear silly; we will likely be reviled and ridiculed.

The second issue with this government is the ‘age of entitlement’. The government is keen to warn us that this age of entitlement (which they have invented) must end. Australian citizens must no longer regard themselves as ‘entitled’ to pensions, unemployment benefits, health care, affordable education and so on. What is actually happening, though, is that we are entering into a new and unprecedented era of entitlement. For the government believes that it is ‘entitled’. They use the word ‘mandate’, but it amounts to the same thing. This government believes that it is entitled to do whatever it wants to do because it won the election. I for one am glad that we have a complicated senate following the election, because it is the only thing that will set limits on this sense of entitlement. The senate is, in fact, the true seat of democracy. Those who voted for the current government may (at the time) have represented a majority. But democracy is about much, much more than majorities. A truly democratic government gives a voice to minorities and respects that voice.

We need to be very vigilant concerning the democracy of this nation. It is a fragile thing. We are not a democracy because we get to choose a new dictator every three years. Being elected does not give blanket entitlement to the government of the day. The government is accountable to the people who elected it today, tomorrow and every day, not just once every three years.

A secretive, silent government, that swaggers above the people with a sense of entitlement, is already straying far from the path of true democracy.