Sunday, November 23, 2014

An official Goodreads author!

I've just been promoted to an official 'author' over at Goodreads. I hadn't realised until yesterday, when I was reading Goodreads for authors by Michelle Campbell-Scott that this was an option. Useful little book, but the 'helps' on Goodreads themselves, once you actually take the trouble to investigate them, are also very useful. In fact, possibly more detailed than those in Campbell-Scott's book. That's not to decry her book, which, as I say put me onto things on Goodreads I didn't know about.

Incidentally, since I became an official author, it turns out that I'm also on the various NZ lists that show up on my author's page: I'm apparently the 15th top librarian, the 59th top reviewer, and the 87th best reviewer. If I was any of these things yesterday, before I became official, then I hadn't noticed. But there is a lot on each Goodreads page, and you have to keep your eyes peeled.

How I got into the librarians' list I have no idea. Must have got there by default.

Some other authors I've met recently on Google+ and I have been thinking about doing a 'blog tour' in relation to our work. The Goodreads book came up kind out of left field, in relation to this idea, and sidetracked me somewhat yesterday. (I read most of the book yesterday: it's only a littlely.) However, the blog tour idea hasn't gone away yet, and we'll no doubt keep discussing it.

Meantime, I need to go and get ready for a concert I'm playing at this afternoon (accompanying singers and NZ's top cornet player, John Lewis). Time to move!

Friday, November 14, 2014

Debbie Howell - author

One of the people who tweeted for the longest time in the gigatown competition was Debbie Howell. She started tweeting for the competition back in 2013, which meant she was doing it for virtually a year. 

I came into the competition quite a bit later, in March 2014, and during the course of tweeting back and forth discovered that Debbie was also a writer. I've just bought a copy of her first book, Healer's Touch, a gritty fantasy novel that I began to read a few months ago, and now need to get on and read properly.  It's available as both an ebook and a print title. (I'll explain where you can access it shortly.)

I apparently introduced the word 'twibe' during the competition after rediscovering it on a blog post I'd written back in 2009! Unfortunately, the blog, Webitz,net, appears to be having trouble loading at the moment. I'm hoping it isn't about to vanish off the face of the Internet as the companion blog I used to have with the same provider recently did.

The twibe, that is some of the people tweeting for the competition, got together regularly during the last several months for 'tweet-ups' and social face-to-face contact. I didn't attend many of these meetings, which always involved coffee and food, but I did meet Deb, and discovered an interview that the Time Warriors site had done with her in October this year. It makes interesting reader as it reveals the evolution of the book (and its sequels), her methods of working and more. It also shows her delightful sense of humour. 

Check it out. It's given me the idea of doing something similar with people from the Self-Publishing community on Google+. 

The Blood Secret uploaded

I've been very neglectful in not telling people who read this blog that my latest e-book, The Mumbersons and the Blood Secret, is now available from Kindle, and Smashwords. I'd love to say it was also available in print, but that's not the case at the moment, although it's a possibility. One of the many options I've explored that haven't quite got off the ground yet.

Anyway, last Saturday the book was uploaded online, and is sitting waiting for people to buy it....

The Blood Secret is the sequel to Grimhilda! the story that began life back in the late 70s, and finally turned into the musical which we presented in Dunedin in 2012. And then it became the book. At the time some of the cast asked when the sequel was going to happen. They were thinking of another musical but such a venture is fairly overwhelming, even with a good team behind you, and so the sequel, now that it's finally arrived, is also in story form rather than musical.

It would be interesting to adapt The Blood Secret for the stage, however: though it has a number of challenges that might be tricky to overcome: a car that changes its colour, skateboarders whizzing around at impossible speed, a huge door that doesn't want to be a door, and something special that wants to remain invisible.

Only a few minor technical problems...!

I'd have loved to have given the four actors Grimhilda! the chance to fly, as they were supposed to do in the script, but in the end the audience had to imagine this. Another production, however, might achieve it. It would certainly add a Wow factor to the stage version. There's one moment of 'flying' in The Blood Secret too, but that would be a challenge even greater than the one in the musical...

Read it and see what I'm talking about!

Sunday, November 09, 2014


I've been involved in the #gigatown competition since March 2014. Some people have been involved since November last year, I think. That's a horrendously long time to compete at something.

Most of my involvement has been on the tweeting side, sending dozens, sometimes hundreds of tweets on many days with the hashtag #gigatowndun. In the process I've gradually lost track of the people I've been following on Twitter who aren't involved in the competition. Which is a pity.

Some of them gave up because they got swamped themselves with #gigatowndun tweets. And fair enough. Even people on Facebook, where all of my original tweets get sent, eventually reacted in the same way.

In the early stages it was a fun way to get to know other local people and write some crazy tweets as well as some sensible ones. Certain weird themes came through about baths, and two people being the same person and such. Innocuous, but quite entertaining, especially if a conversation got going between participants.

In the latter stage when things really got serious, we weren't able to be quite so facetious: the rules changed and we had to spend time tweeting or FaceBooking about things that #gigatowndun would do for the city if we won. That became limiting, especially when a whole pile of new people got involved and basically began tweeting about the same things that had been tweeted about time and time again. Not quite so inspiring.

I've had a few days on Twitter since the later part of the competition, but have found myself struggling to be very creative anymore, and I think there may be a few longstanding Tweeters who've come to the same place. Exhausted with dealing with the same topic over and over.

Yes, I know we should remain enthusiastic, because we're nearly there, and there's every possibility that we may win. I know we should keep the idea of a marathon before us and be thankful that in the last stage a whole pile more supporters have got on board. That is terrific, and kudos to those who've worked hard to get them there.

But I had some other things I wanted to do, and #gigatowndun-ing all day chews up the hours that could be spent productively on other stuff, such as finishing a book - The Mumbersons and the Blood Secret, which was published on Kindle yesterday. And then there's the marketing of the other two books I've published this year, and the work on a fourth....

I'm sure, if Dunedin wins the giga comp, it'll make a huge difference over a period of time. But much and all as I'd like to spend the last couple of days plugging away at it, I think I've just plain run out of steam.

Friday, November 07, 2014

High priests of intellectualism

In two different books I've been reading recently, I've found the same unpleasant idea turning up. 

From Paul Johnson's Intellectuals, page 199

[Bertrand Russell] wrote: 'I like mathematics because it is not human.' In his essay, 'The Study of Mathematics', he rejoiced: 'Mathematics possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty - a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, sublimely pure and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show.' 

Russell never believed that the populace could or should be encouraged to penetrate the frontiers of knowledge. His professional work in mathematics was carried out in a highly technical manner, making not the smallest concession to the non-specialist. Philosophical speculations, he argued, should be conducted in a special language and he fought not only to retain but to strengthen this hieratic code. He was a high priest of the intellect, forbidding outsiders to penetrate the arcana. He disagreed strongly with those of his philosophical colleagues, like G.E. Moore, who wanted to debate problems in ordinary, commonsense language, insisting: 'common sense embodies the metaphysics of savages.'

From the Introduction to The Critic's Part: Wystan Curnow Art Writings 1971-2013. The Introduction is by one of the editors, Robert Leonard:

In [his essay] ‘High Culture’, Curnow complained that New Zealand’s cultural middlemen (its critics and commentators) dragged art down by seeking to reduce the distance between art and the public, when they should be seeking to increase that distance by generating the ‘psychic insulation’ that would enable artists to be ambitious, free of the restraints placed on them by an uninformed, unappreciative society. 

Johnson's book, Intellectuals, looks at a number of highly-regarded intellectuals who frequently placed themselves above the 'people'. They supposedly loved the 'people' as long as they were en masse. People who actually came into face to face contact with these intellectuals were usually treated with disdain, bruised, battered and thrown on the heap when no longer cared about. While Curnow doesn't appear to go quite that far, his insistence on artists distancing themselves from the public in order to do their work, is yet another example of this idea that certain people are above the run of the general populace. 

Incidentally, Russell did write for the mass, often. He wrote about a wide range of topics, many of which he hadn't the least idea about. And he would write with passion about something one year and claim he'd never done so some time later. 

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

The joy of new words

Much of the joy of writing comes from shopping from the hundreds of thousands of words that English makes available, and it’s good to remember that each of them was a neologism in its day. The new entries in AHD 5* are a showcase for the linguistic exuberance and recent cultural history of the Anglosphere: Abrahamic, air rage, amuse-bouche, backward-compatible, brain freeze, butterfly effect, carbon footprint, camel toe, community policing, crowdsourcing, Disneyfication, dispensationalism, dream catcher, earbud, emo, encephalization, farklempt, fashionista, fast-twitch, Goldilocks zone, grayscale, Grinch, hall of mirrors, hat hair, heterochrony, infographics, interoperable, Islamofascism, jelly sandal, jiggy, judicial activism, ka-ching, kegger, kerfuffle, leet, liminal, lipstick lesbian, manboob, McMansion, metabolic syndrome, nanobot, neuroethics, nonperforming, off the grid, Onesie, overdiagnosis, parkour, patriline, phish, quantum entanglement, queer theory, quilling, race-bait, recursive, rope-a-dope, scattergram, semifreddo, sexting, tag-team, time-suck, tranche, ubuntu, unfunny, universal Turing machine, vacuum energy, velociraptor, vocal percussion, waterboard, webmistress, wetware, Xanax, xenoestrogen, x-ray fish, yadda yadda yadda, yellow dog, yutz, Zelig, zettabyte, zipline If I were allowed to take just one book to the proverbial desert island, it might be a dictionary.\

Stephen Pinker, in The Sense of Style, page 56 (Kindle edition)

*The American Heritage Dictionary: 5th edition. 

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

The Urine Test

In a recent edition of the Otago Daily Times, there was a reprint of an essay Chris Harris wrote on the need to find a better method of detecting prostate cancer.

At present one of the prime methods used is a biopsy in which a needle is pushed up into the man's anus, and then through the wall dividing the bowel and the prostate. Tiny pieces of his prostate are chipped off and then sent to the lab for examination. This is the examination I had back in late 2008. There were complications as a result of this biopsy which I describe in some detail in my ebook, Diary of a Prostate Wimp. [This ebook is currently available at half-price at Smashwords to support Movember, the prostate cancer month.]

The problem with this biopsy - the transrectal method - is that infection can easily occur. In fact, men are routinely given antibiotics after the biopsy because it's assumed there will be infections. It's hardly surprising that there are, because the wall between two parts of the body - one of them intended to deal with faecal matter - is pierced and broken open. It's a bit like sticking your hand in a toilet, then using your hand straightaway to put food in your mouth. If you don't get infected, it'll be surprising.

Chris Harris wrote about a new option that's being looked at to avoid this biopsy. Currently several PSA blood tests are done before a biopsy is considered, in tandem with the unpleasant finger up the bum approach that shows whether the prostate is unduly enlarged or not. Chris says the PSA test was never designed to do what it's being used for now, and writes: 'We aim to take a more direct approach by analysing small amounts of prostate cells exfoliated in urine. There is evidence that very small amounts of prostate cancer cells, between one and a few dozen, are shed normally into the urine at an early stage of the disease. Our aim is to pick out these cancer cells and extract molecular information from them to predict if a tumour is going to become a malignant monster or a benign wimp.'

It's normal for men's prostates to enlarge as they get older. Most of the time this isn't anything to do with cancer; it's a common problem many men will have to deal with - as I did. Surgery is performed to decrease the size of the prostate, thus allowing the urinary tract to function properly. (The urinary tract gets blocked by the prostate rather like a large stone in a small river bed.)

There is hope that the urine test will be readily available soon - possibly within months. In the UK, trial tests of the urine samples were accurate in about 70% of cases. However Chris warns that there is still work to be done to ensure thorough accuracy. And of course, as always, funding is a problem.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Supporting the Movember cause

Expect to see lots of facial hair on the faces of men who normally go facially bald. (Sorry, clean-shaven.)

Why? It's Movember, the month when there's a big focus on that horrible killer of men: prostate cancer. Apparently those who join in the Movember cause are only allowed to grow moustaches (or mustaches, as our North American friends put it). No beards, and no goatees. And you're not allowed to start in advance of November the 1st. The moustache has to gradually make its appearance from November the 1st onwards.

I won't be joining the men who are growing moustaches, of course, since I'm a permanent beard/moustache wearer. The only couple of times I've taken this facial hair off was when I surprised my wife after she'd been overseas, and when I performed in the play, The Magician's Nephew, back in the early part of this century. I don't look good without a beard, and so I'm sorry, it won't be coming off.

On the other hand, to show that I'm not without sympathy to the Movember cause, I'm offering my book, Diary of a Prostate Wimp, at half-price on Smashwords for this month. If you order it on that site (it's available for a variety of ebook devices, including Kindle) all you need to do is add in the coupon number - VB48P - when you're ordering, and you'll get the discount.

Why should men read Prostate Wimp? Firstly because most men will face some sort of prostate issue at some point in their lives. The majority won't get prostate cancer, thankfully, but they still have to deal with some difficulties in an area that men prefer to keep private.

The book helps men understand what the prostate does and what happens to it normally as men get older - it's very common for it to enlarge. This may not cause any problem at all; it may affect urination; it may have other side effects. Better to be forewarned about what may happen.

And it helps men to be better informed when they go to the doctor as these problems start to occur. Doctors aren't always as open and frank about prostates as they might be. Knowing what sorts of questions to ask is useful.

Nobody Birds

The following piece was one of many I wrote for the weekly column, Column Eight. The pieces appeared in the Dunedin Star Midweeker in the early 1990s. I've edited it very slightly; there were also a couple of typos in the printed version. A now-deceased friend, Gaynor Smith, had cut it out of the paper and kept it with a host of other material. Her sister found it while going through Gaynor's multitude of papers.

Nobody Birds ˗ Column Eight ˗ November 8 1995

On one of several mornings lately when I haven’t been able to sleep through until a civilised hour, I got up and went for a walk. The day was overcast, the sun barely pinking the clouds. The cool air kept my hands in my pockets.

After wending my way round streets familiar to me through all my born days, I came across a blackbird sitting on a garage roof, singing his heart out.

I’d been aware of the birds all around me waking the day with their singing. I couldn’t help being aware of it, just as at night, if I happen to be in the Octagon or the Queens Gardens as the sun’s going down, I can’t help but notice thousands of sparrows setting themselves for the night by shouting and chattering all at once.

It’s as if they’re trying to hold back sleep ˗ or night ˗ like tired and boisterous children unwilling to go to bed, wearing their parents out with their caterwauling.

It’s easy to think that it’s only out in the open, in the country, that you really hear birds singing.

I remember lying in bed one morning in a place on Banks Peninsula, listening to a bellbird (so I called it, though it may not have been). Time after time he dropped his perfectly-formed notes into the still air, with the regularity of a tap dripping into a bath.

That morning is a glorious moment fixed in my memory.

But this blackbird, this particular morning, was a bird of a different feather ˗ of course. Not for him the hypnotically-repeated, fragrant full-formed notes.

No, he sat there and opened his throat, like a jazz singer in full flight, and the only consistent thing about his song was the regular pause between phrases when he took, I guess, a necessary breath.

He soared up and down the scales, he trilled, he twittered, he laughed, he sang a moment of beauty and topped it off with a scratch across a blackboard. He gave little screams interspersed with fragments from his favourite operas. He choked notes in mid-stream, and coughed. He threw music off the top of his head and caught it again, gave it a shake and a rattle and a roll, and turned it into a thing of beauty forever. He was an avian coloratura.

Across the road, oscillating on an electric wire, was another blackbird. He was doing some trapeze work with his song, swinging it back and forth in a much more regular pattern. Down the road another bird kept hitting his top note and sliding down the scale on a toboggan.

The French composer, Olivier Messiaen, spent a life-time recording bird songs and turning them, unaltered, into compositions for the piano and orchestra. (Personally, I think they lose something in the transition, though the attempt is admirable.)

But I think Messiaen would have found it impossible to cap
ture the wonder of this plain old blackbird’s song. I could only stand in awe as this minuscule scrap of creation gave forth praise to his Creator.

We’ve had a cockatiel in our house for many years. He’s lost whatever little bit of English he could speak, and he’s decided that chattering and squawking is sufficient to make his needs known. (Though he likes to join in when human singers come for a practice.)

Once in a blue moon, however, our cockatiel allows us to hear what he can really do with his voice. He opens his throat and puts Ella Fitzgerald to shame. Then with a casual cough he settles down and becomes just a nobody-cockatiel again.

Thinking entrepreneurially, I could see our cockatiel and that morning blackbird making a great duo. Borrowing a little, maybe, they could call themselves Bee Bee and Cee Cee Tee Winans, or the Daytime Nightingales, or even, Birds Blow the Whistle. 

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Hopes and Dreams of Gazza Snell

Couple of spoilers here...
This isn't a blockbuster movie, although it has some exciting go-kart racing early on. It's a small-scale, New Zealand film focused on a family to whom a tragedy (almost) happens.

Gazza Snell (blustering Australian actor William McInnes) is your self-made man with a cleaning business, but his big interest in life is getting his sons into professional car racing. The boys are both talented, but the hobby is eating up funds and Gazza's drawer is full of unpaid bills. There's also a small and undeveloped sub-plot about him running for the local council. He certainly has dreams, but he doesn't have much of a practical outlook.

His wife, Gail, (Robyn Malcolm, in a uncharacteristically subdued mode) is long-suffering, but when the major crisis hits the family - the younger boy is put into a coma after a track accident - she explodes.

Their older boy (Josh McKenzie) has his life run by his father. It's not that he doesn't enjoy racing, nor that he's no good at it, it's just that it's really his father's dream he's living, not his own.

The direction and particularly the pacing of the movie is excellent: the opening sequence establishes the characters quickly, the background of the family, and a good deal more...before the accident. From then on the movie takes a darker tone, with Gazza heavy-handedly crashing his way through all the situations, until he's finally brought to the realisation that there are some things he just can't change. And some that he can: his deceit, his false ambitions and his relationships with his family.

There are a couple of missteps in the movie: Joel Tobeck plays the next-door neighbour Ron (apparently his wife has gone, but we never hear much about this). He's there as a support for both Gazza and Gail, but in one scene he winds up supporting Gail in a rather more intimate way. Nothing more comes of this - Ron would like more, but Gail realises she's made a mistake. However, it undercuts Gail's integrity as a character, especially as she never admits to it having happened.

And in an early scene the younger boy, who only looks about 13 or 14, makes some sexual comment to a young woman who works for the cleaning company. She tells him to get lost, but after the movie is finished, and the credits start, she turns up again in the hospital and exposes her breasts the boy. It seems a bit tasteless, and undermines the well-tuned ending of the story.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Reading All's Well That Ends Well, again.

I read Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well a number of years ago. At the time I was so impressed with one of the King's speeches that I memorised it.

I've just read the play again, along with the long introduction by Susan Snyder, in the Oxford World's Classics edition. A very good introduction, with lots of helpful insights into the play, the problems (it depends whether you think the play is a problem play or not) and the characters. Excellent notes as well, helpfully on the same page as the script.

But what an odd piece it is. It debunks romantic love almost entirely.Though the heroine, Helen, is madly in love with Count Bertram (he doesn't have any idea of this) she doesn't in any sense woo him (if that were possible in that age). Instead she wins him by earning the right to take the hand of one of the King's men in exchange for healing the King of something none of his physicians have managed to deal with.

Bertram is an adolescent emotionally and attitudinally, but he's quite right to feel offended about being given a wife without having any say in the matter. And to show his disapproval he doesn't even consummate the marriage but skips off to war with his sidekick, Paroles. Paroles is an odd character he's constantly shown to be disliked by other characters, and distrusted by them, yet it's only late in the play that he actually does anything that's really offensive. Perhaps on stage it works better, with an actor being able to fill out what's not in the script's words.

But most curious of all, to me, in the opening scene he and Helen (who's shown to be virtuous and honourable throughout the play) have a very strange and bawdy conversation about virginity - for a hundred lines! It's as if Shakespeare sets out from the beginning to get rid of the notion that sex in (or out of ) marriage is anything but a very earthy thing, and that for all our attempts to make it something more exalted, it's nothing more than a human physical need.

There's a great deal about sex in this play: the later part of the plot revolves around getting Bertram into a trap that's sexual in nature (the 'old bed trick' which Shakespeare used more than once). He winds up bedding his own wife and making her pregnant, even though by that time he thinks she's dead. There's a good deal of discussion of the sexual relationships between men and women, discussion that would prove much too frank for some later generations. Besides Paroles and his bawdiness there's another character (known only as the Clown) who adds to the bawdiness in an even more gross way, and does this in discussion with Bertram's mother, the Countess, a lady who would also be above this sort of discussion, you'd think.

The trick against poor old Bertram is revealed in front of the King and the Countess, and Bertram once again is trapped. After all the sorting out he winds up saying a couple of slightly ambiguous lines in which he says he'll go through with the marriage. But you wonder what sort of a marriage it would ever be.

Shakespeare turns the world on its head, in a sense, in this play. A woman pursues a man in order to marry him, and gets her way. Love barely comes into it, but sex certainly does. None of the grand wedding scene here. The original marriage takes place offstage, and is ordered by the King to take place with barely any preparation, on the same day that Bertram is 'won.'  When Bertram's behaviour towards another woman is revealed he's the one who gets castigated, not her. And at the end of the play, it's still the women who have the upper hand, although the King's authority counts for a good deal.

You wonder what the original audience thought of it. Even today audiences struggle with it. It's not produced as often as it might be, though there are a couple of clips from a Royal Shakespeare production on You Tube.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Using Google Translate

Google Translate has a go at the opening paragraph of my book, Grimhilda!

Two grizzly bears clambered up the walls of Toby’s fort. Above them, a pitiful troop of soldiers tried holding them off by pulling away bits of the fort and dropping them on their heads. Just when it looked as if the bears would climb over the top and eat the men for dinner, one of the desperate soldiers had an idea: ‘Let’s pour honey over the side and distract them!’ It worked admirably. The bears licked the sticky walls and forgot all about being conquerors.

Due orsi grizzly arrampicavano su per le mura di fortificazione di Toby. Sopra di loro, una truppa di soldati pietosa cercò in possesso di loro fuori tirando via bit della fortezza e li cadere sulle loro teste. Proprio quando sembrava che gli orsi sarebbero salite sopra le righe e mangiare gli uomini per la cena, uno dei soldati disperati hanno avuto un'idea: 'Andiamo a versare il miele sul lato e li distraggono!' Ha funzionato egregiamente. Gli orsi leccare le pareti appiccicose e dimenticato tutto di essere conquistatori.

And then translates back into English again...pretty good job! A few grammatical issues that lean more towards Italian than English,,,

Two grizzly bears climbing up the walls of the fortification of Toby. Above them, a troop of soldiers pitiful tried holding them off pulling off bits of the fortress and drop them on their heads. Just when it seemed that the bears would climb over the top and eat people for dinner, one of the soldiers desperate had an idea: 'We're going to pour the honey on the side and distract them!' It worked very well. The bears lick the walls sticky and forgot all about being conquerors.