Monday, December 15, 2014

The Goodbye Chair

I've recently been sent a copy of Jo Carson-Barr's book for preschoolers, The Goodbye Chair. It's about Nicholas, who on one hand is excited that he's going back to see his preschool friends after a two-week break, but on the other is sad that his grandmother, who's been staying with the family, is going back home.

The story includes a kind of counting game, as well as couple of surprises on Nicholas' part at the end, when he shows his grandmother than he can count in Maori, and also use a little sign-language. (His Nannie has some deaf friends.) At the back of the book we're reminded that New Zealand has three official languages, English, Maori, and the New Zealand form of Sign Language.

Not to quibble about Carson-Barr's book, but apparently English has never been designated an official language here; it's a de facto official language. In spite of that many Government documents state that English is an official language. Curious!

I enjoyed the story. It's one most parents would be able to read to their children over and over (always an essential element in a children's book for me). But what adds hugely to the book are the attractive and fun illustrations by Carson-Barr's son, Simon Barr. At first reading they give an idea of the characters and their surroundings, but as you look at the pictures more closely you see there are a number of humorous additions to the story, imaginative things that Nicholas might be thinking (such as the flood caused by his Nannie's tears with its accompanying sea creatures), domestic details, and even some in-jokes that parents will appreciate, such as the train with the author's name written on it. This not only appears on the cover, but also inside the book, where the 'smoke' consists of cinema tickets.

Altogether an attractive book which should go down well with children and parents alike.



Thursday, December 11, 2014

An interview with writer, Rosanne Higgins

Hi, Rosanne, thanks for being willing to be interviewed about your first book, Inmates and Orphans, which I’ve recently read ˗ and enjoyed.

Can you tell us a little about yourself?
First of all, thanks for doing this, Mike!  I am glad you enjoyed the book. I am an anthropologist and small business owner living in Western New York. My husband and I own two doggy daycares. My business keeps me busy for about 60 hours per week so I do my writing and research in the evenings and on the weekends.

60 hours a week, and then you do your writing! So when did your passion for writing begin?
Very recently.  Until now, all of my writing has been for scholarly publications.  I have been a reader all of my life but I never thought I could write fiction.  It was a struggle at first, but after a while the characters just told their own story. Now I’m hooked!!

How many books have you written to date?
So far I have written Orphans and Inmates and A Whisper of Bones. These books tell the story of the Sloane sisters and their experiences at the Erie County Poorhouse and the Buffalo (New York) Orphan Asylum during the early nineteenth century.
Tell us about your first book. What was the idea that sparked it off?
For the past 15 years my scholarly research has focused on the asylum movement in the United States during the nineteenth century and the health consequences of poverty. While going through the inmate records for the Erie County Poorhouse, I came to know the people who sought refuge there.  I felt compelled to share their story, and I decided the best way to do that was to write a novel. 
Do you find your characters come alive as you write, or are they already real people in your mind before you start?
A bit of both, I think. I have a sense of the character before I begin to write, but often one or more of them will do or say something that takes me by surprise.

Yes, I know that feeling: in the first draft of my next book the characters kept arguing (as it were) as to who was going to be the real villain! Did your story change at all while you were writing it, or was it pretty much as you planned?
Orphans and Inmates came out much as I had planned, but that was not the case for Whisper. Some characters I hadn’t thought about showed up and a few threads in the story did not end as I had expected they would.

Was writing the book  a harder journey than you thought it would be?
Yes and no. Telling the actual story was easier than I expected, I suspect because I have been thinking about these people for so long. The problem for me is that I am terribly disorganized, and it took me a long time to develop an efficient system of notes that I could refer back to when I needed to recall certain aspects of a particular character, place or event.

Some people say that being a writer is the loneliest job in the world. Would you agree?
No, actually, I would not agree. I have become a “regular” in the research library at the Buffalo History Museum and I enjoy visiting with the staff and the other people who use the library. I have also met many kind and extremely talented people (like you!) along the way. I think now that we have so many social media options like-minded creative people can find each other very easily. When I am actually writing, I am never alone. My office is usually shared with two German shepherds and a standard poodle. Often I am stepping over furry bodies when I get up from my desk!!

I know that feeling. I've been babysitting two large dogs recently (we have a small dog of our own) and trying to find room to walk is sometimes an issue. 
What kind of writer are you, that is, do you write to a schedule or do it when the zone takes you?
I am very efficient and usually productive when I set myself to any task (I drive my husband and my son nuts!). I think because I juggled an academic career with a family for so many years I learned to use my time wisely. Those skills have served me well now that I juggle my business, family, research and writing. With a house full of dogs and kids, I learned to work well under pressure and in complete chaos. When I set aside time to work I always get something accomplished. If the characters are not talking to me, I try to outline the chapter I am working on or go back to organizing my notes (a never ending battle for me!).

Sounds like good advice for most writers. So apart from struggling to organize your notes, what's the most frustrating part of being a writer for you?
Marketing! I am still shocked that I wrote a few books that people outside of my family actually want to read! The hard part is taking this tiny amount of success and growing it larger. Like so many other writers I am short on both time and money. The trick is finding that cost effective way to generate interest in your work. I am trying to build a network of talented and innovative writers in the hopes that together we can figure it out!

Yes, a lot of self-publishing writers, I think, hear the stories of those who made it big in what seemed a matter of weeks. They don't hear about all the thousands who have sold just a few copies and wonder what they're doing wrong. So what has been the greatest lesson you have learned since becoming a writer?
I think the greatest lesson learned is that the self-publishing process is not that difficult. Any writer can produce a high quality book at a reasonable cost and distribute it through platforms like Amazon or Smashwords. Getting people to buy it is the trick!

How involved are you in deciding on the cover?
 I am very lucky to have an incredibly talented husband and business partner. I describe to him my ideas for the cover and he puts together a sketch for the designer. We work with a company called Ebook Launch, and they have done a fantastic job translating the concept sketches for both books into great covers.

You sent me an example of how the cover of Whisper of Bones evolved from your husband's sketch to the finished product. I thought it would be interesting to let readers see this [sketch and final cover at left] 

What are you currently working on?
I am working on the third book in the Orphans and Inmates series. I am also working on a non-fiction piece on the cholera epidemics in Buffalo, New York, during the early nineteenth century.  I don’t think that will be a book, but there is a story there that definitely needs to be told.  I may just write a series of blogs.
How important is networking for you?
Networking is very important for all writers. I have learned so much from all of the people I have met along the way. Speaking as someone who grew up before computers were in every household (before computers at all!), I find it a small miracle to have connected with people like you, who live all around the world! I used to correspond with my cousins in Scotland as a child and it took weeks to receive a reply to my letters. You and I can communicate daily! In many ways that makes networking much easier, but the building of relationships still take time. A solid network of creative, innovative and motivated people is critical, I think.

Yes, I'd thoroughly agree, and it's not something that you can just jump in and do. You have to have online conversations with people, learn to trust what they're saying, and discover what you can offer each other. It also concerns me that some young writers ("I've written ten books" I saw one posting today) haven't really done more than produce a first draft. They don't realise that books take a lot of work. 

What, then, do you think is the biggest obstacle for writers getting their books out there today?
I think all too often people jump in the pond, so to speak, and become totally overwhelmed. There are so many other writers out there trying to do the same thing. I think the biggest obstacle is trying to build a network of like-minded people who can all help each other toward a common goal.

What advice would you give to any budding writer out there?
Go with your gut. If it make sense to you, do it. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and say what you really think. Start with the people who know you and build your audience and your network out from there. Above all else, keep writing.

What platforms do you use to promote your work?
As far as social media, I use Facebook and Google+.  I also have a blog and a website. I am very fortunate that my scholarly research is similar to my novels and I do local speaking engagements to promote both.

Many thanks for being willing to be interviewed. Finally, where can people find your book?
Here are three places to start:

Three Rendell movies

Here be spoilers...

We've watched three episodes from the ongoing series, Ruth Rendell Mysteries, over the last few days. They're not all from the same year, but have been bundled together as a package. The titles are Master of the Moor, Vanity Dies Hard, and A Case of Coincidence. 

Master of the Moor dates from 1994, and stars a youngish Colin Firth. It was made a year before his appearance in Pride and Prejudice. This was the least satisfactory of the stories. It seemed to be dragged out considerably over the three episodes. Firth plays Stephen Walby, a man whose main love is the moor. After meeting a woman artist working on it one day he's shocked to find her dead body the next. The detective working on the case immediately senses that Walby is the killer, and aims to charge him. Then another woman goes missing and Walby is able to lead the police to her body without difficulty. Meanwhile Walby's lonely wife, Lyn, played by Emma Croft, starts an affair with the young Londoner filling in at the local pet shop his for his sick uncle. He discovers that she's still a virgin, in spite of having been married for four years. Walby, whose mother left him suddenly when he was a boy, has been psychologically affected, and has an odd relationship with women. His father was also badly affected by his wife's departure, and, while he continues to work at his old job, is on medication and seeing a psychiatrist.
It's all a bit heavy going, not helped by the policeman seeming to be as odd as everyone else. A new character is introduced late in the proceedings (new in a sense; we've seen him before without knowing who he was - and he's odd too!) and is briefly suspected by Walby himself, and then Lyn is killed. The whole thing turns upside down and Walby and his Dad prove to be the murderers between them. Not one of Rendall's best - unless it's the adaptation that's at fault. The cast do their very best with it, but since they're all hiding things from each other it becomes a bit overwrought.
We were a bit inclined not to watch the second film, but it turned out to be much better, and keeps you guessing right till the end.
It concerns a wealthy woman who marries a younger man, who's not of the same station (as the woman's unpleasant uncle keeps reminding everyone). The main thrust of the story is that eventually the woman begins to suspect she's being poisoned and finally comes to the conclusion that it must be her husband, because he wants to get his hands on her money. But intertwined with this is a complex story about the woman's friend who apparently goes missing. Halfway through we think it's the husband who's killed her off. The suspicions keep shifting until at the end we realise that we should have known who the murderer was all along (we're kept guessing in part because we're not even sure that there has been a murder!) This was a much more satisfactory piece, with lots of red herrings, some clever casting (it has hints of Hitchcock's Suspicion, especially in the way it casts a handsome young man as the husband, but one who could easily be an outright liar), and a continually involving story.
Michael Fitzgerald, in a
completely different role.
The third film, A Case of Coincidence, is shorter than the other two, and concerns the murder of five women in a marshland area. Four of the women, it turns out, have been murdered by the same man (this is discovered in a rather odd way, and isn't very believable), but whether the fifth was killed by the same man or not, isn't so easy to work out...for the police, that is. We're pretty certain early on that she wasn't. Her husband, a top surgeon, lives something of a separate life from his wife, and after her death keeps fainting or sweating heavily or being given medication and put to bed (by a fellow-surgeon, a female, who's plainly madly in love with him) and not really getting back to work. His over-protective mother turns up and treats the woman surgeon like a kind of high-class maid, but the surgeon herself is equally over-protective. Fatally, as it happens.The half-wit murderer of the other four is accused of the fifth murder as well, and is hung. But the husband, as we guessed, murdered his wife, and seemingly because someone else has been tried and hung for the crime, can't be convicted. This seemed a bit odd.
However, the cast is superb, and does a terrific job with a rather unbelievable story (it's an adaptation of a short story by Rendall, and it seems almost as though the adaptor had got himself in a bit of a tangle). Michael Fitzgerald (see picture), as the 'half-wit' man convicted of the crimes, is marvellously moving.



Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Quilter's piano pieces

I don't buy a lot of music online, either downloaded music or actual sheet music. However, about three weeks ago I happened upon the fact that Roger Quilter (1877-1953) had written some piano music. I'm familiar with a number of his songs, almost all of which I love, and which, in some cases I've been playing for singers for decades. I'd never heard of his piano music, and thought I'd check it out.

In the end the only ones I could access easily that particular day were a set called Three Studies. They were written early in his career if the opus number is anything to go by - Opus 4 - but already they have some of the tone or fingerprints of the his later works. The word 'studies' tends to make you think of something dry and tedious, but Quilter was incapable of being dry or tedious, and these works are a delight.

However, all three are marked to be played at considerable speed - I thought this might have something to do with him being a young man when he wrote them, but they were published in 1923, by which time he was 46. It's likely they're young-man-works that were published much later, since his Opus 11 was written around 1909.

I'm not sure that I'd want to play them as fast as indicated: Number I is marked Molto allegro con moto with a crochet racing along like a greyhound in a race at 184; number II is Molto allegro amabile and is marked somewhat slower, at crochet equally 160. The third is Vivace misterioso e legato, and the crochet marking is 176. None of these speeds gives much room for breathing.

I can't play them accurately at any of those speeds at the moment, and I'm not sure that I'd want to. I think they'd all benefit from having some space between the notes, though obviously they have to move.


Culinary musical items

Looking for unusual gifts for the musicians in your life? Try this link:
http://www.musiciansfriend.com/unique-unusual-gifts

Among other things you can have a 20-watt hand-wired head. Now, that's unusual. I'm quite glad I don't have a hand-wired head. The one I've got is confusing enough at the best of times. 

Another option is Minotaur stands. No wait, that's monitor stands. Always did have trouble spelling certain words. Similar, for instance. I always used to spell it as similiar, like familiar. Seemed logical at the time. 

You can get livid guitar wings. I don't think these are akin to chicken wings, but they sound pretty tasty, kind of spicy, as though someone had put jalapeƱos in them. Describing them as livid does give the taste buds something to think about - or hope to avoid.

The livid guitar wings may have a connection with the pink taco closed-back guitar speakers. What is it about these musical devices? Are they all designed by Mexican chefs?

The mind kind of boggles (not hard, if it's been hand-wired.)

Incidentally, the pink tacos will set you back about $2000NZ. Kind of expensive for a Christmas present. But hey, if you can't buy expensive for friends, who can you buy expensive for? 

Saturday, December 06, 2014

An interview with Traci Lawrence

Traci Lawrence is the author of the e-book Accept No Trash Talk, which I read recently. I've been in touch with Traci and asked if I could send her some questions about the book. She's sent me the answers and here's the result. [My questions and comments are in italics.]

This is your first book, I believe. Has it taken a long time for you to get this book off the ground?

In a word: yes. About a year and a half passed from the time when I got the idea for the book until it was first published. I have spent the past five weeks editing it for the publication of the second edition. Editing is an important, seemingly never-ending process.

I can agree with that! I see you’ve had some very positive reviews from readers. Have you had similar reactions from people on a more personal level as well?

In the beginning, my beta readers (people who an author asks to read an early, pre-publication manuscript) gave me more constructive criticism than positive feedback. However, since that first awkward stage, I have been given mainly positive responses. Relatives, friends, and colleagues who have read the book usually say that it’s inspiring. At the very least, they tell me that they appreciate the stories of prominent figures overcoming the odds.

I believe you’re preparing a revised version of the book. Is this based on feedback from other people, or is it because you’ve rethought some of the things you’ve written?

The main motivation for my edit was the advice of a publishing industry professional. She felt that the message of my book was important, but I needed to tighten up the formatting and content. Also, she felt that I needed to shorten the book,
On my own, I had decided that I wanted to update the examples that I used. I added, deleted, and edited stories. I wanted to bring a more positive, updated outlook to my work. I took some of the focus off of me and shifted it more to the stories of other people.

One of the great advantages of e-publishing, especially when we self-publish, is that we can correct things, or improve them, even after the book has gone out to customers. Will your updated version be the last word on this book?

It’s hard to say. I understand that some authors publish many editions of a certain book, and I am a perfectionist. Aside from that, there will always be new stories to tell of how individuals interact.

Did you find the self-publishing process difficult, overwhelming, straightforward...? Were there people who could help you with the task?

I made the choice to publish only on Amazon for now. Publishing in electronic format is not difficult. I followed the links for publishing to the Kindle starting from the Amazon home page. My book was available for download by the next day. There are no fees involved for this process. It is straightforward.
Amazon Kindle publishing experts are available by e-mail only. They did help me with a few simple formatting questions at no cost to myself. However, it was inconvenient to only be able to contact them by e-mail. I really would have appreciated more help in a timely manner.

[For those wanting to self-publish with Kindle, I'd recommend the free e-book, Building Your Book for Kindle which I've used for all three of my books. It takes you through the process without missing any vital information!]

Do you have any other books in mind? If so, will they be on the same sort of topic, or on other areas of concern?

I am currently doing research for a book that is a sort of continuation of my first book. It will feature specific examples of prominent figures and everyday people overcoming ridiculous odds.  Some examples of the famous people it will feature are King George VI of England (who conquered a debilitating stutter) and the French Impressionists (who conquered a lack of acceptance by the mainstream art community).

How easy do you think it is for sensitive people to confront bullies or controlling people?  Is it better to avoid confrontation, to ‘tune-out any sort of inappropriate negativity’ as you say at one point?

Confrontation is difficult for many people, especially sensitive ones. Some delicate individuals may shy away from conflict altogether. In some cases, we must ask ourselves if the clash is really worth it. If our rights, or needs, will be trampled unless we address a particular issue, perhaps we should choose to face the situation—if feasible. However (in my humble opinion) if confronting a situation will be unproductive, it’s best to avoid an altercation. I have never been a big fan of wasting my own time.
I don’t know if it’s feasible to say that confrontation is always right, or always wrong. Individuals should use their own judgment. That’s the safest answer. When I mentioned tuning out negativity, I was referring to tuning out people who, generally, demean us. I wasn’t mentioning people who might be a real threat to us in any way. There will always be naysayers out there, and we can’t afford to give weight constantly to what they say and do.

You say at one point that you’ve ‘heard it said that every person...has a particular section of the body which is more prone to disease.’ I wasn’t sure that I agreed with this. Is there any actual research done along these lines that you know of?

I’m no expert on this subject, and I’m not aware of any scientific research on the subject. However, I have seen references to this issue in non-medical literature (such as New Age literature). To me, it’s an interesting field to observe. There does seem to be a pattern: ulcers may occur in people with a certain personality type. Other gastrointestinal issues may happen in people who are more sensitive. These conclusions are based on my non-scientific observations, and research, only. Of course, I can’t say that my observations are true for everyone.

One of the things the book made me do was look at my own behaviour. I don’t like confrontation much, but I’m also capable of being a controlling type of person in some areas at times. Do you think that many people have tendencies to swing between one or the other?

Again, I don’t pretend to be an expert in this area. I only know what I’ve researched, and observed. Some researchers of personality types, such as Tim LaHaye, feel that every person is an unique amalgam of characteristics. It’s a fact that few mentally stable people are controlling, or submissive, 100% of the time. It’s probably true that most people swing between the two depending on the situation. For instance, I may feel comfortable taking the lead on a small group project at work while I may be submissive to my supervisor.

People are complicated. Most of us can’t be put into boxes that read “Continual manipulator”, or “Shy and awkward”.

Thanks, Traci. Good to have some background to your book. I know it will encourage a great many people, whichever version of it they read...

Friday, December 05, 2014

 I think this quote is doing the rounds on the Net, but it's worth putting it here anyway: 

Here’s the thing. When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before.... So, to say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress. There’s been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years.

Chris Rock
"In Conversation" in Vulture

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Review of Accept No Trash Talk, by Traci Lawrence

I read Traci’s book over the last week, and as usual with an e-book, highlighted a number of things that struck me, or that I ‘argued’ with. This is one great advantage of e-books, that you keep track of the notes you make so easily. It’s the equivalent of scribbling on the printed page or putting in exclamation or question marks.

Traci’s book looks at the difficulties people face who have limitations, or who are more sensitive than others, or who struggle to make themselves heard against those with stronger personalities. The limitations may be physical or mental disabilities, or health problems. The one struggling may be part of a minority, someone who's been brought up in an abusive family, or someone currently living in an abusive situation. Traci’s book applies to any of these and more.

It also looks a great deal at bullies and controlling people.

One of the lines that really struck home to me was: Controlling people do not like to be controlled. Controlling people do not like to have their agendas obstructed. I’ve found this true in my own life too. I know several controlling people: they usually have positions of authority and can abuse that authority, often without realising it. I’ve even been guilty of being a bit of a control freak at times myself, so in a sense I know it from both sides. Controllers don’t like to be confronted about their behaviour, however. Mainly, I think, it’s because they don’t see it at the time, and perhaps don’t even believe they’re doing it.

I’ve found that some of them eventually come to understand they’re controllers, but the behaviour is so habitual that controlling usually happens before they can deal with it. They have to eat humble pie afterwards. Still, better to eat humble pie than never to acknowledge it.

Traci makes a point about bullying: I think that the overarching reason for the bullying...can be condensed down to the fact that many of these people [are] self-righteous. Self-righteousness can be loosely defined as the attitude of a person who feels that he is superior to people who don’t think, look, act, talk, or believe as he does. The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector immediately comes to mind! [Luke 18:9-14]

The self-righteous often don’t see their own behaviour. I had experience of corporate bullying in the last three years of my working life. I wasn’t directly in the line of fire, but my immediate boss was. The self-righteous bully eventually closed down our office because he felt he was right about his views. And unfortunately, as is often the case with such bullies, there were also cronies and yes-men surrounding him who endorsed his self-righteousness. Standing up to such people is an enormous, energy-draining task, as my boss found.

This is a personal book, and Traci discusses her own successes and failures honestly. She also gives credit to those who've helped her, and in one passage talks about her husband who saw her potential, affirmed her, encouraged her and validated her. ‘Since he believes in me,’ she writes, ‘I believe in myself.’

In spite of the difficulties of Traci’s life she has managed to build up a positive attitude. I like this paragraph from her book: When one door closes, a new door to a better life usually opens. Sometimes, we just have to be patient. At first, newly-opened doors may not always look like fresh opportunities. Opportunities may not always manifest themselves immediately. In fact, opportunities may first present themselves as unexpected, undesired challenges. The good news is that those challenges are what prepare us for new levels in life.

There’s a lot more packed in that paragraph than I realised when I first noted it.

This is a book that will encourage those who struggle, whatever their situation. It will also make you stop and think: am I guilty of this kind of behaviour?

I might not have discovered this book if I hadn’t discovered Traci on Google+. Increasingly I’m finding that site is full of people who are willing to make strangers into friends, and help and support each other.  





Review of The Blood Secret

Nice review of my second children's book, The Mumbersons and the Blood Secret, has just appeared on Amazon, from Rosanne Higgins. I'm sure she won't mind my copying it here...

I found The Mumbersons and the Blood Secret, by Mike Crowl, to be a most delightful story. Billy Mumberson, and his friend, Olivia, risk life and limb to uncover a long kept secret at the factory where his father is employed. The children have in common parents who are preoccupied and spare them little attention or affection. Billy’s life is particularly confusing since the departure of his mother, nearly a year before. His father is grumpy, becoming even more so after the sudden appearance of his own parents, who arrive after a 20 year unexplained absence. Billy’s grandparents move right in, providing both children with the care and comfort they have been missing in their lives.

As the tale unfolds, we learn how Billy’s blood is critical to the story’s villains in their quest to reclaim something lost to them a long time ago. Through a series of adventures sure to keep young readers turning the page, Billy and Olivia expose the clandestine activities of the factory’s mysterious owners and save a few lives in the mix.

Although this is the second book in the series, I enjoyed it without having read the first book (however, I am planning on reading the first book, Grimhilda, anyway!). The story moves along and is an easy read for children just starting to tackle chapter books. It would also be a fun story to read aloud to youngsters not yet ready for big kid books.

Rosanne Higgins is the author of a couple of novels based on the real history of events in 19th century Buffalo, in the US. Orphans and Inmates, and A Whisper of Bones. I'm reading the first of these two at the moment, and finding it very good. 

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Not a winner this time round....

Didn't win the Gallipoli Songs competition organised by ABC Classic FM radio and our own Radio NZ Concert. But a young fellow called Andrew Baldwin was one of the six winners. (Now if 119 of the other 124 entrants hadn't entered, I might have had a fighting chance.

Andrew Baldwin is fairly well-established as a young composer; I've twice heard his music on the radio in the last couple of weeks. When I knew him first he was only a skinny little lad with a very good boy soprano voice. He performed in the local singing competitions and frequently won, or got placed. And then his voice broke - it was breaking during the last lot of competitions I remember seeing him in, to his embarrassment and everyone else's sympathy. But at that point Andrew was already composing, and I can remember him playing something he'd written way back then. I've also got a piano piece that I enjoy playing that he wrote some years ago, although his style has changed since then.

The breaking of the voice usually means boys have to take a couple of years off singing in competitions, or anywhere else. Some boys, like my younger son, manage to shift that gear in the voice without much problem, but my son had never really been a boy soprano in the accepted sense. The young fellow who played Toby in the musical, Grimhilda!, that I wrote two or three years ago, Max Beal, is currently in the same boat. He was in the most recent lot of competitions, this year, but will have to take a bit of time off to grow into his new voice.

So, I didn't win the Gallipoli Songs Competition. Well, I knew I'd be in heavy duty company, and I'll get over it. Eventually.

I spoke to one of my daughters on the phone the other night. We were talking about what I'd been doing and she was asking how my latest book is going (The Mumbersons and the Blood Secret). I said sales were pretty sluggish. Her comment was that I'll probably be one of those writers who becomes famous after I'm dead. I agreed. She went on to say that then my children will get all the handsome profits.

It would be nice to think so!

Interview with Jim Heskett

I've been doing some promotional work on Google+, getting to know some other writers and interacting with them. It's been fruitful for me, and hopefully for them. I asked a few of them if they would like to read my latest book, The Mumbersons and the Blood Secret, and give me some feedback. 
Some have responded, and the first one to read it, Jim Heskett, who's published a book of poetry recently, Love Poems, Hate Poems, was the first to come back to me. I gave him a list of questions that I thought he might like to answer, and here are the unadulterated responses. 

Me: Did the book entertain you, keep you wanting to know what happened next?

Jim: It did. The first chapter had a nice mystery hook with the blood-taking barber. The suspense had a nice ramp-up over the first half of the book.

Me: Did the characters come across as real people for you?

Jim: Hard to gauge, since I’m not too familiar with children’s literature. It felt like a fairy tale, a bit like Neil Gaiman.

Me: Were any of the lines or situations amusing to you?

Jim: The banter between Olivia and Billy was pretty clever.

Me: Did you find the situations plausible, given that there’s an element of fantasy in it?

Jim: I did, but it seemed odd to me that Jerry wouldn’t recognize his own parents after only twenty years. Also, that Billy thought of his dad as “jerry” and not “dad.”

Me: Did you feel that the language was at a suitable level for younger readers (given that it’s intended for kids from 6 - 12, roughly)

Jim: I think so, it seemed comparable to the first couple Harry Potter books.

Me: Did you enjoy it as an adult reader? Would you read it to your kids? (Well, when he’s ready...)

Jim: I did enjoy it! Good suspense, fun situations, and a satisfying ending.

Me: Did you find there were any cultural differences that you queried while reading it?

Jim: A little, but I lived in Australia, so I was able to puzzle out most of the slight language differences. Referring to the skateboarders as Ninjas was a new one to me.

Me: This is intended to be a stand-alone story, but it has links back to the first book in the series. Did it make you want to find out what the first book was about?

Jim: Since I knew nothing about the first book, I didn’t know what any of those links back to the first book were. Maybe adding some mystery by making vague references to things that happened before might help.

Me: Was there anything that really irritated you...?

Jim: I found some POV problems that stuck out to me… the POV seemed mostly in Billy’s head, but occasionally it would jump into another person’s head for a few sentences here and there. That’s a small quibble but those things always pull me out of the story.

You can also buy The Blood Secret on Smashwords, Kobo and iTunes




Thursday, November 27, 2014

Revolving Secret Santa gifts

The other night my wife's workplace had their Christmas meal together, and during the course of the evening (which was held at the home of one of the senior staff) we played a form of Secret Santa which apparently was originated on the TV series, The Office. It's rather complicated to explain but basically the first person whose name is drawn out of a hat goes to the pile of little gifts, picks one, and then draws the next name. 

If the person who's drawn second thinks he or she would like the first person's gift, they're entitled to take it off them (!), or they can go and get a new present from the pile. And then the third person comes into the game, and again can choose someone else's gift or get a new one. It's gets quite complicated once a number of gifts have been opened, because things start to move around the room quite rapidly, especially if they have appeal to more than one person. 

The gift I got didn't have appeal to anyone else, so I wound up with it, and couldn't snaffle anyone else's gift. My wife, on the other hand, managed to get something she wanted from someone else, lost it, got it again and finished up losing it completely before winding up with a jar of tamarillo chutney.

My gift was a box of three little scented candles. Maybe we'll find a use for them sometime, or else we'll put them in someone else's Secret Santa parcel if the occasion arises...

Unlike these Diptyque candles shown in the picture, mine were modest little fellers. The left hand one of the three in the picture is called Feu de Bois or firewood, the one on the right, Figuier, means fig tree. The middle one doesn't appear to have a translation. While the site where these candles are advertised talks about how the company came into existence, it doesn't give any indication as to how the name came about, with its curious spelling, easily mispronounced. However, good old Wikipedia tells us that the word is related to the Greek diptykos, and relates to a painting or sculpture composed of two panels or parts. I'm not sure how that connects to the candles, but I'm sure there's someone out there who'll know.



Dunedin wins gigatown

To immense jubilation on the part of the supporters, Dunedin won the Chorus gigatown competition last night. I wasn't among the crowd in the Dunedin headquarters (formerly the National Bank in George St) but watched the live streaming from Wellington in which the announcement was made, and then saw the gradual build up of tweets and Facebook comments and photos and videos as people got sufficiently over their initial excitement and shedding of tears and began to digitally announce to the world that we are Australasia's first giga-city.

It's a huge achievement. There were times when it seemed as though Dunedin didn't have a hope. We were well down the board in the earlier stages of the competition, and then did a major leap as a result of one particular effort. After that we remained pretty much in the top five. Thankfully.

I was involved from about March, mostly tweeting, but some had been competing since late last year when the competition started, tweeting day after day and putting up photos and so on. A massive effort from the long-haul people.

But then, when the tweeting/FB side of it came into the last stage, hundreds of people came out of the woodwork, it seemed, and some of them spent a phenomenal amount of time tweeting and retweeting and commenting, until, on the last day for that side of the competition we nearly managed to break Twitter in NZ. It got so overwhelmed that it couldn't keep up. That was extraordinary.

It was at that point that I discovered there were people who'd been involved from early on that I'd never encountered. Which was strange considering how much retweeting had been going on for months.

My only unique contribution to the thing was that I seem to have introduced the word 'twibe' to describe those who were tweeting faithfully day after day in Dunedin. I'd borrowed it from a blog post I wrote some years back, in 2009 in fact, and it took off. Last night a number of my friends on FB were congratulating me on how much I'd done in the competition. I had to remind them that the reality is that I was one of the minor players, especially towards the end, when some people easily outshone me as the sun easily outshines the earth. It was good to know I contributed something, but let's not go overboard, people!

Of course now the gig thing will gradually come to pass in the city. Home users probably won't see any difference for some time since many parts of the city aren't yet connected to fibre, and won't be until 2015, 2016 (in our case) or even 2018, which officially the discounted price will be over and done with. Hopefully businesses will be enabled to get on and use it in the more central parts of the city. That's certainly going to be a plus for many of them.




Tuesday, November 25, 2014

A neuroscientist debunked...

Sometime ago I read Proust was aneuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer. The review below is what I wrote for the local paper at the time. I've just come across this book again in an article in the latest NZ Listener, which is discussing a much more recent book on neuroscience by Christian Jarrett, called Great Myths of the Brain, which I hope to read at some point soon. 

Apparently, Lehrer has had a major fall from grace. "...in 2012...Lehrer was accused of recycling his own work and plagiarising the work of others. Two books were recalled, the New Yorker sacked him and he has largely disappeared from view...much of Lehrer's plagiarism was from Jarrett's British Psychological Society digest."

Here's what I wrote about that first book, back in 2011.

Lehrer’s idea for this book is to compare the thinking of various artists (Walt Whitman, Virginia Wolff, Gertrude Stein and Paul Cezanne to name just a few) with the discoveries science has been making about the brain. In relation to each artist he focuses on a particular aspect of the way (we think) the brain works and shows that often an artist has already ‘gone ahead’ and intuitively understood these things. 

It’s an intriguing idea and one that comes off well in some chapters and not so well in others. As a musician I found the chapter on Stravinsky less than satisfactory. He insists on calling The Rite of Spring a symphony and writes as though all (actual) symphonies before this composition appeared were classical in structure. And while Stravinsky was certainly an iconoclast, he was by no means the only person changing the shape of music around that time. Nor did he suddenly begin his musical career with a work that was completely off-the-wall. 

That quibble aside, the book is full of fascinating stuff, both scientifically and artistically. As always, we meet scientists who would rather cling to a theory than allow someone else to prove them wrong, and inevitably their goal becomes the quashing of the younger scientist’s findings. We read about all manner of discoveries in relation to the brain, in areas as varied as the memory, how we perceive feeling, taste, sight, language and what the self is...or isn’t. Many of these discussions are fascinating, and, for the most part, quite accessible.


Lehrer’s book is one of a number on neuroscience that have come out in the last short while. V S Ramachandran , Iain McGilchrist and Nicholas Hum­phrey have all written on the subject. Consequently, while Lehrer often convinces in his discussion of the brain and the mind, it needs to be remembered that what he’s saying is by no means the last word on the topic.  Our current state of neuroscientific thinking is in an extraordinary state of forward movement on one hand and dismay at how little we know on the other.  

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Doing the nanowrimo

At the beginning of the month I suddenly decided to take up the National Novel Writing Month challenge, normally abbreviated to nanowrimo, an abbreviation I have to look up every time because I can't remember it.

For those who don't know about this challenge, the idea is that you write what is basically the draft of a 50,000 word novel from the 1st to 30th of November (inclusive). That's the goal. I'm sure a lot of people start off intending to get there, and wind up some 1000s of words short. Or give up.

Having started I decided I'd be content with doing a thousand words a day, since that's about the length of my two previous children's novels. But now that I'm close to the finishing mark, with 34845 words in the can, I'm inclined to want to get to the 50,000 word mark just to prove I can do it. Tonight has been a real slog; the characters have no idea how they're going to get past the latest problem (well, actually it's a problem that's been looming for a while because I wrote a section the other day that came much later in the story, and now I'm trying to work out how we got there.)

This has been a common issue throughout the book. Because you're not supposed to plan or do a structure in advance, you're writing blind, and while this means things arrive out of the blue that you wouldn't have otherwise thought of, it also means you put your characters in situations they struggle to work their way out of. It doesn't help that two of the characters seem to be intermingling, and we're never quite sure which one is which. (By 'we' I mean 'me', of course.)

The story is a kind of prequel to the other two books I've published this year, Grimhilda! and The Blood Secret. And that's also meant that there has to be a scene in it in which two of the characters (a married couple) wind up permanently attached to each other - attached in the literal sense, unable to separate themselves. Quite why this should happen, how it's going to happen, and what will be the consequences, is all in the future at this point.

Ah well.

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!