Review: Albert’s Wars by Stewart Jackel

alberts wars 2In my review of Ice in Sunlight, I mentioned how often I felt teary reading of the protagonist’s pain and journey to healing and love. Well, perhaps I’m feeling especially sappy this month, though I think it’s more to do with excellent writing, because Stewart Jackel’s Albert’s Wars had me crying for the last 50 pages.

Albert’s Wars tells the story of two boys who end up lying about their age and joining up the armed services during World War II, though for very different reasons. Albert, with a passion for machines but in trouble with local authorities, joins the navy while Harry, looking to escape from a father he doesn’t get on with, joins the infantry.

We follow their separate paths for a while until fate brings them together – the ship on which Harry finds himself is sunk by enemy fire and it’s Albert’s ship that rescues him from the sea. Albert finds half drowned, barely conscious and delirious Harry in his cabin, and instructed to look after him. No punches are pulled in the realism of his state, including having soiled himself, and Albert’s non-judgemental and compassionate care of him is thoughtfully handled in the writing.

It’s a potentially awkward first meeting, but this is war and it’s the least of the terrible things to happen to combatants. A deep friendship springs up almost instantly between Harry and Albert, who share a cabin and all kinds of shenanigans until Harry can be returned to the army.

It’s also clear early on that Albert is gay, and that his feelings for Harry run deeper than friendship – but that friendship is plenty deep and plenty reciprocated. In defending Albert from a bullying superior officer, who accuses Harry of being Albert’s ‘soapy’, Harry declares, “I’m not his and he’s not mine, but if he was anybody’s I’d be proud that I was his.”

Albert’s Wars is about these boys and their friendship – but it’s also about war, and therefore about the cost of war.

Hence the crying I mentioned at the start.

Because in war, terrible things happen and you lose people you love: suddenly, stupidly, tragically. After becoming so fond of Albert and Harry and invested in their friendship we are faced with the loss of one of them. Jackel proceeds to delicately and with great compassion lead us through the grieving with the survivor.

Jackel tells Albert and Harry’s story with a robust 1940s Aussie vernacular and an energetic style that keeps you engaged from the start. The period slang could easily be too much, but instead it provides a vivid cultural and personal background for Albert, from Fitzroy, and Harry from Wangaratta. The language feels true to the era and to each of the boys’ backgrounds, and reminded me of ways in which my grandfathers used to speak.

It certainly works to create a rich background and to paint pictures of these two lively, likeable lads in their home lives, in training, in their deep friendship and in their grief.

Jackel has written a vivid, very Australian yet very individual account of two young men at war. It’s textured, humane and deeply moving and I hope one day that a hinted-at sequel will come to pass. I’d like to find out what happens next.

Buy Albert’s War

Review: Ice in Sunlight by Julia Leijon

IceInSUnlightSome stories that become beautiful start in ugly places. Mary Borsellino, writing here as Julia Leijon, is a master of this progression, never shying from harsh realities while simultaneously always offering hope for redemption.

Ice in Sunlight opens with a slave, Corwen, hiding in the kitchens while the assassination of his owner – the King of Genest – is taking place upstairs. Corwen is cold, cynical and unpleasant. He is in the habit of tormenting the kitchen dogs and comes from a society where the eating of one’s enemies is a literal thing, and several bodies are hanging in the pantr

For all this harsh beginning, it’s very easy to see how Corwen’s meanness and acceptance of cruel practices stem from his own experiences. He’s been a sex slave to a tyrant since he was ten years old; he carries a scar on his throat from a childhood attempt on his life; he has survived to almost twenty through cunning and cleverness. And yet his thoughts of the prince who was his friend remain kind. In the midst of his unpleasantness, there is a kernel that there may be more to Corwen than life has allowed him to be.

Corwen has been brutalised from an early age, and his greatest comfort seems to be imagining how he will die – young, certainly – in ways that give him more power and personhood that his life, and how he believes his end will really come. His antipathy towards the castle dogs comes from a very awful and bitter understanding.

The King’s assassins turn out to be philosophers of a sort, here to do this one unpleasant but, they think, necessary deed. Corwen believes he will be slaughtered as a traitor if he stays, so they allow him to return with them to Ardvi Aban, despite their misgivings and his.

Nobody, thinks Corwen, can be as kind as these people pretend to be. Certainly, Corwen does not think he has any worth at all, and cannot understand why anybody would think better of him.

And so we get the story of how Corwen, made flinty and cynical through abuse, discovers kindness. He learns that sex doesn’t have to be about power, and learns not only that love is possible, but that he does deserve it.

That paragraph makes it sound like a sweet and sentimental journey, and Ice in Sunlight is not that. Corwen’s self-worth (or rather, self-loathing) is also caught up with his sometimes complex relationship with his abuser (or abusers, if you consider how he got his scar). There’s a lot of pain in his growth, and often I was close to tears as I read. Many of his thought processes, and the revelations he has on the way, reflected things I’ve read from people who have survived abuse and how complex the thinking can be when you are both reliant upon and frightened of the person doing you harm.

Ultimately, it’s a beautiful story of redemption and love. Not every problem is solved by the end, but there is growth and a place of peace. Corwen is written with compassion even for his worst behaviours, because he has been taught it is literally an ‘eat or be eaten’ world. That the reader can be invested in him, even at his worst, and can feel pain for his pain, is a deft bit of writing – one at which Leijon excels.

The supporting characters are also beautifully written: the seeming Utopia of Ardvi Aban is indeed a wonderful place, but it’s a very wonderful human place, a sanctuary of the best that humans can be, in contrast to the Genestian environment in which he was warped. People aren’t perfect, but they are seeking balance. The final philosophical revelations – about water and waves and ice – are perfect metaphors for love and loss and Corwen’s journey of transformation.

In Ice in Sunlight, Corwen finds peace, kindness and love. He is healing from his terrible wounds of the soul. It makes for heartbreaking reading at times, but by the end my heart was mended and as full as Corwen’s for the new hope he has for his life.

Buy Ice in Sunlight

Quintette of Questions: Sandra Lindsey

Quintette asks writers five quick questions. This week’s interview is with:

Sandra Lindsey

ULS-320x4801. What’s the name of your latest book – and how hard was it to pick a title?

It takes me ages to find titles for stories – this one was called “miner + airman” until about draft 4, when I decided I was close enough to the end that I really ought to get thinking about a proper title. Having just settled on “Make Do & Mend” being suitable for the era and themes of the book, Manifold Press announced a book by Adam Fitzroy called – yes, you guessed it, “Make Do & Mend”.

So I went back to the books I’d read as initial research for inspiration, and found mention of a poem that members of the Air Transport Auxiliary thought fitted their work. The first lines were quoted as being “Dicing with death / Under leaden skies” I haven’t yet been able to find a copy of the full poem, but decided that Under Leaden Skies fitted my story very well.

2. If you could choose anyone from any time period, who would you cast as the leads in your latest book?

Oooh, tough question! I don’t tend to cast my characters, but I’ve had a lot of thought, and decided Gregory Peck as Teddy and Errol Flynn as Cheeks because I think it was watching old movies with those actors which got me interested in the era when I was younger.

Huw’s more difficult, and I think I’ll go with James Bolam – I don’t know if he’s very well known outside the UK but he’s done a lot of very good TV work in the UK (all of these actors I’m casting in their younger years, to suit the characters’ ages).

Since I’ve mentioned the men, it would be rude not to think about Syliva. She’s harder for me to cast. I’m going to say Grace Kelly, but really she could be played by any one of many classy actresses from the 1940s & 1950s.

The only person I have no trouble casting is Jem, one of the secondary characters. I took a day’s break between my penultimate edit and last read-through, and watched the whole of Lucifer season 1.  Jem needs to be played by Tom Ellis with his Lucifer voice.

3. What five words best describe your story?

Aircraft, lovers, loss, family, love.

4. Who is your favourite fictional couple?

Another tough question… I fall in love quite easily with any well-written couple, and there are several I’ll enthuse about at any one time. I like a bit of snark and realistic misunderstandings to happen in a fictional relationship, because that makes it more believable for me. Sarcasm is also good and, because I’m British, the ability to sort everything out over a cuppa or a pint.

My top choice changes at least weekly, and is highly influenced by which book I read most recently… right now, I’m going to say Tom & Phil from JL Merrow’s Plumber’s Mate series (Pressure Head, Relief Valve, Heat Trap, and the recently-released-I’m-going-to-read-it-tonight Blow Down)

 5. What song always makes you cry?

Danny Boy – even just the tune will have tears streaming down my face. I’ve loved it since I first heard it as it’s a beautiful piece of music, but now I’m an adult it just gets me, every time.

I found a couple of versions online which I liked – one was by the Dublin Male Voice Choir (I do love a good male voice choir), but the one I liked best starts at 3:06 in this video:

I was imagining it was Huw singing while I listened to it… yeah, right in the feels (as they probably don’t say any more as I am always hopelessly behind the times)

About Under Leaden Skies

Love. Loss. Betrayal. Forgiveness. Honour. Duty. Family.
In 1939, the arrival of war prompted ‘Teddy’ Maximilian Garston to confess his love to his childhood friend, Huw Roberts. Separated by duty – Teddy piloting Sunderland flying boats for RAF Coastal Command, and Huw deep underground in a South Wales coal mine – their relationship is frustrated by secrecy, distance, and the stress of war that tears into every aspect of their lives.

After endless months of dull patrols, a chance encounter over the Bay of Biscay will forever change the course of Teddy’s life. On returning to Britain, how will he face the consequences of choices made when far from home? Can he find a way to provide for everyone he loves, and build a family from the ashes of wartime grief?

About Sandra Lindsey

slwprofilepicSandra lives in the mountains of Mid-Wales with her husband. Their garden is full of fruit and veg plants as well as home to a small flock of rare breed chickens, and she is a servant to two cats.

Sandra loves indulging in stories because she gets to spend her time with imaginary friends, and the research and observation required to write fiction open her eyes to a myriad different ways of seeing the world. Find her on Twitter @SLindseyWales – or curled up out of the way reading a good book!

Buy Under Leaden Skies

The Lady Novelist chills out in the west

IMG_5230After the full-on days of Comic Con in San Diego, I was able to pull back a little on the running around and spent some time chilling out in Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and some smaller towns nearby.

Santa Barbara

The Pacific Surfliner train from San Diego passed through LA and on to the sunny shores of Santa Barbara, known as a beachside getaway for the wealthy and famous. And also, on our part, the fatigued and obscure.

IMG_5221We only had a few days there, but there was Spanish history at a reconstruction of the old Presidio and shade under a fruit-laden orange tree, a pond full of turtles, and bobbing about in the motel pool like a giant cork.

San Luis Obispo Farmer’s Market

San Luis Obispo, a little way down the track on the Pacific Surfliner, turned out to be a charming little university town, whose population swells during the university year.

IMG_5306A regular Thursday night farmers market showed off the local strawberries and flowers and a friendly crowd. I even bumped into a visitor and his son who I’d seen earlier in the day on our visit to Hearst Castle.

Hearst Castle

Hearst CastleIMG_5264 is a bit out of town in an area called San Simeon. Built by the former media baron William Randolph Hearst, it was gifted to the state by his descendents. It’s lush, luscious, and always, for me, teetering on the border between impressive and crass, with all the genuine antiquities tucked into the modern walls.

Stars like Charlie Chaplin and Errol Flynn used to frolic here, though I was more intrigued on learning it had been occupied only by a skeleton staff for three years during World War 2, out of concern that Japanese submarines off shore would torpedo the place. Combine this with the unexpected atmospheric frequency of fogs and mists poised over the sea and shore here in the height of summer, it seems the perfect time and place to set a murder mystery!

Grey Wolf Winery

Other surprises, besides the beachside fog drifts, included the wine! Yes, I know there’s Napa Valley, but I’d honestly just never dwelled much on American wine. But when in wine country, one should always try the local produce. Grey Wolf, as well as having a fabulous logo, makes a very nice drop.

Art and artists

IMG_5327I also chanced across some lovely art in my travels. At Joebella, a very decent cafe in Paso Robles near San Luis, beautiful bird artwork was on display. I couldn’t afford my favourite piece, a raven, but was delighted to find a print for sale so I pounced. Greg Ellis Valencia creates lovely bird art: another of my favourites was a bird painted over a page from an old aircraft book.

In San Luis itself, I came across a narrow gallery where artist Gene Francis was working on a painting. His style reminded me a little of Norman Rockwell. We got to talking and he showed me his back room full of fabulous memorabilia he uses as props for his work.

In our far-ranging conversation, which covered travel, the Bechdel and Sexy Lamp Tests (prompted by a sexy lamp in his prop collection) and how professional writers and artists don’t ‘wait for inspiration’ – we can’t afford to! Instead, we work when we don’t feel like working, we push through and create even on the hard days, and we relentlessly chase down inspiration when it won’t come willingly to the table.

One thing Gene Francis said to me was, “People who are mediocre do their best work every day”. And we both nodded and agreed that this was sage.

IMG_5367

Pantages Theatre: Cabaret

Back in LA, we were fortunate to get in to see the latest revival of Cabaret, based on the 1993 Sam Mendes production. I’d last seen a version of the Mendes production in Melbourne, with Sally Bowles played by Lisa McCune. This version, with Randy Harrison (who’d I’d last seen in Queer as Folk) as the Emcee, was as lively and (sadly) as relevant as it has ever been. Tim Richards has reviewed the play over on his travel blog, Aerohaveno.

The Hollywood Pantages Theatre is gorgeous, by the way: a theatre from the days when picture palaces were built to be sumptuous and grand. If you’re in Los Angeles in the next few months, you can get tickets for shows like Hedwig and the Angry Inch starring Darren Criss (of Glee) or the concert tour for The Monkees.

Santa Monica

With an evening flight (for which I am currently waiting) back to cold and wintry Melbourne, we decided to make the most of the northern summer by going to Santa Monica to soak up the sun for a few hours. And look! They have plant-based dinosaurs! Surely the perfect note on which to complete my sojourn in sunny California!

On this segment of the trip, Tim and I were given travel, accomodation and theatre-going assistance by Visit California.

The Lady Novelist waits in line at San Diego Comic Con

The annual San Diego Comic Con is said to play host to over 130,000 attendees. In 2016, I was one of them. (As proof I offer this picture, wearing the ‘We’re Werewolves not Swear Wolves’ T-shirt – a line from What We Do in the Shadows – which I picked up from Steam Crow).

For those wondering how I scored a ticket, I did it the usual way – I submitted a request, got up at oh-dear-god o’clock in the morning for the lottery, and purchased my entry to whatever days were available when, by good fortune, my name was in the ticket pool for the crucial 15 minute window.

Comic Con was scheduled for the middle week of my three week visit to California – I’m still in the USA as I write and Comic Con ended five days ago. So I’ve had five days to think about my experiences, and to recover a little from the buzz and exhaustion of the event.

San Diego Comic Con: Population shock

The San Diego Comic Con is one of many cons of its type, but currently the largest. It’s getting so big that there are occasional articles in the press about whether it would be better moved to a city with bigger facilities. The organisers are committed to San Diego for a while yet, I understand, but there’s no mistaking that this convention is a great big animal, a leviathan of a convention. A many-headed beast that in part devours itself even as it grows.

IMG_4596The convention starts on the Wednesday night with preview events. I didn’t get a ticket to this, but rocked up once the registration opened so I’d have my badge ready for the morrow. (Americans signing up get their badges posted to them: those of us coming from overseas have to collect them in person.) I did at least get to see the most adorable little Rey, who’d come as Princess Leia the previous year (her mother told me).

Those who know me know that I’m an extrovert, a real people person. My reaction to being at the San Diego Convention Center with THOUSANDS of people either collecting badges or queuing for preview events? To whimper a bit and try to withdraw, snail-like, into a non-existant shell, and then to escape as quickly as possible to a location where I could relax again. Man, oh man, that number of people in one location was a bit of a shock! It was like sharing space in a single building with the entire population of Darwin or most of Cairns.

The Festival of Queuing

IMG_5169The next day I screwed my courage to the sticking place and went once more into the breach, dear friends. I’d heard that Comic Con was a place of very many people and many long queues, so it wasn’t like I hadn’t been warned.

Thursday in the end was a lot more sensible and less confronting than I’d feared. Yes, there were people everywhere, but since we were no longer lining up to get to the registration desk, the bodies were more widely spaced. The convention center is huge, and while it was always busy, I never found it too congested to move.

My first panel was an industry panel – How to Get News Coverage – with small press comics publishers talking about how they get word out. I was looking from a small book press/writer perspective and was able to confirm some things I was doing right as well as getting new ideas.

Things came a cropper with the next panel I wanted to see – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has written a novel about Mycroft Holmes and here was launching a comic, but despite queuing for half an hour, I just couldn’t get in the room. I abandoned the line about 20 minutes after the panel began – I was surrounded by people queuing an hour ahead to get into that room’s wrestling panel – and sought sustenance before trying the next panels on my list.

Those turned out to be 1986: There Can Be Only One, a discussion of the best film of 1986, and then The Most Dangerous Women at Comic-Con: To Bechdel or Not to Bechdel, which included several fabulous women and a fabulous man talking about the Bechdel Test (do two women have a conversation that is not about a man?) and related tests (the Sexy Lamp Test – can your female character be replaced with a sexy lamp without changing the story? – and the Mako Mori test – does your female character have her own story arc that does not exist to support a male character’s story arc?).

Industry and analysis panels were generally very easy to get into – no queuing, no fuss. No need to show up three panels in advance to stake your claim to a chair, and then hang on for dear life through panels that are not of especial interest just so you can see one panel that appeals.

It was a different story, as you may gather from that last comment, for the pop culture panels relating to TV shows and films, where people might wait in line for 90 minutes (or much, much more) to get into a room three panels ahead of their desired panel.

The lines were well managed, on the whole, even when they got so long they had to be redirected to outside terraces. Tents were set up to shield us from the summer sun, along with chains to keep the attendees in the line. Being a singleton in this situation was challenging – no loo breaks – but many folks waited with groups of friends. Some had brought little foldable stools, or picnics…

Exhibitors Hall: the wait goes on

IMG_4680Another big draw of Comic Con is the massive – and I mean MASSIVE – exhibitor’s hall. The big studios have exhibits here, often with giveaways for those fortunate enough to reach the front of the line. Often, the big companies have special edition action figures and other memorabilia only available at the giant US conventions.

This results not only in queues, but in queues for the queues. Sometimes you have to line up to get a ticket that will enable you to line up again for a chance to buy the thing you want. You might be there for an hour or more. On later days, you didn’t need a ticket but sometimes you still had to wait in a queue to join the queue. Sometimes the second queue was capped because it was so big, so you were sent off to browse elsewhere and try your luck again later.

Again, that’s a lot of time spent in lines, this time to buy something instead of seeing something.

But all is not lost – if you have more freewheeling tastes, there are plenty of opportunities to pick up something special with practically no waiting. That’s how I got my Werewolves not Swearwolves shirt, offered by a smaller company with much more unusual designs. I also had a lovely chat with the woman selling the shirts about What We Do in the Shadows and how much we both loved it, and how excited we are that there’s talk of a sequel all about those Not-Swearwolves in question.

IMG_4640Frankly, the exhibitor’s hall can be entertaining enough just to wander around to look at the goods, or at illustrators drawing at their tables, and, more fun still, the people who are cosplaying. You meet them everywhere, of course: in queues, in the halls, as well as here. Among my favourites were the genderswapped Rey and Kylo Ren.

Speaking of whom… did I wait in line for a special edition action figure? Hell, yes. I dithered about it for days, and figured that if the stars aligned I’d get it. I knew from talking to staff at Hasbro that they had ordered in a LOT of the Kylo Ren collectors’ edition figure, and every morning I checked to see if there were any left. Finally, on the last day, having just about determined that I didn’t really want one anyway, I arrived just as there was room at the end of the queue for the queue. The staff, who were used to seeing me moping about, chivvied me into the line I protested I’d given up on, and half an hour later I had my wee little sulky emo Kylo Ren special edition action figure, and I was pretty bloody happy with that.

Inherent tension

All that queuing though: therein lies the basic tension of attending Comic-Con – the constant stress and weighing up of ‘do I wait in this line for a few hours to buy The Desired Object That I Cannot Buy Online, or to see the cast and previews of the upcoming season of That Show I Like, and miss out on smaller, less showy panels, or do I try to get to the smaller panels and catch up on That Show I Like when the panel is inevitably shown on YouTube later?’

The latter would seem like a logical decision, except that there really is a buzz about being in the same room as The People From That Show and all the fans, that never really communicates in a YouTube clip.

Finding balance

In the end, I did a bit of both. In a move that may surprise some people, I decided I wouldn’t do the lining-up-the-night-before to get a wrist band that would allow me to queue again the next morning for several hours in the hope of probably getting into Hall H to see the cast and creators of Sherlock talk about Season 4 (which is still being filmed as I write, and which would remain assiduously free of spoilers in any case). Doing so would mean missing out on other things. I just didn’t want my Comic Con to be memories of long lines and sore feet.

IMG_4673I did pay separately for a side event: SherlockeDCC, for Sherlock fans. I figured, knowing Comic Con’s reputation for queues, that this way I’d get to at least one thing that really appealed to me.

I met some lovely people, and was pleasantly surprised when an unexpected guest arrived to answer some questions and then mingle – Steven Moffatt, with his son Louis, who’d played young Sherlock in the last episode of the third season, His Last Vow.

But for Comic Con proper?

I saw several smaller industry, writing, and discussion panels. When I did wait in lines, I chatted to the people around me.

I went early into one room to wait for the American Gods panel and was treated to previews of two new comedies: People of Earth, about a support group for people who’ve been kidnapped by aliens, and Powerless, an office comedy that happens to be set in a DC Universe city where heroes and villains battle it out. Alan Tudyk is in that one, and Vanessa Hudgens. Both shows look heaps of fun!

American Gods, by the way, looks brilliant in both casting and execution and I can’t wait.

I also waited in line for ages to slip in early for the end of the Grimm panel so I’d be there for the Supergirl and then Legends of Tomorrow shows. Ballroom 20 is huge (and is the room used for the Saturday night masquerade) so unless you’re up the front, most attendees watch the trailers and the panel itself on screens. But yes, the buzz was there, and it was cool to see new cast members introduced – Tyler Hoechlin (Teen Wolf) for Supergirl and John Barrowman (among others) in Legends of Tomorrow.

I would have stayed for The Flash panel – another show that I love, even if it doesn’t understand time travel or causality any better than Legends of Tomorrow – but I had a date with an old love.

IMG_4846Buckaroo Banzai: Getting the Band Back Together had a queue all right, full of people who know and love that crazy ol’ film from 1984. But within 15 minutes that room was stuffed to the gills to watch four of the old supporting cast talk about the film and the recent developments.

There’s been a lot of excitement recently because Kevin Smith has said he’s making a new TV series based on it. This Blue Blaze Irregular (code name Wookie) is thrilled to pieces and hopes it comes to pass.

On the panel were (left to right in the picture) musician Gerald Peterson (Rug Sucker, a mostly nonspeaking role, but who told me he’d once played for Renee Gayer’s band in Australia), Damon Hines (Scooter Lindley – he now has a PhD), Billy Vera (Pinky Carruthers in the film, and also a musician) and Pepe Serna (Reno Nevada – one of the Hong Kong Cavaliers).

They told stories of making the film, their careers, and that Kevin Smith has confirmed the series is being made and would like to have cast from the film make appearances if he can.

Barrowman LegsFinally, and very much worth the wait, was John Barrowman’s own Anything Goes with John Barrowman. He started his one-man chat with a crowded room by striding out in a little Star-Trekish miniskirt and white boots, proceeded to change the boots to white pumps and sang and danced a little of the song Anything Goes, then told outrageous, ribald stories, giggled with manic charm and generally schmoozed the audience that adored him.

The vibe in the room was fantastic, especially when he had to put on a fluffy rainbow skirt because his knickers were showing. There’s a reason he’s beloved, and his naughty exuberance was just the note to finish on – because it was indeed my last panel of the convention. I left in high spirits, a temperament Barrowman had shared with the whole room.

Comic Con, crowd control and accessibility

A word here for the comic con volunteers and staff, wIMG_4659ho were marvellous in the execution of their duties. They kept lines moving, they kept corridors clear – a particularly important point for general safety but also to ensure that con-goers with mobility issues could navigate more easily. There were special queues for people in wheelchairs and those with hearing difficulties, and plenty of space for mobility devices to move throughout the centre. Not using them myself I can’t speak absolutely for the ease of access, but I often saw people in wheelchairs, mobility scooters, on sticks etc, getting about fairly freely.

Some people got a little bossy by the last day – they were no doubt as exhausted as the rest of us – but on the whole everyone, from attendees to staff, were good natured.

Comic-Con: Worth going?

There’s no doubt that the San Diego Comic Con International is worth attending. If you can snag a ticket, you should go at least once in your life. It’s fantastic if you’re a big fan of pop culture – especially any pop culture related to comics or to the big film franchises like Star Trek.

Be prepared. Go over the program and use the scheduling tool to select the panels you’d like to see. Mix and match so you don’t spend most of the con queuing, but also select which panels are worth queuing for, for you. If possible, go with a friend so you can give each other loo breaks while waiting and generally have fun together.

Cosplay if you want to, but it’s as much fun to talk to the cosplayers and take photos. They’ve put in a lot of effort and appreciate people appreciating them. The little kids are adorable, but I always asked parents if it was  okay to take and post pics – then I usually gave them my card so they could look me up on Twitter later to get copies for themselves if they wanted.

I don’t know if I’ll ever do it again. The sheer numbers can be overwhelming and exhausting. The stress of constantly trying to find that balance of whether it’s worth queuing for hours is wearing, too.

But I did it this once, and I’m glad I did.

Perhaps next time I can get in as a creator and avoid all the queues…

 

 

The Lady Novelist Travels in Time

ttmart (1)Tucked away on West Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, in an area called Echo Park, is a very special little shop. Time travellers, whether planning to visit the distant past or the distant future – or to bounce around between the two – will find anything they need at the Time Travel Mart. Era-appropriate facial hair; jars of nanobots; barbarian repellent; communist soap; viking odorant; robot emotion chips; or tins of mammoth chunks. The Time Travel Mart has it all.

The Mart is a vastly entertaining location, filled with items sourced from toyshops but also made especially for them. No opportunity for a witty time-travel joke is wasted, so you’ll find delightful warnings and notices posted up all over the space, in between the cans of Primordial Soup, candles for the patron saints of time travel (Hawking, Einstein and Mallett), robot milk and leeches.

Of course, like all the best odd, time-travel-related emporiums, the Mart is just a front for another organisation!

In fact, Temployee of the monthhe Time Travel Mart in Echo Park (and its sister store in Mar Vista on Venice Boulevard) are both fantastic little fundraisers and workshop spaces for 826LA, a non-profit literacy organisation, which supports school students from six to eighteen with writing skills.

The Employee of the Month board at the back of the store is full of fake pictures and dates, but the names are real: backers of the Echo Park Time Travel Mart have included JJ Abrams, Judd Aparatow and the late Melissa Mathison.

It’s a wonderfully funny and imaginative way to raise funds for a program to encourage and nurture writing. It’s doubly fabulous that the students taking part in 826LA get their work collected and published in little booklets sold within the store.

swagI picked up Vinyl has Aged Over Time and So Have We, a collection of poems, short stories, film reviews and essays by a 2016 class of students from the tutoring program. It includes the poem from which the title is taken, written by Michelle Garcia, and the entertaining An Era of Decay by Javier Hernandez, set in 2025 in which Superior Clinton has banished the consitution in favour of the Rights of Man, Woman and Child, and got rid of Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump and the Kardashians while she’s at it.

As if the Time Travel Mart wasn’t delightful enough, the 826 project operates similarly entertaining shopfronts throughout the USA. In Brooklyn, there’s a superhero supplies store; Boston has supplies for Bigfoot hunters; San Francisco can outfit pirates and in Chicago there’s the Wicker Park Secret Agent Supply Company.

If you’re in Australia and cursing your inability to get to the US to take part in the fun and support literacy, the good news is that you really only have to get as far as Sydney. Martian Embassy is the shopfront supporting the Sydney Story Factory, which runs free creative writing and storytelling workshops for kids aged 7 to 17.

Looks like I have a new shop to check out next time I’m in Sydney!

In the meantime, if you want to support the project, visit the Time Travel Mart’s online shop.

The Lady Novelist meets the Black Dahlia

BLACK DAHLIA TOURWhen we were planning this trip to Los Angeles, my husband, who knows me well, said ‘Esotouric does great crime tours; they’ve got one on the Black Dahlia murder. Do you want to write about that?’ My response was a red hot YES!

For those unfamiliar with the case, the Black Dahlia was the nickname of Elizabeth Short, a beautiful, lonely, troubled 22 year old woman living hand-to-mouth in Los Angeles off the kindness of strangers – strange men, mostly. In January 1947, her brutalised and bisected body was found dumped in a vacant lot in an uncompleted suburb. She’d last been seen a week before, but had so few friends that no-one had missed her.

Her murder remains unsolved: and like many unsolved murders, this crime has been the subject of numerous theories, books and films, including the famous novel-turned-film by James Ellroy.

Elizabeth Short’s lonely life and fairly horrible death are also a focal point for a lot more than her own fate. The particulars of her life make her a symbol of many women who somehow fall outside of the societal radar, who through circumstance and personal issues end up vulnerable and alone, ripe for victimisation and post-mortem judgement of their personality, relationships, sexuality and choices.

Beyond that, Short’s death was also a crux point for issues about the problematic relationship of the local media (Randolph Hearst’s newspaper was fundamental in uncovering elements of Short’s life and clues to the crime) and the investigation into her death was later the subject of an FBI investigation itself. It was, as the Esotouric guides say, a snapshot of Los Angeles at a particular time as well.

Richard, a guest, Joan, another guest, and Kim, at the former bus depot where Elizabeth Short had checked in her little suitcase full of letters.

The Real Black Dahlia Esotouric tour, hosted by Kim Cooper, Richard Schave and Joan Renner, takes place four times a year, with visitors taken to key locations in the drama in a comfortable tour bus. Screens within the bus show photographs – some of them graphic, though you’re given plenty of warning in case you’d rather shut your eyes.

Tours of this nature can sometimes feel exploitative, but the hosts of this tour are not only knowledgeable, they’re mindful that Elizabeth Short was a human being with a sorrowful history. They strip away some of the sensationalist myths that surround her life and death to show us a woman who was not only troubled but perhaps suffering chronic depression. Their narratives offer sympathy and even some respect, even though Short was an inveterate liar. Kim, Richard and Joan make Beth a real person, drawing parallels with many other women who have become famous as victims of crime.

Sharing the narrative among the three of them works well – there’s a lot to absorb of this complex story, made so much more complicated by lies told not only by Elizabeth Short but by all sorts of people around her. This includes numerous people who falsely confessed to her murder, and the numerous suspects who are still popping up decades later.

As the bus doesn’t stop in exact chronological order of events, this sharing of the narrative between the three hosts, with occasional recaps and distinct drawing together of the various personnel and events, keeps the layers straight.

Kim near the once empty lot where Elizabeth Short’s body was discovered.

The tour lays out the events, the different people, the repercussions and the difficulties of the case, including two unrelated crimes that were nevertheless influenced by the atmosphere around LA in the years following Short’s murder. The tour visits the places Short frequented, the places she was last seen alive and other pivotal locations, including the footpath beside which her body was found. (On the day we visited, a dried rose was found attached to a lightpost at the spot.)

Finally, the hosts let us know about some of those who confessed to the crime (and how they were discounted), some of the suspects, and their own very plausible theory.

The Real Black Dahlia Tour, including a coffee-and-donut break, is worth the US$58, not least because it makes an honest attempt to put Elizabeth Short at the centre of her own dark story, and in doing so shines a sympathetic light on the women who become vulnerable to similar crimes. It’s well and thoughtfully presented, with some interesting insights.

If you have an interest in true crime, and the Black Dahlia in particular, I highly recommend this lively, thoughtful, compassionate tour.

Just the Facts Ma’am: I was Esotouric’s guest on The Real Black Dahlia Tour.

The Lady Novelist’s First Impressions of Los Angeles

Shop at El Pueblo’s market

Here I am, travelling once more and taking in the atmosphere with eyes and brain wide, ready to learn new things. This is my second trip to the United States, my first to Los Angeles, and as always I’m finding a place to be both exactly like and nothing like I expected it to be.

The inherent contradiction in that sentence comes of course from the fact that no matter where you go in the world, the things you’ve seen (in films and television) and read (books, comics, articles) form a kind of proto-location before you see the place in real and actual life.

As a result, I always have impressions of a place before the First Impressions kick in. Kind of Impression Zero, as it were.

So. Impression Zero of Los Angeles: sunny; flashy; fast-paced; a bit superficial; all Hollywood; not much of a sense of history; everyone you see who is not in the film business is working out how to get into the film business; a veneer of cheerful over a bedrock of desperation; cars cars cars.

Since arriving in LA on 13 July (a few hours before I left Melbourne on the same date: gotta love the international date line and pseudo time travel!) Impression Zero has proven to be occasionally accurate but also – and naturally – a very shallow impression that’s as often completely wrong as right.

Batcycle from the 1960s Batman TV series at the Petersen Automotive Museum

It’s certainly sunny here, though most mornings have so far started a bit hazy. The July sun burns that fog away within a few hours, though, and hot days with blue skies follow.

Everyone I’ve met so far is very friendly, and I’ve had random conversations not only with service staff and Uber drivers but with people at museums. Today, for instance, I fell into conversation with an older couple at the Petersen Automotive Museum when they asked my opinion on the colour of a car on display (we finally agreed that it was probably mint green).

Is everyone in the service industry secretly trying to make it big in Hollywood? Maybe. An Uber driver today turned out to primarily be a music director of K-pop, who has organised Korean pop music gigs all over the world, including Australia. Next week he’s off to Japan for a big gig in Osaka.

Then there’s the waitress at our current hotel – The Redbury, a lovely flash hotel on Hollywood and Vine, all done up in rich reds and just down the road from Capitol Records. Virginia Tran is one of a team of people behind a new web series called Wait Crimes. If you’ve ever worked in the service industry with rude customers you’ll probably identify with the comedy shorts. Virginia told us this morning that more episodes are on the way, and that she and her fellow creators have enjoyed having creative control. Episode one is now available:

There was also the incident of discovering I hadn’t packed the right 3-pin adapter for my computer charger, and an emeregency trip to a Radio Shack to find one. Radio Shack has appeared in so many films that it felt like a Hollywood experience to visit one and find exactly the gadget I needed. (Thank you Radio Shack!)

But in most other ways, Impression Zero wasn’t much good. I’m sure the shallow, flashy, all-glitz LA is out there, but I haven’t seen it yet.

What I have noticed is that there’s a lot more Spanish spoken around the place than I had gathered from the films and TV I’ve watched. Combined with a lot of Spanish-style architecture there’s a weirdly more European feeling to the city than I expected. Additionally, Downtown LA is scattered through with grand old buildings that were once part of the financial district, but that relocated and these magnificent and imposing blocky buildings radiate a faded grandeur.

An example of Patrick Haemmerlein’s art at The Hive gallery.

These areas seem to be thriving locations for arts and culture, though. The monthly Downtown Artwalk opens up to all kinds of galleries that open late, along with little stalls lining the streets selling art and jewellery, and car parks filled with food trucks and DJs.

Altogether, I keep getting flashbacks of places I’ve visited in the Middle East and parts of Europe, where lively locals gather in suburbs past their prime to reclaim spaces, occupy the streets with handcrafts and generally inhabit their environment with a lot of energy and enterprise. Not that it’s all slick and shiny; there are plenty of signs of poverty around too. This is a real place, not a film set.

Los Angeles is a relatively young city, too. It was founded in 1781 by 44 Spanish-speaking people in what’s now known as El Pueblo. The area contains the oldest house in Los Angeles, the Avila Adobe.  However, the town stayed small for decades and most of the city was in fact built in the 20th century. Throughout Los Angeles, but particuarly here in El Pueblo, you get the strong resonance of Los Angeles’ Spanish history. Some of it is a bit ‘disneyfied’ but you also have the 1932 mural American Tropical, which far from being a happy little tropical image of Spanish peons in early America, is a strong political statement against oppression.

I thought Dire Wolf was a name made up for fantasy novels. But no. They were a real (but now extinct) thing.

Much older local history is at the La Brea tar pits, with their wealth of prehistoric fossils (including 404 Dire Wolf skulls) and their ongoing archeological digs; then there’s the automotive history at the aforementioned Petersen Automotive Museum (complete with Hollywood vehicle displays) and next week we’re off to the California Science Center to see the Endeavour space shuttle.

And yes, it’s a very car-oriented city, but I’ve found the buses and subway, both relatively new and shiny, to be excellent for getting around.

This is no doubt a twisted impression of the city too. I’ve only been here three days, after all, and like all large cities, there are several versions of it around, depending on the neighbourhood you’re in and what you’re looking to experience.

But so far? First impressions are positive and I’m looking forward to discovering more of the many versions of Los Angeles that exist.

You can find out more about LA at Discover Los Angeles, who are providing assistance to my travel-writing husband Tim Richards as we travel around.

Review: Pin Drop by Roz Monette

pin-dropIssues like homelessness loom ever-larger on the horizon, especially in western countries where you’d think we were wealthy enough as nations to ensure everyone has the minimum requirements of food and shelter. This feels especially true when it comes to children.

Yet homelessness continues, spurring less compassion and more censure – not of the system but of individuals living on the streets. Young, fit and healthy? Why haven’t you got a job? Why aren’t you at home? Why aren’t you in foster care, at least? The idea seems to be that if you’re on the street, that’s where you want to be.

Of course, it’s a much more complex issue than that, with neglect, abuse, poverty and mental health issues among the many contributing factors. It can be hard to wrap your head around it all, or to work out how to help.

Cedar Grove Publishing, which has a catalogue of strong titles under its banner, brings the excellent Pin Drop, by Roz Monette, to the table.

Pin Drop is narrated by Mo Perez, a very smart 16 year old living below the poverty line with her older sister (her legal guardian) having escaped from a foster system that failed them both. She’s a voracious reader, though struggles with basic maths. Her nickname, Pin Drop, was earned by her capacity to drop raw, unvarnished, unpopular facts into thoughtless conversations. Mo finds people difficult, but she adores the dogs she walks to earn a little money.

Then her sister takes off with a new boyfriend, leaving Mo to fend for herself. Despite her best efforts, Mo has to leave school and the cheap, terrible flat she shared with Marci, and ends up on the streets, where she has to survive on her native cunning and merely fifth grade education. Living on her wits and the edge of starvation, she nevertheless strives to remain honest and independent. When she meets Derek, a newbie cop, they both have lessons to learn.

Mo’s voice in Pin Drop is raw and powerful. You can feel compassion for her situation but she defies any attempt at pity – she’s strong, she is fiercely independent and she’s a fighter. Her distrust of people is understandable given her past, but she’s far from heartless and has compassion for the underdog. Her integrity comes at a cost but you can’t really begrudge her for it.

Mo’s story is set in America, and her story isn’t everybody’s, but it’s a powerful insight into how some people end up on the streets, and how difficult it is to get off them again. And she tells it without lecturing, hectoring or preaching. She just tells it like it is.

The book is pitched at older teens, but I think it’s an excellent book for anyone who wants a lively, engaging, hard story about a real world topic that seems beyond fixing. It may not solve the issue, but it will give you some insights into the human beings who have to live it.

Buy Pin Drop

 

Turning to the light

celebrate-954787_1920“I learned something recently,” my friend Wendy said to me during her visit to Australia. “Some things are just big black piles of shit, and they’re everywhere, and sometimes there’s nothing you can do about that, so sometimes you just have to turn your back on it. You have to face the other way. Towards the light.”

We were talking about how much rage we both carry in us, about discrimination and harm in the world, in all its many forms. We’re both prone to shoutiness in this regard. (Actually, we’re as prone to joyful shoutiness as ragey shouting, and I’ll come back to that.)

Wendy is absolutely correct. Many of the things that reduce us to rage and despair and shouting are heaping mounds of stinking, fly-blown ordure. The comment trolls spitting venom online; misogynists making rape threats against women who dare to have a voice; bigots spewing venom about refugees and the queer community. Gunmen full of fear and hate. Hypocritical leaders who condemn the violence while encouraging discrimination through legislation and denial of human rights, thereby creating environments in which hate is allowed to flourish through tacit agreement that these or those human beings are only second class.

Wallowing in the mire

The trouble is (well, one of the troubles is) that too often, we get caught up with those mounds of excrescence. We go and read the comments; we share the awful and cruel things that someone just posted and point at it saying I CANNOT BELIEVE THIS CRETIN SAID THIS THING! We give oxygen to the haters and let everyone know what the haters said and how outraged we are by it.

Basically, we run up to the big smelly turd and look at it from every angle, sniffing in the toxic stinking stinkiness of it, complaining the whole time about how AWFUL it is – and offering other people a whiff of the proof that such ugliness exists in the world.

Shovelling shit

And okay, sometimes there’s a good point in paying attention to the pile of poo. Sometimes, knowing that it’s there, it’s possible to pick up a shovel and start mucking out that particular stall.

It’s good and right to fight against this stuff stinking up the world. To lobby politicians to change the law, to add your body and your voice to the protest marches and the gatherings in support of vulnerable people – often those buried under that awful shit. That kind of presence and activity is incredibly important. Representation is important.  Whether you’re fighting for your own rights, or are an ally of those struggling for them, it’s good to be seen to be out there. Refusing to be silent is powerful.

It’s true, too, that some people siding with the stink piles simply lack information. Maybe they’ve never been challenged. Maybe nobody has ever gone through the issue with them. They’ve been surrounded by the stink so long they don’t know it’s possible to live in fresh air. So sure – engage with them if you believe you can win an ally from it. If there are people who are willing to listen, be willing to talk, to converse – not to browbeat but to share ideas that may be new to them. That’s a noble undertaking too.

Cutting off the air

But sometimes, paying attention to the haters is just lavishing attention on garbage. When we acknowledge what they say by paying attention to it at all, we’re giving oxygen to outdated and vile viewpoints. We’re feeding the trolls.

And it’s exhausting. It’s disheartening at best, soul-crushing at worst, to expend energy on arguing against people who have no logic to stand on in the first place. They won’t be turned into allies. They’ll just enjoy watching your blood pressure rise, and the fury in your eyes turn to despair and hopelessness at the awfulness of the world.

Sometimes, I think we’re at risk of making those smelly mounds of ignorance, fear, hatred and viciousness bigger and more important than they should be.

Sometimes we should note that there’s a stink and instead of sticking our faces close to inhale it deep and then rage about the stench, we should turn our backs to it and face the other way. Maybe they’re only heard because of the shouty rage that is spreading word of the awful thing they said. Deprive them of oxygen and attention. Turn away.

But don’t turn off.

Don’t shout down – lift up

If you can turn your back on the smelly, time-consuming, attention-demanding turds, you’ll see other things. Not necessarily sparkly rainbows and ponies. Brightness is in the world too, of course, but that’s not what you look for.

What you look for is those who, like you, are half broken by the awfulness of that shit that’s everywhere in life. Look for anyone who needs the air that got taken up by the stink you’ve turned your back on, and give the air to them instead.

Raise your shouty voice to say: I belong here too! Raise it to say: I deserve my space and I’m taking it back!

Raise your shouty voice to say: I hear you! I’m your ally – how can I help? I will fight for your rights too, because human rights are everybody’s business.

Spend your energies on listening and learning. Get behind projects and ideas and voices that counter the vile stenches, and lift them up.

Shovel the shit away when you can; but don’t roll around in it. Don’t stick your face in the fumes and make your eyes water with it. Don’t try to shout down the ugly voices who just love to shout back and never learn a damned thing, because they revel in the pain they cause.

Use your passionate voice to lift others who need lifting. Use whatever you have to encourage, affirm, support, and give and give and give to those who need encouragement, affirmation, and support. Help the ones who need lifting to be heard and seen above the miasma of the stink-makers.

Shouting joyfully

Wendy and I have taken to reminding each other of this choice we’re making. When we’re full of rage and distress and despair that there’s so much hate, we remind each other to turn our backs on it, and to try in whatever way we can to give something to the love, to face the light

To listen and to learn. To steal our oxygen back and breathe it – and sometimes shout it joyfully – into something that grows.

 

Image: Celestial by johnhain
CC0 Public Domain  

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