Mesopotamia, and a taste of Africa

lion weight from mesopotamia exhibit at melbourne museum

The Mesopotamia exhibit at the Melbourne Museum has more cuneiform thank you can point a stick at. Some might say they can see direct links between this first recorded writing and my own scrawl, but given these ancient scribes were using a pointy stick and a wet clay tablet, that’s being unfair to them. What an exotic, precise script it is, evolving from pictographs to poetry. And Gilgamesh, of course. Where would we be without that ancient epic, hey? There’s a piece of it at the exhibit. And I missed it! Skedaddling to cram in as much as I could before closing time, this chink of literary history slipped under my radar. Honestly, you want a good two hours to work through the exhibit, a collaboration with the British Museum.

Gilgamesh, the first comic book hero

As well as the clay tablets, there are figurines and implements, a walk through the region and its history with focus on the main urban centres of the three early empires (Sumer, Assyria and Babylon), stunning relief pictures of battles and — a little sadly — lion hunts, some of which have been given hi-tech interpretations to help understand the wonderfully detailed graphics. There is one brilliant, touching image of a wounded lion on its death bed …

nebuchadnezzar cuneiform tablet, mesopotamia exhibit at melbourne museumThere are cylindrical seals shorter and not much rounder than a pinky finger that make incredibly detailed pictorial seals in clay. Recreations of artifacts. Agatha Christie makes an appearance — cleaning ivory figurines with her face cream! Very cool five-legged lammasu gate guards, five-legged to ensure the legs add up from both front and side views. An intriguing silver goblet found squished ‘hidden’ under a flagstone.

I would’ve liked more direct translations of the cuneiform tablets, just to put the scratchings into better perspective, and to get more of a feel for the language of the day. Still, seeing artifacts that someone made, thousands of years ago, that were used day to day, and here they are, you king whose name still endures, you unknown sculptor who made such beautiful images … it’s quite amazing.

Who couldn’t be entranced by the slow unveiling of this once-mysterious, still somewhat obscured, piece of history with its marvellous pantheon, towering ziggurats … and canals?!

Luckily, the paperweight pictured here wasn’t in the rather limited museum store offerings, although there was a rather cool, spindly Pazuzu figurine …

polly cocktail bar, fitzroyAfterwards we went to Fitzroy to meet friends for dinner, and, as you do when in Brunswick St, killed a very pleasant hour in one of my favourite bars, Polly. Skipped the rather yummy $7 pizzas (though the menu was different to our last visit and rather enticing) but kept the pangs at bay with dips and coffee while slumped in one of the red velvet armchairs. And then that dinner, across the street and down the block and up the stairs at Nyala African Restaurant. So totally yummy and relaxed.

Sometimes, it’s good to have a day like this to remind you why you live in the big smoke, eh.

Short stories in the wild

anywhere but earthAnywhere But Earth, Coeur de Lion’s door-stopping anthology of science fiction tales, is now available in digital format. It includes my space vampire story, ‘Messiah on the Rock’. You will notice Adam Browne’s spectacularly inventive novel with the massive title (short version: Pyrotechnicon) is also available.


years best australian fantasy and horror 2011Ticonderoga is shipping the Year’s Best Australian Dark Fantasy and Horror 2011, which includes my (vampire-free) fantasy short story ‘Wraiths, originally published in Winds of Change.

Sure, I’m biased, but these two titles offer very fine tastes of Australian speculative fiction, and I’m quite proud to be in both of them.

Twelfth Planet Press at MWF: now that was fun!

Here’s a little of what we did last night, with thanks to Cat Sparks for posting this pic:

twelfth planet press authors

Kaaron Warren, Rosaleen Love, Cat Sparks, Kirstyn McDermott, Deborah Biancotti, Jason Nahrung, Narrelle M Harris, Lucy Sussex.
Pic: c/- Cat Sparks


The Twelfth Planet Press Showcase at the Melbourne Writers Festival last night was quite a buzz, with most if not all seats taken (thanks everyone for coming!*) and an engaging variety of readings from the assembled Twelve Planets authors. The Twelve Planets is a series of — you guessed it — twelve collections, each of four stories, from Australian writers, and seven of them were on hand last night to provide a taste of what’s on offer and what’s on the way.

Reading were Kaaron Warren, Rosaleen Love, Cat Sparks, Kirstyn McDermott, Deborah Biancotti, Narrelle M Harris and Lucy Sussex — Kaaron, Cat and Deb all came from interstate to attend.

Kerry Greenwood ‘launched’ the series from under her witch’s hat in suitably charming fashion. Lucy’s partner Julian Warner was MC.

It was quite a thrill to have Talie Helene provide backing music for my reading from Salvage, a recent, separate Twelfth Planet Press release.

Also in the audience was Peter M Ball, who wrote Twelfth Planet Press titles Horn and Bleed, and I am annoyed we didn’t rope him in for at least a photo op.

Kudos to the MWF staff who made sure all ran smoothly and allowed to hover in the bar area afterwards until the call of dinner finally took us out into a relatively balmy Melbourne night. There was much chatting, the readings did seem to have connected with the audience, and there was even some book signing going on.

Twelfth Planet Press books are available in Melbourne at Dymocks City and Notions Unlimited at Chelsea, as well as from the press’s website

So where to go with 20-odd people at eight o’clock on a Sunday night?
Il Primo Posto on Southbank came to the rescue. Sure, they said, we can fit you all in, and at the one table. The food, delicious and reasonably priced, came out in good time; the wine list hit the spot without breaking the bank; the staff were wonderfully friendly and efficient and accommodating. I can’t speak highly enough of the restaurant. It was my second visit, and it won’t be my last.

It was a shame that Twelve Planet author Deborah Kalin couldn’t make the gig (missed you, mate!), and that Twelfth Planet Press founder Alisa Krasnostein couldn’t journey across from Perth to be a part of the event she’d bankrolled with nibbles and bar tab. As it turned out, Alisa was at her own function: accepting a Biennial Women Achievers Award recognising her editing and publisher roles at TPP as well as the press’s World Fantasy Award win last year.

A dual celebration on either side of the country! Very nice indeed.

More of Cat’s photos of the launch

* especially the Harper clan, some of whom had to help clear a car accident to make it, and those who I know had to travel a few hours to get there!

Brisbane launch in pictures

jason nahrung launches salvageA quick flashback to the Brisbane launch of Salvage at Avid Reader on August 10. More pix, by Kirstyn McDermott, are here.

And a final reminder that Salvage has one more outing, in very fine company indeed, at Melbourne Writers Festival on Sunday. Ten writers on stage, with readings, music and damn good cheer. All welcome.

Secret Gardens: fantasy on page and in paint

oracle of azura by gail collins

‘Oracle of Azura’ by Gail Collins

garden of the two moons by caz mcdougall

‘Garden of the Two Moons’ by Caz McDougall

the blood stones of poora singh by annie higgins

‘The Blood Stones of Poora Singh’ by Annie Higgins

Four years after conception, the Secret Gardens project is finally about to be unveiled in Brisbane.

Three artists from northern New South Wales – Gail Collins, Annie Higgins and Caz McDougall – have been inspired to translate Australian fantasy stories onto canvas.

Books by Kim Wilkins, Paul Brandon, Louise Cusack, Karen Brooks, Melaina Faranda, Alison Goodman, Cecilia Dart Thornton, Kim Falconer, Anita Bell, Caiseal Mor, Annie’s husband Simon Higgins and yours truly (The Darkness Within, Annie tells me, but no sneak peek!) have been given the treatment – some more than once.

The trio didn’t stop there, though. As well as contributing six paintings inspired by published works, each has painted their own fantasy landscape, pictured above. They are running a short story contest to coincide with the exhibition, in which they invite short stories to 500 words based on one of the three paintings. The prize is a limited edition print of the painting. The contest closes on August 30 and is free; you can enter by email.

Secret Gardens shows at Jugglers Art Space, 103 Brunswick St, Fortitude Valley, Brisbane from September 26 to October 2, with a grand opening night on Friday September 28 from 6pm. I can’t wait to see what these three have cooked up.

Icefields Parkway a Rocky Mountain high(way)

Gravity-defying glaciers. Mirror lakes. Towering mountains. Tumbling waterfalls. Grazing elk. Is it really any wonder it takes all day to drive the mere 230km from Lake Louise to Jasper?

The Icefields Parkway, aka Highway 93, links the two towns in the Canadian Rockies, and is often cited as one of the most scenic drives in the world. With two lanes of tarmac in both directions, plentiful parking sites and a speed limit of 90kmh, the route is made for rubberneckers.

The parkway begins 2km outside of Lake Louise, a picturesque town in its own right and location of the renowned Fairmont property, the Chateau Lake Louise. The hotel, a grand old dame of Rockies opulence dating back to 1911, boasts a glorious site at one end of Lake Louise, with the Victoria Glacier suspended like a boa around the neck of Victoria Mountain at the far end.

lake louise

Lake Louise

Our road trip from Calgary starts on the right foot – checking in after detours to Banff and Emerald Lake, we are upgraded to a Lakeview Room, offering an unimpeded view of lake and glacier. We put the good luck down to a combination of being Presidents Club members and travelling between seasons, and drink to it over a dinner of beautifully prepared steak, fish and calamari in the saloon, one of the hotel’s less elegant dining options.

More pictures

We set off for Jasper after a morning walk alongside the mirror-smooth lake and a massive breakfast, taken in the ground floor Poppy Brasserie where picture windows afford another stunning view of the lake.

It’s an awe-inspiring drive along Highway 93. Much of the road, set about 2000m above sea level, follows river valleys, with snow-capped mountains towering past the 3000m mark on either side. The mountains’ feet are swathed in dark green conifer forest, but the tree line peters out to reveal cliffs of weather-worn granite, the slopes streaked with waterfalls and raw scars from rockfalls.

The awe really sets in about 30km out of Lake Louise, triggered by Crowfoot Glacier above Bow Lake. It’s the kind of panorama that makes you fully appreciate the convenience of the many pull-over sites alongside the road – a circumstance that doesn’t go unnoticed by the ravens, who hop around as soon as the car pulls up in the hope of scraps.

rocky mountains

Bow Lake

Crowfoot Glacier has lost one of its three toes and is still shrinking, but continues to impress as it reigns over the valley. There are more than 100 glaciers along the route, but this lakeside setting and its proximity to the road makes Crowfoot one of the most impressive.

About halfway along the route, Banff National Park ends and Jasper National Park begins. The two parks are UNESCO World Heritage sites, totalling more than 17,000sq km and drawing literally millions of visitors each year.

Straddling the parks’ border is the Columbia Icefield, a massive shelf of ice covering more than 300sq km, feeding six glaciers and bordered by some of Canada’s highest mountains. The icefields, supplied by 7m of snow each year, feed rivers that run into the Pacific, Indian and Arctic oceans, and is one of only two such features in the world. The retreat of these glaciers is a concern for those who rely on that meltwater, but for casual visitors, they simply amaze.

Glacier

On the glacier

To get a closer look, we pull in to the Icefield Centre, 130km from Lake Louise. It is a seasonal attraction offering the chance to walk on the Athabasca Glacier, Canada’s most visited glacier. The icefield buses ferry passengers on to the moraine, an area of rocky debris left behind as the glacier retreats. There, especially built transports capable of negotiating 20 degree slopes – the dirt road down on to the glacier is 18 degrees – make the journey up on to the ice. We’re lucky, and the wind blows just long enough to give us a taste of the icy breath more usually sweeping down from the ice sheet before abating, allowing us to enjoy a sunny 30-minute stroll on the cleared surface where blue ice sits beneath a frosting of snow.

In the interpretive centre, paintings show how the glacier has retreated since the first arrival of Europeans armed with easels. Currently, the Athabasca Glacier is up to 300m deep and about 6km long, but is 1.5km shorter than it was about 125 years ago.

Fuelled by coffee from the cafeteria, we drive on and find that, even in late October, when the glacier and snow-melt fed waterways are ebbing in the approach to winter, waterfalls at sites such as Tangle Creek and Bridal Veil are still worth pulling over for. At Tangle Creek, where a section of the falls are within easy walking distance of the road, the water’s edge is rimed with ice and icicles hang from the cliff.

About the 150km mark, the avalanche warning signs are given added import by a massive rock slide at Jonas Creek. A scar runs through the forest, and a wide tumble of jagged boulders as large as motorcycles covers the ground beside the highway.

A stop opposite Mt Kerkeslin is nicknamed Goats and Glaciers for its clifftop vantage over the Athabasca River and frequent sightings of mountain goats. Sadly, the goats are coy during our visit, and even at Jasper, where a herd has made its home, we see none. Elk and deer are plentiful, however, with a small herd of elk grazing alongside the road at the Jasper Park Lodge when we arrive. Caribou warning signs alongside the road and bear-proof bins point to other wildlife we aren’t lucky enough to spot.

athabasca falls

Athabasca Falls


Athabasca Falls, about 200km from our starting point, is the ideal place to stretch our legs. The river has cut its way through the rock to make a long, thin gorge, chiselling amazing shapes and holes in the cliffs made accessible by an array of paths and stairways. On the rocky beach where the river discharges once more into a lake, visitors have made numerous inukshuks: monuments of piled stones first erected by indigenous tribes to mark trails and hunting grounds. The symbol is common in the tourist shops as a symbol of safe travel and memorable locations.

The falls mark a junction; we turn off to follow 93A, a dual carriageway running on the western side and closer to the river. Our hopes of seeing goats or other wildlife on this quieter stretch of road are dashed, but the scenery remains impressive as the road twists alongside the river.

We reach Jasper in time to take in the sunset from the Old Fort Hill – the steep walk is worth it. We pause for elk crossing the road, then head on to the Fairmont’s Jasper Park Lodge, which boasts a picturesque lakeside site and one of Canada’s most highly regarded golf courses.

Our cabin view room is furnished in standard hotel fashion, but housed inside a long log cabin-style wing with common front veranda and private rear balcony. Water birds, including Canada geese, patrol the lawns.

The site dates back to 1915, and numerous mounted trophy heads and rough wood furniture reflects the resort’s early history in that era of expansion. The food, however, is thoroughly modern and sourced as locally as possible. Dinner includes salmon and pavlova.

The next day, we extend our parkways definition to include the 30km drive out to Maligne Lake, a postcard site where the canoes have been beached for the winter – one left right way up has its floor half-filled with ice despite the warm day. The speed limit has been reduced to 30kmh due to concerns for the safety of wildlife; it’s a relaxing drive out and back along the snaking road, broken by scenic strolls at Maligne Canyon and Medicine Lake.

And then it’s time to return, back along Route 93, pausing for a lunch of gourmet hot dogs at Saskatchewan Crossing and revisiting many of the sites encountered on the previous day. Still no goats, but no less entrancing the second time around, and truly sublime.

icefields parkway

Parkway driving

More pictures

(C) 2011

Queensland Literary Awards finalists announced, plus some writerly advice

queensland literary awards logoThe Queensland Literary Awards short-lists have been announced. How wonderful to see how the community rallied to support these awards when the Queensland Government couldn’t be arsed. As the LNP rips the state apart looking for spare change and some cheap point-scoring, something has been built. Even the Courier-Mail ponied up some cash, brilliant given the chaos that Murdoch’s empire is in at the moment, slashing jobs wherever they can be found to slash — latest on the line, photographics. But the good news — well done, y’all!

The press release is here and the short-lists here. Yay Margo Lanagan, with Sea Hearts in the, ahem, YA section!


Elsewhere, some good advice, especially that from Dr Kim!

China Mieville, at the Edinburgh international writers conference, quoted in the Guardian’s round-up:

Our job is not to give readers what they want, it is to try to make readers want what we give.

Kim Wilkins, on being distracted from your work by, um, writing this blog post:

reframing your internet procrastination as wandering away from your work can really help

And Marianne de Pierres shares productivity tips over at Louise Cusack’s place, my favourite being: persevere. Something of a personal mantra.