Aurealis Awards celebration: a grand night

I’m home again after a flying visit to Sydney where the spec fic clan gathered at the Independent Theatre in North Sydney for the 2010 Aurealis Awards, recognising excellence in Aussie spec fic published last year.

There were some extremely strong fields with some diverse entries — on the home front, the good news is that Kirstyn’s Madigan Mine brought home the very attractive trophy for Best Horror Novel. The full list of winners is below. Other highlights included the special awards — the Peter McNamara Convenors Award to Helen Merrick and the (non-AA, Fantastic Queensland-sponsored) Kris Hembury encouragement award to Jodi Cleghorn (the driving force behind 100 Stories for Brisbane) — and a breakthrough SF Novel award for Marianne de Pierres. Rob Hood provided some wonderfully Pythonesque animations to introduce the sections and Garth Nix was a superbly dry-witted and engaging Master of Ceremonies.

Cat Sparks has put her photos from the night up onFlickr

There were several elements that really came together on the night. The first was that Rydges North Sydney, which served pretty much as the awards hotel, was on the same block as the theatre. The second was that the theatre was the right size for the crowd, who dressed up to make the occasion LOOK like an occasion, and that the bonhomie was fostered with a generous cocktail reception I believe largely thanks to sponsor HarperVoyager, who also provided novels in the awards bag. The third was the after party, first with another round of free drinks at the theatre, and then discounted basics at Rydges. The fourth was Rydges itself, where the staff were very accommodating indeed. The buffet breakfast went down a treat this morning, with a few of us lingering till the harried staff really DID have to change over for the lunch crowd. The awards themselves were handled efficiently and respectfully, and the organisers appreciated the fact that folks had come from across the country for this, so the chance to socialise was high on the agenda.

So, as 2 o’clock rolled around last night, the bar having been shut since midnight and the staff preparing the breakfast tables, we closed the curtains on a great night of meeting old friends and making new ones, which often entailed a Facebook face or Twitter name finally resolving in the flesh.

Great venue, deserving winners, awesome company. Well done, Sydney. Book me in for next year!


CHILDREN’S FICTION (told primarily through words)
The Keepers, Lian Tanner, Allen & nwin
CHILDREN’S FICTION (told primarily through pictures)
The Boy and the Toy, Sonya Hartnett (writer) & Lucia Masciullo (illustrator), Penguin Viking
• A Thousand Flowers, Margo Lanagan, Zombies and Unicorns, Allen & Unwin
Guardian of the Dead, Karen Healey, Allen & Unwin
Changing Ways Book 1, Justin Randall, Gestalt Publishing
The Girl With No Hands, Angela Slatter, Ticonderoga Publications
• Wings of Fire, edited by Jonathan Strahan and Marianne S. Jablon, Night Shade Books
• The Fear, Richard Harland, Macabre: A Journey Through Australia’s Darkest Fears,
Brimstone Press
Madigan Mine, Kirstyn McDermott, Pan Macmillan
FANTASY SHORT STORY (joint winners)
• The February Dragon, LL Hannett & Angela Slatter, Scary Kisses, Ticonderoga Publications
• Yowie, Thoraiya Dyer, Sprawl, Twelfth Planet Press
Power and Majesty, Tansy Rayner Roberts, HarperVoyager (HarperCollins) [Tansy notably won a Ditmar with this novel earlier this year! I reviewed it here.]
• The Heart of a Mouse, K.J. Bishop, Subterranean Online (Winter 2010)
Transformation Space, Marianne de Pierres, Orbit (Hachette)
• Helen Merrick

Gaiman’s Batman and two Kings: 20th Century Ghosts and American Vampire

A quick round-up of some recommended recent catch-up reading:

batman caped crusader

Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? (DC, 2009), written by Neil Gaiman, pencilled by Andy Kubert. Batman has always been my favourite superhero. There were others I enjoyed, but it was the Bat who’s stayed with me since the 1970s when I scoured the secondhand book stores for the Murray Comics’ collected issues of Batman and Detective. There’s something about him: the peak — maybe a little over the peak — of human excellence, but human. Using intelligence as much as brawn — the detective bit gets lost too often these days — and battling with that famous crime-fighting obsession. The battle between Bruce Wayne and Batman — who’s the real disguise here? It’s all so Gothic …

Gaiman tackles a bunch of this stuff in this tale, anchored around a funeral for Batman at which he is a ghostly observer and some of his greatest foes provide requiems. Catwoman features, naturally, another simply human (even with uber athleticism and kitty affinity) character with the most simple of motivations: she’s just a thief with a desire for a keen, bloodless getaway. The unresolved sexual tension is front and centre here.

Kurbert has risen to Gaiman’s challenge of capturing some great styles of past artists in the mini-stories. It’s a superbly realised tribute to the Dark Knight. The deluxe issue contains four other Gaiman Batman-universe stories, but for me, anchored in the black-and-white art of the ’70s, these don’t fly as high as the core collection. My pick would probably be the Poison Ivy origin story — a lovely, morally ambiguous villain — though the art isn’t quite to my taste.

American Vampire

American Vampire (Vertigo, 2010), Scott Snyder and Stephen King, drawn by Rafael Albuquerque. Stephen King weighs into the bloodsucker graphic novel ouvre in Snyder’s project about, well, an American vampire born in the outlaw times of the Wild West. The aim was to put the nasty back into the vampire genre and it succeeds well, givin’ them crusty ol’ Euro-vamps a taste of American independence. It casts the vampire as villain and gives the law back its star: not as camp as the film Billy the Kid vs Dracula, and with an air of old-fashioned values being dusted off. Vampires, vengeance, six-shooters: it’s entertaining stuff. Compare and contrast to the excellent Vamps, a 1996 Vertigo graphic novel penned by Elaine Lee, which tells the tale of a group of female biker vampires wanting to break free.

20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill

20th Century Ghosts (William Morrow, 2005), Joe Hill. Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son, and he’s learnt a lot from his old man. Namely, character and voice. This collection of short stories is hugely entertaining, a real tour de force of style, most (but not all) using supernatural elements to put the pressure on. ‘Best New Horror’ is a gripping opening with its clever meta elements and ‘Abraham’s Boys’ visits vampire lore in an intriguing fashion. ‘The Cape’ is deliciously nasty, others hit the melancholy mark, one had me laughing out loud. A very few left me unsatisfied, belonging to the vignette camp whereby there is meagre beginning, mostly middle and no real end, but always the characters are spot-on. I still can’t believe it took me this long to get to this collection …

Things to do in Melbourne #5: the RAAF Museum

tiger moth at RAAF Museum Point Cook

Tiger Moth at RAAF Museum Point Cook

The RAAF Museum is only minutes from the Melbourne CBD, housed in several hangars at the Point Cook airbase. Incredibly, it’s free, even if you do have to stop at a checkpoint — no boom gate, no alligator teeth, just a strident sign telling you to ‘stop and Wait!’ — to have your details recorded by a sentry.

At the end of the road, in the HQ hangar, is a walk-through history of the RAAF with plenty of displays — uniforms, documents, pieces of planes and info boards — and a couple of audio-visual elements, including a rather stoic letter home from an aviator setting out on what was to be his last mission. There are also some souvenirs from Manfred von Richtofen’s Fokker — the museum lays full claim to the Aussies having shot down the Red Baron with ground fire rather than giving the kudos to a Canadian airman, the other version I’ve heard. There was also, at our visit, a special display set up about the repatriation of two MIA Canberra crew from Vietnam.

There’s a hangar with a raised viewing platform showing restoration works — the key project at the moment is the rebuilding of a mostly wooden Mosquito: projected completion time, 10 years. In another, attached to the main building, is a collection of RAAF aircraft and further career displays about life in the service over the years, a second has yet more aircraft from across the years viewable only from a raised platform, and yet another has the big three: a Canberra bomber, a Phantom and an F1-11. A second F1-11 is on its way.

The display hangars were chilly barns on the rainy day we visited, dodging showers to cross from one hangar to another, and it was a shame the planes could only be viewed from restricted through worthwhile angles, but still, the set-up was impressive and the absence of jingoism was a relief. Time it right and you can see a plane get taken for a spin and chat with the pilot, or at least you might be able to yarn with a volunteer veteran who can provide some first-hand recounting about the service and the restoration projects.

Photography is restricted (I’ve Flickred a couple here) and access for disabled visitors can be arranged. There’s no cafe but there are loos and a small souvenir shop — and a donation box to help keep the good work going.

Point Cook is the birthplace of the RAAF, the second oldest separate air force in the world (after the RAF), so it’s the right spot for such a monument. Well worth a look for the historically and/or aeronautically minded.

Gary Numan’s Pleasure Principle electrifies Melbourne

pleasure principle album by gary numan

Gary Numan: synth pioneer and resurrected man. And loving it.

Numan rose to fame at the head of the 1970s electronic music wave, then fell from grace as grunge and rock and other stuff took centre stage. And then the power of the synth was reharnessed and Numan rose again: heavier, darker and — if a packed house at Melbourne’s Forum is anything to judge by — once more hugely popular.

Last night’s gig showcased the past and the present. It opened with a playing of tracks from the album The Pleasure Principle, released in 1979 and the first by Numan as a solo artist. Numan took the centre console last night with two others also on keys plus a drummer and bass, and it was the rhythm section who underpinned the evening with their massive, um, rhythm. Add three or more layers of synth bass and soundscape over that and there were times when it felt as if the music was reaching inside to rip out lungs. Having a fake night sky arcing over the Forum’s faux ruins with Greek gods in attendance just made some of the tracks all the more surreal as the synths soared and the drum-bass combo thundered.

The album was put to bed with its hit single, ‘Cars’. A quick transition and two keyboards have been put to bed: Numan had the mic and there was an electric guitar and a gorgeously heavy rendition of ‘Down in the Park’ indicated a change of gear. That was then, this is now: great blasts of modern-day Numan, heavy on the Jagged album, brought the crowd and the gig alive as nostalgia was blown out the windows. Almost. The last tune of the main set was ‘Are Friends Electric?’ and oh, the answer had to be yes, or at least, at this point in the night, electrified. A three-song encore finished it off nicely.

Numan was in fine fettle: clad in black, mop of black hair over his pale face, and an artist at the top of his game. At the top of his game and loving it. He paid homage to late bassist Paul Gardiner who played with Numan on Pleasure Principle and in Numan’s preceding band Tubeway Army but otherwise had little to say other than ‘thanks for coming’. Sometimes a chat is nice, but sometimes it just as enjoyable to be able to sink into the music and let it do the talking, and last night was like that: the set flowed and enervated and enthralled, the band were energetic, the lighting superb, the crowd totally into it. And Numan, smiling, whether crouched over the keyboard or playing guitar or prowling with just the microphone, was the consummate performer. The pleasure principal.

Click here for a 2008 interview with Numan, ahead of his ’09 Australian tour.

Keyed up over the death of the typewriter?

typewriter keys

This article in the Guardian offers a lament for the loss of the typewriter, largely redundant in the computer age. They site also has a gallery of wordsmiths with their weapons of choice.

I battled away with my mother’s little portable manual for a while there, but I hated that I had to pound the keys to make them strike, and the way they would bite at my fingers when I mis-placed them. And then there was the correction chalk strips, the backspacing, the way the last line would go wonky when I tried to squeeze too many on the page… How blessed was the day for all concerned — me creating and especially my teachers no longer battling with my handwriting — when I got my Commodore 64, a word processor and a dot matrix printer.

I don’t miss the typewriter, clunky and heavy and cumbersome, but I take note of this line from Paul Bailey’s article, even though I’m sure those who write longhand or with typewriter are just as capable of wanking on — though the editing process would be a lot more arduous:

Bad writing is always bad, but I have a feeling that the computer is there to make it worse. It encourages self-indulgence, the very worst literary sin.

So in celebration or memoriam, here’s a gratuitous YouTube clip of the Sisters of Mercy’s ‘Ribbons’:

Branching out in the Dandenongs

dandenong ranges

The overcast day wasn’t the most photogenic but an afternoon’s drive up the Dandenong Ranges provided a reminder of just how magnificent the forests up there are. And so close to Melbourne, too.

There are enough man-made attractions to occupy visitors, whether the sculptures of William Ricketts or the parking-challenged tourist trap of Sassafrass — yeah, I got tired of looking and drove on — but it’s the air and the leaves and the incredible soaring trunks of Dandenong Ranges National Park that took my breath away. We eschewed the $5 per car fee to take a happy snap from the Sky High outlook and contented ourselves with the free Kalorama view before negotiating the trail down to the Olinda Falls. Fresh air for the soul, this, even on a cool, cloudy day.

The picture shows Dad and Kirstyn checking out one of the long-time local residents. Some more photos here.

Jeff Martin’s 777 live in Melbourne — FTW!

ground cries out by jeff martin and the 777Live, baby, live…

I’ve always thought the best route to peace, love and understanding was a Gibson and a Marshall stack. So here’s a thought: instead of sending SEAL teams prowling around the world to put bullets in ears, how about we send Jeff Martin and his 777 brethren instead? Line the anti-social motherfuckers up against a wall and blast them with good ol’ rock ‘n’ roll till they see the light? And if that doesn’t work, we could strap them to the bass drum and play, say, ‘The Grand Bazaar’ until their chests explode, because even evildoers deserve to die with a song in their heart..

Which is my way of saying that last night’s gig from aforementioned Martin and Co. was brilliant fun.

With long-coated Jay Cortez grooving on bass and Malcolm Clark working up a hell of a sweat on drums, and most effective guest appearances by a chap called Rory who played a damn mean harmonica, Martin unleashed his latest venture at Melbourne’s Prince Bandroom in St Kilda. It’s a great venue, with two bars and a terraced floor and an elevated stage, and my usual power for attracting dickwads flagged so it was only some fool drunk in a cap pestering other people near me and the usual twats with iPhone cameras causing distraction.

Despite a forthcoming tour in Canada, the Tea Party seems to be becoming a thing of the past, because last night’s gig paid very little attention to the catalogue (although, it seems Melbourne got quite a different set list to Brisbane): instead, the 777 played pretty much their entire debut album (I’ve reviewed it here). Admittedly, it carries a lot of signature Tea Party elements, so maybe the shift isn’t that great.

There wasn’t a great deal of chatter last night — Martin’s voice was scratchy thanks to days on the road with this tour — but the music did the talking, and it was talking about moving on. In a set that went for at least an hour and a half, there was only a handful of Tea Party tunes, popping up towards the end. ‘Grand Bazaar’ and a wonderfully rolling, rollicking ‘Black Snake Blues’ formed the encore. Other old and recent tunes included ‘The Messenger’, ‘I Love You’ and ‘Shadows on the Mountainside’.

Coming off the disc, The Ground Cries Out is a solid and engaging album, but yes, it’s covering familiar ground. Live, though, it’s a rock ‘n’ roll beast: anthemic title track, slinky ‘The Cobra’ with Martin taking to the guitar with a bow, string-pickin’ ‘Riverland Rambler’ for a quieter moment, shades of blues and Hendrix and India and Persia, sexy rhythms and Led Zeppelin shadings, of course, right down to the double-neck guitar. With added theremin.

It’s worth noting that those dirty rhythms were also on offer in the immediate support, The Eternal: hell of a sound for a three-piece and worth checking out.

Usually I come away from a Martin gig — whether Tea Party or Armada or solo concoction — with a touch of the profound buzzing somewhere deep inside — a connection — but last night I was left with a different buzz: more physical; external rather than internal. Still, there’s no argument: the 777 have truly taken flight. Ten hours since the gig finished and my ears are still ringing…

A drive in the clouds

sign in yarra ranges national park covered in mist

The open road: there’s no tonic like it. Today I drove out of the urban sprawl, past the strip malls and industrial estates, into the farmland and vineyards of the Yarra Valley. I wound up past wee small villages greeting the chill autumn day with tendrils of blue wood smoke and leaves turned orange, up to Warburton where the Yarra River runs clear over shallows, up into the ferny Yarra Ranges National Park where the trees tower straight and bark-dripping. And there I found clouds and slushy dirt road and the chill, surreal silence of standing in mist. The only thing to spoil that ascent was the knowledge that what goes up must come down; that when the metaphorical clouds lift, the mountain remains.

I suspect I’ll be seeing more of Warburton and its mountains and streams and highway townships in the not too distant future. Here are some pictures of why.

Power and Majesty: a right royal success

power and majesty

Power and Majesty (HarperCollins Voyager) came out last year. It’s the first volume of the Creature Court series by Tasmanian writer Tansy Rayner Roberts — the second volume, The Shattered City, is out now. I polished Power and Majesty off on the flight to Perth for Swancon at Easter, where it was awarded a Ditmar for best novel of 2010. It’s also up for an Aurealis Award, to be announced later this month.

The story is set in Aufleur, where Velody and two friends run a dress shop. Aufleur comes across as an Italian-style town — Renaissance with steamtrains — where festivals are a prime social and economic activity; even the calendar is set by the celebrations.

Behind the superficiality of the social calendar lurks a different reality, however. The sky is an enemy, raining death and destruction in a most creative way — the population is unawares of their peril from this extradimensional danger. It falls to a band of shape-shifting magic users to defend the plane, but they are far from a cohesive entity. Their number has been whittled down by combat and politics and they hunger for leadership from a king. Ashiol is the prime candidate, but abused and ashamed, he wants none of it. And so the jostling begins, and the fate of the world hangs in the balance…

It’s a superbly crafted world though the lens is focused on core features; there’s a pervading sense of gloom and hedonism, suitable for the end-of-days backdrop that informs the tale. The idea of having a battle for survival being played out in the sky above — of entire towns being erased from map and memory — without anyone much noticing is well handled given its difficulties. The magic also crackles on the page, with depictions of shape changers erupting into mobs of birds and animals, and psychic warfare in the sky, all underpinned by a well thought out science of how it all works.

While Latin is the language of choice for festivities, there’s a fair crack of Australian sensibility in the dialogue (drug users are, for instance, “off their face”), which is in the most part sharp and engaging.

The story itself is a little choppy in the early scenes as the ground is laid and characters set — large swathes of italic monologue and a lot of jumping about felt disorienting. But then the second act kicks off and the pace settles and the world rises up and the characters come into their own. Macready, for instance, brings a welcome dash of Irish humour while offering a pragmatic preparedness for swordplay.

It is in such characters that Power and Majesty truly shines. There’s a large cast, a dozen or more who get their time to strut and fret, each pursuing their own agenda. And the main players have wonderful points of distinction, clear motivations and intertwined histories that still resonate in their actions of the day. Politics and friendship, ambition and jealousy, love and desire, guilt and regret: very real human emotions that drive the narrative and breathe life into the characters and power the plot.

Amid the politics of the Creature Court, Velody is forced to assess just what she wants from her life — is being a dressmaker to high society enough? How much is she willing to sacrifice for her friends, her own happiness, and indeed the world?

I found Power and Majesty to be an enjoyable blend of fantasy and romance with entertaining characters who bring tension and intrigue to the story, all against a well-realised backdrop. Bravo!