Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Another review

The Adelaide Advertiser had a review of Heart of the Mirage the other day, written by Scott Moore, which included the following:

"This skilfully written work may be fantasy, but the issues at its heart - political expediency, cultural imperialism and intolerance - are shamefully real."

And it ends:

"Bring on part two."

Nice one. I am very pleased with the reviews of the book so far, and with the feedback from readers, too. It seems to be a story that resonates with those that read it - and what more can an author ask for than that?

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

New York dreaming...

Here's me in New York, outside the Saatchi & Saatchi Building, which is where my publisher has their offices. Note the grin.

How old was I when I first had this dream of having a New York editor? No idea. But I do know that I was a writer at eight years old. We lived at the time in a very small farming community in Western Australia, where the boys were likely to turn up to school barefoot in summer, and New York seemed as remote as the moon.

Travel? Money was so scarce that having to buy a new tyre for the car was considered a major expense, to be carefully budgetted for, and home remedies were tried before the doctor was called. So even this second visit to Penguin still had its aura of magic. Of a dream come true.

My editor and I had an interesting chat about what makes a book sell (no idea), about trends and Dan Brown, and how tough it is sometimes to sell something good to the public. I count myself fortunate that she loves my work, and had faith in it.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Practical Advice for Writers: What’s that?

Ok, here's the first of what is going to be a regular Sunday thing.

Today's tip is all about the word: "that".

Take a look at this rather silly sentence:
That that that, that one that we see here, can be removed is not in doubt.

This sentence is actually grammatically correct. It’s also hideous, of course. (If you can’t make any sense of it, think of it as being spoken by someone pointing to the word "that" in a written passage.)

Unfortunately the word ‘that’ is far too easy to over-use – partly because it can be so many things:
An adjective. He has that belief in his talent...
Or an adverb. Only six or seven, if that many...
Or a conjunction. He decided that she should know the whole story.
Or a relative pronoun. ...a list of books that influenced me...
(I hope I am remembering my grammar terms correctly here - years since I taught this stuff!!)

It might pay to ask your word processor to do a search of your final MS and see if you have too many of the pesky little things. If they turn up like a bad case of acne spots in every sentence, then try to re-word some of them.

That as a Conjunction
Conjunctions are “joining” words like and or but or if or although – or, sometimes, that. Copy editors are often biased one way or another on using ‘that’ as a conjunction. My Australian copy editor tends to re-insert all the ones I have left out. I then alter at least half of them back again! Another Australian copy editor I know religiously tries to get rid of them all in her clients’ work.
Who is correct?
Grammatically, I believe he is right is just as correct as I believe that he is right.

So what’s a bewildered writer to do?
Well, remember this: I believe he is right is more colloquial, the other more formal. That might help you make a decision. Just be careful of dropping the ‘that’ if the result ends up lacking clarity. For example: They announced all teachers, regardless of gender, must wear trousers seems odd when you start reading it. Much better to insert the ‘that’ after ‘announced’ so the reader doesn’t do a doubletake as he tries to figure out how teachers get announced or misreads it as "renounced".

'That' as a Relative Pronoun (relative pronouns are words like "which", "what" and "who")
Here’s one way to get rid of a ‘that’ relative pronoun. Use a partial form of the verb.

The bridge that crossed the Canning River was washed away in the storm.
can be changed to:
The bridge crossing the Canning River was washed away in a storm.

The railing that had been broken by the storm fell into the stream.
can be changed to:
The railing broken by the storm fell into the stream.

It’s up to you to decide what sounds best in context – sometimes it is the first way, sometimes the other.

And that’s that about thats.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

What a Literary Agent can and should be

Years ago, when I was a hopeful, unpublished writer - and thought I was a great deal better than I actually was - I started to shop my work around. Rejections followed. And no matter how often you are told never to take a rejection personally, of course you do. Your work is your baby. You've spent years burping it, cleaning it up, dressing it in the best finery you can find. You think it's beautiful and that it deserves to grow into a fine book with a snazzy cover sitting on the shelves of Barnes and Noble or Dymocks. You dream of lunches with editors in Manhattan, or signings in London, or your name on bestseller lists as the creator of this marvellous child, whose name - of course - is on everyone's lips.

I eventually threw some of my early babies away. Well, on to the top of the wardrobe anyway. I believe they collect dust there still. Sometimes I might disembowel one for an idea or two to use elsewhere.

Finally, though, I found an agent in the UK (I was living in Austria at the time). I did it by consulting the list of agents in the Artists' and Writers' Yearbook 1990, and selecting one who said she took sff. She had once been an editor; she was married at the time to a well-known writer; she represented published authors. She accepted me as a client in January 1991, and told me what other authors she represented.

I didn't pay her a penny. She suggested a few minor alterations to the MS, which I happily did, and then she started to look for a publisher for me. (That first book is now The Aware. I envisaged it then as the first in a series, set in the world of the Isles of Glory.)

I was already writing the next book: now called Heart of the Mirage, set in a different world. When that was finished, my agent started to offer that around as well. She'd had no luck with The Aware, but she didn't give up. The feedback was always positive, a number of times it seemed one of the books would sell - but somehow it never quite happened. Do I blame my agent? Of course not! I saw how much she did on my behalf; I read the comments of editors who read my work.

How much had I paid my agent by this stage?

Nothing. Not a penny. Not a cent. Lord, I hadn't even taken her out to lunch.

She had done all this work for me - sending out the book again and again, talking about me to publishers - for nothing. I even had meetings with editors in London, which she arranged for me, but somehow the contract never materialised. And still it had all been free for me.

I sat down to write to Havenstar. And finally, I had a book that sold. It was published in 1999.

Look at those dates. 1991 and 1999. Would you work that long for someone for nothing? My agent did! Is it any wonder I worship the ground she walks on? She has gone on since then to sell seven of my books - including those first two - around the world and in different languages. It took 13 years to see The Aware published, and 15 before I held a published copy of Heart of the Mirage in my hand! Every time I earn money now, so does she. And I am delighted that at last she is getting some return for her faith in my writing. That is what an agent should be. (Dot, I think you rock.)

So what's my point here?
I want unpublished writers to know what an agent can and should be, instead of being scammed by the unscrupulous.

Read the latest posts over at Miss Snark's blog or at Making Light to find out what can happen. There are ratbags like Barbara Bauer who run so called Literary Agencies, scam unpublished authors out of their money, and then have the gall to object when they are unmasked. Long live those with enough guts to protest.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Coming: writing tips once a week

I have decided to organise my blog better in future.

I am going to start with a regular weekly post that gives writing tips (not to be confused with tips on getting published, or writing a novel in general, which I do talk about sometimes anyway).

This will deal with problems at sentence or paragraph level. Grammar, style, that sort of thing. Yeah, I used to be an Engish teacher, for my sins. Some of it will be basic, some of it more drop by on Sundays if you are interested.


From Donna Hanson over at the Australian speculative fiction site:

On the writing: "Larke’s writing too is so vivid and solid that at times it leaves me breathless or just plain green with envy."
On the main character: "As a character, Ligea is fearless, bloodthirsty, vicious, sexy and determined..."
This character’s conflict and transformation was entirely convincing and satisfying to read."

On the world: "Heart of the Mirage has aspects of Havenstar’s inventiveness, with an interactive landscape that is highly imaginative and entertaining."

Oh wow. I think she liked it!

Thursday, May 25, 2006

What's with this middle book thing?

Some time ago (15th March), I wrote a post about how my middle book didn't sell as well as books 1 and 3, which struck me as very peculiar. Now I have further confirmation of the missing middle book syndrome ... it has spread to the persons in library acquisitions.

Some of you may not know this, but in Australia, local authors are paid a sum of money each year according to the (estimated) number of books of theirs in public and school libraries (AUD $1.43c per book). I have just received my statement for the past year - and whaddya know, there are almost the same number of books 1 & 3 (a difference of 3 copies throughout Oz!), but 14% less copies of book 2. Huh? Now why would libraries acquire 1 and 3, but not 2??

Or is it that library users, having not bought the middle book, are now stealing it from their library? Ah, the mystery to be solved by some inspired sleuthing librarian...

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

A Bali Starling in New York

Bali Starlings, white and blue and gorgeous, are truly rare in the wild. Caught and sold for the captive bird trade, they ended up in cages round the world, but almost extinct on their native island. A captive breeding and release programme has had only limited success and wild birds are still subject to poaching. I’ve been to Bali, twice, but I just saw my first Bali Starling last week - in New York.

I love New York. Great, wild, untidy, luxuriant...the scenery of another planet!
In the face of the exuberance of Manhattan life, you forget to see the dirt, the ugliness, the seamier side; only the splendour of the whole is obvious. Superlatives abound: buildings lour over Central Park, impossibly tall, like comic stereotypes; some streets truly are canyons; Fifth Avenue really is packed with the trappings of the obscenely rich. Stores are bigger, wealth is greater; life is larger; poverty - when seen in the world’s most famous city in the world’s richest nation - is sadder. Manhattan pulses, a living breathing dragon lying there beneath your feet…

Yeah, quite. See what the place does to my writing even?

Would I want to live there? My daughter wants to, even though she already has, for two years when she was a post-grad student. She had a tiny shared apartment with a single window that looked out onto a brick wall. You couldn’t see the sky. I would have hated it.

But ah, the other things. To walk everywhere, as New Yorkers do, and be so close to everything. To have the theatre and museums and music and the restaurants…

But not this trip. This trip we went to the children’s playgrounds where the maids bring the kids to play, except at weekends when it’s mum and dad’s turn. We went to the children’s museum (ditto). We went to F.A.O. Schwarz, which is a toy store that has to be seen to be believed. We went to the Central Park Zoo, where I saw my first Bali Starling living in the rainforest exhibit. We breakfasted in diners, where no one is going to say much if an almost-two ups his scrambled egg all over the floor; we dined in the evening on pizza brought back to the room…

And I went to the Darwin exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Natural History, while my daughter was dragged off by the almost-two to see lots of skeletons and stuffed animals. Especially large ones.

Much of my Isles of Glory is framed by the letters of an ethnographer who has visited the Isles. His character was his own, but his world was partly that of Joseph Banks, the botanist who sailed with Captain Cook (as did an ancestor of mine), and partly that of Charles Darwin and the voyage of the HMS Beagle in the following century. Thus this splendid exhibition - also a statement recognising the reality and wonder of the evolution of life on earth - was something very close to my heart. Ah, yes, there are times when I would indeed love to live in New York, to have access to exhibitions like this.

“The land is one great, wild, untidy, luxuriant hothouse, made by Nature for herself. How great would be the desire in every admirer of Nature to behold, if such were possible, the scenery of another planet! Yet to every person it may truly be said, that the glories of another world are opened to him.”
(Charles Darwin, on seeing a tropical rainforest for the first time: condensed from the "Voyage of the Beagle")

Tuesday, May 23, 2006


Well, I'm back in Selangor again, but won't be off to Sabah for a day or two yet.

I shall be posting a bit about my NY trip in the coming days...

And hi to all those romance writers (must have been at least 60 of you by the look of it) who dropped by my blog last week. Dunno who sent you, but lovely to see you here!

COINCIDENCE: in fact and in fiction

The plane was full from New York to Kuala Lumpur. The man sitting next to me was American.

‘Your first trip to Malaysia?’ I asked at some point, one of those casual questions you tend to ask of a fellow sufferer on a long flight.

No, he said. He had been an American Peace Corps volunteer in Malaysia, back in the early 70s, he explained, and named the institution where he had been a lecturer.

I was startled. My husband had been one of the Malaysian initiators of that programme at a time when the country was short of tertiary science teachers prepared to teach in the Malay language and when many local educatonists and some politicians were scornful of the idea that science could ever be taught in the national language at university level. (From a modern perspective, this attitude seems incredibly strange. The past truly is another country.) A few dedicated Malaysians, a handful of Indonesians and members of the American Peace Corps proved the doom-sayers wrong.

Several among the Corps had become good friends to my husband and me. During the initial Malay language learning period, one American family was hosted by my in-laws in their village home. Much later, another - I’ll call him K - asked my husband to be his wakil (negotiating rep) for his engagement and marriage to a Malaysian. He’s looked us up on a more recent visit to Malaysia.

‘But you must know my husband!’ I exclaimed to my fellow passenger, and gave the name. ‘In fact, you and I have probably met before.’

He did indeed remember my husband, and yes, we probably had met a few times thirty-five years ago. ‘You’re an author, aren’t you,’ he said, ‘and you have a daughter in the US, and another who’s a musician in the UK.’

I was staggered. ‘How on earth did you know all that?’

‘Oh,’ he replied, ‘K drove me to the airport this evening, and he was telling me about you.’

K, of course, had no idea I had been in N.Y., let alone that on the plane I was going to be sitting next to the friend he had so kindly driven to Newark Airport. (Years before, he'd done the same good deed in reverse - he'd picked up our newly-arrived daughter at the airport and taken her to the Cornell post-grad campus in Manhattan.) Out of all the 300 plus people on that plane, none of whom I recognised, I was seated next to someone I had once met - who had been talking about me on the way to the airport!

Now that’s a coincidence.
They do happen. And many real-life coincidences are even odder than this one.

And yet coincidences are dangerous things to include in a story because, written down, they seem so trite and contrived. They jerk the reader out of his belief. The person who comes across them in literature tends to curl his lip up in a sneer, and mutter something about writers who think their readers must be pigeon-brained poodles to believe that sort of rubbish…Life Is Not Like That, they state.

Well, life is like that. But the good writer also has to be beware of writing too realistically. Sometime you can be too real for your own good.

There are ways of getting around the unbelievability of the coincidence, of course. Not confusing the unlikely with the impossible is a beginning. Having your characters comment on the unbelievability is (illogically) another way. Or you can, like Dan Brown, keep the action going at such a frenetic pace that the unlikely bits don't have time to register on the reader...

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

A writer's dream...

Tomorrow we set off for New York city.

I have "done" New York in several different ways. My first trip was the real tourist thing. You know, guide book in hand, trying not to look as if my eyes were popping out, head always tilting upwards. My first visit to the Twin Towers.
And then there were the more erudite and leisurely trips, when my daughter was doing her post-grad in Manhattan - museum visits, shows, weekends in Central Park; even birdwatching - and in case you didn't know, Central Park is a great place for birds. Another trip to the Twin Towers.
Then a trip where I bypassed the city, but had great views as we flew in and out of Newark airport. On the way home, the plane banked at just the right moment to show the whole of Manhattan basking in a late summer evening sun. I remember thinking how the World Trade Centre dwarfed everything else...
Three months later my daughter rang me from Virginia. 'Mum, turn on the TV,' she said. Just that. I did - and from Kuala Lumpur, on the other side of the world, I watched the towers fall as it happened.

My last trip was somewhat lonelier - merely passing through with an overnight stopover, just long enough to fulfil a dream. I stayed in an amazing Manhattan hotel (supposedly cheap, but for that price back in K.L you could just about have got the presidential suite in a five star hotel) that had "themed" rooms. Mine was the Salvador Dali room. Imaging waking up to find yourself staring at a rather amateurish reproduction of a Dali painting covering the walls and ceiling... Ok, that really was surreal.

So what was the writer's dream?
To have lunch with my New York editor. It does have a certain ring to it, you've got to admit...
I told her that she might not have known it, but she was the answer to someone's fantasy! On this visit, I have another appointment with her, which I am looking forward to with almost as much anticipation. Meeting one's NY editor still has that ring to it even second time around... ok, I'm a sucker for symbols or something. I'll admit it.

Most of this visit, though, is going to be 'New York with a stroller' and that's a two-year-old's mode of conveyance I'm talking about.

Oh, and I doubt that I will be online again till I get back to K.L. in about five days.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Springtime in ...

Springtime where I grew up in Western Australia meant field mushrooms (which we just loved and went to pick each day to have for breakfast). They came with the first rains and studded the fields like miniature pale brown umbrellas, We could tell the difference between them and toadstools by the time we were three or four.
Springtime meant brown grass suddenly disappearing under a swathe of green. Springtime also meant wildflowers. And West Australia probably has more wildflowers than any other place on earth. I remember visiting a flowermarket in Amsterdam and seeing buckets of morrison and kangaroo paws and boronia and leschenaultia all those other flowers of my childhood on sale. I felt immensely saddened - as if they had somehow stolen part of my Australian-ness by growing something so quintessentially Ozzie on the other side of the world with a sign saying : Produce of Israel.

And then I moved to Malaysia, and spring meant nothing where weather or plants were concerned. It did mean birds on migration...great flocks on the move, unnoticed by almost everyone except the rice farmers and the coastal fishermen. How many Malaysians have I spoken to who had no idea that birds came and went through their land? It has taken bird flu for awareness to grow!

Then came six years in Austria, and suddenly Spring had a capital letter and put a spring in your step after the grey cold bleakness of a city winter.

Now here I am enjoying the colour of a Virginia spring without having gone through a winter. Now that's the way to do it. And soon - less than a week - I shall be heading back to the tropics and home.

Champagne breakfast...

Mother's Day here...and we started the day with a champagne breakfast, courtesy of my lovely son-in-law (see r.). My first ever. Come to think of it, the tyranny of distance has decreed that it has been a good many years since I had a Mother's Day with even one of my children, and of course this is a first - Mother's Day with a grandchild.

My writing is going just great - 2,400 words done yesterday. Book 3 of the Mirage Makers, Song of the Shiver Barrens is about to enter the final leg of the first draft...and it is just galloping along. It doesn't happen often, but just occasionally a writer gets into a stride where the right words seem to flow onto the paper, and this was it. With me, it often seems to happen with the gut-wrenching emotional scenes, and I have just been putting my hero through the wringer.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

When readers get it wrong...

I take pride in writing fantasies that can be read on several levels. If you look, there is more there than just a great (I hope) story.

So what do I do when I see a reader's comment that says something like, "A good entertaining story, but no great depth"? Get all huffy and mutter about readers that can't see past the drip on the end of their noses?

And what about the opposite: the reader who talks about the deep dark meaning of my work and how I have commented on the connections between Donald Rumsfeld, the Da Vinci Code and the melting of the icecaps? (And no; no such book or reader exists...yet.)

Once a writer's work gets out there into the public domain, what happens to it is largely beyond their control. And no matter how a reader might have mangled the subtler meaning, the writer has to grin and bear it - and to a degree sometimes even take the blame. Perhaps your writing lacked the clarity you thought it had?

Mostly though, I don't think that's the point. Each reader takes something different from a writer's work. Perhaps the book did no more than entertain them for an hour or two. Perhaps it made them think about deeper issues of morality and ethics. Maybe it made them re-examine their politics, their environmental concerns, their relationship with their significant other, or how they feel about their dog. Perhaps it made them happier. Perhaps it even inspired them. And the writer will never know these things unless the reader sends an email or a letter or writes a review.

What does matter is this:
The writer has tried to let others see the world through the lens of his own eye. Each writer brings his own joys/fears/politics/ethics/morality to his writing. If, for a moment in time, the reader has been transported somewhere else, to see ( figuratively or literally) something they would not have seen otherwise, then the writer has done part of his job. If the picture the reader sees is not quite the one that you the writer intended, well - at least you have made them think. And that can never be a bad thing.

So if the reader doesn't "get" what I have written, I smile, maybe learn something, and move on. I'm just glad there are people out there who read my work.

The "Ten things I hate to see in a book" meme...

1. A character who looks in a mirror (shop window or whatever) so that the author can then describe them. So done to death.

2. A dream sequence where the reader is misled into thinking it is real, only to have character wake up and "Oh, it was all a dream."

3. Women characters who all seem to be weepy and incompetent in a crisis. Geez, women have kept the human race alive through the worst of times - very few are hysterical in a real crisis.

4. Rip-off plots. Books written to coast along on in the wake of a bestseller. You know, Da Vinci Code look-alikes. Someone writes a bestseller about being a drug-addicted, one-armed juggler living on the streets of London with a pet giraffe, and next thing you know there are dozens of books about drug-addicted, one-armed ju...

5. A mass of truly horrible characters none of whom I can empathise with, doing truly horrible stuff, none of which I can sympathise with. You've gotta offer me something better than that to keep me reading.

6. Women characters who, when together, never talk about anything but their relationships with men and clothes/fashion.

7. Male heroic figures who never care about all the killing they do.

8. Villains who have no purpose to their villainy except to be villainous. Why? What's the pay-off ?

9. A character that is too like me. Please, I wanna read to get away from it all...

10. I don't mind books that make me think. I don't mind books that leave me up in the air to draw my own conclusions about how everything turned out. But I do loathe books where I simply don't understand what the hell is going on and where I don't have enough clues so that I can even guess. And no, I never did get past the first page of Ulysses...

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

More on that HotM review...

Fellow Voyager author and special friend Karen Miller very, very kindly chased down Jason Nahrung for me and I have now seen the review from the Brisbane Courier-Mail.
Apart from the bit I've already quoted, Jason also said:

Larke provided a refreshing approach in her previous Isles of Glory trilogy, and her new release, Heart of the Mirage (Voyager, $20.95), continues to engage.

At the end of the review he adds this:

Larke presents an examination of the ethics of imperialism and disenfranchisement. It is no accident the story is dedicated to Australia's Stolen Generation and the Disappeared Ones of Argentina.

He's actually the first person to have made mention of this acknowledgement to be found at the back of the book. If you have a copy, do read this. I don't believe in being preachy in fiction, but nonetheless, this story is my (inadequate) tribute to people who suffered in a particularly heartrending way.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Anticipation. For ages.

Jason Nahrung of the Brisbane Courier-Mail wrote a review of Heart of the Mirage this last weekend. Alas, I haven't seen it yet. It is not online that I can find. I am told that it was a good one, and my lovely publicist is posting a copy to my home address - but I won't be home for another two weeks! So this pathetically insecure author has to scrounge up a dose of patience...

All I have to sate my impatient soul is this:
‘Glenda Larke…. has again managed to add a thoughtful twist to the fantasy genre.’

All of which makes me think that in this connected world of instant gratification, we have actually forgotten how to wait. I wonder if we have thereby also denied ourselves one of the joys of living: anticipation.

And what stops you reading...?

Justine Larbalestier over at her LJ asked a similar question the other day, actually in relation to killing off animals and whether that puts readers off...and if not, then what does?

I actually wrote the post on killing a cat to see if it would get a reaction. Nada. Maybe people were just too polite to tell me what they really thought. Or maybe they looked at the title and didn't read it! (It was absolutely true, I hasten to add. And I deliberately didn't mention that I am a cat person who is immeasurably distressed by stray cats in trouble, etc. However, I am also a very pragmatic farmer's daughter, so accidently killing a cat that had unhappily chosen to sleep in the engine of my car was, to me, more messy than traumatic.)

But back to the topic of this post. What stops you in your tracks when reading? I mean what actual subject matter, rather than poor writing and stale imagery, poor characterisation, overwriting, incorrect facts - all things which put me off every time.

Do sex scenes bore you to tears, as they do me (mostly)? Or is it a torture scene that will make you chuck the book across the room? Too much graphic violence? Killing off a child? Weepy deadbed scenes? Dream sequences that you the reader think are real only to have the character wake up? (Geez, I hate that one.)

Saturday, May 06, 2006

What started YOU reading?

One of my friends just typed a tale on a message board - smoking with rage - of an overheard conversation in an Australian shop. It went something like this:

Child, picking up children's book, priced at $2 from bargain table: "Mum, can I have this?"
Mother: "No, dear. Wouldn't you rather have lollies?"

Now there's a child being told pretty early on what to value and what not to buy. Will she learn the lesson, do you think, or persist - and become a reader? We'll never know.

So my question is: why do YOU read? Because your parents valued reading? Bought you books? Or was it something you had to discover on your own?

In the farmhouse I grew up in, books were valued by my mother. My father rarely read anything but the newspaper, and he usually fell asleep reading that in the evenings. My mother, on the other hand, love reading, loved books. For many years - cut off from libraries and bookshops on a remote country farm - she belonged to a book club and ordered mail-order books. Her books shelves were stuffed with things like the complete plays of Bernard Shaw, and the literary novels of Australia of the twenties and thirties.

As a child then, I had a role model. I was read to at bedtime - all those Australian classics. Better still, I had an older brother (8 years older) and a sister (7 years older), so I benefited from whatever they had. When my sister started university at 17, I was only 10 - and I read pretty much everything she brought home from the university library. Kids books? Hardly. I was reading all the classics - mostly European authors. I don't recall reading much American literature (except Little Women and Poe) until I hit university myself. And oh, yes, I think there was a copy of Anne of Green Gables, but my sister and I were most unimpressed by that one.

There were no libraries where we lived. In school, there was was one cupboard of books per classroom, and we were allowed to take one book per week (which I inevitably read in an hour or two on the first day). If the teachers' aim was to make books seem desirable, rare objects, then they succeeded.

Oddly enough, I rarely read science fiction or fantasy. My mother was not fond of that sort of thing ("too much like nightmares" was how she described fantasy!), although odd books did come my way: James Hilton's Shangri-la; some Jules Verne and Rider Haggard.

I found out just two days after my mother's death - when I was in Australia for her funeral - that my first book had been accepted for publication. To this day, I grieve that she never knew...she would have been proud.

Friday, May 05, 2006

One way to kill a cat...

This morning when I came downstairs, the first thing I saw was one of the cats - inadvertantly locked out last night - spreadeagled against the wirescreen of a window, resembling a pinned insect in a museum collection, if you discount the feline glare. Now being outside all night is no great hardship at this time of the year in Virginia, but she had a sour expression on her face that would have curdled milkless coffee. When I opened the door, she stalked in without a glance. Typical bloody cat. You gotta love 'em.

And for some reason that reminded me of the time I killed a cat. Very thoroughly, as a matter of fact. I ripped its head off. And being a cat, its revenge was sweet...

Now, don't get me wrong, I am an animal lover. I may be a birdwatcher, but I don't normally go around like a demented vampire dismembering felines. Let a cat turn its pleading gaze on me, and I am putty in its paws.

I was birdwatching in a remote fishing village on a mangrove coast in Malaysia at the time. The place is a thriving tourist complex now, but back in those days it was at the end of a long, lonely road through an endless oilpalm estate: a few ramshackle fishermen's houses, a jetty, a wharf piled high with cockle cages, and the house of a wildlife officer. The real attraction was a population of two species of the world's rarest storks.
I was with three friends, and we left the car in the compound of the ranger while we hired a fishing vessel - actually a rowboat with an engine - and spend the day poking around the tidal creeks of the mangroves. At dusk, we returned to the car, hot, tired and sweaty, looking forward to reaching the nearest town some thirty kms away, where we could get a shower, a seafood meal to die for and a bed for the night. The wildlife ranger had closed up the office and decamped (can't say I blamed him - the nightlife consisted of watching synchronised fireflies which probably gets tedious after a year or two), so we piled into the car and I turned on the engine. Which gave a noise like an expiring whale, and that was that.
One of my friends piled out and took a look under the vehicle. He popped up again a moment later with a strange expression on his face. 'Your car,' he enunciated clearly, 'is bleeding.'
'Bleeding what?' I asked innocently.
'Bleeding blood,' he said, and gave me what is generally called a speaking look.
I got out and took a glance under the car. There was a pool of something looking rather like an oil leak, only the oil was red and sticky. That was when I looked around for the ranger's cat. No sign of it. We opened up the engine - and there was the headless feline, decapitated by the fanbelt. Which of course was broken. The disembodied head grinned up at us from the engine mounting.
Never kill a cat. They always get their revenge. It was 6 p.m. and we were in the middle of nowhere. The sole vehicle leaving for civilisation was an old truck...ever tried hitching a ride in a lorry loaded to the brim with wet, loose cockles? Especially when there are four of you and only two extra places in the cab? Any idea what cockles smell like, en masse?
And then, once we reached the nearest town of note, all garages were closed. Ever tried finding someone who will open up their establishment to four very smelly individuals (two of them dripping wet), after dark, in a small country town? Can anyone tell me, where does everybody go in small towns at nightfall?
We managed - eventually - (using a number of phone calls and a very Malaysian system of family connections which finally ended up at the car repair shop of an obliging man who was a friend of a friend of my friends's uncle's second cousin) to get a new fan belt and the loan of a car. Then a long drive back to my disabled vehicle. A long repair job by torchlight under the reproachful gaze of another couple of cats that had appeared out of nowhere. Another drive through a lonely estate. Never did get dinner. Bed at 4 a.m. to dream about vengeful cats without heads.
And I have never eaten a cockle since...

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Another review coming...and a different kind of perfect moment

I hear that there will be a review of the Heart of the Mirage in the Brisbane Courier-Mail this weekend. Fingers crossed it will be a good one.

My grandson and I are pals at last. It's taken a week!! We are going to set up a live computer link when I go home so that he doesn't forget me again...

And today, when we went to a plant nursery to choose some flowers for planting, while I was looking at some Exotic Impatiens, a Ruby-throated Hummingbird came and fed on the flowers, then hovered a bare foot or so away. Eyeball to eyeball. Ah. To a birdwatcher from a non-hummingbird part of the world, that was a pretty good moment. To add to the pleasure, several pairs of Purple Finches were nesting in the plant shed (at least, that's what I assumed they were, although I didn't have my binoculars with me), with the males warbling their hearts out. Perfect.

I am actually a bit frustrated, I will admit - my telescope and bins have gone to Austria to be cleaned and serviced, and I am doing without. I have thus gone cold turkey on birdwatching, and that is incredibly tough, especially when there are all these exciting things about.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Second review...

There's a lovely review of Heart of the Mirage up on the site of the speciality Galaxy Bookstore in Sydney (can't wait to visit in one day). The book is their selected "fave rave" new title for this month. I think this is the best review I've ever had anywhere.

Larke has granted the reader a near-perfect escape into a breathtaking adventure. Heart of the Mirage is so real, your pulse will race and your breath catch...

The review ends with this:

To my mind, Larke’s self-assurance, insight and guts - much in the traditon of Robin Hobb, Carol Berg and even Elizabeth Moon - firmly places her on the list as one of the very best Australian writers of fantasy fiction.

Moments don't get much better than this.

Monday, May 01, 2006

A first review...and why aren't kangaroos invisible?

Lucy Sussex has written a very short review of Heart of the Mirage for The Age, a Melbourne newspaper, appearing yesterday (Sunday). I am tickled pink to be in The Age and to have a writer as talented as Lucy say nice things! The review ended with: For those jaded with genre fantasy, Larke provides fare that is fresh, strange and intriguing.

There have been some interesting comments added to my last blog entry on the difficulties of language of a period, and Gillian had some words of wisdom over on her blog. I liked the comment Karen (author of Kingmaker, Kingbreaker duology) made about some things being invisible, no matter what world you are writing about - cows and horses are fine, but the moment you mention something like kangaroos, you're doomed. You've made the place Australia, and nothing is going budge the reader out of that slot.

I think this is one reason why fantasy seems sometimes to be so much the same in setting: oak trees are fine ("invisible") and so are wolves and generic bears and wild boars and the north being colder than the south. None of those things grates on the reader. Include kangaroos or armadilloes or giraffes and all of a sudden you are no longer in a land called "Cavalaria" or "M'grith". Have your hero fight a battle with a savage tiger during a hunt, and you've got to be in India. Have your heroine watch the toucans in the tree outside her castle and you'll have your reader shaking their heads in despair. You have placed them somewhere real and not at all fantastical in the way they expected.

The challenge is to provide a setting that is different, yet doesn't carry a load of baggage with it. The aim must always be not to jerk the reader out of your world and into his/her own.