Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Just Because I Can

Here's another video of the Yvonne die Kuh song. Apparently it became very popular in beer halls. Hmm.

Just to prove my taste isn't completely lacking here's something a little more serious. Scroll down the page and you'll find a video of Ryan Kelly from Celtic Thunder singing The House of The Rising Sun.

Still not your thing? Here's more Celtic Thunder, this time the whole ensemble, and they're singing Amazing Grace.

Then there's this - Celtic Woman singing The Parting Glass. They certainly could put on a dramatic show, couldn't they.


Sunday, December 28, 2014

Seasons and Reasons

So here we are halfway through the holiday week that starts with Christmas Day and ends with New Year - and for the most part it's been good. Family, good friends and far too much delicious food. Having a small grandchild around is an added bonus. We've yet another feast on New Years Day and then - a little later - there's a special birthday party for me (having a birthday just after New Year means I've had very few parties in my life - 4 in fact - so, this year being a milestone one, I'm determined to enjoy it).

We've had a frustrating year in many ways and a sad one at times with the deaths of several dear friends overshadowing much of the time but I finally managed to overcome my initial apathy towards the season and there are tins still full of goodies to eat, decorations and silly photos. See.

A small dog in her Christmas finery. She gets dressed in this every year but this time she was NOT impressed.

Tree with cat decoration.

Christmas kitty - in detail.

Seasons greetings to you all and may the coming year bring you all you desire. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Packing Up

So in the process of packing up of much of the house for some renovations I have reached my office. The current situation is a cross between shouting "Why am I doing this?" and curling into a foetal position and crying. This is because most of what's in here I need to keep using on a regular basis and if it makes its way into the mountain of cardboard cartons piled in the garage I won't be able to find it. I have so far packed up all but the essentials in the dining room, living room, family sitting room and my bedroom. Piles of "stuff" has made its way out to the annual Council street clean up or has clogged the garbage bin that is collected weekly. I have donated more to local op shops (charity shop for those who don't live in Australia) and other recycling organisations. There are six cartons of books (which makes a total of twelve boxes so far and each one tears at my heart even though they are going to the Save the Children Fund annual book sale), sundry other bits of bric-a-brac and several bags unwanted clothing standing in the front hall waiting to be moved out to different op shops and a pile of empty cartons waiting to be filled in the hall.

I have been coping with all this - not enjoying it, mark you, but coping - but my office I think may possibly be my breaking point. Actually, now I think about it, the final breaking point will probably come when I have to tackle what Pisces is supposed to have cleaned up and packed. He is not fond of discarding anything - he's not a hoarder as such but he hates to let things with a potential use go - and he has two rooms to deal with. So far that seems to have meant mainly spreading things out - onto the floor, into office baskets for "sorting", on to the previously cleared dining room table, on to the verandah.  You get the picture. Ah well, we've been married for a long time so I know that somehow or other we'll resolve this.

In the meantime someone, who probably meant to help, has reminded me that Christmas is three weeks away. Three weeks! To this my answer is "Aaaaaargh!"

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Yvonne the Cow

So yesterday afternoon while I put my feet up to rest my back for half an hour - yes, bad backs are the pits - I turned on the TV for some mindless viewing and found a program featuring animal escapes. I thought someone must have bundled some videos of dubious quality together and it was showing as a filler. Turns out I was wrong and it was much better than all those excruciating so-called "funniest" video programs which largely feature people being hurt in various ways.

There were all sorts of animals like rhinos and baboons escaping from all sorts of enclosures and then we had Yvonne the cow from Bavaria. In 2011 Yvonne took off into the forest where, for 98 days, she evaded capture by the police, searchers (including farmers and animal rights activists) on foot, horseback, quad bike and in helicopters and hunters (the authorities issued a shoot to kill order but had to withdraw it due to public outcry). Even a bull being brought to the area didn't entice her - which is odd because, when she was eventually recaptured, she was found to have a cyst that was causing her to be permanently on heat. Obviously he wasn't her type.

Yvonne became so popular that a song was written about her and steadily made its way up the charts. Not a great work of art perhaps but the chorus is certainly catchy and the singers had a lot of fun with it. Have a listen. Then there's this.

Yvonne is now living at an animal sanctuary where the owner says she will live out her days.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

It's Nearly Summer

and the bobtail goannas are about. They are actually a type of skink (proper name Tiliqua rugosa) and rejoice under a number of common names - bobtails, blue tongues, stumpy tails, all obviously related to their appearance, and, more obscurely, sleepy lizards, which I assume relates to their winter dormancy.

    Taken by: Grant65 from English Wikipedia (original source)
    License:  cc-by/3.0 (500 x 341 px) (52741 bytes) 

I have the good fortune to have a family of these endearing creatures living in my garden. The adults are reported to grow to around 26-31 cms in length - although the one of our current adults that I saw yesterday is more like 36 cms. They have thick scales and their stumpy tail is believed to be a combination of defence mechanism - unlike other skinks it can't jettison its tail but as it looks something like another head, it could confuse a predator - and as a fat store for the winter. 

Generally they are shy and hide among the plants, although they will sometimes sun themselves particularly in early Spring when they are first coming out of dormancy. When threatened they open their mouths wide, displaying a bright blue tongue in a vivid pink mouth as they rear up. It can be quite a shock if you aren't expecting it. They very rarely bite, however, and it's largely a remarkably effective warning show. I had a reputation in the street for a while for being the person to remove them from inconvenient places like the middle of the road or on driveways because so many people are scared of being bitten. It's not rational but people aren't always rational, are they. I usually wear gloves (not because I'm afraid of them biting but in case they are carrying ticks) and just grasp them firmly behind the neck with one hand and rest them on the other hand and release them in among some plants. 

Unfortunately some folk are afraid of them and kill them (It's illegal but they have to be caught doing the act for any action to be taken) and a number die every year crossing roads, sadly sometimes deliberately run down It's stupid really because one of their favourite foods is the destructive garden snail. 

They are unusual in a number of ways. They pair bond for life, coming back together every breeding season. As well they are live bearers, with the female giving birth to 4-5 babies. The family stays together for a month or so then the young move on. From what we've observed there seems to be a fairly high death rate among the young but once they get past that they can live for twenty or more years. 

You can read more about them here.

Monday, November 17, 2014

AWWC 2014: The Caller by Juliet Marillier

The Caller, the third book in the Shadowfell trilogy begins with the rebel headquarters coming to terms with the terrible loss they suffered at the end of Raven Flight. But the plan to rid Alban of its brutal king, Keldec and his vicious queen has to continue. The Caller of the title, Neryn, has so far met three Guardians, the trickster Master of the Shadows (although he has left her with more questions than answers), and trained in using her ability with the Hag of the Isles and the Lord of the North but still has no answer as to how they can protect the Good Folk from the effects of iron. She still needs to learn from the fourth Guardian, the White Lady and time is running out if she is also to find the elusive and unreliable Master of Shadows again. Even worse the king now has a weapon that could change the balance of power and undermine the rebels' alliance with the Good Folk, one that could threaten Neryn herself. While she has had to make some hard choices as she learns to master her ability as Caller, Neryn also finds she has to be flexible. Now everything has changed and, while it has been drummed into her that she must keep herself safe for the rebellion to have any chance of succeeding, she is forced to make risky decisions relying on her intuition. If she is wrong the consequences could be dire for all - rebels, Good Folk and especially for herself and the one she loves.

 Juliet Marillier is an gifted story teller with a wonderful way with words and I enjoyed The Caller very much. She evokes the world of Alban beautifully whether it is the physical setting of the isolated clearing where she finds the White Lady and the tiny winged creatures who live there, the tension filled court where no-one is safe from the cruelties of the king and his sadistic queen or the rebels' strongholds. I have read reviews of the previous two books in the trilogy where the reviewers thought the story moved a bit slowly but I disagree. I suspect this relates to the times when Neryn is training under the Guardians but, although I'm notorious for skimming over slow bits, I didn't feel that need here. Yes, it is not rushed but that made sense to me. Neryn has a lot to learn and some of her learning is slow and painful. If the author had skipped over this it would have lessened the importance of what she needed to know. For me, there's still sufficient tension here because Neryn has time constraints if the rebellion is to succeed and the Guardians often have very different world view.

One of the engaging features of the trilogy is the way Neryn has matured. In Shadowfell she is young and immature, weighed down by her terrible experiences and losses. By the time we reach The Caller she has fallen in love with Flint (and had to farewell him as he returns to the dangers of the court) and earned a position as one of the inner Council of the rebels. Now, too, she is mature enough to be prepared to make her own decisions if she believes them to be right (even when she knows they may well prove unpopular) and strong enough to stick to her convictions whatever the cost - and the costs are often high.

The terrible toll of his double life on Flint, the rebels' spy at court and Neryn's lover, is also convincing. Always in danger from the increasingly erratic king and under suspicion from the queen and her cronies, he is already in danger of unravelling at the beginning of the book and his struggles to survive in a hostile court are deeply believable. These struggles add to the sense of menace in the court, which I found almost uncomfortably palpable as the story draws to its climax.

All in all, The Caller is an absorbing and satisfying read with a well written and complex story and well drawn characters I came to care about. While it and the two earlier books are marketed as YA I found all three equally enjoyable as an adult reader. I do have reservations, however, about their suitability for readers as young as twelve, the starting age nominated by the US publisher.

The Caller was published by Pan Macmillan Australia in Australia and Knopf Books for young Readers in the USA.

The Caller (and Shadowfell and Raven Flight, the two earlier books in the trilogy) are available from various retailers and online booksellers both as hard copy and as e-books.

Juliet Marillier's website is here and she also has a Fan Page on Facebook.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

NaNoWriMo 2014 - fail

I suspect a report card on my attempt at NaNoWriMo would certainly read as fail. I had the best of intentions but health and other issues have made it impossible. I'm quite gutted but I have a plan. This is for a faux NaNo early in the New Year. I'm thinking that a week - or if I'm lucky two - away somewhere, preferably on a beach and where there are no distractions, might be the way to go. We'll see. Who knows, I might be able to persuade some of my fellow writers to come with me. Some who, like me, can't think of anything nicer than going somewhere to write and share. Sounds heavenly, doesn't it.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Lest We Forget - Remembrance Day 2014

I took these photos at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra in 2013.

The Commemorative Courtyard and Pool of Reflection. The Eternal Flame is at the back of the pool near the entrance to the Hall of Remembrance. Unfortunately it's hard to see it in such a small photo.

The cloister arches on both sides of the courtyard house the Rolls of Honour listing those Australians who lost their lives in wars.


        The Eternal Flame in the Pool of Reflection.

The World War I Roll of Honour. The red is from the many red paper poppies inserted by visitors in memory of individuals named here. There is a corresponding gallery for those who died in World War II on the opposite side of the courtyard.

We will remember them.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Sometimes It Just Takes Time and Compassion

Today this heart warming story of a rescued dog appeared in my Facebook newsfeed. Someone took the time and made the effort to make this little dog's life so much better. I suspect many people would  have just had him put down or left him to walk on two legs (which he was certainly doing quite effectively) but someone looked past the obvious and with patience made his life the one it should have been all along. It made me cry and I'm not all that sentimental a person.

It also reminded me of how, but for people taking the time to rescue our sweet kitty and the care taken of him at our local vet's, both as a kitten and an adult, we would not have him with us now. He has had to cope with a lot in his life. He and his sisters were found abandoned as tiny kittens and obviously bad things had happened to him meaning he has an ongoing fear of men in general as a result. (He lived with us for nearly a year before he allowed Pisces to stroke him. Now he demands it and that is a lovely sight to see.)

When Virgo first brought him home he was terrified of everything and everyone and spent most of the first six weeks with us hiding in the wardrobe in the spare room. How a tiny kitten managed to open its heavy doors remains a mystery to this day but he did. Slowly we brought him out into other parts of the house where he immediately raced for cover under the sofa, behind the curtains or behind any other piece of furniture much to the bemusement of the dog and our other cat who followed him around wondering what had moved in with us. Eventually, slowly, I was first allowed to stroke him then to pick him up and he became my shadow. He still is although he remains extremely anxious. This morning's thunderstorms had him hiding under my bed for hours.

Anxiety wasn't the end of his trials though. Earlier this year he developed what the vet thought were behavioural problems and we nearly lost him before things turned for the better. He's been left with a condition that will require medication for the rest of his life but that's a small price to pay. He's a happy and affectionate sweetie and he's lying beside me right now curled up on my laptop bag. It took a lot of time and even more patience to help a terrified kitten grow into this contented adult cat but we - Pisces and I - have never regretted making the effort.

Sunday, November 02, 2014


I was sitting here listening Don McLean's intricate melodies and words and wondering if I should even try to do NaNoWriMo this year. I'm overwhelmed with so much to do it seems insane...but, you know, I'm unhappy when I don't write so I've pulled out the outline I did a couple of months ago and I'm going to try to at least write something every day. I might not get a complete novel done but at the end I'll have something.

And these words from John Scalzi are part of what inspired me. Wish me luck.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Hallowe'en Thoughts

I'm very ambivalent about Hallowe'en as it's practised these days. It's an ancient festival dating back to the end of harvest/beginning of winter festival of Samhain in the Northern Hemisphere. It became a time to remember the dead who might be wandering around at this time of seasonal change as might witches, ghoulies, ghosties and other non human folk. Since this could end badly if you met them in the dark, it was a time to carry neep lanterns (hollowed out turnips with a light inside) when you were going to be out in the night. There were ritual fires, too, to ensure Spring would come back after winter (these eventually translated to bonfires) and pagan customs like ducking for apples which became regarded as harmless fun. All understandable in a culture where life was largely linked closely to the natural cycle of life.

When it became co-opted by the Christian church around 1,000 AD and the festival changed day and became All Saints and All Souls Days the ancient rituals changed but continued as fun customs in their new forms with Hallowe'en being one of many celebrations harking back to pagan times like May Day, Mummers and Morris Men. Hallowe'en was especially popular in Scotland, Ireland and, to a lesser extent, elsewhere in the UK and made its way to the US along with the new settlers. Here 'neep' lanterns became pumpkin jack o' lanterns.

In the US and Scotland and Ireland Hallowe'en gradually changed to become more of a secular children's celebration. In Scotland children would go 'guising', visiting houses to recite or sing to be rewarded with a treat of some kind while in the US dressing up and parties became popular. By the early part of the twentieth century it was more community based with parades and town-wide parties but 'trick or treating' led to a crackdown because of vandalism and other less appreciated demands. It took off again in the US somewhere between 1940 and 1950. Now much better supervised to prevent these problems, it has grown to the huge event it is today in the US which means that, due to the endless supply of US television and movies, we see it too and our children think it looks like fun and want to do the same.

So all good fun, a chance for children - and grown ups , for that  matter  - to dress up, vast quantities of sweets dispensed making the children and the confectionery industry very happy and parties for all ages. What's not to like?

Well, this is where my ambivalence comes in. There are a number of things that bother me. First the pumpkins. For the last three weeks our local Coles/Woolies have had huge piles of pumpkins for Hallowe'en carving. The thing is that in the Northern Hemisphere it's the end of harvest time and the pumpkins are ripe and ready to be picked. Here we're just planting the seeds. This means these pumpkins out of season and are imported which offends my green beliefs.

Then there's the fact that older teens feel that they have a right to demand treats or they 'trick'. Well, no. I don't have to give you anything and I can tell you it's not pleasant to find egg dripping down your windows and staining the walls.

Thirdly, I don't really think that it's a good idea for vast quantities of sweets to be handed out. Yes, I know that makes me a bit of a grump but we're continually being told we're in the midst of an obesity epidemic so is handing out sugar really a good idea?

Finally, although some of my American friends may object, it seems to me that the pumpkins and 'trick or treating' are something that is being imposed on us. We don't have the history behind them so it seems artificial. Frankly, if we do want to celebrate the day, I'd rather it was as fancy dress parties for all ages and not children roaming the streets demanding sweets.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

AWWC 2014: Raven Flight by Juliet Marillier

In this sequel to Shadowfell, Caller Neryn continues to learn about the gift that lets her connect with the Good Folk. Now she has joined the rebels she realises the importance of her Gift and she needs to bring them and the Good Folk together if they are to succeed. This is more important than ever before in a land where all magic is under threat from the brutal Enforcers of the cruel and vicious king, Keldec, who is determined that all magic must come under his control or be wiped out. Neryn has much to learn about controlling and using her Gift from the remaining magical Guardians and very little time in which to do it (even supposing they can be persuaded to teach her). Then there's her worry about the man she loves, the enigmatic Flint, who brought her to the rebel camp and has now returned to his dangerous work in the king's court.

I confess I'm a great fan of Juliet Marillier's novels and this one didn't disappoint. It is full of meticulous world building with realistic and believable characters and is beautifully written as well. Raven Flight is set in a past time in a land full of magical creatures and crammed with dangers. There's a good balance between the tension of a hostile land where no-one is to be trusted and the quieter periods of life in the rebel camp and when Neryn is learning her craft. At the same time the author doesn't shy away from the effects of war and the terrible consequences it can have.

Neryn's growth in magic and in herself is a large part of this novel and we see her mature from the frightened girl of Shadowfell into someone much more adult in her attitudes and understanding. I like Neryn a lot. She has enormous empathy and her Gift gives her added depth as she manoeuvres her way between the different needs of the rebels and the Good Folk to enable them to work together.

While Neryn is the main character, Tali, one of the rebel leaders, takes a major part in this book as Neryn's guard while she seeks out the Guardians. Tali is a complete contrast to Neryn and this adds much to the story. Where Neryn is gentle, kind and thoughtful but with a deep inner strength, Tali is a  physically tough, skilled warrior who can outfight almost anyone. She is full of righteous anger but is also intelligent and caring and she, too, grows as the women journey together.

I am totally hooked on Neryn's story and could hardly wait for The Caller, the final book in the trilogy, to come out. It has and I'll review it soon. For now let's just say I certainly wasn't disappointed.

Published in Australia in 2013 by Pan Macmillan Australia, Raven Flight is available both as a hard copy and as an e-book.

Juliet Marillier's website is here and she is also on Facebook.

Friday, October 24, 2014

AWWC 2014: A Trifle Dead by Livia Day

Tabitha Darling, a lover of vintage fashion and with a tendency to get into trouble especially with the wrong kind of men, runs a trendy cafe in Hobart where she and her equally gifted associate, Nin, cook experimental - and delicious - food. The daughter of a popular and now deceased police superintendent, she spends a lot of her time feeling smothered under the protective gaze of much of the local constabulary, including the dishy Leo Bishop, who brings out conflicting feelings in her. They argue loudly and furiously but she also wants to snog him. When a body is discovered in the top floor flat above the cafe, Tabitha can't resist the urge to investigate along with a journalist, Stewart. He's a fascinating man of many talents who works for a news blog on the floor above and, just to add complications, Tabitha finds him very attractive as well. Then things get really complicated. Tabitha's friend and landlord is missing and strange and scary things start happening around her.

I thoroughly enjoyed A Trifle Dead. It's a light hearted (except for the murders, of course, but there's no graphic or sadistic nastiness even there) and often funny mystery with a protagonist whose delight in food and fashion provides an intriguing backdrop to mysterious crimes and murder. Add in her collection of eccentric friends and acquaintances plus twists in the plot and we have a fascinating mix that makes it a real reading pleasure.

Livia Day is the crime writing pseudonym of award winning Tasmanian fantasy writer, Tansy Rayner Roberts. 

Published by Deadlines, the crime imprint of Twelfth Planet Press, in 2013, A Trifle Dead (Cafe la Femme Mystery, Book One) was shortlisted for Best Debut Book, Davitt Awards for Australian Women's Crime Writing and was a Killer Nashville Silver Falchion finalist. It is available as a paperback and an e-book from the publisher as well as Amazon.com.

The second 'Cafe la Femme' book, Drowned in Vanilla, has just been released.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Pressure's Off

for now at least.

There's much nastiness going on on the internet and I'm trying to avoid it by paying some attention to my spiritual needs. So here's some food for the soul in the form of small creatures. Enjoy.

Some sleepy hedgehogs

A newborn bat

A dwarf Japanese flying squirrel

Motherly love

And a little whimsy

Friday, October 17, 2014

Conflux 2014

I've been very busy since I got home from Conflux, a Canberra based speculative fiction convention, so this is the first chance I've had to put a few thoughts down about it.

First, as always, let me say I had a great time. I've been to Conflux a few times now and it's never let me down. It's small, friendly and very much writer based so obviously it appeals to me from a writer's perspective but it also gives me a chance to catch up with my writerly mates on the opposite side of the continent. Perth has a lot going for it as a place to live and it has a thriving writing community but distance does limit face to face meetings with many of my fellow writers. This time I went with my good friend and fellow Egoboo WA writer, Satima Flavell. We stayed on for a day after the con finished to see some of the sights of Canberra when we realised that, by a quirk of air fare prices, it would cost us no more to stay and to fly home on Tuesday evening (even after factoring in accommodation costs) than to leave on Monday.

Conflux was held at Rydges Capitol Hill. This is a truly beautiful setting because the hotel has a huge tree filled atrium where you can sit and have a peaceful coffee and/or a chat. I tried to get a photo but it was beyond my phone to capture it. (Note to self: it really is time to buy a new camera). At night the whole area is lit with festoons of lights which add even more to its appeal. One of my memorable moments was when I looked out one morning to see three children, all dressed in bright red, playing among the trees. Quite magical.

Then there is the real business of the con, the panels. This year's panels were particularly interesting, I thought, covering a wide range of subjects. When you've been to as many cons as I have panels can be repetitive - after all there are only so many subjects you can come up with - but this time we were spoiled for choice making for some hard decisions when two excellent panels were on at the same time. I only volunteered as a panellist for one panel this year. This was The Art of Reviewing. My fellow panellists were David McDonald, Satima Flavell and Shaheen, and although I've been reviewing sporadically for some years now myself, I was most impressed by their knowledge and enthusiasm.

Another of the highlights for me was the reading of a very funny radio play (Useless Questions, written by my Clarion South mate, Laura E. Goodin) in front of a live audience. A cast of Cat Sparks, Nicole Murphy, Stephen Ormsby, David McDonald and Satima Flavell had a packed room in fits.

Naturally, I fell under the siren song of the Dealers' Room. I always do, of course, but this time there were so many wonderful books launched that were then available for purchase. The good thing was - because I am learning to travel ever more lightly - there was a huge amount of empty space in my suitcase, at least going to Canberra. Not so much on the way back, I have to confess. I'll be doing some reviews later when I've unpacked. See, I told you I'd been busy since I got home.

So all in all, a good time was had and I'm hoping I can organise myself to go again next year.

Monday, October 13, 2014


These are all unashamedly taken from Jim C. Hines' blog because they made me feel good inside.

First a lion cub having fun among autumn leaves

Then some cat thieves

And some very unimpressed cats 

Then, because it always makes me laugh, Giles Gets Knocked Down. Ah Buffy, I miss you.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Taming of the Shrew

Recently I watched Franco Zeffirelli's movie of The Taming of the Shrew. It's always been one of the most problematic of Shakespeare's "comedies" for me and many others and this version did nothing to resolve my conflicted feelings. It's sumptuously filmed, the costuming is beautiful and with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton as the leads and other very talented actors as well it is probably about as good a cast as you could get but the subject matter disturbs me greatly and always has.

The main plot revolves around the marriage of Kate, the shrew of the title. She is fiery, says exactly what she thinks without a thought and can be insulting to those she has no respect for.  She has no wish to marry - and even if she did no-one is prepared to take on a sharp-tongued, bitter woman who doesn't know her place. She is made to seem even worse in the movie as she physically assaults her sweet tempered, younger sister, Bianca, after tying her hands. But her father has said Bianca cannot marry until Kate does so the pressure is on to find the older sister a husband no matter what she thinks - and there's a hefty dowry to encourage suitors.

Enter Petruchio, a thuggish, money seeking adventurer - the first time we meet him he is assaulting his servant for not acting on his confusing demands - in search of a wealthy wife. Kate's dowry attracts him immediately. He starts his courtship by completely ignoring whatever she says and claiming any abuse is affection and when he makes an offer her father accepts with alacrity and Kate is forcibly married off. In the movie she's cut off as she tries to say no which makes what follows even more disturbing. From then on things go even more badly for Kate. Petruchio makes it clear that she is now no more than a possession and she's bullied, deprived of food and sleep, left to wear rags, humiliated and abused to force her into submission. Finally she submits to whatever outrageous demands - and there are many of them - that Petruchio makes of her.

The sub plot is a little less distasteful as Bianca - the sweet natured, obedient daughter whose father is basically arranging to marry her to the highest bidder - runs off and marries her own choice but her marriage to the son of a wealthy man (after a number of mix ups) is accepted, when they seek her father's forgiveness. At Bianca's wedding reception Kate's obedience is tested by Petruchio and she obeys him immediately and then berates the other women for not doing as their husbands demand. In some productions - Zeffirelli's is one - her final speech is subverted as she winks at the end implying she is complying but not 'tamed' but, for me, this doesn't fit with the rest of her behaviour. This is a woman who has no other option than to submit.

So what does the play tell us with an abusive and misogynistic husband is being lauded as admirable and a submissive wife as an ideal? I think it leaves an unpleasant taste behind and apparently this isn't just a modern, feminist idea. Even at the time there were those who found the subject distasteful including the playwright, John Fletcher, a contemporary of William Shakespeare, who wrote The Woman's Prize or The Tamer Tamed in which Petruchio, now older and widowed, remarries Maria, a shrewish woman, and gets his comeuppance.

One school of thought is that Shakespeare was writing a satire and the play is awash with irony and another that this is a simple farce. If either was his intention I don't think he succeeded. Petruchio is not in any way an admirable or amusing character - he's brutal, and Kate is not the only one on the receiving end of his brutality - and, while Kate is certainly a difficult person, there is, for me, no humour in the way she is treated.

For all that The Taming of the Shrew remains popular, being performed frequently and even forming the basis for the popular Cole Porter musical Kiss Me, Kate.

Monday, September 22, 2014

AWWC 2014: Dreamer's Pool by Juliet Marillier

Dreamer's Pool, Juliet Marillier's latest historical fantasy, takes us back into a distant Ireland where a nameless woman is the lone female prisoner in the dungeon of vicious chieftain, Mathuin. Brutally treated, she survives only because of her need to expose Mathuin at the Midsummer court and due to the support of her fellow prisoner, Grim, another who refuses to give in and who, despite the brutality of the guards, has maintained his humanity. Desperate and facing death, she is offered a lifeline by Conmael, one of the fey. There are, of course, conditions and dealing with the fey is always dangerous but she has no other option.

After a dramatic escape, Blackthorn, as she now chooses to be known, and Grim make their way to  Winterfalls where Prince Oran is anxiously waiting for his bride to arrive. All seems peaceful as they settle in and Blackthorn takes up the position of the local wise woman and healer but this is no idyll. Both Blackthorn and Grim struggle to deal with issues from their pasts and nearby Dreamer's Wood and Dreamer's Pool are unsettling. Magic, dangerous and unpredictable, is at work here and it is not only that of the fey. But there are other dangers for Blackthorn and Grim as they reluctantly find themselves becoming part of the community and enmeshed in the prince's affairs.

The author deals with themes of healing, family and friendship in a complex tale where much is not as it seems. The world building is cleverly crafted, whether it is in the horrors of Mathuin's prison, the mystery of the woodland or the workings of the prince's court. The details immerse the reader in the society so even minor characters, like those in the vignette of the two farmers squabbling over a dog attack during a hearing before the prince, come alive. There are no placeholders here. Every character adds to the story in one way or another.

That the story is told through the eyes of three very distinct protagonists - Blackthorn, touchy, damaged and uncomfortable with people, Grim, a fundamentally decent man, devoted to Blackthorn, and whose lack of education belies his intelligence, and Prince Oran - young, scholarly and well intentioned - adds depth to what is an already engrossing tale. The voice of each of the three is different and totally believable, something that is critical for me as a reader, and that they all view the world very differently with their pasts and personalities colouring what they see and hear, gives an additional authenticity to an already well imagined world.

I really enjoyed Dreamer's Pool. It's a well-paced story, with a steady build up of tension and a complex plot set in a realistic world. There's nothing formulaic and its characters drive the story, something that always appeals to me. It was refreshing, too, to have a mature woman like Blackthorn as a protagonist and other older folk - women like Prince Oran's aunt, Lady Sochla and the unnamed dying traveller and the old man of the druid's tale - who add much to our understanding of this society. I am very much looking forward to more stories about Blackthorn and Grim. They are the sort of characters who get under your skin and make you want to get to know them better.

Dreamer's Pool is due for release from Pan Macmillan on 1 October in Australia and in November from Penguin in the U.S. If you happen to live in Perth, Western Australia, there's a book launch for Dreamer's Pool at South Perth Library on 2 October. Details and bookings (essential) are available here.

Juliet Marillier's website is here and she is also on Facebook.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Animal Friendships

I've shared my life with many animals over the years and a long time ago I decided without anthropomorphising in any way that, while we may not speak the same language or think the same way, animals can have real emotional attachments to us, their own kind and other creatures.

There was the crippled magpie who lived in our yard. She would challenge all the surrounding birds to a fight and when they flew in to take her on she would give a quite different call and out would come the dog to drive them off and protect her at considerable risk to itself. Magpies are armed with serious beaks.

Then there were the inseparable dog and cat who lived with us. He would find a mouse nest but didn't deign to sully his paws. Somehow he would persuade the dog to dig out the nest while he waited to catch the fleeing mice.

Another dog and cat would cuddle up together every night and when the cat passed away the dog was inconsolable for weeks, looking for him everywhere.

So, yes, I do think animals form across species friendships which is why I was delighted to find this link to unlikely animal friends on Jim C. Hines' blog.

And just because it evoked memories of a particular dog who dealt with vet visits by shoving her head into the neck opening of my dress - I soon learned that high-cut neck lines were mandatory - I give you this link to animals who suddenly realised they were at the vet's also via Jim C. Hines' blog.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Loreena McKennitt Sings

And, boy, can Loreena McKennitt sing. Here she is singing The Lady of Shalott. The words are those of Alfred, Lord Tennyson's beautiful poem of the same name about the unfortunate lady who spends her life weaving a magic web. Then she catches sight of a passing knight in her mirror (Sir Lancelot who for once can't be blamed for what befalls her). Overcome by what she sees (and knowing she shouldn't because she's under a curse forbidding her to look down to Camelot) she can't resist watching him ride to the town. The curse immediately takes effect.

Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror cracked from side to side;
"The curse is come upon me," cried
the Lady of Shalott.

And, of course, it doesn't end well for her though why she would think a chance glimpse of anyone would be worth activating a curse - however nebulous this one seems - I can't imagine. Still it's a lovely poem and the paintings on the video accompanying the song are also lovely rather pre-Raphaelite looking. You can find out more about the pre Raphaelites here.

I can't believe that I had not heard of Loreena McKennitt before but now I've listened to her I'm definitely a fan. She has a stunning voice. No wonder she has such a huge following.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Whovian Fun

So far I'm loving Peter Capaldi as the latest incarnation of the Doctor in Doctor Who and, just because I can, I give you these links to various cover versions of the Doctor Who theme. I think - but I'm not sure - that I might like the cello one best but I liked them all, even, to my surprise, the metal one (not a musical genre I usually enjoy). What do you think?

Here's a metal version by Eric Calderone

This is Lara de Wit's violin version

The Doubleclicks - cello

A jazz/funk version by Murray Gold surprised me a little.

Some clever people have put up every Doctor Who theme  from the the beginning in 1963 if you want to hear the originals and compare them.


Friday, August 29, 2014

Pick Me Up Time

We've had a rotten winter with illness hitting far more often than we'd have liked so - with Spring about to start and Mother Nature about to burst into renewed life - I decided it's time for a pick me up and linkage seemed a good way to do it. All of these are actual images of Nature at its stunning, colourful best.

First there's this breathtaking tropical eucalyptus tree - Eucalyptus deglupta - with its rainbow coloured bark.

Then there are these photos which range from the lovely to the surreal and these which are even more amazing. These last take a while to load but they are well worth the wait.


Monday, August 18, 2014

Gilded Flower

This is what greeted me as I opened my front door just after sunrise yesterday morning. In a rare moment a few rays of the early morning sun were shining in through the back door, through the house, out the front door and onto the red pelargonium flower on the front porch, splattering the flower with gold. Pretty, isn't it.

2014 Hugo Awards

And the winners of the 2014 Hugo Awards, announced at Loncon, the 72nd World Science Fiction Convention, in London - where I was supposed to be at this very minute having a brilliant time until my body decided it was the right moment to invite any number of ailments to attack me all at once - are listed here. Congratulations to all.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Pudding Lane Animation

This is what you get when six talented students create an animation of London before the Great Fire of  1666. It's simply amazing.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Haunting Photos

This link to abandoned artefacts came up on my Facebook newsfeed as did this and this. They are so breathtakingly beautiful and yet so sad and, yes, there are a few duplicates but not many, certainly not enough to leave any of them out.

As a human being they speak to me of our impermanence as a species but as a writer they bring images of a post apocalyptic - or post human - world where nature is slowly wiping out all signs that we as a species ever existed. Don't be surprised if some of them feature in a story sometime.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Catching Up and Even More Linkage

I've just had one of those times when I've been unwell - nothing serious but enough to sap me of most of my energy - so I've been a bit slack on blogging and much else. All I've been doing is the bare essentials so while I try to get a bit of enthusiasm for any of the stuff I should be doing I give you some linkage.

First something heartwarming - and I should warn you that it made me cry but in a good way.

The next link came up on my Facebook newsfeed and was presented as something we should look at as heartwarming. Instead it made me shudder and was all the more disturbing as I'd just been talking to a dog behaviourist who had explained exactly why this sort of behaviour, which I'd always seen as risky, is both dangerous and irresponsible. I love dogs and have always shared my life with them but putting babies and toddlers in these sorts of situations with dogs frankly terrifies me. How anyone could watch the first part of the video where an aggressive dog - yes, I know it's small but that doesn't stop it being aggressive - continually harasses a plainly frightened baby without intervening and find it amusing I cannot understand. See what you think here.

On a lighter note this  and this made me laugh. I hope they do the same for you.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

MH 17

I've been putting off posting about the tragic shooting down of Malaysian Airlines MH 17 until there was more information but it's now obvious that answers will be slow in coming. It's heart breaking  to think of all those lives lost for no reason and my heart goes out to those who have lost family or friends. That there were so many children makes it all the more tragic. The one definite thing is that it is unlikely to have happened if not for Russian meddling in the Ukraine and none of the blustering of the Russian government nor Vladimir Putin's attempt to put the blame on the Ukraine can change that.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Sexual Orientation is No-one Else's Business

One of the major news items dominating the local papers this last weekend was Ian Thorpe's interview with Michael Parkinson in which he "came out" as gay. I doubt many people were surprised but he had never spoken of it openly. My first thought was why is this news? Surely his sexuality is of no concern to anyone else. I don't care what anyone's sexual orientation is. Why should I? Ian Thorpe was a great representative for Australia as a Olympic swimmer and that's all I need to know about him. The only time when someone's sexuality becomes important is if they try to force someone else act against their will or they are paedophiles and that is abhorrent no matter the sexual orientation of the perpetrator. Right?

Then I saw this opinion piece in the New Matilda. I was shocked because I thought we'd moved past such stupidity in this country. Sadly it seems we haven't. Yes, we have made progress but we certainly have a long way to go.

Monday, July 14, 2014

More Linkage

I'm going back to my sickbed for the day - day 4 if you can believe it. Still I am slowly improving so until I'm up and about again here is linkage. They are all artistic endeavours although very different from each other.

The first is 500 Years of Female Portraits in Western Art, an extraordinary morph animation put together by Philip Scott Johnson.

Then there's Sarah Stone's equally extraordinary cover of Royals accompanied only by the beat of her hands on a table and a cup - and we get some idea of how hard this was to do in the first 20 seconds.

An intriguing bison sculpture by John Lopez made from recycled farm machinery. Read the rest of the article and you can see more examples of his work.

A little whimsy here. Whether you approve of graffiti art or not these are clever.

And for sheer beauty there is this ethereal sculpture  from the Fantasy Wire Fairies Sculptures website where you can see other equally lovely sculptures.

Thursday, July 10, 2014


I've been feeling a bit overwhelmed lately and then these turned up in my Facebook feed and lifted my spirits. I hope they do the same for you.

A pair of talented young singers - and what voices they have.

A whale rescue - successful too. Always a good thing.

I love sushi as much as the next person but...

An invention we really do need

and just for fun some hand dancing.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Rolf Harris Conviction

I've been mulling over this because it's something I feel very strongly about.  If you don't know already, entertainer Rolf Harris, has been found guilty of twelve counts of indecent assault on girls and young women. Since there have been multiple claims by adult women, many of them backed up by witnesses, that he groped them too.

The thing is when I was in a conversation with a man I know to be caring, supportive and genuinely appalled by what has come out in the Rolf Harris trial, I was asked why these women hadn't spoken up before.

Sounds reasonable, I suppose, but the thing is it's a lucky woman who doesn't experience unwanted sexual touching or get groped at some time and it's shocking when it happens. You can't quite believe it happened for a moment and, most of the time, the man makes a quick exit while you're standing there stunned or, if he's in a position of power as Rolf Harris was, he just goes on as if nothing has happened. By the time you've got yourself together you realise that it's too late because he's gone or that it's his word against yours and he'll swear it didn't happen or claim it was an accident or, if he's got the power as happened to Rolf Harris' victims, it's likely he's considered all the more credible because of the high status our society gives celebrities.

And Rolf Harris is a famous man, who was greatly admired as an entertainer and an artist. He was commissioned to paint a portrait of the Queen, for heaven's sake. He has been awarded a CBE, an MBE, an OBE and a Member of the Order of Australia. Most of these women were young or in their early teens, in situations where they had no witness to what had happened and knew that, if it came down to it, they were likely to be disbelieved or accused of seeking attention.

The adult women now coming forward have all said that had they known children were involved they would have spoken up and I don't doubt they would have. It's one thing to have a low life "octopus" grab your bum or breast or shove a hand inside your knickers or worse as an adult and decide it's not worth the hassle to report it and quite another if you know it's happening to a child.

The adults who were groped will probably not get their day in court and I suppose that's inevitable given the passage of time and the fact that such assaults rarely do make it to the court room but at least there will be some satisfaction for them now Rolf Harris has been sentenced. For the rest of us who have had similar experiences, society does seem to be changing with good men speaking up against the minority of their fellows who show no respect for women. Maybe when decent men, like the one I was talking to, hear exactly why women don't always report such incidents, they'll understand that it doesn't mean this is something they can ignore or take lightly because it is probable that this has happened to many women they know and it's high time it was stopped.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

Cheesy Cauliflower Soup

This was last night's meal with a buttered wholemeal bread roll and followed by a bowl of strawberries.

It's such a simple recipe - microwaved and much from the store cupboard - that I'm almost embarrassed to give it but it was so good I'm going to. No accurate measurements either, I'm afraid, but here goes.

Put 1 large head of cauliflower, divided into segments, vegetable stock - I used 2 good quality cubes in about a litre of water - and about a handful of dried onion flakes into a microwavable container and cook until the cauliflower is tender. It took about fifteen minutes on high in my microwave. Of course, you could cook it on the stove and I sometimes do but this was what I did last night.

When the cauliflower is cooked, add a large handful of parsley leaves, stalks removed. If you don't you end up with gritty little bits of stalk. Ask me how I know. Add three or four heaped tablespoons of full cream powdered milk and blend together with a stick mixer or in a blender. It'll be fairly thick and you might need to add a little boiling water. I try not to add too much, partly because we like it to be substantial but also I don't want to water down the flavour. Grate some cheese into the hot soup, say 50-60 grams but not too much, because you don't want to overpower the flavour of the other ingredients, and serve.

That gave us about 5 serves as a main meal dish and it was filling and delicious.

Note: I discovered using powdered milk this way one day when I was making a more traditional cauliflower soup and ran out of milk and it worked so well I've used it ever since to make this soup.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Women in SF

I was reading Tansy Rayner Roberts' blog, in particular her recent Friday Links post. These are usually interesting and this collection doesn't disappoint. I was especially interested in the links to Kari Sperring's blog where, in Living as a Woman in a Science Fiction Future, she talks about the limited range of women characters who appear in SF, in particular older women, and the follow up, Collateral Damage, where she talks about how older women writers are treated in terms of profile, reviews and prestige. If you are a women, especially an older woman, who has been wondering what happened to your favourite women writers - for me women like Judith Tarr, Tanith Lee, Katherine Kerr and C J Cherryh and so many more - the comments make for depressing reading because some of these women join the conversation.

While their experiences are disturbing, and although this is about writing, I can't help feeling they are also a reflection on the way society treats women as they age in general. You only have to look at the movies in which a man in his sixties is cast as the romantic lead opposite a woman young enough to be his daughter, something that is not common in real life and something that immediately turns me off. Mature couples are a rarity on the screen, whether it's a movie or television but why? This is an important question because it permeates society and because of how people are influenced by what they see and what they read - that is the stories they are told shape their perceptions - we need to have this conversation.

There may not be much we can do individually to change society in general apart from challenging these attitudes whenever we come across them but perhaps we could do something to raise the profile of these neglected women writers by lobbying their publishers for more of their books, buying books that are still in print and reviewing their books on blogs, on Amazon and Goodreads and anywhere else we can think of. Whether it will help I don't know but at least we would be making a point and maybe, as another option, we could make a start by listing women writers whose books we enjoy and sharing that list with others. I think I'll start doing that myself.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Columbo - or How Things Have Changed

Recently on Foxtel here there was a season of the LA based police detective series, Columbo, starring the late Peter Falk. There was a later revival from 1989 - 2003 but the episodes I was watching were from the original 1968 -1978 series.

While we know "whodunit" right from the beginning - we see the crime being planned and committed - it's how it's solved that keeps us entertained. Lieutenant Columbo is intuitive, intelligent, crafty and decidedly scruffy - he claims he can't think without his old and very worn raincoat and he resists attempts by the never seen Mrs Columbo to smarten him up - and he interviews in a polite, bumbling - sometimes apologetic, sometimes obsequious - manner that leads his suspects to think he's stupid. He's anything but that, of course, and he aggravates even more by completing an interview, letting his suspect start to relax then, just as he leaves the room he turns around or comes back in with "Just one other thing…" which inevitably shows up a weakness in the carefully planned cover up. The suspect flounders around trying to find an explanation as to why this happened or he or she is pushed into a foolish mistake as they try to fix the problem.

Columbo was extremely popular and deservedly so. Much of its success stemmed from Falk's clever characterisation and the show attracted a host of well known actors of the day like William Shatner, José Ferrer, Ruth Gordon, Patrick McGoohan, Vera Miles and Janet Leigh as the killers.

Set as they are in the era in which they were filmed, it would be easy to think that these episodes would be dated - and, I suppose, if you're worried about fashion that could be an issue - but the quality of the storylines and the acting mean that this doesn't matter. They are as real in their portrayal as Agatha Christie's Miss Marple murder mysteries originally set in the 1930s but changed to the 1950's for the TV versions or her Poirot mysteries that mostly take place in the years between World War I and World War 2.

But there was one thing that kept reminding me of how much things had changed. It was how people communicated and, particularly, how much more isolated people were. Where we would grab a mobile phone (cell phone for those in other parts of the world) the only options then were a public phone box - good luck finding one of them now, they're becoming more rare by the day and if you do you can't get a mobile number on it - or asking if you can make a call from someone's home or office phone.

I'm old enough to remember when every shopping centre - even the smallest - had public phones and everyone carried enough change to be able to make a call if needed. Even when the first mobile phones came in their bulk and awkward shape meant they weren't popular. Then they started to shrink into something that would fit in a pocket or the smallest handbag and public phones began to disappear. In a time when almost everyone can afford the cheapest pay as you go phone I wonder just how long it will be before they simply vanish completely.

Who knows, with technology getting smaller and smaller maybe at birth we'll end up having to be microchipped with a voice activated, reprogrammable phone connection powered by our movements and we'll see a world where we're all part of a vast interlocking network. Now that is a truly horrifying thought. I think it's time for me to go and try to work out how to use my new phone, which, despite being very basic, requires downloading a many paged user manual before I can even start. Wish me luck.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Here Comes the Night

I came across this extraordinary collection of photos through my friend Dorathy who is kind enough to send me links to all sorts of fascinating websites. I don't know how she finds so many things to excite the imagination but it's a rare day that goes by without something amazing slipping into my inbox and I really look forward to them.

Here Comes the Night, a series of photos all taken just before or soon after sunset, appears on the ABC Open website, along with many other projects where people tell their own and other's stories. I think it's well worth a visit if you're a writer because it's full of images that inspire creativity and we all know how important it is to keep our creativity primed. As writing prompts go it would be hard to beat these photos for sheer beauty.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Ouch! Oooooh! Ohh! OW!!!

Did you guess? I'm just back from my Pilates class. Pisces and I decided we needed to add an extra class a week - in his case to try to strengthen his lower back so he can do a bit more and in mine to avoid hip surgery. It's good -  really. It's just that as soon as you reach a level and you're cruising along the physiotherapist ups the ante. This class is more a general one and the fact that the other three women in it could be my daughters - and don't have the same number of physical issues I have  - does make it a tad intimidating but, yes, it's good.

Just over two years ago I was told that the only chance I had of avoiding major surgery on my hips was a serious, targeted exercise programme - and I hate "exercise". Don't get me wrong. I like being active and until my knees and hips packed up on me - thanks (not) for the inheritance whoever you were who brought this arthritic condition into the family line - I loved walking. The dog and I would go for miles but that's a very different thing from repeating some movement over. "Exercise" bores me witless so all that made me begin Pilates was fear that I'd end up completely disabled.

So far, though, it's working. From someone who was in so much hip pain I couldn't lie on my side, making sound sleep only a memory and exhaustion my constant companion, and so unsteady that I had to hang onto something whatever exercise I attempted so I wouldn't fall over, I'm now able to do an hour session without being ready to collapse at the end, my balance has improved and so has my overall strength.

Do I still hate "exercise"? You betcha. Am I going to keep doing it? I certainly am. I'll never be able to run a marathon but I'm fitter and one of the good things I've discovered about small exercise classes is that you build up a relationship with the others in the group and having a chat as you exercise helps to dispel the mind numbing boredom of the repetition. Who'd have thought it.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Compulsory Non-military National Service?

I've been hanging off writing this because it was likely to turn into a rant  - but you know what? I don't care any more. This deserves a rant.

What first stirred me up was an interview with Mark Carnegie (he is a venture capitalist) on ABC1's Lateline last week. Then I watched Q&A on Monday where he was expounding his ideas on the panel. You can also get an idea of what he proposes in this interview with him on ABC radio and the interviewer here raises some good points too.

In summary, as I understand it, he believes that there is not enough social commitment in Australia and  in order to increase this we should institute a form of compulsory volunteering. Apart from volunteering - the obvious misuse of the term volunteer which is inherently something freely done irritated me immensely, he suggests a four pronged approach and specifically suggests that while everyone in the community should be involved apart from the ill and children - and how that can be done I don't know - particular groups targeted should be the retired and students where there would be some undefined sharing of wisdom and mentoring.

The thing is that for most people  - you know those who live on a minimum wage and/or work several jobs - even with the best will in the world there simply is not enough time to do more than they already are. Many parents already work for their local P & C or something similar while there is a lot of good will with individuals helping others without recognition. A case in point: when I hurt my back and was unable to do very much at all apart from lying uncomfortably in bed for three weeks a friend, knowing my husband's ineptitude in the kitchen - he's since learned how to cook, thank goodness - arrived one day with a fortnight's supply of meals for the family.

Then we come to the students. I don't know about you but I've been appalled to hear university students saying, "I'm studying full time and working full time." but it's very common among those without the back up of parents able to support them. The irony is, of course, again the misuse of language. By definition you cannot be doing both full time unless you are attempting to do twice as much as any one person should be required to. And these people don't have enough of a social commitment, do they? I wonder why.

Then we come to the retirees - and this is when I found myself getting really annoyed with Q&A especially when some smart mouth made a crack about how he belongs to Rotary and spends a lot of time with 60 year olds helping them with their computers. How arrogant and insulting. Yes, there are  certainly 60 year olds who don't get on well with computers but I could name - but I won't because they wouldn't ever talk to me again - younger people who can't cope with computer problems on their own but, since they are working, they call on tech support and get their advice that way instead of asking someone else they know.

But that's a distraction. The truth is the majority of retirees who are fit enough are already actively involved in volunteering or are actually providing free services which would otherwise have to be funded by the community.

To prove my point I went to the membership list of a small organisation I belong to. This is a disparate group, mainly women and most of whom are retired. What brings them together is a common interest. Of the twenty or so members well over half are currently providing free day or after school care for their grandchildren on a regular basis and a number are, in addition, caring for ageing parents. Some also assist others in the community who are unable to do everything for themselves. For example they give lifts to those who can't drive or use public transport, they shop for them and they all mentor others in their area of expertise. Pity they're so unengaged with the community, isn't it.

Then there's another group of twenty I belong to. This one is mixed, mainly couples, with all but two retired or semi retired. Guess who are the free day care providers for their youngest grandchildren, pick up from school and care for older children and step in a child is ill and can't go to school - and many of whom are also caring for elderly parents? As well, several are full time carers for disabled partners who would otherwise need to have services provided for by the government.

The thing is we never see or hear of these people because as a society we don't record this data. Grandparents caring for their grandchildren? That's just what grandparents do. Looking after your old parents? You want a medal or something? You're a full time carer for your wife or husband or disabled child? Well, you did it. You committed. Suck it up.

So while I applaud the idea of encouraging people to give back to the community I have to say that making a compulsory, one size fits all system is in my view ridiculous until or unless we actually look at what people are already doing. Without that we're just running up thought bubbles based on our own experience and, if that experience is one of privilege, we really have no idea of what is actually happening in the wider community.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Birdsongs of Australia

An interesting link came up in my newsfeed today about the birds of Australia. Apparently the early settlers were appalled at what they considered to be noisy, loud and harsh sounding birds as opposed to the softer, more melodic songs of their native England. Really? The perception wasn't helped by the fact that some birds can be aggressive in nesting season, I suppose, but all I can say is they don't seem to have been paying much attention to their surroundings.

Yes, there are definitely some harsh sounding birds. The Australian raven with its loud caw is one as are the deafeningly noisy rainbow lorikeets. Rainbow lorikeets are brilliantly coloured - a flock is a visual feast - but are not pleasant neighbours for other birds because they toss the eggs and chicks out of nests to take over the hollows they like to breed in. Apart from their noise, they're also highly destructive of fruit crops so they're not the most popular of species here in the West where they aren't native but aviary escapes that have established themselves and are pushing out our local ringneck parrots. The red wattlebird is pretty harsh too. Even the famous kookaburra isn't exactly melodious.

But there are some lovely birdcalls too. The local ringneck parrot I mentioned above - known here as a twenty eight because of a distinctive part of its call, is one. I couldn't find a decent recording of it unfortunately. Then there's the Australian magpie that I wrote about a while ago. Its choirs on a moonlit night - they live in a family group of twenty or more - are sublime and, although they aren't nocturnal, they can't seem to resist a full moon. This is only a sample.

Another favourite of mine is the pied butcher bird and then there are the honey eaters, wrens and fairy wrens of which this fairy wren is only one of many. Beautiful, isn't it, and there are so many other different species, all unique and lovely but I'd be writing for hours to cover them all so I'd better stop.

Have a look here if you want to find out more. It's not exhaustive but gives a good starting point.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Duolingo Two Years On

I've been studying French and German for the past two years via Duolingo, a free immersion language learning website. I had learned German at school and even did a first year unit at university, unlike French which I only took for one year at secondary school plus a later one year adult education course in conversational French.

Admittedly, this was a very long time ago and all the German I've had any contact with in the last thirty years - despite having a family member who comes from Austria - has been subtitled programmes on SBS, the Australian national television channel which caters for non-English speakers as part of its remit, and I've had even less to do with French.

Still I thought the basics of German at least would still be there and initially I was right. I powered through the first ten sections, testing out after a few lessons. It was great. Then I realised that I wasn't retaining all the changes in the language - and there were many since I had last done any German study.  Some were subtle variations in nuance but some were more dramatic. There were words that hadn't even been thought of - computers and health insurance, anyone - and others that had changed in usage or even spelling.

French was even worse. I found I remembered very little apart from greetings, counting one to ten and basics like please and thank you. Testing out was a fantasy because, although I often did, it was not based on any real understanding. Actually, it was often more luck than anything else.

So I went back to basics in both languages and started over. Now I resist the addictive urge to keep on doing lessons - one of the most appealing things about Duolingo is the way the lessons are structured so it feels like a game and it's very easy to get caught up - and make myself really learn each section. This means I've slowed down dramatically in my progress up the "tree" but it also means I have a much better grasp of the language. I'll probably take another year to reach the end of the course but that's okay because I'll have a good understanding of the language.

So is Duolingo the perfect learning system for languages? I can only speak for myself here but, much as I am enjoying my experience, as far as I'm concerned there are a few things I'd like to see changed. Because it is immersion - you read, hear and practise speaking the language and are supposed to learn it from that - very little grammar is explained and, for me, that doesn't always work. There is a comment section and there are knowledgable moderators in each language who answer questions in this section but the answers can get lost in lengthy threads. I need to know why something works as it does and that's meant tracking down other sources. Not an insurmountable problem in these days of internet searches - all Duolingo students have their own favourite links and many share them with the community - but one extra step to factor in. I'd like to see a comprehensive list of all the words I've learned, too, something that was there but has been removed for some reason.

That aside, there's much to like. It's free, there's an inclusive and supportive community, the lessons are fun and I've learned an immense amount in a relatively short time. I recommend it highly.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Remembering D-Day

Please don't think I'm using the link I'm giving below because I'm being lazy. It's just because we've had so many remembrances of D-Day lately that I wanted something to summarise what war is and does to people's lives.

The many documentaries we've been seeing over the past week have all dealt with the horror that is war in meaningful ways - the memories of those who survived the D-Day push on to the beaches of Normandy, the mistakes and the successes as the Allied troops fought their way in from the coast and the final capitulation of the Nazis much later - and it's not that there's anything wrong with showing us these things. I'd hope that examining all aspects of the war would teach us something - like maybe not letting it happen again. Yes, that's a forlorn hope I know. That famous quote (by George Santayana, I think) about how those who don't study history are bound to repeat it may be very true but, for some reason, there are always people who think it will be different for them and the rest of us suffer for it.

But, however genuine the attempts of the documentary makers, they are constrained by the medium. They have to cut and edit vast amounts of material to fit their time slot whether it's a one hour one off or a series - and, let's be fair, they also have to keep their audience - a generation that expects brief, quick and pithy comment and demands excitement to keep them from glazing over (Even documentaries have to catch the attention in some way. For much of the past week I've been seeing promo for an archaeological dig with snippets that make it look as if it's full of thrills and resolves a mystery that's been intriguing people for centuries. Trouble is these highlights are stage managed with people racing around and the camera fortuitously focussed on the site at just that moment when something has been discovered - and, for the record, the mystery in question is still just that - a mystery.)

I wanted to show you something that reflects the reality of war but not in a documentary sense. This extraordinary video does that because it's art. Facts are all very well - I'm a history major so I love my facts and evidence - but great art speaks to the spirit. Even if it depicts an event it's much more than the bare bones of what happened. It makes us feel. This artist reduced her audience (including me) to tears. Have a look and see if it does the same to you.

Kseniya Simonova - Sand Animation