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Friday, May 26, 2017

On Some Visual(King)Arthurs


Arthur. Public domain.

Here's a link to an entertaining Tor.com article I read yesterday. It was ranking ten Arthurian films from worst to best. I can't say I agreed with all the ratings, but I found that I had actually seen most of those on the list. Of those I hadn't, there was one of which I had seen the original version - I never knew there had been a remake of Prince Valiant! That was one I considered silly but fun, despite all those American accents. The only Brit I recall was the villain, played by James Mason. It had some good music and a singing sword that hummed the film's main theme as it was wielded by the hero..

Anyway, I thought it might be fun, since I've long ago posted on my favourite Arthurian books, to talk about some of the films and TV shows I've seen over the years. I won't bother rating them, just give my opinion. Some are on the Tor list. In no special order...

Monty Python And The Holy Grail: Loved it! On the remote chance you've missed this, King Arthur(Graham Chapman)goes searching, accompanied by his faithful squire Patsy,  for knights to join him in a quest for the Holy Grail. They don't actually have horses, so Patsy carries coconut shells to clop together to make the sound of hooves as they gallop along. This, in its turn, leads to a long argument with men on a castle wall as to how a coconut got to Britain in the first place(carried by a swallow). Along the way, as they collect knights, they encounter various obstacles such as the Knights Who Say Ni, who demand ... a shrubbery, a murderous rabbit and a bridge which will toss you over if you fail to answer three questions. (It ends up tossing off the bridge keeper when he fails to answer a question put to him). And there's no Merlin, but there is Tim the Enchanter, who warns them against the rabbit. There are communist peasants, carts collecting plague-ridden bodies, even if they're not quite dead, a witch trial in which the accused is weighed against a duck... I have shown the plague scene and the witch scene to my Year 8 history class, who thoroughly enjoyed it. The Pythons knew what they were sending up. It's intelligent writing. It's funny whoever you are, but much funnier if you know the background. I first saw this when writing a thesis about Arthurian literature and couldn't stop laughing. 

Excalibur: a stunningly beautiful film made in Ireland back in the 1980s. It stars Nicol Williamson as Merlin, and what a wonderful Merlin he was too. You never found out his background but it didn't matter. It was a mixture of the late Middle Ages and the Dark Ages. Magic filled the air, though Merlin told anyone who would listen that the age of magic was coming to an end. Arthur and Guinevere were played by Nigel Terry, who had played Prince John in The Lion In Winter, opposite Peter O'Toole and Katherine Hepburn, and Cherie Lunghi, who played quite a few roles later, including Beatrice in the BBC Much Ado About Nothing. Lancelot was played by Nicholas Clay, who later played Glaucus, the hero, in a mini-series of The Last Days Of Pompeii, opposite Franco Nero, who had played Lancelot in the film version of Camelot. He played a villainous priest!   In fact, Excalibur featured quite a few future stars, including Patrick Stewart, Helen Mirren and Liam Neeson. The music was mostly Wagner, and whatever I think of Wagner, it fitted beautifully here. I'm afraid the Orff O Fortuna tune played while a healed Arthur and his knights galloped across a blossoming land, while wonderful, had been used in a coffee commercial shortly before, and people in the cinema I saw it in burst out laughing. Not the film's fault! 

Camelot: In my opinion, neither Richard Harris nor Vanessa Redgrave can/could sing. It didn't matter much in his case, because Arthur is a sort of Rex Harrison role, singing-wise, who can talk-sing most of his songs, and Richard Burton, the Broadway Arthur, couldn't sing either. It did matter in her case, because Guinevere is a singing role. Why couldn't they have had Marni Nixon or some such person to do the singing? Still, it was visually stunning, especially the wedding scene, with a wedding gown stitched with thousands of glowing pumpkin seeds. The designer was our very own Aussie John Truscott. I've read The Once And Future King, on which it was based, and whileRichard  Harris was no singer, he got the spirit of T.H White's Arthur across amazingly. I should add, though, that many years later I saw him on stage with beautiful young Aussie singer Marina Prior as Guinevere. Quite apart from the fact that he was way too old for the role by then, he seemed bored after so many performances and, sadly, was walking through it. A great disappointment. After all, Chaim Topol had played Tevye many times when I saw him on stage and he was as amazing as ever. 

Oh, and Italian actor Franco Nero was a lovely Lancelot, but eventually returned to Italy, because he was fed up with playing villains in the U.S. Which didn't stop him from taking the role of an evil priest in the Pompeii mini-series. 

The NBC Merlin mini-series, starring Sam Neill as Merlin and Isabella Rossellini as a Nimue who was not evil at all. It was choc-a-block with big-name stars, such as Miranda Richardson as a villain - I'm so used to seeing her in comedy, I had to adjust. I thought it a bit silly, but it had quite a few elements of Geoffrey of Monmouth's version. And watching it, I wished that someone had made a full-scale version of Mary Stewart's Merlin novels, because IMO, Sam Neill would have been perfect for the role of Stewart's adult Merlin. And those books, too, were inspired by Geoffrey Of Monmouth. 

There was, in fact, a British children's version of The Crystal Cave, Merlin Of The Crystal Cave, with a young actor called Michael Winter, who had appeared as a long-lost prince in The Knights Of God, which had vaguely Arthurian elements in a futuristic dystopian setting. It began at the end of the second book, The Hollow Hills, in which Arthur is made king, when Merlin says he wouldn't wear the cliched starry robe even for Arthur. As Merlin rides off with his servant, he tells the man his own life story and the rest of the film is a flashback. I enjoyed it, though it had some changes from the novel. As far as I know, it's the only time any of the Stewart Arthuriad has been dramatised. If you've heard otherwise, please say so in the comments below. 

King Arthur, a 2004 film in which Arthur is a Roman cavalry officer, as he may well have been, and his knights are all Sarmatians. I recall the Sarmatian theory being aired in a non fiction book which I didn't take too seriously, but it seemed to work for that film. He and his little troupe of knights have finished their time in the Roman auxiliaries and are looking forward to retirement, when they're required to do one more mission. Of course, it's likely to kill off one or more of our heroes, no spoiler as to which of them. Meanwhile, they face danger from the "Woads", led by a tribal chieftain called Merlin. Guinevere, played by Keira Knightley, is Merlin's daughter and a warrior lass who can shoot arrows amazingly. It may be the only Arthurian film in which I've liked Lancelot, a brave fighter who believes firmly that after his death he will return as a glorious white horse, an animal which his tribe holds sacred, and begs not to be buried if he is killed. He might be attracted to Guinevere, but there's no romance here and Arthur and Guinevere only marry in the last scene anyway. Woads and Romans must join to deal with the mutual enemy, the Saxons. There's this delicious scene where the knights are riding off after finishing their mission, and turn to see Arthur, who will fight the whole damned Saxon army alone if he has to. Of course, you know what cones next!  I liked it. It was anachronistic in many ways, and the Romans were out of Britain by the time the story is set, but I still couldn't help liking it. By the way, if you look quickly, you'll see a Round Table. The Tor review says it isn't there, but it is, at the army's HQ. Of course, with a tiny group like Arthur's, it isn't for them, but it's still the Round Table. 

Sword Of The Valiant, a film of Gawain And The Green Knight, the only one I know of. That alone scores points for it in my opinion. Mind you, it's not too faithful to the poem, in which the jovial Sir Bertilak was really the Green Knight, and the whole thing is a test of young Gawain's honouring of his promise, not to mention set up by Morgan Le Fay to scare Guinevere, but Sean Connery was just right for a Green Knight who is, as we're told while he is dying, an embodiment of the land and nature. In fact, I've read theories that state he is a vegetation god. The scene where Gawain is peeing with his armour on is utterly cheeky! Not the best Arthurian film ever made, but worth seeing at least once, and I vaguely recall that Rosemary Sutcliff was involved. 

Arthur Of The Britons: A children's TV series with Oliver Tobias. This Arthur rules a few villages, not Britain, though he is highly respected as a leader, and the Saxons are already long settled in Britain. His foster brother, Cei, is a Saxon brought up by Britons, and gung ho for his adopted people, but has a re-think about the enemy when he sees how they live and the fairness of their justice system. In fact, Arthur almost makes peace with them in the course of the series. King Mark of Cornwall, played by Brian Blessed, would probably have made mincemeat of Tristan if he had existed in this series , but he doesn't. The costumes look well and truly lived-in, the sets are fairly typical British low-budget, but it was an entertaining show. I should add that the show's theme tune was composed by Elmer Bernstein, who wrote the score for The Ten Commandments

Look, there are plenty more, but this will do for now. If you have a favourite I haven't mentioned, tell me about it in the comments. 

Now for one or two I wish had been filmed, but weren't. 

An adult version of the Mary Stewart novels. See above.

Rosemary Sutcliff's The Sword At Sunset. This Arthur is a Romano-British cavalry officer, who works to save Britain from Saxon invaders. He has his sword thrown into the lake so that the enemy, who would recognise it, won't know he's dead. It's the best "real Arthur" version I have read. It has been dramatised, but only for stage. I think you can catch an amateur version on YouTube. 

The novel Arthur, King, by Dennis Lee Anderson, which was set in wartime Britain. King Arthur follows Mordred into the future to get back Excalibur and Merlin's journal, which goes till 1945, because, like T.H White's Merlin, he's living backwards. This Arthur became a father in his teens, seduced and abandoned by Mordred's mother, so is in his prime, not middle aged. He has to pose as a British pilot - well, he learns how to take off, but never gets the hang of landing! He is befriended by an American volunteer(the Yanks aren't yet in the war). He falls in love with a beautiful doctor called Jenny. Think of the film Time After Time. Yes. Like that. The author of the novel was a screenwriter, so it read like a film anyway. 

Do you have any favourites you wish gad been filmed? 

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Space Opera Week - My Space Opera Favourites!

Last week I was talking about regular opera - you know, the kind in which boy meets girl, falls in love and they both end up dead at the end(or, as in Madama Butterfly, she ends up dead and it's a kind of revenge on her faithless husband, who went and married someone else behind her back and whom she has specified must come himself to pick up their little boy - and hopefully trip over her pathetic dead body. That'll learn him!). And while they're dying, they sing.

This morning I got my weekly email from Tor.com and blow me if it isn't Space Opera Week! 

There are various kinds, of course. Soap opera is called that because they used to advertise soap and other such stuff during the ads. Come to think of it, soap opera is probably the closest to original opera in its storylines except nobody sings. (Though I, personally, am beginning to think the Song Of Ice And Fire series is pretty much mediaeval soap opera!). Horse opera is another name for Westerns. And so on.

Space opera is the kind of story in which there are spaceships that can actually get from one corner of the galaxy to another using faster than light drives. You have to have those or there's no space opera. The authors do try to come up with explanations...sometimes, anyway. Wormholes, for example. Frank Herbert has mystical stuff, people who take this thing called Spice to navigate through space, and no, you can't use it in cooking!  Lois McMaster Bujold has wormholes, but the pilots have to get implants to do the wormhole jumps, which can be a problem if they stop making the kind of ship for which you have an implant - suddenly you're out of work! This happens to a character calmed Arde Mayhew, whom her hero Miles Vorkosigan rescues from redundancy. 

Space opera has a very long history, as you'll know if you've ever seen the covers of the 1930s pulp magazines. In fact, Fredric Brown was sending those up in his novel What Mad Universe, in which a science fiction editor finds himself in the universe of one of those pulp covers, complete with girls in see-through clothes.  


It must be a popular genre even now, as people are still writing it and viewing it. Below, I'll list some  that I've read and loved over the years, in no special order, and then a few films and TV shows. I have not read anywhere near all of them, including many major classics - so many books, so little time! But you are welcome to mention any of your faves I might have left out in the comments section below. 

Elizabeth Moon's Serrano Legacy series. Heris Serrano is an admiral of the space fleet. There are plenty of good strong female characters in this series and some minor characters in one book get a lead role in another. I could never get into Honor Harrington, I'm afraid, though a friend who was a huge fan sent me the first book in that series. I did like Heris Serrano. I unearthed this series when I ran out of Miles Vorkosigan books because Lois McMaster Bujold was writing fantasy! I mean, really, fantasy! When you've been writing the best damned space opera series around, it's a shock to fans like me to be confronted with a series of fantasy novels instead. I tried, really I did. I just couldn't read past the first one. It was adequate, but not my cup of tea. Fortunately, she went back to the Vorkosiverse. And Elizabeth Moon did another space opera series, Vatta's War, to keep me going till my dearest Miles Vorkosigan returned.


Gordon R Dickson's Childe Cycle, aka the Dorsai series When I was new to fandom, this was the space opera everybody was following. They were meant to be four historical novels, four present day and four space operas, but in the end, the space opera dominated and there were certainly more than four of them, plus short stories. I think I started with Soldier, Ask Not. I loved the Dorsai mercenaries, especially Ian and Kensie, the Dorsai brothers. Ian was the dark and brooding one, Kensie was all sunshine and sweetness, but died early on and Ian never got over it, and didn't the female readers like me long to comfort him!  The planet was poor, so all they had to make a living from were their young people's bodies, in combat. The premise was that the human race has more or less split into specialties. There are Mystics, psychologists, soldiers, spread across a number of colonies.  

Poul Anderson's Dominic Flandry and Nicholas Van Rijn novels. Dominic Flandry is a dashing secret agent who has many adventures in space and is a bit of a dandy. Nicholas Van Rijn is a space trader, a lot smarter than he pretends to be, and his stories are hilarious. They are both set in the same universe, which has a timeline going over centuries. 

Poul Anderson and Gordon R Dickson also wrote a series together, about the Hokas, a race of live teddy bears who are intelligent and imitative. When they like a story - usually Earth-inspired - they play it out with total seriousness. In one short story a group of them are taken to the opera and decide to play out the story of Don Giovanni, with their hapless human helper as the Don! They never really believe it deep down, they just enjoy living it. 



Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan novels. Need I say more? I admit I'm about three books behind, because I keep going back and rereading the old ones and besides, I am going slow on Cryoburn because I know that Aral Vorkosigan dies in that. It's such a wonderful universe. The characters are delightful and the universe is fascinating. Wormholes, battles, politics - some of the battles happen because of the politics and the politics are centred around control of the wormholes, without which you can't travel faster than light. Which has contributed to the culture of Miles' planet, Barrayar, which was stuck behind a blocked wormhole for a very long time and then, when one was opened and they were invaded, they first kicked out the invaders, then came out fighting. It's an old-fashioned feudal society and though they have a spacefleet, riding boots are still part of the military dress uniform and women have fewer rights than men.

Anne McCaffrey's The Ship Who Sang. The heroine Helva is a girl born crippled in a time when children who can't live a normal life have the option of being trained and, when ready, sealed into a spaceship and running it as a computer. The ship gets to choose her pilot, known as the "brawn" (the ship is the "brain"). Helva becomes a ship and has many adventures with her "brawn", with whom she sings duets. No further spoilers, just read it! 

There are so many more, but I'll go on to visual space opera for now. 

My all time favourite space-themed TV series was Star Trek - the original, not the spinoffs! The spinoffs were generally good, sometimes very good indeed, but I never saw the entire series of any of them, nor wanted to collect them(except Enterprise, which I got on discount and still haven't watched through). I've been enjoying the new films, whose actors, I believe, are really settling into their roles and Karl Urban especially sounds like DeForrest Kelley as Dr McCoy; when you shut your eyes you can almost see the original McCoy!  It's a world in which peace has broken out except maybe with the Klingons, with whom there was an enforced peace after the episode "Errand of Mercy" and they just got on with exploring. There were not too many encounters with the Romulans in the original series. Even the third season, the weakest, had some fine episodes. I bought the entire boxed set of seasons 1 to 3. 

Babylon Five was wonderful too. It was set several centuries in the future, during the "Third Age Of Man" as the credits declared solemnly each episode. It was on a space station with the ambassadors of many races living there, along with a community of workers and a commander to make sure it all ran smoothly. There were five seasons, planned out from beginning to end by the author, John Michael Straczynski, who wrote most of the episodes, though there were some written by the likes of Dorothy Fontana, David Gerrold and even the amazing Neil Gaiman! The story editor was Harlan Ellison, who did a few cameo roles himself, including a doctor, a comedian and a cheeky computer with a Jewish New York accent. It had - deliberately - elements of Tolkien in it, if you can imagine, for example, the Nazghul as scary black spaceships, each with a human symbiont melded into it. There was a lot of mystical stuff in it and it was the first TV SF series I saw in which our present-day religions played a role, as well as religions of other worlds. 

If you think it sounds vaguely familiar, this series was pitched to a certain company before the series you have in mind, and turned down. 

I have a great fondness for The Last Starfighter, a sweet YA film about a teenager who is whisked off into space to become a Starfighter and help save the universe against the baddies. It was Robert Preston's last movie, I think.

Galaxy Quest is going on my favourites list; it starts on Earth, but ends up with all the elements of space opera as  a group of has-been actors from a TV series not unlike Star Trek are whisked away to play the roles from their TV show on a replica of their ship, only one which works. There's this sweet race of aliens who saw the show, thought it was real and based their lives on it...

I'd be lying if I didn't admit to a love for the Star Wars universe. I'm old enough to remember the excitement of the original film, which didn't, in those days, have a sub title and was, in the beginning, called The Star Wars. My brother has a vinyl double album with that title. I remember going to see this amazing new film after school one day, at the quiet five pm session, when you didn't have to book ahead or stand in a queue, and being totally blown away by it, from the very first moment when that huge spaceship roared across the screen till the last when the beautiful princess presents medals to our heroes. Who would have known how far it would go? And that glorious musical score and the Hero's Journey elements that have played so great a role in films since then... 

Plus, those of us who are passionate Star Trek fans owe a lot to Star Wars. It was the success of that film which persuaded Paramount tat there was money to be made from science fiction and they brought it back. 

So, what are your favourite space operas?




Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Castle In The Sea(Quest of the Sunfish#2) by Mardi McConnochie. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2017



In a post-climate change world, four children, siblings Will and Annalie and their friends Essie and Pod, are sailing on a small boat, the Sunfish, accompanied by their parrot Graham, who can think as well as speak, due to a special computer chip. Annalie and Will are searching for their father Spinner, a scientist who is on the run from the organisation that pretty much runs the world, the Admiralty. He was part of a team that was doing work on a device that could wipe out what is left of the world, in the wrong hands. In fact, the original version did more or less wipe out the world, causing an event called the Flood about forty years before the first novel begins. Various countries are still struggling back from the brink.

Spinner and his comrades divided up the data and went into separate - secret - exile. In the first book of this series, Spinner had to leave his children with only a few coded clues - and now they, too, are on the run from a former team member who represents the Admiralty. Without all the data, the Admiralty can't use the scientists' work.

The castle in the sea of the title is only a small part of the story, in which Essie and Will, flung overboard during a storm, are washed up on an island with an abandoned castle on it. There is no explanation for the castle or who lived there; there is just enough useful equipment left behind to help them as they learn to survive as castaways, while they build a raft. Both children learn and develop as characters while on the island.

It also gives an excuse to divide up the characters for separate adventures as Will and Essie build their raft and go searching for the others and Pod and Annalie take their half-wrecked boat to be fixed by pirates.

The characters have certainly grown since the first book, Escape To The Moon Islands. Annalie is still the smartest of them, but Essie, her schoolfriend who came along for the ride, is beginning to show a strength she didn't know she had before. When she has to learn new things -as when she and Will are together on the island - she does.

Pod,  a former slave whom the others found stranded on a rock after being thrown away by his pirate masters, has also developed. When he issues a warning, an "I have a bad feeling about this!" statement, he's usually right. Not that the others always listen.

The novel's world is fascinating. It has developed out of the climate change events, into a new lot of societies. There are pirates and entire communities living at sea. One country has built a giant dyke and canals, and is recovering well. There is plenty of technology - everyone seems to have a kind of cross between a tablet and a smartphone, called a shell.

And the problem isn't just the climate change - the warming in one country, Brundisi, led to drought, so the government tried the "Collodius" device and that started the worldwide flood. I liked that idea.

On the whole, though, if your older children just want a good, action-packed adventure with strong, interesting characters, this will do them nicely.

Suitable for readers from about eleven or twelve up.

Find it in all good bookshops, or check out the Allen and Unwin web site.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Just Been To See... Carmen!

Celestine Galli-Marie as Carmen. Public domain.



This afternoon I went to the opera at the Melbourne Arts Centre. I subscribe, though last year I didn't go, as most of the season was the Ring Cycle and I loathe Wagner, fully agreeing with whoever said that Wagner's music has some beautiful moments and some dreadful half hours. What little wasn't Wagner I'd seen before.

Well, I've seen Carmen before, many times. In fact, it was my very first opera, as a child, given as a birthday treat. The music was beautiful, but the singers were amateurs - and amateurish, though the Carmen singer went on to play Fruma-Sarah in Fiddler On The Roof. (But that was okay, because the ghost of Fruma-Sarah was supposed to screech!) It almost put me off opera altogether, though when we were going on a school excursion to The Barber Of Seville, my music teacher assured me the singers were professionals and very good - which they were. Phew! My love of opera was rescued! 

And I do love it, enough to be sucked into going to every season, even when, so often, they perform the same damned operas over and over again. I will never willingly see Madama Butterfly again. I don't mind La Boheme, whose music still enchants me, though I was almost put off when it was set in the sixties and poor Mimi died lying in a bean bag... Il Trovatore - beautiful music, but they will go having sixty year old tenors playing a sixteen year old troubadour! And the story is so very silly, even the Marx Brothers version in A Night At The Opera is only a little bit sillier. 

But Carmen - I think I'm not quite tired of it yet. It's such a shame that Bizet had to see it as a flop and never survived long enough to to see it as a hit. The music is glorious and the story is nowhere near as silly as those of some other operas I've seen. There are no long lost brothers, no noblemen backstabbing each other and threatening the heroine(who is a lady in waiting to the queen and in love with the sixty year old tenor). There are no kings or gods or even middle class Parisians and courtesans. There's just a gypsy factory worker and her soldier boy. And, yes, a gang of smugglers, but what they're smuggling isn't important. In fact, if there's anything silly about this opera it's the smugglers' camp, which just about anyone seems able to drop into - and leave unscathed - whether it's the celebrity bullfighter or the hero's sweet little girl-next-door. I mean, come on, now! 

But this production was directed by Shakespearean actor-director John Bell, who updated the setting to more-or-less modern Havana, and focused on the relationships. And I noticed things I hadn't noticed before, and appreciated better things I had. 

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the storyline, it's basically femme fatale girl meets soldier boy, flirts with him, they fall in love and he ends up killing her when she quite understandably gets fed up with his jealousy and drops him for the celebrity bullfighter. Of course, he might see it differently. He has thrown away everything for a relationship which isn't even permanent. 

But here's the thing. Don Jose, the hero, isn't entirely the clean-cut upright boy he appears. Early in the opera he admits he only became a soldier in the first place while he was on the run after a fight in his village that ended badly for his victim. We don't know why he had the fight, but it's clue number one, which suggests he has a violent streak that just might come out later. Each of the two times the churchgoing sweet young thing Micaela brings him a message from his Mum, it's that the old lady has forgiven him. For what? The fight? But that seems to have blown over. She is still forgiving him in Act Three, when Micaela arrives at the smugglers' HQ to ask him to go home to see his dying mother. Something else, then? What else might he have done for which he needs forgiveness? And then he has to go with Carmen and the smugglers because he got into yet another fight, with his CO, in a fit of possessiveness. 

And Carmen. She seems to be a serial monogamist(monandrist?). In Act One she says she's just kicked out her last lover and is in the market for a new one. She falls in love with Jose because he's not interested in her at the time. Big mistake - fatal, in fact. She should have noticed Jose's possessiveness during that fight in Act Two! If she had accepted Escamillo the toreador in Act Two, in the pub scene, she might have been alive at the end, but opera is not like that. See Maskerade, Terry Pratchett's novel on the subject of opera. Escamillo knows perfectly well she will eventually dump him, but he's a celebrity, no doubt with plenty of groupies to cheer him up. 


Carmen makes a number of fatal errors, mostly in underestimating her lover's capacity for violence. I don't think either of them knows what love is. He thinks it's about owning your beloved. She thinks - well, similar stuff. When it's him doing the jealous act, she's all, "I have to be free!" When he makes gestures of departure she says things that will eventually get her killed, to get him to stay. She just can't shut up. 

Still, I have never liked Don Jose. He strikes me as the sort of boyfriend who would hang around in the corner at a party, getting more and more drunk and glaring at the girlfriend who's having a good time without him, unless he embarrasses her. Then, on the way back, he'd have a burst of drunken rage in the car. He's downright scary! 

Anyway, this was a fine production. The children doing the "little soldiers" in the first act were adorable. They came beck in the final act, some of them rap dancing during the parade of bullfighters. Last time I saw the opera there was a live horse on stage, whose rider brought it on during the curtain call and got it to take a bow. No horses this time, except an amusing pair of men doing the hobby horse thing. Well, it was done in modern dress(more or less) and trucks were more likely. 

The singers were amazing, all of them, and there was a lot of applause during the curtain call. 

So, that's me and the opera, and I think I'll go to bed and watch the Marx Brothers with Alan Jones and Kitty Carlisle, with "the party of the first part" and "...make that two hard boiled eggs!" 

Who else enjoys opera out there? Any favourites? And if you hate it, what in particular? 

Friday, May 05, 2017

Early Morning Reading In Bed! Terry Pratchett...


The Fairy Feller's Master Stroke by Richard Dadd. Public Domain



It's Saturday morning and I'm rereading the Tiffany Aching books - on my phone! Comfort reading is what I need in bed.

Terry Pratchett's last novel, The Shepherd's Crown, is a Tiffany Aching story, and I refuse to read it till I've reread the series. It's the very last, you see, so I'm going slow. I used to devour them as they came out, knowing there would be more. I'd borrow the hardcover from the library while waiting for the paperback, though I do have a few in hardcover, because sometimes they were discounted and sometimes I just had to have it - now! These days I buy them in ebook, because my paperback copies are wearing out.

So this morning I have been curled up with The Wee Free Men, the first novel in this particular Discworld sub-series, although we first met the title characters in Carpe Jugulum, in which they help  King Verence of Lancre, who has been hypnotised by the vampires. In return they are given a home.

But this is the first novel in which you get to know them properly, as individual characters, and the story isn't set in Lancre, a tiny kingdom in the Ramtop Mountains, but in the Chalk country, which is basically the south of England, where the White Horse of Uffington is carved into the chalk. There's a some chalk carving here too, and a White Horse. And sheep. Lots of sheep, and Tiffany Aching, the granddaughter of Granny Aching, the shepherd all shepherds want to emulate. Granny Aching was almost certainly a witch, of the Discworld variety, who are respected, in Lancre at least, but she is dead, and nine-year-old smart-alec Tiffany, who makes the best cheese in the district and has read the dictionary cover to cover, wants to be a witch, to make sure nobody ever again mistreats old ladies whom they think are witches.

When Tiffany's little brother is kidnapped by the Queen of Faerie, she needs help. And there are these tiny red-headed men who wear kilts and would rather fight than eat, who were kicked out of Faerie for being drunk and disorderly, who know the way back in... And Tiffany has her iron frying pan...

I just love Terry Pratchett's gentle humour and his wisdom. I do remember the first time I read this thinking that I had never come across a nine-year-old who was quite as advanced in speech and thought as Tiffany, but in the end, you just accept Terry Pratchett's characters for who and what they are, sit back and enjoy the ride.  

And what a ride it is! I can almost feel sorry for the Queen - defeated not only by a nine year old with a frying pan but by Magrat Garlick! Magrat! Wimpy Magrat who has sung too many folk songs...

But that's another novel, Lords And Ladies

And right now, I'm delighting in Tiffany's first encounters with the Nac Mac Feegles, a tiny race of men who live in a sort of hive colony with a Queen, the kelda, who is the mother of most of them, since Feegle females are few and far between and all of them become keldas, so have to leave home with some brothers as a guard. The Feegles are about six inches high, covered in blue tattoos and think they're dead and this is the heavenly afterlife, because it's so full of great stuff - things to steal, booze to drink and things to fight. They carry swords, but mostly fight by grabbing the victim's ears and head butting them. When they die, they believe, they are reborn elsewhere and have to be good to return here. 

I know how it will all pan out, but it's a bit like going back to the first Harry Potter book, where Harry is young and innocent and the wizarding world is new and exciting. Tiffany grows up in the course of the novels. By the end of I Shall Wear Midnight, which I thought was the last novel, she is a young woman who is the village's witch, with a witch's responsibilities, and has fallen in love with an intelligent and brave young man. If you've read the fifth book, by the way, please don't tell me about it in the comments! I want to discover it and before that I'm rereading the others. 

I love that the centrepiece of this one is a real painting that Terry Pratchett had seen - was it, perhaps, the inspiration? See above. I got it from Wikipedia, where it has its own entry. 

In some ways, this is my favourite of the Tiffany Aching books, though I love all four of them. 

Have you read them? What us your favourite? 

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Second Sale For The Year - rejoice!

Last year I realised suddenly that for the first time in ages I hadn't sold anything - not one book or story the whole year. My writing income last year was entirely from royałties - and I have had some very nice royalties from my education titles  - and lending rights, in which I receive some money from each of my books in libraries. Sooner or later those fizzle out as your books are stolen, weeded or simply not returned from the library and they go out of print. But I get around $4000 a year from lending rights at the moment. 

I decided it was time to go back to non-fiction. Short non-fiction, as it's very hard to sell non-fiction trade books these days and the education publishers have their own stables of writers and aren't interested. One education publisher I won't name, which is still making $$$$ a year from a couple of my titles - I know this, because so am I, in royalties - basically told me to get lost. My former primary school publisher left and her replacement has just not been interested, even when I pointed out that the company was doing nicely from my books and they could also do well with new ones. 

I have a friend working for them and have asked him to let me know when this guy leaves. Meanwhile, what could I do to be published again?

Well, there was a wonderful market to which I had sold many articles over the years, the NSW School Magazine, which last year celebrated its centenary year. It has a lot of big name writers who have graduated from there, and some who are still selling to it. But when I got into the fiction I stopped submitting for quite a while, though they did sometimes ask permission to reprint something - which is fine with me as, once I've had something published,  I focus on my next piece. I haven't resubmitted anything published, ever. And once they actually commissioned an article, on forensics. 

So, what to submit? Well, last year astronaut John Glenn died at the grand old age of 95. And that was sad, especially for someone like me, who has always been a lover of things space-related. But there was unlikely to be anyone rise offering to write for them about this man, who was in at the beginning of the space program and then came back as an old man, cheekily offering to go to space to check out what happens to older people in space. And good on him! It's a wonderful story and this was the time to tell it. 

So I emailed the editor to suggest it and he said he'd be happy to take a look at it. I've found that with non-fiction, if the publisher likes the idea, you're halfway there. Things can go wrong, of course, and have gone wrong for me - like the time when the publisher loved the idea, the acquisitions committee loved it, but Ashton Scholastic didn't.  If you can't get their backing, forget about it. Book Club pays for a lot of children's books. But on the whole, if the publisher likes it, all you need is to write it well. 

And I had to take my chances. I did my research, on line mostly, as there is surprisingly little print stuff about John Glenn. I ordered his memoir from Dymock's and watched, fascinated, on the Aussiepost web site, as it made its way from somewhere in NSW to Melbourne. It actually stopped in West Sunshine, near where I work, but I was on holiday. It finally arrived on my doormat and I settled downto  read. I bought The Astronaut Wives Club in ebook, and that was great too! It said things Glenn left out of his memoir, oh, yes! Not that I used them in a piece for children. Besides, this was to be an exciting story about a boy who dreamed of flight and grew up to fly not only planes, but a spaceship. 

I finally finished my third draft in late January and sent it off soon after I got back to work. Despite the technology of today, quite a few publishers prefer you to submit your work by snail mail. They can avoid the nuisance of printing out the whole slush pile before distributing it.  School Magazine is one of them. Also, their guidelines tell you to expect a wait of about four months. They get a lot of slush. And you aren't supposed to send them more than one or two at a time. Okay, I thought, I'll do something else while I wait, and if the answer is yes, I will see if I can sell the something else. 

And the answer was yes, today! I'm celebrating with a pizza supper I didn't prepare myself, and after I get home I'm going to do the business side of it - find the file( they want that, now that they have accepted the piece)and prepare an invoice, I'm getting $600 for my 2000 word piece! Not much for a journalist, but for me, very nice indeed. 

This is my second sale for the year, though, as the first was a reprint of my story about Chang and Eng, the Siamese Twins.

Here it is, my contributor's copy - I'm on page 10, followed by a conjoined twins piece by the amazing Geoffrey McSkimming. 

                                  



It was Geoffrey who hold me about the School Magazine in the first place, so  I owe him big time.

Raise a glass to the School Magazine! And Geoffrey McSkimming! 


Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Confessions Of A History Nut!

Okay, I admit it - I love my history books. I don't care much what kind. I go browsing in discount book shops, where you'll find the biggest variety of history books, and get them cheap. I have stacks of history-of books, everything from tourism to chocolate. 

My history of the Roman Games tells me that Christians getting thrown to the lions, etc, was probably happening at lunchtime, when the rich people had gone home for a snack and everyone else was hanging on to their seats so they could be there in the afternoon for the good stuff, the gladiators. I keep imagining a family arguing over the last olives and hard boiled eggs while below someone was screaming as they were killed. 

The history of tourism had a chapter on the White Ship disaster, which wiped out a lot of the young nobles of England, including the heir to the throne, because someone had supplied the crew with booze, and they steered the ship on to the rocks. History would have been so different if a bunch of sailors hadn't got drunk one night in the twelfth century...

It all comes in handy for writing research. In fact, a teacher at school gave me his old pile of dusty Penguin histories and one of them was Ur Of The Chaldees, Leonard Woolley's account of his excavation, which I used for a children's book on archaeology.

For quite some time I was buying biographies of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Why did I need so many? I don't know, but I just couldn't resist yet another cover photo of either of them.  

I'll read anything by Simon Schama, and he does quite a lot of different eras and countries. 

And then there have been all those highly entertaining popular histories of England and Scotland by Alison Weir. I know there are people who disagree with her, but she is so enjoyable! I just won't read her book about the Princes in the Tower, because she thinks Richard dunnit! And I don't read her recent fiction because I suspect I would be disappointed. I just like her non fiction, okay? 

Recently I got hold of a copy of Gareth Russell's new book, Young and Damned And Fair, his bio of Catherine Howard. I follow his blog, Confessions Of A Ci Devant. He doesn't post often, but it's worth reading when he does.

He is almost forensic - and convincing - in the way he examines the evidence. In fact, I'd love to see him try his hand at fiction, specifically crime fiction. The book took him several years to write, unlike popular historians who seem to pop out a boom a year. 

Who would have thought you could write so much about a young girl who went from Hanry VIII's trophy wife to meat on the block in under two years? Yet he can and does. There is so much background, and you need it all to work out what went wrong. You need to know about her family, for starters, beginning with her loser of a father, who did some stupid things early in his life, such as defeating the king in a tournament when the others were letting the egomaniac win. So they got jobs at court and he... didn't - ever again. And that had an effect on family income. You need to know about her dreadful uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, and her grandmother, who really should never have been put in charge of a houseful of teenage girls. 

Russell doesn't subscribe to the recent theory that Catherine was sexually abused as a young girl. She did make some stupid mistakes, but she didn't deserve what happened to her.

And dear me, wasn't Henry horrible! He had played tennis the day Anne Boleyn got the chop and on the day Catherine met her Maker(with considerable dignity, according to a man who watched it), he was off somewhere planning a banquet. A man of ego indeed. 

We don't even know exactly which of the pictures supposed to be of her was really her. There is a whole chapter at the end, diagnosing the lot, explaining why this one or that couldn't have been her and which just might be. 

After finishing it, I was hankering for more history, so I got this! 

                       

It's about Henry VIII, Francis I of France, Emperor Charles V and Sultan Suleyman, who were all born within a few years of each other. I only bought it yesterday, when shopping for the school library, but am enjoying it so far. It's much lighter in style than Russell, more like the chatty Simon Schama style. 

 I'm already learning things. I'm sure you knew that before New York there was New Amsterdam, but did you know that before New Amsterdam there was New Angouleme on Manhattan Island? I didn't! 

And Louis XII said of Francis, in French, "That big lad is going to ruin everything." He didn't, by the way, though he was not good with money. He was a patron of the arts and writing and he started the system of collecting copies of anything published locally, as we still do today with our national libraries. 

I am looking forward to reading more of this! 

Time to curl up in bed with my new book. 

Do you enjoy history? What kind?