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Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Insideadog - the Revamp!

Last Sunday I visited the State Library of Victoria’s Village Roadshow Theatrette to attend the launch of the revamped Insideadog web site, a site aimed at teenagers, on books and reading. This site has been around for years, but it was felt it was time to update it. The teens who made up the advisory committee were quite rude about the old one - and I have to admit, the updated version is much easier and more use friendly. Here it is! 

It allows the young users to have their own blog page and comment on each other’s reviews. That was not the case with the old site. Oh, and no adults allowed! Well, you can read it, but you can’t join. 

There were two sessions. In the first one, some of the kids who had helped re-design the site were on a panel with author Lili Wilkinson, who had designed the original site. She described how she had managed to get the grant to set it up, including the name of the web site(“Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside a dog, it’s too dark to read.” Groucho Marx). She said that was the only time the grants people laughed. Anyway, they got the money. Lili said that in those days, there were no social media sites, none of the things that would have made the web site more attractive. The kids discussed what they felt they needed.  

The next session was with author Melissa Keil and the rest of the kids. It wasn’t about the web site, but about what they expected in a book. The kids were very bright and articulate - mostly Year 11 and 12.

An interesting session in all, though I would have liked to see something about the site itself other than being told “it needed a revamp, and we revamped it.”  There was a projector they could have used to do a wander around the site, but didn’t. However, I had my iPad with me and checked out the site on my own.

After it was over, I had a chat with Lili, whom I know. She is working on a new novel, no title yet, a thriller. Her mother, the wonderful Carole Wilkinson, had taken out little Banjo to enjoy the Lunar New Year celebrations in the city. (Carole tweeted about it later).

Paul Collins was there, but had to leave early for another commitment he had. Still, nice to see a familiar face. 

I chatted for a while with the mother of one of those kids who had been on stage. Her daughter wanted a bit more time with her friends, whom she was worried she might not see again. The lady told me that her daughter was stressed because a wonderful teacher librarian had left the school for a better job elsewhere and had been replaced with one who was nowhere near as good - and then the entire library had been cut back to almost nothing. When the girl and her schoolfriend came to join the mother they confirmed it, along with their frustration, as passionate readers. The thing is, this is an expensive private school, where you expect a huge staff and lots of good things happening as they do when you have a decent budget. They are paying their fees to have that sort of stuff! 

I suggested that this was something the fee-paying parents might wish to address.

But who would have thought it? An expensive private school cutting back its library! 

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Wizarding Business Skills: Why Fred And George Learned Them At School

I’m rereading Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire. This volume has the first mention of  Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes, the joke shop that twins Fred and George want to set up. Their mother wishes they would focus on their schoolwork and eventually join their father and older brother Percy at the Ministry. Admittedly, both parents are not crazy about the unethical testing methods they use for their products, but Molly is also furious about the low number of OWLs they got(I’m guessing that’s Year 10 in Muggle terms) - she knows they aren’t dumb, she just wished they would pass their subjects. Interestingly, neither parent threatens to stop their Quidditch playing. 

But although they never finish their last year at Hogwarts( neither do Harry and Ron), are they really an academic failure? I don’t think so. 

Think about the skills they need to start up and run their business - skills they learned mostly at school in the years they were supposedly stuffing around.  

Firstly, there are the general business skills everyone needs to run a small business: research and development, marketing. Those are skills Fred and George definitely possess. They would certainly have learned the R and D across subjects, probably especially in Potions, the wizarding world’s answer to chemistry. No doubt Snape would not have been impressed if they played around in class with the school’s ingredients, but they would have learned there, if anywhere, how to experiment and test. Their marketing skills are their own, I think, judging by the huge success of their business in Half Blood Prince

Then there are the skills they would need to create their products. Potions definitely comes top of the list there, along with Herbology. They really would have to be very good at both those subjects to be able to make pretty much any of the items in their shop, along with remedies in case anything goes wrong. Thank you, Professors Snape and Sprout! 

Charms would certainly be useful in such things as their joke wands that turn into rubber chickens, complete with squawk. Unless they were perfectly capable of acing this subject, there are many items they couldn’t make. Thanks, Professor Flitwick! 

Transfiguration? Oh, yes! How about their Canary Creams that turn you, temporarily, into a giant canary? I doubt Professor McGonagall would be impressed with this use of her subject, but that would be where they learned it. 

Astronomy? That might or might not come into it, but the wizarding world seems to use it more like astrology than what we think of as astronomy, and some spells have to be done, say, at the full moon - I bet they were good at that too. 

Also, Defence Against The Dark Arts would help with understanding what might be too dangerous to use. 

Their spectacular exit from Hogwarts does suggest that they absolutely knew about pretty much every subject they studied, and how to...misuse them? 

There is already a joke shop, Zonko’s, which they use during their school years, probably in the course of their R and D as well as for fun, but theirs is better. 

I’ve stuck to the basic subjects as we don’t know what electives they chose, but I think we can assume they were very good at school - they made the best use of it for what they wanted to do with their lives.

So, whatever Molly might think, Hogwarts did very well for her sons’ careers. 

Saturday, February 02, 2019

Just Discovered... Upstart Crow!

Last night, I decided to curl up in bed with my phone and watch something on iView, on which the ABC shows programs that you might have missed, for a few weeks after they have been on. Usually, I check out Father Brown, if it has been on, but this time I saw the blurb for a show I tend to miss on Friday nights, because of family commitments, and had never heard of.

“Upstart Crow?” I wondered. “Isn’t that what that awful man Robert Greene called Shakespeare early in his career?” (Robert Greene was a rival author and Shakespeare even used one of his stories for The Winter’s Tale. Yeah, fan fiction of a kind. That’s how it was done in those days.)

Public Domain

And sure enough, it was a sitcom about the Bard! Think Blackadder, if a little less over the top, and no wonder, as the author is Ben Elton, who was the co-author of that amazing series. David Mitchell, who plays Shakespeare, even sounds a little like Rowan Atkinson. There are a few episodes available on the site. I intend to buy the DVD, which is currently on pre-order.

It’s very funny and pokes fun at a number of issues, such as all the fighting over whether or not Shakespeare wrote his own plays. Each episode deals with a play he wrote - in that episode he wrote Love’s Labour’s Lost, which he writes on the suggestion of his teenage daughter Susanna. Another episode had him working on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which isn’t funny until he adds the ass’s head. On the other hand, his friends and family all think Hamlet, on which he is working, is hilarious; when they tell him why, you can actually see their point.

Christopher Marlowe is hiding out from his creditors at Shakespeare’s London lodgings. He is presented as a sort of Lord Flashheart.

Marlowe, Public Domain

It is oddly educational, despite the anachronisms, which have to be deliberate, or how else can you do it as a sitcom? I haven’t seen the end of Season 3 yet, but some sad things are history and you can’t change them. On the positive side, with everyone having different ideas abou  what happened to Marlowe and why, you can fiddle with that a bit.

There is a delightful, bouncy theme tune, “Jamaica” from Playford’s “Dancing Master”, which was familiar to me because I have a recording of Maddy Prior singing a song to that tune, and animated drawings.

I am a huge fan of the Bard. I’ve loved him since I discovered a battered old copy of Julius Caesar in
the house at about 11 or 12, and declaimed Brutus and Antony’s speeches. I was lucky enough to have a wonderful English teacher in Year 11, whose teaching of Richard III eventually ended in my joining the Richard III Society, and studied King Lear in Year 12. I remember opening my book to the page where Lear is banishing Cordelia and... Oh, the magic! The magic of it all!

I’ve seen so many different productions of Shakespeare’s work, including three in Hebrew. I’ve worked with the kids filming  scenes from Macbeth and Hamlet with a lady from the Bell Shakespeare company. She had a grant to do this, and had got the idea from a documentary called Shakespeare On The Estates. We discovered a promising young Shakespearean actor at our disadvantaged school,  who got to go to a holiday workshop as his teacher and the school rummaged up the money for him.

I’ve read Harry Turtledove’s wonderful alternative universe novel Ruled Britannia, in which  the Spanish Armada succeeds in conquering England, the Queen is locked up and Shakespeare is hired by both the Spanish and the British underground led by Lord Burleigh to write a propaganda play for them. Christopher Marlowe is alive and still writing plays. My copy is so worn out, I had to buy it in ebook!

There has to be a good reason why people are still reading, viewing and loving his work all these hundreds of years later, right? And reworking it in modern versions, such as setting Twelfth Night in a high school soccer team(She’s The Man), a teenage version of The Taming Of The Shrew(Ten Things I Hate About You). They are even refilling West Side Story.

I can’t see why they shouldn’t have the brilliant Ben Elton write a sitcom, especially as it was commissioned to commemorate the anniversary of his death. Here’s a toast to you, Will! 

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Two Evenings With Harry Potter And His Friends!

Princess Theatre 1920. From Wikipedia. Fair use.

For the last two nights I have been in a magical world. Firstly, the magic of the Princess Theatre. This is the place where long running shows are performed in Melbourne. I’ve seen plenty there, including Phantom Of The Opera. I used to go there for the opera before that was moved to the Arts Centre. I remember visiting the Paperback Bookshop, which is still there, and which was open late at night, so I could go after the opera! 

Above is a photo of the theatre in 1920. 

The theatre as we know it has been there since the 1880s, but there were other performing spaces on the site as far back as 1854. It even has its own ghost! Like the style? It’s called Second Empire. That dome is part of a roof which is supposed to be able to open, though I don’t think it has happened in my lifetime. Any time you enter that space, you are experiencing magic. And they have revamped inside for the magic of Hogwarts!  Even the carpets have elaborate H patterns, and the walls more patterns. 

Here is me in the foyer, proving I should never take selfies. Ah, well.

I arrived early both nights, as they are working hard to make sure nobody tries to film the show, beginning with inspecting bags. I usually carry a tote bag, but unearthed the one handbag I haven’t wrecked, and placed in it my phone(needed for my ticket, as I went for “mobile tickets”), my keys, my wallet, a print book to read on the tram and opera glasses. So they just glanced at my bag and waved me on. I was there about an hour and a half early and ended up in the souvenir shop, where I bought far more merchandise than I intended. Of course, I had to get a programme for such a major event. It was not cheap, but it described the process of creating the production, including the magic, and there were no ads. 

If I had stuck to the programme, it would have been fair enough, but oh, no, I just had to get the t shirt as well! It’s black and gold and flashy and bound to get fellow passengers on the bus, tram and train talking to me... I also bought a Hogwarts pin - dark blue, with R for Ravenclaw, my Pottermore House. That was the cheapest item, at $10, and has one of those pins that come off if you aren’t careful. One more thing was the music. I bought the CD on the first night, before hearing it. I always buy the music of any show that makes it available. It’s by Imogen Heap.

I settled into my seat, near the back of the stalls, not very comfortable, and to the side, but I didn’t have much trouble with the view, except the balcony hanging above, cutting off some of the arch. Next time I sit in the gods - cheaper and you can always use your opera glasses or binoculars if you want a closer look. Still, I did see what was happening on stage.

I can’t go into detail here because of spoilers and there has been a tradition from the start, even seen outside the theatre: “Keep the secrets.” They even give you a badge with that in it afterwards.  But I am sure there is enough already out there that I can write about without spoilers, so here I go.

From the moment the show began, with the last scene of Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, it swept me back into the world I left so regretfully several years ago. And here is a warning: if you haven’t read the books or at least seen the films, there will be a lot that goes over your head. The audience with whom I shared the theatre were fans. They laughed at the in jokes. They gasped or said, “Oh...” at the sad bits. These were characters they knew and loved, a world they had missed, as I had. In some ways, it felt like being at a science fiction convention.

 There were quite a few children along with their parents. I was a bit doubtful about that, as it really isn’t for kids, but these kids were wearing Harry Potter costumes or jewellery, and one young lady, whose Dad had bought her a House pendant, was wearing a Harry Potter-patterned dress her mother had bought at Big W. So, plenty of young fans! 

They employed someone to teach the cast magic tricks - as it said in the programme, regular magicians take years to learn, these people had only a few weeks. Obviously there were a lot of special effects and I have to tell you, I have no idea how they were done! Characters taking polyjuice potion and almost immediately reappearing as the characters they were disguised as - and then back to what they were. A water trick in the middle of the stage. Characters zapping each other and being thrown backwards. Flying Dementors - were there people under those robes or was it another effect?

I don’t know. But what it was really about was family, about the woes of being a teenager, especially one who has to put up with being the child of a famous - or infamous - father, and having only one friend, who is also an outcast. 

William McKenna was Scorpius Malfoy. Make note of the name; this young man, barely out of Year 12, is in his first role, but it won’t be his last. He performed the role brilliantly. When he was being funny, we laughed. When he was grieving, we grieved with him. 

Gareth Reeves played Harry Potter at 40 years old, a frustrated father who has no idea how to bond with his son, Albus(Sean Rees-Wemyss). Draco Malfoy(Tom Wren), the bane of Harry’s childhood, is also a father who is having problems relating to a son. 

It was funny, it was sad, it was exciting and magical in every way. I don’t know if it will be shown outside Melbourne during its Australian run, but if you can get a ticket, go and see it! It’s worth every cent.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Good Omens: The Radio Play!

I have no idea when I will get to see the brand new Good Omens TV show, with all those amazing actors in it, but I found that the radio play, which I had wanted to hear for ages, was available on Apple Books, so I downloaded it to my iPad with great rejoicing!

Good Omens, in case you don’t know it, was written by two of the most wonderful fantasy writers of the century, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. The original idea was by Neil Gaiman, who wanted to write something called William The Antichrist, as a sendup of the Just William books, but it changed - a lot. In the end, the authors forgot, mostly, who had written what. The Antichrist, Adam Young, is an eleven year old boy, but was delivered to the wrong family, so grew up human. The end of the world is coming. There are two characters, Crowley the demon(he was the serpent in Eden, who was tempting Eve under orders to “get up there and cause trouble”)and Aziraphale, an angel and part time secondhand bookshop owner(he gave Adam and Eve his flaming sword to keep them warm when they were banished from Eden), who are trying to stop it. They have been on Earth for 6000 years and have no desire to go back to where they came from.

Crowley was played, in this, by Peter Serafinowicz, who was in Shaun of the Dead, Guardians Of The Galaxy and did the voice of Darth Maul. I’m looking forward to seeing David Tennant in the role, but he was very good. Aziraphale was popular British comedy actor Mark Heap, who was very funny indeed.

I was especially interested in Josie Lawrence, who played Agnes Nutter, the 17th century witch whose book of prophecies was completely accurate and as a result was the first book ever to be remaindered, as she will be playing the role again in the TV series.

There are two young things in the story. One is Anathema Device(Charlotte Ritchie), a descendant of Agnes Nutter, who owns the last copy of Agnes’s book and is trying to find the Antichrist before the world ends.

The other is Newton Pulsifer, descendant of the Witchfinder who burned her ancestress. I was especially impressed to find he was played by Colin Morgan, star of the Arthurian TV show Merlin! Wow! He did a very good Newt, who was described by saying that if he went into a phone booth to change he might come out as Clark Kent. The trouble is, I’m now going to see him as Colin Morgan, who is very good looking!

Shadwell the Witchfinder Sergeant was played by Clive Russell, who has done a whole lot of fantasy, including Game Of  Thrones. He was hilarious, just the way I imagined Shadwell.

Oh - and the authors played cameos as the policemen who were following Crowley when he was speeding early in the story. In case you didn’t notice, the policemen were called Terry and Neil.
  Look, just follow this link for the rest of the details. 

Booktopia: Australia’s Favourite Author 2019 - The Finalists!

A bit of a disappointment this year. Last year there was a delightful month worth of voting and cutting down the list from fifty to the final ten to the winner. This time you had nearly a month to nominate, but no whittling down; instead there was a fairly short list, most of them writers for adults. Today is the first day of voting and Thursday is the last day, so if you want to vote, here is the link to the appropriate part of the Booktopia web site.

Do vote if you can! It will make the winner very happy and you get put in the draw for $1000 worth of books. I assume the book prize is Australia only, but I can’t see why booklovers from other countries can’t vote at least.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Just Arrived From Booktopia! We Spoke Out: Comic Books And The Holocaust

Yesterday was a blazing hot day - 44’ Celsius(that’s 111’ Fahrenheit). I knew I had a book coming from Booktopia and looked forward to turning on the fan and reading. However, I wanted an early dip in the sea, before the weather got too dreadfully hot, so I left home at 7.20 am, had breakfast in Acland St, St Kilda, on my way back from the beach and got home about 10.30 am.

Who would have thought the postie would deliver so early? Or leave a card instead of the book? I really wasn’t up to going out into that heat to pick it up from the post office(don’t think I wasn’t tempted!). I figured the shops would all be closed anyway because the power went out due to the heat. Oh, yeah... I sat in the lounge without cooling...

But by about 2.30 the temperature had dropped to 28’ and I went out to get my book, dammit!

And here it is!

It’s fascinating stuff so far. Apparently, after the war, kids in American schools were not being taught about the Holocaust. Too awkward once West Germany became an ally. So it was up to the comic book artists and illustrators to do it through entertainment. Some of the superheroes were even a part of this. 

Interesting to see some big names, including the founder of Mad Magazine, illustrators for the SF pulp magazines and - much to my surprise - one of the stories was probably illustrated by Harry Harrison, who is best known as a science fiction writer, author of The Technicolor Time Machine and the Stainless Steel Rat series. He was here many years ago and did say he had done comic book art at one time, but I had forgotten. 

Each chapter is followed by the actual story it discusses. I’ve read four chapters so far, and am looking forward to reading the rest. 

Well worth enduring a bit of heat for! 

Friday, January 25, 2019

Of Fan Fiction Based On Books - A Whinge!

There’s a lot of fan fiction around these days. Some of it is published professionally- not only official Star Trek novels and such, but books based on original classic novels and approved sequels. Stephen Baxter’s Time Ships is, for example, an approved sequel to H.G Wells’ The Time Machine(personally, I prefer David Lake’s The Man Who Loved Morlocks and short story “The Truth About Weena”) 

And then there are web sites crammed with fan fiction based on everything from Star Wars to computer games! Take your pick, universe of your choice. Rainbow Rowell’s wonderful novel Fangirl takes us into the world of on line fan fiction. More of this anon.

I enjoy fan fiction; I used write it myself and have book cases crammed with media fanzines. We started writing this stuff, way back when, because our favourite TV show - Star Trek, in my case - had been cancelled and this was the only way to get more. As we were dealing with scripts rather than novels, there was always something that we felt could be developed. There were plot holes we wanted to fill. Sometimes we created our own characters to have adventures aboard the Enterprise. Some people pretty much created their own universes within the universe of Star Trek - they developed entire cultures for Klingons or Vulcans, not to mention languages. That, of course, was before spinoff TV shows and films came along, bringing details that had not been there before. Then it became Alternative Universe. 

I have no doubt that there were those who thought their versions were better than the originals, like the heroine of Fangirl. In case you have missed it, Cath is a fanwriter of a book series rather like Harry Potter. The last volume is about to come out and Cath is hurrying to finish her own version before it becomes non canon. She actually has her own fandom with thousands of followers loving her on line fan novels. Because of this she comes to think her work is better than the original author’s.

Which brings me to the next point: the fans who think they own the material. “I love it, so it should be the way I think it is. If the author does it any other way, they have betrayed me!” Like the ones who are carrying on about the Doctor being female. Or the woman who told me on line that “JKR is a hypocrite and we are entitled to our black Hermione.” She never said why JKR was a hypocrite and this was the response to my having said that JKR was fine with the black Hermione in Cursed Child. Hmm, according to this entitled fan, this wasn’t good enough, it seems. Hermione belongs to the fans, not to her creator. Yeah, sure. I pointed out that JKR had given us Hermione, but was fine with this, and left it at that. She never replied - for all I know she may have muted or blocked me. 

Ah, that old fannish entitlement! There are plenty of real-life Caths. My main reason for this post is a Twitter discussion among authors I generally respect, one of whom has recently published a novel based on a classic written about 150 years ago. I’m reading her novel now and yeah, it’s amusing, but mostly, for me, the entertainment lies in working out which character corresponds to which original character and which event corresponds to one in the original book. This author can write, yes. But I’d rather read the original. In fact, I’m rereading it now and having a good giggle.

 Personally I don’t know why this author did it when she writes such very good original fiction, but there you go. However, I was irritated to read posts by other authors(one of whom has done her own fan fiction) telling this one that her novel was better than the original. 

Huh? No way! I read the original in about two days, all 650 pages, and loved it. I am still ploughing through the fan novel. The original has been read and loved for a century and a half, been dramatised over and over, has inspired other work - other work that didn’t simply take an entire novel and play with it - and it’s not as good as someone’s revamp? I could suggest that if this revamp is still getting read and loved even a few years from now let alone 150, it will be doing well. 

However, I didn’t respond, as it would have just upset all the people discussing it, with no positive result. What would be the point? Which is why I’m not naming the book or the people here. 

What do you think, readers? Have you ever come across a derivative story you thought better than the original?