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Sunday, November 18, 2018

Just Been To See... Fantastic Beasts 2: The Crimes Of Grindelwald!

It was Sunday morning and there was an early session on at my local cinema, so I went.  I had other things to do today, but it only went till lunchtime, after all. I just made it in time,as the tram I needed was going to get me there too late for the ads and trailers.

If you have seen the first movie, Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them, you'll know all what happened and who the main characters are(and if you didn't, there is no point in seeing this one yet!). However, to refresh your memory, in that film, set in New York in the 1920s, young Hufflepuff Hogwarts graduate, Newt Scamander, came to New York for animal-related reasons and we got to see a lot of his beasties, hidden in his TARDIS suitcase, escaping and running around the streets, while MACUSA, the American Ministry of Magic, stuffed up, as Ministries of Magic do, and the evil Grindelwald, teenage Dumbledore's lover, now his enemy, did horrible things and a sad boy called Credence, who was vitally important to Grindelwald, apparently died.

This film started immediately with Grindelwald's escape while being taken back to Europe to be dealt with(the Yanks couldn't handle him and had had to change guards three times because he kept talking them into things). As I said - lucky I got there just in time!

Back in England, the lovable Newt has been banned from travel after what happened in New York, unless he agrees to go after Credence(still alive after all, in Paris, and clearly important to more than just Grindelwald). He has to go as an Auror, like his brother Theseus.

We get a view of his home, his assistant Bunty(she doesn't turn up again after he sends her home - will she be back for the next film?), his various beasties and - his Muggle/No-Maj American friend Jacob Kowalski and the lovely Queenie, whose sister Tina was Newt's romantic interest in the first film.

The four end up in Paris for various reasons, and we get to see the youngish Albus Dumbledore, who hopes Newt will do what he can't do - go after Grindelwald.

A lot more things happen, and there are quite a few characters running around Paris, probably too much going on to describe without spoilers.

What did I like about it? I enjoyed it very much. Newt is adorable! So is Jacob. We get to see Albus Dumbledore(Jude Law) before he was a wise old Gandalf figure in long robes(and incidentally, no one in the wizarding community seems to be wearing robes here, unless you count the uniforms of the Hogwarts students. Everyone is in Muggle clothing). He is already fairly wise, in a twinkling-eyed way, but also human and flawed, something he admits. In fact, the very reason why he can't go after Grindelwald is because of something truly stupid he and Grindelwald did as teenagers. Probably worse for Dumbledore, but just as stupid. We find out what it was near the end of the film.

The SFX were brilliant, and I believe some of the creatures were not entirely green-screened. The music, by James Newton Howard,  was wonderful.

We saw some flashbacks to Newt's teens, when he first met Leta Lestrange - and discovered that his Boggart was a paper-cluttered desk, as his greatest fear was being stuck in an office.

All the fuss made over Nagini because "woman of colour doomed to become Voldemort's slave" was not worth it for me. She was a tragic figure and, in this movie at least, was one of the good guys. Of course, so was little Anakin Skywalker in his first film... But she didn't go to the Dark Side yet, unlike another character whom I would never have expected to do that. And there were other people of colour in the movie, including one of the main characters, an African-French wizard. The American MACUSA is run by a woman of colour.  Leta Lestrange was also a person of colour. I have no doubt there will be people complaining about her situation too. But in the end, this universe belongs to Joanne Rowling, not to us. They are her characters and her stories and she has given pleasure to millions of people, child and adult alike.

Fans tend to think someone else's universe belongs to them, just because they love it. On Twitter, there was some woman insisting that black actors ought to be allowed to play roles originally intended for whites. "Like Hermione, for example?" I asked. "JKR doesn't mind." The response I got was that "JKR is a hypocrite and we are entitled to our black Hermione!" I pointed out politely that JKR had given us Hermione, after all, and again, was fine with it. I never did hear from her about why JKR was a hypocrite.

Having said that, I do wish this author would stop changing her own canon and, presumably, hoping we don't notice. Yes, there is a very brief appearance of Minerva McGonagall, who shouldn't even have been born yet, let alone be teaching at Hogwarts, but it is brief, and no doubt stuck in purely for the benefit of fans who would say, "Ooh, great, Professor McGonagall!" instead of "How dare she change the canon!" as they did.

But right near the end of the film, there is a much bigger change in the canon. I can't tell you what it is, due to major spoilers, but for sure it wasn't in any of the Harry Potter novels.

I have been struggling through a prequel to my novel and have concluded that the problem with a prequel is that you can't change anything that is going to show up in the next story.

Well, not unless your name is J.K Rowling, eh? ;-)

Still, well worth seeing if you're prepared to suspend disbelief.

Friday, November 16, 2018

My First Writer In Residence

Wednesday was my last official session with a bunch of Grade 4 children at a primary school connected with the Ardoch Youth Foundation. Earlier this year I was invited to do a Writer In Residence. I would spend five weeks with the kids and their classroom teacher, then produce a book of their work. I went to observe someone else’s class to give me some idea of what was required. She was doing the actual writing and the kids were helping to develop the story and doing the illustrations.

“Oh, I can do that!” I thought. It was a relief, because I had been allotted a special school to work in. I prepared some stuff - and then the special school changed its mind and I went instead to a regular school. And the teacher had chosen students she thought might enjoy it the most. So, I switched back to having the kids do the writing. I was sent a couple of previous books to show me what was expected. One was by a friend of mine. I emailed her to ask how long she had had, because her stories were chosen by the kids from a number of pieces they had written during the time she was there. She had had a term. I had five one-hour sessions - obviously not something I could do.

I was lucky enough to have assistance from a fellow Ardoch volunteer who is a qualified primary teacher and art teacher. She had a look at some of my ideas and suggested what might work best with primary kids - my experience is with secondary students.

The first week, we introduced ourselves and what was going to happen, and got the kids to write using writing prompts they had suggested, to give us some idea of how they were writing. I made it clear that this was not an English class - the idea was for them to have fun.

The next week, they continued with their stories, after making it clear that they just wanted to write! So, they wrote and we went around the classroom looking at the stories and suggesting edits. They did self portraits /head shots to go in the book. I took home photocopies of the stories to start typing up.

Next week I printed out the stories, finished and unfinished alike, with gentle editing suggestions. Those who were finished were asked to check their work and edit, asking a friend to swap. I then asked those who didn’t think they would finish to stick with me while the others did their editing. A few did, and I offered th m instead the option of writing an acrostic poem, the easiest form of poetry, or using a template to do an “about me.” In the end, only one student did that, and I put together his answered questions in a paragraph. It worked well. Most of the acrostic poems were one-word lines, but one young lady wrote a very fine acrostic piece and a haiku on the same theme!

So, in Week 4, I read her poems aloud to the class and they understood  what I wanted! And several kids who had done one-word poems went back and did it properly. Having finished their pieces, poetry and stories alike(and one article!) the kids started on their illustrations.

They also voted on a title for the book. There were some in their ideas box and others added to the list on the board. Interestingly, the chosen title was one I would have suggested if they hadn’tcome up with something. I wanted them to own it.

I had already started playing with my new toy, a scanner I bought for this project and it was working smoothly. It’s an updated version of the one I used to have, that died on me. And today I sat at my computer, scanner attached, and got stuck into the kids’ art and typed up the last bits tya were handed in. I’m not even finished that; there have been kids turning up suddenly, one of them only this week, after having done one unfinished piece. We gave her the option of an acrostic, which she did, but I haven’t typed it yet.

There was some drama, with a couple of kids doing very little, but turning up anyway. Under threat of not being in the book, they produced. Some of them finished their stories in class, or simply rewrote stuff they had done for class. Hopefully, being published will inspire them to write some more.

Three kids produced the cover art between them, and it is very good indeed.

It really has been a fascinating experience, a learning opportunity for me as well as the kids. There were times when it felt like just another classroom.

But after I said farewell, a young man wrote something on the board. Here it is.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Just Finished Reading...Two books by “Robert Galbraith”

As you’ll know if you haven’t been hiding under a rock, Robert Galbraith is the pen name of J.K Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series. It took me quite a while to get around to reading them. But there are now four books in the Cormoran Strike series and while I have no interest in The Casual Vacancy, I do like whodunnits. Preferably cosies, with the occasional police procedural, but I’ll try something different. I was prepared to trust J.K Rowling; when you think about it, each of the Potter novels is a mystery, if not a murder mystery. Harry, Ron and Hermione have to solve a mystery in each book in order to save the day.

And this is a series about a private eye, very old-style, though set in the here and now. Cormoran Strike is an Afghanistan veteran who investigated for the army while he was there, but was invalided out after having a leg blown off. At the start of The Cuckoo’s Calling, the first novel, he has just left his wealthy girlfriend, for good reason, and had to move into his office. He has only two clients and keeps getting death threats from one who didn’t like the results of his investigation.  Then he is commissioned by the brother of an old - late - schoolmate, who says his adoptive sister, a beautiful model, was murdered, not a suicide as the police concluded. So, the “mean streets” detective enters the world of fashion modelling for this novel.

The second book, The Silkworm, takes Cormoran into the world of publishing. A novelist has been murdered horribly  in a manner taken from the last scene of a truly dreadful unpublished manuscript, and again Cormoran Strike is asked to investigate. I have to say, reading this, I’m very glad I write for children, not adults! We’re told that the author is not very good, in fact very bad, but somehow he has been published by trade publishers. Even his published work is bad, and the unpublished one is far worse.

So, what did I think? I liked Cormoran, who is a decent man and very good at his job. I liked his assistant, Robin, who comes to work for him as a secretary, but has ambitions to be a detective herself, and is very good at Googling the information they need. And the stories were exciting- I read them both almost in single sittings.

I couldn’t help wondering if J.K Rowling is a smoker, though. In the first novel, pretty much everyone except Robin is a chain smoker. Cormoran goes to interview someone and they always light up one smoke after another. Not quite as much smoking in The Silkworm, but Cormoran puffs away n nearly every scene. With his prosthetic leg, he is in a lot of pain, but somehow never seems to be short of breath!

Still, it’s a good adult series, written by a terrific children’s writer. I probably wouldn’t have read them if I hadn’t been curious and if Robert Galbraith had been the author’s real name, as I prefer my cosies, but I’m glad I did. 

Sunday, November 04, 2018

Pratchett’s Women: Unauthorised Essays On The Female Characters Of The Discworld by Tansy Rayner Roberts

No need to tell you what this is about - it’s all in the title. I bought the original ebook, which, alas, disappeared from my iPad when I bought a new one, as can happen, and was no longer up on iBooks for me to download again, but the good news is that the author updated her book and offered it free for a day on Amazon. I thought the least I could do, since I’d accepted the freebie, was review it.

These essays were originally posted on her web site. She reread - again! - and rewrote the essays.

In case you’re unfamiliar with Discworld, it’s a series of novels set on a world that actually is flat, borne on the backs of four giant elephants which stand on the back of Great A’Tuin, a massive turtle swimming through space, as in some Asian mythologies. The novels begin by poking fun at heroic fantasy and then taking on themes based on our own world. There are digs at racism, religion, opera, newspapers, jingoism, modern vampire fiction, fairy tales and much more. One series features three witches in a tiny mountain kingdom, inspired by the ones from Shakespeare, only much funnier.

The book covers many of Terry Pratchett’s novels, and the female characters in them, from the early books up to Snuff, the last of the City Watch novels - or, really, a Sam Vimes novel, because it’s about how Sam’s wife, Sybil, drags him, kicking and screaming, off on a holiday, away from his job in Ankh Morpork.

Tansy Rayner Roberts first discovered the Discworld novels in her teens and admits that she felt very differently about them then. Some books she hated as a teenager she adores now and characters her teenage self loved, such as Ginger from Moving Pictures, are of less interest now. She feels that Terry Pratchett’s female characters improved vastly as the series went on, as did the series itself.

She covers the witches, Susan Sto Helit, Death’s granddaughter, the female villains, Lady Sybil, the wife of policeman Sam Vimes, Eskarina from Equal Rites, Polly from Monstrous Regiment, werewolf Angua, Sacharissa Cripslock from The Truth, who may be her favourite Prachett heroine - actually, about the only heroine who doesn’t really get a chapter or part of a chapter is Tiffany Aching, although there is a brief mention of that part of the series, but in the context of other characters. That was a bit disappointing, but I suspect there will be another update at some stage and Tiffany will get her chapter.

It was fun to compare Tansy Rayner Roberts’ opinions with my own - and I have to say that, although I have read and reread these books, I didn’t discover them till I was well and truly into adulthood, so she had one up on me there.

Even if you’ve read the earlier edition of this book, it’s worth getting this one, and there is at least one new essay that wasn’t in the earlier book.

You can get it here on Amazon, and if you prefer a print copy, that, too, is available.

Thursday, November 01, 2018

The YABBA Awards Ceremony 2018!

So, what are the YABBAs? The acronym stands for Young Australians’ Best Book Awards. Each state has its own version - this one is Victoria’s, though the nominees don’t have to be from Victoria. Children up to Year 9 can nominate and vote for their favourite books of the last ten years. There is a shortlist and then the winners are announced at a ceremony at this time of year. You don’t have to be on the shortlist to attend as a writer, though. You turn up, get fussed over, enjoy the ceremony, then sit at a signing table. 

Each year a different school hosts it. I did once ask if my school could be considered. “Sure!” I was told. “Do you have room for 300 kids?” Alas, I didn’t. My library was quite big, but 200 was the most we could cram into the space, not counting signing tables and the bookseller stall, and only if they all sat on the floor. We had no school hall either, so that was that. 

In fact, most of the host schools over the years have been private ones. Not only that, but they were hard to reach by public transport, although I did once take a group of older book club kids from my school because we could meet in the city and catch the tram. 

This year’s host was a state P-12 school in Mernda, an outer suburb of  Melbourne - in fact, a very outer suburb! The train journey took an hour from the city. But it was impressive, a school that has only been around for two years and looks as new as it is. The oldest kids are in Year 8, next year will go up to Year 9, etc. They had chosen polite, pleasant bookloving kids to show the guests to the places they needed to be. 

We were taken to the large, pleasant library, where coffee and cake were served before the ceremony began. I was pleasantly surprised to see some of my author friends there and others whom I admire. I had a lovely chat with Felice Arena, whom I’ve met once before and communicated with by email when he kindly answered some questions from my students on this blog. Felice is best known to the kids as the author of the Specky McGee series of novels about a young football player. Recently, he has started writing children’s historical fiction novels, one of which was on this year’s shortlist. Specky McGee couldn’t go on forever, after all, and the historical fiction is a delight. And he is loving the writing and research he is doing for those books. Interesting, I’ve only recently discovered that he was once an actor! Now he delights children with his fiction instead. 

I also had a talk with the librarian, Joy, who had come there from the western suburbs, where I have spent most of my working life. She is lucky enough to have a supportive principal, and got to choose how to set her library up. Once a librarian always a librarian, and I asked her to show me her catalogue. There wasn’t a catalogue computer in the library for the kids to look up stuff, because they have a Bring Your Own Device program, so the kids can use their own computers or tablet devices to look up books. I can only assume they’re from families which have a bit more money than the families of my students, many of whom couldn’t afford their own devices. 

The library was beautiful, very comfortable, and had lots of rooms off the main library, and a giant chess set, although not many books for such a large space, to be honest. They may be building up the collection, of course, probably are, though I’m not sure where the new books will go, especially when they finally have students up to Year 12. Still - nice to see a brand new school that is so enthusiastic about having a library! I wish Joy much happiness there. 

I also saw Carole Wilkinson, the author of the wonderful Dragonkeeper series, mother of YA author Lili Wilkinson, whose rom com novels I have reviewed on this blog, and she very kindly offered me a lift to her local railway station. 

Carole Wilkinson and me! 

Meredith Costain, whom I interviewed on this blog about a few months ago, was there. Meredith is the partner of my lovely publisher Paul Collins, and has edited my stuff before, so I know her well, and was on this year’s shortlist, but there was another much more exciting reason why she was there, as I discovered when we were escorted into the hall for the ceremony. 

Goodness, it was a spectacular event! It was held in what I assume was the gym, but a huge one. I’ve never seen one that size before. When we walked in, the kids were thrilled to see their favourite authors, and showed it, but they were happy to see the rest of us as well. I found myself offered several hands to high-five, which I did. 

There was a bunch of totally adorable primary kids singing their hearts out. We applauded, of course, and I also cheered, whereupon one cheeky little miss in the choir took a bow, bless her! A group of four older girls danced. 

The MC was David Linke, head of the YABBA committee, and he was very entertaining in his own right. There was a bit of comedy with two of the artists supposedly bringing in bags of votes to be counted(the voting was on line, of course) and dropping them, with bits of paper flying. 

Next there was a “Mr Squiggle” event, which they do every year, like the show that was on TV here for many years. What happened was that an artist from among the guests was invited up to meet the challenge of turning a child’s scribble into a drawing. One of them actually altered his drawing as he went to respond to the children’s guesses as to what it was. It ended up as a cartoon cockatoo. 

Then there was the event that had brought Meredith to the YABBAs. Until a few years ago, the head of YABBA was an amazing man called Graham Davey, whose day job was as a storyteller. He died very suddenly and now there is an award in his name presented each year to someone who has made a great contribution to Australian children’s literature. This year it was Meredith, who is a quiet achiever who never brags or does the “look at me!” thing. She told me afterwards she had only got the good news on Saturday - and the event was on Tuesday! Of course, we all clapped and cheered. 

Then it was time for the awards. That didn’t go for long. I’ll let you check the YABBA web site for the winners, just google it. 

After morning tea, we went to the signing tables. I’d done two things: brought book marks and mini-posters to sign and brought a few copies of Crime Time from my stash, which I asked the booksellers to put on their table. The kids did have autograph cards, so the queues were long. Eve; if they hadn’t heard of you, they were happy to get your autograph, and one even asked to have her photo taken with me! And that was fine, but I also wanted to promote my books, so I handed out the bookmarks and mini posters. The mini posters are great because kids stick them to their school books and that means more promotion, as their friends will ask about the book. Two kids went and bought Crime Time and came back to their books signed. In the end, I really only got back what I’d paid for those books, because the booksellers wanted 50%,  so I had to charge the full price, something I don’t usually do. But that book is there for kids to read, not to sit in my cupboard. I’m glad two more kids will be curling up with it! 
This time, poor Andy Griffiths finally got to have lunch. Last time I went, he was stuck at the signing table while the rest of us were being fed. This time, there was finally an announcement that while those in the current queue could stay, there would be no more signatures. Ironically, I think 
I was signing longer than he was this time! But not after the deadline. 

My friend George Ivanoff also left his signing table early, to do some activities which 
I kept hearing about from the other side of the hall, not sure what they were, as I was still facing long queues of children. 

Afterwards, we were fed and thanked with a little plastic tag which I promised to add to my key chain. Carole drove me to Clifton Hill station and we had a great chat along the way. She had written a new time slip novel, Inheritance(see my review) and gave me a copy from the back seat. So, guess what I was doing al, the way home on the train? 

A great day - and thanks to everyone who helped to make it that way! 

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Inheritance by Carole Wilkinson. Melbourne, Black Dog, 2018

Fourteen year old Nic is left with her grandfather on the family property, Yaratgil, in Victoria’s Western district, while her musician father works on a cruise ship. Her mother has been gone since the day she was born. Yaratgil has been around since her mother’s ancestors, the Mitchells, arrived from Scotland in the 1830s and built it. Living with her grandfather is not easy and she has not found it easy, either, to make friends at her new school, as the Mitchell ancestors were not popular and anyone of that family is likely to be snubbed, even after a hundred years. She does become friends with a small group of kids who are pretty much outcasts themselves, including a boy called Thor, an indigenous boy whose hippie (white) mother sells New Age stuff in the small town. 

Then she finds something that enables her to time travel in the local  area - and she discovers, to her horror, that some of her ancestors did some dreadful things ...

The time-slip story works well. Moving around from one historical period to another, with different viewpoints, the mystery Nic has to solve eventually slots together like the stones she uses to time travel. She finds there are some things she can’t fix and others she can. Her new schoolfriend Thor has his own issues and the two of them work together to help each other. 

I liked the huge role historical research plays in this novel, and the mention of Victoria’s State Library, Public Records Office and the National Library’s Trove archive, which holds so many digital newspapers, and which I’ve used so often myself. It’s a novel set very much in the present day, with modern methods of looking stuff up. At one point, Thor is distressed that some important cuttings are missing, but Nic smiles and offers to introduce him to Trove. Missing physical information is no longer an issue in an adventure story. 

I liked the characters, including Nic’s grandfather, the ancestral Mitchell women and Nic’s friend Thor. I would have liked to see more of the friends known at school as the Weirdos, who are mentioned and help out at the end, but don’t play much role in the story. 

The historical massacre of the local indigenous clan is a very dark, but powerful, part of the book. I’m not giving away much here, as it’s hinted at early on. 

Despite the serious issues dealt with, there were definite touches of humour, such as Nic’s grandfather’s small herd of cattle, all given girls’ names, but slaughtered anyway to make the sausages he sells at a weekend market and keeps in the freezer, so that at any one time, he and Nic might be eating their way through Denise or Maggie. 

I read this very quickly, overnight. It’s not a difficult read. Interestingly, while the characters are fourteen, there isn’t any hint of romance between Nic and Thor. They are mature in their behaviour,  but still just good friends. 

Read this if you enjoyed Kate Constable’s Crow Country or Jackie French’s Daughter Of The Regiment. If you haven’t read these, but like time slip fiction, I recommend all three. 

Available from Booktopia  Book Depository and Amazon(currently only in Kindle, but keep an eye out.)  ht

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Knight Life by Peter David - A Re-Read

I’ve been discovered plenty of my old books, either on a clean-up at home or on the shelves in my old bedroom. A recent one is Knight Life by Peter David, which I must have brought from home and forgotten about, because it’s the 2002 edition and I left my parents’ home long before that.

Anyway, I found it and took it home and I’ve re-read it!

What do I mean by the 2002 edition? The original version, which I’ve also read, was written in the days of typewriters and was about 30,000 words shorter. The author explains, in his introduction to this edition, that at one stage he was working on a script for a film version that was never made and decided it was out of date and could do with improvement.

If you’re into comics, you will probably have read this author’s work. He has also done several Star Trek novels and scripted some Babylon 5 episodes, including that funny one where the space station gets a merchandise shop which upsets station commander John Sheridan when he realises it’s selling John Sheridan teddy bears(he tosses one out the airlock). But this novel was my first encounter with this author, and I picked it up among a pile of Arthurian themed novels I was reading at the time.

So, what’s it about? King Arthur returns, but not in the way we usually think of it. No galloping out from his sleep with his knights, no returning to save Britain in its darkest days. In fact, at one point, he comments that we could be on the verge of a golden age if we wanted it. And he’s not in Britain either, he’s in New York City, along with Merlin, who escaped from his own cave because he has been living backwards and is now a young boy, so small enough to slip through the cracks. Both of them have managed to keep up to date in their caves, so aren’t completely surprised by what they see.  Now Arthur has to decide what to do with his life. Leading is what he does best. It’s a bit early to be trying for President, so, with Merlin’s help(faking computer records), he decides to stand, as an independent, for Mayor of New York. But he and Merlin aren’t the only ones who have survived into the twenty-first century. There’s Percival the Grail Knight, who has aged, but is still around due to having drunk from the Grail, and makes a good treasurer for the campaign. There is a re-born Guinevere who is a very good personal assistant and press secretary. She has her own problems, though. And there are Morgan and Mordred...

Odd that everyone from Arthur’s time still around is not only living in the US but in the same part of it(the furthest from New York we get is New Jersey), but never mind. I found myself enjoying it all over again and I can’t help wishing that they had made that film after all, because I’d have liked to see Jason Carter, who played that lovely Ranger Marcus Cole in Babylon 5, as Arthur. The description of Arthur certainly sounded like him, but he’s rather too old for the role now.

This isn’t the only novel in which Arthur goes forward in time; Arthur, King, written by another American with screenplay experience, has Arthur chasing Mordred into World War II. While there he meets and falls in love with a British doctor called Jenny... That was much like the Time Machine movie, Time After Time. And he becomes a pilot, learning how to take off, but never getting the hang of landing. That would also have made a good movie, perhaps with Kenneth Branagh as Arthur.

Anyway, both are worth reading, though you may have to get Arthur, King from ABEBooks. Knight Life is easily available from Book Depository, along with Peter David’s other books.