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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell. Sydney: Bloomsbury, 2015

The place: Russia, deep in the forest. The time: deep winter, a few years before the Russian Revolution would change the country forever. We're not given a precise date, only that it happened about a hundred years ago, and hints given in the novel suggest the Tsar is Nicholas II, who had a sick son, and that it's after 1905. 

Twelve year old Feodora, known as Feo, lives in the forest with her mother, returning to the wild wolves which have been abandoned by the aristocrats who had kept them as pets and become bored with them. When an insane General destroys their home and arrests her mother, dragging her off to St Petersburg, Feo follows with her much-loved pack of wolves, a newborn wolf pup and a new friend, Ilya, who has been forced to become a soldier(he's under age)when he would much rather be a dancer. 

Along the route to save Feo's mother, they make friends among the peasants who are starting to become restless; the General has been oppressing them too, and he represents the Tsar, after all. While the coming Revolution is never mentioned, anyone who is familiar with it will recognise the signs. And yet, the ending is almost fairy tale... I can't tell you any more lest I spoil it.

The author doesn't hesitate to do dreadful things to her characters, but it was a dreadful time, after all, and motivation is needed for the decisions made on Feo's quest. 

The language is beautiful and the flavour purest folk tale; I could almost hear a balalaika playing in some scenes, such as when a group of peasants celebrate the arrival of Feo and Ilya. In fact, I could almost imagine Baba Yaga flying through the trees in her mortar and pestle or arriving in her house on chicken legs! It is that kind of vision of Russia. 

If I have a nitpick, it was how quickly the villain recovers from having his eye poked out! I just can't imagine it.

Still, it's a great adventure with wolves, which I'm sorry I took so long to get around to reading, and I would recommend it for children from late primary school to early secondary.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Just Received ... Somebody Stop Ivy Pocket!

Around this time last year, I was reviewing  Anyone But Ivy Pocket on this site. Yesterday, the sequel arrived. This time I seem to have the finished product instead of the proof copy, so the illustrations I missed last time are there!

I said at the time it rather reminded me of Judith Rossell's delightful Withering-By-Sea, so we will have to see how our favourite maid(but nobody else's)goes this time.

Here's the blurb from the Bloomsbury web site.

Ivy is now the beloved daughter of Ezra and Mother Snagbsy, coffin makers, even if she does have to work rather like a maid. Their trade is roaring, and Ivy is as happy as a pig in clover. Especially when she escapes to the library to talk to the devastatingly sympathetic Miss Carnage. 

But then Ivy guesses that all is not as it seems with her new parents, and discovers that she can pass into the world of the Clock Diamond. There, she sees her friend Rebecca, horribly sad and desperate. 

Can Ivy save Rebecca, and what do a missing aristocrat, a forbidden love affair and a bullfrog have to do with her mission?

Illustrated in humorous gothic detail by John Kelly, Somebody Stop Ivy Pocket is the second tale in Ivy's deadly comic journey to discover who she really is ... Perfect for fans of Lemony Snicket.

I'm looking forward to reading it!

Game Theory By Barry Jonsberg. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2026.

Jamie is a sixteen-year-old maths whiz. Summerlee, his older sister, is in the grip of a wild phase. Tensions at home run high.

When Summerlee wins a 7.5-million-dollar lottery, she cuts all ties with her family. But money can cause trouble - big trouble. And when Jamie's younger sister Phoebe is kidnapped for a ransom, the family faces a crisis almost too painful to bear.

Jamie thinks he can use game theory - the strategy of predicting an opponent's actions - to get Phoebe back. But can he outfox the kidnapper? Or is he putting his own and his sister's life at risk?

The fascinating thing about this novel is that, like many of Barry Jonsberg's other books, it has an ending you can't quite predict, a little twist that makes you say, "Oh!" It is one I love but can't share because of spoilers. I did suspect who the kidnapper was, then thought, "Well, it can't be, because..." but it was. But that isn't the twist I was thinking of. There is a delicious irony about it. 

Jamie is certain he can work out how to find his sister and her kidnapper through game theory; when his opponent seems to know as much about it as he does, he even rather enjoys the challenge, worried as he is for his beloved little sister. This is his major flaw and makes the book more interesting, even though the reader might, like me, be just a little disappointed that the book isn't actually about that. 

I would have liked a little more detail about the kidnapper before the long, detailed explanation at the end. Although I suspected who it was, the character traits that affected what the villain did were not so evident in the build up. 

Still, it's a good, exciting thriller that should suit boys from about fourteen up. 

Friday, May 27, 2016

Finally Reading... The Sky So Heavy by Claire Zorn


Yet again there's a book which took me ages to get around to reading and now I'm whizzing my way through it. It's The Sky So Heavy by Claire Zorn, which was an Honour Book, ie runner-up in the CBCA Awards in 2014. I'm sad to say that doesn't necessarily mean that the kids are reading it. Not at my school, anyway. There are usually some overlaps between the CBCA and YABBA short lists. But only some. I think this one might have been on a YABBA short list, must check it out. 

The cover doesn't help; kids rarely pick up books with depressing grey covers. But what else can you expect from a dystopian novel about a nuclear winter? 

Imagine what it might be like to be going to school one day as normal, hearing about some nuclear missile test going on somewhere on the other side of the world and next morning waking up to dirty, almost certainly toxic, snow outside, power, communication and the Internet gone and being unable to even find out what's going on.

 It's all too frighteningly easy to imagine. 

The rest of it so far is about how people treat each other when canned and dried foods and bottled water are gradually running out and still no word of when, or if, this will end. There are decent people helping each other and others who simply go crazy. The hero, Fin, is one of the former, when his parents go missing and he's left with his younger brother to look after. 

I can see why it has been compared to John Marsden's Tomorrow series, except that at least Ellie and her friends had someone/something to fight. How can you fight nuclear winter?

Anyway, I am looking forward to seeing how it all ends! 

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Goodies From The Festival!


Okay, I bought some print books! I also got a copy of Hazel Edwards's There's A Hippopotamus On Our Roof Eating Cake, for my youngest family member, Jonah. I got one for his cousin Dezzy, when she was about his age, and had both signed. (Dezzy is sixteen and writing American Gothic-style fiction for English Extensions. How time flies!)

I didn't buy Anna Ciddor's book because I have it already, in ebook and in print. Mum is reading the print copy, so I didn't bring it for signing.

Anna and Hazel did a great session this morning, discussing writing books about "different" kids. Hazel said she had ended up having to self publish Hijabi Girl, which she wrote with a Muslim school librarian, who wears the hijab herself and wanted to see kids like her students in books. It was rejected forty-one times and even the festival bookseller didn't have it, though you can buy it online through Bookpod. I gather it has been doing well so far. I bought a copy and will be showing it to our literacy co-ordinator.

Anna said The Family With Two Front Doors was a risk, because it took a long time to write and lowered her writer profile, because, as I know well, if you don't have a new book out NOW you can be forgotten. But she felt it was the book she had to write, for herself, and in the end, Allen and Unwin bought it, after a lot of rejections in which she was told, "Oh, it's lovely, but we won't buy it because it has too limited an audience." Hah! It's only been out this year and it's already into reprint. I can't help thinking if it had been a Holocaust novel it would have been grabbed by the first publisher. But it was about the author's family and they did go through the Holocaust only a few years later, with only three of those delightful children left out of ten, and both parents gone; she wanted one happy moment for them, with the traditions and the food and the family affection. 

I had three sessions altogether. My next one was my friend Mirna Cicioni doing an interview by Skype with a lady who had translated a lot of stuff from Italian, including Primo Levi, and one English-speaking  author who had moved to Italy and started writing in Italian. One question was - why get someone else to translate your work when you could do it yourself? The reply was that the author "thought in Italian" while writing in that language and it would mess it up. But I bet she would be upset if she thought the translator hadn't done a good job. 

Another author mentioned was Elena Ferrante, which is a pen name. Apparently nobody has ever met her or seen her or knows her real name and she only does interviews by email. There is even a theory that "she" is a man, with some ideas of which male author it might be! Now, that sounds like a storyline for a movie! A romantic comedy, perhaps, where the reclusive author has a visit from a young journalist who believes the author is a man, but she isn't and has her own reasons for wanting to be left alone. Maybe she's a famous person who doesn't want anyone to know she's writing a certain kind of fiction? (As in that film Without A Clue, where Dr Watson is the real detective, but has to hire an actor to play Sherlock Holmes because he is after a job he won't get if the administration find out he's doing something so disreputable as solving crime). Anyway, there is a romance... Not that I think that of Elena Ferrante, whoever she/he is! 

I spent some time having a cup of tea in the sunshine before my final session. I'd picked up a copy of Arnold Zable's The Fighter. It doesn't read like a typical biography, but then, Arnold Zable doesn't write like that. Very readable so far! I hadn't realised that, at the age of sixty-seven, Henry Nissen is still working on the docks, because his social work just wasn't paying enough to live on. He's still on call, has his mobile with him, in case he is needed. He is a true working class hero - heck, a secular saint! 

I might review it when I'm done.

My final session for the day was a panel about Holocaust fiction, which I chose because Kate Forsyth was on it. Of course, she was there because of The Beast's Garden. She spoke of the fairytale background to it and how much research it had taken. When asked why Holocaust fiction, she said that some stories should not be allowed to be forgotten and that it was up to storytellers to make sure they weren't.

 One of the other speakers was an Israeli writer, Nir Baram, who was very polite and kind when someone in the audience asked a question about his new book with a very strange over-the-top interpretation of it. She must have seen his expression, because she said plaintively, "I was reading it at two in the morning!" But he was nice anyway. I'm not sure I want to read it, not my cup of tea, but it sounds like it might be a very popular book. It's his first to be translated into English. 

A very enjoyable day, in all! 


CBCA Shortlist 2016

Finally announced on Friday at the conference - wish I'd been able to go! Interestingly, they had it at the hotel where I attended my very first Sydney con.

Anyway, here's the list, which I pinched from children's book blog A Strong Belief In Wicker. Go on over and check it out - I think I'll be following it. 

I usually only buy the Older Reader books for my library and maybe the Younger Readers, as I work in a high school, and this year, alas, we only have two of the Older Reader books and one of the Youngers, Soon. Morris Gleitzman's books about Felix, the Jewish boy on the run from the Nazis, are very popular at my school, where none of the kids have ever even met anyone Jewish except their teacher librarian(me)! We had a student once whose surname was Cohen(hi, Dylan!) who told me he was "a little bit Jewish", but not in this generation. He was more closely related to Ned Kelly(true!). And yet, they ask for the next book in the series; when a Year 7 student saw we had After, she pounced on it saying, "Ooh, I was wanting this one! I read the others in primary school." I haven't read Soon yet; the kids have it. I will be buying the Deltora book; that series is well liked.

I've got Flywheel in ebook and am embarrassed to say I haven't read it yet. Ditto with the Eureka one. We do have a copy of that in the library, because it turned up in a display box and a student asked for it, but never read it. 

I've read only Cloudwish in that list. We do have the Vikki Wakefield book, but no - not read yet. Time to go shopping for the rest. 

I'm glad Cloudwish is on the list, but I'm sorry that In The Skin Of A Monster didn't make it. I think it deserves a spot on the shortlist. Still, it's nice that it made the Notables/longlist, and we were all thrilled that Rich And Rare got that far. It's a fabulous anthology, and not only because I have a story in it!

Book of the Year Older Readers Shortlist

The Flywheel - Erin Gough
The Pause - John Larkin
Freedom Ride - Sue Lawson
A Single Stone - Meg McKinlay
Inbetween Days - Vikki Wakefield
Cloudwish - Fiona Wood

The Book of the Year Younger Readers Shortlist

Soon - Morris Gleitzman
The Cleo Stories: A Friend and A Pet - Libby Gleeson, Freya Blackwood (illustrator)
Run, Pip, Run - J.C. Jones
Sister Heart - Sally Morgan 
Molly and Pim and the Millions of Stars - Martine Murray 
Star of Deltora: Shadows of the Master - Emily Rodda

The Book of the Year Early Childhood Shortlist

Piranhas Don't Eat Bananas - Aaron Blabey
My Dog Bigsy - Alison Lester
Perfect - Danny Parker, Freya Blackwood (illustrator)
Ollie and the Wind - Ghosh Ronojoy
Mr Huff - Anna Walker
The Cow Tripped Over the Moon - Tony Wilson, Laura Wood (illustrator)

The Picture Book of the Year Shortlist

Perfect - Freya Blackwood (illustrator), Danny Parker (text)
Ride, Ricardo, Ride - Shane Devries (illustrator), Phil Cummings (text)
My Dead Bunny - James Foley (illustrator), Sigi Cohen (text)
Flight - Armin Greder (illustrator), Nadia Wheatley (text)
Suri's Wall - Matt Ottley (illustrator), Lucy Estela (text)
And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda - Bruce Whatley (illustrator), Eric Bogle (text)

The Eve Pownall Award for Information Books Shortlist

Phasmid: Saving the Lord Howe Island Stick Insect - Rohan Cleave, Coral Tulloch (illustrator)
The White Mouse: The Story of Nancy Wake - Peter Gouldthorpe
The Amazing True Story of How Babies Are Made - Fiona Katauskas
Lennie the Legend: Solo to Sydney by Pony - Stephanie Owen Reeder
Ancestry: Stories of Multicultural Anzacs - Robyn Siers, Carlie Walker (illustrator)
We are the Rebels: the Men and Women who made Eureka - Clare Wright

Crichton Award for New Illustrators Shortlist

The Underwater Fancy Dress Parade - Allison Colpoys (illustrator), Davina Bell (text)
The Cat With the Coloured Tail - Dinalie Dabarera (illustrator), Gillian Meares (text)
My Gallipoli - Robert Hannaford (illustrator), Ruth Starke (text)
Fish Jam - Kylie Howarth
Meet Weary Dunlop - Jeremy Lord (illustrator), Claire Saxby (text)

Time to get reading!

Friday, May 20, 2016

Going To The Melbourne Jewish Writers' Festival!

It's on tomorrow and Monday - I can't make it Monday, alas, as I'm at work, but there's some pretty good stuff happening and a line-up worthy of a mini Melbourne Writers' Festival. Here's the link if you're in Melbourne and have the time to go.

The speakers aren't all Jewish, but they write on Jewish or sort-of-Jewish themes. There's a rather interesting panel with Arnold Zable talking about his new book on Henry Nissen, boxer and social worker, with whom my sister went out once or twice in her teens. I hadn't planned to attend that one although we'll see if I can slot it in between the ones I am attending and lunch with my friend Mirna, who's doing a Skype interview with an American translator of Primo Levi. Mirna did her PhD on Levi. I'm going to that. I might buy the Zable book, anyway. I promise myself not to buy any more print books than I can help, but just the one...

But first thing, I'm going to hear Anna Ciddor, author of the delightful The Family With Two Front Doors in conversation with Hazel Edwards, co-author of the quirky and funny F2M, which isn't remotely Jewish, but is about "the other", the theme of the panel. The protagonist is a teenage girl who identifies as male and has to tell his/her all-girl rock band. It was as much about punk rock as about bring trans and was utterly delightful. And published by Ford Street, my favourite publisher! Only trouble is, poor Hazel kept getting asked to sign one of her Hippo books instead the day we were signing out Ford Street books.

My final panel for the day is "The H Word", about Holocaust writing, and one of the panel members is the amazing Kate Forsyth, whose recent book In The Beast's Garden is set in Nazi Germany and definitely has Holocaust themes. I know Kate through SF fandom, but In The Beast's Garden is a straight historical novel, though it is inspired by a Grimm's fairy tale, "The Singing, Springing Lark", a sort of Beauty And The Beast story which turns into "East Of The Sun, West Of The Moon" halfway through.

I've reviewed all three novels on this site, you can find them on a search.

Anyway, there's plenty of good stuff going tomorrow, and tonight there will be an opening ceremony at the Glen Eira Town Hall, with music. My brother's friend, the cellist Robert Ekselman, will be playing. Wish I could go, but I have other commitments today.

Why not check out the MJWF web site and go? It's mostly on at Beth Weizmann Hewish community centre in Caulfield and is easy to get to by tram, either the 64 from the city, or the 67. If you know me and are going, get in touch and I'll meet you there. If you're one of my overseas or interstate readers... Well, you'll just have to read about it. Buy some of the books.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Reviews Soon To Come...

I've just finished reading the latest book by Barry Jonsberg, a thriller called Game Theory, which I received on Saturday morning and finished last night - very readable, as are all of Jonsberg's books I've read so far. But the embargo date is May 25, so ... I'll write it and keep it in draft form till the time comes.

Meanwhile, I'm back to a book that has been on my TBR pile for far too long, The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell, a YA novel set in Russia a hundred years ago, which has had a lot of raves about it on line as it just sat on my pile with only a few pages read. Maybe it will turn out to be one of those books I mentioned in a previous post, the kind you can't get into, then love. We'll see.

Stand by!

Sunday, May 15, 2016

On Reading ... Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe. Public Domain

I've read some in the past, just a little, but I tend to think of him mostly as the master of horror fiction, although I know he was also the author of some mysteries. My Year 11 niece Dezzy wants me to check out her story outline for English Extensions, in which she is focusing on American Gothic. English extensions seems to involve some creative writing in particular styles and then explaining the symbolism according to the symbolism found in the original fiction.  Hmm, I can already see her doing a Masters in Creative Writing, if she hadn't already said she wants to do Psychology...

Anyway, she explained that if you've read Edgar Allan Poe you should have some idea of American Gothic.

So I thought it was about time I did read some of his classic short fiction and downloaded a couple of volumes from Gutenberg. I'm about to read "The Murders In The Rue Morgue", which introduces his pre-Holmes detective C.Auguste Dupin.

But Edgar Allan Poe also wrote funny! Who knew? I didn't! Never too late to learn something new.

I've read three stories so far, including one about Scheherezade telling one more, truly weird Sinbad story after she's married... and annoying her husband enough to order her throttled after all - a very silly and over the top tale! I loved his comment that she must have read Machiavelli before undertaking her original scheme.

And "The Gold Bug" which contains a sort of McGuffin. I thought it might be horror fiction, but instead it was a cryptography story and the guy you first assume must be crazy isn't. The representation of the African American character as a clown was annoying, but you have to remember he was a Southerner, well and truly before the Civil War. I've long ago forgiven Shakespeare for Shylock, so what the heck.

And it was funny! I admit I did skip over some of the detailed cryptography but perhaps some time I'll have a play with the cipher.

Meanwhile, on to the Rue Morgue! 

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Some Happy Birthdays For May 14!

Here are some famous May 14 birthdays. I did leave out the director Sofia Coppola because I'm not familiar with her films, though I've heard of her. Happy birthday, anyway, Sofia! 

1727 - Thomas Gainsborough - Portrait artist who painted the royal famiły and aristocrats. It was good stuff, though! His most famous piece was The Blue Boy. Apparently, it was a sort of "Nyah nyah!" to the advice of Sir Joshua Reynolds, who said that cold colours like blue should be mostly kept out of paintings. 

The Blue Boy - Public Domain.

1775 - J.M. W Turner - painter of the most gorgeous landscapes and seascapes in a swirly style that nobody much was doing back then.

Turner. Public Domain.

1944 - George Lucas - yay! Star Wars! If you haven't seen at least one of his films, you've been hiding under a rock! 

1952 - Robert Zemeckis - yay! Back To The Future! Marty McFly and his skateboard! Professor Brown with his wild hairstyle and popping eyes! The Delorean time machine! 

1965 - Eoin Colfer - author of the wonderful Artemis Fowl novels which were so very Irish. The hero starts off the series by kidnapping a fairy for ransom. She is a member of the elite LepRecon unit, more like James Bond than Galadriel and certainly not a sweet winged being fluttering among the flowers. I loved the dwarfs in this, who could eat their way through soil and stone and produce energy by farting. Hilariousl!

Happy birthday, guys! 

Friday, May 13, 2016

Books I Had Trouble Getting Into, Then Loved

We all have books we took a while to start reading, then wondered why we'd waited so long to get stuck into them, don't we?

There are some which took me a while because I got Volume 2 or 3 for reviewing without having read Volume 1, and it mattered.

There's Sean Williams's Jump, volume 1 of  the Twinmaker trilogy. I really should have had a go since a couple of my students had read it in manuscript and loved it. We had it in the library at the time(missing! Where is it now? I had to buy another copy for a student). But I just didn't get past the first two pages. Anyway, when I was offered Volume 3 for reviewing, I explained that I hadn't read the others. The publishers shipped them out to me and I read and reviewed them all on this blog and all I can say is, wow! How could I have been such a - teenager! - about trusting the author with more than a page or two? Especially when it went deep into the complications you might get in a world where you really did have a teleport and replicator, something I'd loved in Star Trek...

Jaclyn Moriarty's Colours Of Madeleine trilogy. I had been sent the second volume, The Cracks In The Kingdom, for reviewing, but that was a series in which you really did have to read Volume 1 to make sense of the rest. The characters, problem and universe had all been set up in the first book, A Corner Of White. Then I was asked if I wanted to do the blog tour for the third and said, only if I could read the first volume. Again, they gave me a copy of Volume 1 and 2(again, the copy of Volume 2 was missing from the library). I read and was overwhelmed. Wow! What if there was a cute boy/girl who lived in another universe? And the boy's universe had colours that could kill you? And the royal family were missing? Just - wow! Why, oh, why, hadn't I hunted up the first book earlier?

Then there are the classics. Dune by Frank Herbert. I admit I never got past the first book in the series, but even this one took several tries to finish. The universe is as complex as Middle-Earth and I don't say that lightly. The prose is dense, the story complicated and the characters are not easy to love. So it took me about four attempts, even after meeting the author. Frank Herbert came to Australia for a Swancon and, as was the tradition at the time, visited Melbourne's Space Age bookshop afterwards. He looked like Santa Claus and was just as jolly! I think the only writer these days who comes close in popularity to Frank Herbert back then is George R R Martin, except I doubt the latter would come to a bookshop for a signing now, probably for his own safety - so many of his newer fans aren't spec fic readers and you never know who would turn up in those huge mobs. I remember being glad I'd seen Mr Herbert at Space Age because when he came to Aussiecon in 1985, the signing queue went all the way down the stairs.

Anyway, I tried again and eventually I finished it and was blown away by the sheer power of it. I've bought the ebook and am reading it again. 

Oh, and these days, when my sister makes a cup of tea for me and doesn't fill it, I say, "Is this planet Arrakis?" because, of course, on Arrakis the water is so hard to get that when someone spits at you, it's a compliment - they are sharing their body's water.

The Lord Of The Rings is a book I've read many times over the years, but it took me a very long time to get into it. I'm not sure why. I first bought it while I was at university, from the Monash University bookshop. Everyone but me in my year had read it, including the staff. And yet, I just couldn't finish it. Then, one day, many years later, I was on holiday at Sorrento, too tired from work to be bothered with doing touristy stuff. All I wanted to do was go sit on the beach and read. I had brought along my Monash Uni copy of Fellowship Of The Ring.  Again: wow! Suddenly, I found myself whisking through it and finishing the other volumes after I got home - and buying illustrated editions. And I read the Appendices, where you got the details of what happened next and Elvish languages and runes and such. I found myself buying the History Of Middle-Earth books, which included stuff cut out of LOTR or information about the various characters, even that scene which was shown at the beginning of The Hobbit movie part 3, where Gandalf meets Thorin Oakenshield at the pub. It was  originally a story he was telling to his friends in Minas Tirith, when they're waiting for Aragorn's coronation. He concludes that all the things that have happened to them and the saving of Middle-Earth wouldn't ever have happened if he hadn't met Thorin that night. And I would never have read all this wonderful stuff if I hadn't been too tired to be bothered doing tourist stuff at Sorrento...

So, these are a few of my favourite books that took me a while to get into. What are some of yours?

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Drinking It Because Of A Book: Harry Harrison And Ottar The Viking!

(This is the cover of the edition I first read. It's signed - and falling apart, so I don't open it any more...)

I'm sick with an early winter cold. Not good. And my lovely bottle of Cointreau, an annual birthday gift from my sister, has gone below the half full mark while I've been pouring capfuls into my hot honey and lemon drinks, or drinking small sherry glasses full. I use alcohol when I'm sick, always.

So, today I decided to buy a replacement booze. I'm not fond of whiskey though I do have a glass on Dad's birthday with the rest of the family, and even I know you don't drink the cheap stuff, even for a cold.

In the supermarket I spotted a small bottle of Jack Daniels, which is as strong as Cointreau - and which played a large role in Harry Harrison's novel The Technicolor Time Machine.

In case you haven't read it, do! It's one of my favourite funny SF novels.

There's this film company in the 1950s which is on the point of going out of business. The bookkeepers from the bank are coming to visit very soon. The only way they can be held off is with a huge hit. And there's this scientist who has invented a time machine. They do have enough money to sponsor him, in exchange for using it to travel into the past to make a huge but cheap movie about the Viking discovery of America. On their first test run into the early eleventh century Orkneys, they meet a Viking, a local leader called Ottar, snatch him into their time machine and bring him back to speak with an Old Norse scholar, who is going to negotiate with him to be their native guide and hopefully teach him English before the company arrives in the eleventh century to begin filming.

And while he is in the twentieth century, they find he can be kept happy by feeding him burnt steaks - and Jack Daniels. Bottles of Jack Daniels become a part of his wages during the filming, leading to a lot of hilarious scenes.

So, tonight after dinner, I will drink like Ottar the Viking!  Not as much, by any means, but at least a taste...

Saturday, May 07, 2016

Some More Arthurian Novels!

Yesterday I wrote about three classics in the field of modern Arthurian fiction. The Once And Future King, The Sword At Sunset and Mary Stewart's Merlin novels are, in my opinion, the definitive novels in their genre - the Malory/fantastical, the straight historical and the historical with a touch of fantasy. If you can think of any others that you consider classics, feel free to comment below.

But there are other very good Arthurian novels. I already wrote a post about Parke Godwin's Arthurian novels, Firelord and Beloved Exile here. That was in my sad tribute to the late author. He was an American who could write wonderful stories about British heroes - he also wrote two amazing novels about Robin Hood. I loved Godwin's Arthur. He was a decent person as well as a good king and when he knew about what Guinevere had done, he understood completely the stresses she'd been under, as Queen, a job that was a lot more than doing embroidery with the ladies, and anyway, she dumps her lover fairly soon. The only thing he's angry with her for is the murder of Morgana, who is, in Firelord, a gentle woman, a tribal chief, who had committed the crime of having a child with Arthur(not incestuously), something Guinevere couldn't do, after a disastrous pregnancy.  But Guinevere is a princess of a tribe that gives its high priestess a lot of power and she is strong willed. And she has her own novel, Beloved Exile, in which the irritating Elaine, Ancellius/Lancelot's wife, has her kidnapped and sold to the Saxons, an experience which helps her learn about becoming a strong but compassionate person. Anyway, read the post.

Bernard Cornwell's trilogy was pretty amazing too. In that version, Arthur can't actually be king because he's illegitimate, so he is Regent for the rightful heir who is, unfortunately, the truly awful Mordred. He stays Regent for a very long time, precisely because his nephew is just not fit to be king.

In this version, he's supposed to marry a sweet young heiress when he meets Guinevere, a poverty-stricken princess, at the engagement party - and elopes with her. Fortunately, the sweet young heiress, who is a wonderful person, ends up with Arthur's friend, a Saxon brought up by Merlin, and narrator of the novel.

Lancelot is an arrogant man who thinks a lot of himself and looks good in armour, but isn't much of a fighter; all the hard work is done by his brother Galahad. He hires poets to write poems in his praise.

Guinevere only sleeps with him as part of a ritual to Isis which will, she hopes, cast a spell to make her husband king. She doesn't even like him let alone love him.

I won't reveal the ending of the trilogy, but it's fantastical and it's - different.

There is, of course, the classic Mark Twain novel, known as either A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court, or A Yankee At The Court Of King Arthur - forgot that one yesterday. I have a first British edition from 1889, under the latter title. In it, Hank Morgan, an American, is whacked on the head and wakes up in King Arthur's England. He is captured by a passing knight and taken to the court, where he manages to save his life by bullshitting about a solar eclipse he knows is coming. After that, it is complete and total bullshit while he makes an enemy of Merlin, whom he considers a phony (although at the end, you discover he isn't quite the fake Hank thinks he is). He gives himself the title of The Boss and proceeds to set up a modern society in sixth century Britain. He falls in love, gets married and... well, read it if you haven't.

There are quite a few modern novels in which King Arthur connects with the present.

In Arthur, King by Dennis Lee Anderson,  Arthur must follow Mordred into World War II to retrieve Merlin's diary. Merlin is living backwards(as in The Once And Future King) but his diary only goes as far as the end of World War II. Merlin tells him that he can get him there, but he will have only three months. He finds himself in a plane about to crash - fortunately, only into a pond, where water nymphs help him out. He meets and befriends an American volunteer who has joined the British air force before the US joined the war - one who comes from Connecticut, allowing an ongoing joke about it.  And he has to learn to be a pilot very quickly, though he never does get the hang of landing. Mordred, of course, is across the Channel with the Nazis...

There were a few glitches in this, but on the whole I found it delightful. It was very filmic in style and I would love to see a film version some time.

Peter David, who is nowadays writing comic books/graphic novels, did a couple of Arthur-in-modern times novels. The first one was Knight Life, in which Arthur returns after centuries and find himself in New York. The Lady of the Lake hands him back his sword in Central Park, covered with rubbish. "Never again!" she declares. He finds some of his knights, reborn. He finds Merlin who(yet again) has been living backwards and is now an eight year old boy.

Arthur has to get a job, but what? The current royal family isn't going to let him take over and in the US, he has to be elected. Merlin sets up fake records for him and the team starts the project of having King Arthur stand for election as Mayor of New York. There was a sequel, in which he has become President, though I didn't think it as good as this one.

And then, of course, there are Susan Cooper's Dark Is Rising novels. She has more or less set up her own Arthurian canon, but it's powerful. Merlin is still around, head of the Old Ones, a bunch of long-lived people who are fighting for the Light against the Dark. And in modern times, he's not a Gandalf-like guy with long hair and beard in a star-speckled robe. He is a well-known scholar and archaeologist, who calls himself Merriman Lyon. Even people who don't know who he is, he's just an ordinary 20th century person. To the Drew children - at least till they find out - he's Great Uncle Merry, who had known their mother as a child. And even then they go on calling him Great Uncle Merry. There's more, but spoilers.

Plenty more novels including Peter Dickinson's Weather series, but I won't go into them here - there are too many! I won't even include C.S Lewis's novel, as I'm not fond of it.

I know - I've left out Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon, but that's another one I'm not fond of. I hate, hate, hate what she did to my dear Arthur! She turned him into a wimp.

So, do you have any favourite Arthurian novels?

Friday, May 06, 2016

My Favourite Arthurian Books

Recently I got my old video copy of Merlin Of The Crystal Cave converted to DVD as I can't watch videotape any more and, as far as I know, you can't buy it on DVD, though I will certainly buy a copy if it ever does become available.

This made me think of the novels and other classic Arthurian books I've loved over the years. There was a time when I was bingeing on them, but, you know how they are going to end, how they have to end and ... It's the reason why I don't generally buy Richard III fiction any more. (Mind you, I've recently re-read John M Ford's The Dragon Waiting, set in an alternative universe in which there's a happy ending for Richard...)

Still, here are some of the classics I love.

The Once And Future King by T.H White is based on Malory's fifteenth century version. It's the story of the Arthur we think of when we think of King Arthur - Camelot, knights, tournaments, the Holy Grail, etc. This is the book which inspired the musical Camelot.

But there's a bit more to it than that. This Arthur is quirky and loveable. He was tutored by a Merlin who knows what's going to happen because he is living backwards. Yes, this is the book it came from. Over the years, people have forgotten that it isn't a part of the original legend, just as they've forgotten that the laws of robotics belong to Isaac Asimov...

Merlin teaches him about human society by turning him into animal and birds - and as a bird, he flies and sees that there are no borders; borders are a human construct. As a king, he uses what he has learned from Merlin. The knights are sent out to help Arthur's subjects according to his idea of "Not might is right, but might for right."  The Holy Grail quest is to give his men something to do when they've finished that.

The problem is the fight between Gael and Gall and his nephews from Orkney start the restlessness that eventually leads to the end of Camelot. The novel ends on the eve of the last battle, with a young page called Tom of Warwick serving Arthur in his tent. Of course, it's meant to be Tom Malory.

Because it was originally written as a series of children's books, before being reworked into one novel, it retains the flavour of a children's book. And it works, it really does.

It's exquisite. If you haven't read it yet, you're missing out on the classic Arthurian novel.

Rosemary Sutcliff's The Sword At Sunset is a part of her series that began with Marcus Flavius Aquila in The Eagle Of The Ninth. There is a descendant of Marcus in all these books, going right up till the Middle Ages, connected by a dolphin ring with a flawed emerald. This novel is a sequel to The Lanternbearers, in which a member of the Aquila family refused to return to Rome when the legions left. It begins, in fact, three days after The Lanternbearers ends. The young man Artos, nephew of King Ambrosius, wants to begin a group of warriors who will travel around the country to help where needed. There are Saxons to be fought, fires to be put out. It ends up becoming his life's mission. And there is, of course, an Aquila among his men.

This is the classic "Arthur as a Romano-British general" novel. There have been others since, including some very fine ones which I may mention in another post, but IMO this is the best. The author takes bits of the legend and works them into a believable piece of historical fiction. This Arthur has his horse and his dog, because the legendary Arthur did, and Rosemary Sutcliff felt they were a part of him. He sticks to white horses and the horse he rides into his last battle is called Cygnus. His wonderful dog, Cabal, the second of that name(the first one dies of old age) was won from its dead Saxon master's side after a battle. 

His best friend - not Lancelot, who didn't enter the story till the Middle Ages,  but Bedwyr, one of his first companions in legend -  and his wife only sleep together once, when they're all hitting middle age. Deeply hurt, he sends them both away, but Bedwyr returns for the last battle. The sword goes into the lake because he doesn't want the enemy to know he's dead, not because of any Lady Of The Lake. There's no arm in white samite here. 

Finally, for this post, there's Mary Stewart's Arthurian series beginning with The Crystal Cave. The first three are not about Arthur but about Merlin. The series was inspired by Geoffrey of Monmouth. He was, I think, the one who slotted Merlin into the Arthurian legend.

There is just a touch of fantasy in this series. Merlin has the Sight, probably inherited from his mother, a Welsh princess, rather than his Roman father, Ambrosius. But he is more likely to use his brain than any magic. He is a skilled engineer, among other things. That's how he brings the main stone across the sea to Stonehenge. The Crystal Cave begins when he is seven and ends when, as a young man of twenty-two, he helps Uther smuggle himself into Tintagel to sleep with Igraine. It's not rape. They both know what they're doing. She knows who he is. Merlin does it because he knows who will be conceived that night. 

I loved that this Merlin refused to be a cliche; at the end of The Hollow Hills, the second book, Arthur asks him if he'd wear a robe with stars and moons on it for him and Merlin replies,"Not even for you, Arthur!"

It's a gorgeous series, with characters I cared about. Read it if you like just a taste of fantasy in your Arthurian fiction. 

I'll leave it here. My next post on this subject will be on more recent Arthurian fiction I have enjoyed over the years. 

Currently Reading... Let It Snow

I borrowed my school library's copy of this. My niece Dezzy got a copy a few holidays ago, and it looked like fun. Snow is something I've seen a very few times in my life, once in Beersheba,  a town in southern Israel and once in the Sinai desert. Oh, and briefly at Tehran airport, back before the Ayatollahs took over. A few snowflakes, that's all. A snowstorm is something completely foreign to me in Melbourne(though I did once see a bit of snow on the ground on my way to work, a very long time ago). So it was fascinating to read about a snowstorm affecting the lives of the characters in this. 

The linking storyline is that there has been a huge snowstorm which stranded a train in a small town called Gracetown. In it, there are fourteen cheerleaders with two names among them, a local boy and a girl who was being sent to stay with her grandparents after her parents were arrested over a shopping riot.

The three novellas, are by three top YA novelists, Maureen Johnson, John Green and Lauren Myracle. I've just finished Maureen Johnson's "The Jubilee Express" which is seen from the viewpoint of a girl stuck with the name Jubilee, whose parents have been thrown in the slammer on Christmas Eve for being caught up in a riot over a limited edition ceramic, her boyfriend too busy with his family Christmas party to be bothered with her troubles and having to put up with a train full of cheerleaders. This is a delightful romantic comedy and I'm looking forward to reading the others.

I was right, it is fun.

Now I'll have something more to discuss with our students - and with Dezzy!