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Friday, May 26, 2017

On Some Visual(King)Arthurs

Arthur. Public domain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you have any favourites you wish gad been filmed? 

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Space Opera Week - My Space Opera Favourites!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what are your favourite space operas?

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suitable for readers from about eleven or twelve up.

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

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Just Been To See... Carmen!

Celestine Galli-Marie as Carmen. Public domain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 05, 2017

Early Morning Reading In Bed! Terry Pratchett...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that's another novel, Lords And Ladies

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

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

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

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

Have you read them? What us your favourite? 

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Second Sale For The Year - rejoice!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Confessions Of A History Nut!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

I am looking forward to reading more of this! 

Time to curl up in bed with my new book. 

Do you enjoy history? What kind? 


Saturday, April 29, 2017

A To Z Challenge... Reflections

As I wait for my Anzac biscuits to come out of the oven, I am thinking about the last month. It has been an interesting process. Last year I did it unofficially. People were talking about it on line and I just...did it. I didn't sign up or post to the A-Z web site. My topic of choice was crime in Australia, because I'd written a children's book on the subject and it gave me somewhere to start.

This time, I took it up officialły and posted every day. I learned how to do a linkable link when commenting, which will come in very handy. I read posts on topics that interested me and responded to others who had commented on my posts and learned quite a lot from them too. I followed some so that I can see what they blog about when they're not A-Zing, and I have six new followers on my own site.

 There were three delightful folk who share my love of SF, and who are also funny people, so I followed them on Twitter, because it was too hard to follow on their Wordpress blogs. I tweeted merrily back and forth with them one night, wished them a good night and woke up next day to find twenty notifications, as they had gone right on tweeting to each other! 

I made myself write something every day, something that will help me to jog my brain into gear with my other writing, though teaching preparation is likely to interrupt. 

Yes, a fascinating experience! 

I chose this year's topic for the same reason as last year: I did a book about it. The book, Your Cat Could Be A Spyy(North American title This Book Is Bugged) was published in 2006 by Allen and Unwin, then Annick Press(North America). It's a children's book which sold out but due to most copies being sold by Scholastic Book Club, which is totally necessary but pays very little to the author, I have never made any royalties out of it. It's officially out of print, but you can still get it on line or ask your bookshop to order it, as it's gone to Print On Demand. If you enjoyed reading my posts, please consider buying the book. It's gorgeously illustrated by the amazing Mitch Vane. 

Ah! The oven has gone "ting!" Got to go. Feel free to drop in and read my book posts(thus us actually a book blog.)


Z Is For... Agent Zigzag: A To Z Challenge 2017


Public domain.He looks like Errol Flynn! 
His actual name was Eddie Chapman. During World War II he became a spy and not, originally, for his own side. MI5 called him Zigzag.

Like some other spies I have written about in this challenge, Eddie was a petty crook and con artist before he became a spy - and, in his case, afterwards! 

If you want to know the full details of his criminal career, I'll give you a link to the Wikipedia article. It's enough to say that he was in the Channel Islands, hiding out from a mainland sentence, when the Germans invaded. He had been jailed on the island of Jersey for a smaller crime than the one he was in trouble for on the mainland. While in jail, he was recruited by the Nazis and taken to France for training. The plan was to parachute him into England so he could sabotage the Havilland aircraft factory, but he dropped down a distance from the place and was caught. The British needed spies too, and instead of imprisonment he was recruited as a double agent. 

They had to pretend his mission had been a success, of course, and damage was faked. According to Wikipedia the illusion of damage was created by stage magician Jasper Maskelyne. I wrote about him in my book Your Cat Could Be A Spy, but in recent years his achievements have been questioned, so I don't know how accurate that is. Still, it sounds good, and the Germans took photos, so something was certainly done to make it look convincing, and why not by Jasper Maskelyne?

Next, MI5 gave him a cover story for when his Nazi masters questioned him and made him practise his interrogation techniques. Unfortunately, the Germans refused to come and pick him up. He was told to make his own way back via Lisbon in Portugal. He did that, with MI5 support, contacting the German embassy, and to convince them he was on their side, suggested letting him plant a bomb on the English ship that had brought him. Of course, it didn't explode, but there was a pretend inspection of the ship when it got back, with the fake information being given to the Nazis.

After this, he was sent to teach at a Nazi spy school in Sweden, with a spy "handler", Baron Stephan Von Groning.

Talk about putting Dracula in charge of the blood bank... Even more interestingly, he was actually awarded a medal for his work as a Nazi spy! 

Eddie was charming. People liked him, including his Abwehr handler, who stayed friends after the war  and came to his daughter's wedding years later, even knowing what he had done! He had two fiancées during the war, though he ditched them both when the time came and returned to his original fiancée, Betty Farmer. 

In 1944, he was sent back to England to report on the effectiveness of the German bombings of London, and told them it was going well, though it wasn't as successful as they thought, so they kept bombing the wrong spots and not as much damage was done as might have been. 

Of course, Eddie was still Eddie and went back to his life of crime in wartime England. MI5 had to dismiss him, though he was paid out quite well. 

He and his wife set up a health farm. He must have done very well because they also owned a castle in Ireland. He lived till 1997. 

A memoir he wrote about his wartime experiences was scrapped for a long time because of the Official Secrets Act, but a film, Triple Cross, was made, starring Christopher Plummer as Eddie Chapman. It would be fun to see a new version made now, when it doesn't matter any more. Who could play the role, do you think? 

Here's my final post for this challenge - hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it, and thank you to those of you who commented! Do stop by again when I'm blogging about books! 

Friday, April 28, 2017

Y Is For Dr Yes and Other Oriental Get Smart Characters: A To Z Challenge 2017


There are four Oriental characters in spy comedy Get Smart and none of them are played by actual Asians. There is The Claw("not Craw, Craw!"), played twice by Leonard Strong, who also appears as a Chinese tailor in fourth season episode "The Laser Blazer". Joey Foreman is Harry Hoo, who appears in two episodes(and he also played the role of a CONTROL lawyer(not Asian)in "The Little Black Book." And there's Dr Yes, the title character in the episode of that name, played by Donald Davis. See? Not a single Asian in the lot.

It was fairly common at the time to have Europeans as Asian characters, just as white actors were playing Othello. Not that Asians never played Asian roles; most of the cast of the Flower Drum Song film were Asian, for example, though more Japanese than Chinese actors took part in that very Chinese-themed musical. But "yellow face" was common.

Two of the Get Smart Asians were villains, two were good guys. But the villains were humorous anyway.

The Claw, head of the Oriental branch of KAOS, called this because he has a huge metal claw for a hand, first appeared in the second episode of the series, "The Diplomat's Daughter" in which Max and 99 have to look after a Scandinavian princess in Washington. Blonde girls have been getting kidnapped from outside the hotel where she is staying. It's fairly obvious that KAOS is after her, but when asked why he has been kidnapping the other girls the Claw says almost apologetically that they all looked the same to him, a clear joke about how many Europeans say this about Asians.

The Claw has the stereotyped accent which doesn't let him say "l" so when Max calls him "Mr Craw"  he snaps, "Not the Craw, the Craw!"

He appears again in "The Amazing Harry Hoo" which also introduces the title character, who will appear in two episodes". In this one, KAOS is using a Chinese laundry as a front. It's the episode in which Max says, " a kumquat." When 99 prompts, "Yes?" he says, "Life isn't a kumquat?"

Harry Hoo is a send-up of Charlie Chan, who had several movies in the 1930s and 40s(also played by a non-Asian, Warner Toland). He is a Hawaiian detective working for the San Francisco police department. Interestingly, when we first meet him, the police with whom he works seem to respect him. Maybe it's working with Max that makes him comical? He always wears white suits(except in summer, as he tells Max), Charlie Chan style. He has his own words."Amazing!" is usually said after Max has said something particularly dumb. "Moment, please!" and "Two possibilities," are other Hoo-isms. 

Swedish Warner Toland as Charlie Chan. Amazing! Public domain.

His second episode is "Hoo Done It," an Agatha Christie spoof. 

Harry Hoo is the most developed of the Oriental characters. But Lin Chan, the Hong Kong tailor/inventor of "The Laser Blazer" comes close. In just one scene, he tells us a lot about himself. First he is discussing his gadget quite sensibly and intelligently with the Chief of CONTROL(who, for some reason, is in Oriental disguise.). Then Max enters and drives him crazy with questions about what he thinks is just a jacket - Lin Chan can't explain, because there's a KAOS agent in the shop. Max later tells 99 that when he returned to the shop next day, Lin Chan had been taken away(to a mental hospital). 

When you think about it, though, there is a cliche even about this Asian version of Q. He is one of those Hong Kong tailors who make up suits speedily for you. 

Dr Yes is a spoof of Dr No. The James Bond movies were just starting at the time, with Sean Connery in the role. The title character, a KAOS agent, has a base under a lake, from which he has been interfering with missiles. He is a Fu Manchu figure in Chinese robes, and he has long nails, one of which is poisoned. He is surrounded by minions who,say, "Yes!" in their own languages. "Oui!" "Ja!" "Da!" Max fights him with scissors, cutting all but the poisoned nail. Attacked by an artificial mosquito, he scratches...

Given that this is a Mel Brooks creation, it's possible to think that the stereotypes are send ups in their own right rather than just stereotypes. The Asian characters are no more ridiculous than any of the others, certainly no worse than Max himself. 

It would just have been nice if they had been played by Asians. 

Thursday, April 27, 2017

X Is For... eXtras: A To Z Challenge 2017


Okay, it's a bit dubious, but if there is any spy-related thing beginning with X I haven't found it. I've done pretty well so far, so please forgive me for cheating a little!

So, in this post, I'm doing a few more "Did You know?" snippets, things that didn't make it into the posts themselves. 

Spies in the Bible! 

Well, the one we all know is the story of Joshua's spies who sneaked into Canaan ahead of his armies. The Israelistes had been out in the desert for a long time. The first lot of spies came back with a report saying it was full of "giants" and no, Joshua sir, not a good idea to go. The second lot came back with that famous line about "a land flowing with milk and honey" and some fruit to prove it. There's an Israeli wine with a logo showing two men carrying a huge bunch of grapes between them like a souvenir of the hunt. 

In Jericho, there was a woman called Rahab, who hid the Israelite spies from the watch, then asked for her family to be spared when the Israelites arrived. They agreed and, in fact, she got to marry Joshua, though I don't imagine anyone quite trusted her again. 

There are plenty more stories, especially from the time of David, but we'll move on. 

Bestselling Spies

In an earlier post, I mentioned Aphra Behn, the spy who started writing plays and books when she got home because she was broke, not having been paid, and turned out to be a huge bestseller. I also mentioned the inspiration Ian Fleming got from real-life spy Dusko Popov.

They were not the only ones. Recently, we've read that Ernest Hemingway was a not-too-successful spy for the KGB; he should have stuck to his writing. 

Have you ever read Robinson Crusoe? The author, Daniel Defoe, was known as the Father of the British Secret Service. His spying was mostly to do with the Union of England and Scotland, against the Jacobites. He was in trouble several times, over the Monmouth Rebellion, in which he picked the wrong side, over debt and then over a satirical pamphłet, but eventually he put forward a proposal for a secret service, which he would run, and he travelled England as a merchant called Alexander Goldsmith. Really, he deserves a post to himself, but he isn't getting one this time. 

Christopher Marlowe, an Elizabethan playwright, was almost certainly one of Francis Walsingham's agents, but after Walsingham died, so did he, supposedly over the bill in an "ordinary", a sort of pub run out of a house. The theory is that he knew things that he shouldn't. In any case, his killer, one Ingram Frizer, was never punished for it.

Some (More) Civil War Spies

"Crazy Bet" Van Lew was a Quaker in the South during the American Civil War. She lived in Richmond, Viginia. Her sympathies were with the North. She pretended to be mad and asked one of her freed slaves, Mary Bowser, to work at the Southern White House, for President Jeff Davis, and listen in. A network of couriers took her information North, coded or in invisible ink. Mary Bowser got the information to her in hollow eggs. 

As we know, the North won the war, but Crazy Bet was not a winner. She was considered a traitor and made the mistake of staying in Richmond. Not a good idea. 

Belle Boyd spied for the South. She got away with it because nobody thought a woman would do that sort of thing. They kept releasing her. An event in her life, when she shot a Northern soldier who tried breaking into her mother's home inspired a scene in Gone With The Wind. She ended up marrying a Northern soldier she met when her ship to Europe was captured and settling in England with him. Unfortunately he died only a year later. She made her living telling her story. 

Hope you enjoyed these bits and pieces! All except Hemingway and the Biblical spies appeared in my book Your Cat Could Be A Spy

The pictures of Daniel Defoe and Belle Boyd are both public domain. 

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

W Is For...Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth I's Spymaster! A To Z Challenge 2017


She drove him crazy, constantly changing her mind. At one point, she banished him from court for several months. But Sir Francis Walsingham  was a good and loyal civil servant and without him, Elizabeth I stood a much greater chance of being assassinated or losing her throne.

Let's face it, Elizabeth had plenty of enemies, as did the rest of her family, ever since her grandfather Henry VII grabbed the throne off Richard III. There were all those young men in Henry's reign popping up claiming to be his wife's brothers and therefore the rightful heirs to the throne. There were real relatives of the York family who might be a threat(his son Henry VIII got rid of the last of those).

And then the Tudors started marrying off daughters. And THEY had children with Tudor blood who were, maybe, entitled to inherit, and why bother waiting to inherit, especially when That Woman currently on the throne wasn't even a Catholic? It didn't help, in this respect, that she hadn't married and produced her own heir.

And the biggest of her enemies, apart from her brother-in-law, Phillip of Spain, was Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary was Elizabeth's cousin, through her grandmother, Margaret Tudor(who remarried after her first husband's death and produced another potential heir...), and not only that, but she had married and produced an heir. Who, by the way, did end up becoming King of England, but that was later. Mary hadn't been capable of running her own country, let alone Elizabeth's, which was why she ended up in England, with plots going on all around her. Elizabeth didn't know what to do with her. Well, she did, but she didn't think it was a good idea, for quite some years. And then she hated doing it. 

Elizabeth needed her faithful spymaster to find out who was plotting what and deal with it. And boy, was there a lot of plotting going on! Elizabethan England was a golden age of spying. Francis Walsingham was the right man to be running it. 

Francis was born in 1532, the son of a lawyer, and became one himself. When Elizabeth's sister Mary came to the throne, he fled the country; it was not a good time to be a staunch Protestant in England. He didn't waste his time overseas, studying local law in Italy. 

Returning in 1558 after Elizabeth became Queen, when it was safe, he was elected to Parliament. By 1568, he had started working for her Principal Secretary William Cecil, doing a little spying among French and Italians living in London, gathering information about plots by Spain and France to kick Elizabeth off the throne and replace her with Mary Queen of Scots. 

Later, he became Ambassador to France, where he was during the Bartholomew's Day Massacre of Protestants. That happened in 1572, and he had a lot of sorting out to do. 

Returning to England the next year, he got a job on the Privy Council. His career as a spymaster took off. 

Francis organised a huge intelligence network. He used double agents. In fact, when Mary Queen of Scots was under house arrest in England, he didn't just unearth the plots around her, he had his double agents fool her agents into using communications methods they had supplied! "Here's a nice beer barrel we can use to smuggle messages in..." 

He had his own experts who developed and used codes. Through other experts, he had ways of opening sealed documents without the people they were sent to suspecting they had ever been opened. I can't help wondering if he, like Eugene Francois Vidocq, might not have employed criminals... He certainly used them in prisons. He had spies in countries outside England, even in North Africa! And he used statistics, economics, methods of government, to help him in his work. It makes sense. If you hear a country you don't trust is having economic difficulties, for example, it's worth keeping an eye on them. 

Thanks to Francis and his work, an invasion of England by Spanish and French troops in favour of Mary was avoided in 1583. He had a spy in the French Embassy, who warned him in time to arrest the head conspirator and seize maps and plans that told their own story. 

And then there was the (Anthony) Babington plot, only three years later, when Francis's double agents managed finally to get proof that Mary was a part of those plots against her cousin, through those beer barrels, and she was executed. Francis could breathe again.

But his work wasn't done. In 1587 he made sure the Spanish didn't catch on that Francis Drake was about to raid their harbour at Cadiz - and when he knew through his network that the Spanish had their own plans for invading England, he made sure they were fed fake information through the English Ambassador in Paris, whom he was pretty sure was in their pay. (Clifford Stoll would like that!). This reduced the Spanish Armada's chances when they set off to invade England. There were other factors, of course, but even Francis Walsingham couldn't control the weather. He just gave the English a fighting chance.

When he died in 1590, Elizabeth had lost a major asset. I hope she realised it. 

My main source for this post was Britannica On Line. Both illustrations are public domain.

Just Read...Pale Guardian by Barbara Hambly. Severn House 2016

This is not a formal review, just my thoughts. 

The Great War is raging in Europe. The battlegrounds of France are looking like the land of Mordor(not surprising - that's where Tolkien got the idea). Young men from England, France and Germany are dying all over the place. For the vampires of Europe, it's like all their Christmases have come at once. Yum! All that food and nobody will even ask questions when you turn up in an ambulance.

But there are worse things than vampires, as Lydia Asher, the doctor wife of James Asher, university academic and former spy for the Queen, discovers. At least vampires just kill you. In this universe, you have to want to be turned. If not, you're just dead. Fini! 

Lydia has volunteered her services as a nurse. Her husband is home, recovering from his latest bout of pneumonia and looking after their small daughter. There are strange, scary things wandering the night, tearing dying soldiers to bits - even the vampires are spooked by them. Things Lydia last saw in China a couple of books ago. And James has seen one in London, but it's worse than not being believed by administration. Admin knows about them all too well...

I've been reading this series from the beginning. This is the seventh. I'm not usually a fan of series books, but Barbara Hambly seems able to keep up the quality. Whenever I spot one of these or, even better, Benjamin January historical crime fiction, on the library shelves, I pounce with cries of glee. I have yet to be disappointed by any of them. 

She doesn't just write vampire books. She thinks about the consequences. There are the basic ones, such as... However sexy a male vamp might be - and the Ashers' vampire friend Don Simon Ysidro, a sixteenth century Spanish nobleman, is incredible sexy! - he can't actually take you into his manly arms and make mad passionate physical love to you. He just can't! No blood circulation, you see. This would no doubt disappoint the average teenage girl, who is used to YA vampire fiction, but it makes sense. And I cried,"At last! Someone said it!" 

Simon himself admits you have to be very, very selfish to want to become a vamp, but as the Ashers' friend, he is loyal and brave and looks after Lydia, always. The Ashers both feel guilty about hanging out with a mass murderer, but he just keeps coming through for them. Well, mostly for Lydia. But still. In the second novel in the series, Travelling With The Dead, Simon accompanies her to Turkey in search of her missing husband, but he is a Renaissance era gentleman. A lady does not travel alone and she doesn't travel with just a male companion other than her husband. He uses his vampire powers to persuade a woman to come as a companion. When Lydia refuses to travel with him unless he promises not to feed along the way, he agrees - and keeps his word. It's not good for him, but he does it because he's a gentleman - and cares about Lydia. 

I adore all the regular characters in this series, but minor characters are also well drawn. Simon, posing as a British Colonel, shamelessly uses his vamp powers to persuade a young officer that they are on a top secret government mission, and act as his driver and daytime organiser. Young Palfrey is such a nice lad, but Simon points out to Lydia that he's going to do a lot less damage as his aide than he would if put in charge of some poor soldiers. 

There are some truly scary villains in this, at least two of whom think they're doing their evil for the Homeland. 

At the same time, most of the vampires are decent enough, if you can get over the fact of how they stay alive. They do ordinary things like gossip about each other and play cards in between raids. At least, Lydia can work with them and James can get information, since they know one. 

And the author shows sympathy even for the poor shambling creatures that were once humans, though you really wouldn't want to get within reach of one, especially if you survive!  

You really need to have read at least the first couple of books to get an idea of who the characters are and what their motivations are, but it's a great series, so why not read the lot?