Down These Strange Streets

29 Sep

The book “Down These Strange Streets” (edited by George R. R. Martin) is touted as “urban fantasy” which is something I will take issue with.  Several of the stories are by prominent writers of historical fiction and the stories are to me, historical mysteries NOT urban fantasy.

For it to be urban fantasy the stories all need to have the frisson of the unexplained – ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties, and things that go bump in the night.

A number of stories fit that category, the vampires in Charlaine Harris’ story “Death by Dahlia” for example.  And S. M. Stirling’s creepy story “Pain and Suffering”.  But my favourite stories were, in actuality, straight out historical mystery fiction.  I have seen all the authors in mystery anthologies many times before.  Not to mention having read their full length novels.

Steven Saylor’s Gordianus the Finder as a young man solving a murder in the ancient city of Babylon in the story “Styx and Stones”.  A nice story that is more “Hounds of the Baskervilles” in its outcome than “Dracula”.

Diana Gabaldon’s wonderful Lord John Grey is out and about in Jamaica in “Lord John and the Plague of Zombies”.  The title explains the story.  Never mind Outlander, Diana needs to give us more Lord John.

But the story that delighted me the most was John Maddox Roberts’ story “Beware the Snake” using his delightful creation Decius Caecilius from the SPQR mystery series.  This story, whilst having a wonderful mystery involving a stolen sacred snake, (no ghosts, no vampires, no werewolves and no bloody zombies) had some of the funniest laugh out loud moments of any story I have read in ages.  Quote:

“The Claudians,” I observed, “are a family of insane hereditary criminals.”

“Look out!” Julia cried.  “He has a snake!  And he’ll use it!”

Pretty much sums up the book, really.

A good selection of stories, but if you go into expecting urban fantasy you will be disappointed.  The creep factor is quite low on the ground and the mystery/crime factor is quite high.  But if you enjoy well written short stories, regardless of genre, you will enjoy this book.

The Wit and Wisdom of Boris Johnson

16 Sep

I am always a little wary of books bearing the title “The Wit and Wisdom of (insert celebrity of choice here)”.  The majority of the time the person in question has very little wit and even less wisdom.  The book is usually little more than an excruciatingly painful (for the reader) way to cash in on the pseudo-celebrity’s current popularity.

“The Wit and Wisdom of Boris Johnson” is pretty much the exception.

For those that don’t know, Boris was an English journalist and politician who is now Mayor of London.  He hadn’t blipped on my radar until he visited Melbourne, Australia last year.  Suddenly this man was in our televisions and in our newspapers.  He came across as someone with immense personality and character.

As this book by Harry Mount shows, Boris certainly has both by the bucket loads.

Boris has a very polarizing personality.  You are either going to like him or hate him, so this book may not be for you.  He is no respecter of that hirsute behemoth ‘political correctness’.

Some examples of his quotations to help you make up your mind:

“All politicians in the end are like crazed wasps in a jam jar, each individually convinced that they are going to make it.”

“As Henry VIII discovered with at least two of his wives, this is the perfect place to bring an old flame.” – on the arrival of the Olympic flame at the Tower of London.

“More than anything I can remember, the Games have moved us and brought us together.  Total strangers have been talking to each other on the Tube. It is as though the city has been crop-dusted with serotonin.” – on the 2012 Olympics.

“In the words of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, my life is like the giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared.” – on the subject of a biography of himself.

Love him or hate him, Boris certainly has a lot of interesting things to say.

Christmas Cakes in September…and Memories of Cakes Past

14 Sep

I went into the Coles supermarket at the Victoria Gardens mall here in Melbourne on Saturday and got a nasty shock whilst traversing the bakery department.  There, sitting quietly in their own display bin were Christmas cakes.  Not simply plain fruit cakes such as are available all year.  Oh no, these were iced up all pretty with the words “Merry Christmas” endorsed across the top.

I scampered quickly through the department, my mind reeling in horror.  It’s only the second week in bloody September!  How can they justify placing Christmas cakes on sale now?  I consoled myself with the thought that, maybe, just maybe, it was an isolated incident.

I. Was. Wrong.

Yesterday I went into the local Woolworths supermarket, again having to journey through their bakery department to get to my destination.  To my incredulous horror Woolworths was even worse than Coles.  I couldn’t see Christmas cakes BUT there were Christmas puddings stacked in festive little piles,   And mince pies.  Including imported English mince pies, just to give the whole affair an international flavour.

And those bloody ubiquitous rum balls.  God knows why supermarkets seem to associate rum balls purely with Christmas.  Just about every woman in my family has their own personal variation on rum balls which are produced at every family get together.  The rum levels vary from “Are you sure there’s actual rum in this?” to “Jesus! Did you drown these in a bloody distillery?”  My mother’s were at the distillery end of the spectrum.  Between the balls and mum’s boiled fruitcake, the local bottle shop tended to run out of rum before December 24th.  Most of it was in mum’s baked goods.  Never mind “peace and goodwill”, when my mother distributed her festive fare to the neighbours the usual result was “pissed and insensible”.

My father, bless him, was not a heavy drinker.  The occasional beer after a hard day’s work, and a whisky on special occasions.  Two slices of my mum’s Christmas cake tended to leave him sleeping on the couch for most of Christmas Day!  Friend’s were wise.  When they came to have a drink and nibbles with us on Christmas morning, they would carefully take a piece of cake home with them.  Eating it before driving could result in the loss of your driver’s license if the cops caught you.  My mother’s cake should have come with an official police warning.

Not that mum could see that her cake was borderline lethal.  She didn’t drink, apart from the occasional glass of sherry, and rarely did more than nibble at a tiny piece of her cake, so she never got the full belt of it.  One of my enduring memories of her cake preparations is the finished cake sitting in its tin, whilst mum stabbed it viciously with a knitting needle, then poured rum down the holes!  This was done several times in the run up to Christmas Day.  When you lifted the lid of the tin the escaping vapours were enough to get you completely shickered.

I learned young to avoid her cake  After getting comprehensively sloshed on a slice of it at age six.  I still view any fruit cake as being intrinsically evil and not to be trusted.

The same way I view anyone trying to sell me Christmas goodies three months before Christmas.

Books for Children in Chuuk, Micronesia

27 Aug

A post was shared in a book group on Facebook that I belong to, that I would like to share with you:

“Hello lovely people. I’m about to beg, please don’t change the channel.

The school that I’m working at doesn’t have any reading books. The children in my class, when asked what they want to do after school have all said they want to read books.

If anyone has one old book suitable for ages 10-14 and a spare fiver in their pocket to post it, it would make some very happy kids. And one overjoyed Mr Roger.

The address is
Roger Wotherspoon
c/o Worldteach
PO Box 42
Weno
Chuuk
96942
Federated States of Micronesia.

I can’t give you anything for your generosity, apart from thanks and the warm gooey feeling in your chest, and my gratitude. Maybe a picture of one of my kids reading your book.

Spread the word the next big charity will be ‘Books for Chuuk.’ “

It is really terrible to me, a woman who grew up with a massive love for the written word, that there are children out there who want to read, but have nothing to read. 

This weekend, I intend visiting local opportunity shops in my area to see what I can find to send to them.  Many of my blog posts are of book reviews, so I know that you, my lovely readers, are also big fans of books too.  If you have just one book you could send Roger, I know he would be grateful.  There is no greater pleasure than being able to put a smile of joy on a child’s face.

Voices in My Ear

19 Aug

I came online this morning to the news that Benedict Cumberbatch will be voicing Shere Khan in Andy Serkis’ adaptation of “The Jungle Book” for Warner Bros.

To say I was overwhelmed was putting it mildly.  “The Jungle Book” was amongst the first movies my mother ever took me to see.  I was fascinated by the dark velvet tones of George Sanders’ voice as Shere Khan.  It left me with a life long love of deep male voices, and a fascination with vocal acting.

It also left me with a preference for animated movies over live action.  With live action, quite often the actors can be chosen for their looks.  In animated films their voices damn well need to be up to the task.

“The Jungle Book” still remains my favourite.  The rich tones of George Sanders, the slight softer, but still rich voice of Sebastian Cabot.  The vultures with their Liverpudlian accents.  Phil Harris’ lively, but laid back tones as Baloo.

My second favourite is “Robin Hood”.  Phil Harris giving voice this time to Little John.  But the really outstanding vocal talents in that movie are Peter Ustinov as Prince John and Terry Thomas as his sidekick Sir Hiss. 

To my way of thinking, voicing an animated movie, or doing a radio play, is the true test of an actor’s talent.  No-one can see your face, so your voice has to do the work for you on so many levels.

The same goes for audio books.  Almost the worst mistake that can be made is for an author to read their own work.  A fantastic book can be reduced to the most appallingly dull drone.  Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, and Sir Derek Jacobi are all brilliant readers of audio books.  Each of them have voices with layers of tone and richness which makes them an aural treat like no other.  I don’t know if Roger Allam has ever done audio books, but he needs too.  His Douglas Richardson in the BBC radio show “Cabin Pressure” is one of the highlights of the show.

In animated movies, radio plays, and audio books the actor’s voice should flow softly into your ear like warm honey.  Swirl around your mind and settle in to your memory.  George Sanders did that to me over 40 years ago.  I am hoping that Benedict Cumberbatch’s Shere Khan will do the same.

Eleven Doctors, Eleven Stories

17 Aug

“Eleven Doctors, Eleven Stories” originally started life as eleven separate ebook novellas, which were, thankfully, gathered together into one paperback volume.  The book is yet another souvenir for the 50th Anniversary of Doctor Who in 2013.

“Eleven Doctors, Eleven Stories” is a real treat for Doctor Who fans.  As it says on the cover there are eleven stories, one for each incarnation of the Doctor.

Being an anthology, the quality is a little up and down.  There are three that I enjoyed more than the others.

‘The Third Doctor: The Spear of Destiny’, by Marcus Sedwick, sees the third Doctor and Jo Grant heading back to the proto-Norse period for an encounter with Odin and others.

‘The Eighth Doctor: Spore’, by Alex Scarrow is set in a small town in Nevada in the USA.  The Doctor swinging his UNIT credentials around and acquiring a temporary companion.

But my favourite, the one on which my total enjoyment of the book pivots, is ‘The Tenth Doctor: The Mystery of the Haunted Cottage’, by Derek Landy.  The Doctor and Martha come across an alien who has created a world from the imaginations of others, mostly drawing on books they have read.  When the alien battens onto Martha’s reading memories, the story turns hysterically funny.

There is something in “Eleven Doctors, Eleven Stories” for every Doctor Who fan, and if you’re going to buy a few books as mementos of the anniversary, you could do a lot worse than buying this one.

Hamlet is a Sell Out

11 Aug

Okay, I expected Shakespeare’s Hamlet starring Benedict Cumberbatch to sell well.  I DID NOT expect it to sell out.

20,000+ people were in the queue at one point.  That was when I knew that the Barbican had a situation without precedence on their hands.

A few of Benedict’s fans have been saying that everyone should have known it would sell out.  I don’t agree.

Firstly, the tickets went on sale twelve months in advance for what is a three month run in one of London’s largest theatres.  There is no way in hell that any sort of sales projection could come up with a complete sell out of all public tickets within a matter of hours.

Think about it.  All tickets (membership AND public) were gone by the first day of public sales for an old, undoubtedly a classic, play that isn’t being staged for another TWELVE MONTHS.

You’d have to be bloody Nostradamus to see that coming!

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