Lost Austens; or, Beyond Pride and Prejudice

Cover of Lady Susan; The Watsons; SanditonNo, I’m not talking about Pride and Prejudice and Kittens. Jane Austen’s novels are justifiably well known, but her shorter works are equally amusing. If you’ve seen the film Love and Friendship then you may be aware that it’s based on a short epistolary novel entitled Lady Susan. I highly recommend seeking it out. It’s often bundled together with unfinished works The Watsons and Sanditon.

Some of my favourites, however, are the ridiculously silly short stories composed when she was a teenager. They run the gamut from murder:

I murdered my father at a very early period of my Life, I have since murdered my Mother, and I am now going to murder my Sister.

Suicide:

Cover of Love and Freindship and other storiesIt was not till the next morning that Charlotte recollected the double engagement she had entered into; but when she did, the reflection of her past folly, operated so strongly on her mind, that she resolved to be guilty of a greater, & to that end threw herself into a deep stream which ran thro’ her Aunt’s pleasure Grounds in Portland Place. She floated to Crankhumdunberry where she was picked up & buried; the following epitaph, composed by Frederic, Elfrida & Rebecca, was placed on her tomb.

EPITAPH
Here lies our friend who having promis-ed
That unto two she would be marri-ed
Threw her sweet Body & her lovely face
Into the Stream that runs thro’ Portland Place.

Hooliganism:

Cover of The Beautifull CassandraThe beautifull Cassandra then proceeded to a Pastry-cooks where she devoured six ices, refused to pay for them, knocked down the Pastry Cook & walked away.

Gold diggers:

“Oh! when there is so much Love on one side there is no occasion for it on the other. However I do not much dislike him tho’ he is very plain to be sure.”

And, of, course, cannibalism:

She began to find herself rather hungry, & had reason to think, by their biting off two of her fingers, that her Children were much in the same situation.

I also highly recommend Austen’s History of England, by “a partial, prejudiced, & ignorant Historian”. Really any Austen will do, just read the lot and tell me what you think.

Further reading

 

The tale of a murderous governess

Cover of Jane Steele: A confessionIf you loved the Brontë classic Jane Eyre but always wished Jane had been a bit more… murderous then Lyndsay Faye’s novel, Jane Steele: A confession may be just your glass of arsenic-laden brandy.

The novel follows another unfortunate 19th century orphan girl looking for her place in the world, but she’s a good deal “spunkier” and prone to violence than Miss Eyre. In fact, she’s rather more modern than Jane Eyre in a number of ways (sex, swearing, self-defense etc.)

Jane Steele’s life is a mirror to Eyre’s in many ways from attendance at an abominable boarding school to securing a place as governess in a home that harbours secrets. Although the deaths are always justified after a fashion, the bodies do start to pile up and a worryingly perceptive policeman may just be onto her.

Author Lyndsay Faye is a fan of Charlotte Brontë’s novel and in the historical afterword reveals that it was the author’s scathing rebuff to her critics in the preface to the second edition of Jane Eyre that partly inspired her to write the novel, in particular the quote, “Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion”.

And so she’s succeeded in creating an unconventional heroine imbued with more than a little “self-wrongedness”. Jane (Steele, that is), doubts herself, her worth and her goodness constantly but loves fiercely and loyally… much like that other Jane.

There’s a good deal of mystery in the story from Jane’s mystery inheritance to the traumatic past of her young charge and the plot gallops along like a runaway horse making it a fairly riveting page-turner, and… Reader, I devoured it.

So if ladies in corsets (who also carry knives in their skirts) sounds your thing then I’d highly recommend Jane Steele for your next wet weekend.

Further reading

Mothers and daughters

Fierce AttachmentsIt’s a long time since I have read a happy Mothers and Daughters book. Honestly, decades. How can this be? Most of the mothers I know have great relationships with their daughters. Yet current fiction does not support this view, and I have the books to prove it:

Let’s start with Vivian Gornick’s biographical account of life with her mother – Fierce Attachments. Well, the title says it all really. Two lippy women living in the Bronx without the balancing household presence of any y chromosomes. The daughter: sharp-tongued and sexually adventurous, the mother: conservative and grieving the loss of her husband. Their best moments come when they walk the streets of their beloved New York.

Hot MilkMoving right on to Hot Milk by Deborah Levy, where things become that bit more curdled. Take one controlling, difficult-to-please mother, add a “finding herself” daughter and a dodgy medical practice. Transport them all to foreign soil, leave to simmer in the heat, stir occasionally – then prepare to dodge the fallout. Deborah Levy was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2016 for this very readable novel.

My name is Lucy BartonMy Name is Lucy Barton also has ill health as a trigger point for a dysfunctional mother/daughter relationship. It’s a small novel, set almost entirely in a New York hospital room, in which Lucy and her mother attempt to nut out their history. This book made me the most sad, because the real culprit in their story was poverty and its effect on families. It also makes one aware that sometimes, even when great efforts are being made, things do not always work out. In fact Elizabeth Strout is something of a specialist on the theme of strained mothers and daughters. Her highly acclaimed first novel Amy and Isabelle also tackles this topic.

A family is a tyranny ruled over by its weakest member

said George Bernard Shaw. This may well be true, but I won’t know for sure until I have reacquainted myself with some good strong Happy Families books. Does such a thing even exist?

Review: When Dimple Met Rishi

I read this book at the perfect time: at the end of a particularly trying week, on the first day of a particularly nasty bug.

Reading something comforting in bed with a hot water bottle was the only activity I could bear, and luckily When Dimple Met Rishi delivered in spades. A lot of the books I usually read feature unexpected (or expected) character deaths, or stressful situations, or characters coping with losing a parent (this particular trope keeps popping up unexpectedly since losing a parent myself last year, and I’m not a fan! Publishers, take note). When Dimple Met Rishi is the antidote to all that — cute and sweet, but with enough depth to not be irritating. Perfect cosy winter reading.

Cover When Dimple met Rishi

Dimple Shah is almost running out the door in her eagerness to get away from her overbearing, traditional-minded mother (who wants her to find the Ideal Indian Husband) and to start studying to become a web developer. To her surprise, her parents agree to pay for the summer program for aspiring web programmers she’s been eyeing up for years.

Rishi Patel is a romantic who wants to find what his parents have achieved — a fairytale but practical marriage. When his parents tell him they’ve arranged for him to meet their friends’ daughter at Insomnia Con, he leaps at the opportunity — maybe a bit too hard, because Dimple is anything but thrilled to meet him. In fact, she didn’t even know he existed.

There are quite a few tropes playing out here, but I like them all so they get a pass. Dimple and Rishi are both engaging characters who make some stupid mistakes, and best of all they realise they do actually like each other quite quickly rather than the author coming up with flimsy misunderstandings in order to string the suspense along. Instead the conflict is through them figuring themselves out, what they want to do with their lives and careers, balancing cultural tradition/family with an American upbringing, and deciding whether being in a relationship is compatible with university study. Some of which I’m still figuring out myself, so maybe I need to a summer conference. The romance is pretty cute, and Dimple is usually quite good at pointing out when Rishi is being too smug.

I would have liked a bit more development of Dimple’s room-mate, Celia, as she is poorly served by both some of her friends and by the narrative. And some more detail on the app-building and the program would have been interesting to me. But given that it’s a book entitled When Dimple Met Rishi, I can’t complain too much if it’s all about them.

If you’re a fan of funny contemporary teen romance with geekery and Bollywood dancing, then get thee to a library and pick this one up. If you’ve already read it, have a look at:

Review copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

When Dimple Met Rishi
by Sandhya Menon
Published by Hachette New Zealand
ISBN: 9781473667402

Cover to The Geek's Guide to UnrequitedCover of To All the Boys I've Loved BeforeCover of Looking for AlibrandiCover of Fangirl

Reading brown: Pacific stories and voices

A little while ago I saw Kiwi author Paula Morris ask on Twitter “Why aren’t you reading brown?”

Which prompted me to feel a bit guilty about how few Māori and Pacific New Zealand authors I read… and then I pretty much forgot about it because life is too short to feel guilty about the books you haven’t read. As a librarian I’m exposed to a constant stream of new and interesting looking titles and (spoiler alert) I read hardly any of them.

But, for a couple of reasons the notion that I should expand my reading into more Polynesian fare stuck.

The main one being that I had a one week holiday coming up during which I could get in some solid novel-reading. The second being that the holiday in question was in Rarotonga (of the aforementioned Polynesia). And thirdly, because I had a couple of titles on my For Later Shelf that were available in time to take the trip with me (sometimes the Atua* of the Holds Lists smiles upon thee).

Cover of Stories on the four winds: Ngā hau e whāMy first holiday read was not a novel at all but a collection of short stories. I always think with short stories that they are less of a commitment than a whole novel. Something that you can move easily on from should it not be to your taste. However Stories on the four winds: Ngā hau e whā was by far the more emotionally gripping and in places gruelling of the two books. In the space of relatively few pages I was drawn into murders, deaths and losses as well as tales of joy, love and connection. I started blubbing before the plane had even landed.

Writers, with their writerly tricks can surprise you, and indeed this was the brief for all the stories in the book (from a variety of well-known and perhaps less well-known Māori and Pasifika writers) – to surprise the reader. So every story has a twist or takes you somewhere you don’t expect. Even though the stories are short, they pack a punch and I found with some of them that I had to take a break between them, to get my bearings again. Standouts for me were the contributions from Albert Wendt, Alice Tawhai, Ann French, Jacqui McRae, K-t Harrison, and Reneé.

Cover of How to party with an infantMy second book was a novel and after the emotional rollercoaster of Stories on the four winds it was a nice change of speed. How to party with an infant by Kaui Hart Hemmings was perfect holiday fare. Hemmings is not a New Zealand writer but she is Hawaiian and I very much enjoyed the film of her first novel, The Descendants. I have so far neglected to read the source novel (more book-related guilt) but thought that this story of a single mother raising a small child in San Francisco would suit me.

It certainly did. The book has a sly sense of humour and uses the mechanism of the protagonist, Mele, listening to and writing the stories her parents’ group friends tell her. There are some really great characters in there, full of anxieties and insecurities – worrying about measuring up to other parents, fitting in, being good enough. As well there’s a bit of light romance of a very grown-up kind because everyone in this book has kids. I liked this book for its knowing jabs at the “Mummy Wars” aspects of parenting whilst celebrating the great, affirming friendships that can grow out of that shared experience.

For other recommendations of “brown reading” do check out Paula Morris’s post Why Aren’t You Reading Brown? for 21 titles by Māori and Pacific writers. Get the Holds Lists Atua on your side and you could be reading one before you know it.

* Te Reo Māori for supernatural being or god.

Harry Potter: a personal history

Cover of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's StoneWhen I was 7, a substitute teacher read the class the first two chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I thought it was a bit rubbish and told my mother so when I got home. “I think I’ve heard about it on the radio,” she said. “It’s meant to be quite good.” Oh. I gave it another try, this time borrowing it from the library. I read it so compulsively that I finished it on a family visit to a friend’s for dinner, surfacing at the end to ask if there was a sequel. I was hooked.

That was in 1997. Over the next few years the world caught up in the same kind of madness, and I slowly caught up to Harry in age. By the time Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (the seventh and final volume) was published I was a teenager on a gap year — I still have a photo of myself in a bookshop in France on the day it was released. Like a lot of people, Harry Potter was my first experience of fandom, sharing my fiction affliction with millions of others around the world. There are a thousand stories like mine.

My relationship with the books is a lot more complicated now than it was in the beginning, but they shaped so much of my growing up that I still love them anyway. From making Harry Potter paper dolls with my best friend to writing a fan letter to J. K. Rowling (and getting a reply!), buying my first merch (Hedwig sweatshirt) in Germany in 1998, getting spoiled for who died in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix because for once I didn’t read fast enough, dressing up for a launch event at the local bookshop in 2005…

Somehow, as of today, it has been 20 years since Harry Potter was first published. Time for a re-read and a chocolate frog, I think.

New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults – 2017 finalists announced

The finalists for the 2017 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults have been announced.

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Pam Jones, convenor of judges for the NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. Image via New Zealand Book Awards Trust.

“Characters burst off the pages, delighting us at every turn,” say the judges of this year’s New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. They have selected 35 finalists for the 2017 awards, out of 152 submissions.

“This year’s shortlist reminds us that books are powerful vehicles for helping children make sense of their world and gain a better understanding of themselves and others. At times the vividly descriptive writing was brutal and heart-breaking, providing moving portrayals of life through the eyes of children and teenagers. All finalist titles are convincing in their realism, skilfully laced with honour and honesty throughout,” says convenor of judges Pam Jones. Many of the books submitted dealt with serious issues. “War featured highly, alongside other topical themes like teenage pregnancy, surveillance, abuse, homelessness, racial tensions and bullying. Coming-of-age stories and characters that are living with extended family members highlighted the meaning of family and love,” Pam Jones says.

The awards are administered by the New Zealand Book Council on behalf of the New Zealand Book Awards Trust. The final award winners will be announced 14th August 2017.

A special Kia Ora to Canterbury finalists:

  • Gavin Bishop – illustrator, Helper and Helper – Junior Fiction
  • Jenny Cooper (Amberley), Gladys Goes to War – Illustration
  • Simon Pollard, The Genius of Bugs – Non-Fiction
  • Tania Roxborogh, My New Zealand Story: Bastion Point – Junior Fiction

Finalists

Picture Book Award

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Junior Fiction (Esther Glen Award)

The Esther Glen Award for Junior Fiction finalists will capture the imagination of every young reader, either immersing them in another world or reality, giving them a problem or mystery to solve or causing a laugh-out-loud response to witty conversations. “We’re pleased to see these books feature an equal mix of strong male and female characters from different races, ethnicities and backgrounds,” say the judges.

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Young Adult Fiction (Copyright Licensing NZ Award)

The judges enjoyed delving into the world of teenagers via the books entered for the Copyright Licensing NZ Award for Young Adult Fiction. “We immersed ourselves in the issues that plague young people—family, school pressures, relationship woes, sexuality and the looming adult world. Authors are not afraid to explore dark themes, but also to inject humour when it’s needed.”

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Picture Book Award

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Non-Fiction (Elsie Locke Award)

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Te Reo Māori (Te Kura Pounamu Award)

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Illustration (Russell Clark Award)

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  • Fuzzy Doodle illustrated by Donovan Bixley, written by Melinda Szymanik, published by Scholastic NZ
  • Gladys Goes to War illustrated by Jenny Cooper, written by Glyn Harper, published by Penguin Random House (Puffin)
  • If I Was a Banana illustrated by Kieran Rynhart, written by Alexandra Tylee, published by Gecko Press
  • Snark illustrated and written by David Elliot (after Lewis Carroll), published by Otago University Press
  • The Day the Costumes Stuck illustrated and written by Toby Morris, published by Beatnik Publishing

Best First Book Award

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More information:

An integral part of the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults is the HELL Reading Challenge, now in its fourth year. It has been hugely successful in getting kids reading and enjoying the pleasure of stories (and pizza). Kids can pick up their reading challenge cards at Christchurch City Libraries (open until December 2017).

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Meet a finalist…

ThegeniusofBugs

Come see bug genius Simon Pollard at South Library during KidsFest
Do you like bugs? They may be small, they may be creepy, but bugs have super-sized powers! Join Simon Pollard, author of the wicked new book The Genius of Bugs, as he takes you into the world of the everyday and the extraordinary, the grotesque and the mysterious, with bug tales, facts and figures that showcase insect ingenuity and reveal astounding bug behaviour. Be entertained and amazed and bring your best bug questions. Ages 7-13.

When: Tuesday, 11 July, 10.30-11.30am
Venue: South Library, Colombo St
Price: FREE
Organised by WORD Christchurch

Tami Neilson curls up … with a good book

Hair she comes! Hot ticket Tami Neilson kicks off her Songs of Sinners tour, performing in Christchurch tonight (Thursday 25th May) as part of The Cavell Leitch New Zealand International Jazz and Blues Festival with her Hot Rockin’ Band of Rhythm, belting out soul, country, gospel and blues.

Tami Neilson Sings Songs of Sinners.jpeg

Tami’s tour merchandise features a silhouette of her signature black beehive with the proclamation: “The higher the hair, the closer to God.” A couple of us gals working here at the library have been Tami fans for a while. She may just be our alter ego and I fondly remember seeing her play with local boys Marlon Williams and Delaney Davidson at the wee Wunderbar in Lyttelton a few years back.

Tami and her big hair certainly command a much bigger stage now, and the accolades and awards never seem to end for Tami. Possibly even more rewarding for her than a gong was recently getting to open the stage for her idol – blues, gospel and soul singer Mavis Staples.

While she’s got hair up to heaven, Tami now has two young boys to bring her back down to earth. Considering how busy she is with touring and family life, it is a wonder Tami has time to curl up with a good book, let alone curl her hair. But Tami loves libraries and literature (from classic reads to chick lit) and she graciously took the time to answer a few questions about her reading pleasures and sings the praises of a good book.

TamiNeilson3

Tami, are there any special books you remember fondly from your childhood?

I was completely obsessed with Anne of Green Gables from age 11. I read the whole series and then moved on to all of L.M. Montgomery’s books. I own her entire published works, as well as her more recently published journals, which are fascinating and actually quite dark in contrast to her novels. I have visited her various homes across Canada while touring with my family band when growing up. I still re-read her books regularly. The Emily series and The Blue Castle are my enduring favourites.

AnneofGreenGablesStoryGirlLMontgomeryEmilysQuestLMMontgomery

What role have libraries played in your life – either growing up and / or now?

I have always loved libraries and spending time curled up with a book. In my early 20s, when we came off the road and settled into the small town in Ontario where my Mom grew up, we didn’t have a computer yet and the local library is where I would excitedly go each day to check my emails and write to a certain Kiwi guy that I ended up marrying!

The library has played a huge role in my outings with my little ones since becoming a Mum myself – from the time they were babies, I took them to Wriggle & Rhyme and we go every few weeks to swap our books for new ones.

What books are your two young sons enjoying at the moment?

We’ve read to our boys since they were babies and they love books. We visit our local library regularly… a current library favourite is Super Stan, and we have a huge collection of the works of Dr Seuss, which are their go-to bedtime stories (and Mummy’s favourites to read to them!)

OhthePlacesYou'llGoTheLoraxTheresaWocketGreatDayforUp

Do your kids love your songs (or are they over them) – do they have their own favourites?

They have their favourites, which they perform for us regularly on Saturday mornings. They set up their “stage” on the couch and haul out all their little toy instruments and play their repertoire of ABCs, Christmas songs, nursery rhymes and Mummy’s songs. Their favourites are Texas (written for Charlie), Loco Mama (written for Sam) and Holy Moses.

Tami would have a bookshelf the size of Texas if she could…

Tami, any books you’d love to recommend?

Anything by Barbara Kingsolver. Her books and characters never disappoint. Long-time favourites are The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg, The Help by Kathryn Stockett, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (I have a thing for Southern US writers and/or stories set in the Southern States…just like my musical influences tend to stem from there!) also, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood – such a Canadian treasure, that woman.

FriedGreenTomatoesattheWhistleStopCafeTheHelpToKillaMockingBirdBlindAssassin

What music related books can you recommend? 

I tend to always have a musical biography on the go. I loved Shout, Sister, Shout, the biography of Sister Rosetta Tharpe and I’ll Take You There bio on The Staples Singers when I was researching for my new show, “Songs of Sinners”. What Happened, Miss Simone? about Nina Simone … and I recently picked up a copy of Roseanne Cash’s Composed memoirs when touring through Nashville. She writes so beautifully and I loved that it wasn’t a chronological account of her life, just colourful snapshots strung together with the language of a woman who has been writing songs her whole life.
WhatHappenedMissSimoneStapleSwingersI'llTakeYouThere

Secret reading pleasures? What do you read when you’re waiting for your curls to set?

Every novel written by Marian Keyes! She’s my trashy, chick-lit go-to and makes me laugh out loud. Same with Janet Evanovich‘s Stephanie Plum series. I think I got up to #17 and had finally reached my fill, but, the very best of guilty pleasures.

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What’s on your TBR (to-be-read) pile Tami?

I’ve been working through H is for Hawk for over a year now…having lost my father, it’s a hard one to read and gets too close to the bone at times that I have to put it down for a while, read something else and come back to it. It is so exquisitely written that I don’t mind that it gets read in short bursts, as it makes it last longer.

I also picked up The Rosie Project from the library the other day on a friend’s “light-reading” recommendation, so, it’s on my bedside table, waiting for me to finish The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd. I loved her novel The Secret Life of Bees and liked The Invention of Wings, but, am halfway through this one and have to admit I’m a bit disappointed thus far. I don’t like the main character and just feel annoyed at the end of each chapter!

HisforHawkSecretLifeofBeesThe invention of wings
What writers would you love to meet?

If I could jump into a time machine and have a chat… C.S. LewisL.M. Montgomery, Mark Twain, The Bronte Sisters, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

You travel a bit so I imagine you have to read ‘one the go’ – are you an eBooks/eReader convert or strictly old-school?

I have a love/hate relationship with my eReader. I love its convenience and the fact that it doesn’t take up half the weight allowance of my luggage like books used to when I was on tour!

However, part of the reading experience for me is the feel of the pages, I play with them the whole time I read (much to my parents’ and brother’s annoyance when growing up and now my husband’s!) seeing how far I have to go so I can prepare myself for the ending when it’s book full of characters I don’t want to part with, being able to lend a good book I want to share with a friend, see it on the shelf next to my other books after it’s been read (nothing better than a full bookshelf!) and my favourite smell in the world is that new book smell!

Tami, your tour is called Songs of Sinners but you seem so wholesome… can you tell us more about this juxtaposition?

Songs of Sinners is the story of how the gospel and blues music of the Southern States became Rock and Roll. Many artists grew up singing and learning to perform in the church, but then became “Sinners” when they “abandoned” their church congregations for a “life of sin”. From Ray Charles, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Mavis Staples … these artists then influenced future stars Elvis, Bob Dylan and Prince. This tells the story of how many of these more well-known artists wouldn’t exist without first hearing those early gospel and blues artists that may not be as well known.

DynamiteDon'tBeAfraid
At the end of touring this year Tami will be back in the studio to record songs for a new album.

Tami, with your album Dynamite! (2014) you came out “all guns a blazing” and Don’t Be Afraid (2015) was a tribute to your Dad. Has the next album you’re working on got any ‘feel’ or direction to it yet? What can you tell us about it?

I’m currently writing my new album and the emerging theme seems to be sass! A lower tolerance level for putting up with people’s opinions or judgments. A result of getting older, being a mother and losing my Dad all intersecting, I guess. I’ve also been hugely influenced by performing the Songs of Sinners show this past year and being challenged vocally and as a performer, so I think that is trickling into the songs I’m writing as well.

TamiNeilsonRecordPlayer

Countrymusichair

Get the look: Country Music Hair by Erin Duvall (2016)
This recently published book showcases the most notable bobs, beehives, bouffants, mullets, hats, wigs and curls from the 1960s to the present, alongside interviews with hairstylists and musicians and a full history of the ‘dos of the decade with the likes of locks belonging to Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn.

Get tickets: Tami Neilson Sings! Songs of Sinners Thursday 25th May at the Charles Luney Auditorium at St Margaret’s College, Christchurch
We’ll be there with bells, polka dots and sequins on! She is performing material her New Zealand audience hasn’t heard her sing before, including music by Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Howlin’ Wolf, Johnny Cash, Blind Willie Johnson and Sister Rosetta Thorpe.

Watch: Tami with local Lyttelton musicians Marlon Williams & Delaney Davidson

(Images supplied by Tami Neilson)

40 years ago in a galaxy not far away…

On a Wednesday in 1977 a phenomenon began. That phenomenon was Star Wars.

Cover of The making of Star WarsReleased in only 32 cinemas in the US on 25 May of that year the sci-fi space opera broke all box-office records and changed the movie making business. Star Wars was one of the first films to generate “round the block queues” for screenings (the literal definition of a “blockbuster”).

George Lucas famously popped out for lunch with his wife on opening day, saw lines of people queuing outside Mann’s Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles, and only then realised he had a hit on his hands. He’d expected a flop. So much so that he had a bet with friend Steven Spielberg that Close Encounters of the Third Kind would beat Star Wars at the box office. And that’s why Spielberg still receives 2.5% of profits on the film.

At least some of Star Wars’ initial success was as a result of the canny work of marketing director Charles Lippincoat who, ahead of the film’s release, shopped the novelisation (ghost written by sci-fi author Alan Dean Foster) and Marvel tie-in comics at events like San Diego Comic-Con. This generated a buzz amongst sci-fi fans who were already primed by release date. This is now standard practice with genre films and franchises who put a lot of effort into creating hype ahead of release, but back in 1977 it was a “thinking outside the box” strategy.

Cover of The Ultimate Guide to Vintage Star Wars Action Figures 1977-1985Star Wars also invented movie merchandising. As you walk the aisles of your local toy store, the proliferation of movie tie-in toys and action figures is down to the phenomenal success of Star Wars in this area.

Merchandising was such a small part of the movie industry prior to Star Wars that, in 1973, before the film was made George Lucas exchanged $350,000 worth of directing salary for the merchandising rights and the rights to the sequels. Conventional wisdom at the time was that this was a good deal for 20th Century Fox. It eventually cost them billions.

Star Wars display - X-wing fighter
Just some of the sweet merchandising $$$ that Fox never got. Star Wars display at South Library, 15 May 2017. File reference: 2017-05-15-IMG_5174

And of the movie itself? Well, I’m a fan and have been for as long as I can remember. I cannot recall the first time I saw the film. In the late 70s and early 80s you simply absorbed Star Wars from the atmosphere. You fenced with lightsabers of rolled up Christmas gift wrap, you hummed the theme music, you played with your cousin’s X-wing fighter toy.

I love the film, even despite its many flaws – a not exactly diverse cast, sometimes creaky acting, the occasional alien proboscis that looked like it was made out of cardboard, plot holes that you could fly a Corellian freighter through – but to me it’s still a vastly enjoyable tale.

Cover of Flash GordonGeorge Lucas was inspired by the Flash Gordon type serials of his youth, the films of Akira Kurosawa, the special effects of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the “heroes journey” mythology of Frazer’s The golden bough. Star Wars is a cinematic melting pot of references and homages that distills them down to a classic “good vs evil” story. The kind that’s timeless in its appeal. Or at least I hope it is… because I’m planning on watching it for another 40 years.

Further information

Feeling festive, out of Africa!

So I missed WORD Christchurch Autumn Season but just up the drag from Cape Town, in the beautiful Western Cape lies Franschoek, where every year (in May) the Franschoek Literary Festival (FLF) takes place. I was curious to see how Africa festivates*, so my daughter and I offloaded the kids and headed into the mountains.

At Franschoek with Mohale Moshigo

What is it about festivals that I love? Is it the books, the authors, the coffee, the vibe? In fact a better question might be: What’s not to love? The event that we booked for at FLF was entitled On Being A Book Club Writer, with three world renowned authors: Joanne Harris (of Chocolat fame), Lesley Pearse (books like Belle and Tara) and Sophie Hannah (murder mystery writer of books like Closed Casket). The event was chaired by an ebullient Mohale Mashigo who thoroughly enjoyed herself, and worked the festival miracle of getting participants to interact with one another.

Here’s a selection of some gems that I gleaned:

Lesley Pearse:

I’ve never belonged to a book group, but I am glad they exist. Basically I am a storyteller – I think everything I write is rubbish until I’m told otherwise. My most bizarre reader interaction came from a young Korean man who proposed marriage. To this day I think he mistakenly thought the beauty selected for the cover of the book was me! All my writing is kept in my head, I make no notes, I seem to have no control over my characters. If I get Alzheimers, that will be it. You’ll be on your own!

Joanne Harris:

I’ve attended many book clubs and spoken at quite a few of them. I love it when people come to blows over my writing. That coupled with wine and pizza, what’s not to love? It certainly feels to me that Book Club members care about books and reading. But I don’t write for book club members,  I write for me. I too have very little control over my characters, I am more attracted to the Voodoo of writing, the making of little marks on the page. I once got a Valentine card from a Japanese man made from his hair – that’s the weirdest correspondence I have had. I firmly believe that you can’t express anything in writing unless you have experienced that feeling (OK so you can’t murder everyone, but you must have felt murderous at some point in order to write about it).

Sophie Hannah:

I did belong to a dysfunctional Book Club once, it had nine members, all women. Two of them spoke constantly, the other seven never spoke at all. I walked out one day saying I was off to fetch Chinese takeaway and I never returned. I don’t have a single weirdest correspondent. Bizarre correspondence is so regular, weirdness is so normal. I keep very detailed notes. I adore buying beautiful little notebooks. You might as well work in a canteen if you don’t like writing in a notebook! I work on a battered laptop, for at least a year the letter “p” didn’t work and I had to cut and paste it. I was writing a Poirot novel at the time!

Happy Festival Faces!
Happy Festival Faces!

This was my first festival coverage out of New Zealand. I loved it just as much as all the home fests I have covered. When I am old and very, very rich (one of those things has yet to happen!), I intend travelling the world from festival to festival … by train.

Sawubona from Africa!

* You are allowed to create new words when you blog about festivals!