Saturday, February 28, 2015

Playing Beethoven again

Some months ago a friend gave me the three volumes of Beethoven piano sonatas in hardcover. They'd never been used, and though they were fairly elderly, they were in pristine condition.

I hadn't played the sonatas for some time, although I've had the books since I was a teenager, and learned them most of them (with a few exceptions) as a young man. During the years I've come back to them a number of times, but had found myself less and less enamoured of them for some reason.

Over the summer holidays I didn't play the piano much, and of course, at my age, that's not a good idea. Your fingers quickly lose their suppleness and agility - that is, what suppleness and agility they still retain. So it was quite a workout to get back to playing at all well again.

I decided to tackle the Beethoven sonatas one by one, remembering that at some point in my life I'd read that Beethoven had supposedly said he never practised scales and arpeggios: learning a piece (he was probably talking about one of his pieces!) was in itself sufficient to make his fingers work. And with that in mind, I began with Sonata I and worked my way through the first book.

It was a terrible effort at first, and I felt as though I could barely play at all. But then gradually, as I worked my way from the front of the book to the back and then back again to the front, the fingers decided that they could get up and going, and now they're doing very well.

I can't say I'm playing the fast sections up to speed, and there are still innumerable moments when I have to stop and check if I'm really playing what's written (I've found a few spots where I've been playing things wrong since I was a youth!), but I'm enjoying these sonatas all over again, and have now started on the second volume. Just played through the 'Moonlight' Sonata which of course was never named that by Beethoven. In fact the last movement of it is anything but romantic moonlight. It's a major workout, and is riddled with arpeggios.

Beethoven, for the most part, wrote piano music that most people could play. Occasionally he goes crazy and writes things that are almost impossible and sometimes writes things that require a huge amount of work just to achieve something relatively simple. But surprisingly, as I play these pieces again, I find they're more straightforward than I thought. It helps that I know where most of them are going and that they're familiar, but in general he uses relatively simple means to achieve his effects.

And the slow movements are something that you're much more in tune with as you get older. I can remember as a teenager wondering what the great gaps were in one slow movement and wondering why I had to count so carefully when nothing was happening. That's something youth doesn't appreciate so readily. At my age the wondrous slowness is something you fall in love with again and again.


Friday, February 27, 2015

Antonio Rosmini: Persecuted Prophet

 This is my review of a relatively new book by Father John Michael Hill, a Rosminian who has lived in Dunedin (my home town) for many years. I first met him when he was the editor of the Catholic magazine, Tui Motu, where he often published book reviews I'd written, and we've remained friends since. He's now retired, and this book, which has probably been a long time in the making, is one of the fruits of his retirement. 

What a delight this biography is. Immensely readable from beginning to end, with both the complex historical background and Rosmini’s sometimes difficult philosophical concepts handled with deftness.  

Born in 1797, when Napoleon was at his apex, Rosmini grew up in an Italian town that had been under Austrian rule for a 100 years; it remained that way until the end of the First World War. France ruled a good deal of the rest of northern Italy, and the south was a conglomerate of territories that gave the lie to the country being in any way united. The glory that had been the Roman Empire was long gone.

Rosmini’s family were wealthy; the house he grew up was sumptuously decorated. One of his uncles was the artist, Ambrogio Rosmini, and Antonio appears as a character in one of his larger canvases. From an early age, Rosmini was a voracious reader and an outstanding intellectual, debating philosophy with others when only in his teens. Gradually he leaned towards the priesthood, which ultimately brought him into contact with Rome and the Papal court, some of whom would in due course become close friends, some enemies.

Alongside this he formed a desire to build an order of brothers. This group, begun with only a couple of companions, would eventually become the Institute of Charity, though the order is often known simply as the Rosminians. Unlike many other orders, this group wouldn’t focus on a particular area of charitable work, but would practice Rosmini’s ‘principle of passivity.’ This idea is spelled out by Rosmini in two simple sentences:

1. Not to undertake any work of charity on my own initiative but to apply myself to putting right my own life;
2. Not to refuse any work of charity when it is offered me by the providence of God and not to prefer one work to another but do them all with equal enthusiasm.

If it seems at first that there’s an element of self-centredness here, the vast number of works Rosmini and his brothers (and later, sisters) did for others over the ensuing decades give the lie to it. Rosmini always believed there was a necessity to make sure his own spiritual life was in good working order first, but once satisfied with that, he reached out generously to others.

He saw charity in three different lights: spiritual, temporal and intellectual. The spiritual was the pastoral element and meant bringing God to people. The temporal was the place where the brothers got their ‘hands dirty’, doing the ordinary work needed in a material world, both within their brotherhood and without. The intellectual was the area Rosmini felt most called to ˗ in fact he was advised by one of the Popes to focus on it since he had an enormous gift for it. Intellectual charity, for him, meant to understand and teach the truths of faith.

He wrote prodigiously throughout his lifetime: not only books but thousands of letters to people working with him, to other people in the church, to people beyond it. He had a knack of knowing what to say, especially to his brothers in the Institute: some needed a reprimand because they were overtaxing themselves and needing to consider rest; some needed to be encouraged to go beyond what they thought were their abilities. Always he wrote with compassion and wisdom.

The book is entitled Persecuted Prophet, and while this is apt, some readers may feel that the level of persecution Rosmini suffered was small compared to other saints of the church. Nevertheless, the persecution affected him at his strongest points: his intellectual and mediation skills. Like so many other prophets he eventually found himself on the wrong side of church men whose spirituality ran a distant second to their political ideas.

Rosmini could hold his own with such men, of course, but he chose to follow the example of his Master, and, having spoken the truth to them, retreated back to his brotherhood. However, some of his views on the church bore fruit much later, at the Second Vatican Council in 1962.

Though the book focuses at times on Rosmini’s intellectual arguments and discussions, it also shows his wonderful warmth and humanity. Rosmini made friends with people from all walks of life and was loved by many. He was well aware of his own failings, and this gave him a true compassion for others.

I’m grateful to Michael Hill for writing this book: it’s introduced me not only to a wonderful saint of the church, but also to a man who was human in the best sense. 

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Ronnie Ronalde: an amazing performer

I've written a couple of times over the years about Ronnie Ronalde (here and here). He was a most unusual artist, a singer and performer, but most of all, a siffleur, which is just a fancy word for a person who whistles. 

Well, you'd think that whistling was hardly anything to write home about, but so popular was Ronnie that on one occasion he filled Radio City Hall in New York every night for ten weeks (it holds 6,000 people). He toured extensively, and even gave two performances at the Aotea Centre in 1990 (when he was in his late sixties) and filled the place both times. At one time he was as popular as Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. 

Ronnie died just last month at the age of 91 - I only heard about it this morning. He was from Islington in London, originally, but by the time he'd finished his life he'd lived in Guernsey, the Isle of Man, New Zealand, and the Gold Coast. 

Whistling isn't as popular as it used to be - I don't hear many kids whistling these days. But Ronnie made it such a hit that his records would be broadcast week in and week out when I was a kid. The fact that he remained popular for so long is testament to the enjoyment he brought to people. 

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Rosanne Higgins interviews me....

Back in December last year, I interviewed Rosanne Higgins about her books. Recently she returned the complement. You can see the original interview on her blog, but with her permission I'm reproducing it here.

Rosanne: Hi Mike, thanks for joining me. You are a musician, a composer, and, occasionally, an actor.  What made you want to write children’s books?

Me: I’ve been a writer for at least as long as I’ve been a musician, so writing is nothing new. It’s just taken me a long time to get to the point of publishing books.

In the past all the books I’ve written (but not necessarily finished) have been for adults, with one exception. However, there have been some children’s short stories in the past, at least a couple of which have been published. The first children’s book I completed (Grimhilda!) was based on a musical a friend and I had written a couple of years earlier. I thought it had some ‘life’ beyond the theatrical version, and that’s proved to be the case.

How do you balance your writing with your other creative pursuits?

It can be a bit of a juggling act, but usually it’s a matter of which creative venture needs priority. A deadline helps, but at the moment I have deadlines in two different areas, one musical and one writing. It’s not unusual for two things to be running along together: they just have to give each other elbow room.

You have referred to The Mumbersons and the Blood Secret as a sequel of sorts to your first children’s book, Grimhilda!.  Please explain what you meant by that.

In terms of the ‘sequel of sorts’ I mean that only two of the characters from the earlier book appear (though Grimhilda is mentioned several times). In other words, it’s a story about a new lot of characters who have some connections to what happened in the previous book.

You mentioned that Grimhilda! was adapted from a musical that you wrote. What motivated you to write The Mumbersons and the Blood Secret?

I’d had a sequel in mind for Grimhilda! when we produced the musical, partly because some of the cast talked about what happened next and were enthusiastic about me writing another musical. However, the idea I had in mind didn’t seem to work as a musical, or as something that could be done on stage. And I enjoyed the freedom a book version gave me to let things happen that would have been far too complicated to put in a script.

Do you foresee a third book in the Grimhilda series? 

I’ve since written a draft of a third story which will probably be described as a prequel: it’ll take place some twenty years before the events in Grimhilda! and will again only have a couple of characters in common with the first book. But it will (probably) also explain how something that was rather curious in Grimhilda! actually came about.

You have 10 grandchildren and one foster grandchild.  Have they read your books?  If so, what did they think of them?

Strangely I don’t think any of my grandchildren have read the books! They are all readers (at least those who are of an age are) but it’s mostly been their parents who've read them. I think it’s probably not entirely unusual that family members are so close to you they can’t see you as someone separate: a person who writes books. However a number of the grandchildren did come to the musical, and enjoyed it, so I’ll have to do a bit of promotion amongst them in terms of the books… Thanks for the reminder!

What are the challenges unique to writing children’s books in your opinion?

I think everything has to keep moving; you can’t have too much reflection on what’s happening, or too much description of things that aren’t immediately related to the action. On the other hand, someone did comment that The Blood Secret didn’t seem to have any breathing places as the book headed towards its climax. It’s a tricky balance.

I’ve just been reading more of Diana Wynne Jones’ books. She wrote a large number of fantasy stories, with lots of magic and big events. She was a highly successful author of books for children, and yet the books vary enormously in pacing. The one I read most recently had a rather long patch towards the end when things went rather slowly and then suddenly, all of a rush, everything was sorted out and the book was over. Even one of J K Rowling’s books ˗ I think it was the last ˗ had a long stretch in it where very little seemed to be happening. They tightened this up considerably in the movie. I’m not sure that children worry too much about these things; maybe it’s adult readers who do. (I think adults should read children’s books regularly; I certainly do.)

I have noticed that your blog covers a wide variety of topics, some are about writing, some are religious in nature and some are observations.  What motivates you to write your blog?

As I said earlier, I’ve written since I was young, and it seems part and parcel of my nature to record what I think about things. Before blogging came along I used to do it in exercise books or in diaries or journals on the computer. Blogging just became a way of making these things more public! I wrote a weeklycolumn for a local newspaper back in the 90s, for five years, and in it I was free to write on anything I fancied. I guess the blogging is an extension of that. For me, blogs that keep on hammering away at the same subject week in and week out get a bit uninteresting after a while, just the same as newspaper columns that are focused only on one thing. I like variety!

Do you find social media to be more useful in marketing or in helping you to learn more about the self publishing universe?

I don’t know that I’ve made a distinction like that between them. I tend to read anything and everything that’s going when I’m first learning about something. Social media’s certainly been helpful in discerning what’s useful in terms of marketing ˗ though you have to sift between what are often opposing viewpoints. Equally there’s a heap of information about self-publishing out there: some of it is excellent, some rubbish, some marginally informative and so on. It’s the nature of the Internet. But it often points you to books that are of value: I’ve discovered several books about self-publishing/marketing, and these have probably been more helpful because they’re more focused. Deb Vanasse’s book What Every Author Should Know is one I’ve read recently that I found very good all round.

If you could ask any question on social media about self publishing and get an honest answer, what would it be?

“How can I guarantee that my books will sell very well?” I’m sure I’d get plenty of honest answers, but I don’t think I’ll get one that will guarantee sales!

I would ask “How many books have you sold?” There are so many of us out there and I think it would help to have a better understanding of the goals (in terms of sales) that other authors set for themselves and the timeline they set for achieving them.

With e-books by relatively unknown authors, the secret seems to be perseverance: keep on reminding people about the books through social media. But don’t do it in a way that makes it sound like you’re insisting on a sale, or like you’re advertising. Make it part of the overall conversation. Encourage people to help your books to sell by word of mouth. An endorsement from someone who’s enjoyed your books to one or more of their friends is still one of the best ways of getting the books known, even better than good reviews.

I was pleased this morning to find a tweet from a friend saying: My daughter is again reading Grimhilda, by @mcrowl. She thinks it’s ‘awesome’.  That sort of publicity is invaluable, because it’s sincere.


Well, judging by your reviews on Amazon, others find Grimhilda! awesome as well! I really enjoyed The Mumbersons and the Blood Secret and I look forward to reading Grimhilda! (I agree with you that adults should read children’s books, and I do!). Mike, thanks again for taking the time to share your thoughts with me. I wish you success in all of your endeavours!


Monday, January 26, 2015

Couple of DVDs

Caught up with a movie from 2007 called Rendition, the other night. The word 'rendition' means, in the US anyway, the practice of sending a foreign criminal or terrorist suspect covertly to be interrogated (read 'tortured') in a country with less rigorous regulations for the humane treatment of prisoners. 

Which is what happens, except that the man sent to the foreign country, is more likely an innocent victim of some phone-tapping, and has nothing to do with any plots or terror activities. At least that's how it seems. We have our doubts at times, as we should in such a movie. But there are no doubts about the horrific treatment to which he's subjected, much of which unfolds before our eyes. 

That's only part of the story. In the same foreign country (it's never named, but it's inhabited by Arab citizens) a group of real terrorists have just attempted to kill the man who does the interrogating. The local CIA agent is killed in the blast, and his job falls into the lap of an inexperienced pen-pusher played by Jake Gyllenhaal), a man who gradually begins to feel more than a little queasy about what is happening.

Meanwhile at home the suspect's wife (Reese Witherspoon) is frantically trying to find out where he's vanished to - he was supposed to be flying home from Africa but she's been told he wasn't on the flight. Via an old boyfriend, now working for the Government, she confronts Meryl Streep, the stony-faced woman who's in charge of such counter-terrorist operations. You don't want to have to confront Meryl Streep in one of these roles.

And then there's a third story: that of the young people involved in the actual terrorism. Thankfully all these threads are clearly laid out and easy to follow. At least you think so, until you find towards the end of the movie that one of the stories is actually a flashback. This seemed a bit unnecessary, though it made a sort of dramatic sense. But it confuses the viewer initially, and at that stage of the movie that's probably not what you want to happen.

Otherwise this is an excellent movie, with sharp performances from a top-quality cast. It won't endear you to the CIA or to American foreign policy; but maybe you were not endeared to that already.

We also caught up with a three part British murder mystery called Place of Execution. This was for the most part a watchable piece, with lots of good performances in it, including Juliet Stevenson and Lee Ingleby. The ending was a surprise, certainly, but perhaps a little unlikely.

In the story a youngish girl living in a village some forty years ago goes missing while out walking her dog. The local police - with Lee Ingleby as the relatively new, but very earnest detective - get onto it fairly quickly, but to no avail. The girl isn't found. Other unpleasant things come to the surface however, and in due course what seemed to be a straightforward murder case turns out to have a very nasty bent to it. Meanwhile Juliet Stevenson in the present day is a TV journalist trying to complete a story which includes re-investigating the murder and interviewing the now aged detective. Something goes awry with the last interview, and Stevenson's character discovers more about her past than she wants, and that her childhood was entwined with the original event.

For the most part the actors managed to overlook the occasional bit of tosh in the script, and to give the scenes the level of intensity they required. It probably could have played out over two episodes, in fact, but...










Goodreads - one thing lacking

I've been involved with Goodreads.com for some time, but I've only really got into it properly in the last year. It seems to be a huge site in terms of people involved, and there's certainly a huge amount of interaction. Plus the Goodreads staff are very helpful and quick off the mark.

Only one thing is lacking, I feel. And that's a way of recording the books you didn't finish in a year. I made a category on my own page for books I'd given up on and ones I'd put aside for the moment, but since Goodreads continues to categorise them as books you're still reading it's a bit confusing.

I keep track separately of the books I read on a file on my computer - have been doing this for nearly a decade in a consistent fashion - and I make a note about the ones I didn't finish with some comments about why I didn't finish them. Sometimes you can get a good way through a book before you abandon it, so there's a degree of effort put into books you don't finally enjoy.

I got Mary Poppins out of the library a couple of days ago, but only got halfway through it before abandoning it. I'd never read this children's book, regarded as a classic, and my interest was piqued after seeing the movie Saving Mr Banks, which is about the making of Mary Poppins into a movie. In the movie, P L Travers (as she called herself - Travers was in fact her father's first name) argues forthrightly for the book to be made into the film she wants to see. It wasn't, but as my wife noted this morning, perhaps her arguing about so many details actually made it a much better film than either she or Disney could have imagined.

But the curious thing I found when reading the book was that the movie is actually a much better work. The book, disappointingly to me, is merely a series of episodes. There's little development of character, no plot, no reason why Mary Poppins comes into the Banks family's life with her random use of magic, and when I looked at the last chapter, nothing seemed to have moved forward.

Now plainly the book is written to be read to children of a fairly young age, and for them plot and characterization isn't quite such an essential. But Disney and co took all the disparate elements and made a movie that has a point, has a degree of plot (Mr Banks comes into his own far more than he does in the book, something that helped Travers deal with her own alcoholic father, it seems) and has much more fully-formed characters. Furthermore the movie is charming, a great musical and only marginally too long: the laughing sequence, where everyone has tea under the ceiling is too extended for me, personally. Julie Andrews is proper and prim, but brings a warmth to the character of Mary Poppins that the book's version definitely lacks. Michael and Jane (the best drawn characters in the book) are adorable, and Mr and Mrs Banks have plenty to do in the story instead of being merely 'parents' as they are in the book. Dick van Dyke's character barely appears in the book - he's only in one chapter. (Travers hated even the idea of van Dyke being in the movie, apparently.) Furthermore he isn't a chimney sweep, but his magical picnic with Mary is one of the highlights of the movie, with the animated penguins, which were supposedly one of the sorest points on Travers' side.

Saving Mr Banks may take Travers and Disney's relationship somewhat fancifully, but it does bring to light not only Travers' unhappy childhood, but also her miserable and self-centred adulthood. As the Wikipedia entry notes: According to her grandchildren, Travers "died loving no one and with no one loving her." A sad line to have in your obituary, particularly when you delighted so many readers for decades, and have managed to live to nearly a hundred. 




Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Catch up on some movies

We've watched three movies on DVD over the last week or so that have been worth noting.

Let me put in a plug for our local library while I'm at it: they provide DVDs at $2.00 a pop for a week, and $2.00 a pop for TV series, which you can have for a fortnight. I wanted to catch up on the first series of Broadchurch the other day, because I'd missed some episodes. In the end we got it from a video store, and it cost $10.00. I found it in the library yesterday as one of the 'top of the picks' at $4.00, and I could have had it longer...  It's a great service, and we've made some really interesting discoveries as a result, even watching two entire series of DVDs in Italian: Inspector Montalbano was one of them. And then we went on to learn Italian as well...but that's another story.

First up on the movie front was Last Passenger. It's about a small group of people who get left on a train that's refusing to stop - the driver turns out to be someone, they think, who wants to commit suicide in a spectacular way. Dougray Scott and Kara Tointon star, and do a good job. The whole film takes place on the train and for the most part maintains its sense of tension. There are a few spots where things could have moved along a bit, and the plot probably doesn't want to be investigated too strongly, but overall this was a nicely tense ride. There's an affecting performance from the seven-year-old boy, Joshua Kaynama, a little boy caught up in a situation he doesn't understand and who's asked to do the impossible at one point.

The second movie was much more sure of its pacing: the tension barely let up for a moment, even when there were conversations between various baddies. This was 7 Boxes, a film made in Paraguay, which apparently isn't well-known for top quality movies; in fact several of the cast seem to have started their film careers in this movie (!)

It's about a young man whose job is wheelbarrowing purchases for customers in a market. (The wheelbarrow isn't your garden model but a long flat thing that obviously takes muscle to handle.) These wheelbarrow boys have to compete with each other to get the work, and it's tough. When the boy, Victor (Celso Franco) gets an opportunity to take seven boxes 'around the block' for some devious characters, he jumps at it, because it's going to be very well paid. The boxes of course contain something much worse than he imagines, a nasty fellow-barrow boy has been shunted out of the job by accident and wants to get it back, and those sending the boxes on their way have got things considerably tangled, much to their horror. The piece is well plotted, and all the elements keep crossing and intercrossing until there's a violent climax in which Victor almost dies.

In spite of the tension and violence there's quite a bit of humour, lots of fun with cellphones changing hands, a nice bickering relationship between Victor and Liz (Lali Gonzalez) his know-all friend who obviously thinks girls can do anything, and all manner of other enjoyable details. This movie also takes place in a fairly confined area: small in South American terms, anyway. Everything happens in a huge (and I mean huge) market area, a market that seems to go on in a maze for miles in every direction.

The last movie was Saving Mr Banks. Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks star, Hanks playing a generous second fiddle to Thompson's wonderfully arrogant performance. Thompson is P L Travers, the creator of the Mary Poppins stories. Her books are sacrosanct and the idea that Walt Disney (Hanks) should make one of his awful animated movies out of them appals her. She's been holding out for twenty years, but now she's starting to need the money, and is finally persuaded to go to Los Angeles and meet Disney, and see if she can agree to anything. There's almost nothing she wants to agree to, which makes it difficult for the Hollywood people, but in the end...well, you can imagine the end because you know Mary Poppins got made and was one of Disney's most successful films ever.

Interwoven with the modern story (set in 1961) is Travers' childhood. She had an imaginative father of Irish stock, in Australia, but he was an alcoholic, and for all his intentions to keep his promises, seldom could. In spite of this Travers, as a child, adored him, and shared his wonderful fairytale view of the world. Her childhood is a tragedy, in fact, and this has affected her adulthood, so that in spite of writing a wonderful set of stories she has become a bitter old woman. Perhaps she wasn't quite as difficult as the filmmakers make her out to be, but she was certainly opinionated, and the 'family' (the Banks family in the book, and Poppins herself) were extremely precious to her.

It's a classic Hollywood movie in the old style, with a cast of great actors (Colin Farrell plays the relatively small part of the father, and Rachel Griffiths makes a brief appearance as an aunt who obviously was in part a model for Mary Poppins). Very enjoyable, and emotional.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Ranting about books and reviews

I've done book reviews for at least twenty years for our local newspaper, and occasionally for a couple of small magazines as well. We're never paid for these reviews, except insofar as we get to keep the book we've reviewed. I could count the number of times I've been paid to review a book on the fingers of one hand...probably half of a hand.

Anyway, up until recently, when we got a new book editor, it was pretty much the norm that you got sent a book and you reviewed it. Rarely did you say to the book editor that you didn't like the book; you just got on and did the job. With our current book editor we not only get a choice as to what we review but if we decide after we've started the book that it's just not a good fit, then the book can go back and be replaced by another one. That's a great bonus.

All that by way of introduction. What I really want to say is that up until e-books really took off, I didn't tend to concern myself with the fact of how often a book was published that seemed to me to be tosh or rubbish. I assumed that the publishers thought that somehow or other they could make money out of it.

With the advent of e-books, however, I find it more and more amazing that books that are poorly structured, have weak characterizations, lose the plot, fail in the climax and much more that's really not good (and I'm talking in particular about fiction, of course) still get published. 

Last year I reviewed a good deal of fiction, and some of the writing was extraordinary: extraordinary in the sense that I still can't comprehend how it got past any sort of editor in a publishing house. I know that the editorial system is different to what it used to be and that there are perhaps less people working on the publication of a book than in the past, and that in the heady old days books could be sent to an editor, sent back for revision (often based on discussions between the editor and the author), revised, rehashed and eventually brought into a state fit for public consumption.

Plainly that doesn't happen much anymore. One book I read, supposedly a thriller, spent pages on the backstory of each character as they appeared, lost the reader by introducing new characters seemingly at random, and then, most amazing of all, in the middle of the climax, gave us more back story about the villain. (Even more amazing was the fact that the author was a former editor himself.)

Another story spent a long slow time building up to what should have been an exciting climax, with a forest fire in the mix, and then dribbled away after having basically under-written the finale. Not only that, the author 'forgot' to use the forest fire, which he'd mentioned umpteen times during the course of the story and which he appeared to be treating as a matter of some significance. The story was also told by two different characters, a father and a son, and you never quite knew which one was narrating when. (On the plus side there were some very good scenes in this book and a good sense of atmosphere.)

Another book took an immense long time building up the tension to the extent that you wondered if anything of consequence was ever going to happen. It did, but there was a considerable possibility that the reader would have abandoned the book long before he or she reached that point.

Another book, one that made me increasingly queasy as it went on, was merely a series of chapters that hung together because they were narrated by the same character. There was often little overall connection, and the ending was so peculiar that it invalidated anything that had gone before. The book was set in the period building up to the French Revolution, and certainly that horrific time did finally make an appearance in the story at least (unlike the forest fire above).  But in fact the Revolution had little to do with the overall story. It was about a gourmet who wanted to savour all sorts of weird tastes, and proceeded to tell us the various things he was cooking and eating, most of which were quite vile. I'm not giving anything away by saying that at the end it appears he finally decided to eat human flesh as the climax of his life. I only persevered with this story because the individual sections were very well written, and it seemed to be going somewhere. But the somewhere I was hoping it was going to was altogether different to what the author seemed to be offering.

I'm not going to tell you what these books are, because the surprising thing is that often other people will love a book I dislike intensely, As happened with one of Alexander McCall Smith's recent books that I read. I thought it was awful and said so in the review I sent to the editor. In the end the book editor decided to get a second opinion on it. The second reviewer enjoyed it more (though there was a bit of a sting in the tail of their review still), and was able to say so. I found it tedious and badly written. McCall Smith does have his off moments, but this was the most off of all. For me.

There was another book that I got about a quarter of the way through and couldn't take any more: it concerned a doctor who seemed to hate the human body and was continually telling the reader how vile it was. And then there was a murder he'd committed which he was going to make sure someone else was stitched up for it, and at the same time he'd seduced this other person's daughter. Such a horrible character. Yet another reviewer thought it worth reading.

I ploughed my way through a 500-page murder mystery last year. It was full of remarkable writing, but far too long, and in its length seemed to lose its way, trying to throw too many red herrings in the reader's path as well as not being quite sure about its characters. Furthermore it was improbable in the way the narrator of the book was supposed to have produced a first book that was a runaway bestseller (we never heard anything of what this book was about) and his mentor had also produced an extraordinary bestseller in his own youth, extracts of which were produced in the book and showed that in no way could it have become the "American classic" it supposedly was. Amazingly, this book itself has been a runaway bestseller.

And then there was the book about a girls' school - another murder mystery - which was mind-rendingly overlong and full of foul-mouthed characters. Another story in which the author tried to convince us of the unconvinceable.

This has been a bit of a blog of two halves - and a rant. Sorry about that. Promise to do better next time.




Monday, January 12, 2015

What Does Super Jonny Do When Mum Gets Sick?

I'm part of a group of Facebook where a number of New Zealand self-published authors get together to help and encourage each other, discuss problems and suggest solutions. I've only been with the group a few months, but it's proved very valuable.

It's also helped some of us to promote our books a bit further, something that I'm also doing on Google+ plus with a different set of authors, ones who are rather more far-flung around the world.

Anyway I recently received a copy of Simone Colwill's book for children, What Does Super Jonny Do When Mum Gets Sick? It's about a little boy whose mother goes into hospital with an illness (the illness is unspecified in the book). The little boy, who sees himself as a superhero, asks How can I help? 

A number of hospital workers, ranging from the doctor down to the cleaner, all say they can help, but Jonny wants to give each of them something of his own as well. Unfortunately, Jonny feels his offers are unrecognised. I offered to help, but no one would listen. Discouraged, he comes up with several imaginative but unrealistic options to save his mother. She tells him, however, that he's already helped; each of the things he gave away was useful to the various hospital workers, though not necessarily in the ways he'd envisaged. Ultimately, she tells him, his superhero hugs are the best thing of all.

The book's delightful illustrations by Jasmine Ting give the easy-to-read story plenty of zip and zing, characterise the different people nicely, and add their own quirky humour and detail.

Finally there's a page of suggestions as to how to use the book in different situations: schools, hospitals, doctor's waiting rooms and so on.

This is a book that children will enjoy even apart from the crisis of a mother being hospital, and parents and medical professionals will find valuable.

Friday, January 09, 2015

Michael Caine on learning lines

I read a small book by Michael Caine called Acting in Film over the holidays. It was timely, as I'm due to start rehearsals in another play in a couple of weeks. What's that got to do with acting in a film, you might ask. Quite a lot, as it happens. Certainly there are differences, but in one respect in particular Mr Caine offers some excellent advice, and that's about learning lines. What he has to say may not be everyone's view, but I found it helpful.

The first thing of note is this: The first step in preparation is to learn your lines until saying them becomes a predictable reflex. And don’t mouth them silently; say them aloud until they become totally your property. Hear yourself say them, because the last thing you want is the sound of your own voice taking you by surprise or not striking you as completely convincing. If you can’t convince yourself, the chances are that you won’t convince the character opposite you, or the director. You’re your first best audience long before anybody else hears you. So don’t be an easy audience. Keep asking for more. I learn lines on my own; I never have anyone read. Nevertheless, I try to learn lines as dialogue, as logical replies to what someone else has said or as a logical response to a situation. You’ll never find me going down the page with an envelope, blocking out my own speech and revealing the one before because it then becomes nothing more than “cues” and “speeches.” If you haven’t grasped the logic of why you say a particular thing, you won’t say it properly or convincingly. And if your thoughts aren’t linked to what you’re saying, then you won’t be able to say a line as if you invented it on the spot. So you must be familiar with the whole conversation, not just your own bits. One of the most crucial jobs you’ll have as an actor will be to know what you’re thinking when you’re not talking.

I've found as I've got older that fluency is something I struggle with, that sense of being able to say the line without stumbling over a particular word. Caine writes here that the lines need to become a predictable reflex, your 'property.' He notes elsewhere in the book that the difference between working on stage and working in movies is that the stage actor learns more about his part as he goes through rehearsals, but a movie actor is expected to turn up on the first day of the shoot and get on with the job as though he'd been rehearsing for months. But I've found more and more that if I know my lines in advance, before I start rehearsal, I feel much more confident. Of course, if it's a big part and you've only been informed that you've got the part a little while before rehearsals start, then you may still be getting the lines under your belt once you start rehearsing. However, with this current part (which is a small one) I'm going to aim to have my lines learnt before we start rehearsing. It boosts the confidence enormously, and that's something Caine is all for doing.

He adds: Say your lines aloud while you’re learning them until you find what strikes you as the best possible expression of that particular thought. If there are plausible variations, develop them, practice them, too; but keep them up your sleeve. If the director rejects your brilliant interpretation, you’re not left in a blank state of horror. You've already imagined and prepared other reactions to demonstrate. And most important, you’ve allowed for some element of malleability in your performance. Give your best reading as if it were the only one possible; but your mind should be hanging loose enough to take a leap, if necessary. For the moment, go with the line readings that seem to you the most valid. It may take some doing, but once the thought process is right, the words will follow. So much of it really is a matter of repetition, of saying the lines over and over again until you’re sick of them; until someone can give you a cue, and you can say, feel, and react to the whole cycle of events, including those related to everyone else’s parts. That confidence is your safeguard against terror. Otherwise, in the tension of the close-up, when you’re standing there and someone is saying, “Quiet! Turn over! Speed! Action!” you may well go, “To bum or not to bim, that is the question!”

Of course the stage actor doesn't have anyone insisting you say the thing correctly from the word go, but some directors do make you tense, and if your preparation of the lines is sound, then at least you won't be forgetting the lines because some other aspect of the rehearsal has upset your equilibrium. Anyway, even as an amateur, it's good to have a professional attitude. 

He also writes: It may sound like a contradiction, but you achieve spontaneity on the set through preparation of the dialogue at home. As you prepare, find ways of making your responses appear newly minted, not preprogrammed. In life, we often pick up the thought that provokes our next remark halfway through someone else’s speech. Thoughts don’t leap to the mouth automatically. We don’t interrupt at every occasion when a thought formulates itself; or, if we do, we don’t have many friends. Similarly, in a film script, your internal thought processes might well start articulating themselves long before you get the chance to speak. The script sometimes directs you to interrupt, but if it doesn’t, your thought may start well before you get a chance to respond. There may be a key word that triggers you during the sentence the other actor is saying. So pick up on that; form your thought and be ready to speak. For example: Other Actor: I’ve got to get a bus to Clapham—I’m already late for my date. You: You won’t get far. There’s a bus strike. The other actor doesn’t stop talking after he says “bus,” so you can’t get in and say your line at the actual moment of thought recognition. But when you hear the key word “bus,” from that point on you know what you’re going to say directly after he stops. You can show this by your reaction. And that bit of acting can only come from serious listening.

This is good advice altogether, but again the important thing for me is that achieving of spontaneity by being thoroughly prepared. And part of preparation is trying out all sorts of ways of saying the line, so that it doesn't sound stale. 

There are a host of other things in the book that apply not just to film acting but to acting in general, and I think any actor could benefit from it.  

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Promoting your product

I've been spending a lot of time in the last year promoting my three e-books. It's a tough task but it has to be done. Sometimes it's fun, sometimes it's a chore. You meet interesting people online in the process, and there's always plenty of advice as to how to do it better - too much, perhaps.

But one thing is certain, if you're not a big name and not already a big seller, you're going to have to be patient and let the sales trickle in bit by bit.

I was thinking about this while walking the dog this afternoon. I came across a sign on the roadside which had blown over (not the one in the picture; that's just an example, and doesn't look as if it would blow over easily). It was advertising firewood and so on. I wondered if it would have been anymore effective even if it had been standing up.

Firstly, it was right on the corner of the road that the customer was expected to go up. No warning further down the road, nothing. Just the one sign.

Now this isn't a road where motorists are doing any great speed, but even at 50 kmph, it takes a bit of doing on the motorist's to read the sign, understand it, think about whether he really wants that product, think about whether he really wants to stop or if he's got better things to do; it takes him time to realise the sign relates to the road they're just about to pass, to discuss it all with his wife, to find a way of turning around and then going to investigate. Even if he thinks about all this and decides to come back later, it's possible he'll forget, or find something else more urgent needing to be done.

I know all this because I've often not stopped when going through the orchard area in Roxburgh. At 100 kmph it's even harder to make all these decisions.

At the very least there needs to be two or three signs further down the road at considerable intervals (and yes, I understand that's all a cost to the seller), each one pointing to the road that's coming up, and giving the driver plenty of time to consider whether he wants to make the effort of stopping and buying the product.

Without those warning signs, however, it's unlikely anyone will stop, unless they're absolutely desperate for what's on sale.

Now compare this to an author trying to sell his/her book on line. If I post a tweet, or a facebook comment once, and don't bother again, all I've done is announce to a few possible followers that I have a product. Big deal. If they happen to know me, happen to have read my previous books and enjoyed them, then it's vaguely possible they may suddenly decide on the spur of the moment to purchase the latest one.

It's more likely they'll pay no attention at all. In a digital sense, they'll keep driving.

However, if I post tweets at regular but not annoying intervals, and make them different, enticing, and interesting (that is, not just sales blurbs, but like real tweets or comments) then over the course of time, interest will be aroused, and the reader/follower may think: I remember that from a week or two ago. I might be interested.

They may still switch off and go to the next more interesting tweet or pretty picture. But after seeing these tweets/comments several times, couched in creative ways, they may start to say: Yes, I will look into this. They may click on the link, investigate further, check out the sample. They may even buy.

But notice what a long process this is.

This is why advertisers keep on hammering away at us on TV, in the newspapers, online. They know that the first time we won't pay any attention. We might like the ad, if it's clever, but as for the product, we may find we have no use for it, or it doesn't appeal just at that point. But over successive weeks, months and so on, the product starts to click in our memories, and we slowly change our view. We may resist forever - some ads make me resist, though obviously the advertisers don't realise that. Equally, we may finally think: now's the time.

Perseverance, creativity, continual exposure. All keys to telling the world that we authors have got something they'd like to read. Just this week, a person who has their own online app and with whom I've had a lot of contact via email about what he's selling, suddenly announced he'd bought my book. I think the only way he'd have known about it is because it's on the bottom of my emails. And has been for months.