Recommended Reading: Stephen King

Killer clowns, vicious vampires, deranged dogs, murderous monsters and psychotic stalkers. These are the characters we associate with Stephen King. And, fair enough. He is, after all, the King of horror.
To paint all of his work with this blood-covered brush is something only the uninitiated do. In doing so you miss coming-of-age stories, the underdogs-seeking-redemption tales, the hard-boiled-detective books, and the historical-fiction-cum-time-travel novel.
The recent release of IT means that King is in our collective thoughts again. If I’m being honest about the film, I thought it was underwhelming. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the casting – each actor/character felt like they truly belonged in that world – and the
cinematography was excellent; I just wasn’t scared.
Fortunately, IT was never one of my favourite King tales so it didn’t ruin anything for me. Likewise, I’ve grown accustomed to the fact that he doesn’t often translate well to the big screen anyway. Note that I said ‘often’ – there are some major exceptions.
Anyway, for anyone who has a new-found interest in reading King’s books (whether that interest stems from watching IT or 2016’s 11.22.63 Hulu series, or from somewhere else) it can be quite daunting choosing where to start. A prolific writer, Stephen King has written 56 novels, 5 non-fiction books and nearly 200 short stories collected in 10 anthologies. And it’s all connected…
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I’m a huge fan of his work and his books dominate my bookshelf but I’m not going to pretend I’ve read all that King has produced. If that information taints this recommendation then so be it, but here’s my 13 favourite Stephen King books (not in order because that proved too difficult).
The Green Mile
I can actually remember when this came out. It was the year I turned 16 and the novel was released in six parts; one small book a month for six months. The Green Mile was also turned into a successful film and is one of those tales people can’t believe was written by Stephen King. It’s most memorable character is a giant black man on death row who shows incredible empathy and the ability to inexplicably heal people (and a mouse).
‘Salem’s Lot
A vampire older than Christ relocates to a rural American town and begins turning everyone into bloodsucking monsters. Stephen King has said in a couple of interviews that this is his favourite book. At one point he was planning a full-blown sequel but that never eventuated. Instead, he simply returned to that setting in two of the short stories collected in Night Shift.
The Shining
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Redrum. Redrum.
The story of an alcoholic writer who ‘house sits’ a haunted hotel with his wife and telepathic son. This is the first book that actually gave me the heebie-jeebies. The woman in room 237 was particularly freaky.
King actually wrote a sequel called Doctor Sleep which didn’t hit the same heights but was still very entertaining.
The Stand
This! 823 pages of good vs evil. Apparently the original manuscript was so big that the printing presses of the time literally couldn’t handle it so King had to cull it. He later released an ‘uncut’ version that came in at 1152 pages. It is an epic in every sense of the word.
Different Seasons
If you don’t like horror, this is the King book for you. Well, half of it is. This isn’t a novel but 4 novellas. Two of these have been converted into films regularly listed among people’s favourites – The Shawshank Redemption and Stand By Me. One of the remaining two is Apt Pupil which is a disturbingly realistic story of a teenage boy who finds a Nazi war criminal in his neighbourhood. The final story is bat-shit crazy and features a pregnant woman who is involved in a car crash while in labour.
Needful Things
If you ask me what my favourite Stephen King book is, this is your answer. Then I think about it and change my mind about a half a dozen times. More often than not, I still come back to Needful Things. The premise is quite simple; an elderly shop owner sells goods for misdeeds… and their souls. It’s the last novel set in Castle Rock.
The Dark Half
I don’t like birds and “the sparrows are flying again”. This novel features an author who is haunted by the pen-name he tried to kill off (but it doesn’t want to stay dead). I was freaked out by this book when I first read it. It probably didn’t help that I used to live in a house surrounded by a national forest and often found myself to be the only one at home – it’s actually really surprising that horror is a genre I love, I was constantly creeping myself out while growing up.
On Writing
Part autobiography, part how-to book. I love this candid look at King’s life and craft.
Misery
Yet another Stephen King novel where the protagonist is an author. It often feels like King puts himself into his books and this makes it seem like the nightmares are all his. Here an obsessive fan helps her favourite author recover after a car crash until her obsession takes a dark turn. Kathy Bates won an Oscar for her portrayal of the psychotic nurse.
The Talisman
This is one of many collaborations Stephen King has worked on, this one with Peter Straub. Set in America and an alternate dimension, this is the story of a young boy who wants to cure his mum’s cancer.
Everything’s Eventual
I struggled to pick a short story collection to fit in this list and Everything’s Eventual narrowly beat out the other anthologies. These are probably a great place to start as they allow a glimpse into King’s work in accessible bite-sized chunks. The titular story is excellent, so is “The Road Virus Heads North”. “1408” was turned into a decent film and “The Man in the Black Suit” was also a riveting tale (about a boy who meets the Devil).
Danse Macabre
This is the first non-fiction book of King’s that I ever read. It’s a history of horror, an appreciation of the genre, and a blend of academic insight and personal reflection. It’s a fantastic read.
Cycle of the Werewolf
This illustrated short novel tells of werewolf attacks in a small town. It is told in 12 chapters that are set in each month of a calendar year. Aside from the unique structure, I also enjoyed the fact that the protagonist is a wheelchair-bound adolescent.
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Hmmm, all of this reminiscing has made me keen to read some King again. Fortunately, he’s just released one book (Sleeping Beauties, co-written by his son Owen King) and is releasing another before Christmas (Gwendy’s Button Box, co-written by Richard Chizmar).
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Recommended Reading: Terry Pratchett

Somewhere in space there is a giant turtle, on the back of which stands four elephants. Balanced on top of these creatures is a flat disc. On that disc lives witches, wizards, werewolves, vampires, trolls, humans and other assorted oddities. 

This is Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. For the uninitiated, approaching this universe is a daunting task. There are 41 novels and a variety of support materials, spin offs and adaptations. 

I love Pratchett. He and Stephen King dominate my shelves. 

So, when a friend said she was interested in reading some of his books, I eagerly volunteered to make some recommendations. It was a silly thing to do. I’ve got my favourites, but are they the best ‘jumping on’ points?

While many of the books stand alone as independent works, a number of novels and stories can be grouped together because they feature common central characters and settings. Furthermore, some books refer to events that happened in other novels.  If my favourite novel from one of these ‘sets’ is one of the latter ones, is my appreciation of it enhanced by my knowledge of how things got to this point?

It meant that, in order to make my recommendations, I needed to be more pragmatic. That’s why it has ballooned out into this blog post instead of a quick text message. 

So, below you’ll find two lists. The first is short and sharp. It is my top 5 (not necessarily in order). It is what would possibly have been in that message had I been reactive instead of practical. The second is longer. It is organised under headings that represent the main character threads within the Discworld series. Under those headings is a brief introduction to that arc, and the titles of both the first book in that series and my favourite one.

Here we go:

discworld-novels

My top 5

  1. Carpe Jugulum
  2. Moving Pictures
  3. The Last Continent
  4. The Fifth Elephant 
  5. Hogfather 

 

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The longer list…

Rincewind and the Wizards

The first two Discworld novels had Rincewind as their protagonist. He is a bumbling, incompetent wizard who doesn’t look for trouble but trouble seems to find him anyway. Rincewind is also linked to the wizards of the Unseen University, an institution whose librarian was turned into an orangutan (and possibly one of the most loved characters in all of Pratchett’s works). 

First novel: The Colour of Magic – effectively a ‘straight’ parody of the fantasy genre. 

Favourite novel: The Last Continent – Pratchett’s love for Australia is evident is this piss take that takes place in a setting that is part-fantasy, part-outback. 

Is this a good jumping on point? Yes, I think so. I might be biased, however. I reckon all Aussies should give this a read. Think of the episode from The Simpsons, “Bart vs Australia”, add a cowardly wizard and his semi-sentient, multi-legged luggage and what you get is a laugh riot.

 

The Witches

While wizards on the disc like showing off, the witches deliberately choose not to use magic on most occasions. If we think about illusionists, Pratchett’s wizards more like stage magicians while his witches are akin to mentalists. They’re intelligent, resourceful and cunning. The most prominent witch in the series is Granny Weatherwax who became a witch by choice, not by fate, and is known by the varied species throughout Discworld as the most powerful witch in the world. 

First novel: Equal Rites

Favourite novel: Carpe Jugulum

Is this a good jumping on point? Maybe. There’s a bit of history between the witches from the previous books and ignorance of this might slow you down at the start. Once it gets going though… what you have is a wicked novel that answers two questions you never knew you had. 1. How do ‘young’ vampires rebel against the traditions of their people? -and- 2. What would happen in a fight between witches and vampires?

 

Death

Death is pretty much everyone’s favourite Pratchett character and is the one who appears in the most books (almost all of them). He is your typical anthropomorphic incarnation of death, in that he looks like the Grim Reaper. Death speaks IN SMALL CAPITALS and, in the books devoted to his story, he explores the essence of humanity. 

First novel: Eric

Favourite novel: Hogfather 

Is this a good jumping on point? Possibly not. The Hogfather is a similar figure to Santa and his role is taken over one Hogswatchnight by Death. It’s an enjoyable romp but Reaper Man is probably a better novel to start with – in which Death becomes mortal for a while. 

 

City Watch

The biggest city on the disc has its laws enforced by a group that began with two hopeless street-coppers being led by their alcoholic captain and has become a fully-fledged police force containing more diversity than you’ll find anywhere else (real or otherwise). Take your urban sprawl, your technology and your businesses and add elements of traditional fantasy and this is what you get. 

First novel: Guards! Guards!

Favourite novel: The Fifth Elephant 

Is this a good jumping on point? No. The picture book, Where’s My Cow?, is a great introduction to the characters in this series but, because there is more growth in this particular arc than any other, here you’re better of starting at the beginning. 

 

Tiffany Aching (the Witches but it’s YA)

In a similar way to how Harry Potter traces the growth of a young wizard as he learns to perform spells and ultimately conquers evil, the Tiffany Aching series tracks the development of a young witch learning her place in the world. Integral to her story are the hilarious Nac Mac Feegle – little, blue, Scottish picsties who love to drink, steal and fight. 

First novel: The Wee Free Men

Favourite novel: The Wee Free Men

Is this a good jumping on point? Obviously! In this book, Tiffany has to rescue her little brother from the The Queen of the Fairies. Personally, I think part of the reason I like it (and Pratchett’s witch novels in general) is because of its strong, female lead. 

 

Moist von Lipwig

On the surface, these novels look boring compared to Pratchett’s other works. The first is about the postal service, the second is concerned with the mint and the introduction of paper money, and the third revolves around the the first railway on the disc. Despite the ‘boring’ premises, Pratchett remains funny throughout. 

First novel: Going Postal

Favourite novel: Going Postal

Is this a good jumping on point? Obviously! Like the Tiffany Aching series, my favourite book is the first in this character’s arc. Moist is a con-man given the choice of being the new postmaster or dying and what we see is how his cunning can be used for good. 

 

Miscellaneous 

Some of the Discworld novels don’t feature these characters and stand alone as individual tales within this shared universe. These include Pyramids, Moving Pictures, Small Gods, The Truth, The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents (YA), and Monstrous Regiment.

Favourite novel: Moving Pictures; in which making movies becomes detrimental to the structure of reality itself. 

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Anyway, I hope that helps people decide what Discworld novel they might like to pick up.

Happy reading!

Ru (//) Cercle -a magical night around a campfire

Sometimes life throws up these little idiosyncrasies, these serendipitous moments that suggest there is more to this world than what we can see, that we are all performers on God’s stage.

Tonight I went to a fringe show. The last time I saw tonight’s performer was roughly a fortnight ago when he and I were in the audience of a poet who was, in turn, in the audience tonight. I’m a big fan of both of these people but I never expected to see the other when I arrived at each venue – I only expected to see (or even know) the performer.

There’s more to this. Tonight’s performer was Zal, an ex-student of mine, operating under the pseudonym Ru (his musical moniker). When I arrived at the show I bumped into another ex-student who had also come to see him. This ex-student was Chloe, the girl (young lady) who designed the cover of my poetry anthology. It was at the launch of this book that the three of us were last in the same place at the same time – I read some verse, Chloe explained her design and process, and Zal performed during the intermission. It’s like we’ve come full circle (or Cercle in this case).

Zal went by his own name then. He was part of a close knit trio named Kids With Wolves and their music was phenomenal; each time I heard them play I would walk away uplifted and inspired to write. Creative differences saw the band split and two of them formed The Woods but they eventually dissolved too and Zal reinvented himself under the stage name Ru.

I think I’ve been to seven of his gigs now, tonight’s fringe show included. I wasn’t sure, initially, if I would be able to see him perform this time around but I’m so glad that I managed to go because tonight’s performance was vastly different to all I’ve seen him do before. I’m hoping, in my description of what I witnessed tonight, my lack of musical knowledge doesn’t take away from the quality of the event.

Prior to the final song, Zal imparted some of his world view on the audience. He reminded us that while we are chasing our dreams all those around us are also chasing theirs and we should not seek to better ourselves at their expense, rather we should bring them up with us. Whether he did it intentionally or not (and I’m thinking he did), his stage design reflected his ideals. Traditional band set ups involve the musicians standing at the front of the venue with the audience before them while on stage the band members form a visible hierarchy with those deemed more important (e.g. the lead singer) closest to the front of stage.  Tonight’s set-up was far more intimate and far more equitable. In the middle of the room was a fake fire and the four performers stood around this with the audience circling them. No one had a prominent position; it was Zal’s show but all of the musicians had equal footing in the eyes of those in attendance.

With regards to those musicians, Wayan “Billy” Biliondana played the double bass. Alongside Zal’s guitar, this was the main source of music for the evening (with shakers coming out late in the set). Billy also added his vocals to a couple of songs and, when he did so, it added another dimension to them that wasn’t present in the other pieces. This isn’t a slant on those songs (or the vocalists), merely an observation and a comment on his deep voice. Speaking of vocalists, Anikka Moses seemed to be loving life and was a joy to watch. Anikka looked genuinely excited not just to be there but to sing each line, even for the occasions where she had no lyrics, per se, and was just crooning. She would also channel the other musicians, often staring at them intently as she was harmonising with their voice or instrument. Laura Strobech, the other vocalist, was equally amazing. At times her singing reminded me of Kate Miller-Heidke, at other times she was so much like a Disney princess I wouldn’t have been surprised if cartoon birds landed on her shoulders, then there were other times when her voice was unlike anything I’d heard before.

Then there was Zal: guitar-playing, song-singing, story-telling, soul-sharing Zal. The songs we heard were his babies, brought to life by a variety of experiences that we are blessed to experience a fragment of. Musically he is part Newton Faulkner, part Paul Simon and all Zal.

Tonight’s gig was the end of a journey but Zal is a man of the earth and there are many more roads to walk – I look forward to seeing where his music takes him next.

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PS – there was a weird part during the performance tonight where the fire alarm started sounding for no reason and we had to wait for the State Theatre staff to confirm it was a false alarm before the show could go on. Anyway, while we were waiting Laura gave us this classic joke:

  1. How do you titillate and ocelot?
  2. Oscillate its titalot.

I hate Harry Potter

LOL jk (rowling)

 

But I did. When I first read The Philosopher’s Stone I couldn’t suspend reality enough to enjoy it. Specifically, I couldn’t suspend the reality that I was an adult reading a book that was written for children. The first Harry Potter book was written for adolescents and, as such, is a little simplistic. I was also late to the party. I was reading it based on the numerous recommendations that had come from kids and adults alike and, to me, it failed to live up to the hype. I thought the concept was cool and I liked the inclusion of mythological creatures but I was bored by the writing style.

I wish now that I’d listened to people’s suggestions to read The Chamber of Secrets despite my first impressions. If I had picked up the second book then I would have realised my hesitations were unfounded earlier and I could have been swept up in the euphoria of each new book/movie release. Instead, I waited until I was in my late 30s and have had to settle for the diminished fanfare that escorted the release of the scripts of The Cursed Child and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

Ultimately, it was daughter who got me to give Harry Potter a second chance. She’s an avid reader but, at seven years of age, most of the books written for her year level don’t offer enough of a challenge so I gave her my old copy of The Philosopher’s Stone. I’d ask questions after each chapter to see if she was grasping what was happening (while I skim read chapter summaries online to remind myself what happened). When she finished the book we watched the movie – which got her younger brother hooked. Well, that and the Lego Harry Potter games on the Playstation. From there our house became a second Hogwarts with witches and wizards becoming key characters of their role playing games.

I knew that my daughter would want to continue reading the series so I picked up The Chamber of Secrets and began reading so we could continue to bond over the events therein. Then, when I finished that book I went out and bought the next one and the next one and the next one and so on. I was hooked. More than that, I am overjoyed by the fact my daughter is hooked too. Thus far she’s read the first four books but we’ve asked her to hold off on the next one until the next school holidays. As a family, we’ve also watched the first five films – I’m sure we’ll see the others soon.

What makes the books so engaging? Why am I excited to have my kids engaged in that world? There are a number of reasons. Here are three of them:

 

  1. Girl power

The protagonist, his best mate, the headmaster, the tormenting teacher, the nurturing gameskeeper, the villain and a slew of other important characters are all male but it is the supporting cast of females that steal the show.

  • Minerva McGonagall is a sass queen and a total bad-ass while also being a fair and nurturing mentor for the students at Hogwarts.
  • Hermione Granger is intelligent, fierce compassionate, independent yet loyal, and is possibly the only reason Harry and Ron ever lived long enough to graduate.
  • Luna Lovegood is kooky and off-beat but she is one of the most observant and empathetic characters in the whole series. Yes, she can often be tactless, but she is a loyal and true friend to Harry and his crew.
  • Bellatrix Lestrange is cruel and unpredictable. She is supremely talented, amazingly powerful and downright scary.
  • Ginny Weasley is a force to be reckoned with despite her age and stature. Like many women who grew up in a house full of brothers, she definitely knows how to take care of herself.
  • Nymphadora Tonks brings light and laughter into dark and dire situations. She is unconventional and damn proud of it.

In each of these women is something for my daughter to aspire to (yes, even in Bellatrix) and something for my son to respect, admire and love.

hermione

 

  1. Oh… What a world, what a world!

In Harry Potter’s London, both the muggle and the magical world are incredibly detailed. Such is the beauty of Rowling’s descriptions that it is easy to imagine what each setting looks like. But when I talk about ‘the world’ in the books I mean more than just the locations. The planning that has gone in to each book and the hidden details that hint at later events that you don’t notice until you return to the ones you’ve already read make the series that much more enjoyable. Here are some of my favourite foreshadowed moments and subtle clues:

  • Remus Lupin’s name is a dead giveaway. “Remus” comes from the Roman tale of Romulus and Remus who were raised by a wolf and “Lupin” comes from the Latin word for wolf. Other characters also have names that hint at their nature.
  • When Arthur Weasley takes Harry to the Ministry of Magic the secret entrance is a phone-booth in which Arthur dials 62442. If you were ‘lucky’ enough to grow up in a time when letters and numbers shared the same keys on your phone, you’d realise this spells out the word “MAGIC.”
  • The Vanishing Cabinet (so important late in the series) first appeared in The Chamber of Secrets, Sirius Black is first mentioned at the start of The Philosopher’s Stone, in the same book Snape’s mind-reading abilities (revealed in Book 5) are alluded to, and the relationships between Bill and Fleur, Hermione and Ron, and Harry and Ginny are all hinted at much earlier than you might first think.
  • The Marauder’s Map is signed by Mooney, Wormtail, Padfoot and Prongs who die in the exact reverse order of when their name is listed.
  • Shaun of the Dead fans know that the whole plot of the film is encapsulated in a conversation at the start of the movie. Well… The Goblet of Fire does this too. Harry’s made up prediction that “on Monday I will be in danger of, er,  burns… Tuesday, I’ll… erm… lose a treasured possession” coupled with Ron’s addition of “Why don’t you get stabbed in the back by someone you thought was a friend?” mirrors the events of the Tri-Wizard tournament.
  • 3s – 3 Deathly Hallows, 3 Unforgiveable Curses, 3 friends (Ron, Harry, Hermione), 3 bullies (Malfoy, Crabbe, Goyle).
  • Harry is a horcux – hinted at by Dumbledore in The Chamber of Secrets and Trelawny in The Prisoner of Azkaban.
  • In The Prisoner Of Azkaban, Trelawney refused to sit at the table where she would be the thirteenth person sitting as she believed that the first person to stand up from that table would be cursed and die which eventually happens to both Sirius and Lupin.

But enough of the spoilers. The point is, Peter Pettigrew sized plot holes aside, J.K. Rowling is a genius.

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  1. Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?

I have always loved Greek, Roman and Norse mythologies; the tales of their heroes and the fantastic beasts they fought. As such, the Harry Potter universe is an absolute delight with all the allusions to these myths and creatures. There are a number of other parallels that can be drawn too – Voldemort is Hitler, Dementors are depression and the effect mental illness has on a person, Hermione and S.P.E.W. represent various human rights movements, muggles/wizards/goblins/house-elves/giants and so on represent different races, Hogwarts (with its bullies, exams, homework, tormenting teachers, nurturing teachers, relationships, etc.) represents the typical school experience.

Naturally, with all of this real-world reference, there is also real-world relevance. The Harry Potter series teaches us so much about what it means to be a good person and about what it takes to survive in this cruel world of ours. Don’t believe me? Check out this link.

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Maddie Godfrey’s body IS a poem

and her fringe show is a body of work that is definitely worth seeing. I first met Maddie on the 18th of March, 2015 – I know because I blogged about it and I’m only really mentioning that this is when we met because I want it known that I knew Maddie before she became an internationally acclaimed, kick-ass poet. And kick-ass she does. She’s won slams in Australia and the UK, performed at the Sydney Opera House, competed in New York and featured in multiple festivals.

 

Anyway, today is the first day since our first meeting that I’ve seen her perform live. If My Body Was a Poem is 45 mins of intimacy. Yes, she performs in short shorts and a bra and does these little sexy dances between poems but that’s not the sort of intimacy I’m talking about. Maddie invites you into her life, tells you the details of her birth, shares (with nostalgic reverie) aspects of her childhood and spills the secrets only her body knows.

 

She opens with some provocative dancing before welcoming the audience into her show, telling the story of how it came to be a seamlessly blending into the titular poem. If you’re happy to have this spoiled for you, a video of this particular poem can be found on her Facebook page. We clap at the end of this piece but it’s one of the few times we do. Often tonight I found myself so awestruck by the power of Maddie’s words that I literally forgot to applaud; I was too busy picking my jaw up off the floor that by the time it was back in place it was no longer the right time to clap. At other times, clapping was just not appropriate. When I said earlier that Maddie spills the secrets only her body knows, she spills all the secrets and some of them are pretty dark.

 

Not that it’s all doom and gloom. There were genuine laughs from the audience. My favourite one of these (SPOILERS) was when the words “my dad” were uttered directly after some sultry dance moves and the juxtaposition of these two ideas brought nervous laughter out of everyone in attendance.

 

Beyond the words themselves, Maddie is an expert performer. Her shadow is deliberately cast onto the wall behind her in such a way that it becomes a persona of its own. It is a powerful image. She also uses silence in a manner that makes the absence of sound carry its own meaning and its own weight. As for the words themselves, they’re beautiful. I said after the show that you would hear an image so striking you wanted to commit it to memory but before you could do so there’s another line equally as poignant. I wanted to keep so much of what was said so I could share it with people but there was too much gold to try to hold on to.

 

When I caught up with Maddie afterwards I said I chose to come to opening night so I could see the hiccups. There were some, apparently, but I didn’t see them – only those involved in the production and rehearsal would’ve noticed the missing pieces or muddled parts. Honestly, even if Maddie did mess up, how could you be upset by it when one of the messages you’re meant to walk away with is the notion that we should embrace our imperfections? And not just our own. Maddie encourages her audience to acknowledge people’s body shapes as being like various flavours of ice cream; we all have different tastes. Likewise, she expresses ideas about sexuality and feminist ideologies and the need for encouragement beyond acceptance.

 

Anyway… this isn’t even what I wanted to write. I feel like I’ve undersold it. Maddie’s show was phenomenal and I don’t feel as if I’ve given it justice. What I want to say is you should see it. I don’t know what I paid for my ticket but I would’ve gladly paid double. It was worth it. I don’t care that the carpark’s sign said there were 500+ bays available and when I drove down to the boomgates they wouldn’t open because it was full. I don’t care that I walked past the venue and continued walking for several hundred metres before realising my mistake. I don’t care that the two main roads I use to exit Northbridge were closed and I struggled to find my way back to the freeway. I had a bloody good night and I wouldn’t change a thing because I got to see the magic that is Maddie.

 

Bravo, Miss Godfrey!

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Rogue One: a belated review

Growing up, one of the jobs I dreamed about having as an adult was a sports reporter because it combined two of my favourite things – sport and writing. Following close behind was the idea of being a video game or movie reviewer. Obviously that didn’t eventuate but it appears it may not be too late. Sanity is looking for reviewers.

 

If this fits into your interests, the link is HERE. Meanwhile, here’s the review I’m sending in – I’ll let you know their response when I get it.

 

swro

Rogue Wonderful

 

A long time ago in cinemas pretty much everywhere George Lucas introduced the world to a galaxy full of royalty, space knights, aliens and loveable rogues. In 2015, J.J. Abrams took us back to this world with (essentially) an updated version of the original Star Wars film. The success of The Force Awakens erased the memories of the much maligned prequels and paved the way for a slew of new Jedi movies. The first of these is Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. It’s marketed as a stand-alone film but there’s a ton of Easter eggs for the hardcore fans. If that’s not you, don’t worry – you could have zero knowledge of this universe and still have an enjoyable time.

 

Is it perfect? No.

 

The exposition is really busy. Honestly, you don’t want to arrive late to this movie. The opening sequences have you planet hopping at an incredible pace meeting all the key players so you’ll need to be concentrating. Comparatively, the middle of the film is quite slow (perfect for a toilet break).

 

Is it great? Yes.

 

Our protagonist, Jyn Erso, is an independent woman who don’t need no man. She follows a tradition that began with Ripley in Alien and has found a home in YA dystopias. In doing so, she also mirrors the role Daisy Ridley played in The Force Awakens. As the father of a daughter, I’m hoping powerful women that kick ass will continue to light up our screens. Anyway… back to the review. The action sequences are phenomenal. Air and land battles are brilliantly shot, really putting the audience in the moment, but it is the smaller scale fights featuring Darth Vader and Donnie Yen’s blind ninja that steal the show.

 

Obviously, because it’s set just before A New Hope, people who love the original films know how it’s going to end but that shouldn’t dampen your enthusiasm. In fact, the denouement is the best part.

 

To borrow from Marvel, this is the “All New, All Different” Star Wars. It’s a war movie, it’s a heist movie; it’s space opera on a grand scale. Rogue One sets lofty targets but, unlike stormtroopers, it doesn’t miss.

 

By Ron Barton

 

What the movies don’t tell you about teaching

I want you to get this straight! Most of the teachers here are here because they care! About those children out there! This school, this fight, they are in it with you! They take it home at night, the same as you! They are a part of those children’s lives!

– Ms. Levias, Lean on Me.

 

I love movies about teachers, especially ones where a hard-as-nails group of good-for-nothing reprobates realise their potential under an educator whose tough love shows them the value of discipline, hard work and camaraderie. Admittedly, once you’ve seen one film in this genre you don’t need to see the rest as they are overly formulaic to the point of being the film equivalent of a paint-by-numbers colouring in book. That said, I am always touched by the dramatic moment when the most troubled teen makes a public declaration of support and love to the teacher.

 

I’m watching Coach Carter with my year 12s at the moment and this scene comes when the player who has struggled the most (on and off the court) stands and recites an abridged version of Marianne Williamson’s “Our Greatest Fear”.

our-deepest-fear

 

It’s tear jerking stuff.

 

 

I’ve been teaching for 12 years; I’ve had my “O Captain! My Captain!” moment (literally) and, while my unorthodox teaching methods are more likely to draw comparisons with Dead Poets Society’s John Keating, I was inspired by the Dangerous Minds and To Sir With Love idea of improving the lives of those who really need it.

 

Female Student: “Why do you care anyway? You just here for the money.”

LouAnne: “Because I make a choice to care. And honey, the money ain’t that good.”

– Dangerous Minds.

 

I can’t be the teacher I thought I would be.

 

This isn’t “I can’t” in the sense that I lack the professional knowledge or nous to teach a class of ‘dropkicks’ nor is it “I can’t” as a cop-out meaning “I won’t”. I can’t be that teacher because it is physically and emotionally impossible to maintain.

 

I care for my students. I care for many of the individuals I have had the pleasure to teach. But, I can’t care for every individual student who enters my classroom. I know this because I have tried. Tried and failed. I have driven myself to the point of physical exhaustion, to the point that I would have crippling stomach pains and overly emotional reactions to minor issues. Despite the exhaustion I wouldn’t sleep because I was constantly planning for and reflecting on every minute of each day. I have taught THAT class, where the only person the students had in their lives that cared for them was me. I taught them, fought the system and faced the criticism of my colleagues while doing so. And then I drew a line.

 

One of the sayings I’ve latched on to, and I don’t know where I picked it up from, is that you have to treat things as though you are on a plane about to crash. When you listen to the safety spiel at the start of each flight you are always told to affix your oxygen mask before assisting anyone else with theirs, even if that someone else is your child or partner. Why? Because you are no good to anyone when you’re dead. Parenting manuals advocate for this approach too. To a lesser extent, so too do Snickers’ commercials. When you are tired/sick/emotional/hungry (and so on) you do not perform at optimal levels. So, if you want to be effective in the classroom you have to look after yourself first. And, one of the ways you can do this is to re-evaluate how you measure success.

 

The problem isn’t the kids. It’s not even what they can achieve. The problem is what you expect them to achieve.

– Ron Clark, The Ron Clark Story.

 

I can’t care for every student. I can dangle a carrot and/or wave a big stick but I don’t have the time nor inclination to sit with each student and ensure they are doing their work. This isn’t written with a secret agenda to lower class sizes, that would help in some instances but academic success for all is not achievable through any one simple act. Lower class sizes can’t improve attendance, decrease drug and alcohol use or change social/cultural attitudes towards education. I only have limited impact in that sphere too. I have data that shows I’ve had a positive influence on my students but I see them four hours a week – that’s 4 lessons out of the 25 they have on their timetable.

 

I can’t care for every student, mostly because it’s not fair. I don’t know, maybe I’m using the word care incorrectly. What I’m saying sounds pretty harsh but I’ll try and unpack it further. In one of my current classes I have half of the students achieving B grades or better, some students on C grades and a handful of them not passing. Of the students currently failing I CAN help some of them turn their fortunes around but there are three who probably won’t pass even with my intervention. Two of these are because their attendance is so poor I simply won’t have enough opportunities to assist them. I can’t let this get to me, their failure is not a reflection of my abilities or efforts in the classroom. The other student is a regular attendee but he is in class in body only. This student will only work under close supervision and in order for him to pass I would have to sacrifice time spent improving the educational outcomes of the other students in the class. Is that student more important than his peers? Is his potential C worth more than other students’ potential B and A grades? No. One student cannot be seen to be of more value than any other – imagine asking a parent to devote their attention to one child at the expense of their other children. So, if that student chooses not to make an effort to improve on his academic standing during the times he doesn’t have my undivided attention, I can’t let bring me down either.

 

Then there are the classes where next to no one is passing. I had one last year, a class of the lowest achieving students deliberately put together through a streaming process. If the class is ‘destined’ to fail when I am given them, why should I have an emotional reaction if that eventuates? So much of the education system appears designed to limit student success. Curriculum overhauls pitch assessments (including externally set exams and common assessment tasks) at a higher level than many of the students appear capable of understanding – and a science colleague recently said their yearly curriculum has 18 months of content in it. Furthermore, in WA we have an online test where failure prevents students from graduating. Tragically, the students who need to experience success (those who speak English as a second language, have some form of disability and/or come from low socioeconomic backgrounds) are the most disadvantaged. While I might be saddened by their situation, I can’t let their lack of academic success impact on my job satisfaction.

 

“I took this job because I wanted to effect change in a special group of young men, and this is the only way I know how to do that.”

– Ken Carter, Coach Carter.

 

I can’t care for every student. That doesn’t mean I’m not doing my best in the classroom. It doesn’t mean that I don’t value each student as human beings with great potential. It just means that I won’t let their academic progress be my only measuring stick. I don’t (and won’t) care what grade they get, I judge my effectiveness across a variety of criteria and few of those are found on standardised tests. A person’s attitude towards school and education is influenced by a number of factors. It takes a village to raise a child and I’m just one of the idiots.

 

Besides:

I always thought the idea of education was to learn to think for yourself.

– John Keating, Dead Poets Society.

 

 

 

Ninja Turtles or Copy Cats?

I grew up on the Ninja Turtles and I passed that enthusiasm on to my younger brother and my kids. I actually reckon I’m like a composite turtle, composed of contrasting traits of patience, rage, intelligence and immaturity. Generally speaking, however, when we talk TMNT in my house my wife is the leader (Leonardo), my daughter is the clever one (Donatello), my son is cheeky (Michaelangelo) and I’m the angry one (Raphael).

tmnt

There’s a cool video (that I may have shared before) that unpacks the personalities of the turtles and links them to the four elements/humors.

 

That’s not what this post is about though; it’s about how the TMNT franchise has been ripping off other intellectual properties for years.

 

For those that don’t know, when Eastman and Laird created this mean, green ninja team they were heavily influenced by a number of successful comics but none more so than Daredevil. The most obvious way this is shown is through the fact that the radioactive canister that made Daredevil blind is LITERALLY the same one that turned the turtles into the mutants we know and love. More subtly, the trainers (Splinter vs Stick) and enemies (the Foot Clan vs the Hand) are clearly derivative of the Daredevil comics. This isn’t anything new.

 

The recent Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle movie drew a lot of criticism from various fans but I thought it was a laugh riot (as opposed to laughable). That said, the HISHE video for the film presents it as a repackaged Spider-Man.

 

With the sequel to be released soon, it’s hard not to look at the trailer and draw comparisons between it and recent films. Roughly 25 seconds into the preview and we’re looking at an Avengers styled invasion, then skip past the Frankenstein-like transformation of Bebop and Rocksteady to the 1:15 mark and you’ll find the plot of the third X-Men film, The Last Stand.

 

And, do you know what? I don’t care. As an English teacher I’m analysing texts all the time so when I go to the cinema I like to turn my brain off and scoff popcorn for the duration of the film. TMNT 2 is right up my alley; I can’t wait.

What school uniform committees could learn from comics

I work at a school and choose to wear a version of the uniform on a daily basis but there’s a lot I hate about what schools churn out for students to wear.

 

When I was at school (all those many moons ago) we had a variety of school shirts but the bottoms weren’t restricted like the way a number of schools operate now. We had school colours and as long as your pants/shorts/skirt were respectable and in the right colours you were fine. This was great because my folks couldn’t afford to regularly fork out for school branded or dictated clothing so I would rock up in my Big W or Kmart pants and my official school shirt. Whereas a number of schools these days are very particular about the style and brand of bottoms (especially skirts) to the point where the only place you can purchase them is the school uniform shop.

 

I also hate the cardboard cut-out approach to uniform policies where every kid looks like the next one and the next one and so on. This used to be the domain of the private system but public schools operate like this too now. It’s because schools are businesses and they get caught up in the marketing of the school and forget about the students’ interests (interests being a key word here).

 

Where do comics come in?

 

I was watching this video recently and all I could think about was how I wished schools had the same philosophy. What Kristian Williams says (among other things) is that, for the X-Men, “it’s not just a uniform it’s a symbol of the unification of the group” and they’re designed to “promote cooperation and project a positive public image”. It stems beyond the X-Men too. When you look at costumes in comics you see how the individual personality is reflected despite the need to visually beyond to a group. Don’t think about the Avengers or Justice League here, I’m not talking about heroes who form a group after they are established as individuals but teams like the Fantastic Four who share an origin.

 

I just wish schools had more options so people could express their individuality, even if that expression is somewhat restricted. At the moment, I love specialist sports and academic programs having their own garb and I also like the idea of house/faction shirts because they allow students to identify as part of the school community without wearing the exact same thing as everyone else – if only these sorts of options were available when choosing their everyday uniform.

 

When I think about what an ideal school uniform would look like to me, I think about Captain America. Let me explain.

 

When Steve Rogers kicks around in the classic Cap costume he looks like this:

Steven_Rogers_(Earth-1610)_from_Ultimate_Comics_Avengers_Vol_1_4

It’s the epitome of patriotic apparel: stars, stripes, red, white and blue. Rogers’ army background is also evident in the belt.

 

When Steve ‘died’ his uniform was adopted (and modified) by his one-time sidekick, Bucky. The Winter Soldier has a dark and twisted past as an assassin and this is evident in the darker tones of his costume:

1261410-f1comics

More recently, Steve Rogers caught ‘old-age’ and handed over the reins to Falcon. Sam Wilson’s design is more in line with his fly-boy nature. He keeps the wings of his old moniker but drops the big A that Rogers normally has on his forehead. His ‘look’ appears new, fresh and streamlined without changing much:

Samuel_Wilson_(Earth-616)_from_Captain_America_Vol_7_25_001

There’s also U.S. Agent. John Walker wears a black outfit with all of the same elements, aka the stars and stripes, but with a different design to Rogers’ suit:

download

Steve Rogers is also coming back to the Cap role in a new costume which is vastly different to all of the others above but is still obviously Captain America:

CaptainAmerica_SteveRogers_Costume

 

What am I getting at?

All I’m saying is that school uniform designers could take a leaf out of (the multiple) Caps’ books. It is possible to create a variety of outfits that, while different, demonstrate that those people wearing them belong to a particular ideal.

 

Belong. It’s a word I chose deliberately. For me, school uniform shouldn’t be about what looks good on the website or on a brochure. Moreover, public schools shouldn’t dress their students in private school regalia. I choose to wear a variation of the uniform for a number of reasons but one of those is pride – I’m proud of what I have achieved at my current school and I’m proud of a number of kids I’ve had the pleasure of working with. What I hope for is that students, from any school, will look back at where they got their education with a sense of nostalgia and pride. What I hope for is that they don’t wait until they leave before feeling this way. Students should WANT to wear the uniform but too many schools provide little to no options of what to wear (or how to accessorise).

 

Maybe they should flick an email to Marvel or DC and ask for advice.

 

 

 

 

Batfleck vs. Momma’s Boy: Yawn of Injustice

I know. Movie reviews normally happen a lot closer to the release date of the film. Sorry.

 

Actually, my interest in this movie was low from the get go. Admittedly, I prefer Marvel to DC and the bar for superhero movies had been set pretty high by the MCU. That said, this film should have been good. It contains the three most popular DC characters and sets up what was meant to be an interconnected movie universe to compete with what Marvel are producing. But you know all that. So, rather than do a straight review I thought I’d just highlight the 3 best and 3 worst parts of the film.

 

Worst First

  1. The opening third of the movie.

I walked in with low expectations. Almost every review I’d seen online suggested this was a farce. ‘News’ headlines suggested the film’s failure would drastically alter the plans for a DC shared movie universe. I knew it was going to bad BUT it was worse than I thought.

 

It opened with Batman’s origin (again! See below.) and then moved through a variety of scenes that barely seemed connected. It was confusing; I had no real idea about what was going on and I didn’t care for the characters.

 

If I was editing the film, I would cut most of this. The film seems to run for an hour more than it needed to. I blame Peter Jackson. He started this. Movie used to be 90 minutes then he came along with his sprawling three hour epics and, all of sudden, every movie has to run for as long as it possibly can. Stick to the core plot!

 

  1. Really? Do we need another origin story?

I saw an interview of sorts the other day. Someone had seen Captain America: Civil War and said that he loved the fact we don’t get another origin story for Spider-man. Why do we need one for Batman? Surely the vast majority of the people seeing the film know how/why Batman donned the cape. Even if they don’t, there’s still no need to show it – it’s a guy who fights crime dressed as a bat, what more do you need?

 

Yes, I understand it’s linked into the key reason Bats and Supes stop fighting (again, see below) but IS IT REALLY NECESSARY? Superman’s origin is included in the film through dialogue only, it was enough.

 

  1. Marthaaaaa

Spoilers – although it’s so far past the release date it’s not worth highlighting.

 

In the big battle (not the one at the end vs Doomsday but the one in the film’s title – the one we came to see) Superman is about to be brutally murdered by Batman when he mentions his mum’s name which also happens to be Batman’s mum’s name. This is all it takes to stop Batman in his tracks, if only his villains knew…

13015133_10154836343966632_4018408269396584317_n

It’s weird. Superman already called Batman ‘Bruce’ during the fight sequence. No reaction. But he says his mum’s name and Batman can’t function anymore. Honestly, anyone with Google or Wikipedia could find out the parents’ names of a high profile public figure. It was lame.

 

Saving the best ‘til last

 

  1. Batfleck

There was a lot of criticism in the casting of Ben Affleck as Batman. His other superhero film (Daredevil) was panned and he’d had a string of terrible films in front of the camera BUT he was fantastic. Reportedly, he put on 11 kilograms for the role and it shows. His Batman is a brute.

 

This is the most vicious, violent Batman that has hit the big screen. It’s funny, I think his and Michael Keaton’s are the best Batmen and yet their casting brought controversy before their films were screened. Adam West is a laugh but you’re not meant to take his Batman seriously. Val Kilmer was bland, George Clooney was terrible and Christian Bale started fine but the further into The Dark Knight Trilogy you get the more annoying his Bat-voice becomes.

 

There’s a suggestion now that Affleck will get a solo Batman movie – that, I will see.

 

  1. Jesse Eisenberg (mostly)

This guy is fantastic. I haven’t seen him anything else except Zombieland and that is a killer movie. He was brilliant in this. Yes, his portrayal would have suited the Joker or Riddler better but there is no doubting his acting chops. His Lex Luthor is the Mark Zuckerberg of villainy which is weird because I’ve just Googled him and that comparison is why some people hated him in this film – I thought it was a logical portrayal for a character often presented as a jilted CEO with a jealous streak.

 

Anyway, I liked him. Even if he was weird as.

 

  1. The big bash

The movie took ages to get going. I likened it to Ang Lee’s Hulk where you wait three quarters of the film to get the thing in the title. Once we get to the title fight, however, things get awesome! Batman kicks Superman’s butt (as you’d expect) and it shows how calculating and formidable he is.

Then, the DC trinity punch on with Doomsday and they look like they’re having a ball. Gal Gadot pulls these awesome faces during the battle where she gets hit and the camera slows down and focuses on her. Her face is equal parts sexy and bring-it-on; she actually looks like she’s having fun. In fact, her Wonder Woman really brings this scene together.

 

Overall?

 

Look, it wasn’t that bad. I liked it but I’m not rushing to see it again. I think the main problem was that they were trying to reproduce what Marvel are doing but with their own aesthetic. The difference is, Marvel have been building towards the Avengers and the films to come since the first Iron Man movie. DC were simply trying to do too much too soon.

 

Hopefully Suicide Squad will right their ship.