“Modern Family” steps it up another notch

It’s doubtful I could love this show any more than I do already.

The sitcom by the talented Christopher Lloyd and Steve Levitan is a fresh and non-sentimental take on the traditional family sitcom that hasn’t shied from tackling all sorts of controversial subjects. The most recent episode I saw showed Phil (Ty Burrell), along with his son, Luke (Nolan Gould) confronting the fact that his wife, Claire (Julie Bowen), and daughters Haley (Sarah Hyland) and Alex (Ariel Winter) were all having their period on the one day. A touchy subject for any American sitcom to tackle and one most would shy away from from.

But not Modern Family which handled the issue with aplomb, deftly mixing humour and some home truths into a highly appealing mix. Its typical of the way they handle everything. Front on, and telling it like it is.

It’s this ability to tackle the every day issues of life that might be contentious or taboo for many people openly and honestly, and without apology, that has endeared them to me. The icing on the cake of course is that they do so gently at the same time that many people who might baulk at the portrayal of this issue or that, stay and watch and learn a lesson that’s administered in a wholly non-threatening way.

They have been like that since the start with Claire’s gay brother, Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), his partner Cameron (Eric Stonestreet) and their adopted daughter, Lily (Aubrey Anderson-Emmons) all being treated as just as much a normal family as that of Claire and Phil’s. It is refreshing and a joy to watch gay relationships shown as they really are – just another expression of love. Not the one the majority are a part of true, but just as valid nonetheless.

So when I came across this photo on Twitter, it made perfect sense that they would release a picture like this, and also take this stand. It is perfectly in keeping with a sitcom that says so many ballsy things in such an accessible way.

Did I mention how much I love this show?

Are zombies the new black in publishing?

Zombies medium

I have an idea for a book!

It will have zombies and otters and self-aware Japanese robots battling for supremacy of a small farm in Kansas. This once rural idyll naturally holds the key to the future of all humanity.

Think I am mad? Think again. The odds are very good in this age of zombie-centric apocalyptic fiction that I will get signed. And that the book, if well-written and promoted, will do very nicely on the bestseller lists. Why am I so confident? Because zombies are everywhere in popular culture. This is despite them being as ugly as sin, having no meaningful social skills and the oral hygiene habits of a bunch of frat boys out on a beer-filled weekend.

With a list of questionable attributes like that, it’s unlikely that you would ever invite zombies to dinner (since there’s a very good chance you would end up as the meal). Nor would you take them for a drive. Or catch the latest Bruckheimer flick with them at the cinema. In short, they’re not the ideal social companions.

Nothing like curling up for a good read with a zombie
And yet, if you are like the million of readers propelling zombie epics like Zone One by Colson Whitehead or World War Z by Max Brooks to the bestseller lists, you are more than happy to spend as many waking moments with them as you can manage.

It’s a paradox that has inspired spirited discussion among the many people observing this trend. Why are readers willing to spend so much time with inherently repellent characters?

But even if disregard the inherent un-likeability of zombies, they also have another strike against them.

Unlike vampires, werewolves, and even one-off classic monsters like Frankenstein, zombies are soulless beings. Hence, it is near impossible to imbue them with any sense of character. All of which essentially makes them useless as engaging characters in a narrative. They can certainly propel the narrative along, at a terrifyingly rapid pace at times, but you can never relate to a zombie. They only ever function as catalysts for your protagonists’ actions.

Why we have fallen in love with the undead
So why then have they so seized the popular imagination?

One of the authors who has cemented their place in the zeitgeist thinks he might know. Max Brooks, whose book World War Z is soon to be released as a movie, is quoted in a post on inthesetimes.com entitled “The Zombie Zeitgeist” by David Sirota, that the timing of this spike in zombie popularity makes perfect sense.

“Zombies are an apocalyptic threat, we are living in times of apocalyptic anxiety (and) we need a vessel in which to coalesce those anxieties.”

His perspective on the unlikely popularity of the undead is endorsed and expanded on by Mark Koltko-Rivera, a researcher and scholar in psychology who wrote in a blog post titled, “Why Zombies Are So Popular” that:

“Some people have opined that zombie movies reflect fears about the apocalyptic end of the world. That’s fine as far as it goes, but I think that zombie media reflect a far more specific fear. I think it’s about pandemic disease.”

Both Max and Mark reflect a line of thinking that posits that worldwide economic woes, epidemics, and climate change, are subverting the ability of people to stay positive, especially since they are issues with grave consequences and no easy fixes. But then again, a zombie apocalypse doesn’t have an easy fix so why invest your future dread into that particular scenario instead?

They actually make us feel better
Again Max Brooks, quoted in an article on atlantamagazine.com titled “Zombies Are So Hot Right Now” by Justin Heckert, thinks he has a good idea why this is so.

“Zombies are a safe way to explore an apocalyptic society. If you see a movie that has to do with true things – nuclear war, for instance, or swine flu – those are too real. Zombies aren’t.”

Dan Birlew, an author, blogger and video game expert concurs.

“The fascination is not because of the zombies themselves, they are merely the catalyst; the real fascination is with surviving a zombie apocalypse.”

All of which makes perfect sense. We are gravely uncertain we can beat climate change, or keep our job, but we can picture ourselves outrunning and outgunning the undead, and that gives us some strange comfort. You might wonder what use this type of comfort is in the face of real world threats, but Mark Koltko-Rivera maintains it gives us some sense we are in control and that’s a powerful thing.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the USA recently used this renewed sense that we might have some control over our destinies to good effect. They publicised a guide to being prepared for outbreaks of contagious disease and other natural disasters by using zombies as the theme. Their aptly titled “Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse” was an immediate massive viral hit, and got the message across to an anxious public by focusing on a non-existent threat.

So facing a zombie apocalypse, terrifying though it is, is ironically the ultimate safe option, and oddly reassuring in a world with a great many real threats. You can experience this apocalypse safe and sound in the privacy of your home in your jim-jams with a nice hot chocolate next to you, and a non-threatening book in your hand.

A history of literate zombies
But lest you think only anxious 21st century citizens have subverted their fears into the non-threatening realms of literature, zombies in one form or another have been a mainstay of writers for quite a long time.

Our fascination with “ghouls” goes as far back as the 9th Century when they first appeared in the Arabic compilation of One Thousand and One Nights. While they were a mainstay of storytelling in the centuries that followed, their true moment of glory began in the 18th Century when Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein violently made his present felt in the world of literature.

But it was H. P. Lovecraft in 1922 who really grabbed the ghoul ball and ran with it, according to Dan Birlew, In his famous short story, Herbert West – Reanimator, Lovecraft created a mad doctor whose lab tinkering succeeded in bringing the dead back to life as flesh eating visions of terror. His creation comes back to wreak havoc on its creator by disemboweling him. Sound like any modern day nightmarish monsters that you know?

It was this story that had a profound effect on what has effectively become a zombie industry. You can see its creative handprint on films like George Romero’s seminal horror movie, Night of the Living Dead, and all its successors and imitators. And on everything from the Resident Evil video games, to the hit TV series The Walking Dead, and yes even modern literature, which now bows at the foot of the zombie throne. In all these media, zombies are the soulless murderous beings that we increasingly love as well as know, and new iterations of them are being lapped up as soon as their creators can bring to life.


Or death, as the case may be. And then, you know, life of a sort again.

A host of modern adversaries
So pervasive have zombies become in modern pop culture that they have even been reverentially parodied, a sure sign that they sit atop the monster food chain. Zombies vs. Unicorns, is one example of the tongue-in-cheek addition to the phenomenon which urges you to decide if you are Team Zombie or Team Unicorn. It is styled as a battle of the ages, which may be stretching the truth just a little, but when zombies are pitted against that mythological mainstay, the unicorn, you know they have hit the big time.

The same goes for the Zombies vs. Robots graphic novel series where the heroic robots battle mightily to protect the remaining human baby from the surging undead hordes. While it bears a somewhat humorous title, it explores the hubris of humanity which led to the rise of the zombies, and the fact that the fate of homo sapiens rests solely with mindless machines. Battling, of course, once again everyone’s favourite soulless beings.

Whoever they are battling though, it’s highly unlikely that zombies will skulk back into the shadows any time soon. In a clear sign of the undead’s enduring popularity. Allen & Unwin have just released a compendium of two centuries of zombie stories edited by Otto Penzler called Undead Book of the Day: Zombies – A Compendium of the Living Dead. It collects together stories by the likes of Stephen King, Edgar Allen Poe and of course, H. P Lovecraft who started the modern love affair with zombies.

Its release underscores once again that zombies, though they may be mindlessly unaware of it, have found their place in the pop culture sun and aren’t going to be relinquishing it anytime soon.

Sonic Bliss #4: My favourite songs of the week

Yes my dear music addicts, it is that time of the week again. Hopefully, like me, you’ve had a week chock full of sweet notes, clever lyrics and beats so insanely catchy you never want to let them go.

My biggest joy this week has been the debut album of Django Django which is so catchy it should be it’s own epidemic. Right, well that doesn’t make sense at all. But I care not. THe music is so fresh and original and is everything you want music to be. It is on such high rotation that Madonna’s new album MDNA has been bumped off the playlist pretty much already. Yes, Django Django are that good.

But they are not all I have been listening to. Behold my five sonic gems for this week:

 

(1) “BTSTU” – Niia

 


Known to her mum as Niia Bertino, this Massachusetts-born but New York resident is already causing quite  buzz in a musical circles. Her album won’t be out sometime in the northern hemisphere Spring but she has a whole slew of songs already out and about in cyberland including a cover of Tears for Fears, “Mad World”. But the song that has really captured my attention is the absolutely gorgeous “BTSTU” which I cannot stop playing. It is hauntingly beautiful and a treat for ears tired of mediocre music that says and feels nothing. I cannot wait to see what musical magic she conjures up next!

 

 

(2) “I Get Nervous” – Lower Dens

 

 

They are described as a “freak folk quartet” over at Mog.com with a sound that is “psychedelic and murky, embodying the experimental nature of the Baltimore music scene with songs that are equal parts reverb-drenched folk and swirling ambience”. I couldn’t have said it better myself. It is lo-fi certainly, relaxed indie music that softly washes over you. It is perfect for staring into the fire at 3 a.m. which of course I never do. But if I did, they would be the soundtrack.

 

 

(3) “Blood For Poppies” – Garbage

 

 

After a seven year wait, during which many people assumed the band had gone their separate ways, Garbage are back with new music. It has all the sass and verve and gritty melodic and lyrical punch of old infused with a distinct 2012 vibe. This is one band who though they know they have a distinct sound and a loyal following, are not simply content to retread what came before. I love the fact that they still want to make fresh music that is as compelling as this track.

 

 

(4) “Sweater Weather” – The Neighbourhood

 

 

They are being hailed as the next big thing after Foster the People (FTP), which may well be true, but it’s an unfair label to place on an emerging band with a bright, breezy indie sound. This is original stellar pop and comparisons aside, it’s highly likely that this promising band will be every bit as big as the band they are being compared to.

 

 

(5) “Spiritus” – Lisa Mitchell

 

 

One of the few alumni from Australian Idol to emerge with a burgeoning career and a sound all her own, Lisa Mitchell has crafted a bright happy tune that makes you want to dance around your living room with giddy joy. It is a delightful tune and a great way for this talented artist to jump back into the musical zeitgeist.

 

 

So a wonderful mix of music from new artists and new music from established much loved artists. A heady wonderful mix of tunes.

Which artist that you follow are you most excited about seeing new music from?

Dr Who season 7 trailer bows

doctor who series 7

Season 7 is nigh.

We know this because a glitzy, gee-whiz trailer has landed in cyberspace and it is enormously impressive and promises some great stories. If the writers can live up to the promise of this fast-moving trailer studded with shots of cyborgs in the Wild West, Nefertiti on the run, and a Dalek’s eye stalk popping up through the snow accompanied by the Doctor quipping “Give me a Dalek any day” (he gets his wish it seems!), then it should be an absolute cracker of a season.

Of course I thought that about season 6, which while visually arresting, lacked a certain narrative cohesion. In other words, dazzling though it was, a lot of the time it didn’t make any sense at all. Now, science fiction series by design are fantastical creations and don’t have to adhere to the same  rules as more reality-bound shows. But even so, they should still possess a certain internal logic and consistency and unfortunately season 6 left you scratching your head more than once, unsure exactly what just happened.

DoctorWhoMattSmithWildWest

It was bright. It was epic. Frequently manic. But did it make sense? I am not entirely sure. I think the writers often hoped that we’d be so entranced by the onrushing, big budget action that we wouldn’t notice the holes big enough for a Dalek army to pass through. But we didn’t, and it detracted from a season that, at it’s best, was as imaginative as anything at the movies.

Lead writer and executive producer, Steve Moffat, is promising even bigger and better for this season, and with a new companion coming on board mid way through the series – Jenna-Louise Coleman – and the departure of Rory and Amy at episode 5, it could well be as big and amazing as hyped.

I am an optimist at heart so I choose to believe that this season will be every bit as awe-inspiring as the trailer indicates. After all, if you can’t believe in the Doctor to deliver, then who can you believe in?

Review: “Django Django” – Django Django

django-django-Rhythm-CircusAll music should be this wonderful.

The debut by this talented foursome of art school graduates from the UK is a feast of joyful exuberance. It surges and bounces, and jangles and jumps. It mixes in a heady dose of The Beach Boys, and yes even The Monkees, with tight chant-like harmonies, gorgeous melodies that slip and slide with poptastic pleasure all around your aural canals, and an energy that is infectious beyond all reason.

It is without a doubt the most original, vibrant body of music I have heard in a long while, and I listen to a huge amount of music. I was worried, I must admit, that “Default”, the lead single, which was released  seeming eons ago, was the summit of their creativity, but my fears were for nought. For these talented guys have run up to the summit, danced like melodic maniacs around it, and then fired up a rocket and blasted into the musical stratosphere.

django django

Yes, it’s that good. There is a richness and fun to it that “Default”, awesome though it is, only hints at it, which makes my concerns about it being a one-off all the more ridiculous. From the lead song “Introduction” which leads with  chirping crickets before throwing in jaunty synth swirls to the surging drive of “Hail Bop, which leaps from the starting gate with a pounding melodic urgency to the tap-dancing claps of “Firewater”, this is music drenched in psychedelic one-of-a-kind sunny pop vibes.

It also takes a delightful toe-tapping detour into country-esque pop. Now I am not what you would call country’s music key demographic by any measure, but the guitar strumming that percolates through “Love’s Dart” and the driving Johnny Cash beat of “Wor” are enough to make me sign up for line dancing classes. Well, almost…

YOU MUST GET THIS ALBUM.

If you are longing for music that isn’t afraid to take chances.

If you’re craving songs that take some of pop’s finest moments and then make them wholly their own.

If you love wild sonic experimentation that throws everything but the kitchen sink into the music and succeeds beyond your wildest dreams.

And if you miss the days when a band’s music would plaster a big grin on your face the size of several large city blocks…

To live without its bouncy poptastic goodness any longer than you have to is unthinkable.

Review: “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”

 

(image via IMP Awards)
(image via IMP Awards)

 

To paraphrase Dickens, old age can be the best of times, it can be the worst of times.

And so it is for the members of an intrepid group of of British seniors, previously strangers saved for one married couple, who journey to India on the promise of a luxury retirement on a budget at The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

They have all placed their faith in a future that, online at least, looks like the very best of times, hoping it can undo the damage wrought by the very worst of times.

 

BEMH all 7

 

Evelyn (Dame Judi Dench) is quietly grieving the loss of her husband in whom she placed all her faith only to find he left her with nothing but debts. Graham (Tom Wilkinson) has come back to the land of his childhood seeking to heal a wound more than 40 years old. While Douglas and Jean, trapped in a marriage that died long ago, but determined to keep it going, she by implacable will, he by “kindness and loyalty” to her, arrive to make what they can of a life severely limited by financial misfortune.

They are joined by senior singles, Norman (Ronald Pickup) and Madge (Celia Imrie) who are only too painfully aware that the time left to them to find true love, or at least a way to stave off loneliness, is rapidly diminishing. And finally, Muriel (Dame Maggie Smith), callously let loose by the family she faithfully served for many years, who is in India only because it is the only way she can afford a much needed hip operation.

For all of them, this self-styled “Indian palace”, is their last chance to live any sort of meaningful life in their autumn years. So when they discover that this “palace”, run by the desperately ambitious, charming and ultimately well-intentioned Sonny (Dev Patel), is more aspirational than real, they all react in a variety of ways, forced once again to make the best out of less than ideal circumstances.

 

BEMH Evelyn Graham Douglas
Evelyn (Dame Judi Dench), Graham (Tom Wilkinson), Douglas (Bill Nighy)

 

Some of them succeed better than others. Evelyn and Douglas, who begin a slow dance of courtship almost without realising it, take to their new lives with gusto. Evelyn gets a job, more out of necessity than choice, starts blogging and begins to suspect that a life beyond the one she lived with her husband is possible. Douglas meanwhile starts visiting every temple, palace, and landmark he can find, determined to get to know India.

This is while his wife Jean stays ensconced in the hotel, refusing to leave, bitterly resenting the loss of the life she had envisaged she would lead. Norman and Madge meanwhile join a local club, determined to find that social someone before it is too late. It is they who provide much of the humour in the piece, along with Sonny whose well-meaning attempts to make something of himself are initially frustrated at every turn.

 

BEMH Sonny
Sonny (Dev Patel) and Sunaina (Tena Desae)

 

It is a movie, at its heart, about whether it’s possible to have new beginnings when society has consigned you to the scrapheap, your family think they own you and can move you around like a chess piece, and your own sense of self and what you can achieve has taken a battering. It doesn’t always succeed in realising these lofty goals, but the way it handles Evelyn, and Graham’s stories are particularly affecting. It’s these two characters, along with a slow awakening by Muriel, who provide the emotional core of the movie, their journeys symbolic of both the joys and great sadnesses that happen even late in life.

You wouldn’t by any means call this a profound movie. Certainly it has aspirations to make a statement of some kind but just what that is exactly gets lost in a profusion of story lines, and the juggling of probably too many characters. Even so, it definitely struck a chord with its core demographic, with the mainly older crowd seated around us laughing in wry recognition at many of the jokes made about being in your twilight years. They laughed at the one liners about time being in short supply – Muriel’s crack about not even daring to buy green bananas went down a treat – and the need for Viagra when making love. It was obvious they identified with this movie.

Still, it is, in the end an average to good feel good movie lifted considerably by some beautiful character vignettes, some pithy one-liners, and the stellar assemblage of British acting royalty who can’t help but bring something substantial to even the lightest of moments. It won’t change the world to be sure, but it is entertaining, and may get you thinking even just a little about life and the way it never quite plays out the way you expect it to.

 

Review: “MDNA” – Madonna

MDNA

There is an art to constructing an enduring pop persona.

It has to be flamboyant and over the top enough to attract the necessary attention, with a dash of controversy here and hints of scandal there. You need to be able to titillate the voyeurs, and those looking to like you just to upset their parents, or major authority figure. In other words, you need to get noticed, and the louder, glitzier and the more outrageous the better.

Yet you can’t sail too far over the edge or you risk sliding into a parody of yourself before you have even launched the Good Ship Shock the World. It’s a tricky balance and not every one manages it.

Of course assuming you do craft a look, a vibe that attracts the fans, how do you stay relevant? You need to subtly, or not so subtly, tweak the formula from time to time so today’s In-Your-Face-Shocking doesn’t become tomorrow’s Tired-and-Slightly-Sad.

Madonna MDNA

It’s a lesson Madonna learned quite a few years ago and she has successfully re-invented herself over and over till it’s hard to work out where the real Madonna stops and the persona, bristling with anger at the church and desperate toy court controversy at every turn begins. She is now her persona, much like Marilyn Monroe before her.

And while it has worked well for her, I can’t help thinking now that it’s become a noose around her neck. For while she can still attract the best songwriters and producers like Benny Benassi, William Orbit, and French wunderkind, Martin Solveig, and her videos camp it up with the best of them, her schtick, I’m sad to say, is growing old.

That’s not to say that MDNA isn’t cutting edge, fill-the-floor dance music. It is. It is packed with supremely catchy music like “I’m Addicted” that defy you not to start dancing in the middle of the train carriage on the way to work. (For the record, I didn’t; it appears my fear of social censure is greater than the beats that power this enormously funky dance album.) still more songs like “Girl Gone Wild” and “Gang Bang” (voted song most unlikely to be played at a GOP fundraiser) are fueled by dizzying beats and lush melodies that fuse together into a libidinous hedonistic whole.

Yes, this album has a groove so infectious it may yet overpower reticent commuters and convince them to dance in the vestibule. But its lyrics are tired and repetitive, announcing over and over that Madonna wants to be ” a sinner” and “has friends in hell”.

MADONNA-MDNA

Listening to them, I start to feel like I am stuck in an endless therapy session. It’s like Madonna is still genuinely angry about her religious past, and unable to get over it. Fair enough. But even worse she is still under the impression that sticking it to the big man upstairs is some kind of daring social statement.

It’s really not. Not anymore at least, and probably hasn’t been for quite some time. I get that Madonna is angry with God, and his oppressively conservative minions on Earth and wants to make sure, in the most obvious way possible that everyone knows she is going to live the most sinful life possible just to stick it to them. But it’s an old theme, it’s been run around the track one too many times, and it isn’t even remotely shocking anymore.

Yes, the music on MDNA is beyond catchy. It’s fun, seditious and sounds even a little naughty. And yes I am a fan and I have been looking forward to some more of Madge’s poptastic goodness. But unfortunately her pop fabulousness has been saddled with lyrics that are “been-there-done-that” to such a degree that it mars what is otherwise one of the most wonderful pop music experiences of the year.

Here’s a great article from The Village Voice that says much the same thing but elaborates on it beautifully.

And another from flavorwire.com which is definitely worth a read.

Sonic Bliss #3: My favourite songs of the week

Can there be more songs worth listening to already? It’s only been seven days right since I waxed lyrical about my last lot of sonic treasures and the music artists of the world couldn’t possibly have served up five more delicious pieces of sonic bliss to feast on right?

Wrong. There are a smorgasbord of new and wonderful music to enjoy and these are the five songs that entranced, beguiled, and tickled my ears this week:

(1) “Easy” – Real Estate

 

Easy - Real Estate

 

Formed in 2008, Real Estate are a New Jersey band whose music and lyrics is rooted in the simplicities of everyday life. It’s not simply music though by any means with intricate layering of guitars and vocals and a shimmery pop sound that evokes the carefree, happy days of summer.. It is perfect music to muse by.

 

 

(2) “Felony Flats” – Anya Marina

 

Anya Marina

 

Anya Marina, now resident in Oregon’s capital, Portland, makes beautiful moving pop. Her music veers between bouncy pop, and heartfelt rock, but what unites is heartfelt honesty. I love performers like this. They lay their heart on the line in each and every song and the music is so rich for it.

 

 

(3) “These Hills” – Fast Planet

 

Fast Planet

 

These guys make excellent electronic pop that veers to the more ambient part of the spectrum. The four members’ vocals blend seamlessly and beautifully together and the music is goose bump inducing lovely without ever being boring. Perfect ambient music that won’t put you to sleep.

 

 

 (4) “Happy Pills” – Norah Jones

 

Happy Pills Norah Jones

 

This bouncy happy tune makes you grin from ear to ear and singalong. True the lyrics are darker than the happy vibe but that’s the secret to really great songs – slip a hard to hear message in a song that sounds like a happy drive in the countryside and let it catch people unawares. It’s also a nice departure from her usual fare (which I also love but a change is as good as… well you know).

 

 

(5) “Out of the Game” – Rufus Wainwright

 

Rufus Wainwright 2012

 

This song has a laid back 70s feel to it and kicks into a gorgeous chorus. It’s a lovely return from this talented artist after time taken out to mourn his mother amongst other things. It’s good to have him back!

 

 

Yes it’s a quieter collection than normal – which is not necessarily a big deal since this is only the third instalment in the series – but given I listen to quite a lot of softer music on the way home to get over a frantic day, it makes sense.

What do you like to listen to when you need to chill out?

Review: (re)Visions: Alice

(re)Visions: Alice coverLewis Carroll’s classic tale, Alice in Wonderland, has been a mainstay of Western popular culture since it was released in 1865. The story has been interpreted so many times in so many ways (with even Disney getting in on the act back in 1951 with their film) that you might think there isn’t much more that could be done with it.

Well, it turns out there is, and then some. For the imaginative folks at Candlestick and Gleam, an innovative fledgling publishing house in the USA, have come up with a wholly original take on Carroll’s fantastical tale called (re)Visions: Alice. What at first must look like an oddball mix of old and new, turns out to be a master stroke of creative genius.

This bold re-imagining of Alice in Wonderland is completely in keeping with their publishing mission, which states:

 “In short, Candlemark & Gleam aims to marry the best of publishing’s past with the best of its future – combining Victorian publishing concepts with 21st-century technology in order to create something new, something exciting, and something that can update the book and the story for whatever lies ahead.”

They asked four relatively unknown writers to take Carroll’s text, and create something altogether new yet familiar that re-injects Alice into the frantic modern zeitgeist in a fresh, and utterly unexpected way. Given creative carte blanche by the publisher, and with obvious affection for Alice, a white rabbit, a Mad Hatter, and sundry other characters clearly and delightfully off their rockers, they created a clever collection of tales that pay homage to, but do not slavishly adhere, to the spirit of Carroll’s classic. Each has taken an aspect of Alice in Wonderland and fashioned it into their own slice of fantastical weirdness.

The most wonderful part of their inventive approach is that they have each created worlds that are every bit as entrancing and seductive as the one Carroll conjured up all those years ago. Yes, you can see the allusions made to the source text, but they have grabbed the otherworldly craziness of Alice and run with it in directions that enhance Alice without sounding like bland rehashes of what went before.

candlestick and gleam logo

The first novella is a perfect case in point. “What Aelister Found Here” by Kaye Chazan tells the tale of a singularly prepossessed teenage boy, struggling to fit into his heavily circumscribed world, who flees to Victorian London and through happenstance ends up being taken in by a mysterious gentleman in white simply called The Duke. What at first appears to be a place of wonder and promise soon becomes far more dangerous and Aelister finds himself with far more on his hands that he had bargained for.

It is scattered throughout with sly, cleverly-placed references to Alice, and is a loving tribute to Carroll’s book without feeling overly beholding to it. It also possesses a delightful poetic cadence that draws you into it’s skilfully wrought tale that’s at once both entrancing and heart-stoppingly intense.

You can read an interview that I conducted with Kaye at the writersteaparty blog here

Amanda Ching’s “House of Cards” is also set in Victorian times but its central protagonist, Maryann, a servant to the Liddells, is further down the pecking order than Aelister and endures a whole other world of pain and rejection. Told as a series of flashbacks, and present day events, the story centres on Maryann, the Red Queen – who comes across as a far more likeable person that you might expect – and a local gravedigger, all of whom end up connected by the end of the novella.

What sets this story apart is its slightly surrealist feel, a sense that you are reading about real events that are nonetheless awash in an otherworldly sense of being. You are left wondering what is real and what isn’t, and caring not because it is all so engrossing, and frankly, if that doesn’t scream Alice, then I don’t know what does.

You can read an interview that I conducted with Amanda at the writersteaparty blog here

Things take a deliciously darker turn into the next novella, “Knave” by Hilary Thomas. Possessing an intriguing film noir-esque quality, it centres on the Red Queen’s head of security, Jack Knave. All goes well until, caught up in one of the unpredictable ruler’s petulant turns, he is accused of being the mastermind behind the ongoing theft of the Queen’s money. Of course he’s innocent, and sets out with the aide of an almost Ripley-tough Alice, and a cast of characters from Wonderland’s criminal underworld to prove his innocence.

The best part of this story is how it delves into the seedy underbelly of Wonderland. It makes sense it has one, given the insanity that abounds but I never imagined it to be as gloriously gritty as it is. This is Wonderland with its grunge on, and frankly it suits it.

You can read an interview that I conducted with Hilary at the writersteaparty blog here

The final novella, but in no sense the least, is C. A. Young’s imagining of an American-tinged version of Wonderland replete with creatures so unusual – furniture with a taste for flesh anyone? – that they would be right at home in Carroll’s land of the quirky and odd. Centering on Toby, a gallery owner who initially is overwhelmed by the strange new place he finds himself in, at the mercy of the Camistress and her legion of Cheshire Cat disciples. But he soon finds he has a backbone and acquits himself nicely as he works to get home, finding out much about himself on the way.

What captivated me most about this imagining of Alice was that the world created was every bit as rich and perfectly formed as that of Carroll’s. Admittedly the moral outlined in the novella was a tad more obvious that Carroll usually went for, but no less effective, and you finish the story admiring Toby and the way he fought to regain that which he thought lost at first. All the while enjoying the company of  some very strange, and utterly endearing characters.

You can read an interview that I conducted with C. A. Young at the writersteaparty blog here

I have read quite a few mission statements in my time and most are dull, dry agglomerations of phrases that sound meaningful and worthy but end up being nothing of the kind. Candlestick and Gleam’s stated aim, which is writ large on their website, is as passionate and authentic as they come, and (re)Visions: Alice is ample evidence that they mean every word they have written. It is a profoundly clever, highly original idea, deftly and imaginatively executed, and a pleasure to read… and exactly what you’d hope for is someone promised you a mix of publishing’s past and it’s exciting future.

Crowdfunding: Publish now, not later

Crowdfunding MEDIUMA love of the written word is a precious currency for any author but sadly, and we’ve checked with the bank on this, you can’t use it to pay your bills.

So if you’re longing to fulfil your creative destiny but haven’t landed that worldwide multi-million dollar advance from an eager publisher, how are you going to fund your writing dreams?

A new way to do business
Crowdfunding, that’s how. It’s a revolutionary way to raise funds from like-minded souls or fans and it’s becoming the favourite way to fast-track projects that might languish in limbo for years otherwise.

It’s certainly better than the alternatives that have traditionally been available to struggling creative types.

Once upon a time you either had to languish in your writing garret suffering for your art, dashing off paragraphs of prose in between shaky sips of water and nibbles of bread and dripping, hoping someone would notice you and your work.

Or you could figuratively pound the streets, approaching agent after agent, publisher after publisher, hoping someone would fund your creative dream. A tenacious approach, sure, but a long slow way to get your writing goals realised, with no guarantee of success.

Clearly the first option was never high on anyone’s list of preferred options, especially in this uber-connected age. But the second option was, and is, a reality for many who are holding day jobs as they eke out time to write and pursue their dream of getting their work in print.

But crowdfunding renders this model almost obsolete by cutting out the middlemen and women. It takes you straight to the people you want to reach. It still requires a good amount of preparation and a finely-tuned execution but, if done properly, it can reap rewards for the eager writer.

The nuts and bolts
So how does this revolutionary idea work?

Let’s say you have written a fantasy novel that has found favour with a fervent fanbase who are clamouring to know what happens next to the zombie princess, Vacanta, who is the heir to the kingdom’s throne. You want to get the next book in the trilogy published but simply don’t have the $3000 it will cost you to publish it. No problem. You can go straight to these self-same fans and ask them to fund the next chapter in Vacanta’s vague and bloodthirsty story.

Here’s what you do. You submit a well-thought out and articulated proposal via sites like Kickstarter, Indiegogo or Pozible, complete with a snazzy project page, a funding goal and a deadline. You outline exactly what you plan to write, and make it clear to those who positively respond to your request that they will get something in return. This can be anything from a limited edition signed version of the book to dinner with you to access to a specially written additional story. Whatever carrot you dangle before your eager fans, it needs to be something that they will not get otherwise.

Kickstarter medium

 What happens next depends on the site you use. With Kickstarter, people only pay if you reach your goal, which means that if you fall short, you get nothing. Hence the obvious need to make your pitch as compelling as possible.

On other sites like Indiegogo, people must still pay what they pledged, even if you fall short of your goal. So while you don’t get the full amount you asked for, you can still get some of the money, which can be useful if you want to recoup some of the money you needed to fund the project.

Indiegogo

But regardless of the site that you use, the project must be worded well, and pitched directly to your fan base. You need to interact with them on the site once it’s posted and make sure they know you are actively involved in bringing the project to fruition. You just can’t sit back and let the money roll in because it is likely that if you do that, that’s exactly what won’t happen to it.

The rewarding side of creativity
So assuming you can get your fans enthused, the track record of many writers suggests you should reach you goal. Most writers do reach their goals, since the average amount requested is a conservative $3000, with many raising about $3600 from people eager to see their work sooner rather than later, according to Suw Charman-Anderson, who is a UK-based journalist, blogger and aspiring novelist. She raised close to $5000 to get her novelette, Argleton into print when it’s length, which sat awkwardly between a short story and a novel, precluded its publication by traditional means.

As Suw and others who write on the subject point out, offering a reward is integral to garnering more interest in your pitch. While fans will often support you regardless of any inducements, it doesn’t hurt to give them something unique that is only accessible if they support their favourite author.

“That’s a lesson I’ve tried to take to heart as I plan my next Kickstarter project. As a bookbinder as well as an author, I’m focusing in providing rewards that I hope people will adore.”

In the case of Argleton, supporters got anything from signed copies of the paperback version to behind the scenes updates to a lavish hardcover edition, depending on how much they pledged. Each pledge amount carried with its own rewards so fans got something regardless of what they could afford.

But however you structure your proposal, or what you offer, it pays to have some sort of fan base already in place. Or failing that, be able to mightily impress those who come across your project page, according to Lisa Dempster, Director of the Emerging Writers’ Festival.

“I think you either need to have a large following OR put up a project that has a huge, unique wow-factor. Either way people won’t pledge money unless they feel personally inspired by the project, I don’t think.”

So who wants to be a literary millionaire?
Her take on crowd funding pitches is given credence by the experiences of people like Rich Burlew a comic book artist who raised over  $1 million USD from 12,797 backers in just 30 days for his The Order of the Stick Reprint Drive. Impressive any way you slice it, especially since the original amount requested was $57,000, but his success was largely leveraged off a sizeable fan base that was clamouring for his older comics to be consistently in print. Previously he had self-published the online comics in a paper format but found it difficult to keep his entire back catalogues available all the time. He couldn’t afford to print them himself but decided to take a chance that his fans’ enthusiasm would translate to real world financial pledges.

The Order of the Stick MEDIUM

He might have done well regardless, but it’s arguable he wouldn’t have been as successful with a smaller less ardent fan base. Critical to his success too was offering these fans one-of-a-kind rewards they couldn’t get anywhere else. For instance everyone who pledged over $10 got a prequel story of the one of the major characters, which had not been available prior to that. Other fans with deeper pockets got magnets, special pdf downloads and even art prints of the entire cast.

In Suw’s opinion, writing on the Taleist blog on the issue of crowdfunding, this was the key to his success.

“What Burlew is producing is desirable. It’s not just stickers, postcards and unremarkable paperbacks or hardbacks. It’s something that his fans desperately want.”

Like Richard Burlew, Frank Chimero, with over 27,000 followers on Twitter, was well placed to make use of the crowdfunding model. His book, The Shape of Design, attracted pledges of just over $112,000 USD in 30 days, far in excess of the $27,000 he had originally requested.

The Shape of Design MEDIUM

Writing to excess
You may have noticed by the way that in both cases cited, that the authors raised more than they were looking for. So what happens to these funds?

In almost all cases, any excess funds were used to return something additional to the backers. For instance Richard Burlew used his surplus to print the entire back catalogue of his comics, which was far more than he had originally planned. Other authors make it clear they will use any money above and beyond the goal to fund future writing activities, promising extra unspecified goodies for their fans down the road.

The key thing is staying faithful with the fans. Each of these authors provided regular updates, specific dates on when the rewards would be available, and what would happen to money raised above and beyond the goal. It was their fans who had helped them achieve their goals and it was their fans who continues to be the lynchpins of their future success, and they well knew it.

The conclusion, says Suw, writing on the Forbes online site, is obvious.

“It’s not enough to write good stories. You need to manage a mailing list of fans, be on Twitter and/or Facebook, have a blog, and be willing to put in the hard graft required to build an audience.”

Build your base and they will fund
It makes sense that you should be connecting with your fans but as Suw makes clear, and the results of many crowdfunding initiatives bear out, you need people to know you, like your work, and want more of it to succeed with any project.

The key to this is to be actively involved with your fans well before you put any proposal before them. Respond to them on Twitter, engage with them on your blog and Facebook fan page, and make sure they will be predisposed to support your call for funds when it goes out. While the majority of projects that fail are in Suw’s opinion “poorly conceived or badly promoted”, she maintains that for “crowdfunding to really work, authors have to start making direct connections with their readers.”

But many don’t, maintaining limited numbers of Twitter followers, and not putting the same effort into building their fan base that they are putting into securing a top-notch editor or book cover designer. If you’re a self-published author, and increasingly many people are, this is an essential part of your publishing roadmap, especially if you want these same people to fund your dream of being published.

Twitter medium

Agents for change
If you’re lucky enough to have a progressive agent, with an eagle eye keenly tracking changes in the publishing industry, you may find that much of this grunt work can be lifted off your shoulders. While you still need to be directly involved in any crowdfunding initiative since people respond best to authentic, impassioned pleas for support, your agent can be actively involved in helping to raise the funds by aiding in the promotion of your project.

They can be the ones, says Suw, who are instrumental in building this fan base.

“Gathering your community together on mailing lists, Twitter, Facebook or whatever venue you prefer is… time-consuming. So is all the outreach that you have to do in order to get your project in front of enough eyes that you’ll hit your financial goal within your deadline.”

So while all the hard work of turning fans into ardent, money-pledging supporters is still up to the author, a case can be made that agents can be a part of this brave new world of fund-raising. It’s certainly an attractive idea for the more progressive agents out there.

Where will it all end?
While no one has a crystal ball, it’s safe to say that crowdfunding is here to stay. It has struck a chord with both authors and fans, with the former needing the funds to make their dreams live, and the latter eager to have more involvement and access to those they follow.

While some have suggested that this funding model could become the default for the publishing industry generally, even extending to fans putting forward a proposal, getting it funded, and commissioning an author to write a book they want to read, in the short to medium term it will work undoubtedly work in tandem with the existing publishing model. After all, while there are certainly authors who are keen to write, many have no interest – or skill – in campaigning for support in this way.

But if nothing else, it’s an exciting idea that has moved author and fan closer still to each other, made projects happen that otherwise would have stayed as inspired ideas, and given us works that would have been denied us.

In our ever-interconnected world, crowdfunding, while still an emerging trend is one that is likely to continue to change the way books are printed well into the future.