British pop culture, history, travel

British vs. American: Part 3

Continuing with this series, today I’ll be waxing longingly about travel around the UK. I just started with the cute cat picture because I simply had to. (It’s been approximately a week since I used a cute cat picture in a post — too long.) It’s a British shorthair, so it also works for the purposes of this post.

And while we’re at it, you’re welcome for the cute puppy picture, too… (A lovely little British bulldog…)

When I lived in England, we were in the Midlands, this absolutely beautiful, hilly, very green in the spring and summer, a little more bleak and wet but still lovely the rest of the year, region between the North and the South of the island (hence the name).

Some of the hot spots for travel in that area include Warwick Castle, Stratford-upon-Avon (or, former home of the Bard), canals along the famous River Avon, automobile and airplane museums, various sporting events (such as football and cricket), and some absolutely gorgeous public gardens.

The really great thing about England being so small (compared to, say, America) is that you can easily get awesome day trips in by simply hopping the train to the next town or county. If you have the money, you can travel by coach or ferry to Scotland or Ireland, which are so close, but so magical, and even more gloriously foreign to stuck-in-a-rut Americans like me.

(By the way, I just spent all weekend watching Outlander on DVD, and I didn’t even like the book. But it was so totally worth it for the Celtic scenery and accents.)

Being able to walk out your front door and see countryside like this is just a totally amazing experience for me. Yes, I live in a very tree-filled area of North America, with four seasons and plenty of historical monuments. But none of that changes the fact that the British Isles have been continually settled by more or less the same peoples for the past thousand years. Their history and traditions and culture are so much more rich and deep and complex and long-standing than anything I grew up with.

Not that I would wish to actually be living in the past (like Outlander). What I really love is that the past has such a strong presence in the current lives of British citizens. History isn’t considered “irrelevant” or “unimportant” (did I mention I’m American, and pretty ashamed of what many of my peers here think of history?).

These places are real, not movie sets, or found only in pictures in books. Strolling along the canal, seeing actual castle turrets in the near distance, while you pick wild blackberries growing near the water of the River Avon, is the type of thing many American tourists dream of, the type of outright magical experience that I cherish in my memories and my heart.

I so want to go back. That’s pretty obvious. Before too much longer, I’m going to need to. I need to walk in the woods that inspired Tolkien’s forests of Middle Earth. I need to climb to the top of that castle turret. To embarrass myself at a Renaissance Fair. To eat haggis while searching for Nessie.

(By the way, the Loch Ness Monster is 100% real. I won’t believe any naysayers.)

I need to show all this to my boys. To the one who was so little when we lived there that he doesn’t remember. And to the one who has no idea anything bigger than state route 13 even exists.

There is so, so much on these wonderful, small islands, boys, so much. Go and see, experience, live, be part of it.

British pop culture, Fantasy fiction, reading

Discworld Appreciation Day

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There are so, so many things I could say about my love for this series. Recently I’ve made a concerted effort to start collecting my favorites, because with the passing of the author, I’ve begun to feel the need to own as much as I can of the genius and beautiful words that came from his pen.

Two years ago in March, when I found out Sir Terry Pratchett had been carried away by his depiction of Death, on the back of Binky (come on, let us have that image), I cried for three hours straight. And then I started re-reading everything of his I’d already read, and reading what I hadn’t before (which wasn’t much), and feeling this little ache inside.

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The literary world had lost something spectacular, something magneificent. And while we do have so many of his published treasures to continue to adore, the loss in my own life took a bit more getting used to. When I was a young writer, I felt lost, not sure where to go with my intentions for pursuing a career in authoring fantasy. There was so much that had already been done, and wasn’t inspiring to me anymore. Then I stumbled on a copy of a Discworld paperback that had been left in our rental house (of the time).

It was The Fifth Elephant, and while it meant that, being so deep into the series (canon-wise, it’s around book 20), I had a lot of catching up to do and there were things I didn’t yet understand (like character traits and Pratchett’s love of footnotes), there was no stopping me afterwards. It was just what I needed to pull me out of that slump, and for the last 15 years, I’ve been happily catching up.

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With each foray into the magical multi-verse of Discworld, my love for the characters and their stories have only deepened. Although I hardly read the series in order (gasp! I know, a cardinal sin of booklovers), rather in whichever order I could get my hands on them (due to what was available in the library that week), I was able to put together the bits and pieces of backstory and connections and things you could expect to see in almost every installment.

My favorite sub-series are the ones involving Death (aka the Grim Reaper of Discworld) and the Watch. Before starting to read Terry Pratchett, one of my main phobias was skeletons. (Having to take an anatomy class in college was *torture*.) A major thing about becoming attached to a character portrayed as a tall skeleton in a long black cloak meant that I no longer have that phobia. It’s a pretty cool development.

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And, yes, I have owned a cat named Binky (supposedly after Death’s horse — I’m always letting myself believe that). And really, how could I, the Cat Whisperer, *not* have a soft spot for a Grim Reaper that loves cats?

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At the moment, I’m finishing a re-read of The Fifth Elephant. Just this morning, I came across a part I’d forgotten, that contains a significance that had previously escaped me, and…well… Let’s just say my Vulcan side experienced an extremely illogical moment of emotion.

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Although I recently changed my TBR for the summer, it does have me wondering how quickly I can get my hands on more Discworld re-releases.

This series will never stop amazing me with the wit, the humor, the beauty and poignancy in its honesty. Basically, I will remain in awe of the craft Sir Terry so compassionately shared with us. If my characters ever feel half as real to my readers as Death, or Sam Vimes, as Susan Sto-Helit or the Archchancellor of Unseen University have felt to me, then I will consider it the highest honor.

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British pop culture, Science fiction, television

An Argument for the Old (Not the New) Doctor Who

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Yesterday I binge-watched Doctor Who, the early David Tennant/10th Doctor episodes. Muffin was away on a family visit, so I had time, and the DVD player, to myself, and this combination does not often occur. So I got out some healthy snacks (yes, healthy, I was good), and tissues, and began reciting the lines along with the actors, and eventually reached the point of being a complete sobbing mess.

I’d never watched Doctor Who before the series reboot in 2005, but by the end of the Christopher Eccleston/9th Doctor pilot, I was hooked.

I’ve never been much of a sci-fi fan; what I love best about the show isn’t the aliens and planets and technology. It’s the heart — the idea of the reluctant hero, who’s aching inside, but always finds a way to stay positive; of ordinary people being able to save the world; of blending humor and love with mystery and adventure.

And this is exactly why the newer seasons (even before Matt Smith/the 11th Doctor regenerated) have really, really let me down.

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I know from the reviews and the forums that I am not alone in this view. The announcement that the 12th Doctor/Peter Capaldi will be regenerating very soon has sparked a new round of debates on where the show stands right now.

Since about halfway through Matt Smith’s tenure, there has been a definite shift in the very framework, and the feel, of the program. In the early seasons, there was a conscious effort to tie in elements from the original shows of the 1960s and 70s, without which the history of the Doctor’s world and character wouldn’t make much sense. When you’re building on something that already existed in its own universe, with its own themes and rules, then just throwing that out the window and doing whatever you want just feels false.

People were so excited about the return of Doctor Who to television because of the thought of recapturing that sense of heart. The Doctor is an alien who may never completely understand the human race, but that doesn’t for a minute stop him from defending us. The companions are only human, but that doesn’t stop them trying to save the universe.

Somewhere along the way, what the fans love best got put aside.

Taking the show’s rules of space-time and declaring them null and void and making the Doctor pretty much a god is not true to the program’s premise, point, or essence. Totally ignoring previously vital elements is not okay.

A prime example is the season finale last year, “The Hybrid,” when Clara was gone/then she was back/then she’s gone/then oh, she’s actually back but the Doctor can never know she even existed. After spending weeks hyping up the “reveal” of the “hybrid”, the show did not actually explain what or who the hybrid was. And when you consider that, after establishing for literal years that the Doctor’s home planet was destroyed in the Time War, the writers decided to bring Gallifrey back and claim it had been waiting safely in some kind of stasis bubble since God knows how long — that simply invalidates the *whole* *entire* *series* up to now.

When people take someone else’s creation and run its standards into the ground, that speaks very strongly to a lack of integrity within the artistic community. This is an issue that concerns me in a number of ways.

I’ll continue to re-watch the early seasons of Doctor Who, the ones that still have a heartfelt, non-superior Doctor, that celebrates the beauty of imagination while still adhering to the constructs of its world. I’ll always love what they were and what they are.

But in terms of new seasons, I’m officially ending it. I don’t want my love of the series to get jaded and turn against me.

For the sake of the fans who are determined to stick it out, I truly hope that, with the next Doctor, the show makes that 180 it so desperately needs.

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books, British pop culture, Fantasy fiction, movies, reading, Science fiction

Ways In Which I Am Not A Traditional Geek

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Most of the “the world” would consider me a geek. I am rarely seen without a book in my hand; I won’t be watching the latest chick flick, but a new sci-fi movie I’m game for; I have (shamelessly) cried like a baby during Doctor Who season finales.

But, there are several views I hold that would be shot down by the same “geek” community many would subscribe me to. So, I guess it’s confession time.

I don’t play video games. That’s right. The only reason I know so much about them is White Fang’s dad was a game designer. I have failed horribly at first person shooters such as Halo; been the master of mashing buttons in Dead or Alive (4, I think); and the last Final Fantasy I played was, I believe, 10. All of these experiments weren’t my idea (though I will admit to enjoying DoA and FF). The screenshot above (from Minecraft) is courtesy of White Fang, who is basically a programmer in training, and the resident Minecraft fiend in my midst. When I see ads for new games in a series I’m familiar with, or game-inspired movies, I’m a little bit in the know, but very little, and that’s not likely to change.

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I love ballet. A lot of “geeks” are into Broadway and the ballroom/jazzy/hip-hop style of dance that’s predominantly featured in those shows. But that’s just not for me. (Further confession — I don’t even like musicals. Sorry, folks.) Classical is the style I love the best, that my body appreciates and emulates the most, and that I am likely to drop everything for. (No offense, anyone, but) I won’t race to the TV for a clip of Hamilton; but a new version of Swan Lake — and children need to learn to watch themselves.

I don’t like Star Wars. This one may get me in some hot water. But it’s just a fact. And I’ll hasten to add, it’s just my opinion. If you’re a massive Star Wars fan, good for you. (I’m not one of those jerks.) But I’ll just have to politely excuse myself from the in-depth discussions about Jedi vs. Sith and the complexities of The Clone Wars.

I gave up on Doctor Who halfway through Matt Smith. Like many fans who had mixed feelings about the story arcs after Amy and Rory were close to leaving/had officially left, my drive to keep caught up on new episodes really faded out. And I just did not care for Clara or her storylines. So, since I don’t have to plant myself in front of the TV for this show, I’m not. I still fondly re-watch the Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant eras, and am content to stay there.

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I never read comic books, have barely touched manga, and avoid graphic novels. Again, this is purely personal taste. The main reason I don’t do this format is simply because I find it confusing. Following the text in the bubbles and the action in the pictures with no over-reaching narrative to explain what’s really going is super tough for me. I truly appreciate the work these artists put in to their genre, though; so, for their sake, I’m really glad I’m in the minority of non-fandom.

The only Star Trek series for me is the original. (Leonard Nimoy was one of my childhood heroes, and I want a Tribble; I’m aware of the risks.) Am loving the new movies that go back to this show’s roots.

I’ve only read through The Lord of the Rings books once. No, this does not make me a traitor, I swear. And I saw the movies before I started reading the trilogy. Still not a traitor, really.

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Along those same lines, I generally don’t read high fantasy. Not knowing how to pronounce anyone’s name, or where they’re going, is a real turn-off for me as a reader. I’d much rather (gasp!) wait for the movie to come out.

I don’t even belong to any fandoms. Stop shouting at your screens, I swear I am a true geek. When I was 7, I wanted to marry The Goblin King, and be Almathea (The Last Unicorn). Rose Tyler is the best Companion ever; it’s officially carved in a block of ice on the planet Woman Wept. For my birthday I got an Evenstar. I proudly carry a TARDIS tote bag. Minecraft has llamas now. See? For me, it’s more about time than anything else. I have a slightly obsessive trait buried down deep (because I’ve repressed it to survive), and if I let myself get started on the forums and the accounts and the threads, I would never eat or sleep or take care of my kids. And those things are kind of important, too.

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British pop culture, children's television, family, Fantasy fiction, Parenting

First World Problems: What to Watch?

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Ask me this question 10 years ago: “Do you think there’s still good stuff on TV?”, and I would’ve said, “Yes! Absolutely!” Ask me this same question today, and my response will be, “Ehhh…”

Since about 2015, it’s really hard to find something to watch that won’t cause intense nausea and lots of yelling if you’re not a fan of “reality” TV/medical dramas/formulaic cop shows — which would be me. Trying to find something you can watch as a couple, when your other half enjoys some of the stuff you just deteste, is even harder. Then you add into the mix the fact that your spouse doesn’t like 98% of what you like, and…well, you get the idea.

All right, for those of you who need more details, this is the average evening in my home: My husband has on something like Gold Rush or Mountain Men, or involving hot rods or military planes, every once in a great while a wild nature program, and I’m reading a recent YA/MG fantasy release.

The exceptions to this are the occasional allowance of Masterpiece Theatre (I have not seen the ending episodes of Sherlock yet, so no one tell me anything), and movie nights, since we can (at least) almost always agree on a film. (He’ll watch a fantasy or sci-fi or dystopia movie because he likes the effects, and the character growth scenes generally involving sword fights or a clever escape on horseback, rather than analyzing emotions.)

For the most part, I generally don’t mind this setup. I get to catch up on the newest Star Trek, YA bestseller and video game adaptations, and it’s completely understood that when Jeopardy! is on, the remote is mine. The true problem, in my view, arises when something happens like the premiere of the final season of Grimm.

Now, in the past 2 years I have gone from having easily half a dozen shows I honestly enjoyed and made a point of regularly catching up on, to a total of two (Sherlock and Grimm). And my husband won’t sit and watch either of them.

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Before you all start shouting at your screens and wondering what the heck is wrong with him, I can tell you that I am sort of caught up. I did see the 4th season opener of Sherlock, so I know the startling plot twist (and who will no longer be around — and am deliberately not saying for those of you who aren’t aware). And I’ve witnessed the 2-part 6th season opener of Grimm, and know who survived and more or less what’s going on at the moment. However…

The quandary remains: How am I going to make sure I see the shows I feel I have to? Hopefully I shall find a way soon after making this post…

The other part of my very first-world concern is rooted in the fact that I am rapidly growing tired of the recycled-ideas mentality of film/television producers. I like to have new stuff to view on a regular basis. It’s just part of my personality. If I re-watch too many of the stories I’m already familiar with, I not only get bored, I get irritated.

To a point, it seems to be a creative-type issue. We creative beings (like writers and dancers) are often on the lookout for the newly-cool, the currently-hip, the innovative, the not-already-done-a-million-times. (Someone please back me up on this.)  Anyway, the reason I’m getting kind of grouchy about this subject today is that this weekend we gave the latest re-imagined X-Men a go, and…uhhh…just, groan. Especially when you compare it to last week we watched Warcraft, and that was really fun and enjoyable.

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We are in the doldrums of winter — for us, this means a lot more time inside. Since I’m not driving right now, if the temperature drops past a certain number, Muffin and I are going nowhere. So on these cold and sometimes gloomy days, we like to pass a long afternoon or two with a movie.

When I first started doing this (about 4 months ago), there were several (appropriate) films available at the local library that Muffin had (obviously, only being 2) never seen before. But now, that was 4 months ago. We have now seen most of the movies (some of them more than twice), and even I am getting sick of the same old, same old.

Plus you add to this the sad but very concrete detail that I am not made of money, and extra streaming/rentals requires that, and — well, waaah.

And of course, when the kids have their shows on, I don’t get to make my first choice then, either. I truly don’t hold it against them (most of the time), especially since — my honest opinion — most of their programs are actually better than what’s offered for adults.

But every once in a while, I would really like to simply sit down with a cup of tea and a few peanut butter cookies and watch an entire episode of Sherlock, or Grimm, or a rerun of Doctor Who; without having one ear peaked for children misbehaving; or someone else insisting I change the channel because the game is on.

Well, I can dream, can’t I?

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blogging, books, British pop culture, community, Science fiction, Young Adult fiction

Cultural Authenticity in Fiction

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Or…Dear Book Publishers: Please Stop Americanizing the U.S. printed editions of foreign novels.

This is something that really, really irks me — as a reader, a writer, a parent, and a teacher. Since a lot of the fiction I prefer is written by British authors, I come across this pretty frequently. When I read a novel penned by someone who is a native of Great Britain, published originally in London or Oxford or Edinburgh, and the copy I receive has no “extra” u’s in certain words, and too many quotation marks, and common British terms or slang have been replaced with the American equivalent, this really, truly bothers me.

I live in a country that shouts till it’s blue in the face about the need to accept diversity without judgement. Why, then, is it so important to Americanize everything?

Recently I tried to read the YA dystopia, H20, by Virginia Bergin, who is an Englishwoman, and her tale is set in the south of England. But you’d never be able to tell that by reading the U.S.-printed edition. Everything vaguely British — other than the place names of actual geographic locations — had been altered to make the narrator and the other speaking characters sound completely American. If it weren’t for the occasional mention in the text of Devonshire or London or the BBC, I would’ve completely forgotten that this story isn’t set in Indiana or New Hampshire or Oregon.

English teenagers call their mothers Mum, not Mom; English babies wear nappies, not diapers, and ride in prams, not strollers; the Brits do add an “extra” u to words like favorite and color; people living in London don’t ride the subway, they take the Tube or the Underground.

Changing all these vital details takes away from the story, from what it’s meant to be. It decreases the authenticity of the novel. It puts false words to the author’s voice. I flat out don’t like it, don’t approve of it, and think we, as readers and authors, shouldn’t tolerate it. In this case, it pretty much ruined my reading experience of what I otherwise found to be a very interesting, thought-provoking, and well-written YA novel. And that’s just a downright shame.

British pop culture, community, travel

British vs. American: Part 5

We’re off to England again! So, after you’ve sorted out your passport, luggage and what it’s containing, currency conversion, a place to stay, ways to get around the country, and how long you’re staying for… You need to have a pretty good idea of what your average day is going to be like, and how to manage by yourself if a native isn’t available to take you to the pub/museum/park/building that sells books/fish and chip shop.

If you happen not to speak any language other than English, relax, because you’re covered there. Yeah, some of the phrasings are different, and you’ll have to get used to that (but hey, depending on where you live in your own nation, you could travel 100 miles away and be met by a completely different accent, dialect, etc.) But you won’t need a translation booklet to survive finding public transportation (or the restroom!).

Also, England is one of those countries that’s really used to tourists from all over the world, and most of the natives will be kind or at least polite to you, if you do need to ask for help in locating the Tube station or the nearest Waterstones. British courtesy is legendary, and generally, it’s true.

As I discussed in a previous post (https://daleydowning.wordpress.com/2016/07/23/british-vs-american-part-1/), most of the food you’ll encounter will be familiar — pizza, Chinese, Italian, Indian, and there’s always McDonalds. (That’s one of the pluses of living in a global trade system.) If you want to have a very traditional English breakfast (fried eggs, grilled tomatoes and mushrooms, bacon or sausage, and baked beans, with of course tea), or a meat pie and chips, those are definitely available as well, and locals will certainly recommend their favorite spots.

In the summer, you could get a soft-serve ice cream with a flake (that’s the chocolate stick) — I recommend getting strawberry sauce drizzled on it as well. In the winter, there’s plenty of pumpkin soup, tea, roast chicken with mashed potatoes, tea, pizza with mushrooms and sweet corn, kebabs, tea…

Right, where was I?

Of course, if you’re here as a tourist, there will be certain places you’ll want to visit. For example, the beautiful and iconic white cliffs at Dover. Or Nottinghamshire, historic home of Robin Hood and his Merry Men, and the (real position) of the Sheriff of Nottingham. Or Liverpool, home to the Beatles. Or London, for a tour of the infamous Tower, Westminster Abbey, and where Benedict Cumberbatch was spotted having a cheese-and-pickle sandwich last week.

So, after you get used to the new time zone (when it’s 10 a.m. in New York City, it’s 3 p.m. in Oxford), you can grab a cupper (sugar and milk is optional, but really best), jump on the coach (the bus), the train, or hail a taxi, and you’re off to some fantastic art museum, or the actual 221B Baker Street, or somewhere a Doctor Who episode was filmed (like Cardiff).

After you take a ton of photos and swoon over replicas of Daleks and statues of previous monarchs and make it embarrassingly clear you are a tourist, you can buy tickets to a Shakespeare play in a real Globe Theatre, or a canal boat ride. Maybe you’re in Yorkshire, and you just can’t resist running along the moors shouting out, “Heathcliff, it’s me, Cathy!”

What next? How about a cat show? Dog show? Trip to the farm? The Brits do love their animals.

Maybe one of those amazing actual castles that dot the countryside from north to south. Or hit the beach. There’s lots of amusements and fresh seafood and lovely sunsets to be had in Brighton or Blackpool.

And if you haven’t had curry or a proper shepherd’s pie or cream tea with scones yet — shame on you, hurry up and do so.