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Friday 24 May 2013

FFB - Empire of the Ants - the book, not the film

THE EMPIRE OF THE ANTS by Bernard Werber

In the beginning of last century H G Wells wrote a short story, "The Empire of the Ants" concerning South American ants that killed people.  (Not giant ants, as depicted in the film of the same name starring Joan Collins, who has just celebrated her 80th birthday!). Wells concluded that by 1920 these ants would be halfway down the Amazon and by 1960 they would be in Europe.  In what could be construed as a gesture of homage to the great writer, Werber's main characters are Edmund and Jonathon Wells.  In his notebook Edmund writes that "The Argentine Ants arrived in France in 1920... in 1960 they crossed the Pyrenees..."

On the Ivory Coast Edmund barely survived an encounter with a horde of driver ants, creatures regarded as living acid. They devastate everything in their path; birds and lizards are torn to shreds.  These scenes are based on Werber's near fatal experiences with the 'magnan' ants of Africa.

This isn't another anthropomorphic book. In its own way it is like a Close Encounter with an alien species. It is both fascinating and exciting and the revelations when they come are every bit as moving as Thomas Page's The Hephaestus Plague.  I for one regret spraying the hundreds of ants in my garden; now, I just keep them out of the house....

Edmund Wells had studied ants for years. He bequeathed his apartment to his nephew Jonathan with the instruction never to go into the cellar.  Inevitably, Jonathan went down there and so did investigating firemen, policemen, a detective, Jonathan's son and wife. And none returned.

Running parallel with Jonathan's story is that of several ants, in particular 327th, a young male; 4,000th, a russet huntress; 103,683rd, a soldier; and 56th, a female destined to be a queen.  Their adventures and strange encounters are exciting and bizarre, often laced with humour: "...the ants did not give up. Like a pack of tiny wolves, they threw themselves on the trail of the lizard.  They galloped under the ferns throwing off menacing pheromones that smelt of death. For the time being, this only frightened the slugs, but it helped the ants to feel terrible and invulnerable."

On p27, 327th stumbles over a mystery, a secret weapon that killed all his companions in one fell swoop.  It is only resolved on p243 in a single paragraph. But on the way other mysteries present themselves and the ant-characters exhibit ingenuity, bravery, resourcefulness and loyalty in their constant battle with nature and their enemies, be they other ant tribes, termites or spiders. There are several intriguing passages about spiders: "...when her dozens of offspring hatched, their first thought would be to eat their mother. Spiders were like that. They did not know how to say thank you."

Translated from the French by Margaret Rocques.  Empire of the Ants was published in English in 1997; it was a bestseller in Europe.  Highly recommended.


Tuesday 21 May 2013

A Musical Journey to Far-Away Places

It was an evening when I was exceedingly proud of Jen, my wife (I’m always proud of her many accomplishments, but this night was right up there with some of the best memories - shsh, she doesn't know I'm writing this...).

Saturday, May 18, at Torrevieja’s Palacio de la Musica, the choir Cantabile – 21 ladies – sang their hearts out concerning a ‘Musical journey to far-flung places’, accompanied by Ukranian pianist Nataliya Khomyak and conducted by Jen, their MD.
The Narrators were Kay Reeves in English and Jen Morton in Spanish.

The first half began in: the Americas:
1492 – Vangelis/ words & arr. J. Morton
Land of the Silver Birch – trad. Canadian
Battle Hymn of the Republic – Julia Ward Howe/arr. J. Morton
Solo: Pat Yardley: Georgia on My Mind – Hoagy Carmichael
Flor Habanera – words & music: Jennifer Morton

Then on to the Far East:
Faraway Places – Joan Whitney & Alex Kramer
Solo: Phyl Webb: On the Road to Mandalay – Oley Speaks
Love is a Many-Splendoured Thing – Webster/Fain

Followed by the Pacific, New Zealand and Africa
Hine e Hine – New Zealand folk/ arr. J. Morton
Some Enchanted Evening – from ‘South Pacific’ – Rodgers & Hammerstein
Dry Your Tears, Africa – theme from film ‘Amistad’John Williams

The second half began with by river and by sea:
The Sea (La Mer) – Charles Trenet/ arr. J. Morton
Solo: Alicia Muddle: Ships of Arcady – Michael Head
River of Dreams – Vivaldi/ arr. J. Morton
Let the River Run – theme from film ‘Working Girl’ – Carly Simon

And yet further onwards, to the moon and beyond into outer space:
Solo: Jen Morton: Rusalka’s Song to the Moon – Dvorak
Nataliya Khomyak: Moonlight Sonata: 1st movement – Beethoven
Star Trek: First Contact theme – Jerry Goldsmith/words & arr. J. Morton
Then, finally, coming home safely at last to great rejoicing:
Pilgrims’ Chorus – from ‘Tannhauser’ – Wagner
Hava Nagila  trad. Hassidic; arr. Robert Schultz/arr. J. Morton
Going Home – Dvorak
The concert was very well attended and the choir received a great deal of deserving and appreciative applause and even a few bravos! The considerable collection at the end, over 200 euros, was donated to ‘Age Concern’.

I was proud to hear again Jen’s haunting solo, but also to listen to her many arrangements and specifically her own composition, Flor Habanera and the lyrics she wrote for the First Contact theme.

Sunday 12 May 2013

A Most Wanted Author

I imagine quite a few authors would give their eye-teeth to be in John Le Carré’s shoes. Four of his books are in film production at the same time!

1. William Monahan is in talks with The Ink Factory and BBC Films to adapt Le Carré’s latest, A Delicate Truth into a feature film.

2. Ewan McGregor, Ralph Fiennes and Mads Mikkelsen are in Our Kind of Traitor, filming later this year.

3. Already in the can is Anton Corbin’s version of A Most Wanted Man with Philip Seymour Hoffman starring.

4. And plans are already afoot for Gary Oldman to don the guise of George Smiley again for Smiley’s People.

Le Carré has had 18 films made from his novels since he began writing in 1961. The most recent was Tinker, Taylor starring Oldman.

Le Carré is reported to have joked, ‘At this point I could write the telephone directory and get money for it.’ Not an original allusion – it was used many years back for Stephen King! Several of his books are still in my (long) list of favourite novels.

Friday 10 May 2013

One of Those Moments

KateMarie Collins is on a blog tour and is stopping by here today. So without further ado,  I'll hand over to KateMarie now:

First off, I’d like to thank Nik for giving me space today! This is stop # 4 on my current blog tour to promote the upcoming release of my second novel, Mark of the Successor.

Everyone has moments in their life that they replay in their heads. A birthday, graduation, wedding, and holding their child for the first time are all memories worth savoring. As an author, though, there’s a single day that stands out. It’s the day we get news of our first contract offer.
The story of mine is a little convoluted. I live in the Seattle, WA, USA area. Notorious for rain (though it’s not nearly as bad as you’ve heard), we don’t get lots of snow. It generally skips years. A good, cold, snowy winter in 2004 generally meant it’d be warmer and damp in 2005. Granted, anything beyond a very mild dusting can send drivers around here into a panic. We’re used to driving with wipers going, not having to use a broom to get white flakes off the windshield before we can even scrape off the ice!

2011/2012 was one of those winters. For three days, the area was hit hard by back-to-back storms. First significant snowfall (over 3” in a single day) hit, followed by freezing rain, small warming trend just enough to melt the top layer of snow, then it froze and snowed again. My van was encased in ice. Tree limbs were snapping all over the region due to the weight on the branches. Our house backs up to a wilderness area. We could hear the cracking and popping in the house. Two of our neighbors lost trees. One was about to walk out her front door when her tree came crashing down – across her porch.

The school district had already cancelled classes for the following day, so I stayed in bed and slept in a bit. When I woke up, the house was slightly chilly and the alarm clock stared blankly at me. We’d lost power. I wasn’t too concerned. The lines coming to our neighborhood go underground about two blocks from us. The longest we’d ever been without power is six hours.
I reached for my cell phone, thinking I’d check my email to make sure my husband had made it to work fine. That’s when I saw the email I’d been waiting over six months for.

I remember taking a deep breath, telling myself that I’d have to look up a new place to submit to once the power (and Internet) were back. I expected a rejection. It’s such a part of this business, and I’d had at least a dozen by this time. It was my default expectation.
I had to read the email three times to realize it said something different.

My point is this: you’re going to get the rejections. It’s part of the learning curve with this business. But that one email that says “yes” instead of “no” makes you forget the pain of the past. Your stomach’s going to do acrobatics, your hands will shake, and you’ll be almost unintelligible when you call people to share the news.
But you’ll have one of those memories that’ll stay with you forever.

KateMarie Collins is the author of ‘Daughter of Hauk’ and the upcoming ‘Mark of the Successor’, both with Solstice Publishing. You can find her on her blog (, twitter (@DaughterHauk), and FaceBook ( Her books are available at the Solstice Publishing website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords.
Good to have you visit, KateMarie. I've been getting rejections for over 40 years, but that doesn't deter me! It seems your wait for acceptance was worthwhile: you’ve had a blizzard of praise from reviewers on Amazon alone for Daughter of Hauk (see below).

What would you do, if you found out your life was a lie?

After you were dead?
Arwenna Shalian spent her life in loyal service to a God she was never meant to serve. Tricked by her fellow priests, she betrayed a man she thought she loved by binding a demon to him. One that would send him to the brink of madness.

Can she find a way to forgive herself? And what of Hauk, the God she was Marked to serve? Will He find her and give her the chance to undo what she’s done, or leave her at the mercy of the creatures that torture her soul?

Here’s a condensed selection of reviews for Daughter of Hauk.
KateMarie Collins has created a wonderful hero in a fantastical world of elves, faeries, orcs, gods and monsters. This highly imaginative book is a pleasure to read and draws you in from the unexpected twist in the first few pages. From there you are taken on a fabulous thrill-ride through a delightful new realm. Don't get me wrong, this author hasn't written a fluffy fairy tale - she does not shy away from the grim realities and has a keen knack for capturing the terror in a situation - but this serves to heighten the journey that the protagonist, Arwenna, must take - a journey the reader follows without wanting it to end. – E.J. Harrigan, author of Where the Dead Go

This was one of the best stories I've read in a long time, with the perfect blend of fantasy, action, adventure, drama, and romance. Collins has a wonderful writing style that is easy to follow and hard to put down. - Andrea Buginsky, author of Open Heart

Collins fills each chapter of Daughter of Hauk with heart-throbbing action that keeps pulses racing and pages turning until the last paragraph. But don't fret; book 2 is in the works. -Michael Thal, author of The Legend of Koolura.

From the opening pages the author placed me in a world filled with armor-clad elves and half-orcs wielding mighty swords and casting magical spells. In short order I began cheering for the protagonist, Arwenna, as she and her gang carry on an epic adventure while battling their evil enemies. I particularly enjoyed Collins' vivid descriptions to not only paint the scenes in the book, but also to portray the characters' use of magic. - Daniel Springer, author of The WILCO Project

Collins invests the tale with all the mythic power it suggests and deserves. The legends and secrets are numerous and intriguing. The battles are epic, their outcome often in doubt. And, whatever you do, do not skip the epilogue. Without that, you're left without the heart of this very engaging novel. – Carl Brush, author of The Second Vendetta

KateMarie Collins has proven herself a master storyteller in her exciting novel (… and) has given each of these characters traits that evoke strong emotions in the reader. Some you will love. Some you will despise. Collins’ novel reads like a Greek tragedy as she explores themes of loyalty, friendship, valor, revenge, betrayal and the pain of an impossible choice. - Nancy Curteman, author of Murder Down Under.

The author has created a dark fantasy world... These dark characters are driven by hatred, revenge, ego and a consuming lust for power, and you feel (all) that as you turn the pages. You start to really develop a hatred for Bohr and his ilk, and want Arwenna to deliver some justice. Arwenna and her band are fleshed out characters with depth and complexity that is refreshing. You feel for these characters as if they were your own close circle of friends. If you're looking for a fantasy novel that makes you want to hate evil and cheer on the good guys who are more than just two-dimensional place-holders, then this is a book you want to pick up and read. – Tony Rudzki, editor

And here’s the

Dominated and controlled by an abusive mother, Lily does what she can to enjoy fleeting moments of normality. When a break from school only provides the opportunity for more abuse at home, the sudden appearance of a stranger turns her world even bleaker.  Disappearing without a trace, he has left a lingering fear in Lily. His parting words to her mother, “Have her ready to travel tomorrow,” is something her mind refuses to accept.

Running away is the only answer. But before Lily can execute her plan, a shimmering portal appears in her room. Along with two strangers who promise to help keep her safe. With time running out, she accepts their offer for escape and accompanies them into a brand new world. A world in which she is the kidnapped daughter of a Queen, and the heir to the throne of Tiadar.

Can she find her own strength to overcome both an abusive past and avoid those who would use her as a means to power?

I wish you every success with both books, KateMarie, and your blog tour!

Thursday 9 May 2013



Sue Birtwistle & Susie Conklin, 1995

This BBC/Penguin book accompanied the TV series starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle. It is lavishly illustrated with photographs, drawings, design notes and sample music scores. The authors are the producer and script editor. 

Adapting a treasured book is always going to be difficult. Andrew Davies was well aware that he wanted the story to be more visual – a lot in the book happens off-stage, is reported. So he purposefully created scenes that did not contain Elizabeth. He observes that ‘the central motor which drives the story forward is Darcy’s sexual attraction to Elizabeth. He doesn’t particularly like her, he’s appalled by the rest of her family, her general circumstances, the vulgarity of her mother and some of her sisters and he fights desperately against this attraction…’ All this is perceived between the lines in the book. Here, in the dramatization, it’s made flesh (in the nicest possible way). In the book, several quite lengthy letters are pertinent – again, Davies re-imagines these visually, to good effect.

There’s a section on casting, which posed a problem as the production was planned to take five months, so actors had to be available for a lengthy time. Another section relates the difficulties of location hunting – ideally finding villages and homes within easy reach of each other – with a map. For example, Angela Horn, owner of Luckington Court, which served as Longbourn, the Bennetts’ house. The crew virtually took over the place and Mrs Horn cried when they left, though was consoled by the thought that she would ‘now have enough money to re-roof the west wing.’ The Wiltshire village of Lacock, owned by the National Trust, became Meryton. Five months of negotiation, then preparations, consultation with the residents, traffic diversions, security etc – all for a week’s filming…

The entire process takes months in the planning stages – more like a military campaign, assembling all the tactical, technical, personnel, and logistics for the duration.

Other chapters cover production design – from furniture to wallpaper, creating the right ambience; costumes, make-up and hair designs; the music and the dancing, both integral to the visual and dramatic scenes; the lighting, where there were practical problems in the old, historic and protected houses.

A section describes a typical filming day, which can last up to twelve hours. Finally, there’s a chapter that covers post-production, including editing, sound dialogue, the effects and dubbing.

This is an excellent book which provides insight into the making of a film and goes some way to explain why such productions are expensive to stage. It's also of help to budding scriptwriters.

Saturday 4 May 2013

The Far Pavilions - an epic novel

First published in 1978, this monumental epic sold ¼-million in hardback alone; paperback sales, especially after the TV series, soared. Justifiably, despite the less than attractive cover from Penguin.  Though written in a completely different style, I feel it can be set alongside Paul Scott’s magisterial Raj Quartet. Set in India during the time of the British Raj, M.M. Kaye's The Far Pavilions tells the story of Englishman Ashton Pelham-Martyn from birth in the 1850s, through the Indian Mutiny until the Second Afghan War, 1879.

Due to its scale, the story has to be told from an omniscient point of view. Yet individuals are strongly drawn and felt. This book has been likened to the Gone with the Wind of the North-West Frontier, and the comparison isn’t far off the mark. Although it’s a love story, it’s much more besides. It doesn’t pull any punches where brutality in all forms is encountered during these violent times. It depicts bravery, generosity, cruelty, honour, devoutness, passion, heroism and self-sacrifice.

The title comes from the Dur Khaima mountains, the Far Pavilions, with Tarakalas, the ‘Star Tower’, catching the first rays of the sunrise. Somewhere near was a fabulous valley dreamed of by Ashton’s surrogate mother, Sita, somewhere to live in peace and contentment without violence, prejudice and greed…

We know that politicians don’t seem to read history or learn from it. A year after this book was published, the USSR effectively invaded Afghanistan.  Ashton says, ‘The Afghans may be a murderous lot of ruffians with an unenviable reputation for treachery and ruthlessness, but no one has ever denied their courage; or been able to make them do anything they don’t like doing. And they don’t like being dictated to or ruled by foreigners – any foreigners!’ It applied in 1979 and, to all intents and purposes, it applies now.

It was fascinating to read of places such as Murree, Jamrud fort, Peshawar, Islamabad – all part of India at the time. In 1969, I went to these places when they were in West Pakistan, as well as the Khyber Pass, from where we looked over the plain of Kabul. (See my reminiscences of that visit ‘The Navy Lark up the Khyber’ pp142-151 in Under the Queen’s Colours, ‘voices from the Forces 1952-2012’ by Penny Legg).
In places, Kaye’s writing is exquisite, as are the sentiments and characterisations. A few brief examples: As an old sage remarks, ‘I know well that hearts are not like hired servants who can be hidden to do what we desire of them. They stay or go as they will, and we can neither hold nor prevent them. The gods know that I have lost and regained mine a dozen times. For which I have cause to be grateful, for my father lost his once only: to my mother. After she died he was never more than the shell of a man.’

‘The black stallion’s body and his own were one, and his blood sang in rhythm with the pounding hooves as the air fled past them and the ground flowed away beneath them as smoothly as a river.’

‘Below him a belt of scree fell steeply away down a gully that was bright with moonlight, and on either hand the bare hillsides swept upwards to shoulder a sky like a sheet of tarnished steel.’

An observer’s description of Ashton – ‘…the vulnerability of that thin, reckless face, the sensitive mouth that accorded so ill with the firm obstinate chin, and the purposeful line of the black eyebrows that were at odds with a brow and temples that would have better fitted a poet or a dreamer than a soldier.’  Whoever cast Ben Cross in the role got it very right indeed.
Here's a bookmark I made for the book...

When I closed this tome of 960 pages of tightly packed text, I felt slightly bereft. I seemed to live with many of these characters, and watched them grow older, live – and die – and now it was over, finished.

At the back, there are two pages of author’s notes providing relevant real-life happenings used in the narrative plus a useful 2-page glossary of Indian words and phrases.