Friday, 29 December 2006

Words on the way back

After a two month break from writing, I am almost back in the saddle. Phew! It really pains me to think of the 12,000 words (approx. 2 chapters) that I haven't written recently.

At the moment, I am working on a character backstory, which I've been putting off for ages; but it really is crucial for the whole novel. It would make a good tale in itself actually, so I'm toying with the idea of writing it up as a short story. The opening paragraph came to me last night at about 2am, so I had to find a pen and paper to write it down. (Of course, now that I've just read it through again, it's crap!)

Thursday, 28 December 2006

Chenna has a blog!

Today I helped Chenna set up her own blog. It's called Feline in therapy and I think it will be very good for her. She is far too neurotic for a cat lavished with love and attention. Hopefully it will help me (and my poor, persistant friends) understand her better. She really can be lovely sometimes, and it will be fabulous to share that with everyone else!

Tuesday, 26 December 2006

Cracking cricket trumps jigsaw on boxing day

For the first time I can remember, channel 9 is broadcasting the boxing day cricket test all day, every day, in the Melbourne metropolitan area. My boxing day tradition of trying to finish off the jigsaw puzzle started on Christmas day was therefore complemented by the dulcet tones of the channel 9 cricket commentary team and visions of the MCG greensward speckled with men in white.

And what a terrific day of cricket it was! After all the hype of Shane Warne’s retirement and impending 700th wicket, it remarkably went all to plan. Warne’s first (read 700th) wicket was a ripper and he went on to get 5. England were all out for around 150, then Australia was 2/44 at stumps. Not even some brief rain delays could wash away the fact that 12 wickets fell in one day.

We made some progress on the jigsaw, but we’re a long way from the finish. Maybe the cricket had something to do with that!

Weather gods get fickle in the festive season

The rain dances have finally worked, and about a week after stage 3 water restrictions were announced, we’ve had the coldest, wettest Christmas imaginable. In fact, I heard it was the coldest Christmas in Melbourne’s history, with the temperature reaching just 14.5 degrees. Winter coats and umbrellas were dragged out and dusted off, sandals flung back into the wardrobe to be replaced by stout boots, and for once roast Christmas lunches were truly welcome – not to mention the open fire we had in the living room.

Four days ago we sweltered in 35-degree heat, and used the air-conditioning.

I’m not sure the rain will have done much for our desperate dams, but it should at least have put out the terrible bushfires that have been ravaging the state for the past couple of weeks. I even heard there was hail and snow in the high country. My cousin, a photographer, took some photos up there yesterday and it was quite something to see the charred trees and debris, still smoking and steaming above a carpet of hailstones.

Sunday, 24 December 2006

Eragon

Well, Eragon is certainly hyped up in media at the moment, and I will confess I read the book in anticipation of the movie coming out. My theory was that it would be good aeroplane reading, being targeted at young adults . . . With about 30 pages of the book to go, I saw the movie yesterday, and then finished the book last night. Here are my thoughts. [warning: spoilers]


In principle, the story of Eragon is a relatively simple ‘hero’s journey’: teenager (Eragon) finds mysterious rock which turns out to be a dragon egg; dragon (Saphira) chooses him to be her rider which brings much danger (not to mention aura and magic); mysterious storyteller in village (Brom) seems to know a lot about dragons and helps Eragon escape the forces of the evil ex-dragon rider king who wants Eragon (and his dragon) to serve him; after a series of adventures (including the rescue of a beautiful elf) Eragon and Saphira end up in the mountain stronghold of a group of rebels plotting to overthrow the evil king; battle ensues and they win, but the victory is only a minor one, leaving room for the sequel (called Eldest).


There’s nothing really new in all that, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t have been a really charming book, filled with great characters and high drama etc. In truth, the author, Christopher Paolini (who was around 17 when he wrote this book), does create some interesting characters --- most notably the mysterious werecat, Solembum, who communicates with Eragon through mind speech, and I also rather liked the renegade, Murtagh, who pops up out of nowhere in the middle of the book and becomes Eragon’s travel companion, and is later revealed as the prodigal son of the king’s former right hand man (now deceased).


The book contains most of the elements of traditional fantasy: young ‘farm boy’ who becomes mighty with both sword and magic, wise companion who is revealed as a former dragon rider (I saw that coming a mile off), elves, dwarves, evil king, a long journey/quest on horseback. But again, that’s not necessarily bad, if done well.


If I had disliked this book, I wouldn’t have finished it, but I have to say it let me down. There were two main problems for me: the structure and pace, and the writing. Both of these can probably be attributed to the author’s age. To me it read like it was written by a 17-year old --- albeit a very talented one. Words aside (and I won’t go on about repetitive sentence structure and too many passive constructions), the ancillary detail of action, thought, dialogue etc seemed young. No doubt this is also authentic, and is part of what makes this novel so appealing to young readers.


Aside from that, the story was paced too slow. To start with, the egg doesn’t hatch for almost 40 pages, and then Eragon manages to hide his growing dragon from everybody for weeks. Many of the villagers and the storylines there are superfluous to the ultimate story. It just takes so long to get going. Once Eragon finally does leave his home village, it is with the intention of pursuing his uncle’s murderers. I can only assume Brom aids him in this as an excuse to spend time training Eragon in the arts of sword and magic. They then spend another 150 pages fluffing about, including a side journey to a coastal town seeking shipping records for some oil the assassins used (such a stupid idea --- although this is where they meet Solembum the werecat, and Angela the herbalist, who play a role later in the story).


Somewhere in the middle of the novel, there’s a flurry of excitement as the assassins start chasing them; Murtagh appears and saves Eragon, but Brom is killed. But then, it all slows down again as they head off in completely the opposite direction to a town in the north in search of someone who can tell them where the rebels are hidden. There, they manage to rescue the elf, Arya, who spends most of the rest of the book unconscious, as they now head south again to find the rebels. (It’s like a tour of all towns on the map in random order.) There’s a big chase as they lead the enemy forces right to the gates of the ‘hidden’ rebel stronghold, followed by a really long lull as Eragon explores the hidden city, visits the library, is tested for his abilities etc. Just as the story is supposed to building towards its climax! The final battle itself has a relatively short build-up and is over in a flash.


(One other little gripe: the author uses Saphira to impart knowledge ‘that Brom told her in secret’ to propel the plot in a few places.)


In all, I do admire Christopher Paolini for this book, though. My knowing his age might have made me more sensitive to many of its faults, but I believe it made me more forgiving as well. I expect that his books will improve rapidly, and I suspect that in time I will also read Eldest. [Although, having just now read some of the reviews on Amazon, I may not!]


Given all this, I was interested to see the movie of Eragon, since I anticipated it would have tightened up the plot considerably. It did, but it was by no means a brilliant adaptation (although I won’t go so far as to slam it to the extent of the reviewers on imdb.com!). Many of the changes were made to increase the tension (since the novel had very little) and weed out the superfluous story threads (applauded by me), but it went OTT on the stereotypical depiction of the evil king (played by John Malkovich) and his chief henchman, the shade, Durza (Robert Carlyle). In addition (and somewhat ironically) the movie seemed to travel too quickly! I think this was because it didn’t impart a good sense of time passing for the traveling scenes (although the scenery was beautiful), and the viewer had little sense of the distances being traveled. It could have spent more time setting up backstory and characters --- particularly Murtagh, who appears near the end with very little explanation and seems in the context of the movie completely superfluous. Solembum was dropped all together L and Angela reduced to a chance encounter (she tells Eragon’s fortune, and this must have been deemed important by the scriptwriter). The major climax lacks the customary ‘calm before the storm’ and therefore lacks the impact it should have had. The whole movie as a result ends up feeling hollow and trite. (Despite my criticisms of the book’s pacing, it certainly doesn’t lack in texture.) I did rather like Jeremy Irons as Brom and Sienna Guillory as Arya. Others have praised Rachel Weisz’s voicing of Saphira, but I found her accent irritating.


One final comment before I end my rant! One of the aspects about Eragon that I like most is the premise of how dragon eggs hatch. The eggs can last for centuries unhatched, the dragon inside waiting for the person it wants to be its rider. In the world of Eragon, the dragon riders and their dragons are all gone, the king having killed them all, and there are only three eggs remaining. Saphira’s egg was stolen many years ago from the king’s possession, and the elves and rebels have been guarding it, waiting for it to hatch. Arya was trying to send it using magic to Brom, when Eragon found it. The last two eggs remain in the king’s possession, leaving the door open very nicely . . .

Tuesday, 19 December 2006

Page Turners: Do androids dream of electric sheep?

Friday 8 December---the PT meeting
It was fabulous to finally read this book. I read it while travelling and very much enjoyed it. Inevitably, I compared it with what I remembered of the film Bladerunner. To me, it seemed as though the book contained a whole lot more depth, particularly about the post-apocalyptic society.

The motive of the main character, a bounty hunter (Rick Deckard), is to kill androids in order to make the bounty payment . . . so he can purchase a real live animal. In this society, animals have been driven almost to extinction by (one assumes radioactive) 'dust'. Animals are purchased via 5-year plans, with exorbitant prices listed in a market price catalogue. Rick and his wife have a (secretly) fake electronic sheep, which is shameful. All he wants is a real animal---they are a status symbol in this society, but also seem to be indicative of one's responsibility to 'take care of an animal'. I found this scenario fascinating.

A key theme in this book is empathy. The characters use 'empathy boxes' to have shared religious experiences/hallucinations about a guy called Mercer, who evidently could bring animals back to life. (This is never satisfactorily explained.) An 'empathy test' is used to distinguish androids from human. Rick begins to suspect he has empathy for the androids he's supposed to kill . . . The androids themselves have a profound lack of empathy. In fact, one of them (Rachel) tries to play Rick into falling in love with her, only to reveal that her aim was to prevent him from ever being able to kill androids. It's a tactic she's used before . . .

The basic plot is the same as Bladerunner: androids escape their offworld masters, and are hunted down by Rick Deckard.

It interested me that others in the PT group didn't like it as much as I. Some found it cram packed with too many ideas, too influenced by PK Dick's drug history and five wives, too confusing to have meaning, somewhat puerile and adolescent, full of plot holes that are not believable.

While I agree with some of these comments, my overwhelming impression was positive. I found the ideas and character journeys so very interesting.

I particularly liked one observation that the book is about 'entropy'---it's about the decay of everything to the lowest state of order . . . animals, humans, even stuff (which manifests as 'kipple').

Another observation was that perhaps the androids seemed lacking in empathy because of the way they had been treated. . . However, this doesn't explain Rachel's behaviour, nor the androids' attitudes towards the 'chicken head', John Issidore.

We seemed to agree that the androids are rather too easily killed at the end, but that this is a major point of difference between humans and android: humans keep fighting and have hope, whereas the androids seem to just give up in the end and accept the inevitable.

Thursday 14 December---the movie
Some of us gathered to watch Bladerunner. I was itching to see it again! As remembered, the plot is essentially the same, if a bit simplified. A major difference between them is the depiction of the society. The depiction of LA is a huge contributing element to the movie's success. It's visually stunning. But the main image---that of an over-crowded city that's always dark and gloomy and raining---is totally different from the book. In the novel, the city (of San Fran) is almost deserted by those escaping the dust. It's bleak, but not gloomy. The animal theme is retained in the movie, but it's not really explained. Empathy, however, doesn't rate a mention.

Another major difference is in the main character. In Bladerunner, Deckard is little more than an action hero. His motivations are (IMHO) somewhat unclear. He is a retired cop summoned back because he's the best. In the book, on the other hand, Rick is only really 'second best', granted the opportunity to go after the androids because his senior has been injured. He's insecure, world-weary, and only driven by the bounty reward which will allow him to get an animal and make his wife happy. At one stage he thinks he's going to give it all up, only to be turned by Rachel's actions (which have the reverse effect than she intended).

One aspect of the movie I liked more than the book: the motivation of the androids (or 'replicants' as they are in the movie). They had very motivation little in the book; but in the movie, they are seeking their maker in order to prolong their lives. Much more believable and poignant also.

I think that's enough of a rant about this one. We now have a few months of free reading! I am currently reading Eragon.

Wednesday, 13 December 2006

A food connoisseur’s Chinese experience - part 2

Drinks
Wine was hideously expensive, so the only two bottles opened in my entire stay were from my hosts’ private stash. Otherwise, it was G&T’s for a fortnight, plus an occasionally cocktail thrown in.

In theory, coffee wasn’t too hard to come by, since there are Starbucks on every corner. But Starbucks coffee is crap, so this wasn’t particularly helpful. There were other places here and there where you could get OK coffee. But, bottom line, I drank less coffee, and seemed to survive OK.

Other foods
The other major highlight was ‘cream puffs’. Somewhere there is a French influence in China, because you could get these beautiful cream puff things (choux pastry?) filled with a delicious creamy custard and topped with chocolate icing. We ate a fair few of these! Nearby I also found Chinese style custard tarts. In Beijing, we found a boulangerie called ‘Paris baguette’ which had custard filled puffs and buns and madeleines and and and . . . Pity for my hosts, this doesn’t appear to exist in Shanghai!

Carrefour
We went to Carrefour supermarket, which is evidently a French chain, so it was in the western style, but had some distinctively Chinese features to it. We started off slowly, strolling through the non-food section (a bit like K-mart), moving through the confectionery section, where it was all about presentation and packaging (boxes of chocolate within boxes!). Then we hit the fresh food section . . .

Live crabs, clambering out of their container. Live fish, jumping out of their vessel. Live turtles, frogs, eels . . . OMG. Shanghai crabs are a delicacy available for only four weeks of the year – apparently that includes now. They’re a little hairy, and they were being sold trussed up (alive?). There were open trays of chicken feet, so you could pick out your own. The chickens were sold fresh, plucked and gutted, but with their heads and legs included! It’s enough to turn anyone vegetarian. There was also a pre-packaged meat section, but this included all forms of offal etc, as well as the more prime cuts of meat. Multiple forms of steamed buns. Loose leaf tea. (For a non tea drinker, I’ve purchased quite a lot of tea!) The supermarket was fascinating.

Beijing Night Market
We had dinner along here one night. The options are many: anything you can think of on a kebab (including scorpions, beetles), stir fried noodles, toffee fruit on a stick, fried ice cream, banana fritters, stir fried meat/vegetables in pancake wraps . . . I think between us we tried almost everything! All was yummy, except for my squid on a kebab, which was dreadful, primarily because of the way it was cooked and the sauce/spices on it.

Sunday, 10 December 2006

A food connoisseur’s Chinese experience - part 1

My recent trip to China was definitely very much about eating. In fact, we joked that the fortnight was pretty much focused on dining experiences separated by the odd site or two. Much of what we ate was authentic Chinese, but we also ate Japanese a few times, Thai, Indian, and sometimes ‘western’, although this was most often for breakfast/brunch.

Chinese
This came in many different varieties. My favourite were definitely dumplings, which we had in all sorts of places: food courts, dumpling houses, restaurants, airport restaurant . . . Dumplings are the traditional Chinese ‘snack’ and are much like those we have here for Yum Cha: steamed or fried ‘dim sum’ things with pork, shrimp, vegetables etc inside. All yummy.

I also learned some of the differences between northern Chinese food, and southern foods. In the north, they eat cold dishes of pickled vegetables etc, which look as though they ought to be hot. They are very nice, though. This is then followed by hot stir fried dishes. Bamboo shoots, mushrooms and various other fungi are very popular. Rice is generally served at the end of the meal on its own, or not at all! Better also say that we ate ‘peking duck’ at a Cantonese restaurant in Beijing. We also experienced a ‘Shanghainese’ restaurant and a typical Suzhou meal (which is itself another story!).

I must say that many of my Chinese eating experiences were ‘hit and miss’. This was partially because I didn’t have much say in what we ordered! My hosts generally took control, and although this was good in extending my range of experiences, it meant I had to put up with items I would not usually order. There wasn’t much that I actually detested, but the experience has made me realize that maybe Chinese cuisine as a rule is not really my thing! [The same could be said for Japanese food, which my hosts simply adore. I just don’t get the attraction. The only Japanese food I really get is sushi.]

Non-Chinese food
The funny thing is that all ‘non-Chinese’ food is still a Chinese interpretation of whatever it’s supposed to be. Particularly the so-called ‘western’ foods. For example, I had a ‘tuna melt baguette’, which in a Melbourne café conjures up a certain image that was simply not met in a Chinese café, no matter how western it claimed to be. Literally, it comprised canned tuna smeared thinly on the baguette halves, drizzled with a thin layer of melted cheese. For all that, it was surprisingly tasty!

For western style breakfasts, we went to an American café called Element Fresh a few times. Here the menu was familiar, but different. We went there four times, and this is what I ate:
1) the 'big American' breakfast, which came with FOUR eggs no less, breakfast potatoes (tex mex potato salad, warm - disgusting), sausages, bacon, french toast (with maple syrup on the side), plus some slices of watermelon. Too much, but the coffee was good (latte).
2) blueberry pancakes, declined breakfast potatoes (I mean, really!) with yoghurt on the side.
3) smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel, which was very yummy indeed and came with a MOUNTAIN of smoked salmon.
4) ‘healthy start’ breakfast set, which included an egg white omelette - also yummy.


Chopsticks
No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t get the hang of chopsticks. Nevertheless I persisted, despite the fact they 1) slowed me down (perhaps a good thing!), 2) made me look like an idiot. So great is my frustration with them that not even the tourist chopsticks with my name on them could tempt me. I have never been able to fathom why many of my friends and family feel the need to eat with chopsticks at home, just because they happen to be eating Chinese (or Asian) food. What’s with that?

Desserts
I must make mention of desserts separately, for they are simply unbelievable (and I don’t mean that in a good way). Two ‘stand-outs’ were the ‘Ice Kechang’ (below), a mountain of shaved ice drizzled in sweetened milk, herbal jelly, mung beans, canned corn (OMG); and ‘Japanese ice cream’, which was chocolate ice cream served on a bed of corn flakes, adorned with glutinous rice balls and red bean sauce. Give me chocolate pudding or tira misu any day!

2 weeks to Christmas!

. . . more or less.

Just wanted to check in and say hi, because the past couple of weeks have seen me in a form slump: no writing, no blogging, but a fair amount of going out to dinner and socialising.

Words: still zero.

Today is excrutiatingly hot (40 deg C at least), so all my grand plans for the weekend (finishing off Chistmas shopping, cleaning, writing etc) have been booted out the window. Energy is minimal. Hence this rambling post!

I perused a book about blogging while I was away, and it had all sorts of things to say about posting: keep the entries regular, interesting, funny, and make sure your subject heads are catchy. It was all about hooking your reader, and keep them coming back to your blog. I will attempt to put some of these things into practice in the coming weeks . . .

Saturday, 2 December 2006

Oriental dragons & mythical beasts

As a fantasy writer, I might reasonably be expected to be interested in dragons and mythical beasts, don’t you think?

Fortunately for me, dragons especially are prevalent in Chinese architecture, folklore, and even urban legend. And, even more fortunately, my hosts in China were exceptionally good at relating history, legend etc about dragons (among other things).

For instance, apparently Shanghai has a dragon living in it, and this has led to a couple of cool stories. First, there’s a building (the stock exchange building, from memory) built with a HUGE square in the middle of it: this is because it was built in the dragon’s flight path, so it’s to allow the dragon to fly through it. Second, as part of a complex multi-level road construction, they once needed to drive a massive (three-metre diameter?) concrete pylon into the ground. But they were having trouble. In the end, it turned out they were trying to drive it through the head of the dragon, so the answer was to carve 9 dragons (9 being the ultimate number for good luck—only slightly better than 8) on the pylon. They did this – 9 beautiful elaborate dragons spiraling around the pylon – and apparently it worked—the pylon was driven into the ground successfully!

There are also dragons everywhere as decoration. Apparently only the emperor was allowed to have a five-clawed dragon (his ultimate symbol), so others have claws corresponding to the rank of the official who commissioned it. In Yu Yuan (gardens) we saw a number of four-clawed dragons as sculptures atop undulating walls. Another impressive dragon site was the nine-dragon screen in the Forbidden City, Beijing. This is a wall (effectively) decorated with nine dragons, all different and in different colours. The central dragon is gold and face-on to the viewer, which was the traditional symbol of the emperor.

Whereas dragons are associated with the emperor (and the masculine), the empress’s symbol is a phoenix. So you frequently see a dragon and phoenix intertwined, or in some form of synergy.

The lions are interesting as well. At the entrance of almost every official building, there is a pair of lions: a female on the left (as you face the entrance) playing with a cub, and a male on the right playing with a ball. Both may have a pearl in their mouths and often have bells carved around their necks. The image of the lion tends to be not very accurate, as evidently lions were unknown in China, and the carvings came from descriptions only. So they don’t look much like lions.