Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Two takes on paranormal

The read-a-thon has continued apace this month -- I haven't read this much in years! In fact, I even devoured a book in two days last week -- Nicole Murphy's debut, Secret Ones. Began it Thursday morning on the train and finished before midnight on Friday. The novel has been classified as paranormal romance, yet despite a very strong relationship thread, I felt the non-romance plotlines were strong enough to balance out the lurve and lift the experience out of M&B territory (just).

I liked the world created by Murphy. It's set partly in contemporary regional Australia (where there is, nonetheless, a university), and partly in a mythical Irish town almost entirely populated by a secret race that uses power. In 'Harry Potter' fashion, these people have their own governing body, academic milestones etc, and most are contemptuous or at least dismissive of humans. The story centres around Maggie (trained in the power, yet sympathetic towards humans) and Lucas (a physics genius who discovers he actually has the power) and the fight for him to recognised as one of them and trained.

Having said all that, this is a book that will probably only appeal to those who like a strong romantic angle. If you're not that into the love stuff, then give it a miss. It is a very dominant thread. I, however, found it easy to immerse myself in and consequently finished it in quick time.

In between this and the Tide Lords series, I also snuggled down with Kirstyn's Madigan Mine. Well, maybe snuggled is not quite the right word. It's beautifully written as predicted, but rather too disturbing to inspire the warm contentment that snuggling evokes. There are several 'ew' events, and some rather nasty moments. Not to mention a growing feeling of unease. Funnily enough this can also be found in the paranormal section of bookshops, but it is very different from Secret Ones in style and theme. Much more of an intellectual read, with love ripped apart and stomped on.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

A day at the Melbourne Writers Festival

I didn't think I was going to make it to the Melbourne Writers Festival this year, but I decided to seize upon the occasion of a book launch as an excuse to go in and soak up some atmosphere.

Lucy Sussex's book is called Saltwater in the Ink - Voices from the Australian Seas, and is in fact a collection of sea-diaries and letters written by people emigrating from Victorian England to Australia. It promises to be a fascinating read. We were granted a glimpse during the launch event, which included a reading from one of the entries (a graphic description of a storm that almost sank one of the ships), a choral performance of the navy hymn, and a steampunk contraption that launched the book -- literally -- into the air, to be almost-caught by Lucy.

After a leisurely lunch and a few glasses of wine with some interesting people, I then grabbed a ticket for a MWF event called 'A Wordsmith's Dream'. This featured a panel of David Astle (renowned cryptic crossword writer from The Age), Kate Burridge (Monash Uni linguist who also appears on ABC radio), and Ursula Dubosarsky (author of The Word Spy). Obviously this was a session right up my alley, and it was a delight, featuring such gems as:
> 'bounciness' is an anagram of Ben Cousins (look out for that one in a crossword in the next few weeks)
> 'gymnologise' is a gorgeously useless word, meaning 'to debate while naked'
> 'velleity' means 'slight wish or inclination - but not enough to prompt action . . .'
> A googol is the large number 10^100, that is, the digit 1 followed by one hundred zeros (and the inspiration behind 'google')

The panellists discussed words and their meanings effortlessly, trotting out their personal favourites and commenting on language in general. David Astle said he is constantly harvesting words, and that it is rare for a book to sweep him up to the extent that he forgets to word-harvest. He also said that English is such a great language to play with (ie use for crosswords) because 'it's such a mongrel'. In other words it has words that take many different forms, largely derived from myriad other languages.

I also thought Kate Burridge made an interesting point, saying that when we don't use a word enough, it dies; but if we use a particular word too much, it also dies. DA cited 'process' and 'journey' as words that fall into this category for him. Not sure I necessarily agree -- in my world 'solution' would fall in this category.

Anyway, it was nice to meditate on words and writing for a day.

Buried in books

Yesterday evening I went through my bookshelves. The purpose was twofold: dust and tidy, plus purge where possible. It took a very long time -- almost the entire duration of three movies shown on TV (which, admittedly, were a little distracting at times). But eventually I flicked that duster over the last patch of shelf and restored the final tome to its rightful place of rest.

The thing I was most struck by was the sheer number of books I haven't yet read. Indeed, many I had completely forgotten were there. Both novels and non-fiction works fell into this category. So many novels I have bought with the intention of reading them some day -- whether they are by favourite authors, or have been recommended, or have merely taken my fancy. Despite their number, just about none made it onto the pile-to-be-purged.

I also have a fair few non-fiction books -- an eclectic mix of books on things such as weaving, or herbal remedies, or architecture, or heraldry, or mythology etc. Most have been bought by me (or given as presents) as resource material for writing fantasy. The theory is that flicking through them might spark an idea, or add texture to the created fantasy world . . . if one was to actually spend time flicking through them, that is. Very few of these made it on the pile-to-be-purged either. Despite the fact that everyone knows research on specific topics is conducted via the web these days. Nevertheless, who knows when they might come in handy?

As I sorted through the mountain of books, I spent quite some time contemplating whether or not I should keep those I had read. On what grounds does one keep them? If it's the likelihood of reading them again, then I should be rid of most of them. No matter how many I would love to re-experience, there are so many other books out there (and in fact on my bookshelf) that this would seem a poor use of time. Nevertheless, I still kept far more than I chucked out -- maybe for nostalgic reasons, perhaps in the hope that I may have the opportunity to re-read them, or possibly even so I can lend them to friends.

It's an interesting conundrum, particularly in a world that is markedly shifting to e-books. If I could magically transfer the contents of all my books to electronic format would I be happy to evict them from the lounge room? Don't know. Perhaps some I would, but  I'm fairly sure that there are still many I would like to keep in full view. After all, if I forget what's there when they're staring at me in the face, how much worse will that be when they're just files on a computer?

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Lacking a little: Salt

Seems I've had a spate of movie-watching of late. The most recent movie I saw was the Angelina Jolie vehicle, Salt, which I saw by default because Inception was sold-out on Saturday night. Salt is an action flick in the vein of the Jason Bourne movies -- and that just about says it all really. Lots of impossible human stunts, guns, running, steely-expressionless faces etc. The twists weren't all that twisty either. Overall, it was entertaining enough for this style of movie, but nothing out of the ordinary. Doubtless I would have enjoyed Inception more.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Pub writing and the baby pooter

Back in May, I had this idea that it might be fun to try writing in the pub for the afternoon, and yesterday we finally gave it a go. We began with brunch in a cafe nearby, then migrated down to 'The Wick' in the early afternoon to experiment. It was busier than I expected based on past experience, but fortunately a booth came free shortly after we arrived, and we crammed ourselves into it -- ultimately seven writers with seven laptops, clacking away madly, bottles of wine, glasses and plates of snacks cluttering the table. We even found a conveniently located power point for those with dodgy batteries.

The whole afternoon was a resounding success. I'm fairly sure it was the only reason I got any words written this past weekend, and possibly others felt the same. It was like a mini retreat, and injected some productivity into our brunch meeting. In fact, when we first conceptualised brunch, the idea was that we would all go home and write afterwards, but somehow we never seem to leave the cafe. This therefore is a win-win solution, and I rather suspect may become a monthly event.

It also gave me the opportunity to blood my new baby computer. After many hours of research, I purchased a Samsung N210 netbook a couple of weeks ago. I have long desired one for occasions just such as this, but my impending overseas trip gave me the excuse I needed to actually spend the money. It has a mega-battery on it too. I must have had it switched on with a bright screen for around 5-1/2 hours, and it was telling me at still had 5-1/2 hours juice left in it. Admittedly I had switched the WiFi off, but this battery life is very impressive, considering how bright I had the screen. With such a battery, I could conceivably write on the plane all the way to Paris, providing I can recharge during a stopover.

The keyboard on my baby pooter is also great. It's a little bit smaller, but I had few problems getting used to it. The screen is also good -- I had thought it might be too small, but no. All good. I am seriously happy with my new little friend!

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Me and Orson Welles (in Yarraville)

I trekked off to the Sun Theatre in Yarraville last night to see Me and Orson Welles, a film about the staging of Orson Welles' renowned 1937 production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar at the Mercury Theatre in New York. Experienced through the eyes of Richard, a 17yr old high school student who talks his way into a small role in the production, the film explores the brilliance (and massive ego) of Orson Welles, and the world of theatre and live radio plays.

It's a fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable insight into the subject, with fabulous performances. Much has been made in reviews about the 'mermerising' performance of Christian McKay as Orson Welles, and deservedly so. He is certainly dominates the movie, and will be long-remembered in this role. Zac Efron as Richard gave a subtle performance to counterbalance the bombast of Welles, and what I liked about this character was his honesty. During a single amazing week, Richard learnt much about how the world works, experienced amazing highs and lows, all while remaining true to himself and honest with others. I liked this, because all too often in such films tension is created by characters lying or cheating, but there was none of this (from the main character at least).

Another theme of the movie was the pursuit of dreams (largely of the artistic/creative kind) and to what lengths people will go to achieve them. Aside from aspiring actor Richard, Claire Danes's character goes to astounding lengths just to get an introduction to Hollywood producer David O Selznick (of Gone with the Wind fame); while Richard's friend Greta is writing away madly in her metaphorical garret, and experiences the joy of her first short story publication.

Me and Orson Welles has been touted as one of the best movies about the theatre, and it certainly presents a fascinating and highly watchable insight.

Another star of the evening was the Sun Theatre itself. I hadn't been there before, and when I encountered the LaScala Lounge cinema filled with soft leather-looking arm chairs, I think my jaw dropped. It was simply delightful to slouch back in the comfortable softness as though in front of the TV at home. My tip would be to find out what movies are playing in LaScala and choose what to see that way!

The bar, Acqua e Vino, where we met for drinks before the film also had a really cool vibe, all leather arm chairs and timber coffee tables. Formerly wine bar of the year (2007), this place has a lever arch file for a drinks menu (that is no joke). All in all a night of great experiences (and company of course)!

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

'Make use of suffering'

Today's thought of the day from Wordsmith.org:

You desire to know the art of living, my friend? It is contained in one phrase: make use of suffering. -Henri Frederic Amiel, philosopher and writer (1821-1881)

Here one might as well substitute 'living' for 'storytelling'. Making your characters suffer is what it's all about. 'Make use of suffering' is a good mantra to keep in our heads.

Of course, making use of our own suffering is also good fodder for the storyteller. If we can remember the emotion, physical sensation, decision-making, mind-set etc that we experience when we're under the pump (for whatever reason) it helps us infuse our work with a verisimilitude that might otherwise be lacking. Embrace pain! Harness and channel the suffering! Never was the phrase 'it's character building' more true than for the writer/storyteller.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Retreating again to the island

I spent this past weekend down at Phillip Island on a writing retreat. I am a little shocked to discover that the last time I did this -- escape to the island for the express purpose of novel immersion -- was October last year. That's 10 months ago. Even more disturbing is that I discover I was writing chapter 28 back then. On Saturday I finished chapter 32 of the rewrite. That's less than five chapters in 10 months. What a disaster. I knew I hadn't written much this year (Trailwalker . . . work stresses . . .) but I truly didn't realise I hadn't even cracked 15,000 words. No wonder I've been feeling mildly blue.

I suppose there's no point dwelling on it, and indeed I feel a mild bemusement. I'm not quite sure how it happened, but I sure as hell had better make sure it doesn't happen again. The way forward is more weekends at Phillip Island!

This past weekend was fabulous. Three of us went down, and setup on the dining table with the fire pumping out heat and making the room a cocoon of warmth. Just how I like it. (For anyone that got too hot, there was the balcony or the beach and a rush of freezing wind.) As mentioned, I finished a chapter on Saturday -- a momentous achievement for the year as it turns out! -- and managed to start another on Sunday.

I actually write better with company -- sure, there's the distraction of conversation, but in most cases it's writing related, and often directly refers to what we're working on. But even so, I manage to push myself harder when there are others present. I write longer and later, spurred on by the knowledge that my companions are focused on what they are doing (even if it's spending time with a book on the couch).

And at least I'm starting to get into a better routine. My head is back in the story for the most part; now I just need to keep it there and finish the damn thing!

Friday, 13 August 2010

Fantasy reviews: 3 series by Jennifer Fallon

When it comes to reading, I have long been partial to good-old meaty fantasy series. While I definitely appreciate single-volume books, I welcome the opportunity to further explore characters and worlds that multi-volume series bring. Not that I like them too long. When they're more than about five books I often find they get a bit convoluted, or drawn out simply because the author doesn't want to quit the world. But a well-written 3-5 book series promises hours and hours of entertainment and escape.

Recently I've been reading a few series by of Australian fantasy author Jennifer Fallon. I started with the Demon Child trilogy some years ago when it first came out, then more recently read the Second Sons trilogy, and have just now finished the Tide Lords series (4 books). And I have to say my experience has been mixed -- with some amazing highs, along with some, well, lows.

My favourite of these three series is definitely the Second Sons. I loved this series end to end. I thought the characters and the relationships between them were fantastic; they had to make tough decisions and usually didn't choose the predictable or obviously noble path. At heart, the story is about the nature of faith, and how those who follow blindly can be exploited. It's also about the 'next generation' -- how the sons and daughters of 'great' people carve out their own niche in life and either reap what their parents have sewed, or atone for their sins.

However, I almost didn't read Second Sons -- vowed in fact never to read another Jennifer Fallon novel after Harshini, the third in the Demon Child trilogy. The first two in this series I loved as well, but I felt totally let down by the third, which I felt lacked the depth of the first two. It seemed rushed, sketchy by comparison, and I was bored and struggled to finish it. So it was lucky that a friend gave me the Second Sons trilogy, having spare copies lying around. I read it until all hours of the morning and thought perhaps I'd been wrong about this author.

Which brings me to the Tide Lords series. It has a great premise: that magic is 'tidal', brought by a 'star' (I presume planet?) that comes and goes with centuries and millennia. The wielders of this magic are ordinary humans made immortal, and they are forced to wait out the 'low tide' periods in obscurity, only to emerge all powerful when the tide magic rises. The series explores the meaning of immortality, love, power, loyalty.

I really enjoyed the first two books of this series in particular. This is when the central characters and the premise are all established, and I devoured these in rapid time. The first book (The Immortal Prince) lays a solid foundation, while the 2nd (The Gods of Amyrantha) pulls out the proverbial rug from under the characters and their path changes quite dramatically. However, the third and fourth novels didn't quite live up to my expectations based on the first two. I felt they suffered from a lack of subtlety and complexity and they just seemed rushed. Having said that, I still think the series is great, but front-loaded, so to speak.

In all, I would recommend Jennifer Fallon novels for epic fantasy with great characters and interesting worlds. They are certainly a great way to while away a Sunday afternoon or stormy evening.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

The waiting city

Last night I saw the Australian movie, The waiting city, which is about a 30-something couple trying to adopt a child in Calcutta. She's a workaholic lawyer, he's a musician recovering from depression, and this film explores their relationship and how it stands up to the pressures of a fairly stressful situation and environment, with some other conflicts thrown in. The film is resplendent with the textures, flavours and sounds of India -- definitely the highlight for me, closely followed by some great performances. The portrayal of India felt truly authentic, and its impact on both the main characters seemed profound.

I very much enjoyed the movie. However, I did feel that it was contrived in parts: in particular much of the conflict between the couple. Instead of relying on the situation to create tension -- and there was plenty to be found that was truly believable -- a few too many external and past pressures were incorporated and the result was heavy-handed and smacking of coincidence. In this the film was oddly unbalanced, for there were plenty of long reflective moments when India was allowed to have her say, and events left to progress gently with subtlety. These were the best moments, and on the whole made up for the more contrived plot points.

All the same, I was left largely unmoved on an emotional level by this film, even though I did care about the characters and some difficult stuff happened to them. Maybe it was the contrivances, I don't know. I did feel a sense of satisfaction with the ending, so perhaps all the other bad stuff was simply 'meant to be'.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Schoolies week

Entirely by coincidence, I caught up with two different sets of school friends in the past week. As one of the 'girls' I caught up with today remarked, these are people with whom we share something unique. No-one we meet today can reminisce with us about childhood and adolescence, or remember what our dreams were back then. There's something rather amazing (and surreal) about sitting around a table recounting stories from back in the day (over 20 years ago), straining our memories for names and faces, or struggling simply to recall the event that to someone else is a vivid memory. We dug out old photos from our final year of school, laughed in the face of old crushes, ridiculed the fashions, and shared news of others we might have bumped into or heard of at some time in the past two decades. These are people who knew us before we knew ourselves, and it's remarkable to think that after all these years, none of us have really changed.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Thoughts on Breath, by Tim Winton

This month, we read Breath by Tim Winton. It's a beautifully written book, elegant and atmospheric, exploring the art of risk taking. Bruce Pike ('Pikelet') reflects on his youth spent in a WA coastal town, where he and his mate Loonie hung around with the enigmatic 30-something Ando and his wife Eva. Ando introduces Pikelet and Loonie to wild, secluded and dangerous surfing spots, setting himself up as a guru with two adoring teenage disciples. In due course rivalries develop, leading to greater deeds of daring do in the quest for excitement and terror. From surfscapades to sex games, Pikelet finds himself slowly getting out of his depth.

I enjoyed this novel. Not only are the words beautiful, but the characters are well-drawn and the setting -- coastal landscape, town of Sawyer, and mighty ocean -- vivid. The main story, Pikelet's 'coming of age' story (sort of), is poignant and appropriately fraught with teen angst.

However, I didn't find Breath 100% satisfying. The novel opens with Bruce, now a paramedic in his 50s, attending a home hanging, which he knows isn't a suicide. It is this which sets him reminiscing, but I initially took this to be a temporary flashback, and kept waiting to get back to the main story, which sounded as though it would have been interesting. In time, it became apparent this wasn't going to happen, but it unsettled me, and detracted from my enjoyment at first. Moreover, the last 10 pages or so sketchily fill in Pikelet's dysfunctional years from teen surfer to paramedic far too quickly, leaving me wondering what the overall point of it all is.

I do really like the last paragraph though, which concludes with the following observation about surfing:
" . . . it's important for me to show them that their father is a man who dances -- who saves lives and carries the wounded, yes, but who also does something completely pointless and beautiful, and in this at least he should need no explanation."

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Book launch: Madigan Mine

And now for something a little more upbeat than my previous post . . . Last night I attended the long-anticipated launch of Kirstyn McDermott's novel, Madigan Mine. Kirstyn is a member of my writers group, and a good friend. I still remember the day in the cafe (April 09) when she told us all the novel had been accepted for publication and how excited we all were. (Although not, of course, as excited as she!) It has been fabulous to live vicariously through the publishing experience and see how it all comes together. Many of our group turned up last night to help celebrate the success of one of our own.

I am looking forward to reading Madigan Mine, because I'm sure that like all Kirstyn's writing it will be brilliant. In the meantime, here's the blurb: 

When Alex meets Madigan again everything changes. His childhood sweetheart is beautiful and impulsive, but there is something wrong with her. Something dangerous.

Then she commits suicide.

Now Alex can’t get Madigan out of his head. Is it all in his mind, or is she communicating with him?

To save himself and those he loves, Alex must uncover the sinister reason why Madigan took her own life – and why she won’t lie still in her grave.

It has been getting great reviews, and I wish Kirstyn lots of readers!

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Mildly blue

Meeting with my writing group these days is a bit of a double-edged sword. On the one hand it makes me feel part of something amazing. Novels are being written, accepted, published and launched . . . short stories are being churned out . . . dreams are being lived. I love sitting around a table as we did this afternoon, red wine flowing, stories or chapters being dissected, other writing-related topics discussed.

But at the same time it's getting harder to take myself seriously as part of this group. My publications are non-existent, I've been working on the same novel for as long as I can remember, and -- worse -- I am continually struggling to find the discipline/time/energy/confidence to write at all. (And then when I do write I'm so damn slow it's painful.) What then do I bring to the table? How can I sit alongside these guys and call them my peers?

Mostly I return home after a writing group meeting feeling inspired and determined, but sometimes it puts me in a funk. Today's attack of the sads probably has much to do with other dilemmas life is throwing at me at present, and the crossroads at which I find myself. I used to have more self-confidence than this, but, after plugging away for all these years with nothing to show for them, it's starting to take a beating. Hopefully tomorrow's book launch -- a very exciting day -- will snap me out of it!