Monday, December 31, 2007

A blokey tale

My last book of 2007 was an action-packed read by new Australian author Mark Abernethy.

I heard Mark speak at the Brisbane Writers' Festival this year, and then read a few reviews talking up his debut novel, Golden Serpent, so I thought I'd check it out.

It's been a while since I've read a spy thriller, but I can still say this is one of the best offerings from that genre I've read - possibly the best.

Probably the most likeable aspect of the story - a complex plot involving terrorist and political machinations in South East Asia - is that the hero is fallible - and not in a cliched way.

It also helps that he's Australian and the action takes place on Australia's doorstep. The conspiracies and espionage at the heart of the story give a fascinating glimpse of Australia's involvement in post September 11 intelligence activities in the Pacific region.

In what looks like being the first of a series of thrillers featuring Alan 'Mac' McQueen (he lives up to the name, don't worry), Abernethy creates a world where tough men cry, wounds actually hurt, and the bad guys don't all have foreign passports.

The prose is tight, the narrative lean, and exposition provided through believable dialogue between multi-dimensional characters. Abernethy definitely doesn't talk down to his readers, and the Australian attitudes and slang make for some lighter moments. The author also knows his stuff, and writes with firm authority.

OK, so this was a very blokey read - and I couldn't put it down. No doubt the film option for Golden Serpent has already been snatched up, so it probably won't be long before Mac makes it to the big screen.

You can find out more about Mark Abernethy at and more about Golden Serpent at

Friday, December 21, 2007

How to talk about books you haven't read

It turns out the trick to good literary conversation isn't reading books - it's just being able to talk about them.

Pierre Bayard, a professor of literature at Paris University, has written How to talk about books you haven't read, a bluffer's guide to literary chatting (reviewed by Barry Oakley in The Weekend Australian's Review this weekend).

According to Bayard, it's not the book itself that's important, it's the ideas - and the connections between them - that give literature value. For this reason, it's easy to talk about books you haven't read if you have an opinion on the ideas they are exploring.

Bayard says even the most thorough reading of a book soon shrinks into a summary. It's a reasonable point: you can spend a week reading a book and then explain it to someone in less than a minute. He says it then disappears even further over time (unless, of course you have a blog!).

It's an interesting viewpoint, but I can't quite embrace the idea that reading books isn't important. What would be the point in writing a book if people only read the synopsis and then launched into a discussion about it? What's the value of the author's viewpoint if nobody reads it? And if only one person needs to read a book to be able to summarise it for everyone else, who decides who gets to do the actual reading?

Bit too hard really. I like the idea that people read books, taking from them what they need or want (consciously and sub-consciously) and then those people further discuss the themes and ideas to expand and explore their own understanding. Discussion about literary ideas should complement reading, not replace it.

But then, of course, I've just blogged about ideas in a book I haven't read ...

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A little bit of whimsy

What makes a story whimsical?

Tonight, I watched Mr Magorium's Wonder Emporium and yes, as you'd guess from the title, it was whimsical.

It's a sweet story about an eccentric owner of a magical toy store (Dustin Hoffman) who wants his store manager (Natalie Portman ) to trust in her own ability to create magic. Then there's young hat collector Eric (Zach Mills), who lives and breathes the store but struggles to make friends, and the very un-magical Henry (Jason Bateman), an accountant - or 'mutant' as the Emporium trio call him - trying to make sense of several hundred years of paperwork and unable to see the miraculous around him.

There are no real surprises in the tale, but the engaging cast, and a script that doesn't patronise its audience, makes it easy to get caught up in the idea that the only thing limiting our enjoyment of life (and the little wonders in it) is our lack of imagination.

Is that what whimsy is? The ability to see beyond the obvious, to find something "more" in everyday life? My friend Bec (who has a fantastic blog called 'Special Small Stuff' understands this all too well. I recommend her musings when you want to find a serene corner of the world to spend a few minutes in.

I'd love to be able to write the sort of fable-esque story that leaves people feeling the way I did when I left the cinema tonight ... wanting to see the best in the world. Part of me knows it's a naivety, and that in itself is kind of sad.

On the way home tonight, I tuned in to ABC Classic FM. It was broadcasting a Christmas concert by the Adelaide Chamber Singers, recorded in St Peter's Cathedral. Listening to those beautiful voices singing 17th century carols seemed oddly appropriate for my mood. Which made me wonder why fantasy (like the movie) and human voices singing songs from another age have more power to transport us beyond ourselves than most contemporary songs, stories etc.

Then again, maybe I've just finally caught the spirit of the season, and am starting to think beyond the next thing on my to-do list...

Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Dexter - not your average crime show

Now here's a unique way to tell a story: a TV series about a serial killer, who kills serial killers (and any other criminals who seem to escape the justice system).

Dexter started on the new Foxtel channel Showcase this week. Based on novels by crime writer Jeff Lindsay, it's about a guy with a need to kill, who's learned to channel it into a macabre vigilante tool (thanks to his foster father cop).

But while there's certainly some startlingly graphic violence (to remind us just what Dexter is capable of), this show also has some of the wittiest writing on television, that's also at times unexpectedly profound. Most of the (very dark) humour comes through Dexter's voice-overs, as he calmly and - often sadly - shares his reflections on himself and the world around him.

By day, Dexter is a blood spatter expert with the Miami Police. By night, he metes out the justice his colleague's can't.

At the core of this show is the question: can you do good by doing bad? Dexter is loaded with moral ambiguity, which is compounded by the thoughtful, complex performance of Michael C. Hall (from Six Feet Under), who more often than not makes Dexter likeable.

There are some disturbing moments: in fact, the first time I stumbled across the show I saw a scene out of context and immediately switched off - but then, when watching it in context, it was still unsettling, but at least I understood why it was there. Definitely not for everyone.

Yes, there's always a chance this show could encourage the very sort of behaviour it depicts. But when you look past the shock factor, Dexter asks some fascinating questions, which are worth seeking answers for, given these types of people really do exist in society.

The Weekend Australian's Review lift-out had a great article this weekend about the show by Graeme Blundell, but it's still not available online. So, in the meantime, here's a bit more about the show for anyone interested:

Anyone else watched this show or have any thoughts about it?

Thursday, November 29, 2007

My favourite reads of 2007

My aim with this blog is to talk about great stories: telling them, reading them, watching them ... and hopefully start some interesting discussions about the nature of language and the power of narrative.

First up, given the time of year, I thought I would re-cap some of my favourite reads for the year.

Favourite reads of 2007

How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff
This is one of the most original novels I have read in a long time, and has one of the strongest narrative voices - especially in a debut novel. A teenage girl is sent to England to live with her cousins during a future war that leaves England occupied and its inhabitants at the mercy of (unidentified) foreign soldiers. The story is not so much about the war, but about the relationships the girl forms with her cousins, and how those bonds change her life forever. I couldn't get this story out of my head for weeks.

Reading this novel, lead me to read Rosoff's follow up books Just In Case and this year's new release What I Was, both of which are engaging, with fascinating narrators. Both again deal with issues of teen angst in ways that are definitely left of centre. These books are categorised as young adult, and are evidence of why that market is attacting so much critical attention these days.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne
Here's another classic example of a novel classed as being for young adults, but which has far more impact for older readers. (I have a good friend who is a school librarian - she gives me the best tips on quality young adult fiction to read!) This is the story of a young boy who is the son of an important German officer during the Second World War. Young Bruno is unhappy when the family is sent to "Out-With", where they live next to a strange village where people wander about aimlessly in striped pajamas. Bored and lonely, Bruno eventually befriends a boy who lives on the other side of the fence, starting a friendship that will have tragic repercussions.

The uniqueness of this book is that the horror of Auschwitz is told through the naive eyes of nine-year-old Bruno, who has no idea what he is really seeing or experiencing. Of course, adult readers know exactly what's going on, even though Bruno doesn't, which adds incredible tension to the story. This one left me a sobbing wreck.

The God of Animals by Aryn Kyle
Set on a horse ranch in Desert Valley, Colorado, this is a beautifully written coming-of-age story about love, longing and loneliness. It is meticulously crafted and atmospheric. The characters are complex and richly written, and the messages it contains about relationships and responsibility are powerful. Kyle writes with honesty and without melodrama or sentimentality, making the emotional journey of protagonist Alice all the more rewarding for readers. Definitely not a young adult novel!

Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Piccoult (and Tenth Circle)
There's a reason Jodi Piccoult sells so many books: she's a cracking good read. For popular fiction, her works have an impressive emphasis on the workings of the human psyche. This was my first experience with Picoult, and I was mesmerised by the story and the tragedies played out on the page. Nineteen Minutes looks at the aftermath of a fictional high school massacre in a close-knit American community, where the shooter survives. It is dissected from all sides - the victims, the shooter, and their families.

I enjoyed Piccoult's style so much I then read The Tenth Circle which I also really enjoyed, followed by her very first novel Songs of the Humpback Whale (not my favourite). There are definitely common themes in her books involving the dynamic of family relationships. I'm interested to read more of her work, but perhaps not one after the other, as I did here.

Templar Legacy by Steve Berry
Here we have the thinking person's Da Vinci Code - better written, better dialogue and more action. The theology is a tad dodgy, but it's a page-turner with great action sequences and a hero who has believable flaws.

Water for Elephants by Sarah Gruen
A whimsical tale about an elderly man abandoned by his family in a nursing home. When a Big Top is set up near the home, he begins to reminisce about his younger days travelling with a circus. Although there are a couple of startling moments, this is essentially a gentle tale, with a lovely ending.

Does my head look big in this?; Ten things I hate about me by Randa Abdel-Fattah
I only discovered Randa this year and instantly loved her style. First I read the new release, Ten things I hate about me, and then read her earlier novel. Both books (again, young adult) look at Australia through the eyes of a teenager from a Muslim background, and her struggles to "fit in". Her narrative characters are engaging, funny and thoroughly enjoyable. Interestingly, the hang-ups, fears and stresses of these girls are not that much different from any other Aussie teenage girl, and the message these books offer about self acceptance cross all cultural boundaries.

And of course ... Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by JK Rowling
So much has been written about this book it seems pointless to say too much ... except that I loved it (apart from too much running and hiding in the middle of the book) and that JK Rowling proved herself a master storyteller, tying up a myriad of story arcs.

Non fiction
I found some particularly excellent books on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (those of you who know me, know this is a pet topic of mine and which I've written a play about).

- Three Wishes: Israeli and Palestinian Children Speak Out by Deborah Ellis
This is a heartbreaking series of alternating interviews of Israeli and Palestinian children, who talk about how the conflict has affected their lives, in their own words. This should be required reading for everyone involved in the peace process, on all sides.

- Palestinte: Peace not Aparteid by Jimmy Carter
A fascinating look at the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian situation from someone who has been actively involved in the process, first as US President, and then as the head of an organisation helping to run democratic elections in the Middle East. A refreshing perspective from a well-known American, who is frank, open, and even-handed in his treatment. It is written in simple language and is a great primer for people wanting to understand the background of the situation, and where it's at now.

For the record: favourite book at the moment
I can't write about books without mentioning Markus Zusak, because The Book Thief continues to be my favourite novel, even though I read it more than a year ago. An incredibly moving and beautifully written story, I recommend this to anyone who wants to understand just how powerful literature can, and what differentiates literature from popular fiction and films.

It's the story of an orphaned German girl sent to live with relatives during the Second World War. Her life is further changed when the family decides to hide a young Jewish boxer in their basement, and the pair strike up a rare friendship.

What sets this apart from other novels tackling this topic - or any other for that matter - is that the story is narrated by Death.

OK, this is probably way too long for a blog, so I'll finish up now!