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?