Saturday, December 26, 2009

Lili St Crow - Strange Angels

I've just posted a new review on my other blog, Other worlds, where the emphasis is on fantasy stories.

It's about Lili St Crow's Strange Angels urban fantasy series, and you can check it out here if you're interested.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Tackling Israeli-Palestinian issues through fiction

One of the hardest things to do in fiction is tackle a complex issue and still deliver an engaging story.

Randa Abdel-Fattah, a Muslim of Palestinian and Egyptian heritage who grew up in Melbourne, has a strong literary track record of tackling the challenging topic of being a teenage girl of Middle Eastern descent in urban Australia.

Her breakthrough first novel, Does my head look big in this?, was a witty and enjoyable story about an Australian-Palestinian Muslim who decides to wear the hijab, and the courage it takes to display her faith.

Her follow up, Ten things I hate about me, was more about cultural identity (rather than religious), in which a Lebanese teenager in Sydney goes to great lengths to hide her ethnicity from her friends.

Now, Abdel-Fattah has gone a step further, using her gifts as a storyteller to present a Palestinian perspective on the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

Where the streets had a name features the likable narrative voice of Hayaat, a teenage girl whose face is scarred from an event we don’t fully understand until almost the end of the novel.

Hayaat is like most teenagers. She wants to be loved and accepted. She wants her family to be safe. She’s learned to live with the restrictions and curfews of the occupation and the bitterness of those around her who have lost homes and land to the Israelis.

Hayaat has no desire to cause trouble, but when her beloved grandmother, Sitti Zeynab, falls ill, Hayaat is convinced the only thing to lift her spirits will be to touch the soil of her village again. So she and her best friend Samy decide to go themselves, to bring back a jar of the precious dirt.

The trouble is, Sitti Zeynab’s village is on the other side of the giant concrete wall built by the Israelis to keep them separate from the West Bank Palestinians. What should only be a trip of a few miles will take Hayaat and Sami a full day, as they negotiate check points, roadblocks, unreliable public transport and Israeli soldiers.

Given the polemic nature of the Israeli-Palestinian situation itself, it’s a near impossible task to write a story about it with polarising people. But while the Abdel-Fattah’s sympathies lie with the non-violent men, women and children suffering under the occupation, she avoids the trap of painting a simple picture of villains and heroes.

This is a human story. It’s an attempt to show the human face of the occupation – on both sides of the wall. Both sides fear and mistrust the other, but – as this novel quietly suggests – there is hope on both sides too.

Hayaat is a Muslim, yet her best friend Samy is Christian and the difference in their faith appears to have very little significance to them or their community: they are all Palestinian and all living under occupation. And, interestingly, the men and women who help Hayaat and Samy the most during their journey (probably because they have the freedom to so) are Israelis, who – openly or otherwise – oppose the occupation.

Abdel-Fattah’s connection to the people and the place in this story allows her to capture the humour, spirit and humanity of a people whose plight is frequently over-shadowed by the violence perpetrated by a few, but ascribed to all.

Sitti, who has suffered the most in Hayaat’s family, also has the greatest capacity to laugh at the situation of her people.

To Hayaat’s sister, who is dieting in the lead-up to her wedding: “A little meat on a woman is nice. Do you want people to look at your on your wedding day and think you had a holiday in Gaza?”

But Sitti also carries the grief of a nation without a status. To the Israeli family who claimed her home as her own: “I’m sorry for what happened to your family and your people, but why must we be punished?”

And finally, it is Sitti who offers her granddaughter a glimmer of hope that one day the Israelis and Palestinians may find a way to live together: “Justice will come when those who hope outweigh those who despair. Hope is a force that cannot be reckoned with, ya Hayaat.”

Friday, November 27, 2009

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

The idea is promising: weave a zombie plot through a Jane Austen classic.

In Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Seth Grahame-Smith inserts zombie references and action throughout one of the most loved and recognisable stories in the English language.

The altered classic opening line certainly captures the mash-up idea: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains”.

In Grahame-Smith’s version, Elizabeth Bennett and her sisters are renowned Shaolin-trained warriors, roaming the countryside to cut down zombies – much to the disdain of higher bred women such as Mr Bingley’s sisters. Mr Darcy is also a zombie slayer of great repute and his clashes with Elizabeth are no longer just verbal…

The set up for the zombie plot is actually all there in the original: the constant presence of militia, the threat of disease and the horror associated with breaches of social etiquette.

I laughed out loud the first time I heard about this book (and then again when I found it shelved in the classics section at my local book shop).

It promises to put familiar characters in unfamiliar territory (fighting the trashiest of all pop culture supernatural baddies), and comes complete with a tongue-in-cheek study guide at the end. It should be clever. It should be fun.

And it is, for about 50 pages. Then the zombie references and B-grade-worthy fight scenes become a distraction from the real story: the tension between Elizabeth and Darcy.

Around 80 per cent of the original text remains intact, and that’s the problem. Austen’s writing and original plot are so strong, it makes the new scenes completely superfluous. It would have worked so much better if Grahame-Smith had actually re-imagined the story, rather than just inserting a few lines here and there in the original text.

Actually, the best bits for me are the sketches scattered through the pages, perhaps a sign the mash-up idea would have worked better as graphic novel.

The book’s success (which has led to other hybrids, including Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters) proves there are enough people with eclectic reading tastes to create a market for this type of literary bastardisation.

And I have no issue with the concept, I just wish this one had offered something more because, by the end, I just wished I’d read the original.

(According to Wikipedia, due to the success of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Grahame-Smith has been contracted to write two follow-up books, one of which is reported to be titled Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.)

Monday, November 16, 2009

Coming of age with Jasper Jones

Anyone who thinks “coming of age” stories are just for the young adult market should take a read of Craig Silvey’s excellent Jasper Jones.

It’s a gripping, well-written story about small-mindedness in a country town, that’s at turns sad, disturbing, funny and inspiring.

Set in Western Australia in 1965, it’s told through the eyes of teenager Charlie Bucktin. One stifling summer night, the town outcast – Jasper Jones – comes to his window and asks for his help. Charlie follows him into the bush, and what he sees there changes him – and ultimately the town – irrevocably.

In that one night – and then the days that follow – Charlie is forced to step away from childhood innocence and see the world around him for what it is.

Charlie struggles with the burden of what he has seen, and his uncertainty is further compounded by how quickly the town becomes mired in suspicion and hatred.

My good friend Place (a regular poster on this blog) and I heard Craig Silvey speak on the theme of “coming of age” at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival in September. He defined coming of age as being more than just a loss of innocence, that moment when the bubble bursts.

“It’s gaining and adult point of view of self assurance. It’s when you start to look beyond yourself and learn tenets of empathy. You appreciate another perspective and arrive at some sort of objective truth. It’s all about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.”

Silvey says it takes courage to challenge myths and traditions, which is what Charlie does when he realises the world is no longer the simple place he once thought it was. And he can’t “unknow” that truth.

Over the space of a fortnight, Charlie sees and hears horrible things. He sees the world for what it is. He responds by trying to understand the nature of cruelty, and how people can go about their lives as if evil doesn’t exist (this theme was also tackled in Sang Pak’s American gothic novel Wait Until Twilight, reviewed here).

In contrast to this soul searching is the comfortable familiarity of Charlie’s friendship with his cricket-obsessed best mate Jeffrey. Their adolescent banter provides welcome relief, as well as some of the most entertaining dialogue I’ve read in a while. (According to the Silvey, Charlie and Jeffrey’s conversations on puerile topics not dissimilar to the debates he has with his mates today. “It was a little too easy to write that dialogue.”)

For the creator of Jasper Jones, the idea of coming of age is not limited to youth: “We all become adults, but not all of us come of age.” And its this understanding that makes this novel such a riveting and enjoyable read.

Hearing the likable Silvey discuss Jasper Jones was one of the highlights of this year's Brisbane Writer's Festival Place and I. He was intelligent, articulate and self-effacing … and yes, we came away with a little bit of a literary crush…

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Final verdict (for now) on parallel importation of books

The final verdict is in: the copyright restrictions on parallel importation of books into Australia are staying (which is good news for Australian writers).

Kate Eltham from the Queensland Writers' Centre sums up the outcome (and links to more information) here.

For background on the issue, you can check out my post on the subject back in July.

(And yes, I will write about an actual book again very soon! - Nearly caught up on everything again...)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The household guide to dying

I’m back from my big adventure and a tad behind on a large number of projects. So … I thought I’d post a review I wrote for a competition recently (which did not bear fruit), until I can offer up posts on my holiday reading material.

Dying is an ambitious topic to tackle in fiction. While death is used as a plot device or metaphor in countless novels, it’s not usually the driving force of the narrative.

Debra Adelaide makes death and dying the central theme in her 2008 novel The Household Guide to Dying. But while the impending demise of the narrative character propels the story, it’s also a mechanism for a broader story arc that prevents the novel from being a one-trick pony.

The novel revolves around Delia, a “domestic advice” columnist, whose often acerbic advice masks a woman whose life has not always been as well ordered as her pantry. Exhausted and ravaged from chemotherapy, Delia is preparing herself for the natural conclusion to a long battle against breast cancer.

In between making plans for her young daughters’ future weddings, and stocking the fridge with frozen home-cooked meals, she decides her final book of household advice should be about dying – a subject she’s now qualified to write about with absolute authority.

Delia’s impending death – which she faces with an often jarring sense of practicality –provides the motivation to not only prepare her family for a future without her, but to also finally tend to old wounds inflicted in a small country town many years earlier.

The Household Guide to Dying at first feels like another of those stories intent on celebrating the simple pleasures in life, usually best perceived in moments of human frailty. Certainly Adelaide has a wonderful eye for detail and an evocative turn of phrase, but she’s also intent on telling a story. So, as Delia starts to unpick the seams that have held her life together, it’s apparent there’s much more to this fastidious woman than immaculately laundered clothing and perfect cups of tea. Adelaide paints her stroke by stroke and, ironically, the closer she comes to death, the more human she becomes on the page.

The household, and the role of a woman in it, is a powerful motif throughout the story. So much so, the novel could easily be mistaken as a treatise on the pre-feminist importance of women in society. But a closer examination suggests Delia’s commitment to a perfectly ordered household is a response to the unpredictability of life in the world outside – a world that has left her with deep, well hidden, scars.

Over the years, she’s taken control of her household with almost militant precision, and she approaches death in much the same fashion. Almost every decision she makes is about controlling as much as she can in the lives of those she loves from beyond the grave.

The Household Guide to Dying is meticulously constructed, with the mood continually shifting from humorous to macabre, witty to poignant. Delia’s catalogue of household knowledge and responses to hapless advice seekers are woven between accounts of her final days, and flashbacks to the moments that have shaped her life. Events are told outside of chronological order, ensuring the gentle pace of the story never stalls and saving it from being too flippant, morbid or melodramatic.

There can be no accusations of sentimentality here. Delia doesn’t pass through the seven stages of grief – at least not on the page – and perhaps the story would have been even richer if she had. But what grief she doesn’t express for herself, she does for the past, and when her moment of redemption finally comes, it’s surprisingly effective.

Threaded through all of this is Delia’s research into her own “household guide to dying” – learning about caskets, funeral services and autopsies. The latter is meant to emphasise the banality of death in the face of unbearable grief, but – aside from feeding morbid curiosity – is distracting by its detail.

Helen Garner also tackled the subject of dying in 2008, with her much lauded novel The Spare Room. It’s told from the perspective of a woman forced to watch a dying friend struggle against the inevitable. Narrator Helen agrees to support a friend battling the final stages of a terminal cancer while she undergoes bizarre experimental treatment. Over the course of three emotionally-charged weeks, Helen becomes nurse, guardian angel and unflinching judge of the choices made by her dying friend.

Ironically, Delia is more emotionally muted in her response to death than Garner’s Helen, but then Delia’s story is influenced by a different tension. In The Household Guide to Dying, the tension is not just about Delia facing her own mortality; it’s about what she needs to do before she can face it with a sense of completeness. To her, the task is everything.

Although The Household Guide to Dying is not focused solely on Delia’s inexorable steps towards death, it still manages to be confronting, simply because it deals with issues of mortality and how that theme translates off the page.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A brief break in transmission

Hello ... just a quick post to say I'm eating and drinking my way across Italy at the moment, so the next post is still a few weeks' away.

(I've just finished reading Craig Silvey's excellent Jasper Jones, so that's next on the list...)

Monday, September 14, 2009

Jeff Lindsay and Darkly Dreaming Dexter

One of the highlights of this year’s Brisbane Writers’ Festival on the weekend was a packed session featuring Jeff Lindsay, author of the books that have spawned the Dexter TV series.

The crowd was a mix of fans of his four books and fans of the TV series, and – obviously – those of us who appreciate both.

The man who has created one of the most morally ambiguous characters of recent times spoke about Dexter’s genesis and how important it is for readers (and viewers) to still question the nature of good and bad.

Lindsay claims the idea for Dexter came during a business group gathering of estate agents, lawyers and brokers many years ago. Sitting around listening to them network and promote themselves, he decided “serial murder is not always a bad thing” (and was possibly only half joking).

It gave him the idea of a serial killer who was sympathetic, not because of what he does, but because of who he is and the fact he acts from a position of amorality. Of course, it helps that Dexter only kills those who kill others (thanks to the foresight of his foster father Harry, a cop who saw the darkness in Dexter as a child and devised a way to channel it).

But Lindsay is very quick to point out Dexter is not a vigilante.

“A vigilante is someone who kills because someone has fallen through the cracks of the justice system and they are outraged personally and justice must be served. Dexter just likes to kill. He just happens to kill bad people because that’s the way his foster father set it up, and it works.”

Ironically, while the need for guilt is only a technicality for Dexter, it is imperative for Lindsay. “That line is important to me,” he told the weekend audience.

Lindsay has a very strong sense of justice. When talking about a young girl in his street who was raped and murdered, he momentarily dropped the wisecracks and was visibly emotional. He admitted he supported the death penalty, but only if there was no doubt of guilt - something he knew was next to impossible ... except for the fictitious Dexter.

As a reader or viewer, you can’t help but be a little unsettled at finding a serial killer likable, and Lindsay delights in shocking us with the reality of what Dexter does when he has his prey alone. While the series hints that Dexter may be more human than he believes, the books emphasise that Dexter’s humanity is a well constructed facade.

Lindsay thinks one of the reasons Dexter is so appealing is the fact he doesn’t see himself as human – only a monster good at pretending to be one. He is the voice of an outsider, allowing readers to see themselves in a different way, logically, without emotion.

The author says Dexter takes to the extreme something what we all do: fake in a relationship.

During his session on Saturday, Lindsay asked members of the audience to raise their hands if they were 100 per cent authentic with 100 per cent of the people they interacted with, 100 per cent of the time. Of course, no-one raised their hand.

“Dexter fakes all the time – but he knows he’s faking. He is very well aware of the fact he’s not a human.”

Interestingly, Lindsay hated title of the first Dexter novel, Darkly Dreaming Dexter, devised by his publisher’s marketing team. His original title was The Left of God, which was ruled out for fear it would create confusion for fans of the Humphrey Bogart film of the same name.

Lindsay’s young daughter – who hadn’t read the book but had heard enough conversations to get the gist – suggested “Pinocchio bleeds”. But while remarkably apt, it didn’t lend itself to serialisation...

While the TV series still takes its inspiration and some plot lines from the books, the two offer quite different stories and can stand alone without the other.

I’ve been a fan of the series since it started, and – now I’m reading the books – I’m enjoying the deeper (and often darker) perspective of the novels, along with Lindsay’s trademark wit and unique narrative voice.

If you enjoy the series but haven’t read the novels, give them a try.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Q&A with Sang Pak - Wait Until Twilight

This week's post marks the first author Q&A for Great Stories. Our guest is Sang Pak, whose excellent debut novel Wait Until Twilight was the focus of last week's post.

Here, he sheds some light on the inspiration for the story and its dark themes.

Was the idea for the book something that grew over time, or did you have a clear story outline from the start?
The idea was born from a set of dreams I had over a 2 week period a few summers back. I took the dreams, fleshed them out and added parts until I formed a story arc I could work with. Then revisions galore.

How much have your studies in psychology influenced this story?
You know, I think most of my psychological insights come from personal experience. Observing not only how I react to situations but other people as well. I've learned more from watching my thoughts and classmates during class than from the textbooks or lectures themselves. The only thing I gained from my studies were scientific terms to go along with those observations.

How did you decide on the idea of deformed babies to be the “freaks” that drive the change in Samuel? (And why three of them?)
Actually I dreamt of the three deformed babies. After I put it down on paper and was working on the revisions I started understanding what they meant. I'm not sure about the signifigance of three but I see it as a magical number not unlike the holy trinity: The Father, The Son, and The Holy Ghost, which does play a role in the book. The deformed babies are a metaphor for a wounded twisted aspect of Samuel that seeks nurturance and protection from an absent mother.

Did you have resistance from publishers on the theme?
My publishers loved the theme. They supported me from the get to. Very few revisions were asked for and they consisted mainly of a little more description in certain parts of the book.

What would like readers to take away from this story?
On a deeper level, it would be great if they recognized on some level, the struggle between chaos/nihilism/darkness versus order/belief/light. And how one can choose between the two...and how that choice can effect the rest of one's life.

Who/what do you like to read?
Hermnn Hesse, Raymond Carver, Flannery O'connor, Tolstoy, Yukio Mishima, Kurt Vonnegut

What’s next for you as a writer?
I'm working on another project but I don't talk about works in progress. It's bad luck!

(Thanks Sang for your time. Much appreciated.)

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Sang Pak explores the darkness within

It’s easy to ignore evil when your life hasn’t been touched by it, but what do you do when it has? Do you just walk away or will it haunt you until you face it? And what if the darkness is in you?

American writer Sang Pak’s debut novel Wait until twilight explores the influence of dark impulses on sixteen-year-old Samuel, an intelligent and intuitive teenager whose world is shaken when he encounters a set of deformed triplets hidden behind closed doors in his sleepy southern town.

Samuel is repulsed by the “freaks” and his reaction – and the dark thoughts he has towards the babies – haunt him for days afterward.

But when he attempts to atone for these thoughts – to prove to himself he’s a not monster – he’s confronted by true evil in the form of the twins’ adult brother Daryl. Daryl is menacing, brutal and obsessed with using Samuel’s inner turmoil for his own ends.

Samuel’s usual defence is to find a single focus and wipe everything else out of his head. He feels most normal when he feels nothing. But while that seems to have helped him suppress his grief for his mother, he can’t suppress the reality of the deformed triplets.

He tries to turn his back on the disturbed household, but he’s haunted by the triplets and the threat Daryl poses to them, and ultimately decides the only way to confront his own darkness is to save the defenceless babies.

His response to them is all the more amplified by the fact his friend David seems unperturbed by them: the triplets and their unbalanced mother are just another of life’s oddities – nothing to disturb his thoughts beyond the moment.

Wait until twilight has elements of J.D Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, as Samuel starts to react to the world around him in increasingly confusing ways – his own world of ordered focus starts to crumble, and we wonder if he might actually be descending into madness.

But, just as the violent encounters with Daryl disturb and conflict him, relationships in his “normal” world provide balance and help Samuel transform into the man he wants – and needs – to be.

Pak creates a dark undercurrent throughout the story that ensures a sense of menace pervades every page, even when Samuel is relaxed. The idea that seediness and darkness lurk just out of sight is not new - particularly in American fiction - but Pak's approach is powerful in its understatement.

In Samuel’s home town, the seedier side of human nature is indulged in back woods cabins only a stone’s throw from suburbia. That reality leads Samuel to assume the only way the rest of his community can be “normal” is to pretend there’s nothing terrible in the world - a luxury he no longer has.

Wait until twilight features a strong and confident narrative voice. Samuel is a likable and sympathetic character; he's masculine without being overtly fuelled by testosterone, and his inner struggles are compelling and believable.

Pak has created a novel that's at times deeply disturbing, but ultimately redemptive, and I suspect its characters will continue to stay with me for many weeks to come.

Next post: a Q&A with Sang Pak.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

White Tiger - a complicated India

“Things are complicated in India.”

That about sums up the picture created by Aravind Adiga in his Man Booker Prize winning novel White Tiger, which I finally read recently.

This cleverly written novel is not the India of Bollywood films, nor does it offer the ultimate optimism of Slumdog Millionaire.

Instead, it puts the reader in the hands of Balram, a “social entrepreneur”, who tells us from the start he’s killed his master and set himself free from the “Rooster Coop” of the caste system.

Balram is amoral and selfish, but his circumstance in life – and his ability to respond to it with ingenuity, wit and self belief – ultimately makes us able to sympathise with him on some level.

Balram is the son of a poor rickshaw puller. Deprived of a formal education, he begs his way to becoming a chauffeur, and it’s while driving the corrupt rich men of the city that he begins to see where his opportunities for a better life may lie.

White Tiger depicts an India where the caste system continues to exploit and abuse its rural poor, and the rich – in the mad dash for capitalism and power – have become increasingly corrupt.

Balram talks about the India of Light (the shining new “economic miracle” of the call centres) and the India of Darkness (the poverty-stricken rural heart, where life is dominated by oppressive servitude).

The gap between the have and have-nots is never more obvious than in their attitude towards animals: in the city, the rich have servants wash their pampered pets; in the villages, the family buffalo has far greater value than a child.

Balram tells his story through a series of chatty letters to Wen Jiabao, the premier of China, who is soon to visit India. Balram very helpfully attempts to explain that India will succeed over China as a capitalist society in the long term because of the emergence of entrepreneurs – and goes on to use his own life as an example.

Ultimately, Adiga uses the corruption of Balram’s master to mirror the corruption of India itself and Balram does the only thing he thinks an entrepreneur should do in such a situation: take advantage of it.

Balram has no issue with corruption and exploitative behaviour in the India of Darkness:
“You can’t expect a man living in a dung heap to smell sweet”. He’s less forgiving of the rich in the India of Light: watching his good natured master allow himself to become corrupted leaves Balram with no remorse when the time comes to kill him.

And there is no companionship or honour among the suffering poor: just as their masters are cruel to them, they are cruel to each other.

As well as the plaudits, Adiga has attracted criticism for being a wealthy Indian man writing about the servant-class. But does that really matter? His story is engaging, eye-opening and – at times – uncomfortable for a reader sitting in First World comfort.

No single novel can completely capture a nation in all its essence. Adiga says his aim in writing White Tiger was to prick the conscience of his country and prompt some element of self examination - which is hardly an exploitative motivation.

I'm keen to hear how other readers responded to this novel.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Urban fantasy - a new form of spirituality?

So, what is it about paranormal and urban fantasy that appeals so strongly to teenagers?

Bookstore shelves are groaning under the weight of these series – mostly involving vampires.

Of course, the better ones can be equally enjoyed by adults, but there’s no denying most of the bestsellers target the YA market.

Yes, there are the usual YA elements: the coming-of-age angst of finding acceptance, falling in love and finding meaning in life … but why are these aspects so much more appealing to teens when woven into a story about vampires and werewolves?
Is it a natural progression from classic horror stories (I certainly spent plenty of hours reading Stephen King, Dean Koontz and Peter Straub as a teenager), even if most of the new breed of stories aren’t actually about horror?

Or is it a symptom of something else? A need to live – albeit fleetingly – in a world where there is more to reality than we can see? A place where greater forces are at work and ordinary teenagers can discover they have epic destinies?

Which leads to me to wonder if these stories are, in some bizarre way, replacing religion (there’s no denying the religious-like zeal associated with the Twilight series). I’m not talking about urban fantasy themes as a doctrine, but as an experience.
In these alternate worlds, there’s meaning in life, death and suffering, even if it all takes place as part of a narrative far removed from reality. For a while, teens can exist in a world where there are clearly defined rules (even if the characters break them).

Otherworld fantasy also offers this level of escape, but seems to be the domain of older readers, with teens more interested in stories taking place in worlds that resemble their own (happy to be corrected on this one).

Personally, I enjoy both forms of storytelling, but I’m curious to know if readers of these types of stories prefer one type over the other – and if so, why?

And do you have any theories on why teens (and adults) are drawn to this new genre?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The verdict: parallel importation of books

The verdict is in on the Australian Productivity Commission’s study into copyright restrictions on the parallel importation of books – and plenty of Australia authors are furious.

Blogs and Tweets are appearing on the topic at a rapid rate, with writers and literary organisations expressing their anger and frustration at the Commission’s recommendation to scrap import laws and allow international version of Australian books to be sold locally.

I attempted to summarise both sides of the argument back in January. In a nutshell: those in favour of the change (booksellers and many book buyers) believe it will mean cheaper books; those against say it will be the death of the Australian publishing industry, minimising local content in Australian novels and reducing incomes for local authors.

The Commission released its final report on 15 July, proposing the abolition of import restrictions after three years. You can read the key points of the findings here.

Here are some useful links for those wanting to better understand the issue:

- Kim Wilkins' colourfully-worded and wonderfully articulated writer’s perspective

- A different perspective from literary/cultural mag Overland

- Today’s article in The Australian (plus links to related articles)

- The Commission research report in its entirety

These changes are still only recommendations. The report still needs to be considered by Federal Parliament. If you want to support the fight against changes to import restrictions, Ozlit offers some options. some options.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Claudia Gray - the new Stephenie Meyer?

Given the phenomenal global success of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, there’s a mad rush from publishers and publicists to find “the next Stephenie Meyer”.

Which is ironic, because it was only a year ago Meyer was being touted as “the next JK Rowling”.

I’m pretty sure authors themselves cringe at such comparisons, but in the current glut of urban fantasy, paranormal adventure and YA escapism hitting our shelves, they’re unavoidable.

Once author being compared to Meyer is Claudia Gray (the pseudonym of New York-based writer Amy Vincent). She’s currently two books into a planned four-book series about a gothic boarding school and the strange goings on there.

The Evernight series is told in the first person through the eyes of Bianca, a shy newcomer to the school who falls for fellow outsider Lucas.

For the first hundred or so pages, Evernight seemed to be heading into familiar Twilight territory. But then there was a very neat twist I hadn’t seen coming (having not gone out of my way to read too much about the series beforehand), which took the story in a new and interesting direction.

Without giving too much away, the series features vampires, vampire hunters and (in the second book, Stargazer), ghosts. It’s a kind of Twilight, Supernatural and Buffy hybrid, with a bit of Hogwarts thrown in for good measure.

Evernight introduces the main characters, establishes the mythology and sets the lines between the warring vampires and vampire hunters – which Gray then nicely blurs, ensuring the reader is never quite sure who's "good" and who's not.

Stargazer then ups the ante with more tension and twists as Bianca and Lucas try to make their relationship work, and new elements are added to increase the sense of mystery and menace. It’s these twists and turns, and the relative complexities of the relationships between a number of characters, that makes this series more than just another teen vampire love story. That, and the fact Gray is a good storyteller.

So … is she the next Meyer?

We’ve talked before on this blog about why Meyer’s novels have struck such a chord with readers. The appeal is undeniably the intense relationship between Bella and Edward, particularly the idea of a powerful, sexy vampire denying his very nature to love and protect the human he craves.

While the Bianca-Lucas romance drives the Evernight story, it’s as much a suspenseful gothic mystery as it is a love story. The relationships aren’t always healthy, and truth is never black or white, which makes the story all the more interesting.

Gray’s author bio refers to her lifelong interest in old houses, classic movies, vintage style and history, and she nicely weaves these elements into her narrative.

It’s not fair to compare Gray to Meyer. Gray is an unashamed fan of vampire stories – particularly those not mired in horror – and Everynight and Stargazer pay homage to that.

These YA books are fast-paced and suspenseful, and while there’s not the underlying sexiness of the Bella-Edward dynamic, there are plenty of hot and heavy moments with Bianca and Lucas (with their own complications, of course).

I have one last observation on the YA/vampire/paranormal trend, which I’ll save for another post – and then, I promise, I’ll write about something other than vampires for a while!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Buffy meets Edward

In the interim before my next proper blog, check out this very clever video mash up of what might happen if Buffy met Twilight's Edward (thanks to Kirsten Tranter for the link).

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Reviewers versus critics

I’ve been thinking this week about the difference between reviewers and critics.

I suspect the same definitions or delineations can be made across a range of arts media, but for our purposes I’m going to talk about fiction.

For me, the difference seems to be in the context in which comment is provided on a novel.

A reviewer generally looks at the merit of a book in isolation, considering things like plot, style, characters, readability, and general appeal in a particular genre or market.

A critic, on the other hand, tends to look at a novel in a broader context, be it social, cultural or literary tradition – not only considering it on its own merit, but also how it fits in the wider canon of literature.
My pondering was prompted by an excellent article by Rosemary Sorensen in the most recent Weekend Australian Review, in which she critiques a new academic book analysing Australian fiction from 1989 to 2007 (After the Celebration by Ken Gelder and Paul Salzman).

In considering the authors’ predominantly negative opinions on the topic, Sorensen also considers the value of critical theory. She comments critical theory works best when the critic respects the writing they’re analysing, and actually derives pleasure from reading.

Sorensen says traditional lit-crit has tended to imply that “reading a certain kind of fiction was the domain of the cultured person”.

There’s no doubt literary snobbery is alive and well in many quarters, possibly bolstered by the sheer numbers of online reviewers (such as myself!), and the need to ensure there are still academic and purely intellectual approaches to fiction analysis.

In her criticism of a book about criticism, Sorensen says the Gelder and Salzman often critique the book they believe writers ought to have written, rather than the books they have written. They consider each novel as an ideological document, rather than a piece of fiction in its own right.

She says the two authors also regard readers generally as lazy, who “consume books without thought, and the best novelists are those who force or trick them into confronting their own unpleasant selves”.

This type of attitude assumes people are either consumers of mass marketed paperbacks or refined readers of quality literature.

I read both. And, in 18 months of blogging, I’ve discovered there are plenty of other book lovers who do the same.

Sorensen hits the nail on the head beautifully when she says readers often “enjoy novels because of the energy in the writing, the stylistic flair and the powerful attractions of the plot, as well as the way it opens us up to the thinking about the world and our place in it”.

Good books should do that regardless of where they are found in the book store. And surely the role of both reviewers and critics is to help us find those books?

My questions this week: Do you read reviewers, critics or both? What do you think the differences are, and which is most likely to influence your reading choices?

(And yes, I know the pic is not really relevant, but it makes me smile.)

Friday, June 5, 2009

Eat, pray, love...

It’s fair to say women in the Western world are increasingly confused, frustrated and unhappy, when a book about throwing aside convention and heading off on a journey of self discovery has more than five million copies in print.

Eat, pray, love: one woman’s search for everything, by Elizabeth Gilbert, was first published in 2006 and has since gone to be one of the most talked (and blogged) about books of recent years.

After a bitter divorce, volatile love affair and a general realisation at how miserable, stressed and unhappy she’d become, thirty-something Liz Gilbert sets out on a journey for the three things missing in her life: pleasure, devotion and balance.

A seasoned traveler, the New Yorker decides the answers to each lie, respectively, in Italy, India and Indonesia.

Her journey, told in a journal format (although structured as 109 “beads” to reflect the Indian string of prayer beads known as japa malas), is a deeply personal account of self discovery.

But – aside from some metaphysical moments in India – it’s not overly self indulgent, nor is it instructive. Gilbert writes with a raw honesty and self deprecating humour that makes her writing engaging, intelligent and funny.

She has a wonderful turn of phrase, and is unashamed to talk about her failings and her deepening hunger for spirituality.

Gilbert does find her pleasure, devotion and balance, but it took a year out of her life and break from a “normal” routine”. Fortunately, it seems, her circumstances enabled her to continue a life less ordinary beyond the pages of the book. Not all of us have the means, or courage, to do so.

I suspect it’s easier to find stillness away from the pressures of every day life, so it seems the key to finding and maintaining “balance”, you need to change your life – and sustain that change.

I don’t care how serene and balanced you are, if you go back into an office environment with a hundred emails a day, endless phone calls, staff to supervise, issues to manage, tight deadlines and personality pressures, you’re going to slip back into old habits.

Surely even Ghandi wouldn’t cope in the modern office environment?

(Just before uploading this post, I found Elizabeth Gilbert’s website, on which she quotes a friend as saying: “To change your life, the important thing is not necessarily to travel; the important thing is to SHIFT” (as in shifting your perspective) – which makes sense.)

But back to the book … the Italy and Bali experiences have a heavier focus on Gilbert’s relationship with others (in the context of her self-discovery), while India is much more focused on her relationship with herself and dealing with her past.

The Italy section resonated most with me (looking for stillness and balance while indulging in fabulous food and wine, surrounded by history and passionate people with a more relaxed outlook on life), which probably says much about where I am in my journey!

The great thing about reading a book like Eat, pray love, is that it makes you question your own faith. It prompts you think a little deeper about who you are, how you relate to the world and what's really important in life. It certainly left me craving stillness, and wanting to grab my husband and run away for a year to get away from all the pressure (which, yes, I generally bring upon myself).

For readers not inclined to self analysis, Eat, pray love probably seems like a self-indulgent, post modernistic self-love fest, but anyone who’s even remotely stopped and thought about who they are and what they believe, will probably find something to think about.

I’m guessing quite a few people reading this post have read this book. What was your take on it? What sorts of things did it make you think about?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Young adult fiction - how do you define it?

How do you define young adult fiction (generally referred to simply as YA)?

It’s a question I’ve been mulling over in recent weeks as I’ve alternated between YA and general novels.

The formal definition (i.e. from Wikipedia) is that YA is "written for, published for, or marketed to adolescents, roughly between the ages of 12 and 18". The subject matter and story lines are typically consistent with the age and experience of the main character. Stories generally tackle themes relevant for a young adult audience (usually with a “coming of age” theme), told by a narrator in the same age group.

But YA is not, of itself, a neatly packaged genre. Books that sit on YA shelves can be fantasy, horror, science fiction, literature, romance, thriller, mystery ... or any other style. These days, YA books are also increasingly edgy.

They can be highly sophisticated in their storytelling (like Meg Rossof’s novels), so it’s not fair to say YA is generally less complex in nature. In fact, you’re likely to find some pretty heavy, and often controversial, subject matter (suicide, incest, isolation, cultural clash etc.).

And then there are those so-called YA books that transcend age–specific markets, like Stephenie Meyer and JK Rowling (Rowling, in fact, is still often called a children's author, despite the fact children probably make up less than half her global market).

I recently read the first of a paranormal series by Kelley Armstrong (The Summoning). It was an easy read, plot-driven and concerned with issues relevant to teenagers. Every character of significance is a teenager. It's YA, and makes no pretence at being anything else.

Randa Abdel-Fattah's brilliant debut novel Does my head look big in this? is undeniably YA, and yet I know I’m not the only woman over the target age group who enjoyed this story.

Markus Zusak wrote four novels that comfortably fit on the YA shelf: Underdog, Fighting Ruben Wolf, When Dogs Cry, and The Messenger. His fourth – and most renowned – The Book Thief, has also been categorised as YA, because it features a young protagonist (even though the narrator is actually Death). And yet, the latter is no more a YA novel than Aryn Kyle’s The God of Animals or David Wroblewski's The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, which each have young narrators but deal with concepts far beyond the life experience of those characters.(The same can be said about some so-called children’s novels, such as John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.)

So, I wonder how publishers and book stores (and, for that matter, writers) determine what is YA and what is general fiction, when the lines are so blurred in the marketplace.

I’ve read quite a bit of YA in the last couple of years, sometimes intentionally, other times because I simply didn’t realise the book I’d picked up had been categorised as such. (Some of the most innovative and exciting storytelling is happening in this “genre”.)

But does the classification of YA put readers off picking up books that sit in a different part of the book store than their usual choices?

So, this week’s question: do you read YA? If not, is this a conscious decision? If yes, what have been your favourite reads?

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Cause and effect - The Time Traveler's Wife

I’m often drawn to stories dealing with the concept of cause and effect, and few have been as mind-bending as The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, which I finally read last week.

It’s hard to explain this book if you haven’t read it …

Clare first meets Henry when she’s six and he’s thirty-six (and married to her in his present). However, Henry first meets Clare when she is twenty-two and he is thirty (they meet in his present, at which time she has known an older version of him for most of her life, from his time travelling visits).

For the first 50 pages, I just about did my head in trying to unravel the cause and effect factors: Does Clare love Henry because she meets him as a child and grows up knowing they will marry? Does Henry love Clare because she comes to him as an adult and tells him she’s been in love with an older version of him, and knows their future is together?

As Henry himself later says: “Things get kind of circular when you’re me. Cause and effect get muddled”.

For the rest of the book I (mostly) stopped worrying about the physics and allowed myself to be caught up in the dynamics of Clare and Henry’s unorthodox relationship. It’s one that crosses space and time, and it’s only at the very end that they both share the same memories (albeit experienced in different chronology).

Unlike in other time travelling stories, history can’t be changed by Henry’s movements through time. He must watch the same events over and over again, and participate in them exactly the same as other versions of himself already have (even if he has no memories of them).

If The Story of Edgar Sawtelle whispers about the philosophy of inevitability, The Time Traveler’s Wife shouts it. There’s a thread of fatalism in this story that is both comforting and deflating.

As a reader, you get to view Clare and Henry’s experiences from both sides and – like the couple themselves – only get half the story at any one time.

Almost ironically, their most precious (and often heart-breaking) moments occur not in the relationship in the present, but at moments when Henry visits Clare at different stages in her life – all of which take on greater meaning as the story unfolds.

This is certainly an original story and a unique romance. It’s poetic, erudite and very clever. It’s the sort of story that can be read several times over, if – for no other reason – than to appreciate the telling in full knowledge of the ending.

No doubt there are flaws in the time travel physics – I for one, am still trying to understand how the circular nature of their relationship started (surely it unfolded in real time at some point to be able to become circular?)

OK, my head is starting to hurt again.

I’d love to hear from people who have read this book and have an opinion, or have thoughts on the whole concept of time travel and how any story revolving around it can make sense.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Edgar Sawtelle and inevitability

After encountering rapturous blog reviews about David Wroblewski’s debut novel, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, I was looking forward to experiencing the story for myself.

But, despite the fact I knew there were parallels with Shakespeare’s Hamlet, it didn’t dawn on me this would be a tragedy until I was about 30 pages from the end.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is set in rural Wisconsin in the first half of the 20th century, on a farm where the Sawtelle family raise a fictional breed of dog, bred for its qualities as a companion, rather than physical traits.

Edgar is a normal boy except for the inexplicable fact he’s never been able to make a sound. His idyllic life is shattered when his father, Gar, mysteriously dies, and then appears to him as a ghost one rainy night - not long after Edgar's uncle moves into the farm to take Gar's place in more ways than one.

The ghostly visit sets in motion a chain of events that leads to Edgar running away with three of the dogs he's been raising and training – and leaving behind faithful Almondine, the aging dog who knows and loves him best.

So, as I was caught up in the sadness of Edgar's separation from Almondine and mesmerised by his growing understanding of the world and his place in it, I wasn’t paying attention to the bigger picture.

Yes, I could feel the tension building. Yes, I knew violence was coming. And still it took me by surprise. But in hindsight, when I looked back at the story in its entirety, it’s obvious the ending (so poignant and perfect in its context) was inevitable.

And somehow, that makes it easier to bear. Once certain events were set in motion, there was nothing Edgar could have done to change the outcome (unless, of course, Wroblewski wanted to write a very different novel).

Is that what it’s like in life? If we know we could have changed something, and didn’t, outcomes are harder to bear. But if there's no chance of influencing an outcome –averting tragedy – can we somehow come to terms with it a little easier? Or is that too fatalistic a view on life?

But, I digress.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is a beautifully written novel, at times tender, funny, suspenseful and heartbreaking.

Most of the narrative is told from Edgar’s viewpoint. Some of it from characters we barely know. Occasionally we even hear Almondine’s voice.

The plot is intricate, and builds in pace towards the end, but Wroblewski is just as interested in the characters and their relationships and observations, and some of his prose is pure poetry.

Despite being a tragedy in the literary sense, this is not a depressing book – even if the hope offered at the end comes from an unexpected source.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The ebook debate: part 2

A few weeks back, we chatted about the appeal (or not) of ebooks, and how they compared to traditional books.

Everyone who commented talked about the tactile nature of books, and how – even though an ebook might be more convenient – it lacked the emotional experience of holding a treasured story in your hands, and then having it remain a part of your life by being visible on a book shelf.

The looming ebook era in Australia was the subject of a well-researched article by the Australian Review’s Rosemary Sorensen this past weekend.

Ebooks have not yet taken off in Australia, but Sorenson notes that if our country’s take up of the mobile phone is anything to go by, ebook take up will be swift.

However, no-one can yet agree on what that will mean, or how it will affect the emotional and nostalgic impact books have in our lives.

Sorenson quotes author Sven Birkerts (The Gutenberg Elegies: the Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age) as saying that if we replace print with screen-based text, “we will not simply have replaced one delivery system with another. We will have modified our imagination of history, our understanding of the causal and associated relationships of ideas and their creators”.

By that, I assume he means the production, look and feel of original books and their covers, which says much about the technology, artistry and social attitudes of the time in which it was published.

If the day comes when there exist nothing but ebooks, there will never again be “first editions” or “special editions” … just old electronic files.

For some, the end of the printed book is inevitable. In Sorenson’s article, New York-based Bob Stein compares the book as a form with architecture that’s no longer possible to build: “I love gothic churches and I’m sorry we don’t build them anymore, but we don’t. They’ve served their function and so has the 800 page novel. It was really cool, the novel, and I’ve spent a lot of time curled up with good ones, but new technologies give rise to new forms. Humans were not born with a gene that made us gravitate to print.”

And yet, for others, ebooks may create more demand for the paper version. Random House marketing director Brett Osmond suggests readers might use more than one format to get through a single story. “In the future, you may simply buy the book and are able to read it in a range of formats. You might begin with a paper version, then take a chapter on your on your e-reader while you’re walking the dog or pick it up on your computer.”

In this scenario, you buy the story, and it’s up to you how you actually consume it – a fascinating and revolutionary idea, and one that would require revolutionising the publishing industry to accommodate it.

What do you think of that idea? Would you be more inclined to use an e-reader if it was only one format available to you as you read a book, rather than the only format? Is it more acceptable to traditional book lovers to have the choice of both experiences – tactile and convenient?

I will always want physical books – no question. But there is some appeal to having the convenience of being able to read a couple of chapters on a compact e-reader in situations when it’s not practical to carry around a large book.

What does everyone think?

Friday, April 3, 2009

Adaptations - are they necessary?

This blog, among countless others, has previously considered the debate on whether film adaptations improve or detract from the stories told by much-loved books.

Another take on the debate, provided by Salman Rushdie in the past week, is not just whether or not a film is better than its original source material, but whether or not that source material should have been adapted in the first place.

It’s a topic recently tackled by the Booking Through Thursday meme, which asked bloggers to name the books they’d most like to see adapted to film, as well as those they never wanted to see on the big (or small) screen.

It was interesting to see the same books featuring on both sides of the argument. Some readers wanted to see an adaptation of Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife (which is handy, given there’s apparently one in the works starring Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams) and Aravind Adiga’s White Tiger, while others were equally adamant neither should be touched by film-makers.

Many readers see a film or television adaptation as a chance to spend more time with characters they love. While this may not please those more interested in the literary and artistic value of adaptations, it’s nevertheless a valid response from the point of view of escapism, and personal attachment to particular stories and characters.

Those bloggers who expressed horror at the idea of their favourite read being turned into a film were generally convinced the essence of the story – the poetry of the language, the inner journey of a narrative character – couldn’t be given justice by sound and movement alone, no matter how good the adaptation.

Rushdie, in the Weekend Australian Review on March 28-29, doesn’t confine his comments to just books adapted into movies, but any piece of work adapted by another artist, whether in the same medium (iconic songs “re-imagined by others) or different (plays and books into films and vice versa).

He says the insatiable process to create the current flood of adaptations can sometimes seem “world-swallowing, as if we now live in a culture that endlessly cannibalises itself, so that, eventually, it will have eaten itself up completely”.

Rushdie doesn’t underplay the difficulties facing those intent on adapting a story into a new creative form. They are forced with tough choices: what to keep, what to toss out, what to change and where to draw the line.

“The question of essences remains at the heart of the adaptive act; how to make a second version of a first thing, of a book or film or poem or of yourself, that is successfully its own, new thing and yet carries with it the essence, the spirit, the soul of the first thing, the thing that you yourself, or your book or poem or film originally were.”

For me, I think any adaptation needs to have its own creative merit, while remaining as faithful as possible to the original source material – and yes, I realise this is a tough ask.

Stephen King once said something along the lines of “a crap film doesn’t make a good book bad”, which, of course is true. It’s just that a crap film tends to annoy the hell out of those who loved the book.

What do you think? Does an adaptation influence how you feel about the original work? Are there books you never want to see made into films?

Saturday, March 21, 2009

A detour into the world of science fiction

I took an unexpected detour into the world of science fiction this week.

I hadn't intended to make this a month of Stephenie Meyer-themed posts, but when The Host finally became available at my library last week, it seemed as good a time as any to have a read and see how she tackled a different genre.

While there are some recurring themes from her other books (more on that below), there's also an exploration of some interesting themes relating to what it means to be human.

Do we, as humans, appreciate the value of what it means to experience life on this planet? In The Host, Meyer explores the idea of what it would be like to lose that right to a species with a greater curiosity.

In her story, Earth has been invaded by a species able to take over the minds of its human hosts while their bodies remain intact.

Wanderer, an invading “soul”, has been given the body of one of the few surviving human rebels, Melanie. But Wanderer finds her body’s former tenant has not gone as quietly as she should have.

Melanie fills Wanderer’s mind with visions of the man she loves, who still lives in hiding. Unable to separate herself from Melanie’s memories and the desires of the body now they share, Wanderer sets off in search of him. What follows forces Wanderer and Melanie to learn more about each other (and each other’s species) than they ever intended, forever changing their views of themselves and their existence.

In most sci-fi stories, alien colonisation generally revolves around securing a natural resource critical for survival, even if it’s simply finding room for population expansion.

But the peace-loving "souls" who colonise Earth simply set up camp in human bodies and go about living the lives as their human hosts once did. The majority do not multiply (it seems only a select number have the capacity to do so). They change nothing on the planet (except human behaviour, by making everyone pacifists) and take nothing from it.

It took me a while to work out what these invaders wanted on each planet. And then the penny dropped: the resource they're mining is the human experience. Meyer’s alien species colonises other planets to experience life as the inhabitants do and the souls come to Earth to experience the unparalleled range of human emotions.

Wanderer abhors violence, and she and her species justify their invasion as being the only way to bring peace to Earth – rescuing it from human nature.

But while on the run with Melanie, she experiences the full gamut of human emotion – often at the receiving end – and ultimately finds a context for human violence. She comes to believe it is the ability to experience the extreme negative emotions of hatred and anger that allows humans to also experience the extremities of love and compassion.

The Host
has many of Meyer's themes from the Twilight novels: obsession, self-sacrifice, bigotry, love, and yes, even more than a hint of female masochism. Again we have a female narrative character willing to sacrifice herself (and in this case even be repeatedly physically punished) to save those she loves. Sound familiar?

The Host is definitely a unique take on the body snatchers plot, and the love triangle (cleverly touted as the first one involving only two bodies) is not quite as frustrating as I expected it to be. Actually, it becomes a love quadrangle, just to further complicate the emotional ties...

It does tend to get bogged down a bit through the middle third of the book, and there are some character frustrations, but ultimately the book delivers a very readable and often tense story that's part sci fi thriller and part love story.

If you haven't read Meyer yet, this could be a place start (you don't have to be a sci fan to enjoy it). If you're already a fan, chances are you'll like this (slightly) more adult fare than her other work. If you're not, it's unlikely The Host will change your mind.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Do girls still secretly want to be rescued?

Does the success of Stephenie Meyers’ Twilight series mean women have reverted to enjoying the notion of having a powerful man to protect them?

And if so, why?

Kirsten Tranter, in the latest Weekend Australian Review, suggests it may be the case, in a column that also explores how the romance between fragile Bella and vampire Edward rekindles the narrative of female masochism (where sexual gratification depends on suffering).

(I know I keep referencing the Twilight series, but honestly, when it keeps getting ink in literary publications like the Weekend Australian Review, you know it’s truly become a cultural phenomenon. If you're still oblivious to what it's all about, you can read my past posts here and here.)

Tranter, a fellow Joss Whedon/Buffy fan like myself, points out that while Whedon’s vampiric tales turned the tables on the stereotypical “girl fleeing from monster” (the girl turns out to have the strength and will to kill the monster instead), Meyer’s Twilight books mark a return to patriarchal values where the girl still needs saving.

Tranter says the success of the four novels proves authors are “still happy to create stories that end with cowering girls being saved by powerful guys, and girls are more than happy to embrace them”.

Does the overwhelming popularityof the Meyer series indicate attitudes may be changing among women (young and old) in the face of a threatening and uncertain world?

Is there a shift in the female psyche, possibly strongest among younger women, for a yearning of a time when they didn’t have to save the world but could rely on men to do it for them?

True, by the end of the fourth book, Bella has gained her own power and sense of purpose, but let’s not forget, the series was a hit long before that plot development was revealed. For most of the other books, she relies on strong males to protect her, whether it’s Edward or smitten werewolf Jacob.

I’ve always been a huge fan of quality fantasy, and, thanks to my obsession with Whedon and my general enjoyment of Meyer's series, I’ve started seeking out quality paranormal fiction (and TV shows: I’ve become a fan of Supernatural and the new kid on the block True Blood, which is darker and more unsettling than your standard paranormal TV fare).

Part of this is the timeless search for great stories. But part of it is about escapism – and there is no greater escapism than a world where the normal rules of reality don’t apply.

But that doesn’t mean I want to a fictional world where only the guys get to finish off the Big Bad (as Whedon would call them).

So why then, have female readers become so hooked on the story between Bella and Edward? Why then are teenage fans so totally in love with the overprotective Edward? Is Meyer undermining the feminist movement, or tapping into a latent female need for protection?

Thoughts anyone?

Friday, February 27, 2009

Narrative characters you want to slap

We all know how important narrative voice is, but is important enough to be the difference between pushing on with a book or throwing it aside when you don't like it?

After the dark violence of The Pilo Family Circus, I was ready for something life affirming and whimsical, so last week I picked up Chocolat by Joanne Harris.

In fairness, I appreciated the themes of this novel, which so frequently seems to turn up on people's "most loved books" list. For those who haven't read it, it's the story of a nomadic mother and daughter, who arrive in a small French village and set up a chocolate shop at the beginning of Lent. Their presence - and leanings towards paganism - raise the ire of the local priest, who wants his flock to focus on self-denial, not the sinful indulgence of the perfect eclair.

But, every time the novel switched narrators from the free spirited Vianne to the repressed Father Reynaud, I lost interest.

Not just becaue Reynaud was unpleasant - every good story needs a good antagonist - but because I wasn't that interested in knowning what was going on his head. Or at least, not so often.

Reynaud's reasonably fleshed out flaws are ideal for the story; experiencing events from his perspective gives the tale more depth; and his demise - as inevitable as it is ironic - is satsifying.

But, as necessary as his narrative voice was, it removed me from the story rather than drawing me closer.

I finished the book, but had Reynaud had more page time, I may not have.

So, it got me wondering how often people leave a book unfinished because of the narrative character. I don't mean not finishing a book because we don't like the story, or the style of writing, or the type size.

I'm talking about being aware you don't like the narrative character and choosing to put the book aside because of it (as I did a year ago with John Kennedy O'Toole's The Confederecy of Dunces). Or maybe even continuing to read but loathing the narrator to the final page (as, apparently, did many detractors of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series).

Has anyone else experienced the annoying narrator phenomenon?
(And yes, Belinda, your topic about narrators of audio books is the next logical post!)

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Not for the faint- hearted

On more than one occasion, we’ve talked on this blog about how powerful stories have the ability permeate our moods and thoughts. It’s for this reason many readers choose their books carefully, aware of how they react to certain themes, imagery and genres.

Is that a form of self censorship, or simply self preservation?

A combination of reading material this week has led to this question. The first is The Pilo Family Circus by Will Elliott, and the second, author Frank Moorhouse’s essay in this month’s Australian Literary Review (more on the latter in a moment).

It’s been a very long time since I picked up a horror novel, but I’ve been meaning to check out Elliott’s debut novel, The Pilo Family Circus, since it won the inaugural ABC Fiction Award back in 2006.

I’m glad I did, as it’s an original piece of fiction by a gifted storyteller, but there were certainly disturbing elements I probably could have lived without (but of course, without which the story would lose much of its impact and sense of menace and absurdity).

The Pilo Family Circus is a darkly humorous and unsettling horror tale about Jamie, an ordinary guy eking out a simple existence in inner-city Brisbane. But after an encounter with a pair of bizarre clowns (and I mean face paint-wearing, giant-panted clowns, not the other kind that often grace city streets after dark), Jamie is plunged into the horrific alternate reality that is the centuries-old Pilo Family Circus.

He’s forced into service as clown, and discovers that as soon as he dons the white greasepaint, a new character – JJ – emerges, who is weak, sadistic and conniving.

Elliott has said in interviews the book is not meant to be an allegory about the battle against the dark side of human nature. But it’s easy to understand how readers might glean that theme when Jamie at first willingly surrenders to the face paint to cope with his new nightmarish reality, before embarking on a battle for survival against the evil JJ.

Elliott takes to extreme the idea that the circus caters to every human weakness: sideshow alley taps into greed, the acrobats elicit vanity and envy, magicians prompt a craving for power, clowns live out the fantasy of mocking and usurping authority, and the freaks weaken the resolve to resist all of the above.

As Jamie discovers, the Pilo Family Circus is a borderline world between hell and earth from which humankind's greatest tragedies have been perpetrated. Unsuspecting humans are lured into the circus ground, where they are then fleeced of their most precious possession, their souls, and sent back into the world, oblivious of violent events many of them have been programmed to commit. When that’s not enough, performers themselves are sent “up” to incite the carnage.

Among the characters in the circus, none is more absurd than Goshy, a mentally disturbed and simpleton clown whose erratic behaviour is more frightening than the brutal menace of head clown Gonko. And despite the violence and grotesqueness of life and suffering in the circus, the most disturbing moment of the story involves Goshy and the love of his life, a potted fern.

While reading this scene – which, admittedly, was inevitable and certainly captures the escalating depravity and absurdity of Jamie’s environment – I couldn’t help but think of Frank Moorhouse’s essay.

As I was reading the book, I kept wondering about how I would describe it on this blog. I knew it wouldn’t be a story for a lot of people because of its darkness, violence and disturbing imagery - and yes, Bec of The Small Stuff, you were at the front of my mind :).

And yet, award-winning Australian author Moorhouse berates us for wanting to shy away from disturbing material, and is particularly disdainful of those who would attempt to warn audiences about stories that might shock them or make them feel uncomfortable.

Much of his criticism is aimed at television and film censors, but he also points the finger at anyone who uses phrases such as “not for the faint-hearted”.

He says: “There is nothing wrong with being horrified or sickened and nothing terribly bad happens to us when we are. I think it is more likely that something good will happen: we might be moved.”

Is he right? Do we create the world we want to live in by the stories we choose to inhabit – at the expense of seeing the world as it is?

For me, I like to think my choices are a balance between challenging and comforting stories. Because let’s face it: the world offers both experiences, often simultaneously.

What do you think?

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Ebooks: do you read them?

Booking Through Thursday (BTT) hosted an excellent discussion last week about electronic versus paper books.

The post directed meme participants to an interesting Time magazine article Books gone wild: the digital age reshapes literature by Lev Grossman, and then asked for thoughts and comments.

In the article, Grossman discusses the changes facing the traditional publishing industry in the wake of online books, e-readers, and self-published books marketed by bloggers.

He sees the move towards electronic books as a natural progression in the world of literature. Just as the emergence of books in the early 18th century was shaped by the forces of money and technology as much as by creative genius, so too, he says, is the move from the paper-based novel to the ebook.

Grossman says publishers need to be looking beyond existing means of selling books, given the increasing uptake of e-readers like Kindle and the Sony Reader (for those unfamiliar with these gadgets, they’re electronic devices the size of a small novel, on which you read downloaded ebooks in a format that looks like the page of a novel).

The ebooks available for these e-readers are not just those provided by publishers, but anyone who wants to make their writing available in cyberspace via services like Kindle.

In discussing this recently with two librarians, it seems the issue is not just about a shift in attitudes towards books without tangible pages, but also about the availability of a single platform in which to read ebooks.

From what I understand, existing e-readers only access some books, not all. Which means that if you want to read novels from various sources, you need more than one type of reader - otherwise, you're limited to the titles available to your particular reader. The librarians I spoke to don’t expect to see a huge uptake in the general population until that situation changes.

Interestingly, many of the comments left in response to the Time article on BTT were along the same lines: people like the idea of having an ebook reader – offering hundreds of titles at their fingertips, often with dictionaries, glossaries and note-taking options. But they still love the feel of an old fashioned book in their hands and can’t see a day when they would turn away from the paper option completely.

There’s also a trend for people to read initial chapters of a book offered online and then go out and buy the “real” version to finish reading it.

Personally, I’ve not bought an e-reader, or read a fiction ebook. I can see the benefits of the technology, and would certainly be willing to give it a try, but I too still love the feel of a book in my hand and the sight of books on my shelves.

The paper versus electronic debate has been raging for years and will continue to rage as the industry and the fiction-loving public grapple with these issues.

The traditional system of agents, publishers and editors exists to provide a level of quality control and discernment, preventing readers from having to wade through thousands of un-edited and potentially badly written books before they find the good stuff.

But Grossman says even this open-slather approach will find its own level. “The wide bottom of the (literary) pyramid will consist of a vast loamy layer of free, unedited, web-only fiction, rated and ranked YouTube-style by the anonymous reading masses”.

What do you think about the issue?

Do you read ebooks? If not, would you?

If yes, do you choose work from writers unpublished in the traditional sense or only those already available in book shops? Do you read ebooks to find new work, or because they are a more convenient and cost-effective way to buy popular titles?

Friday, January 23, 2009

A world without America...

It’s a provocative idea to tackle in a novel, and definitely one guaranteed to attract attention.

Australian writer John Birmingham, when he’s not writing more literary fare like He died with a felafal in his hand, pens fast-paced alternative history thrillers. His latest is Without Warning, in which the vast majority of the continental United States is inexplicable covered in a giant wave of energy from space.

The result is the instant disappearance of more than 350 million people.

Not only has the Wave (as it becomes known) devastated the bulk of the US population, it shows no signs of leaving. And while machines and electronic devices are unaffected by the Wave, all humans who come into contact with it instantly disintegrate, meaning the bulk of the continent is a no-go zone.

What starts as an inexplicable mass tragedy – disturbingly celebrated in certain parts of the world – quickly turns into a chaos that threatens the downfall of the industrial age.

The novel is less concerned with the cause of the phenomenon (as one character puts it, “we’re like ants whose nest got hit by a kid with a magnifying glass on a sunny day … we’re probably a thousand years from understanding…”) and more interested with the social, political and economic impact it would have on the globe if the US was to suddenly “disappear”.

Without Warning is told from multiple perspectives (almost too many, as it’s hard to keep track of everyone). The most interesting are a former US Ranger-turned war correspondent, embedded in Iraq with troops suddenly without a Commander in Chief; and a female American assassin in Paris, cut off from her controllers and hunted by terrorists.

In Birmingham’s scenario, with the might of the US gone – and its remaining military forces scattered across the globe – the world begins to unravel.

Jaded assassin Caitlin, frustrated by the attitude of an extreme left-wing Frenchwoman explains the inevitable impact America’s disappearance will have on the global economy and availability of oil:

Think about where it (oil) comes from… Think about what’s going to happen there now the evil global overlord is no longer around to oppress everyone into behaving themselves. Think about what’s going to happen to the evil world financial system now that the planet’s greatest debtor nation has winked out of existence and won’t be meeting its mortgage payments to anyone.”

The alternative history offered here is frightening because, in many ways, the novel's twists and turns are realistic consequences of the current geo-politics and cultural clashes dominating our headlines in this reality.

In Without Warning, things go wrong in so many ways: Paris erupts into civil war when its cultural divide meets head on in the streets; fires break out behind the Wave, where nuclear power plants and unmanned vehicles and appliances – left running when their human operators disappeared – are igniting and burning freely, creating a toxic fall-out that starts to move across other continents.

There are startling images of American citizens in the untouched outposts (Seattle, Alaska and Hawaii) lining up for food stamps, and the remaining millions of US citizens scattered across the planet suddenly seeking asylum as refugees.

Birmingham gives us some great moments (Seattle’s City Councillors are put under house arrest by the military when they decide to vote on whether or not they should still get biscuits during meetings when the rest of the city is on food rations).

He also gives some us blood chilling ones: Israel using its nuclear arsenal to remove the Arab threat closing in, wiping out another 300 million people.

Without Warning is a cautionary tale about globalisation (actually, it makes the current global financial crisis look pretty tame) and picks at the fragile nature of our industrialised society.

It’s hard to know how this book will do in the US. On the one hand, it reinforces the (increasingly unpopular) dogma that “the world as we know it would fall apart without America”. On the other, it shows America at is most vulnerable, and how quickly the rest of the world might turn on it in that state.

Politics aside, Without Warning is a cracking read. Birmingham’s characters have depth, the dialogue is excellent, and the story a page-turner. It’s a tad long, but the journey is worth it.