Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Not a review of Stieg Larsson's MilleniumTrilogy

Having recently finished reading The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest, the last in Stieg Larsson's best-selling Millenium Trilogy, I've been reflecting on what I like and don't like about these three books.  For various reasons, I often steer clear of any book, film or event if the neon lights of hype are garishly flashing around it, but the quality of praise that this trilogy attracted (coupled with the fact that an opportunity to begin reading it occurred when I was on holiday) took the edge off the hype and persuaded me to pick it up.

Of the three, I least enjoyed Number Two: The Girl Who Played With Fire.  After The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the characters seemed less convincing and the storyline little more than a run-of-the-mill thriller; despite being action-packed, its pace barely carried me through and I only stuck with it because, as a reader, I'd invested some time with the characters in Number One. Only in the final chapters did I begin to engage again, although this was probably more to do with the action than the characters themselves. Fortunately, in The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest, Stieg Larsson breathed life back into Lisbeth Salander, Mikael Blomkvist and their various sidekicks, supporters and adversaries. The dynamics between the characters made this a more satisfying read and, although it runs to 746 pages, I was locked in from the beginning.  Once again, though, it isn't much more than an action-packed thriller (with a bit of espionage thrown in for good measure), which is excellent if that's what you're after and particularly if you enjoy the work of John Grisham, Tom Clancy, et al.  So, apart from the hype, what was it about this trilogy and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo in particular that generated widespread enthusiasm?  This is the question I've been asking myself.  Even if I ask the question not as someone who fancies himself as a literary critic, but as a writer constantly clarifying what it is I want to write and how I want to write it.

While the characters in this first book are well-drawn, the plot isn't anything out of the ordinary - and, to my mind, some of the sub-plots are more interesting.  So what is its allure?  Well, Lisbeth Salander is certainly a quirky character, and there's often an appeal in that, while Mikael Blomkvist is an effective foil for her, as well as a strong character himself.  But it's also the fact that this novel is set in and describes a strong image of Sweden, which, for English-speaking readers, adds considerably to its charm, I suspect.  This in itself is an interesting journey to go on, and I don't believe it would have enjoyed a fraction of its popularity if the events took place against a more familiar backdrop, such as America or Britain, for example.  There may be a parallel here with the success of Peter Høeg's Miss Smilla's Feeling For Snow, which creates some wonderful quirky characters, offers a mystery to be solved, introduces some high-level skulduggery, and takes the reader on a journey through both Denmark and Greenland.  Maybe it's got something to do with a fascination for snow!  On the other hand, I know that, apart from the captivating narrative voices he creates, the surreal storylines, the quirky characters (again), it's the Japanese backdrop - rural or urban - that's drawn me to Haruki Murakami's novels time and time again.  Location, location!  All in all, The Millenium Trilogy has got me thinking more about the significance of setting than anything else, being sidetracked into wondering if this is part of the charm for readers of Fantasy and Science Fiction (the allure of other worlds), and where I might want to travel next, both in my reading and my own writing.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Accentuate the positive

This afternoon, my writing led me to the phrase 'accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative'.  The sentiment was close to what my leading character was thinking ('Shit happens; get over it.') and so I jotted down the chorus of the Johnny Mercer song from which it's taken, in case I might want to use it.
You’ve got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative
Don’t mess with Mister In-Between.
The first time I heard this song, it was Bing Crosby's version, although lip-synched by Michael Gambon and others in Dennis Potter's 1986 television series The Singing Detective (what an excellent program that was).  Needless to say, I got sidetracked into visiting YouTube to hear Johnny Mercer and The Pied Pipers do their stuff, followed by a segment of The Singing Detective.  Nevermind, although the word count seems to be going backwards at the moment, I've spent enough hours for one day playing with words.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Book Group

One of the pleasures of joining a Book Group for the evening as its guest author is the range of feedback one receives.  While this feedback is positive on the whole - I don't think many groups would invite an author whose book they hated - I'm keen to get all manner of responses, because these reflect the many different ways in which readers read texts. I also believe that a reader's interpretation of a novel and the motivations of its characters are as equally valid as the author's (more so in some ways), so I occasionally come away from these discussions with new insights into how the story works.  A group, who in the past had discussed The Snowing and Greening of Thomas Passmore with me, recently chose The Grease Monkey's Tale for their monthly read, and it was interesting to hear their responses to Nic, Siobhan and The Gnome as characters, as well as to hear how they believed the stories of the main characters might continue after the novel finished.  A lot of energy goes into discussing these elements, and it's fair to say that there's often almost as many interpretations as there are members.  However, a common response is that female readers dislike Siobhan's personality with a passion and find her conniving, while male readers can understand Nic's attraction to her; female readers find Nic gullible, while male readers rarely comment on this.  One useful upshot of this particular group's discussion was when I was asked about the title for Number Three.  They immediately became my test group and, while the general response was okay, it became clear that the relevance of the title needed to be thoroughly explained.  Needless to say, before I got home that night, the title was ditched and I'm now exploring replacement titles.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Bleak midwinter

My pagan sensibilities swing me between wanting to eat, drink and be extra merry or to hibernate at this bleak time of year.  I've been doing a bit of both recently.  Celebrated winter solstice last month by warming my hands at a massive bonfire while warming my insides with a beaker or two of mulled wine, but this month - with the days feeling even wetter, colder, windier - I think the bonfire and the beaker would need to be twice as big.

Instead, I headed to Melbourne last weekend for a bit of Culture 'n' Cuisine - oh, and to catch up with the offspring. A matter of savouring life.

First stop was NGV (National Gallery of Victoria) to see Vienna: Art & Design - Klimt, Schiele, Hoffmann, Loos.  The exhibition traced, in part, the development of Vienna during the second half of the 19th century, so it was interesting to learn about architect and designer Otto Wagner, but my main interest was the work of Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, whose work I've long admired.

The exhibition highlighted for me the difference between the quality of original works and how they appear when photographed for books, posters, the internet, etc.  Klimt's work was much the way I'd imagined it to be - grand, ornate, sensual - although the colours seemed more muted than they appear in books, and perhaps the originals have indeed faded with the years.  However, Schiele's work - well, the pieces on display - didn't present those qualities I was expecting to find.  Through plates in art books, I've long been drawn to the raw simplicity of his drawings, and how these seem to capture a gritty if not seedy element of humanity, but many of the pieces I thought I was familiar with seemed almost cartoon-like instead.  Rather than astute and haunting, they seemed frivolous and superficial. Maybe, at the end of a four-hour drive, my eyes or brain were too weary.  A fact not remedied by the early closure of the Viennese cafe.

On Sunday, we drove to the Yarra Valley, to the TarraWarra Museum of Art, to see the 2011 Archibald Prize Exhibition.  Renowned for its vineyards, I'd never been to this area before, although I've truly acquainted (and frequently reacquainted) myself with its produce. I was stunned by how much it reminded me of Europe - France in particular - with its avenues of poplar trees, the long driveways leading to each cellar door, kilometre upon kilometre of grape vines along the broad valley, and the unremitting cold and rain.

If I'd been a tad disappointed by the variation between copy and original in the Viennese exhibition, the opposite was true for the Archibald exhibits.  I'd visited the website and viewed the digital images of the successful paintings as soon as the finalists were announced, but almost every piece was considerably more impressive in actuality.  There were numerous stunning paintings on show, but a couple of my favourites are Adam Chang's portrait of J.M.Coetzee and Alexander McKenzie's portrait of Richard Roxburgh.

As for cuisine, we didn't get to eat out as much as we'd anticipated - every restaurant and cafe in Healesville was packed on Sunday - but we did get to a fine Indian restaurant on Saturday: Madras Banyan Tree (924 Nepean Highway, for Melburnians).  The service was disorganised, as we were promised it would be, and dishes were forgotten at each course, but the food (when it finally appeared) was heart-warming.  Exactly what was needed to chase away those winter blues.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

At Last with Kelly Auty

Port Fairy was buzzing last weekend with events aimed at shaking off the winter blues.  Any excuse.  Of these, I particularly enjoyed revisiting the small theatre group who performed a play about the life of Sylvia Plath last year.  Returning to Blarney Books & Art, New Performance Company (Janet Watson Kruse, Carolyn Masson and Peppa Sindar, directed by Brenda Palmer) presented a series of short plays across the space of a fast-moving hour... with wine and nibbles at the end.  I was absolutely enthralled by Gaylene Carbis's This is What Happened, a tight and powerful piece of writing, which was rhythmic and full of wonderful nuances from beginning to end.  Hats off! Bravo! Three cheers! and all that to the actors, their director and the script writers.

That was in the afternoon.  In the evening, I had the pleasure of enjoying Kelly Auty for a couple of hours (that sounds wrong!).  I'd seen Kelly Auty perform twice before and wasn't disappointed on this occasion either.  She sang numbers from the repertoires of Billie Holiday, Eartha Kitt, Nina Simone and other blues and jazz greats, although it's her rendition of Edith Piaf songs that always blows me away.  Quite sublime.  Once again, there was wine and nibbles included in the price of the ticket, so the day had a pleasantly pickled quality to it.  However, the most memorable song of the night was one I haven't heard Kelly Auty sing before, and that was Etta James's At Last.  I've liked this song ever since Gary  Ross used it to such great effect in the film Pleasantville, so thought I'd finish with it here, in the original (thanks to ZombieSlag36 fan video).

Monday, 4 July 2011

Productivity at the Factory of the Imagination

Having set myself the challenge to produce 10,000 polished words each month (see here), things weren't looking too good in the Factory of the Imagination this month.  In fact, I called the Time & Motion crew in at one point on to see what was going on.  By 16th June - over half-way through the month - I'd only got 3,333 words down, and the following day only managed another 333 words (I kid not, the Time & Motion crew made a note of these figures), so it seemed like the whole idea was going to glurp down the gurgler.

Never mind, I told myself, it was an interesting motivational idea, but quality is what I'm after, not words at any cost.  And then, as if to prove this to the Shop Steward, I actually went backwards for a day.  I polished and polished, until there were finer but fewer words on the factory floor.

Never mind, I told myself again (having used up every original phrase on the production line), if I can produce 333 words every day for 29 days and 343 on the 30th day, that's a sweet 10,000, but if I write nothing on some days, then surely 666 isn't too much to aim for, by way of catching up.  I just have a lot of catching up to do, that's all.  Who needs sleep after all?

Anyway, having taken the liberty of pushing the deadline back to this first day of a fortnight's holiday from my other workplace (yes, I'm moonlighting, so sack me!), I think I can save face by reporting that I've covered just over 9,000 words this last month, having reached 49,167.  Phew!  It was a close thing, but that's close enough.

Now to see if I can shape 10,833 words in the next 27 days. Hmm.
I have to get this novel finished before I go mad.

Friday, 1 July 2011


I enjoy playing around with sound and images (at a very basic level),  and am often blown away by the ingenuity of mash-ups in particular.  There's a lot of talent in this area, and here are a couple of my recent favourites.  In the first, Chris Rule (with assistance from Nick Eckert) have recut the Mary Poppins trailer so that it's transformed into the horror genre - Scary Mary.

In the second, Frans Peter Bull Enger, aka Norwegian Recycling (visit his site for a variety of excellent mash-ups) has mashed Harry Potter into Dark and Difficult Times.  Enjoy.