Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Last Werewolf.

Much like Philip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep, Jake Marlowe is a hard-drinking, heavy smoking, morally conflicted guy. The main difference though, and it's a big one, is that this Marlowe is, oh, 200 and something years old and a werewolf. The last werewolf in fact, something he finds out on the very first page of Glen Duncan's brilliantly noirish novel.

To say I devoured this novel seems very appropriate. It is a bloody, gory, violent book, albeit one with a moral heart. Violence is inevitable I guess when your main character turns into a werewolf every full moon and has to feed on a human (and spend the next month feeling guilty about it). Also, it turns out that werewolves have incredibly strong sex drives, so not a book for the prudish, this one.

But it is incredibly compelling and suspenseful. Marlowe is the last werewolf because they are being hunted by the secretive WOCOP organisation, whose mission it is to eradicate the werewolf race. Partly Marlowe wants to be caught and killed by them. He has lived a long time and he is tired. And there is the guilt caused by all those murders over the years. However there are other, even more secretive, forces at work to keep Marlowe alive at all costs. At heart The Last Werewolf is a mystery, hence the Chandler references I suppose, and it really works. I was drawn through this novel almost against my will- I wanted to turn away from some of the more stomach churning scenes but I just had to find out what happened. And I wasn't disappointed- the twist at the end was a total surprise to me and I cannot wait for the next book in the series (it's due out in June this year).

I loved Duncan's style. He draws on the traditions of horror and the werewolf myth but turns into something very modern. There are vampires of the traditional sort (no sparkly, daytime vampires here) and all the usual things about silver bullets and so on, but Marlowe's examination of the monster within owes more to modern psychology than any traditional myth. Duncan packs in literary and pop culture references and wisecracks but thankfully not so much that we lose our connection with the characters. It's smart, fun writing with real emotional impact and enough genuine horror to make me think I needed one of Marlowe's beloved whiskeys to steady my ragged nerves.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012


Some of you might have heard this segment on Radio National's Books and Arts Daily program. It's called Top Shelf and in it, writers and other artists are invited to list five works that have touched or influenced their life and work. A friend recently linked to Alain de Botton's choices on facebook and then set the challenge for us, his friends, to consider our own list of five influences.

This exercise really got me thinking about all the great artists and creative people whose work has touched me. Coming up with a list was very difficult. Did I need to go back to the books and artists that I loved as a teenager, considering that they probably shaped me into the adult I became? What is the difference between a work I simply love and one that influences me? Perhaps something I dislike could actually influence me quite strongly? Did I need to make sure I covered a range of different media, or could I list several books (and leave out, say, music altogether)? Could I 'cheat' and list a whole movement? (I wanted to include the Art Deco movement, but consensus on fb was that was definitely cheating!) And how could I possibly stop at five?

In the end this is my list, with brief explanations and in no particular order. Writers make up most of it, but though I love music and lots of visual artists, if I'm honest it's the written word that really gets through to me. A top 10 or 20 would definitely include a greater range of arts.

1. The writing of Annie Proulx. Ok, I'm probably already cheating here because I can't narrow this down to one book. That's because it is her style rather than one particular work that has shaped my writing aesthetic. I love the way Proulx can inhabit a place so completely. I love her appreciation of nature and rural settings. I love her characters. I was blown away by The Shipping News in the 90s and I've read almost everything else she has written since. I even loved her less-than-well-received memoir, Birdcloud.

2. The writing of Michael Chabon. Again, not just one work but the body of work. I love the way Chabon is so wholeheartedly enthusiastic in his writing. Each of his books is so different from the last, and yet they all share an intense interest in the world and all the wonderful things it contains. Chabon reminds me to unashamedly embrace genre fiction. Without him I probably wouldn't have read brilliant genre writers like China Mieville and Susanna Clarke. And Wonder Boys, goddamn that book is good!

3. Wes Anderson's film Rushmore. If I could have made any film, it'd be Rushmore. Anderson's visual aesthetic has, in some small way, changed the way I see the world. I love his quirky, wry, mannered style and I think this film is his best. I also love Bottle Rocket and The Royal Tenenbaums. I think perhaps he may have pushed his style as far as it'll go (I wasn't keen on Darjeeling Ltd) but Rushmore is pretty close to perfection for me.

4. Sylvia Plath's Ariel. It's a cliche for teenage girls to love Plath but, you know, they are right. It's not her battles with depression and her tragic end that gets me, it's her brilliant writing. So raw and honest, but also so skilful and beautiful. I studied her at high school and realised how powerful poetry could be. Now as an adult it's her description of motherhood and home life that I relate to most.

5. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the tv show). This might seem a little out of left field but was really a no-brainer for my list. Buffy was the first series that really showed me the possibilities of tv. Joss Whedon's storylines played out over whole seasons, even several seasons. The show played with genre and mythology in a fun and clever way. The characters were interesting and convincing, and challenged conventions (arse-kicking female lead, gay characters etc). There was a silent episode, an episode with no music and a musical episode (my personal favourite). Since Buffy, I have loved some really amazing tv series (Six Feet Under, The Sopranos and so on) but for me, this is where I realised that maybe tv could really be something pretty special. Plus, there's this...

So that's my list. It's not perfect but I think it gives a snapshot of how I see the world. And it was so much fun to come up with.

Monday, April 30, 2012


So. It's been a while. A long while. But I'm going to crank up the ol' blog again. I stopped writing because, well, life just got in the way. Plus I felt I little constrained by just writing about books. It sometimes felt like handing in a weekly book report for school. This time things might look a little different. I want to range around a bit more. Maybe discuss other areas of art and creativity. I'd even love to throw in a bit of food and cooking now and then. I tossed up starting afresh but I like the content that I spent so long creating for this site. In fact, it'll be the same site, just looser and more reflective of my actual interests. Naturally that means there will still be books, lots of lovely books, just that there'll also be some of the other things too.

I'm hoping there might still be some readers out there who'll join me for the ride.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Recent reading

There has been lots of reading around these parts lately, and I'm pleased to say that I'm on a run of books that I've really enjoyed.

First up, Sylvie Matton's historical novel, Rembrandt's Whore. Matton focuses on the character of Hendrickje Stoffels, a woman who lived for many years as Rembrandt's partner although they never married. As you can imagine this was very controversial in conservative, 17th century Amsterdam. Matton does a fabulous job of recreating the time period and also getting inside the mind of Hendrickje, a country girl who sees the genius of Rembrandt and is prepared to flout the conventions of society to be with him. From the notes at the back, I believe the novel is very carefully researched and I certainly learnt a lot about the times in which it is set. Not only is the book historically interesting, but Matton also writes in a very interesting style, particularly in the way she plays with voice. Sometimes Rembrandt is addressed by the narrator directly as 'you', and then, in the same paragraph, he is described in the third person. This takes a little getting used to but actually works, and in some ways really helps to create the voice of the narrator.

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga joins a growing list of Indian novels that I have loved. I was totally swept up in the story and barely put the book down as I read it. The narrator of the story, Balram, is very entertaining company, a fascinating character who is determined to escape his poverty stricken background at any cost. Despite the light tone, the book is actually very dark, and does not flinch at describing the terrible conditions in which the poor live in India. Balram's aim to achieve success at any cost draws an inevitable comparison with Macbeth, and I quite enjoyed looking for links between the two texts. There are definitely some interesting comparisons to be made between life in Shakespearean England and the cut throat dog-eat-dog world of modern day India.

Finally I finished Scott Westerfeld's novel Pretties just this morning. Pretties is the follow up to Uglies and is the second in his sci-fi trilogy for young adult readers. I loved Uglies, and Pretties lived up to the promise shown by the first book in the series. The novels are set in a future where all people undergo an operation at 16 to become 'beautiful'. This is ostensibly so that there is no competition based on looks, however there is a more sinister side to the operation as the heroine, Tally, and a group of friends discover. The novel looks at issues of beauty and appearances, friendship, loyalty and betrayal, and human nature. Young adults generally love these books in my experience, but I think they deserve a wide adult audience as well. I've written before about how much I love Scott Westerfeld and once again he hasn't disappointed. This is smart, pacy and though-provoking writing for any age group.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

A long time between posts

Sigh. I don't want to spend an entire post on why I haven't been posting but I probably owe some sort of explanation for my pretty hopeless neglect of this blog. The last few months have been absolutely hectic at work. The flow on effect of that has been that I just haven't had the mental space for writing here. In fact I've barely had the mental space for actually reading. If you look at my 'recently read' list you'll see lots of the fairly easily digestible young adult fiction (Robert Muchamore's Cherub series, for example) that has been my diet for the last little while.

Anyway, I've just had almost two weeks holidays in which to get back my reading mojo, and while it took a while to come back, I've finally hit my stride and have been swept up in some quite fabulous books lately.

Christine Falls is written by Benjamin Black (aka Irish writer John Banville) and it's wonderful, page-turning, whiskey-soaked, rain-drenched crime fiction. Black takes us back to Dublin in the 1950s. His central character is pathologist Quirke, who has the pre-requisite damaged past and taste for booze that we expect in this genre. Quirke finds himself investigating his own family when he discovers his brother-in-law (a pediatrician in the same hospital where Quirke runs the morgue) changing the death certificate of a young woman named Christine Falls.

This being Dublin in the 50's, the Catholic church is a heavy, oppressive presence whose influence reaches all the way to the new world- part of the novel is set in Boston. There are dark hints of shadowy organisations behind the scenes who are not pleased that Quirke is nosing around in their business.

I loved this novel. The writing is beautiful and there is a degree of atmosphere and characterisation that is not always found in crime fiction. Quirke was so alive to me that I could almost feel the whiskey burn its way down his throat, feel the pain of the beating he receives part way through the book, feel the shortness of breath as this bear of a man limps about the streets of Dublin and Boston. Some fans of crime fiction might find the plotting not as inventive as in other crime novels. A little like the Australian crime writer Peter Temple, Black gets the characters right first, so that you almost forget that there is a crime to solve. And I'm really ok with that.

In contrast, Kingsley Amis' short crime novel, The Crime of the Century, feels mannered and overly reliant on plot. This novel was actually written as a series of columns for The Sunday Times. The best thing about it was the interesting introduction by Amis where he discusses the process of writing in this genre. He felt it was really important to cut out any material unnecessary to the plot, and I can see his point, but in the end this reads like a clever exercise in dropping clues rather than something a reader could engage in emotionally.

The last novel I'll mention for now is Beryl Bainbridge's Every Man For Himself, a beautiful evocation of the four days aboard the Titanic before it famously sank. The story is told through the eyes of a young man, Morgan, a wealthy, well-connected boy trying to find his purpose in life. Morgan is, in fact, the nephew, by marriage, of the owner of the shipping company that owns the Titanic and has had a small part himself in designing the ship (well, some of the tap fittings in the suites) as part of his quest to 'find himself a career'. Morgan is an astute eye in this world of snobbery and vanity. He himself is saved from being completely part of that world by the fact that he lived in abject poverty until he was found and adopted by his uncle as a young child. Memories of that dark beginning to his life simmer just below the surface of Morgan's consciousness and explain his attachment to the dashing, charismatic character of Scurra, a character Morgan sees as a kind of father figure.

The central concept of the novel works really well- we know what is going to happen to the ship and therefore the petty concerns of the passengers and crew (is the library too big? Are the carpets the right colour?) take on an incredible poignancy. Bainbridge also writes beautifully and I really felt that I was part of the world that she created. She has some wonderful ways of describing characters; one man is described as never having thought something that hadn't already been thought by someone else (Bainbridge of course expresses it better than that, but at the moment I can't actually find the exact quote). I would have thought that the sinking of the Titanic would have been fairly well-trodden ground but this is a fresh perspective on the event. The last pages are, naturally, devastating.

So now I'm off to read my next book, Sylvie Matton's historical novel, Rembrandt's Whore, which, if nothing else, should lead to some mighty interesting traffic to this site...

Sunday, July 26, 2009


In a dark, chaotic and dusty second hand bookshop, where the shelves were so close together that I had to shuffle sideways to get between them and, when I did, it was almost impossible to read the spines of the books that were pressed up to my nose, on a day when the rain was icy and the wind strong enough to knock you over, I came across a book that I hadn't thought about in many years.

Theodore Roszak's novel Flicker was passed around the film society that I was part of during my undergraduate years at university. We were all film nuts and aspiring film makers and this book tapped into a those interests at the time. It also scared the bejesus out of me. When I came across it again, I had to buy it, if only to see how I would find it more than ten years later. Would the book that I found terrifying and disturbing at twenty years old have the same effect on me now?

The short answer is 'no', or maybe 'kind of, but not really'.

Flicker is the story of Jonathan Gates, film lover and academic, who is strangely attracted to the films of a forgotten B-grade director, Max Castle. Gates devotes his career to unearthing and studying Castle's films and finds that they contain some very strange subliminal techniques. Through his studies, Gates is also lead to the Orphans of the Storm, a shadowy religious organisation with a history reaching back to medieval Europe and the Cathars.

Well, it wouldn't be a good conspiracy if the Cathars didn't show up at some point.

If Flicker sounds kind of schlocky and cliched, well it is. But this is quality schlock. The writing is decent and there are lots of references to and discussions about classic films for film nerds to enjoy. The characters are also a cut above the usual airport fare. And I still got a bit creeped out by the horror elements. Roszak tries very hard to shock the reader. As a twenty year old he had me eating out of the palm of his hand. On this reading I was much more aware of being manipulated and much more amused by some of the sillier aspects of the plot, but at times I still had a chill down the spine.

A part of me is disappointed that I didn't leave my memory of Flicker alone. I could have walked around for the rest of my life remembering it as an amazingly brilliant book. But my curiosity got the better of me, and for that I have had the interesting experience of going back and being able to judge the taste of myself as a much less experienced reader. The years of reading in between my first and second reading of Flicker have stood me in good stead. In the intervening years I've definitely become a more discerning and critical reader. Thankfully though, I do still occasionally get swept up in a novel these days in just the same uncritical way I did as a twenty year old reading Flicker for the first time.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Pain and Sorrow

Just coincidentally, two of my recent reads have centred on young women who find themselves in terrible situations. Although they are very different books, Kate Holden's In My Skin and Sylvia Plath's classic novel, The Bell Jar, share the ability to evoke the powerful emotions and crises in identity experienced by many young women.

Not many young women go through the experiences that Australian writer Kate Holden describes in her memoir, In My Skin, but it is her ability to describe those experiences in a way that explains them to the rest of us that is the real strength of this book. Holden spent most of her twenties in Melbourne hopelessly addicted to heroin, an addiction which eventually led to a period as a sex worker. It is not giving anything away to say that Holden has now conquered her addiction (and written this very successful memoir about it), but the desperate times and experiences depicted in this memoir are pretty harrowing stuff.

I have to admit that I found it absolutely fascinating to read about Holden's journey from middle-class, well-brought-up, arts graduate to junkie prostitute. I think I was so affected by this book because Holden's life seemed so familiar, so similar to mine, up until the point where everything began to spin out of control. In my mind, heroin addiction and prostitution are a million miles from my own personal experiences but Holden brings it right home, made me think that this might have happened to me or to my friends, that it is not something that just happens to people who are already 'messed up'.

The danger in this kind of memoir is that it could become voyeuristic, especially in its depiction of prostitution. Holden avoids this through her skillful writing, which is informative rather than titillating, and concentrates on the emotions of her experiences. Her honesty is refreshing- she openly admits that there were parts of prostitution and drug taking that she enjoyed- but she does not glamourise the life. The big question is what she will write next, having pretty thoroughly explored her autobiographical material in this book.

It is a reasonable assumption that Sylvia Plath's novel The Bell Jar also covers mostly autobiographical terrain. The novel depicts the mental breakdown of its central character, Esther Greenwood, a young women working as an intern at a fashion magazine in Manhatten. Much like In My Skin I was struck by how honestly and realistically Plath describes the harrowing events of her novel. And yet this is not a depressing book. Esther could be any of us, she has moments of joy as well as great overwhelming sadness. There is even some humour in the book, particularly in the early chapters, something I found surprising and endearing.

Plath is one of my favourite writers, not so much for the dark topics that she covers and that make her so beloved of a certain type of moody teenager, but for the clarity and power of her words. Each sentence seems balanced and poised, the language straightforward and matter of fact, poetic in its simplicity. Take this passage from early on in The Bell Jar:

The mirror over my bureau seemed slightly warped and much too silver. The face in it looked like the reflection in a ball of dentist's mercury. I thought of crawling in between the bed-sheets and trying to sleep, but that appealed to me about as much as stuffing a dirty, scrawled-over letter into a fresh, clean envelope. I decided to take a hot bath.

Both of these books remove the 'otherness' associated with those in society who go through great trauma. Mental illness and drug addiction obviously effect all sorts of people, and books like these are invaluable for reminding us of this fact. That they are beautifully and skilfully written makes them even more successful.