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Weekend Bargain Reads

Posted September 12, 2014 by Patrick Lenton

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At Momentum, the only thing we like more than the working week, is having a weekend off to get excited about the next working week. So in our infinite largesse, we’ve given you some AMAZING free and cheap-as-free books, available at their current prices for limited times only, to read over the weekend.

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When sensible schoolteacher Ella Lucas rides into her home town on a Harley and seduces the resident football hero, Jake Prince, she figures she can be forgiven and move on. After all, she’s just buried her mother. Winner of the ARRA 2013 Favourite Contemporary Fiction Award.  Finalist in Romance Writers of Australia Ruby (Romantic Book of the Year) Award 2014.

GET IT FOR FREE!

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A brutal massacre. A terrifying madman. Get it FREE.

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To celebrate the release of AURORA: MERIDIAN, we’ve discounted AURORA: DARWIN to $0.99 and AURORA: PEGASUS to $2.99.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

 

 

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What makes a good bookshop?

Posted July 23, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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It’s a fair question, given the rate that bookshops both large and small seem to be either closing or suffering from the changing dynamics of book buying and reading.

And given that the large-scale bookshop behemoth model seems to have reached its natural conclusion and collapsed, we can deduce that enormity isn’t really what works. A bookshop doesn’t need to be the size of a small moon, complete with planet-destroying superweapons and tea-towels in the shape of Marcel Proust’s head. It just needs to sell books, and sell them well.

In a recent article, several architect firms were asked to design a bookshop, according to the brief, ‘to save bookshops’. This is a bit silly in one instance, in that it implies bookshops are dying out. Which isn’t true, they’re just changing. But the odd thing was, the proposed designs seemed a bit, well, dull. And trivial. Like when films set in the future come up with concepts that they think are brilliant but ultimately irrelevant and obsolete, like robot bartenders and fridges that talk to you.

The firms designed bookshops that had features like a glass screen façade with QR codes for downloads, vending machines of books, display screens for upcoming events and something called a ‘Harry Potter wonderwall of discovery’, which just sounds like the soundtrack to some weird JK Rowling fanfic. There’s also a design that includes a tree (because trees=paper=books? I don’t know), floating robots, and a stage where authors are literally treated like rock stars.

One of the designers even admits it’s all a bit pointless, as he declares there’s no point trying to save books when they’ll only become digitised, and treats his bookshop proposal as a kind of shrine to the soon-to-be obsolete paper book. A curiosity shop, then.

Hidden in these designs are a few more practical bits of advice: books that face outward so that the cover, rather than the spine, sells the book. They suggest books on long flat tables, rotating displays of featured genres, and the understanding that a bookshop should not just sell books, but become the focal point for events and happenings that surround the book industry.

But is that all? There’s nothing new there, nothing drastically innovative or earth-shattering to how good bookshops run these days.

In one of my highly scientific studies where I canvas the opinion of lovely people, most seemed to suggest the following for a bookshop:

  • Good and diverse books
  • Approachable and knowledgeable staff

Which does seem kind of obvious as well. But it goes to show just how much simple things translate to good business sense, at least in the customer’s eyes. While some people liked the idea of speciality bookshops, that catered to specific genres or readers, most seemed to agree that it was more difficult financially, and better to offer a diverse range across a range of styles and genres.

But by this point, some seemed to say certain bookshops have merely token nods towards genres. There are shelves that get short shrift, and have only the most obvious or clichéd titles on offer, which naturally drives those readers to alternative methods of procuring their books. It’s almost as if some shops will provide depth and quality in their own interest, but neglect others while pretending to include them. It’s that type of thing that doesn’t work. Better to specialise, or admit only certain readers are catered for, or do it all well.

Most liked the idea of having a good online catalogue, if not for ordering at least for browsing. If staff aren’t available, sometimes it’s easier to find the availability of a book by using the phone in your hand. Particularly if it’s a crowded shop.

Places to sit and read were certainly recommended, which can sometimes be difficult to come by. Especially if larger bookshops are being squeezed out, physical space becomes difficult as shops increasingly pack more in to less. But still, bookshops sell reading, and should – where possible – aim to encourage it.

Probably the most obvious thing from people’s suggestions is how much everyone approved of a more classic model for a bookshop. And yet in the architect designs above they all seemed to go out of their way to pretend that their bookshops weren’t bookshops. As if that would turn people off.

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And I don’t want to turn this into a nostalgic lamentation for the loss of an unsustainable model, but a bookshop should be a bookshop, right? If you walk in and don’t see books, you lose your faith in the business. Bookshops should have shelves of books, they should have a range that you can actually sink in to and find not just what you’re looking for, but also discover what you weren’t looking for.

The alternative methods of buying books that have taken hold in the last few years work not because they’re pretending to sell some kind of book-ish experience to buyers that pretends not to sell books (we just buy them by accident!), it’s because they have range and convenience. A bookshop should work the same – and the best ones do.

I was reminded recently of a moment in Terry Pratchett’s Guards! Guards! where the nature of a bookshop is discussed – the kind of bookshop that draws you in and keeps you there, letting you find what you want (and what you don’t want), and while Pratchett’s idea of a bookshop isn’t a new one, it’s still the model that – to me – works, because it’s about a bookshop that has books.

‘The truth is that even big collections of ordinary books distort space, as can readily be proved by anyone who has been around a really old-fashioned secondhand bookshop, one that looks as though it was designed by M.C. Escher on a bad day and has more stairways than storeys and those rows of shelves which end in little doors that are surely too small for a full-sized human to enter. The relevant equation is: Knowledge = power = energy = matter = mass; a good bookshop is just a genteel Black Hole that knows how to read.’

Sounds like a good bookshop to me, whether it happens to be online or down the road.

 

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The genre kids are all right

Posted July 15, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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So when I’m not writing posts here I’m actually living a whole other secret life full of action, teaching secondary students about books and writing and stuff. Kind of like Batman. Just without the hero status and heaps of money. But otherwise just like Batman.

Anyway, one of the enviable tasks I get is to introduce fifteen year olds to the subject of Literature. Which means a type of explanation needs to occur where what distinguishes Literature from ‘normal’ English is clarified, and why the books read in Literature are different to those read in English.

It’s a strange conversation, and it’s noticeable just how much the students struggle to articulate the difference between something that is literary and something that isn’t. To be honest, I’m not sure if I have yet worked out a way of making this point clear. What is clear is that they quickly discover that they need to divide their reading, between what is serious and worthy of study, and what is enjoyable.

I loathe this moment. The point where teenagers feel they must put away childish reading and grow up, as if that’s what literary means. Yet we see this distinction reflected everywhere.

In her piece for Slate, ‘Against YA’, Ruth Graham argues that adults should be embarrassed for reading a novel targeted for a younger audience. Titles like Divergent and Twilight and The Fault In Our Stars are singled out for being pleasurable yet trivial moments of escapism, and far beneath a mature and ‘adult’ sensibility.

A cursory glance at the book reviews in last weekend’s papers reveals something in the region of seventeen titles that would appear on the literary end of the bookshelf, and three toward the genre end (if one is running with the literary-genre dichotomy). Of the three genre reviews, two are under 200 words long, compared to the 800-plus afforded to the literary reviews. The genre titles are described as ‘taut’, ‘terse’, and ‘well-structured’, whereas the literary are allowed to look at ‘complex and persistently myth-confused questions’, with characters who are ‘witnesses to extraordinary revolutions [yet] resigned to their fate.’

Even more, one of the genre titles is unfavourably held against Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch – which is comparable neither in plot, style or genre – and Charles Willeford, whose entries into the genre have been around long enough to earn literary esteem.

Okay, maybe it was a bad weekend. But I hazard not. We seem unable to escape this idea that one type of book is worthy, and another not. That one type gets all the ink and the awards and the measured reflection, the other is sidelined and measured against redundant standards. One gets festivals, the other conventions.

And when one might stray into the other, there’s short shrift that borders on disdain.

But I think there’s something in this idea that (some) people view genre as childish, and therefore embarrassing to read – as Graham suggested – and that it is a guilty pleasure and we should really be above such indulgences. It’s the moment I see in the classroom, when the students feel like their childhood imagination is being frowned upon.

It’s hard not to see why.

With almost clockwork regularity, the books that top the lists of favourite/best/most acclaimed young fiction are distinctly genre titles. They involve magic, talking animals, imaginary lands made real, wizards and witches and adventures through time and space. There are distinctly dystopian stories, and others that are pure fantasy, others that push magic-realism into childhood imaginations, and collisions between one genre and another, between one real world and one entirely fantastic.

And like that, we ask it all to stop. All these award-winning titles must then be shelved, and we must go and read serious things. And yes I know we don’t, but this is the illusion that is presented. This is the fallacy that is created by calling a subject Literature, by classifying and critiquing one set of stories one way, and others entirely differently.

What is so wrong about the types of stories we read as children that so many are afraid to recognise their worth as adults? Why can we easily view The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe alongside Anne of Green Gables in children’s book lists, yet shudder at Doctor Sleep occupying the same space as The Perfect Scent, as ABC’s The Book Club did recently?

If we consider genre titles to be enjoyable, even necessary for children, there is something in that for us adults. In spite of the limitations of a subject called Literature, the one thing I try to impress on my students is that once upon a time, Romeo and Juliet was popular, genre fiction. As was (and is) Frankenstein. The only reason they can be classified as ‘literary’ now is the good grace of time, and familiarity.

The stories that last are the important ones, and the ones that will last are the ones we read the most. And just like Batman, they may not be the books we feel we need but instead they’re the books we deserve. And keep coming back to.

 

 

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Podmentum: Thronementum

Posted July 11, 2014 by Mark

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We’ve done specials on Star Trek and Doctor Who, now we bring you a special episode all about Game of Thrones! We discuss the TV series and the books with special guests, including former Podmentum host Anne Treasure. This is also Mark Harding’s final episode as host. Oh, and massive spoiler warning for Game of Thrones.

 

Recommendations:

Anne 

Death, Sex & Money podcast

Patrick

Words of Radiance: The Stormlight Archive Book 2 by Brandon Sanderson

Joel

Brilliance by Marcus Sakey

Mark

Orphan Black

 

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Game of Thrones: Season 5 and beyond

Posted July 4, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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If there was one fascinating thing to take away from Season 4 of Game of Thrones, it was how much the show was beginning to deviate from the books.

With George R.R. Martin giving showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss inside knowledge on the fates of all the major characters (not on the overall storyline, mind you), it’s become an interesting game in itself to take note of how certain moments from the books are kept and others jettisoned. Similarly, particular themes in this latest season have been amplified more, providing perhaps a clearer indication of where the show is heading.

When you combine this with the fact that next season should cover most of the remaining published material, the show is quickly heading into territory that neither the readers nor the TV viewers know anything about. Exciting indeed.

So, in light of that, I decided to survey a bunch of people to see how they thought next season and the rest of the series would pan out.

Of those surveyed, two thirds hadn’t read the books. This is interesting just on its own, showing how much farther the reach of a TV show can be when it captures critical and popular opinion.

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Which character won’t survive next season?

Obviously the book readers know what’s up here, but the two characters most expected to be killed off next season were Hodor and Jaime Lannister. Given Hodor’s popularity for a minor role, I can only assume everyone feels GRRM is in the mood to kick a few more puppies, and that might leave Hodor on the chopping block.

Jaime, on the other hand, has run a rather interesting trajectory as a character, and at the moment nobody is entirely sure how to view him. This is not so different from his portrayal in the books, but I think there’s perhaps a touch more sympathy for him there than in the show, and maybe that’s leaving everyone feeling like his time may be up.

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Whose storyline are you most interested in next sesaon?

Three standouts here: Arya, Tyrion and Jon Snow.

Jon I think ends up there by default given that his storyline – along with Daenerys – seems the one most closely aligned with the major arc of the series. He is the closest to the white walkers, and that gives his storyline immediacy and validity over, say, whatever Brienne is up to.

Tyrion will always be of interest to viewers of the show, thanks largely to both the writing of the character and Peter Dinklage’s performance. But now that he’s abandoned the cloak and (relative) comfort of his family, and is paired up with Varys, there’s a new dynamic added to his character’s destination which I’m looking forward to.

Arya’s storyline with the Hound was probably the most favoured by the viewers this season, again down to the performances and the writing. The quality of both stands out as well given how little time they actually spent on screen, and how little they had to do. Knowing as well where Arya goes in the books from this point on also leaves me very keen to see how that’s realised in the show next year.

On the other end of the scale, nobody is interested in seeing more of the Boltons and Theon. Can’t imagine why.

 

Now to the big crystal ball predictions.

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Who will end up on the Iron Throne?

Over two thirds seem to think it’ll be Jon or Daenerys. And really, that’s likely as the series does set them up to be predestined for some royal conclusion, one way or the other.

But, the question to ask is whether the relevance of the Throne will still be around come the end of the series, or if the game will become insignificant and the prize meaningless.

Someone also suggested that a different Targaryen might end up on the Throne, but unless the show goes anywhere near that part of the plot from the books next season, I doubt we’ll see it included at all.

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Who will the final battle be between?

Half seem to think it’ll be between the white walkers and the dragons.

Considering the series title is A Song of Ice and Fire, this would seem to be a logical guess. Considering that the white walkers are on one side of the map, and the dragons the other, an eventual meeting would also seem to be logical. Considering that Daenerys realises she can’t ride all three dragons and needs others to aid her cause, and that Bran was told in the finale that he will one day fly, this again seems logical. Additionally, this part of the show has seen some interesting deviations that has inevitably prompted much speculation around the internet.

What’s interesting in this is we can see how irrelevant certain plots become. The Greyjoys and Boltons don’t really factor in this equation, nor does Stannis, despite being the current top pick for taking over any available throne. Additionally, Littlefinger’s manipulations don’t seem to extend to controlling dragons. And there’s no love at all for the Lannisters – except Tyrion.

All this points to the possibility of GRRM offering us a story that vanquishes old and corrupt powers, and offers up newer, more morally sound replacements. (If by morally sound we mean people riding dragons and burning undead ice people in all-consuming fire.) And this isn’t that unusual or revolutionary. But as we’ve seen with the story so far, there will surely be many more twists in the tale before we get to the end.

 

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Spoilers and stories

Posted July 2, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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I remember the first time I saw The Usual Suspects. The film had been recommended to my parents and they allowed me to watch it with them, despite it being a school night.

I had no context for the film whatsoever, so that the ending completely floored me. I had to tell everyone I knew to watch it, and still now feel excited when I know somebody is about to watch it for the first time. It is a story that relies so much on not knowing about it in advance, relies so completely on ignorance to the twist, that having seen it once means you can never actually experience the story that way again.

So we preserve the innocent, and try as hard as possible not to let twists out. The importance is on that first watch, or that first read, so that the integrity of the story (and its reliance on a twist) is maintained. Alfred Hitchcock knew this, famously having cutouts of himself positioned near the exits of cinemas, imploring audiences not to ruin the ending of Psycho for the incoming crowd.

But are we so concerned at not revealing twists, that we have become oversensitive to any information about the plot of a story?

Everywhere you look, people are either declaring spoiler alerts, or calling out others for revealing spoilers. The problem is, most of the time what’s labelled a spoiler isn’t actually a spoiler.

If we’re being honest, there are two types of spoilers: those that are about the journey, and those that are about the ending. The journey spoilers reveal some unexpected plot point that takes place between where the story begins and where it ends. It challenges our expectations over how we get from A to B. The ending spoilers are more to do with how things turn out. Some crucial piece of information that again challenges our expectations over where we thought this story was going.

The nature of a spoiler is that it is a piece of information revealing an element of central importance to a story. To reveal the twist in The Usual Suspects would uncover the central element of its entire narrative. To do so would, quite clearly, be spoiling the story. Even to mention that there is a twist is to prepare the audience for the moment when the twist occurs.

But, it is not a spoiler to reveal that on Lost, John Locke was in a wheelchair before crashing on the island, and that the island miraculously restored his ability to walk. While it is a twist, in the course of one episode, it has little to do with the overall arc of Locke’s character, and even less to do with the plot of the show. It is not a central element to the story.

Revealing that information did not ruin the story. Not even a little bit. But how do we determine what’s important and what isn’t? In this time of recaps and commentaries, of unprecedented open dialogue about stories across mediums, it has become an increasingly fraught thing. Whose concern are we protecting, by withholding plot elements from public discussion?

By witholding, we are highlighting something: this thing that is not mentioned is the most important thing about the story.

The fear over revealing information about Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad and other such shows isn’t really to do with twists. The Red Wedding is not a twist, it’s just a shock. There are surprisingly few twisting turns in Walt’s story of Breaking Bad, given that it’s largely a study of a character in decline.

When people implore others not to give away spoilers on these shows, it’s out of some misguided notion that discussing endings or major plot points will ruin the story. Those who have read A Storm of Swords knew that Oberyn died at the hands of the Mountain, so that they were prepared for the shock viewers felt when it occurred in Game of Thrones. Yet to have revealed this in advance would not really have spoiled much. It was signposted from the beginning – particularly in the adaptation – and while shocking, doesn’t really affect any major change on the story. In fact, it really just reconfirms the plot’s already established direction.

To discuss the ending of Lost or The Sopranos or Breaking Bad isn’t to spoil the experience for anybody who hasn’t seen the shows. And yet it seems to be all everybody wants to discuss, so we end up doing so in this bizarrely veiled and hesitant fashions, under the illusion that discussing what happens in the end to Tony Soprano or Walter White will then render the story meaningless.

To mention that Dumbledore dies or that Darth Vader is Luke’s father or that Tyler Durden doesn’t actually exist isn’t going to ruin anything. But to siphon off these points, and countless others, from our open discussion of a story is to limit our ability to engage with how that story works.

A consideration about spoilers ends up being a consideration about our role as consumers of stories. Whether Walter White dies at the end of Breaking Bad is important only if we see that as the defining aspect of his story, as the answer to the question the story was asking. And if we do, then we’re merely passive recipients of plots and see the story as merely a vehicle.

This is a nonsense way to engage with stories, and yet treating spoilers, shocks and twists as precious elements that must be protected from public discourse shows how our priorities are out of whack: we are focused on what happens, rather than how it happens. We become the students who sit at the back and demand the answer because we can’t be bothered working out how to get there ourselves.

And the how is everything. The how is immeasurable. It often can’t be contained to one moment, or one scene, rather it’s the accumulation of elements that include plot, character, setting and tone. It’s the reason why Hitchcock’s Psycho works and Gus Van Sant’s Psycho doesn’t. It’s the reason why Quentin Tarantino decided not to abandon The Hateful Eight despite the leaking of the script to the public. It’s the reason why audiences were outraged at The Sopranos not giving us an ending to Tony Soprano, as if the ending would define the character and the story, rather than all the parts of the story that came before. It’s also the reason why audiences were far more prepared for True Detective’s ending, which revealed the journey to be of far greater consequence.

In his foreword to the revised edition of The Stand, Stephen King says that ‘in really good stories, the whole is always greater than the sum of the parts.’ And so it is with spoilers. I’m not saying we need to just get over spoilers and talk about everything openly. Not at all. But I think we need to consider why we’re so outraged when we find out one small part of a story in advance. We need to question why that’s important to us, what it is we’ve been robbed of, if anything.

 

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8 film adaptations that should have been TV series

Posted June 16, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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The fact is not all books that are adapted for film should be adapated for film. In this golden era of long-form narratives on TV screens and praise for ‘literary’ television, we are increasingly debating about whether a film can do justice to a book as it once could.

In a sense, we are witnessing the living out of Marshall McLuhan’s prediction that television will become the dominant art form – even if it has taken a little longer than originally anticipated.

As as more and more actors and directors are seeing television as the medium to deliver stories that last longer than an opening weekend, I think we may be on the verge of seeing an increase in book adaptations travelling to serialised television, rather than condensing into two hours on film. The long-ago success of adaptations like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Brideshead Revisited show that in comparions to their more recent versions in film, some stories just do work better on TV.

In light of this, I thought I’d look at some films that should not have been adapated for film, and instead would have been better served piped to us through our television, with a dedicated cast, crew and team of writers serving the story, rather than the box office.

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1. World War Z - Max Brooks

In a highly scientific study conducted by myself and involving asking whoever happened to be on Facebook and Twitter two nights ago, this was unanimously the title we wanted to see made for television, rather than the abomination that was served up by Marc Forster in 2013.

Despite the fact that the film of World War Z made enough to put a sequel into development, it was so far removed from the source material it might as well have been titled Generic Zombie Apocalypse Movie. The book, translated appropriately, would be perfect for episodic TV, and removed enough from The Walking Dead to still be fresh.

Seriously. That film was stupid.

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2. His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman

Yet another utterly disappointing film adaptation. It is such a shame that the full scope and vision of Pullman’s story didn’t make it onto screen, given where the story goes come The Amber Spyglass, I am frequently saddened that this may never come to pass.

Hopefully, given that The Book of Dust is soon to be completed, some adventurous souls may feel compelled to bring this to fruition. Since Game of Thrones has shown how to do epic fantasy on a TV budget, and the complications of Pullman’s story that would necessite heavy SFX work, this may be possible sooner rather than later. Actually, it is possible, now. Do it. Please.

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3. Watchmen - Alan Moore 

While the film was an ambitious attempt, it was also terrifically sterile, in a way that only Zack Snyder can achieve. The film got so many things right (certainly the casting, and the visual tapestry of the era), but yet got it entirely wrong, sucking all possible energy and emotion out of the original.

And look, nobody has to worry about pleasing Alan Moore, as he’ll just hate it all anyway. But the episodic nature of the original would translate seamlessly, and it’d be the perfect antidote to this Avengers-saturated world.

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4. Harry Potter - J.K. Rowling

Look I honestly believe we will see a TV series adaptation of Harry Potter in our lifetime. It’s just a matter of when.

Despite the box office and fanaticism, enough time has passed for us all to acknowledge that all the films were pretty poor adaptations, excising enormous swathes of material from increasingly large books and leaving a bit of a narrative mess on the cinema screen. (Really, watch Goblet of Fire and imagine you don’t know the plot from the book. It makes no sense. No goddamn sense.) The richness of the world in the books is infinitely lacking, and would be far better rendered in TV land.

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5. The Name of the Rose - Umberto Eco

Okay this is really just for me, but it would be perfect.

The film with Sean Connery and Christian Slater is so laughably bad, so completely uninterested in understanding the novel that it essentially tries to turn Umberto Eco into Dan Brown. And I know this will never be made into a TV series (medieval monks, no female roles, antiquated literary references, did I mention the monks?), but the book is so capitvatingly visual and dramatically suspenseful, it would be the easiest adaptation to write. Especially in the era of True Detective, and morally inconclusive detective stories, this is the morally inconclusive detective story.

And perfect for all those character-actors who litter our TV screens like affectionate gargoyles.

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6. Interview with the Vampire - Anne Rice

The film actually isn’t bad, though it is downright hysterical in parts, but Anne Rice on TV? So good.

And the fact that it would then pave the way for The Vampire Chronicles to be adpated wholesale, erasing all the bad memories of a. Tom Cruise, and b. Queen of the Damned.

Now that I’m writing this down, I’m actually surprised this isn’t happening, seems like a perfect fit.

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7. Tomorrow, When the War Began - John Marsden

Again, for much of the same reasons as above, there is so much material here that a TV series would be rolling in plots and characters.

Given the success of this series in Australia, and the lacklustre performance of the film, it’s actually surprising nobody is doing anything about getting this onto TV. Those working in television should really move heaven and earth to get it done, firstly because we never get any locally produced content of this type on our screens, and secondly because it would work as an ongoing series.

(How terrible is that poster design, by the way?)

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8. The Karla Trilogy - John le Carre

I mentioned Tinker, Tailor earlier, and as much as I loved the casting and direction of the recent film, I missed the depth of the story that is present in the book, and the original ITV adaptation with Alec Guinness.

Back then, it was deemed too expensive to film the sequel – The Honourable Schoolboy – despite it being the best in the trilogy, as it’s largely set in Vientiane. Production rushed into Smiley’s People, the third book, and while the TV series is okay, it lacks the feeling of resolution that would come from having an intact trilogy.

Since the film did well, and reignited the interest in faithful spy stories, a modern-day version of le Carre’s Karla trilogy would be unbelievably excellent to see. The Honourable Schoolboy in particular is, to me, one of the premier spy stories, presenting that to a wider audience would be a wonderful thing.

 

 

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How to read more than one book at a time

Posted May 27, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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It occurred to me the other day – not for the first time – that I was reading too many books at once. For multiple purposes, some legitimate, others more indulgent, the reading pile is not so much reflecting those yet to be read, but rather those that are in a current stage of being read. And this would be okay, if I didn’t keep adding to it.

It works like this: first, read a book because you want to.

Then, read a book because you have some other obligation (in this case, I need to teach the book to a classs, which must happen in a timely manner to fit the curriculum).

Then, join a book club so that you have another time-determined book to read.

Then, join another book club with different people because misery loves company, and obsessive book readers need a different crowd to share their obsessions with.

Then, pick up a book that you have already read but just have to dip back into because you love it so much and can’t resist. Or the book loves you, it practically knows what you like from a read. But you have an open relationship. It lets you read other books so long as you come back to it. Anyway.

How do you read multiple books at once?

1. Invest in audiobooks

This is the best way to do it, especially if you have a regular, clockwork-type schedule that involves commuting. Additionally, with digital downloads replacing CDs, they’re infinitely easier to manage now. (I feel old saying that, but come on, the Stephen Fry-narrated Harry Potter audiobooks were something like 100 discs. That’s a lot of inserting in and out of the car stereo.)

As someone who was prone to re-reading a lot, I decided a while ago to save all the books I had already read for audiobooks, to read them in an entirely different fashion. It’s great.

Essentially, I get a half hour in on the drive to work, half an hour back, and with books varying from ten to forty hours in listening, you can cover a read in a couple of weeks. Added bonus: switching your brain out of work-mode on the way home.

2. Alternate days

One book one day, one the other. Oddly enough, this can create more excitement in sitting down to read a book, knowing that you’ve got to wait just a bit more before you get back to it. And then the disappointment at having to wait another day to pick up the next chapter is quickly erased when you get to return to the other book your’re reading.

For advanced players of this game: have a different book for each day of  the week. You have your Monday book, your Tuesday book, and so on. I’m not even kidding.

3. Limit your time

Half an hour on one book, then switch. Almost like a Pomodoro technique for reading. This does have the unweidly effect of blurring plots and characters into one big congealed narrative mess, but sometimes that’s not so bad. When someone tries to pitch a book as American Psycho-meets-The Lord of the Rings, you could actually achieve that just by going from Bateman to Baggins in one sitting. Think of the possibilities.

4. Mix your mediums

You’ve got the book by your bed, and the audiobook in the car. Now just add one on your phone, stick another one on your iPad by the couch and you’re set. Each place becomes a specific read, so that not only do you vary when you read your multiple books, but also where you read them.

5. Relish the differences

Ensure that each book you’re reading – at different times, in different places, in different ways – is wholly different to the rest. Keep your genres and your styles distinct, to minimise cross-pollination of your imagination, and keep each story vibrant and resonant.

For the ultimate book nerd, keep notes as you go, allowing yourself time to reflect and ingest before switching onto the next book. Then again, if you’ve got time to make notes, you’ve got time to squeeze another book in.

Occasionally I do preference one book over another, and it gets a bit more of a go, but I’ve yet to feel like I’m not reading anything properly, or doing any of the books a disservice. In the end, I don’t think it’s a byproduct of the hyperactive state society seems to exist in these days (though perhaps it does have something to do with that post I read a while back on calculating how many books you can read before you die), but I don’t seem to be able to get out of this multiple-book state.

But why would you want to, when there are so many books to read?

 

 

 

 

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Should I keep reading?

Posted May 5, 2014 by Mark

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As avid readers, we’re often faced with the dilemma of what to do when life attempts to crash our reading time. Sometimes there are practical reasons to stop reading. Sometimes there are ethical reasons. And sometimes you should just keep reading.

1. Someone asks, “What are you reading?”

KEEP READING My significant other asked me this the other night. I tilted my book slightly so she could see the title on the cover but didn’t engage in conversation.

2. Someone sustains an injury

DEPENDS Look up, see if they’re ok. If they are, keep reading. If not, gauge the level of injury before putting your book down. Bruises = keep reading. Any blood = sigh and make a show of putting your book down, so they are aware of what an idiot they are. Broken bones = ok, stop.

3. Your phone rings

KEEP READING The sooner the caller learns to send a text like a normal person, the better. You’re giving them a valuable life lesson.

4. Someone offers you food

PUT THE BOOK DOWN Always go with the food. Bonus points if it’s free food.

5. You approach your destination

PUT THE BOOK DOWN I cannot tell you how many times I’ve missed my stop when I’ve been reading on public transport.

6. Someone invites you out to do something ‘fun’

KEEP READING Ok first of all, I’m reading and reading is delightful. And second, all the fun stuff happens indoors, everyone knows that.

7. Someone offers you a drink

DEPENDS Assess the caffeine/alcohol content first. If someone is interrupting your reading time to offer you water or juice or some other lame drink, don’t even look up.

8. There is something good on TV

KEEP READING That’s not a good reason to put your book down. Unless it’s Star Trek, then it depends. Keep reading if it’s the original series, Voyager or Enterprise. Put the book down for The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine.

9. Your significant other/parent/roommate will get angry if you don’t put your book down

KEEP READING Everyone knows the secret to successfully living with another person is to find something you do that annoys them and do it as often as you can.

10.  You’re about to be arrested

KEEP READING A dose of escapism is probably what you need right now.

 

 

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The (un)happy endings

Posted May 1, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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‘The good end happily, the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.’

So says Oscar Wilde, but is that always the case? What happens when the good end unhappily?

Recently, in conversation about The Mist – Frank Darabont’s adaptation of the Stephen King short story – it was discussed how the film not only changed the ending, but constructed one so powerfully negative that it almost overshadowed all the rest of the story. It wasn’t just a negative ending, but one that really shocked the audience and brought home the brutality of the storyteller.

Had it just been a tragic ending, the film might’ve remained shocking but still watchable. As it stands, the ending is not only tragic, we discover minutes later that it was needlessly tragic. And this is awful to endure, illustrating just how much we have been manipulated by the storyteller.

When do unhappy endings work?

Firstly, the tragic narrative needs to be acknowledged. In this case, the tragedy is usually the fact that everybody dies. Or at least, everybody who might have a central part in the narrative, the minor characters are allowed to survive, as witnesses to the tragedy. So that it doesn’t happen again. Hamlet dies avenging his father’s death, by killing his uncle, while his mother is poisoned, so is his rival, some other guy who is standing nearby, and his friends who betrayed him are killed offstage. Romeo and Juliet die as testament to the feud between their families.

In a more modern version of this, Never Let Me Go, the tragedy is that we all die. The journey of the character to this discovery, that it happens to us all, is upsetting to watch, as all tragedy is. This is because we know the ending, on some fundamental level. But we don’t want to  know what it is, we want to believe that somehow the magic of the story will intervene and we can live happily ever after. The audience watching Romeo and Juliet is told from the beginning that they will die, we are just distracted from this by the art of the narrative, until the realisation all comes crashing down at the end.

Much of this rests of dramatic irony, and skilled foreshadowing. It relies on the skill of the writer to acknowledge there will be an unhappy ending, but simultaneously create a desire in the audience for it not to be the case. All the way along, we need to believe right up until the end that Hamlet will succeed, that Tommy and Kathy will get a deferral and live a little longer, that Juliet will escape to Mantua with Romeo.

The other unhappy ending, the one more prominent in film, is the surprise. The swift and upsetting moment when we realise that there’s no way out of this, that this is one of those stories. But similarly, there needs to be something there for the audience. We can’t just feel bad. There needs to be something we can takeaway, some element of hope (no matter how small) that one can hang on to in the darkness.

Spoilers follow, naturally.

At the end of Atonement, we discover that not only wasn’t there a great epic romance between Robbie and Cecilia, much of what we’ve witnessed has been part of a creative purgatory the central character Briony created as punishment for her long ago sin. The glimmer of optimism here though is that she can continue to create a happy ending for them in her mind. Perhaps.

In The Vanishing, Rex discovers exactly what happened to his wife – she was buried alive. He discovers this by having the same fate befall him. However, what drove him to this point was his desire to know, a desire that overthrew the rest of his life. Now he knows.

Rosemary’s Baby concludes with the shock that Rosemary’s newborn is actually the spawn of Satan, and yet she can still be his mother, having feared all throughout the plot that this would be taken away from her.

And in Seven, in what is cinematically close to a classical tragedy, and arguably one of the greatest – unhappiest? – of down endings, John Doe the serial killer is able to execute his design perfectly, trapping the hero Mills into becoming a murderer himself. But, Mills’ partner Somerset – the witness to the tragedy – is able to continue on, working to conceivably fight for what little good he can see in the world.

(Oddly enough, I think that final voiceover of Somerset’s was added at the studio’s behest, and the director hates it, thinking it incongruous with the rest of the story.)

It’s depressing just writing those, actually.

Unhappy endings are hard to execute, as it’s all too easy for the story to focus on the unhappiness, rather than letting the audience feel as if it is a natural, albeit tragic, conclusion to the plot.

There needs to be a reason to witness the story, to experience something that doesn’t go the way we’d hope, otherwise it’s exploitation. This is where I feel The Mist went wrong, in that it showed its hand too much, revealed too far how much the narrative was working to upset the audience, and we can’t recover from that.

It’s a sliding scale I think, from happy to bittersweet, to ambiguous, to unhappy, to exploitative. All stories exist somewhere along that scale, but I think I need a dose of the happier ones, just for now.

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Books every writer needs to read

Posted April 24, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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In the middle of the debate about whether one can actively teach writing, or whether it’s an autodidactic process gleaned from years of practice, reading and osmosis, I got to wondering about books writers read to help their writing.

Not necessarily the books about writing, per se, but rather the books we read for examples, and inspiration, and indefinable reasons that relate to putting us in the right mindset to sit down and write. And I imagine it’s different for everybody, there’s a set of books for each of us depending on need and demand. But at the same time, the reasons why we need these tokens of inspiration should be the same for all of us, we just exercise them differently.

Then I came across Flavorwire’s ‘25 Books Every Writer Should Read’, the latest in lists of these kind that seek to define truly where the wellspring of knowledge lies, by reducing it down to dot points. And normally these lists are all fine, in an instantly enjoyable and immediately disposable kind of way, but this one bothered me a bit. A lot, actually (as much as one can be bothered by a list).

I had read nothing on this list. Not one book. Several I hadn’t heard of. Was I deficient in some way? Would I never truly be a writer because Flavorwire determined I didn’t read the right books? Of course not, it’s just one person’s opinion. The oddity was in how divergent their opinion was to mine, when it comes to the source of inspiration.

So, here’s my list. The books I think every writer should read.

1. A book that is captivating from start to finish.

Bonus points if you read this in one night. But essentially, it’s a story that just hooks you from the first sentence, a story that keeps you churning through the pages yet hanging on every word, desperate to reach the end and know it all. Lately, for me, that was Floundering, by Romy Ash.

2. A book that is great with dialogue.

I hate writing dialogue, I find it difficult and I either underwrite it or overwrite it, and find it infinitely helpful to have good examples at hand. And for that I find Cormac McCarthy enormously helpful, if only because his dialogue works perfectly (for me) – it gives you the voice of the character, their rhythm and pitch, their humour and their emotion. And it does it so sparsely, that you never feel as if the dialogue is working too hard to get your attention, particularly in No Country for Old Men.

3. A book that is great with plot.

One that shows how to weave the threads of the narrative together, how to combine characters and scenes and elements of the plot and drop them into situations so plausible and natural that it’s impossible to see where the artifice ends and the naturally occurring lives of the characters take over.  I inevitably have a Stephen King book close by, but mostly I refer to IT, because it does everything, and is so enormous as a narrative that there are countless examples throughout.

4. A book that is a classic of the genre.

If only to know where you’ve come from, and what you’re working on top of. If we’re all dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants, it’s worth becoming familiar with the giants so that we can have a sure footing. Has to be Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

5. A book that is short and efficient.

Even if you don’t want to be when you’re writing, it helps to know how to do it. And when it’s necessary. Less is more and all that. And it’s not just about being obscure, but about using words to the maximum of their ability. For this I like Steven Amsterdam’s latest, What the Family Needed.

6. A book that is enormous and complex.

And if you want to attempt something that isn’t short and sparse, how do you do it without burdening the reader with too much plot? How do you write 600-plus pages and still make sense of the narrative on the page? In your head? And how do you tie it all together? I like big books and I cannot lie, but writing that much terrifies me. But I look to Umberto Eco, and Foucault’s Pendulum.

7. A book that is great with setting.

Particularly if the setting is crucial to the story (when isn’t it?), and you don’t want to feel like you’re artificially inserting description and location just to make the place a character in the story, and other clichés. I love writing about place, and how it works within a narrative, and there’s any number of books I draw on to help with this, but for now I’ll go with Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino.

8. A book that is great with characters.

Just to round it out, particularly for me who always worries that the characters I write aren’t interesting enough, or don’t translate from my head into someone else’s head the way I want them to, I always need to go and see how others do it. Easiest solution for me is to go read someone who has written more characters than I can imagine: Terry Pratchett and Night Watch.

9. A book.

Any book. Whatever book you like. The book you’re currently reading, because all writers should be readers. Or the book you’re terrified of because it’s so good and you’ll never write anything close to it, so you just sit it next to your computer, taunting you with its brilliance. Or the book with a great cover that you just love to look at because it reminds you of the story inside, and how that reminds you of the story you’re trying to write. It doesn’t matter. Just read books, and use them, they can only help your writing.

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Excerpt – Troll Mountain: Episode I by Matthew Reilly

Posted April 7, 2014 by Mark

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A dauntless young hero.

An army of brutal monsters.

An impossible quest.

 

Journey to the mountain …

In an isolated valley, a small tribe of humans is dying from a terrible illness.

There are rumors, however, that the trolls of Troll Mountain, the valley’s fearsome overlords, have found a cure for the illness: a fabulous elixir.

When his sister is struck down by the disease and his tribal leaders refuse to help him, an intrepid youth named Raf decides to defy his tribe and do the unthinkable: he will journey alone to Troll Mountain and steal the elixir from the dreaded trolls.

But to get to Troll Mountain, Raf will have to pass through dangerous swamps and haunting forests filled with wolves, hobgoblins and, worst of all, the ever-present danger of rogue trolls …

The journey to the mountain has begun.

IN THIS, THE FIRST OF THREE SERIALIZED EPISODES, MATTHEW REILLY TAKES YOU ON HIS WILDEST RIDE YET: A HEADLONG QUEST TO THE DARK HEART OF THE KINGDOM OF THE TROLLS.

 

Later that evening, long after the last fires in the camp had winked out, by the light of the full moon, Raf slipped away from the small collection of shanties that formed the village of the Northmen.

As he crested one of the higher hills, he looked behind him and saw a glow on the distant southern horizon, far beyond his village: the settlement of the Southmen tribe.

For many generations the Northmen had fought with the Southmen, but few remembered what had actually caused the rivalry. Perhaps it was their base physical differences: the Northmen were fair of skin and hair, while the Southmen had a darker complexion, with long beards, hairy forearms, and bushy eyebrows.

As a child, Raf had been instructed to raise the alarm should he ever see a Southman anywhere near their lands. Sure, Southmen did not steal children in the night, but they were scum, untrustworthy dogs who would steal your crops the moment you turned your back.

It was similar with hobgoblins. Smaller than a man but more cunning and sly, a lone hobgoblin could slip into your hut in the night and steal all of your allocated food from beside your bed. Acting alone, a hobgoblin was a troublesome thief and while its cackling in the night might give a child nightmares, on its own a hobgoblin was of little danger to a human—it would be quick to flight. Larger groups of hobgoblins, however, could be lethal: if a gang of them caught a man and pinned him down, they would eat his flesh while he was still alive. Hobgoblins did not build or make anything. They lived in caves in the mountains or in abandoned places built by others.

Trolls, however, were another matter entirely.

They did steal children in the night.

And even a single troll was deadly.

Any news of a rogue troll in the valley triggered great fear and panic. Fires would be lit and a night watch instigated if a rogue troll was known to be about.

If Raf ever saw a troll he’d been told to run away as fast as he could.

*

The trolls lived to the north of the river valley amid some forbidding mountains that, by an accident of geography, sealed off the peninsula on which the valley tribes lived.

The Black Mountains, they were called.

The mountains dominated the landscape, jagged, dark and tall, and always within sight of the valley: a constant reminder to the Northmen, the Southmen and the other minor tribes of the strange foreign culture that held ruthless sway over their lives.

For it was within those mountains that the trolls had blocked the river that flowed into the valley. And by controlling the flow of water to the peoples of the valley, the trolls exacted tribute from them: food and, occasionally, human sacrifices.

Apart from the trolls, the Black Mountains held within them other dangers: isolated clans of hobgoblins and roving packs of mountain wolves.

Between the river valley and those fearful mountains was a ribbon of barren land known as the Badlands.

Once, it had been a healthy forest fed by the same river that continued on into the valley, but now the Badlands was little more than a stinking waste of swamps, marshes, and bracken. It was a dead land that conveniently separated the creatures of the mountains and the humans in the valley.

Dawn came as Raf crested the northernmost hill of the river valley and beheld the Black Mountains and the Badlands. A chill wind rushed down from the mountains, bitingly cold.

A tribal elder had once told Raf that the trolls liked the cold, needed it, that they couldn’t survive in warmer climes—which was why they stayed in the mountains and sourced tribute from the human tribes.

For a long moment Raf stood on the summit of that last hill, caught between two worlds: the familiar world of his valley and the unknown world before him.

Sure, he had practiced with his weapons at the edge of the Badlands, but he had never dared to venture any kind of substantial distance into them.

But today is different, he thought. Today I must.

He looked behind him and beheld his own valley again, with the scar of the dead river running down its length, and for a moment he doubted his mission and considered going back—

No. He was going to do this.

He was going to do this for his sister.

And so, with a deep breath, Raf turned toward the Badlands and stepped out of his old world.

 

TROLL MOUNTAIN is a serialised ebook from bestselling author Matthew Reilly. Episode I is available on April 8 where all good ebooks are sold. 

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Judging bookshops by their covers

Posted April 4, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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With reports of yet more bookshops closing around Australia, the ongoing decline of physical bookstores seem to be increasingly accurate and foreboding. It is unfortunate, and especially saddening, to see longstanding stores close due to the realities of current market.

If there’s one thing that’s certain it’s that we buy books very differently these days. One of the interesting points that came out of the Digital Writers’ Festival panel in February was how we interact with book buying wholly differently now. The trawling of pages and suggestions through Amazon and other online retailers seems to be replicated in our actual presence in book stores. 

Customers still scan the shelves, getting lost in the array of new titles and old familiars, disappearing into an endless breadcrumb trail from one author to the next, one interest to the next. And yet now we come with backup. Armed with a phone, we can check reviews, check Goodreads, check whether it is actually the book we were thinking of. I have found that I’ve become more discerning, less likely to walk out with armfuls of books than I used to be, but more likely to actually get what I want. And while this does initially appear to remove some of the thrill of surprising discoveries, perhaps we’re now gravitating towards the position where book-buying is more easily analysed.

Instead of solely relying on the handful of print reviews and general word-of-mouth from what little is advertised, and what generally is shared and recommended by trustworthy reader friends, we can now actually draw on a vast array of resources carefully suited for our tastes and inclinations, to arrive at purchasing the book we want.

In short, we’re not relying on judging the book by its cover anymore.

Buying books digitally relies on our knowledge of the material, of the author, or of the quality behind the recommendations and suggestions, as well as the marketing facilitating this process. Less rests on the immeasurable qualities, so it makes sense for us to carry this process of purchasing into traditional bricks-and-mortar bookstores.

The stores that enable this will surely benefit. It’s not a question of diversifying the products – trying to turn a bookstore into a store that also has books – but enabling the customers to find and enjoy the products they want.

Additionally, with community libraries also struggling to retain viability and legitimacy, perhaps we’re reaching the point where the difference between a library and a bookstore needs to be eradicated. One offers access through loans and programs and education, the other through sales and possession. But essentially both deal in the same product, and can exist along the same spectrum of customer involvement.

As models such as iTunes show, it isn’t necessarily the physical item we’re wanting to own. We place convenience and ease of purchase at a premium, and have happily transitioned from VHS to DVD and Blu-ray, and now to downloading and streaming the content we want. Ownership isn’t as important, not even as a status symbol. We’re more focused on ensuring we have watched what we wanted, we have listened to the music we like, and that we have access to the information we need.

For books, we’re never reading more than we are now. We’re just reading differently. We’re buying differently. And we’re buying for different reasons, reasons that are perhaps truer to our actual wants and needs. We can spot advertising at ten paces, and run screaming from cynical attempts to coerce money out of us, but we enjoy the ease of getting what we want.

Buying books, loaning books, reading them on paper or digitally, discovering them in a store or online, it matters not in the end what our specific choices are, so long as we can get to them. I want to walk into a store and be able to find what I want, or at least discover what I want. By the same token, I want to know when I don’t want it. I want to be informed if this is the right book for me or not.

We want less barriers between us and the world. Among all the drastic changes to the way society and commerce interact in recent years, the removal of borders, boundaries, gatekeepers and red tape between a person and their goal has become the most distinct. Bookstores, both physical and digital, are there to get books to people. We’re perhaps in a position to witness that happening more clearly and more effectively than before.

Hopefully we will be in a position where nobody, not the customers or the books, will be judged on superficial qualities, but instead with understanding and merit.

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We really need to stop arguing about books vs. television

Posted March 27, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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In a recent article published in the New York Times, authors Mohsin Hamid and Adam Kirsch were asked if the new ‘golden age’ of TV shows were becoming the new novels of the 21st century. Both answered in depth, providing clarifications on either form and how they see them working as mediums and as vehicles for narrative. Interestingly, neither actually answered the question with a yes.

Not to stop there, a follow up in the Houston Chronicle by Maggie Galehouse – reprinted by Fairfax in the weekend papers across Australia – decided to take this manufactured argument and run with it, as a means of laying a boot into TV shows and audiences. Clearly books are better than TV, to Galehouse, so let’s all sit around and pat ourselves on the back for our ability to read.

In her article ‘The Book Is Mightier Than The Box’, due credit is given to shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men and True Detective, mainly for their ‘complexity’, and their ability to maintain an audience over several years. Galehouse continues comparing what she watches against favourite books, and admits that while she’s happy to commit time to watching the odd TV show here and there, she’d much rather read, making special mention of Middlemarch and Russian classics. The reader is left with Galehouse’s claim that she has yet to be floored by a film or TV show as she has been by a book, and uses her experience of reading As I Lay Dying as a prime example of the superior experience of reading.

Let’s put a stop to this ridiculousness now.

As Kirsch says, ‘to liken TV shows to novels suggests an odd ambivalence to both genres.’ If we continue to compare TV shows with books, or suggest that – much like films were rumoured to do in the 20th century – television will kill off reading, is facile. To do so is to suggest that audiences, readers, people, can only take their stories in one particular way. And that a story is a universal thing that needs a perfect-fit vehicle to deliver it to the audience.

It is impossible to declare Breaking Bad will render Harry Potter obsolete, and I can’t think of anyone who would promote the argument. There is no debate here, except among the grumbling few, among the cantankerous receivers, who feel the need to rank and rate and decry that the book is dead, the pen is mightier than the sword, the idiot box reigns supreme and we are all slaves to the latest thing.

In pitting books against TV, Galehouse and others are doing a disservice to creativity. The commonality between the two – story – is irrelevant. It would be like suggesting that cakes will kill off omelettes because they both use eggs as an ingredient. Nobody’s competing here. TV executives are not plotting grand schemes to overthrow the bestseller list, just as authors aren’t crying over  lost readers due to boxset binging.

The parallel existence of The Walking Dead comics and TV series are evidence of our ability to maintain two distinct narratives in our heads in two distinct mediums. Increasingly, Game of Thrones is doing the same. Both the film and original book of The Shining is just as appropriate, both being classical forms of their genres and mediums, but wholly different stories and experiences. There is no competition.

We’re all in this together. Books, films, TV, everything creative. Everything that tells a story. These are aspects of humanity that we have all craved, we have all created, we have all experienced for as long as humanity has existed. I’m sure our Stone Age ancestors didn’t sit around and debate whether cave painting was better than the latest fireside singalong.

Currently, when we are busy trying to hold on to every bookstore, trying to save every arts prize from obsolescence, and trying to find enough relevance for local content on our TV screens, it makes no sense to pit the creatives against one another. Creativity needs to exist within our culture, our society, not fight for the scraps of attention it is afforded through meagre funding, political threats and cultural warfare.

The most galling thing about Galehouse’s article isn’t the manufactured argument, or the inanity of comparing Dostoyevsky to Mad Men, it’s that this is a shipped-in reprint. Could we not find a local writer to make up ridiculous things? Could we not, perhaps, find a local writer to comment on the hesitation and occasional reluctance of Australia to accept local stories when we are drowning in American, British and even Scandinavian imports?

Could we not find anything meaningful to say about the relevance and importance of all stories, all creativity in a country that regularly battles to see art as anything but a waste of time and money?

We need stories. We need books and films and TV shows. We need our creative expressions to be shared and enjoyed and argued and forgotten and then found again. We need them in all shapes and sizes, in all mediums and genres and styles and fashions. Creativity should be the ultimate democracy, a mirror that shows us how all voices can sound in their infinite ways, as an act of humanity talking to each other, and to itself.

 

 

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These upcoming book-to-film adaptations should be TV series

Posted March 18, 2014 by Mark

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The Forever War

Optioned many years ago by Ridley Scott, this is one of the best science fiction novels ever written. Humans and aliens engage in a war that, due to the time dilation that occurs when travelling close to the speed of light, takes centuries to fight. The soldiers are increasingly removed from the society they’re fighting for as massive technological and social changes sweep away everything they know.

Why should it be a TV series? The story literally takes centuries to tell. It would be like a more realistic version of Battlestar Galactica or a better version of Space: Above and Beyond. There’s room to explore the complex relationships that develop between the soldiers and the pain of those bonds breaking when re-assignment means your friends will be centuries away.

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The Passage

Optioned by, of course, Ridley Scott, The Passage is a post-apocalyptic quest novel set in a world where a plague has turned most of the population of the United States into vampiric zombies. The original twelve infected patients hold a psychic influence over those who were infected via their actions, and a group of survivors decides to seek them out with the help of a seemingly immortal child.

Why should it be a TV series? It’s a massive novel that is just the first part of a trilogy that’s due to be completed at the end of this year, The Passage is a huge work, with many characters, sub-plots and backstory, with multiple narrative arcs that take place in different locations and different periods of time.

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Wool

Ridley Scott *also* bought the rights to Wool, another post-apocalyptic epic from self-publishing sensation Hugh Howey. After an environmental catastrophe, a handful of survivors live in underground silos, awaiting the day when the surface is safe once again. Wool takes place several generations after the catastrophe, where the inhabitants of the silo aren’t exactly sure what happened or what they’re waiting for, and are struggling against an oppressive regime that operates out of the silo’s IT department.

Why should it be a TV series? Wool is actually the middle story in a trilogy, with a prequel, Shift, and a sequel, Dust. There’s a lot of world-building that goes into making the silo societies seem believable and there are many supporting characters and groups that could stand to be explored in more depth in a series.

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The Girl Who Played With Fire/The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest

After the American version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo underperformed at the box office, the two sequels were put in limbo. The first one made enough that these films are still in development, but not enough to fast track them. The shame is that while the successful Swedish adaptations did a great job with the first film, the sequels left a lot to be desired.

Why should they be a TV series? The original Swedish films were intended for release as TV seasons, and after seeing True Detective, it’s clear that a 6-8 episode run for each of these stories could yield some spectacular results. With more and more film actors turning to TV, it’s not even that unrealistic to imagine Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig reprising their roles from the film.

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Ready Player One 

This is a brilliant novel that takes 80s nostalgia and creates a thrilling and riveting narrative. In the not-too distant future, most people spend their time in the OASIS, a virtual reality system developed by an enigmatic billionaire. When the billionaire dies, a contest begins. Whoever can decipher the clues and defeat the challenges hidden in the OASIS will win control of it. It’s a race against the clock for a loose fellowship of individual players to defeat a highly organised and ruthless corporation that wants to win control and remake the OASIS as they see fit.

Why should it be a TV series? Again, there’s a lot of world building that needs to be done, and the references to 1980s popular culture are so dense that they’d probably need a little more room to breathe in a filmed adaptation. The episodic nature of the events as they unfold would also lend it towards a longer adaptation.

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Robopocalypse

This novel about the survivors of a robot uprising is currently on Steven Spielberg’s to-do list. Robopocalypse is the World War Z of robot novels, a history of the individuals who made it, many of them from different parts of the world, facing very different threats. There are some spectacular set pieces, and some very cool stories.

Why should it be a TV series? The fact that the narrative is episodic, with each part about different characters in different locations, means that it would hang together better. And there’s room for even more stories to be told in this world,  as all the varieties of robot could be explored in-depth.

 

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How Not To Write A Novel

Posted March 17, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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After looking back last week at the tools and teaching on writing that I received at university, I was struck at how much of the following years has been a process of undoing. Having to spend the good part of a decade taking an autodidactic approach to writing is not necessarily unusual, but an approach that in hindsight would have been better served by better education.

Too much time was spent ignoring or resisting natural inclinations because they had been ingrained in to me that there was a particular way to write, a particular voice and quality to the words and the story, and that every effort I made was measured against this standard. So, in the spirit of offering hope and guidance, here’s the way I don’t approach writing anymore.

Disclaimer: I am guilty of all of these.

1. Pretend to be a different writer

This is crucial. As mentioned, we often spend too long trying to write ‘good’ writing. And we measure that against notions of what is ‘good’, as promoted by critical acclaim, reviews, sales and – of course – by those we learn from.

By trying to be what somebody else thinks is good is case of putting the cart before the horse. We end up trying to emulate a particular style or story that has already worked, and ignore impulses to deviate. What we’re doing is ignoring ourselves.

Read a lot, and write a lot. If you find out what you like to read, chances are they’re the type of stories you like. Chances are, they’re the kind of stories you might like to tell. Follow your impulses.

2. Finish before starting

This can manifest itself in two ways. Firstly, by excessively planning. Planning and planning and planning. It’s the ultimate procrastination, because it feels like work, and it feels like writing. But at some point it becomes overblown, and overdone, and there’s nothing left to write anymore. There are ten thousand ways to write a story, and over-planning can leave you trying all of them before actually making a start.

Secondly, explaining everything about your story to everyone else. This happens when the enthusiasm for the planned story is so great that we just have to tell someone. Everyone. And then we lose it, because all the energy and excitement goes into the telling, and it never seems as great when we start to put it on the page.

3. The art of reorganising a desk

In other words, deprioritising the writing. Everything else is irrelevant, unless we’re writing. But somehow we find a way to make up every available excuse to prevent us actually starting, because that it the most terrifying thing in this whole process.

We become irresponsible school kids, explaining that the reason why we haven’t started the novel yet is because the dog ate the desk, and now you need a new one from Ikea, but that’ll take a while to put together because Allen keys are frustrating things, and there was a piece missing, and now you’re not sure if that’s the room you want the desk in anyway, perhaps a minimalist aesthetic would increase the clarity of your writing, and guess what? Not a word was written. Not one.

4. Edit first, write later

What we do when we finally start the damn novel, is write a great first chapter, but then start to edit it. Because it could be better. It can always be better.

And guess what? We end up rewriting that forever, for all eternity, because in editing it we’re not just calling into question our writing choices in that chapter, but all the choices we were going to make about the entire novel. We’re chopping trees down when they’re still saplings.

6. Frontloading

But say we start to write, and we write that first chapter and we resist editing because we’re good writers. Easy, right?

Nope. What we’ve ended up doing is putting every great idea we ever had into the first chapter, as if we’re trying to write The Bible, Das Kapital, Ulysses and A Brief History of Time all at once. But I get why we do this. We’re so enthralled at our ability to finally put words down on a page, we become worried we won’t get to do this again. So we put everything in.

The solution is: write more. This one thing that we’re writing is not the only thing we write, so long as we keep writing. There’ll be more time later to explain the universe.

7. Lie

By this I mean: we lie about the word count, about our progress to our friends/spouses/waiters/strange men at the train station. We lie about how great it is, how bad it is, how we’re nearly finished, we’re just tinkering, about what kind of story it is, what kind of story it isn’t, and when it’s going to be done.

This isn’t complex psychology. We’re lying to ourselves. And we need to stop it. Because it means we’re lying on the page, and we need to write truthfully.

8. Do anything but write the damn novel

So we stop pretending, we stop with the distractions and the procrastinating, we stop questioning ourselves as we go, and we start actually writing the book. Because that’s the only thing that will work.

There are a million ways to not write a novel, there’s only one way to write it.

 

 

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Podmentum: And the Podmentum goes to…

Posted March 7, 2014 by Mark

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The latest episode of Podmentum is our Oscars special! We discuss our predictions, the major winners, what we thought deserved to win and lots more. We’re also joined by special guest Sam Sainsbury, senior editor from Pan Macmillan.

 

Recommendations

Sam

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

Joel

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Patrick

Murder in Mississippi by John Safran

Mark

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

 

 

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The misery of literature

Posted March 4, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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A recent article posited the theory that the economic mood of society could be reflected in the stories society tells itself. By analysing millions of digitised books, the researchers constructed a ‘literary misery index’, which miraculously correlated with the ‘economic misery index’ to show that societal economic downturn can be mirrored in the mood and tone of books.

The study presented the idea that there was a rough ten-year lag between economic misfortune and when that would become manifest in books, the idea being that it takes time for so-called ‘misery’ to be processed, digested and translated into narrative.

This, in itself, is hardly surprising, if taken as a face-value overview. What else are stories but reflections, refractions and interpretations of the stories we face in life? Even in escapism, one can trace back a root cause to the need to escape.

This is not wholly isolated to books, though. The parallel between popular mediums and societal climax is well-documented. But does that mean we can anticipate genre trends from political, economic and cultural climates? Can we predict that the current political mood in Australia is going to prompt a raft of anti-establishment narratives? Or that the GFC will similarly produce economically-depressed stories in the next few years?

The glut of dystopian narratives – particularly in YA books, but also then crossing to films – does seem to suggest this. That this trend is in its final throes appears, however, more symptomatic of an audience moving on from favoured styles and tropes, rather than a creative collective feeling hope where once it was only cynicism.

In film, it’s much easier to diagnose and dissect trends in genre, given that it’s a medium that wears audience popularity on its sleeve, a touch more than literature does. The constant insistence on darker, grittier and ‘more real’ qualities to films in recent years is testament to the overt displays of trend and trope. This wonderful analysis looks at the genre trends over a hundred years of cinema and throws up some interesting suggestions.

Documentary, horror and pornography all appear to have benefited from the loosening of censorship guidelines in the 1960s, allowing for not only more overt depictions of sex and violence on screen, but also perhaps a truer portrait of society. Inversely, the western is all but dead and buried after 1970, and crime, adventure and romance appear to be on downward trends in recent years. The release of Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark at the beginning of the 1980s was seen not only as a revival of the action-adventure genre popular in the early-20th century, but also as a salve to the political and economic ills of the 1970s, bringing hope and naivety to a cynical world, documented and translated so thoroughly in American cinema at the time.

So, genre appears then not only as a reaction to the outside world, but also as a response to the outside world’s influence over genre. Societal thesis breeds narrative antithesis, which in turn begets narrative synthesis. The extension of this is at what point the narrative synthesis – stories challenging how we see the world we live in – starts to effect the world itself and then it all becomes quite interesting.

Our ability to predict or anticipate genre trends based on world events is not really surprising. But sometimes the cause of a trend is less overt. The popularity of The Hunger Games potentially has less to do with the strengths of the writing, rather than the strengths of the story’s ability to channel its teenage audience’s frustrations with the adult world. That this sentiment was coupled with a dystopian narrative then appears as a combination of right-time-right-place, more easily understood in hindsight than as prediction.

So maybe the deluge of dystopian stories has done its dash in illustrating our less-than hopeful view of the world and the future. Maybe the trend has rightly identified that we see difficulty in imagining the future as anything but corrupted. But perhaps that trend will now trigger a response, a vision of the world that can once again give us reason to believe that optimism and understanding are not lost to stories, nor to the world.

A ‘genre optimism index’ might be a better option than a ‘literary misery index’.

 

 

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11 February new release titles

Posted February 11, 2014 by Mark

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8 Hours to Die by JR Carroll

An isolated farmhouse. One knock on the door will shatter their peace. No phones. No neighbours. No help. And the clock is ticking…

Ex-cop turned criminal lawyer Tim Fontaine and his wife Amy are heading for their weekender – a restored farmhouse in remote bushland known as Black Pig Bend.

But even before they’ve eaten dinner, three outlaw bikers arrive on the scene. Suddenly Tim’s house becomes a fortress. Who are these people? Why have they come? Who sent them?

As the lights go out and darkness descends, their idyllic world is transformed into a nightmare from which there is no waking up. Tim must grapple not just with formidable adversaries, but with unsettling questions relating to his own past, both as cop and lawyer, and even to his marriage.

But even if they survive this night against appalling odds, the ordeal is far from over. For when the past comes knocking, it will not be denied …

Not for the faint hearted” – Shane Maloney, author of the Murray Whelan series

8 Hours to Die scorches along relentlessly, displaying all of JR Carroll’s trademark thriller-writing skills: hard-edged prose, vivid characterisation, a strong sense of place and tense plotting.” – Garry Disher, author of the Wyatt series and the Challis & Destry series

Read an excerpt

Purchase from your preferred ebook retailer

 

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The Memory of Death: Death Works 4 by Trent Jamieson

He thought he’d return from Hell a hero. But things are never easy when your business is Death.

Steven de Selby gave up his love, his life, and his lucrative position as Head of Mortmax, the corporation in charge of Death. Then he found himself banished to the briny depths of hell. But hell has never held him before …

Now Steven’s back from hell, after escaping from the cruel Death of the Water, but he’s not sure how or why, or even if. No one at Mortmax trusts him, and he’s running out of time to prove he is who he says he is.

Steven is about to discover that hell really is other people, and the worst of them may well be himself.

Read an excerpt

Purchase from your preferred ebook retailer

 

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What Goes on Tour by Claire Boston

What goes on tour, stays on tour … or does it?

Few people know that socially awkward Adrian Hart is actually rock god Kent Downer, and that’s the way Adrian likes it. His privacy is essential, especially now that he has guardianship of his orphaned, ten-year-old niece, Kate. But when the nanny quits in the middle of his tour Adrian finds himself in a bind.

Until Libby Myles walks into his life.

Libby has only ever wanted to become a full-time author and prove to her parents that she can make it on her own. On the surface, the temporary job as the nanny for Kent Downer’s niece looks perfect—the pay is fabulous, the hours are short and Kate is a big fan—it’s the rock star that’s the issue.

Arrogant and way too attractive for anyone’s good, Kent Downer has enough swagger to power a small city. But when he’s out of costume he’s different—shy and uncertain. For Libby it’s a far harder combination to resist. She needs to find a balance between work, writing and ignoring her attraction to the rock star, because if she falls for him, it could mean the end of her dream.

But when a horrible scandal is unleashed—putting young Kate in danger—there’s more heat between Libby and Adrian than just sexual attraction. Libby must figure out if Adrian ever cared for her, or if it was all just part of the show …

Purchase from your preferred ebook retailer

 

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Sly by Rick Feneley

Meet the Bulli Boys, if you’re brave enough. 

Sly Fox lives with his one-legged alcoholic father, incontinent Communist grandfather and his dog, Comrade, in a run-down beach shack in the coastal town of Little Bulli. New-boy-in-town Brett ‘Harry’ Harrison is intrigued by the outcast Sly and strikes up an unlikely and forbidden friendship with him.

Together the boys discover the delights of sex, drugs and cheap booze, but their great passion is the story of Sly’s pioneering ancestors, as revealed by the dusty and fragile Fox family chronicles.

Sly and Harry’s friendship is indestructible, or so they think, until a shocking act of betrayal alters the course of their lives forever.

Read an excerpt

Purchase from your preferred ebook retailer

 

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The wonderful world of villains

Posted by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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It is often said that a hero is only ever as good as the villain. And while it’s not wholly successful to reduce all stories down to a good-guy-bad-guy dichotomy (or even good-girl-bad-girl), for those stories that do require the presence and actions of a villain, it’s prudent to consider how they can affect the story, and influence the actions of the protagonist.

Furthermore, it’s interesting to note how an under-developed antagonist, or one that perhaps lessens the final impact of what might otherwise be a resoundingly great story.

So, make the villains good, in the bad way. Whatever type of villain they may be.

The all-conquering villain

This is the one who basically wants entire eradication of the good side. They’ll wage wars (The Lord of the Rings), consume everything in their path (The Matrix), and traverse the galaxy in order to hunt and destroy everything that opposes them and doesn’t dress in dark clothing (Star Wars et al). Basically, they have one, shark-like psychology: to head forwards and destroy. Kill at all costs. Be bad, look bad while doing so, and oppose the ‘good’ forces at every turn.

The problem here is that these villains don’t seem to have thought things through. In a sense, they only exist for the duration of the story, which usually ends with their vanquishing. If the story considered the reality of these villains’ agendas, it would become apparent that villainous victory would be hollow and fruitless. There is no real victory, because they want to destroy everything. They champion enslavement and brutality, but after victory, who can they enslave? What do they actually want? Voldemort in Harry Potter tries to circumvent this problem, but ultimately it’s hard to imagine how this character could operate once entirely in power. (And yes I know they’re villains and therefore mentally unhinged and thus they don’t think things through properly, but that’s not the point.)

I suspect victory would result in a fairly lonely existence for these villains. They are the schoolyard bullies whose being is only validated by having someone to bully.

The psychopathic villain

A lot of fun can be had with this, because the villain here is basically a manifestation of whatever internal struggles the hero is processing. Similar to the all-conquering villain, they only exist as foil to the hero, but in a different way.

They have no agenda, they are not here with some master plan, they are the uninhibited id that haunts our hero running rampant all over the scenery. This accounts for just a hell of a lot of comic book villains (Spiderman, The Dark Knight, to begin with), made most famous in the recent Joker incarnation. Also a lot of monster stories (Alien, Jurassic Park) work with this in mind, the best example being Jaws, wonderfully sent up by The Onion here.

Additionally, they can be found as byproducts of other, larger problems. They are the mutated chemical waste of societal ills and moral corruption (IT, The Stand, a lot of Stephen King to be honest), the end-result of human folly and ill-advised endeavour (2001: A Space Odyssey, The Matrix again,Terminator).

The best example of this, knowingly so, is in No Country for Old Men, with Anton Chigurh chaotically destroying his way through a narrative on nothing but the whims of a coin toss and the echoes of a cattle gun.

Great fun, but in some sense they’re ultimately more of an embellished plot device than a fully realised character.

The secret villain

Here you find a lot of accidental villains. Villains who got caught up in the thrill of the bad thing, for a large portion of the story can appear to be sympathetic ‘good’ characters, only to be revealed at the end as working for the other side.

Many crime thrillers and spy novels operate with this dynamic (Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy for instance), as does a lot of J.K. Rowling’s early Harry Potter books, and the villain appears to be one that relies a lot on mystery and the surprise reveal. They often come encumbered with hastily included exposition at the end, so that the reader is completely aware of the reasons and machinations behind the mysterious plot. But while it can benefit rereads for a spot-the-clue type game, it also reveals how the author has a bit too overtly manipulated the reader.

The sympathetic villain

Not really sympathetic, but understandable. I think it was Gary Oldman – among others – who said that really great villains don’t think they’re villainous, they actually think they’re doing good (interesting given his career playing psychopathic villains). There’s something to be learned here, in that all characters – good or bad – should be written as characters, as real people with real motivations, and not just as foil for the main guy strutting about on his white pony.

Some of the great villains of literature and cinema reside here, questioning just how ‘good’ the good guy is, how pure their motivations are, and how normal the world is with them residing in it. We find Hannibal Lecter, and Nurse Ratched, Michael Corleone and Travis Bickle, and with them a legion of classic characters that carve out their own piece of the story, rather than remaining bit-parts.

 

 

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Podmentum: Our Anticipated 2014 Pop Culture, Marriage Thrillers & Dino Porn

Posted January 31, 2014 by Mark

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In this episode we’re joined by new recruit Patrick Lenton, and discuss what we’re looking forward to the most this year in pop culture. After that, we discuss the emerging Marriage Thriller genre that’s been highlighted with the arrival of Gone Girl. Finally, things get a bit lewd as we discuss beast erotica. WARNING: Spoilers for Gone Girl and both the TV and novel series of Game of Thrones.

 

 

Recommendations

Joel:

Saga by Brian K. Vaughan

Tara:

What the Ground Can’t Hold by Shady Cosgrove

Patrick:

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

Mark:

On the Steele Breeze by Alastair Reynolds, Batman: The Court of Owls

 

 

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Posts with Momentum

Posted January 24, 2014 by Mark

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Here are the five most-viewed posts from the blog this week:

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5. Box office nerdery: billion dollar movies in 2014

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4. Should the Thrawn trilogy remain in the Star Wars canon?

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3. Objectifying books

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2. The world according to Marvel

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1. Everyday rejection letters

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Objectifying books

Posted by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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Last year recorded the biggest sale of vinyl albums in Australia since they started tracking their sales in 1991.

What has this got to do with books? Well. Not that we want to put anymore air to the theory that paper books are technological dinosaurs slowly asphyxiating in a digital meteor cloud, but the resurgence of vinyl music does illustrate some interesting things about the role of traditional books now and in the coming years.

Vinyl’s revival has been coupled with the digital era of music purchasing. Part of the appeal now is the bundled digital download offered with many new vinyl presses, and the ease of digitally transferring many old records. Music has shown that it can sustain two diametrically opposed formats – one that prioritises convenience, the other that emphasises the object of music itself.

Clearly there is an element of nostalgia here, but nostalgia doesn’t really drive commerce – outside of Antiques Roadshow. What I think is occurring is a transition in how we perceive music. It is now two things – music as an aural experience, and music as a physical experience. Certain music we desire aurally, others we desire the object. It is a fetishisation, after a fashion. The packaging, the art, the physical experience of listening to an album beginning to end, that becomes the desired experience that the object allows.

So, what then for books?

In 2000, Mark Z. Danielewski released his meta-fictional horror story House of Leaves. This was followed up by several different editions, including the 2006 remastered, full colour edition, full of torn notes, handwritten inserts, typewritten attachments, drawings and other paraphernalia that twists the reading of Danielewski’s narrative into something beyond just words on a page.

I wanted to set this book for my book club, but most of us use ereaders and there is no known way Danielewski could create an ebook version of House of Leaves. It is very strictly a book to be read in hard copy.

Secondly, film and TV director J.J. Abrams (yes I know) and author Doug Dorst teamed up to write another convoluted book called S. This takes the form of a 1940s overdue library book, The Ship of Theseus, which arrives in a sealed black box (it must be cut to be read). The Ship of Theseus is itself ‘written’ by a fictional author – V.M. Straka – and has been handwritten all over the margins by two other ‘characters’. These characters have also included postcards, letters, napkins and other bits and pieces in the folds of the pages, so that the whole book itself takes the shape of a found object for the reader. Dorst and Abrams wanted to create a story that exists in the margins of another story, and again this is something that could only be conveyed through a multi-layered, intertextual object like this.

Without debating the merits of the stories themselves – I’ve yet to finish reading both – it is quite clear that S. and House of Leaves are intent on reasserting the physical experience of reading a physical book. This is not to dissuade against ebooks, but rather use the traditional format for a reading that is unique to its medium.

So, are we seeing a resurgence of the hardcover book as a fetishised object? If music can be both the sound and the object, are we witnessing books becoming both the reading and the object? As Mark wrote last week, people are these days purchasing books in a divided fashion – some assigning certain reads to ebooks, with others being saved for hard copies.

Both titles mentioned here are clearly meta-fictional in their approach to story, and the medium supports that approach. This is not to say the fetishisation of traditional books is due to an inherent need of the story – the purchasing of hardcovers, of first editions, of illustrated copies and reissues show there is a long-established market for the book as an object. There has also been discussion over digital copies of books accompanying the hardcopy purchase, much in the way of vinyl.

Will book writers, book makers and book buyers begin to distinguish themselves more clearly as having and wanting two distinct types of books, even more than they already have? Will we want one type of reading digitally, and another physically?

 

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Posts with Momentum

Posted January 17, 2014 by Mark

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Here are the five most-viewed posts from the blog this week:

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5. Game of Thrones season 4 trailer

 

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4. What this scene from Harry Potter can teach us about adapting popular fiction

 

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3. Don’t worry about the upcoming Star Wars trilogy

 

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2. It’s time to start worrying about the new Star Wars trilogy

 

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1. Nine reasons that being a book loving shut-in is better than being a social butterfly

 

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What this scene from Harry Potter can teach us about adapting popular fiction

Posted January 16, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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In last week’s post I briefly alluded to the success of Catching Fire  as a film adaptation of a popular book. In order to examine why I think it’s an enormously successful film, it’s worth looking at how we should measure the quality and success of book adaptations to the screen.

There’s a particular part of the story that occurs in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows where Harry and Hermione are on the road, travelling from location to location, on a seemingly hopeless quest. Additionally they are doing so without Ron who has left the two alone, and it’s the most extreme moment of conflict between the three friends in the entire series.

In the book, the situation itself builds up over a series of chapters, and after Ron’s departure, plays out in long passages of exposition and dialogue exploring Harry and Hermione’s disappearing hope and drive on their particular quest.

In the film adaptation, this extended section of the plot plays out in the following scene, a scene which to me is the strongest piece of cinematic storytelling in the entire series:

So why is this scene so good? Why is it emblematic of a successful approach to adapting fiction – particularly popular fiction – for the screen?

The Harry Potter films are never going to go down as exemplars of the cinematic form. Wildly successful financially, as adaptations they benefit enormously from the collective knowledge of the books by their audience.

The Philosopher’s Stone and The Chamber of Secrets were plodding in their fidelity to the books, almost tokenistic in how they were adapted, they were examples of film adaptations made to please the audience, who just want to see visual representations of their imagination. They don’t want to experience the story on screen, they want to be reminded of the story they read. While this approach can be initially successful, over time the efforts look tepid and uninspired.

The Prisoner of Azkaban had the fortune of being directed by Alfonso Cuaron which made it cinematically enjoyable and visually entertaining, but was a case of sacrificing one over the other, and the motivations of the characters – particularly during the time-travel ending – is almost indecipherable if one hasn’t read the book.

The Goblet of Fire was possibly the worst example of adaptation in the series: entire plot lines are abandoned midway through the film, characters are forgotten about, and the audience is left not entirely sure what’s happening and why. This problem only increased as the books became longer, with The Order of the Phoenix, The Half-Blood Prince and The Deathly Hallows also suffering from having to adapt hundreds and hundreds of pages into two hours.

In short: they all relied on extensive knowledge of the books for them to actually make any sense. Cinematically, they don’t.

What the above scene does is distill pages and pages of words into two minutes of dialogue-free visual storytelling. The relationship between the characters is painfully evident, including the character who isn’t present, and the performances of the actors acknowledge the complexity of emotion that occurs at that part of the plot. It’s also a rare use in the series of existing music as first diegetic and then non-diegetic soundtrack to the scene. The thematic concerns of the music underscore the characters and the scene and the entire plot.

Everything works, very quickly, very easily, very economically.

If a picture tells a thousand words, then this is how to adapt. 

But sometimes, the inverse happens, and a sentence in a book ends up telling a thousand pictures. Take, for example, a moment in an entirely different series, in The Return of the King when the fractured friendship of Frodo and Sam is put to the test by the presence of Gollum.

Remarkably similar to the Harry Potter example, particularly in that the scenes are there to make manifest the enormity of their quest, and the difficulty they have in sustaining and withstanding the journey. In the book, this dynamic to Frodo and Sam’s friendship is suggested, but nothing more comes of it. It’s there to embody the danger Gollum’s presence represents, but that is all.

When adapted to the screen, this doesn’t work so well. An audience needs more than just the suggestion something might happen. If there’s threat, there needs to be the playing out of that threat. So the film sees that moment through, and Frodo and Sam’s friendship does break down to the point where they separate, and it becomes the ultimate breaking of the fellowship created in the first book. Here, the source material is expanded to visually tell the same story in a different way.

Ultimately, there needs to be a balance between the book and the film, in an adaptation. The story needs to work, it needs to be a representation of the story that already exists in written form. But it needs to be told according to the rules and abilities of an entirely different medium. Sometimes that means expanding and creating, other times it means condensing and suggesting.

The reason why this is problematic these days, is the success of franchises like Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings have shown to studios that there’s enormous financial reward in adapting an popular fiction series. Transplant the audience into a cinema, and you get the revenue.

But if the recent failures of Ender’s Game and The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, and conceivably the Narnia and Twilight films, are representative of anything, it’s that audiences will get sick of the endless repetition of by-the-numbers adaptations. Films that are either just visual replications of the books, there to remind the audience of what it was they once read, or films that don’t adapt, they just remove until the book is a filmable length, but all the coherence and nature of the plot lost by omission.

Where Catching Fire succeeded, was in understanding how the story as it was in the book worked, and finding a different way to depict that onscreen. It wasn’t too afraid to alter or invent, but knew enough of how to tell the same story visually.

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