Category Archives: Ranting

The Impossible


I don’t know if you get annoyed as I do sometimes with people going to the movies and buying a 2kg bag of popcorn, a few drinks and several bags of sweets during the film? It’s not the eating or drinking that I mind, but rather the noise that goes with it. It was particularly bad in Hong Kong when I was living there, but it’s not much better here in Australia – okay, at least we don’t get the smell of McDonalds food in the theatre. I wish candy companies had found a way to produce plastic bags that make no noise when opening them. Popcorn can be particularly  noisy too, and when you’re engrossed in a movie, it can be quite irritating. Well, I have found the movie you can go and see without having to worry about the noise people make when eating and drinking! It’s The Impossible, by director Juan Antonio Bayona and featuring Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts (I love her). The film relates the story of a family with three kids holidaying in Thailand when the 2004 Tsunami hit on Boxing Day. It’s based on the true story of a Spanish family, although they are English in the film. This is a compelling and heart-breaking story. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it, because the term is not quite right considering the topic, but it’s a very good movie. Anyway, back to my ranting about eating noises. The movie session started as usual with stacks of eaters and drinkers surrounding us, but fifteen minutes into the story, silence! You could have heard a pin drop! No one was either moving or opening their mouths to swallow anything or speak. The story is quite graphic and watching Watts’ torn calf bleeding profusely, the deaths that surround her and her son, the injuries, what she  throws up at one stage, and other niceties, all this reduced the audience to silence – and later to tears. Popcorn was wasted, candies kept for later. Goodie!

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The art of happiness


I watched The Pursuit of Happyness yesterday, the 2006 movie by director Gabriele Muccino. I saw it in Chinese. It was fun to hear Will Smith speak Chinese, but that’s not my point here. The title of the movie struck me. Not because of the “y” in happyness, which comes from a spelling mistake on a street poster, but because of the similarity of the title with a novel by Douglas Kennedy. But this is where the similarity ends. Both stories are very different. In Kennedy’s novel, Sara, an independent, smart young woman, falls in love with Jack Malone, a U.S. Army journalist just back from defeated Germany. This is the beginning of a beautiful, yet tragic, love story. The book is wonderfully written (Kennedy at his best) and uses McCarthy’s post-war witch-hunt as background, which makes it even more interesting. The pursuit of Happyness, on the other hand, is the story of Christopher Gardner, a black American man struggling to make both ends meet, with a wife and a son to look after. Very soon, his wife leaves him, and covered by heavy debts ranging from unpaid parking tickets to rent, bad investments, and taxes, Gardner starts sleeping on the streets with his son. He manages however to enter a brokerage firm as intern before being offered a full-time job. This is a classic story based on the American values of entrepreneurship, persistence, money and self-made wonder. Very well. But this is where I start to question the title of the film. There is no denying that money contributes to happiness, and were we in Gardner’s situation, we would be depressed or suicidal. Gardner isn’t. By the end of the movie, all is well: he is offered a permanent position, and is making millions. What about his wife? She is not mentioned anymore. What about his heart? What about his boy, seeing his parents yell at each other, having his mother walk away on them, his father being treated like a piece of rubbish and sleeping on the streets? Zilch. The movie ends on a simple note mentioning that a few years later Gardner founds his own company and, after selling a minority stake in it, earns millions. This is where I want to puke.

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Kindle, Body Swap et al


Hooray! I have finally finished work that required all my attention (and all my time) and can now get back to reading, enjoying life and writing posts for my blog. My French editor had asked me to proof-read my latest manuscript before the book is put together, and I also had to write a final scene for my latest full-length play. I am still reading “Hong Kong Murders” and my pile of books has grown higher… Argh! Watch this space!

I’ve also been interviewed by David Wisehart (author of Devil’s Lair) about Body Swap, my latest young adult novel, and publishing on Kindle. The interview has been posted in his blog and can be read here.

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Early works: Harlan Coben takes us for a ride


I feel cheated! And angry. I decided to swap genres for a change and chose a crime novel for my next read during my French holiday. I picked “Play Dead” by Harlan Coben at Heathrow (along “Serena” by Ron Rash, for which I will post a review soon), since I’ve always enjoyed Coben’s crime novels. I find them usually well written, with a good plot and a number of twists that guarantee some suspense. True, there is a bit of formula in his writing, but it works. When I opened this particular book, I was surprised to find an introduction written by Coben, which rang alarm bells. Here’s an extract of the introduction: “Please know that I haven’t read Play Dead in at least twenty years. I didn’t want to rewrite it and pass it off as a new book. I hate when authors do that. So this is, for better of worse, the exact book I wrote when I was in my early twenties…” Oh oh, I thought, I wish I had read this before buying the book. I started reading and became angry quickly. The quality isn’t there, the book is not well written, and it has obviously not been edited properly. The beginning of the book is set in Australia and Coben tries to make his Australian characters sound Australian in the dialogue. Alas, the result is pathetic and will probably anger any Australian. You have to be very naïve to think that by using the words “mate” or “no worries” in every second sentence, you sound Australian. These words (and others) are used in the wrong sense, and repeatedly, to the point of becoming senseless and annoying. This could have been fixed by asking someone from Australia to read these parts. The dialogues in general sound fake. Many similes are terrible or offending and patronising (“The well-dressed patrons attacked the food like the poor in Bangladesh”, “She peered into his eyes. They darted away from Laura’s glare like scared birds”,”He took a drag on his cigarette with enough intensity to inhale a tennis ball through a straw”). Other passages are just cliché (“She had been afraid of exposing herself to the devastating weapon of love”). Some techniques, such as flash-backs, are used in a clumsy way. And elements of the plot (such as the character who fakes his death and goes through plastic surgery to come back as almost himself) are, if not simply laughable, so easy to see through that you feel ashamed for Coben. Don’t get me wrong though, the book is not all bad. The overall plot is okay – even if typically Coben and predictable – and it’s not a bad read. But don’t read it if you’ve read anything else by Coben before, you will be disappointed.

Why am I angry? It’s not because it’s an early book. Many writers get better at their craft with time, and their early works aren’t as good. I’m no exception. I find this totally acceptable, this is part of a normal process. No, what really annoys me here is that this book has just been published, after many other very good ones by Coben, and that it was not rewritten, or even slightly edited by the look of it. Coben is aware of that. He says so in his introduction. Why does Coben hate it when authors rewrite their early works before publishing them? I would advise him to do so if he wants to publish others of his early manuscripts. It would benefit his readers, and him too. Coben is aware of the flaws of the novel. He states it in his introduction, “I’m hard on it, but arent’ we all hard on our early stuff? Remember that essay you wrote when you were in school, the one that you got an A-plus, the one your teacher called ‘inspired’ – and one day you’re going through your drawer and you find it and you read it and your heart sinks and you say, ‘Man, what was I thinking?’ That’s how it is with early novels sometimes.” So if Coben knows he can do better, why does he allow himself to exhibit mediocre writing, not to strive to produce the high-quality novels his readers enjoy? Isn’t he in fact looking down at us, patronizing us, treating us like children? Or is it easy money? Easy work? And what about the publisher, Orion Books? How can they allow such a book to be published by such a well-known author under their banner? Shame on them, they’re taking their readers for granted! Okay, after so much ranting and cursing, I should be more gentle with Coben and his publisher. They’ve given me precious material to use in creative writing classes. What better way to learn than to learn from errors, whether your own or someone else’s? Learn from clumsy writing, from what NOT to do? Thanks, Coben!

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Let’s vote for marriage!


I love this video! It’s hilarious, but at the same time makes a valid point about why should gay marriage be allowed. Deaf readers can watch it too, as it is subtitled (another excellent point!).

Australia finally has a Government, after a few weeks of painful indecision. Labor has just made it. Sadly, in the year 2010, both main parties, the Liberals and Labor, hold the view that marriage should be only between a man and a woman. This is a tragic consequence of the Howard years. Will the Greens, who are in favour of gay marriage, be able to change things with their newly acquired power? Several high-ranking members of the Australian Liberal and Labor parties are openly gay (including Ministers). They should be allowed a conscious vote on the issue. Our Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, is not known for her conservative views on marriage, family or religion. Why does she keep so stubbornly to her party view? At a time where countries like Argentina, Mexico, and South Africa (and hopefully soon Slovenia) have joined other European countries to allow gay marriage, without suffering any of the doom predicted by well-thinkers, it saddens me that a country like Australia which used to be at the forefront of individual rights (e.g. being the second country in the world after New Zealand to give women the right to vote, much earlier than the supposedly developed European countries) is now so backward thinking…. It’s just a matter of time I’m sure. Interestingly enough, the State of Tasmania has decided to legally recognise gay marriages conducted anywhere else in the world. Such a paradox shows that the situation cannot stay put and that gay marriages will – one day – be allowed in our beautiful country.

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Online book promotion: The French strike again!


While in Paris earlier this month I met with the publisher who is going to publish my latest novel, “Metaphore du rapide”. I’ve written it in French, so it was only natural that I’d be using a French publisher (There are excellent publishers in Canada, Belgium and Switzerland, but I don’t know them well.). We discussed the story, the writing and other aspects of the manuscript, but of course, the conversation quickly moved on to more prosaic aspects of the publishing process, distribution, marketing, and promotion. Authors are usually heavily involved in promoting their books, unless they’re JK Rowling or Stephenie Meyer. We spoke of a book launch, of book signing sessions, press interviews and other events, but I was quite surprised that no mention was made of the Internet. When marketing and promoting works in English, I’ve always been asked by my publishers to establish an electronic presence, ranging from a personal website to this self-indulgent blog or sites such as goodreads.com or authorsden.com. My French publisher smiled when I mentioned this and assured me that no such thing would be required from me for my latest work. The French, as he kindly explained, do not use electronic promotion as much as we do in the Anglo-Saxon world - at least as far as books are concerned. No presence in numerous websites is required. I was shocked, but delighted, I must admit. I love the Net and my rantings on it, but I was more than a little worried about having to duplicate my work in another language. My free time is limited and I was reluctant to see it disappear in a French Web presence. My publisher went on to tell me that the French are not very sensitive to online promotion. As it happens, e-reading is not developed there either. Yet. I doubt this will last. I predict a great future for French e-books, too. But until the French wake up to online book promotion, I can breathe a little.

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Blackwood Farm


I have just finished reading Blackwood Farm, by Anne Rice (http://www.annerice.com/). Has any of you ever read her vampire books? I hadn’t until now. Funnily enough, I didn’t start with the first one in the series (“Interview with the Vampire“), but with the last-but-one (Blackwood Farm). The reason is that I wanted to read it in e-book format (on Amazon’s Kindle) and Blackwood Farm was available but not the first one in the series. Rice’s vampire novels are epics which take us into a world of their own. I didn’t know what to expect and was pleasantly surprised. The writing is great. Rice is able to paint vivid, colourful pictures in her readers’ minds. The setting for Blackwood Farm is Louisiana, and after reading the book, I find I want to go there! Blackwood Farm tells the story of the Blackwood family, from the initial ancestor Manfred Blackwood and his first, beloved wife Virginia Lee, to Tarquin Blackwood (Quinn), the last one in the family, who also happens to be the narrator and the vampire. What I really liked is that there is very little blood drinking. It is in fact a subtle mix of supernatural characters (the vampires, the witches, the spirits and the ghosts) and totally ordinary citizens leading ordinary (or not always so ordinary) lives. You can’t help falling in love with the Blackwood family and its unusual fate, and in particular sweet Aunt Queen. The plot is solid and you find you have to turn the pages until all is revealed – and there is a lot to reveal, trust me. I found myself so drawn into the story that I have already purchased the sequel (and last one in the series), Blood Canticle.

Incidently Anne Rice has been in the media again recently. She is a fascinating character, who is not afraid to publicise her points of view on various things, and religion in particular. She was raised as a catholic, but left religion for years (She went through difficult times after losing a five-year old daughter to leukaemia, and recently losing her husband.) A decade ago, she decided to embrace Christianity again, and that’s when she left vampires for angels and other celestial beings. Now, it seems she’s backtracking from that. Here is what she recently wrote on Facebook: “Today I quit being a Christian. I’m out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being ‘Christian’ or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious and deservedly infamous group. For 10 years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else…. In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen.”

I am a big fan of religions (please note the “s” at the end of the word) and of personal beliefs, and have always shied away from churches and religious institutions, which far too often seem to be more interested in power and control than in doing and saying the right things. Rice’s son Christopher (a writer in his own right) is gay, and I can fully understand why Anne Rice can’t stand the recent attacks on gays and lesbians in the US (I’m 100% with her on that one). I’m not entirely sure why Rice felt the need to publicise her new love for Christianity in the first place, but I like her latest stance on the matter. In any case, it makes her an interesting character.

On another note, I am writing this post from London, which I will be leaving tomorrow for Paris and country France. As a consequence, you may not hear from me for a while. I will have no Internet connection! I am sure it’s going to feel weird, but what better way to disconnect? I am however taking lots of books with me, so I’ll have many reviews to post when I come back to the world of the living. Watch this space!

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It’s all about words


I’ve just been for a swim – twenty laps, my usual. It’s winter in Australia at the moment, so I went to the indoor pool near my place. The water always feels a tad too cold there, and it takes me about four laps to warm up. To forget about the cold, I usually focus on a chosen topic and let my mind go free. The choice of topic depends on a variety of factors, ranging from home cooking to books and writing (of course), work (yikes), friends and family, travel, money, colours, printers, trees, possums, lorikeets… you name it. Today, it simply was about the use of certain words and expressions.

The reason is that as I was about to jump in the water, I caught a few words uttered by a man standing on the edge of the pool. He was saying, “And I thought to myself…” I’m not sure if it’s just me or if it is a worldwide phenomenon, but people seem to be saying, “I think to myself”, more and more often these days. Of course, what they should be saying is simply “I think”, because you can’t think to anyone else than yourself. Thinking is a quintessentially individual and personal process, unless you’re thinking aloud or you’re brainstorming ideas in a group. Another expression that gets me going every time is, “nodding one’s head”. What else do you want to nod? Your knee or your thumb? I also have a problem with people confusing “it’s” (as in, “it is”) with “its”, and “there” with “they’re” or “their”. What worries me here is that they are grammatically very different things, and the fact that people are confused means they don’t really understand what they are saying. The same thing happens with the confusion between “have” and “of” (The horror!). Sometimes, it’s more benign: all my colleagues at work keep writing “compliment” when what they really mean is “complement”. But look who’s talking! As a non native English speaker, I do make mistakes as well. However I find English so much more powerful than, say, my native French, to express ideas. The French Academy is rigid and all it does is impede the language from evolving. As a consequence, French has been dropped a long time ago as a vehicle for writing about science. English, not having any Academy to impede changes, evolves faster. This evolution is what gets some of my friends going. A large number of them condemn the use of “youse”, which is spreading in Australia. They see it as a lower level of speech (even if what it actually does is fill a vacuum: there is no difference between you (singular) and you (plural) in English). This came up at the office last week, which made me realise that we all have our language use pet hates. One of my colleagues can’t stand the dropping of the apostrophe which happens more and more often in everyday Australian. Another one confessed that she hates the increasing use of the word “awesome”. “It’s American,” she says, “it’s terrible.” I have to admit she lost me here. I cannot agree with her about the fact that saying “awesome” means the end of our Australian culture. True, language and culture are intrinsically linked and influence each other, but isn’t that a positive? Don’t we want to evolve and adapt to our linguistic world? Try to write a review of “Twilight” in Latin, and you will understand what I mean. I’ve only got one word to say to you: awesome!

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Twitter: the art of (non) conversation?


I read an interesting article about Twitter and some of its benefits in last weekend’s Spectrum (Sydney Morning Herald). The article focussed on the creation of communities and the discussion on art forms Twitter engenders among theatre goers or musical comedy adepts. An increasing number of people tweet their friends during performances, to share with them their excitement or give them a review of the show they’re seeing. And this is what production companies are increasingly taking into account, hoping to build a larger audience and spread the word. I can’t help wonder if the “conversations” the article refers to are really conversations and not just one-directional comments. I may be old-fashioned, but for me a conversation is more than a simple exchange of a few written lines. How do you listen, respond and build a credible point of view when limited to 140 characters? True, the limit is only temporary, as shown by the Royal Shakespeare Company which performed a retelling of Romeo and Juliet over five weeks with 4000 tweets in April this year. Wow. I’m starting to take notice. And what about London’s Royal Opera House which, last year, performed an opera with the libretto sourced from tweets received from the public? These uses of Twitter baffle me and fill me with hope. Initially, I was a little skeptical of Twitter and thought it was mainly another marketing tool. I still think it is, at least for many of us, and it would be silly to pretend otherwise. The Spectrum article wanted to make the point that Twitter was a conversation tool, and it cited the example of Company B at Belvoir Street Theatre in Sydney: “The minutiae is often the most interesting stuff. It’s a mistake to think of Twitter as a marketing tool. It has to be a conversation.” The article continues by saying, “To that end, Company B at Belvoir Street Theatre makes a point to replying to everyone who asks a question on Twitter and it re-tweets any positive mention of its productions.” If we’re really talking about a conversation tool here and not just a marketing device, then why not re-tweets the not-so-positive mentions? Let’s not fool ourselves. Twitter is, and will remain without doubt, a marketing tool. Luckily the creative minds have been at work and its uses are constantly expanding.

I use Twitter too, of course, and this article will be posted on Twitter, as with all my blogging. I find it a useful complement to other online communication tools, but for me it is only, for the moment at least, a complement. According to a 2009 poll, those aged 45-54 are 36% more likely to visit the Twitter site than the rest of the population. I can’t help being surprised by this figure; not at all what I would have expected. I am definitely reviewing my initial judgement. And when I think back to the Royal Shakespeare Company and London’s Royal Opera House examples mentioned above, I can’t help feeling excited. I have decided to give Twitter more attention from now on.

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Jackhammering, sniffles and gum chewing


I’m in the office trying to write a report – not my home office (sigh), but the real one, the one where I’ve been spending every single working day over the last three years. Actually, I’m lying. We have moved into brand new offices two weeks ago; in fact they’re so new that they’re not even finished! The carpet has been laid down, we have beautiful shiny new desks, and a pedestal each for storing things. Okay, the meeting room doors have no handles yet (I love watching staff knocking on the window to be let out when the door’s closed on them), we don’t have the big screens we were promised, and the pedestals are so small that our files don’t fit in (They’re not supposed to anyway: we’ve entered the paperless era – drum roll). There is a lot of light in these new offices – I’ve said good-bye to the dungeon I used to sit in… but also a lot of noise! Jackhammering, sawing, polishing, dusting, hammering and many undefined “finishing” noises. To be fair, the jackhammering noise originates outside the office, but it feels as if it were right under my desk. It sounds bad, but this is nothing compared to the variety of noises that have been bothering me over the last three years.

I have nothing against my colleagues. They’re all great people and we get along tremendously. But you should experience them when you have a complex report to write and a looming deadline. I’m sure you’ve all experienced what I’m talking about here. There’s the sniffler. I have counted as many as twelve sniffles per minute at the height of it. The problem is, he’s got allergies (The sawing and dusting doesn’t help, of course.) so it’s hard to hand him over a box of tissues. Then there’s the one who sounds like a pig in pain and a whistling lawn-mower when he eats at his desk, which he does at least five times a day, including the fried sausages at 10am.  The noodle soup is deadly too – I can’t stand the spluttering that goes with it. But it’s nothing compared to the cooing over the phone: fifteen times per day at a minimum. It’s either the wife or the six month old baby who is the recipient of all this cooing, plus the whole floor of course. Then there’s the gum ruminator; the phone screamer; the one who guffaws for anything and everything; the nervous wreck who keeps tapping  her nails on the desk; the loud farter; the one who sighs every half hour as if he were carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders; the joke teller; and many more.  I’m not even going to get close to the loo topic.

That report suddenly sounds a lot harder to write than it was initially. Of course I could bring my Ipod but it wouldn’t be very social, would it? And after all, isn’t it part of the fun of working in an open plan office? I forgive them all – except the “sniffler”. He makes me wish the jackhammering were louder.

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