Accidental time capsule: the internet in 2003

I unearthed some ancient backup CDs in a box today. Last time I moved house, I threw out a huge number of old pirated Linkin Park albums and ancient, third-hand copies of Call of Duty 2. But these CDs… they held some promise. Could be anything on there, you know? What was I doing in 2003? That’s ten years ago. I was online ten years ago, but I was also 15. These discs could be the bomb. They could also be a horrifying glimpse into a past best left forgotten. Naturally, I needed to check.

In the end, only one of the six discs actually worked. The rest had been scratched or bent or otherwise degraded. An indication of the transience of data storage, I suppose. I remember a story about how the Army has got warehouses full of vital, secret records. But the machines used to read those tapes, or cartridges or whatever they are, weren’t similarly preserved. So there’s acres of data and no way to ever access it. I suppose someone could reverse-engineer a machine from the tapes themselves, but… it’s obviously not a priority.

Anyway. The contents of these CDs were clearly not state secrets, but could be interesting nonetheless.

What I found was dull, for the most part. Grade 10 maths assignments. Webcomics. Cool robot illustrations. Images saved (from Internet Explorer) or sent (via MSN Messenger). I was clearly very interested in Natalie Portman and Angelina Jolie back then. There’s also a semi-hidden folder containing some relatively tasteful, massively airbrushed photos of Carmen Electra. Poor old 15-year old me. His head would explode if he saw the internet these days.

Along with Warhammer fanart and plastic breasts, I also found a cache of saved Messenger conversations. If you have any of your own similar records saved anywhere, I would heartily recommend deleting them. Don’t look. It’s not worth it. I remember, when I first began using the internet (it was capitalised back then, a proper noun, not yet inextricably meshed with our very beings), that I point-blank refused to use acronyms like ‘LOL’ or ‘ROFL’. In the arrogance of youth, I believed myself a bastion of the English language, a stalwart bastion against the degradation of speech.

As you can imagine, I was a hit at parties.

Jump forward a few years, and it’s clear that my stoicism didn’t last long. Those chat logs are poorly punctuated and emoticon-filled (of course), but there’s also plenty of work that makes me cringe now. Sentences like ‘hwo r u feelin’ abound. It’s not even saving any time! The word ‘you’ is already short enough!

Cut to now, when I’m (ostensibly) a trained and practicing editor. My lady friend has asked me more than once how I can bear to have uncapitalised initial words and other grammatical horrors in my tweets. Obviously it’s in deference to the medium, or maybe I’m just lazy. The jury’s still out.

These days, though, it’s not uncommon to hear ‘lol’ being said out loud, in real life, by otherwise normal human beings. That was one of the many lines I drew over the years regarding ‘net-speak’ or whatever, but it’s obviously folded into the language now. And that’s fine! This is how languages evolve. Of course a whole lot of new words came out of the internet – they come with the ideas. It’s only been ten years since I discovered the wonders of broadband internet, and the next generation along have had smartphones for most of their lives. Terrifying.

“The evolution of language” is no excuse for the current trend of shortening words. Australia’s always done this. Every Dave is a Davo, every smoke break is a smoko. But it’s getting out of hand, and it’s already wearing away my defences. I started with a blanket refusal to brook the word ‘devo’ for “devastated”. Then we got ‘bevvies’, short for beverages, even though it has more syllables than drinks. Now we have ‘gatho’ for gathering, otherwise known as a party (count the syllables).

This is getting absurd, but in the nature of changing language, it’s also nestling deep within the language centres of my brain. Already I catch myself saying “obvs” only semi-ironically. It’s a slippery slope and I’m no longer convinced it’s worth fighting the slide.

Anyway, everyone loves my abbrevs.


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Return to regularly scheduled service

Hello! I have not updated this blog since March, but let’s not worry about that now.

I’ve been reading! Some new stuff, some old stuff, some stuff from the Literary Exploration Challenge (it turns out that I don’t have a lot of experience with actually sticking with anything for a year, so it feels good to chip away at that).

I’m splitting this up into a few chunks. Here’s the first one!

Ragemoor cover

Auto/biography. David Sedaris. Me Talk Pretty One Day.

It’s been a while now, but after reading this, I remember thinking “I get why people like this guy now”. I felt like I understand Sedaris’s schtick, and that maybe I won’t go out of my way to read any more of him in the future. It’s like Woody Allen or weird ice cream flavours: it’s good! I get why people like it! But I get it. Now I don’t have to worry about it anymore.

Chick lit. Ben Schrank. Love is a Canoe.

Predictable. Stock characters and tropes. Occasional weird (stiff? robotic?) writing (“Yes, totally. I touched his shoulder this morning and we got into this intense sex. We’re doing it constantly”). But it’s relatable, realistic (ish) and fun to read. I read it in a day without putting it down, and I guess that’s my review.

Classics. Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Crime and Punishment.

This took me a month to read, which I think is the longest any book has taken me in my life. I finished it at the beginning of March, which is stupid long ago, and I don’t remember how I felt about it. It’s a classic, so it must be good, you know? But I’m always wondering about translated work. There’s always a clunky sentence or odd construction that takes you out of it; that reminds you that this isn’t the work’s original form. I wonder what Crime and Punishment is like in Russian?

Espionage. John le Carré. Call for the Dead.

Another one I read at the beginning of the year. The “call” in the title is literally a wake-up call from the telephone exchange. So it’s definitely aged somewhat.  I love the old-school 60s “tradecraft”, and the names are brilliant (protagonist George Smiley; nemesis “Blondie”; the British Intelligence Service being known as the Circus). I love Smiley.  I’m going to read more of him some day.

Fantasy. Brandon Sanderson. The Way of Kings.

The first in a ten(!!!)-part series from known psychotic/unstoppable force of writing Brandon Sanderson. I enjoyed this because it’s so firmly based in video game ideals. Money can also be used as a source of light; there’s epic/unique armour and weapons; gravity-defying assassins; even class levels. I can’t help but think I would have enjoyed it more if it wasn’t so clearly the first tenth of some ridiculous epic. Lots and lots of worldbuilding and ideas, but could have used a little bit more interesting character interaction.

Graphic novel. Jan Strnad & Richard Corben. Ragemoor.

I was so disappointed by this. Look at that dang cover. This book is stylish as hell, and I absolutely love the pulpy concept, tone, and blurb writing. “Ragemoor! Born of the stars, nurtured on pagan blood… Those who oppose it, it kills! Those it would enslave, it drives insane!” Ridiculous. Too bad the story inside is kind of boring.


Come back tomorrow for some more!

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The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island, by Chloe Hooper

2008; Penguin Books

278 pages; $24.95

I read The Tall Man for the ‘true crime’ genre in the Literary Exploration reading challenge. I don’t read much crime, true or otherwise, and wasn’t sure what to expect. I was blown away.

Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man has won countless awards since its publication in 2008, but I would take that further and say that it should be required reading for every Australian. I knew embarrassingly little about the case before I read this book.

The 2004 death of Cameron Doomadgee, in custody on Palm Island, the subsequent riot on the island, and the inquest into his death – allegedly at the hands of Senior Sergeant Christopher Hurley – are explored by Hooper, who followed the case for nearly three years. She interviewed many of the major players on the island, and even traveled to the remote Queensland outback to speak to Doomadgee’s family. 

The book drew inevitable comparisons to Truman Capote’s true-crime masterpiece In Cold Blood, though the approaches are quite different. The Tall Man is gritty and rather depressing, but has a more journalistic voice than Capote’s. The text is spotted with evocative, and at times beautiful, turns of phrase, however. Of the accused, Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley, and his history of requesting remote posts: ‘Perhaps these communities drew him with their power – the proximity to sex and death and beauty and horror; to songlines that are badly frayed but still give off some charge; to what is ancient, our deepest fear that good and evil spirits make sport with us.

Systematic racism in the Queensland police force is something that almost every Queenslander is aware of to some degree. Even more so is the novel’s setting – the scene of the crime. Mention the name ‘Palm Island’ to anyone over the age of twenty-four and you’ll get knowing, but perhaps dismissive, nods. The inquest into Doomadgee’s death was marred by racism, corruption, and a general lack of interest from the rest of the country. From Hooper’s account, it’s clear – despite the inquest’s findings – that Cameron Doomadgee was killed by Chris Hurley.

The triumph of The Tall Man is not in the suspense of waiting to see what happens – the reality of the story can be found in the news or Wikipedia articles. What draws you in here, and what holds you there, is the weaving of the myriad threads – most of them frustratingly unresolved – into a cohesive whole. Particularly affecting is the story of the local evil spirits – the Tall Man – who ‘will bash you, but they won’t kill you. That’s all they do to you.‘ The reference to Chris Hurley – who is two meters tall – is clear. Hurley may not have meant to kill anybody – but he did.

This is an engrossing and affecting read. The story is almost ten years old, but sadly remains as timely as when it was published. It would be suitable for anyone with an interest in Queensland politics, police racism, or general true crime.

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“I know what you can do, I’ve seen it. You hold no mysteries, Thaddeus Blaklok.” Kultus, by Richard Ford

2011; Solaris Books

288 pages; ~$9.99.

A friend bought Kultus from the estimable Pulp Fiction Books based purely on its ridiculous cover and blurb (its ridiculosity). I borrowed it afterwards and read it as part of the Literary Exploration 2013 challenge for my Steampunk genre selection.

Needless to say, neither of us were disappointed with Kultus‘s ridiculosity.

Protagonist Thaddeus Blaklok is an occultist mercenary and all-round badass who operates in the grimy steampunk city of Manufactory. The story starts with a gory demonic murder and pretty much stays on that level for the rest of the book. During his quest to get a hold of the Key of Lunos, Blaklok punches and shouts his way through waves of cultists, street rats, and demons. There’s a few hints at some kind of backstory for Blaklok; he seems to have been an important member of ‘the Community’ of occultists in Manufactory, and there are a few references to a tortured past. For the most part, though, Thaddeus is a one-trick pony. He sees no avenues of social interaction beyond hitting and shouting; to him, everyone is either a hapless authority figure (who get in the way, and so must be avoided) or an idiot (who can safely be hit until they stop moving).

So, in all, it’s dumb fun. Dumb – because the characters are one-dimensional at best – but fun nevertheless. There’s demons, “snappy” one-liners, and plenty of steam-powered violence. Manufactory is a pretty standard dirty, zeppelin-dotted steampunk city, although there are a few nods to imagination (the Spires, certain radioactive wastelands). I’m led to believe that demons are fairly standard in steampunk, but Kultus adds angels as well, which stirred things up a little. There’s also the requisite cast of simpering gutter-dwellers, cowardly slumlords, and even a team of hilariously-named superpowered assassins.

The writing itself is… dreadful. I know I’m used to literary fiction (whatever that is); I know I’m a snob when it comes to this kind of thing. In genre fiction, the writing doesn’t have to be groundbreaking. It’s the strength of the ideas which can carry the story. However, not only is Kultus pretty bog-standard in its ideas, the writing is really, really bad. As in ‘I’m not sure how this got published’ bad. I counted three – three! – instances of confused pairs (peel/peal; brake/break; breech/breach), any one of which would be painful enough, but three? Anyway. I think the best way to demonstrate the quality of writing is with a quote.

“Any advantage he could get might give him the edge he needed, and he was sorely in need of an edge.”

Says it all, really.


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“And there are never really endings, happy or otherwise.” The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

2011; Harvill Secker.

387 pages.


Note: A few minor spoilers below.

I chose The Night Circus  as my Magical Realism book for the Literary Exploration challenge. Magical realism is traditionally the genre which I enjoy the most. By nature it’s difficult to define, but essentially the ‘magical realism’ tag can be applied to stories which are generally realistic, but which contain fantastical elements. The archetypal One Hundred Years of Solitude blends magic and reality perfectly. Or, for a more recent example, look to Life of Pi, which contains scenarios unlikely enough to count as magic, though from a distance the world appears to be the same as ours. As it turns out, I probably wouldn’t count The Night Circus as part of this genre, though such categorisations are nebulous at best. Better to take the book on its own merits.

The story of The Night Circus jumps around in the decade surrounding 1896, and I enjoyed the novel’s use of nonlinear time. The titular Circus appears without warning, is open only at night, and disappears just as suddenly. It’s a magical, monochrome realm, where everything is always perfect – quite the opposite of a real circus. In the Night Circus, there are wondrous, impossible displays, true magicians, and all manner of subtle sorcery which ensure a wonderful evening. I found this infinitely preferable to my experience of real circuses, which involve a lot of noise, impolite crowds, and, not to put too fine a point on it, the smell of shit. This magical, dreamlike circus immediately drew me in. “This is the precise flavor the circus should be. Unusual yet beautiful. Provocative while remaining elegant.”

As always, all is not as it seems, and the Night Circus is actually just an arena for a contest. Two magicians, Marco and Celia, are bound to each other by their masters, and pushed into a competition. I was really excited by this – a magical duel, stretched over years, sounded awesome. Each master delights in being vague, and the rules of the contest even more so. In fact, for two thirds of the novel, one of the contestants is not even aware who they are up against. Sadly, a game which nobody is sure how to play – not the contestants themselves, and certainly not the reader – is not a good recipe for conflict.

So let’s talk about conflict.

The two main characters, Celia and Marco, are magicians, able to influence reality in a number of impossible ways. They’re pitted against one another from a young age, and quickly dedicate their lives to the contest. However, the stakes are never clear, and each magician spends a lot of time trying to find out for themselves. It’s nearly impossible to engage with the contest or the players within it, because there’s no clear goal or rules. Naturally, the two young magicians fall in love. Even this felt arbitrary and unconvincing, despite the surface beauty and wonder of their blossoming relationship (such as it is). The love subplot is also intended to increase the conflict between the magicians and their masters. However, with the stakes so low, there was never the sense of rebellious desperation you might expect. Each sinister master remains quietly benevolent, in action if not speech.

The closest thing The Night Circus has to an antagonist is Marco’s trainer and father figure, the shadowy Alexander. His motivations are generally unclear, beyond his desire for Marco to win the contest (although, again, this desire doesn’t stretch to actually telling Marco what constitutes winning). He’s sinister, apparently omniscient, and appears to contribute to the death of a character – but it’s a minor, undeveloped character, so even this fails to increase the tension or sense of urgency.

There’s also a number of subplots involving other people connected with the circus, especially Bailey, who is torn between his family’s pressure to stay home, and his own desire to leave and be part of the circus. The story visits him at various stages of his child- and young adulthood, where he becomes enamoured with one of the circus performers and is eventually called upon to save the Circus. However, even this subplot lacks much tension, because in the Circus, everything is perfect.

Bear with me here. The biggest draw of the circus setting is its difference to a real circus – that is, it’s clean, beautiful, and fun. Visitors experience events and displays which could only occur in dreams. Despite the wonder this implies, this is where The Night Circus falls down. In the real world, nothing is utterly flawless. The Circus is – and so becomes unreal. Things are unusual, certainly, and of course the reality-warping conjuration is obviously not just sleight of hand. I couldn’t help feeling that if only the Circus had gone further one way or the other – been more real, or more fantastical – it could have worked. It’s beautiful, yes, but when every setting and feature is perfect, it becomes oddly drab. Everything feels constructed, the conclusions foregone. With no character conflict to speak of, and a one-dimensional setting, the story quickly dropped into tedium.

I did my best to focus on the wonder. I tried to open my mind to awe and surprise. I wanted something magical, but still real; fantastic, but subtle. The Night Circus had some wonderful imagery, likable characters, and an interesting structure – but in the end, it felt shallow and cold.


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“I would absolutely, positively, freeze my head.” Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan

2012; Text Publishing.

224 pages; $28.99.


Gasp! A book that’s not part of my Literary Exploration thing!


There was a fair bit of buzz around Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore after it came out last year. It was recommended to me a few times; I’m interested in the debates around paper versus electronic reading. When I learned that the novel was about a twenty-something semi-deadbeat who works in a musty bookshop, well. I can resist only so much vicarious seduction.

There may be a spoiler or two below, but not much more than is revealed in the blurb. You are warned. 

Mr Penumbra was a pure, vicarious joy to read. It’s no secret that I love crusty old books, and working a night shift in a place which, in my mind looked like Archive in Brisbane, with only myself and the occasional odd night person for company… well, it sounded like heaven. Read into that what you will.

The book tells the story of Clay Jannon, a recently-unemployed Silicon Valley tech nerd. After the economy crashes, there’s not much work around for wunderkind graphic designers; he stumbles into the titular bookstore and begins working the graveyard shift. The store has a few new and second-hand books at the front (much being made of Dashiell Hammett), and towering, shadowy shelves of mysterious tomes at the back. Naturally, Clay is forbidden from opening these. Mysterious!

To begin with, nothing much happens (as to be expected – 3am is not traditionally a good time for book sales) except that, occasionally, strange old people will come in, return one of the mysterious tomes, and withdraw a new one. Clay is, naturally, quite curious, and being a Millennial tech nerd, starts using his computer to look for patterns. He meets Kat, who works for Google, who quickly becomes involved in the pattern search. From here, Mr Penumbra becomes a treasure hunt. Clay and his friends use computers, programs, and Google to try to break an ancient code, earning the ire of a traditionally-minded secret society.

Which brings us to the theme of Mr Penumbra: old versus new. Clay uses modern methods – data visualisation, book scanning, and the like – while the society prefers to use the old methods, citing it as the only way to stay in the spirit of the hunt. It’s an old battle – the fun of solving the puzzle versus the satisfaction of having the answer. Of course, even using the power of Google (did I mention Google yet?), the puzzle is not so easy to solve, and… well, anyway. I was always a strong proponent of paper books. I vowed I’d never buy a Kindle. Ebooks have no heart, no soul, I said. The convenience of carrying a zillion books in one device does not outweigh the feel of paper under your fingers. And the smell! New or old, books smell great.

‘”The smell!” Penumbra repeats. “You know you are finished when people start talking about the smell.”

Hm. Never mind, then. I got a Kindle as a gift, later, and was immediately converted. There’s something about the feel of that in your hand, too – not to mention the whole ‘magic word-displaying rectangle’ thing. Sometimes I forget that we’re in the future. Mr Penumbra talks about Kindle a lot; Mr Penumbra himself is a member of the traditionally-minded secret society, but is also curious about new book-related technology. He’s also interested in Google (I can’t remember if I mentioned Google yet) and how it can help solve the puzzle.

The theme is interesting and timely – a lot of people seem to swear by paper or electronic books, and many happily embrace both. Beyond reading, it also opens up questions about whether technology can take the fun out of things. It reminded me of solved games, where the outcome can be predicted at any point. Or how an online journalist hunted down the human behind everybody’s favourite twitter spambot, horse_ebooks. Mr Penumbra argues that sometimes, there’s value in observing something mysterious and beautiful without trying to figure out how it works. Sometimes the value is in the doing, not in the solution. Or, at least, in working things out yourself, rather than just Googling it.

Did I mention Google? Mr Penumbra does. A lot. I mean, one of the main characters works there, and there’s plenty of other tech-brand namedropping (I was especially pleased to note references to Mario and xkcd), but it got a little bit out of hand. It might just be an offshoot of the other thing that dragged me out of Mr Penumbra‘s world – the coincidences. Or serendipity, whatever you want to call it. My point is that, when Clay has a problem, he also knows someone who has the exact set of skills to solve that problem. The first few times I thought, sure! He lives near Silicon Valley, makes sense he’d meet someone who works at Google. He needs to make an exact replica of something, and he knows someone who works at Industrial Light and Magic as a genius prop-builder. But then, later, he needs to track down an antique artifact  lost for a century. And… he knows someone who has access to the Secret Museum Artifact-Finding Database.

These are nitpicks. I loved this book – first, because it let me imagine I was working night shifts at a second-hand bookshop, and later because I love old-fashioned puzzle quests. The rafts of pop culture references, the most I’ve seen since Ready Player One, were fun and generally unintrusive (as references should be). I could say that Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore will appeal to anyone has an opinion in the paper vs ebook debate, but really it will appeal to anyone who loves books, or even just a good contemporary adventure story.

Do you love your bookshelves, or prefer Kindle-y simplicity? Do you think Google is going to take over the world? Has it already? Drop me a comment!

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“Your life’s going to go a lot of exciting ways before you’re dead.” Canada, by Richard Ford

2012; Bloomsbury.

432 pages; $29.99.


First, a note: this is the second book I’ve read for the Literary Exploration 2013 challenge. It’s under the category of ‘literary fiction’. I already read a lot of that, so it’s not exactly exploration, but anyway:


First, I’ll tell you about the robbery our parents committed. Then the murders, which happened later.”

That’s the first couple of sentences of Richard Ford’s Canada, and it hooked me right away. Impossible to resist.

That opening sets quite a scene, doesn’t it? We’ll hear about a robbery, then some murders – sounds like a thriller.

Well… not really.

Our protagonist is Dell Parsons, fifteen years old at the time of most of the story. He’s nerdy, interested in chess and bees, but it’s his parents who define him. His father is a cheerful ex-Air Force bombardier. His mother is a tightly-wound Jewish schoolteacher. As we learn right away, they robbed a bank, and that’s what the first half of Canada looks at.

Robbing the bank, for Dell’s parents, is suicide. It makes perfect sense at the time (even to his usually-sensible mother); it ends the lives of those who carry it out (their free lives, anyway). Much is made of the sense of weightless freedom the parents feel after deciding to rob the bank. It’s the last decision they’ll ever have to make. Of Dell’s father: “He always believed he wasn’t the kind of man to rob a bank. This was his great misunderstanding.” There’s a sense that they unconsciously know what they’re getting into – looking for a way out of their lives – but going about it in an indirect, roundabout way. It’s obvious from the narrator’s fifty-year distance, but too huge for anyone to see at the time.

The pace of this section is slow but incredibly deliberate. Chunks of information are interspersed throughout Dell’s reflections on his parents’ natures, the workings of the world, and other metaphysical quandaries of interest to a teenager in 1954. Those chunks, though, often have a huge impact on the story being told, and are mentioned only in passing. Every time something pops up – such as a chapter ending with, ‘I was never there again.’ – it requires a quick rearranging of the reader’s beliefs and expectations.

Something like that, anyway.

At first, I didn’t like the second half of Canada. It felt peaceful, dreamlike – nothing like the burning build of the first half. Eventually I decided that it’s supposed to. The second part, which takes place in Canada (finally) represents Dell’s quiet acceptance of his new position in life. After spending the first part reminding readers how aware children can be of their parents’ true intentions, and how readily they adapt to difficult situations, Dell proves it in the second. It’s a big gear change, from theory and introspection to practice and consequence – but it works.

The third part is a coda, which rejoins Dell in the present day, fifty years later. It’s used to wrap up the few lingering loose ends – most notably, for me, the question of what happened to the narrator’s disappearing twin sister. But I found it unsatisfying because, earlier in the book, so much information is presented in asides and digressions. From the first lines, the reader begins to build an idea of what happened and what’s going to. Part three wraps up the story a little too neatly, though it’s still masterfully told. With the theme that life is messy, that you can’t always predict what will happen – “no matter the evidence of your life, or who you believe you are, or what you’re willing to take credit for or draw your vital strength and pride from – anything at all can follow anything at all.” –  I found it a little jarring to be simply told what happened to everybody. (The last few sentences, though, are wonderful.)

As in many American novels, the setting is integral. Canada reminded me of Annie Proulx’s Wyoming stories (though not quite as desolate as all that). The scenery – Montana’s prairies, Canada just to the north, the small towns of North Dakota – all push Dell’s father into the bank robbery scheme. In the end, Dell’s parents’ personalities, history, and location make such a scheme all but inevitable.

Here in Australia we don’t really have anything like the US-Canada border, especially in 1954 when the border was not so tightly controlled. It’s just a step away. With the wide-open spaces of Montana pressing down, making people feel lost and invisible, and that huge unknowable country resting gently to the north, is it any wonder that Americans felt isolated, yet somehow beseiged? Is it any wonder that Dell’s parents feel the unconscious need to escape, to be away, no matter the consequences?

Well – I don’t know. I’m young, poorly traveled; a naive child, really, at this scale. But it’s a testament to Ford’s writing that I have these ideas at all. I was transported slowly but seamlessly. I got a glimpse of the small-town life I’ve never experienced, and I got a flash of how that life can exert silent, grinding pressure on people.

That’s the joy and the melancholy of this book. You’re swallowed up by the wide-open spaces of the prairie and the disintegrating ghost towns of the Saskatchewan wilds.

That’s the reason I read so much American literary fiction, I think. Wide spaces. Woods. Colleges. Highways. The long, slow burn of lives, in four hundred pages. If you liked the feeling you got from Bad Dirt, or you just like really good fiction, I think you’ll like Canada too.

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Weather Above Ground, or, the importance of knowing one’s ancestry

There was a heaving, brass-plated furnace in her ancestry; a people, as you know, who are unusual but not unlovable.

This oddity popped up in stories of her line. A burnished great-grandfather who spontaneously combusted. An aunt who could light stoves with a touch.

She had little to mark her burning past except, perhaps, hot skin, and a mental warmth (which could be ascribed to other things).

And so, little was thought of it, until she met a man who had some waterspout or lake djinn among his ancestors. They met and lived in steam.

Of course, we know now that furnace is a dominant trait, which explained the searing winds and bright, cloudless days that followed her everywhere.

When she left on a holiday, the rain clouds, indignant at their exclusion, returned. They sulked over the city until she came back, and burned them away.


(please forgive this unscheduled interruption. Normal programming will return in the next few days)

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“The world is a strange and various place.” Triptych, by Krissy Kneen

2011; Text Publishing.

272 pages;  $29.95.


I bought Triptych at the 2012 Brisbane Writers Festival after hearing author Krissy Kneen on a panel about erotica, pornography, and censorship. In a world where discussing sex and pornography in public is usually frowned upon, it was a refreshing hour of discussion.

I was intrigued, and also enjoyed the idea of literary pornography (who was it who said ‘”erotica” just means “porn that works for me”‘?). Generally speaking, my only reactions to sex scenes in books before had been detached curiosity (for sexy plot points to keep the story going) or giggles (for the really bad ones – we’ve all read one of those).

Triptych contains a lot of sex; in fact, it’s mostly sex. Overall, though, it’s something more than just smut, despite the conspicuously NSFW cover (a slightly chastened image of Hokusai’s 1814 painting The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, which you should not Google at work).

The first novella, Susanna, follows a beautiful, but isolated, woman as she discovers an outlet for her sexual urges: Chatroulette. The titular character gets off on watching anonymous men do the same (which, in my brief experience, is pretty much all that happens on Chatroulette). Eventually, though, she strikes up a fairly one-sided relationship with one of her ‘onanistic torsos’, who she gradually comes to realise lives in the same apartment building as she.

This novella introduces the reader to the world of Triptych, where (fairly) well-adjusted characters are revealed to have sexual tastes which could be described as ‘kinky’, or perhaps even ‘deviant’. Susanna comes across companionship, acceptance, and possibly love – through essentially masturbating with strangers online.

The second novella, The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, is the one the author warned me about when I was getting my copy signed. It follows Leda as she goes through puberty and a sexual awakening, eventually becoming the lover of Paul, her lifelong companion. Paul, it is soon revealed, is a German shepherd.

Stepping back for a moment, the first part of the Fisherman’s Wife follows fairly common themes. A girl is growing up into a young woman; she is innocent and naive; she falls into a sexual relationship with a knowing male. It’s almost secondary that the male in this case is a dog. Though Kneen describes the carnality thoroughly, for Leda herself, it’s all about love.

Leda meets a girl who shares her tastes in lovers, and together they experiment with horses, and, yes, an octopus. One of my favourite parts of Triptych is when Leda’s new friend Rachel expresses a desire to have sex with Paul. Suddenly, it’s a teenage love triangle, with the familiar themes of jealousy, resentment, and revenge. It reminded me of stories where Girl 1 steals Girl 2’s boyfriend. I always wondered – what does the boyfriend think about this? Kneen cleverly sidesteps that: the boyfriend is a dog, and doesn’t think about it. Again, beyond the confronting bestiality aspect, it’s quite a tender and heartfelt coming of age story.

As the novella goes on, the sex scenes become increasingly bizarre and, probably, physically impossible. Leda’s foray into the octopus’s rockpools was particularly surreal. I really liked that the reader is drawn in by Kneen’s beautiful and well-executed prose. There is an atmosphere of peace, through the familiarity of the underlying stories and the realism of the characters. Then, almost without warning, we’re in Bestiality Town.

The ending, however, reminds us that despite the backdrop, the real theme here is human connection. Leda and Rachel become friends and lovers, connecting through their shared desires. It’s squicky, sure, but it’s also Kneen’s quiet reminder not to judge people too harshly by their sexual preferences.

Speaking of people, the third and, perhaps, weakest novella, Romulus and Remus, is from the point of view of one of Susanna’s ‘torsos’: Aaron. He’s been married for thirty years, and his sex life is not what it once was (which is why he spends his evenings on Chatroulette). The reader is only occasionally reminded that Aaron and his wife are also brother and sister.

This is another familiar story – a marriage becomes sexless and cold – complicated by the addition of some taboo arrangement. The sister, also dissatisfied with the relationship, has sex with a coworker in an alley, in some of Triptych‘s more vanilla sex scenes. I felt like Romulus and Remus is Kneen’s nod to straight-up pornography; with the incest angle played down (when it comes to physical sex, anyway), it’s just no-strings fucking. Either way, the sex, as well as the incest angle, is an aside to the theme of this novella, and of Triptych as a whole.

It’s all about love.

Triptych reminds us that sex is not an unusual act. Animals do it all the time. Humans are animals too, after all, and we all do it in our own ways. Triptych describes (in sticky detail) some of the unusual – or unnatural – ways to have sex; but it also shows that, for humans, sex can be a part of love. On the surface, Triptych seems to be a simple, gross-out exploration of unnatural sex. But it’s actually about what brings people together: we have empathy, consideration, acceptance. The capacity to build a life together, to feel happiness, to feel love.


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2013 Literary Exploration challenge, part five

This is it.

We’ve reached the end. Today, I’ll list the last nine books for the Literary Exploration reading challenge this year.

28. Romance


There’s plenty of novels which are romantic. But for my romance selection, I’m going to go to the bookshop’s Mills & Boon/Harlequin section and pick the pulpiest thing I can find – bonus points for muscular, hairless torsos on the cover. Then I will read it, and I will blog about it. Actually, the only pulp (or ‘category’) romance I’ve read was in the Historical category, and it was very bad. I know they’re not really for me, but I’ll give it a shot! Exploration.

29. Science Fiction

Reader’s choice.

Science Fiction is a gigantic genre. There’s so much ‘classic’ scifi which I’ve never read – things like Asimov, Wells, and Card – so I could choose something from that region. I’ve loved the cyberpunk I’ve read too, so I could pick something else by Stephenson or Gibson. Then there’s spec fic; although a lot of those seem to be in the ‘magic-girl-cover’ region, there’s potential there too. In the end, it’s too hard. So I’m opening it up to you, reader. What’s the best sci-fi book you’ve ever read? If I haven’t already, I’ll read it this year. What will you do with this power?

30. Steampunk

Richard Ford. Kultus.

I love steampunk books which don’t take themselves too seriously. I read one last year which had tesla coil walking sticks, zombies, and a steam-powered Queen Victoria, but it was so earnest as to be silly. So, for my next foray into steam and gears, I’ve chosen Kultus, by Richard Ford (not that Richard Ford). It’s about a mercenary trying to stop a cult from opening the gates of Hell. His name is Thaddeus Blacklok. I’m sold.

31. Supernatural

Glen Duncan. Talulla Rising.

I’m cheating a little bit on this one (can you tell we’re getting to the end of the list?). I read Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf last year, and thought it did a fine job of making an interesting story out of everyone’s second-favourite overdone supernatural creatures: werewolves. It ended suddenly, with a note of hope (for the werewolves, anyway – maybe not for soft, slow, edible humanity). I thought it was a great ending. Naturally, a sequel appeared last year, and I believe there’s a third and final part coming out in 2014 as well. Despite a sequel seeming a little unnecessary, Talulla Rising should be a good read.

32. Thriller

Gillian Flynn. Dark Places.

After reading Gillian Flynn’s latest, Gone Girl, I always intended to check out her earlier ones as well. Dark Places is considered on par with Gone Girl, so I’m excited to read it. Sadly (?) it bears no connection to the other Darkplace.



33. True Crime

Chloe Hooper. The Tall Man.

I had trouble picking a True Crime book. It’s another genre that I don’t have a lot of experience in. It made sense to look at something Australian, and I remember the story from 2004, so I’ll be reading The Tall Man.




34. Urban Fantasy

Jim Butcher. Storm Front.

Okay. Let’s take a little walk down Memory Avenue (that’s the phrase, right?). At the beginning of 2011, I was trying to decide what to do with my life. I’d signed up for the National Novel-Writing Month, but was terrified about actually having to write anything. So I searched online for writing guides, and found one from Jim Butcher, author of the Dresden Files series. I read it front to back, and felt really confident about writing a novel.

November rolled around. I mostly ignored the writing guide, churned out fifty thousand execrable words of dystopian sci-fi ghost story, realised I needed some direction, and went back to university to study writing and editing. Despite his influence in helping me develop life goals, I’ve never actually read any of Butcher’s novels. Which is strange, because they’re occult/supernatural hardboiled detective stories. I can’t wait.

35. Victorian

Charles Dickens. David Copperfield.

I had a lot of options here, so, as I’m inclined to do, I tried to hit the best of the best. I’m ashamed to admit that the closest I’ve come to reading Dickens is A Muppet Christmas Carol, so it made a lot of sense to read Dickens’ own favourite.




36. Young Adult

Paolo Bacigalupi. Ship Breaker.

Last year I read Bacigalupi’s breakthrough novel The Windup Girl, and although the story didn’t really grab me, the setting was one of my favourite dystopian futures yet. I’m not sure if Ship Breaker is set in the same universe, but with Bacigalupi’s expertise in environmental-apocalypse writing, I’m looking forward to finding out.

Well, that’s about it! I’m still looking for feedback and suggestions for these categories, so let me know if anything comes to mind.

I’ve already finished one book on my reading list so far – Krissy Kneen’s Triptych. It’s a confronting read, and very, very interesting, so I’ll try to get my thoughts straight and post something about it soon.


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