Tuesday, March 28, 2006

A Feast For Crows

A few weeks ago I remembered the George R. R. Martin series A Song of Ice and Fire that I started reading last year. I read the first three books and they were excellent. (Except for that horribly annoying Danaerys character. Ugh. If you want to cringe and gnash your teeth, just read those Danaerys chapters.) Well, I was waiting for the fourth book to come out but it kept getting delayed, so I forgot about it. Until a few weeks ago, when I remembered it. I found out that it had been published in November last year. That was good news. I rang the library and said hey have you got this book? They said sure we got it, but somebody borrowed it, so you gotta wait. I said no problem, I can wait. I been waiting about six months anyway, what the hell. So I had to wait until that person brought it back. A few days ago I got a note saying that the person had brought it back and now I could borrow it. So I borrowed it and now I am reading it. I thought it might be hard to get back into it, but it's not. It's all coming back as I read it. So far I'm 300 pages in, which is almost halfway through the book, and praise the Lord and the gods of Olympus, so far Danaerys hasn't popped up with her annoying talk of her stupid horse 'silver'. Yet sadly there has been hardly anything about the very likeable 'bastard son' Jon (of the Night's Watch); nothing at all of Tyrion the dwarf, who got his nose hacked off in battle, and is another very likeable character. But at least there's chapters from Jaime Lannister and Brienne, the Maid of Tarth (it would be a good time to mention that these books are constructed in the following way: each chapter is the name of a charcter and that chapter switches to the perspective of that character. I've never seen this structure used before but you soon get used to it, and it makes a lot of sense in this kind of epic tale).
Why are some of the best characters missing from this book? Well, I found out the reason - Martin's fourth book blew out to such a ridiculous page count that he was forced to split it into two books, so Book Five will really be the second part of Book Four.
I almost never check out author's websites, mainly because most of the writers I seem to read are long dead. But while I was reading Mr Martin's series of books, I felt a strong urge to find out if he had a website, and he did. That's where I got the information about him having to split his next book into two. He also has a page called 'What I'm Reading' which I found very interesting. I wasn't surprised to learn that he is a big history buff, because to write this Medieval-styled stuff requires an extensive knowledge of life in Medieval times. His FAQ page is also worth taking a peep at, especially if you have ever wanted to ask a published writer "I want to be a writer. Can you give me any advice?"
When I mentioned that his fourth book blew out to so many pages that he had to divide it into two separate books, I meant to say this: the first half (which has become A Feast For Crows) is 745 pages. The second half, which will be Book Five of the series and will be called A Dance With Dragons, will be, according to the author himself, around 1200 pages (!)

Monday, March 27, 2006

Silent Hill 4: The Room

For the past three days I have been playing the PS2 game Silent Hill 4: The Room. One of the great things about this series is that once you begin the game and learn what the premise is, you're hooked. You can't quit the game before you've finished it. Sure, you might stop playing the game for a few days, or weeks, or even months. That happened to me with Silent Hill 2. I quit it for a few months, for some reason. Oh yeah, that's right, I started playing it with somebody else (not a good idea - these games are best played alone) but they only came over once a week, then they missed a week, then before I knew it I hadn't played it in months. But then I saw it on the shelf one day and remembered the story. A man receives a letter from his wife asking him to come and meet her in Silent Hill, a lakeside holiday town where they spent some of their best times together. The only thing is, his wife died three years ago. How could anybody not feel an irresistable urge to go back to the game and finish it and find out once and for all what the heck was going on there? Well, I couldn't, so I did, and that was about a month ago.
So now I am playing Silent Hill 4 (and no, I haven't played SH1 or SH3 because 1 is very hard to find and the game store's computer said they had a used copy of SH3 but they couldn't find it, but it doesn't matter anyway because the sequels don't follow on from one another, and each one has different characters anyway).
Well, what is this SH4: The Room all about then?
The game's *hero* is Henry Townshend. For the last two years Henry has been living in apartment 302 of South Ashfield Heights, in Ashfield, a neighbouring town of Silent Hill. He is a quiet, introverted man who enjoys photography, and has lived a normal life up until five days ago when he started having the same recurring dream every night. Not so strange, eh? Well, not only that, but for the last five days Henry has not been able to leave his apartment because his door is barred with big chains, criss-crossed back and forth the entire length. When he goes up to the door's peephole and sees somebody outside in the hall, it doesn't matter if he screams and bangs on the door, the people outside can't hear anything. (Are you getting the creeps yet?) Then on the sixth day he hears some scraping sounds coming from his bathroom and when he opens the door to investigate he finds a big hole in the wall, but nobody there, although indistinct voices are coming from the hole. And when I say "he" now, I really mean "you", because now YOU are playing Henry Townshend and are moving around your apartment in a first-person view. If you want to test your nerves, you play this game with the lights out and either headphones or the stereo turned up loud. Believe me, it is truly chilling, and this is nothing compared to what happens later. You travel through the tunnel in your bathroom and emerge in different 'worlds'. One of those worlds is an apartment building unnervingly similar to your own, but the walls seem to be covered in blood, and big chunks of the carpet are missing, showing steel mesh flooring so you can see through to the floor below. You hear a horrible sound coming from around the corner. It sounds like some kind of animal, although none you recognise. Whatever it is, one thing is for sure - it means you harm. You know it in your bones. It can smell you, and it's coming for you. And then you see it turn the corner. It's a big dog, only it's been skinned, and it has a tongue that hangs down, and drags along the floor. The goddam tongue is about three feet long! Lucky you have your rusty axe. Phew! You might just make it out of here alive (although it seems unlikely).
Another chilling aspect is that if you do make it out of those sickening, terrifying bizarro worlds, through a red portal back to your apartment, you'll notice something about your apartment. Are the walls getting dirtier? What's going on here? Is it your imagination? No, they definitely didn't look like that last time you were here.
These Silent Hill games are like no other in the *survival horror* genre. Resident Evil might have the occasional scary moment when a zombie jumps out in front of you, but the Silent Hill games quickly produce a near-suffocating sense of extreme unease, punctuated by frequent surges of sick terror, that rarely let up. The game's designers know that it's the things you hear but can't see that can be most effective in bringing your coldest and most paralysing fears to the surface. And then you have the creatures. These things will haunt your nightmares. The way they move, the awful sounds they make...
It seems that it was a very long time ago that a movie made me feel such dread fear and terror, but the Silent Hill games do that easily. I've even felt strong apprehension to turn the machine on to continue playing, especially late at night. If you call yourself a horror fan, but haven't played one of these games, then I guarantee that Silent Hill will make you feel things you haven't felt in a long, long time.

P.S. Easily the biggest and greatest movie news I heard this year is that a Silent Hill movie has been made and it opens in Sydney on April 27. Yeah! Woo!

Monday, March 20, 2006


I just finished reading Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe. It was terrific. I'll admit that over the last couple of years I've really become a sucker for this medieval stuff. The language is rich, and I don't even mind that sometimes I'll have to read the occasional paragraph three or four times over to get the meaning.
If you aren't familiar with Ivanhoe, it takes place around the Eleventh Century, during the time of the Crusades. Richard the Lionheart is off in Palestine fighting the Muslims and his sleazy brother John has taken over the country in his absence. The Saxons are miserable under the conquering Normans, who look down on the Saxons as ignorant savages (there are some amusing passages that describe how badly the Saxons build houses). The Normans have the best names, one of them (a gigantic oafish warrior) is called Sir Reginald Front-de-Boeuf (my French-speaking friend Andre told me it means "Meat Forehead").
One of my favourite parts of the book is where Prince John throws a big tournament, with tilting (or jousting, as we call it these days) and the melee, and all that good stuff, and when Norman Prince John and his five knights (including Front-de-Boeuf) knock all Saxon challengers on their arses, a mysterious knight rides in and turns the tables on the snooty Normans.
Most surprising to me however, was the treatment of the Jew, Isaac of York, and his daughter Rebecca, and the venomous way the 'Christian' characters spoke of the Jews as a people, who they seemed to hate even more than the 'infidel Muslims'. I was aware that before the Holocaust (which nobody could be accused of being ignorant of these days, I'm sure), the Jews had been persecuted all over the place, but the way it was written in this book made vivid the ugliness and inhumanity of it all. Even the 'good' characters had this prejudice, for example when Ivanhoe was cured of his grievous wound by the Jewess Rebecca. Ivanhoe was enchanted by her, yet when she told him she was a Jew, he was repulsed, and treated her very differently. This (and especially a later scene where Rebecca is about to be burnt at the stake for being a witch) reminds me of the Simpsons episode where a homosexual character, John (voiced by John Waters), saved Homer from being killed by reindeer. Throughout the episode, Homer refused to have anything to do with John, on account of his being a homo, but when his life was saved by the homo, Homer told him he was OK after all, to which John replies, "Well, Homer, I won your respect, and all I had to do was save your life."

Friday, March 17, 2006

Mystery Writers

Here's something you should go and read immediately:

". . . For all my seemingly sometimes rattlebrained manner, I am actually deathly sincere and serious about my writing. . . Am only happy – my only real happiness – at the machine."

I found this at Bill Crider's blog, another blog I have been reading lately but keep forgetting to tell you about. It has become one of my favourites.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Writer's Block Experiment

Idea: To take a paragraph from a random novel and gradually alter it, piece by piece, to come up with one unrecognisable to that of the source.

Started with this:

'He went into the auditorium, which was small, under a very high black ceiling, with steeply raked seating up to the right from the entrance, the stage to the left. There was no curtain fronting the stage, and the set was a busy one, a living room and a kitchen and a staircase, lots of furniture and lots of doors. The stage lights were off, so that the set was faintly mysterious and faintly threatening.'
- from 'The Hook' by Donald E. Westlake

Ended with this:

'He went into the bathroom, which was small. The ceiling was dripping with slime, and the smell made him gag. The toilet was covered with a sick rainbow of colour. There was no toilet paper, and the floor was busy with creeping and crawling things. It struck him as incomprehensible that creatures could exist in such filth, but there they were, going about their mysterious existence in this foul pit.'
- from 'Writer's Block Experiment' by Stratu

Conclusion: This might be another strategy to overcome writer's block. Making a game of writing (like The J Man's idea of writing dialogue) is a potentially effective strategy for those afflicted with this crippling condition, and at the very least, the participant is engaged in the act of writing and the employment of his imagination.

Monday, March 13, 2006

A History of Violence

I've been looking forward to seeing this movie ever since I read Kapreles's review of it way back in October(?) last year. That was a long time ago! But at last it is showing in Australian cinemas so today after work I zoomed off to see it.
It begins in a small midwestern American town that reminded me very much of Northern Exposure's Cicely (Alaska) where you walk down the street and everybody says 'Hi!' to you real friendly and right neighbourly, and you say "Hi!" back, big smiles all round, everybody happy and smiling, a perfect Utopia. You don't need to lock your car when you go to the video store, you don't even need to lock your front door when you go home. Imagine that! It's not easy for a city boy! But that's the kind of town Tom Stalls (Viggo Mortensen) lives in, with his wife Edie (Maria Bello), son Jack and daughter Heidi.
The beginning of the movie serves to show us what a perfect life this family have in this perfect town, although things are really not so perfect even from the beginning. We soon learn that teenage son Jack is being bullied at his high school by a football jerk. Or is it jock? ... What's the difference?
Tom owns a diner and one night two nasty men come in just when Tom's closing up. We know these are nasty men because a little earlier we saw them leaving a motel and one of them killed the proprietor and maid. This is how they "settle up the bill", apparently. These two are very nasty men, anyway. So here they are in Tom's diner and even though Tom tells them they're closed, they loudly demand to be served. Everybody in the diner looks around nervously. The scene gets even uglier when one of the bad guys tells the other one to "do" the waitress, then he whips out his gun and says he's gonna teach Tom a lesson for being such a tough guy, or something. Tom turns the tables on the fiends before they know what the hell is going on, and very soon both are dead, or at least almost dead, because one of them is seen trying to move his head with half his jaw missing, a very amusing scene which got big laughs in our theatre (*a note on this later).
All of a sudden Tom is a big hero and on the front cover of the local newspaper, and TV crews are coming to his house to try to interview him.
Then three other tough dudes arrive in town and pay a visit to Tom, in his diner, but the leader calls him "Joey". WTF? He seems to know him. Is this a case of mistaken identity? Ho ho! Not likely!
Anyway, to say much more about the plot would be unfair, you really want to see this for yourself.
I've only seen Viggo Mortensen in The Lord of the Rings, and he was terrific in that. He was very good in this, too, as was Maria Bello (who I last saw in The Cooler, another fine movie with another fine actor, William H. Macy). Ed Harris and William Hurt were in it as well, and they were both wonderful, playing bad guys, the latter in a very violent yet comedic scene near the end of the movie.
The music used in the movie, although mixed at too low a volume for my liking, was perfect and served to build mood and tension in an elegiac, classical style.
The movie was directed by David Cronenberg, so if that name rings bells in your head, in a good way (as it does in mine) then you have probably seen it already. If not, you are in for a treat! It is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, one of his finest.

* A note on the audience: When Tom shot the bad dudes in the diner and the camera panned down to show the head of one, still moving but with half his jaw shot off, I let out a loud guffaw. A second later, somebody several rows behind me did the same, but even louder. It occurred to me that that person was making fun of my response! I do seem to laugh at things in movies where nobody else laughs, and laughing at somebody with his jaw half shot off might be considered offensive. And so many people seem to be overly sensitive to feeling offended these days! But of course I was only laughing because the bad guy got exactly what we wished for him to get (and maybe a little extra), and it turned out that that person probably wasn't making sport of me, because he laughed at other violent scenes, some of which he got in a hearty guffaw before I could!

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Writer's Block

Is writer's block real, or a cop-out? Is it a real affliction, a real blockage and obstruction of one's urge to write, or is it all simply in the mind, an easy excuse for not writing anything?
I have been sitting here for THREE HOURS trying to write something. Do you think I've written nothing? Not so! I've written many things, started many things! But everything I started amounted to nothing. Garbage! So now I'll have to admit that I have written garbage in the past, and thought it was good. But that's not the problem. If I could have, tonight, pumped out 1000 (or even 500, or 200, or 50!) words and thought they were good, I don't care if it's a delusion!
Let's say you wrote some pieces that you were sure were good, and six months later you read them again and they were still good. And you may have gone on for an extended period writing pieces that you really believed were good and well done, and all that jazz. But then one day you tried to write something, and no matter how long you hacked away at it, nothing worked out. Usually, in the past, you might have to sit there for up to an hour or more, stabbing away at the keys, and deleting, and beginning again, but usually your muse sauntered in at some stage and took control, and then it was all downhill.
But what happens when your muse goes on holiday? What happens when, three hours later, you are still sitting there poking away at the keys and nothing but garbage appears on the screen? And what if that goes on for days, and even weeks? What then, eh? Is that all in the mind? No, it's not. Writer's block is real, and it really sucks.
So how does one deal with this nasty bane of the wordsmith? It seems to me that the only way to deal with the rotten thing is to go boldly back to the machine every night, every day, completely disregarding any depressed thoughts of futility you may entertain, and force yourself to put some words down. Any words. Just start stringing them together! Sooner or later your seemingly forgotten ability to write will return!

Monday, March 06, 2006


After work today I went to the movies and saw Capote.
There are a handful of books I've picked up over the years and not finished, two of them are In Cold Blood by Truman Capote and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Of course, both of those were years ago - these days I seem to finish every book no matter how hard-going it is (the best example of this would be the gigantic space opera I read late last year).
But this is only a very round about way to admit that I hadn't read the book before I went and saw the movie. And anyway, the movie is not a movie of the book, but a movie about Truman Capote and his experience of writing the book.
Capote was already a famous and successful writer when the movie begins in the late '50s, his most renowned book being Breakfast At Tiffany's. Then he reads a newspaper item about the shotgun murder of a family on a Kansas farm, and at the time he was writing for the New Yorker, so he went out there to do a piece on it. But when he met one of the two murderers, Perry Smith, he became obsessed with him, and decided to expand the magazine article to novel-length, and this became the first non-fiction novel.
Phillip Seymour-Hoffman plays Capote and he is excellent. Capote must have had a very unusual voice, because throughout the movie Hoffman speaks like a baby. You can see that people don't know what to make of him and his strange baby-voice. But as he says at one point in the movie, all his life he has had to deal with people who judged him by the way he spoke.
The murderer Perry Smith is played by Clifton Collins Jr, an excellent performance. His character shows no emotion at all, only a vague sense of confusion as to what he is doing there in prison, and no doubt in the world itself. There's never any doubt that he did it, and he never claims otherwise.
The essence of the movie is the nature of the relationship between Smith and Capote. Even though at times they call it a friendship, it's really not, although Capote does get a better lawyer to launch an appeal against the death sentence, but his main focus is always the book he is writing. It's about the exploitational nature of the writer and his subject. Does he actually care about this guy sentenced to death? Near the end, Capote is seen in a club getting drunk and complaining that 'they' are torturing him with these stays of execution, which is delaying his finishing the book.
Also noteworthy is Catherine Keener playing Harper Lee, a close friend of Capote and his research assistant, who at that time was writing To Kill A Mockingbird. There was an amusing scene where a bunch of male writers are asking her about her book, saying things like, "Oh, how's that book of yours going? What's it called? Killing a Bird?" She says, "Yeah, that's close enough." Even Capote himself seems so wrapped up in his own problems to care about his friend getting published.
Anyway, it was a very good movie and I enjoyed it.
There were a lot of people in the theatre and many of them had noisy food packets that they seemed to squeeze and rattle the most during the quieter moments of the movie. Why can't they wait until a noisy part of the movie, I wonder? Is it because they are thoughtless swine who just can't wait to shove the next greasy mouthful into their slavering gobs? I can arrive at no other conclusion. *OINK! OINK!*

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Ryugyong Hotel

Those wacky North Koreans got jealous over the South Koreans building a gigantic hotel in Singapore, so they decided to build their own. Only problem is they haven't finished it, and it looks like something from 1984. Big surprise, eh?
The funniest thing about this story is that they now deny this grotesquery even exists, although you can clearly see it from any part of the city. Haw!


[I read about this on Bill Harris's Dubious Quality, a blog I've been really enjoying lately.]