Archive for September, 2009

Part of me wants to preface the following rant with an introduction to Vegemite, how it’s an Australian intitution despite being owned by an American company, blah blah blah, but really, that’s Googleable data. Let’s cut to the chase, viz: iSnack 2.0, the recently chosen and equally recently abandoned name for Kraft’s new Vegemite-with-cream-cheese spread.

I mean, seriously: iSnack two-point-oh. There are so many things wrong with this that it’s difficult to know where to begin. Cribbing Apple’s lowercase i-prefix in an ironic context is one thing – it falls into the same category as using ‘Mc’ to denote cheap, homogenised and tacky produce, a la McDonalds – but bestowing a stolen moniker on an actual, honest-to-god product? It’s like Kraft has set out to mock themselves.

Pardon by French, but what the fuck does a glorified condiment have to do with the already amorphous concept of  Web 2.0? Both technologically-oriented parts of the name constitute the most dismal attempt at being Hip To The Young People I have ever seen. Even the civilian who came up with the title as part of Kraft’s ‘Name Me’ campaign admits it was ‘all a bit tongue in cheek’ – something which Kraft, in their rush to appear savvy, seem not to have noticed. The name was chosen, they say – or said, before the mockery set in – ‘based on its personal call to action, relevance to snacking and clear identification of a new and different Vegemite.’ Say wha?

How does Vegemite with cream cheese constitute a personal call to action? How is referencing the internet and the products of a successful computer company in any way relevant to snacking? I mean, wow. Really. That is some grade-A bullshit right there. And another thing: given that Kraft presumably wants this product to endure in the same way regular Vegemite has, why would they name it after the techno-cultural ephemera of the noughties? When Web 2.0 is but a naff reference to past events and Apple or somesuch corporation has long since replaced the iGen fad with something newer and cooler, how obsolete would something called iSnack 2.0 be? Give it a couple of decades, and maybe it would be retro, but until then, you’re stuck with an unberably passe product name that causes mass hysteria and blindness.

Even by the standards of bad marketing, this stands out as a clusterfuck of epic proportions. Kraft might change the name, but it’ll be a long time before they live this error down – and rightly so.

Warning: total spoilers.

By and large, I’m a fan of Quentin Tarantino. Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill Volumes 1 & 2 and Death Proof are among my favourite films, and I’m far from averse to cinematic violence. I hadn’t heard much about Inglourious Basterds, but given that it was Tarantino, I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.

This is not a course of action I would reccommend to anyone.

Inglourious Basterds is, without a doubt, one of the worst films I’ve ever seen. It is a Tarantino production only insofar as there is graphic violence, and even then, it’s not up to his usual standard. But I’m getting ahead of myself: first, before we proceed any further, a plot summary.

Our story begins in Nazi-occupied France, where Col. Hans Landa, central antagonist of the film and nicknamed the Jewhunter, is in the process of questioning a local dairy farmer, whom he suspects of harbouring a Jewish family. Drawn out over roughly half an hour, their conversation serves to introduce three plot elements: Landa’s facility with languages, his conversational eccentricity, and the eventual massacre of the Dreyfus family, who are hiding beneath the farmer’s floorboards. The latter is relevant not only as a means of demonstrating Nazi brutality, but because the teenage Shoshanna Dreyfus, our soon-to-be heroine, escapes and flees for the hills.

Cut to Brad Pitt – sorry, Lt. Aldo Raine – addressing a group of Jewish American soldiers, the titular Inglourious Basterds, as they prepare to head behind German lines. Their mission, as described by the distantly part-Apache Raine, is to collect the scalps of one hundred Nazis apiece, a task they are positively hankerin’ to accomplish. Over an hour passes before these two plotlines meet up, but then, at two and a half hours long, the film is quite happy to take its time. Eventually, however, all becomes clear, or at least marginally less uncorrelated: now four years older, Shoshanna Dreyfus is running a cinema in Paris under an assumed French identity, where a young Nazi soldier, Fredrick Zoller, the subject of a soon-to-be-released propaganda film produced by Joseph Goebbels, starts to take an interest in her life. Almost instantly, Zoller decides that Shoshanna’s cinema will be the venue for the premiere of his film – at which point, enter the Basterds and some British allies, who, with the help of German actress-slash-double-agent Bridget von Hammersmark, are planning to blow up the opening night, thereby killing not only Goebbels, but all of the Nazi high command and even the Fuhrer himself. Shoshanna, meanwhile, having been forced to endure a meal in the company of both Goebbels and Landa, has her own plans for eliminating the Nazis on opening night, operating parallel to, but not in concert with, the efforts of the Basterds.

Wacky hijinks, as they say, ensue. Or at least, that seems to have been the general intention. But despite its complex tangential plotting, eccentric supporting characters and bizarre premise, Inglourious Basterds is anything but entertaining. Though usually a master of black humour, witty dialogue and satisfying revenge plots, Tarantino has, in this instance, unfathomably failed to perform in even one of these categories, let alone all three. The grand finale, which features Hitler being shot with a machine gun as the leaders of the Nazi party burn to death, fails on so many levels that it’s difficult to articulate; and when watching Jewish soldiers gun down Hitler in a Tarantino movie isn’t even remotely funny, satisfying or relevant, then it’s fair to say that, somewhere along the line, things have gone spectacularly wrong.

More than anything else, Inglourious Basterds stylistically resembles a Tarantino version of the most recent Cohen Brothers offering, Burn After Reading. Both featured casts composed almost entirely of vile, morally bereft characters, none of whom were the least bit likeable, which consequently made them difficult to watch; both featured loosely interwoven, anti-cathartic plotlines where an excess of human error and mad violence saw everything go horribly wrong; and both starred Brad Pitt as a weird guy with a moustache, although at least in Burn After Reading, he was given a couple of good lines.

At every turn, the viewer encounters a mess of contradictions. We are meant to enjoy seeing Nazis shot, burned and beaten to death on principle, as Lt. Raine’s opening speech makes abundantly clear – a somewhat redunant message, as this will be the automatic position of most viewers. But from thereon in, the Basterds themselves are endowed with no personalities, no histories, no redeeming qualities: they are viscious, avenging demons, which might still be workable were it not for the fact that every Nazi they encounter is given more depth, more humanity and better dialouge than the whole group put together. This makes for some grim, uneasy scenes: there is simply nowhere for the viewer to turn. Raine and his men are faceless brutes, impossible to like, while the Nazis, though more complex characters, are still Nazis. With both sides thus rendered unpalatable, the only hope of narrative salvation lies with Shoshanna Dreyfus, but even there, the audience is denied. Tarantino has a solid history when it comes to revenge films, particularly as orchestrated through the actions of strong, wronged women, but in the final wrap, despite the fact that Landa is directly responsible for murdering the Dreyfus family, he ends up the only Nazi of our acquaintance left alive. Indeed, Shoshanna never so much as singles him out for revenge, instead concentrating her suicidal efforts on bringing down the whole Reich establishment, and while this is not a cardinal sin in and of itself, it stands as a massive and poorly-executed departure from Tarantino’s stock in trade.

Smaller problems, too, abound. Samuel L. Jackson’s token voice-overs are bizarre, given that (a) he doesn’t have so much as a cameo role  and (b) the film is otherwise entirely unnarrated. The deliberate misspelling of Inglourious Basterds is shown only once, carved into a rifle butt, with no explanation. We see one character flash back to being whipped, presumably by the Nazis, in an incident which has hitherto never been mentioned, but which appears only minutes before the subject is killed, thus rendering it pointless. Shoshanna and her lover plan death for the Nazis, but while suicide is never discussed, neither do they try and save themselves. History is completely abused in orchestrating the grand finale, but tiny fragments of accurate socio-historical minutiae, like accents, hand gestures and detailed cinema knowledge, nonetheless prove the undoing of multiple characters. Arguably, this latter point is the straw which breaks the donkey’s back. Having spent over an hour painstakingly building up one suite of characters, Tarantino then kills all save one of them in the type of scene which is best described, in the immortal words of Something Positive webcartoonist Randy Milholland, as belonging to the ‘Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies‘ oeuvre.

I wish I could say otherwise, but when push comes to shove, Inglourious Basterds is two-point-five hours of my life – and yours – that can never be reclaimed. If you want to see a gripping action film with brilliant scripting, awesome effects, humour, genuine insight and future cult status, then I suggest you buy tickets for District 9. Anything else is folly.

The following was written as a comment in response to this article in Trespass Magazine, wherein Lyrian Fleming postulates that the number of gaffes made by public figures on Twitter will eventually prove to be its undoing.

 

While I agree that celebrities and other public figures are currently struggling to walk a fine line with emergent digital media like Twitter, I don’t think their turmoil will kill the oeuvre. On the contrary, there’s few things our rubbernecking media machine enjoys more than a good old-fashioned gaffe, and in a culture where the cult of celebrity requires an almost non-stop stream of updates about its beloved stars, there’s nothing quite like Twitter for providing insight into the daily lives of the rich and famous. Those are both fairly cynical examples, but in broader terms, I’d contend that all the current spotlighting of public figures who dare to express a personal opinion are part of a bigger, currently unanswered question, viz: where do we draw the line between public and private in an age of instant media, and under what circumstances?

It’s not just about celebrities and Twitter; it’s about employees being fired because of content on their social networking pages, cyberbullying in schools, videos on YouTube – even the debate over the street-level images of private homes in Google Maps. These are all disparate examples, each of which has different quirks, different potential solutions, but what they all have in common is our need to establish etiquette for the use of technology whose rate of developmental progress has far outstripped the speed at which we are constructing rules around it. Twitter will eventually be superceded by something new, yes, but only because the next leap forward in virtual communication will replace it as a matter of course, and not because its existence has contributed to an already ongoing debate about public vs. private in the digital landscape.

Quite simply, I’d be extraordinarily worried if we, as a society, saw Twitter collapse simply because it forced us to reexamine our behaviour. The issues it’s raised – or rather, which have arisen as a result of its use – aren’t bad questions to be asking. With or without Twitter, we need to know how to live with technology. The Freedman case is a good example of this, whereas I’d argue that Kyle Sandilands acting like Kyle Sandilands is less an issue of his choice of media than it is a question of his being  an obnoxious tool who perhaps shouldn’t be paid obscene amounts of money to abuse people on air.

Should public figures have the luxury of private opinions in a public forum, or not – that’s the real question underlying these examples. Conventional wisdom seem to say ‘Yes, but ony for so long as they don’t say something offensive.’ However, given the level of media scrutiny currently attached to any gaffe, regardless of its objective severity – Freedman deserves no heat compared to Sandilands – I’d suggest a case-by-case policy of caveat orator. Let the speaker, whoever they are, beware. Because if they weren’t before, the world and his wife are certainly watching now.

This week, it seems, I am pretty much incapable of not ranting. I’ve ranted to the Sydney Morning Herald about education in NSW (scroll down for my letter); I’ve ranted about paranoral romance – and now, it seems, I’m ranting about tweens.

Not being a parent, let alone an American, I’m probably ill-placed to judge how crazy this article on tweenage freedoms may or may not be. For starters, its about tweens in New York City, which would seem to be a fairly unrepresentative slice of Americana, but that doesn’t stop it from raising alarm bells. I’ve long since accustomed myself to the notions of helicopter parenting and cocooning as repugnant (if apparently widespread) symptoms of the modern age, and yet somehow, I’ve never really sat down and thought about the age bracket in question. Most often, I rant about teenagers being downtrodden by foolish adults, and while I’m certainly familiar with tweens as a concept, it hadn’t actually occurred to me that they might be copping an even worse end of the stick.

Of all the lines in the article – the sentiment of which, for the record, I wholeheartedly agree with – there’s one which made me pull up short and sit down, once again, to rant. It’s this:

‘”Kids like to feel that they are doing something of value,” explains Michael Thompson. “Boys who like organized sports like them because it feels like they’re doing something valuable, and by that I don’t mean getting good at soccer. I mean entertaining adults.”’

On the one hand, Michael Thompson clearly means well. He’s identified a problem facing tweens – not being allowed out of parental sight for fear of cataclysmic life failure – and is trying to suggest ways of fixing it. On the other hand, it would seem to be a fairly self-evident statement, when removed from an ageist context, that people generally – and not just ‘kids’ – like to ‘feel that they are doing something of value’. Actually, scrap that. People like to actually do  things of value, and not just be given the illusion of same. Which is where I start to get angry – not at the article, or even (necessarily) Michael Thompson, but of this damnable habit we seem to have fallen into of treating everyone as a separate demographic. Has it become completely alien to our sense of being that some things, regardless of whether one is nine, nineteen, forty-nine or ninety – or, for that matter, male, female, religious, agnostic, atheistic, a ufologist, black, white, Hispanic or Chinese – might be universal? I’m not talking about complex moral truths, for heavens’ sake: just a simple recognition of the fact that we are all human beings, and therefore hold a certain type of base need in common. 

Must everything be looked at in terms of marketing? Sure, it might be a comparably slender percentage of likes which bind us together, but I’d wager they hold a pretty deep significance for the same reason. People want a purpose. Why is that such a difficult notion for society to understand? Kids might be less emotionally mature than adults, but that doesn’t make them stupid, and it sure as hell doesn’t make them any less human. Children like to entertain their parents, but past a certain age, they also want to feel like they’re getting older, a quality which, up until about age 19, is most readily identifiable by the grade we’re in at school and how we’re treated by adults. And if the latter isn’t there, the former doesn’t matter a jot, because one of the most pivotal reasons students recognise their school years as a valid progressive hierarchy is that it leads to the adult world.  Nobody goes to school for the sake of school itself, ‘school’ here being distinct from a concept of learning. What grade you’re in is based almost solely on age, not any kind of meritocratic policy. If each successive birthday from six to sixteen brings no increase in social respect, parentally granted autonomy or actual real-world power, why shoudn’t tweens be sullen – indeed, why shouldn’t they become disrespectful, disobedient teens in turn?

During a recent conversational rant about the failings of education, another adult asked me why I still gave a damn. After all, I’ve been out of school for five years, and despite my complaints, I did well enough while there; it’s been over a decade since I was a tween, and almost five years since I ceased to be a teenager. Why was I still ranting about problems which no longer concerned me?

But the thing is, they do still concern me. Part of what bothered me then – what still bothers me now – is the extent to which, despite every study telling us that children are learning increasingly more each year from younger ages; despite the leaps in technology which are picked up most readily by the young; despite the fact that tweens and teenagers are the future, adults are still persistently talking over their heads, treating tweens and teens as if they don’t matter, when everything about our new society is screaming that yes, they do. Even worse, this realisation of increased child-knowledge compared with their relative lack of emotional experience has spawned a rash of parenting techniques designed expressly to prolong the gaining of wisdom by wrapping one’s offspring in cotton wool, as though emotional experience can be achieved without any kind of learning-through-error. I keep ranting about things that no longer concern me directly because they do concern me, and everyone, indirectly. The current social system with regard to youth is predicated largely on the assumption that nobody under the age of 18 is worth listening to, while everyone over the age of 18 can no longer be bothered arguing, having managed to escape the conditions they were previously so animated about. It’s stupid, and irritating, and more than anything else about growing up, I am terrified that one day the Adult Brainwashing Machines will get me, too, ensuring that not only will I forget what it was like to be young, but, in losing all interest in youth beyond self-perpetuation, I’ll forget that there is more than one kind of youth; that the Youth of Today are just as human, just as bright and gawky and volatile as I was, but that they nonetheless are not me, and that this is not automatically a cause for concern.

So, parents: let your tweens go down to the shops or pick up the laundry or – horror of horrors – take the train alone, but don’t act as though you’re doing them a favour. Don’t be condescending in your permissal of freedoms, because if you are, then they’re not really freedoms at all. The difference between extending a privilege and acknowleging a right is the most profound difference in the world, once you’re aware of it – and with the current rate of information absorption among tweens, it’s a safe bet that most of them are.

I have a theory.

Firstly: these are four little words which should strike fear into the hearts of men, especially when coming from me. You have been warned.

Consider, then, the stereotype of hardcore science fiction: heavy on detail, short on character, long on nitty-gritty and emotionally ambivalent. A crude stereotype, but despite being far from universally accurate, there’s an argument to be made that hard SF is the traditional province of male geeks exactly because of the above descriptors. Which isn’t to say that women don’t or shouldn’t read it, or that a given work ceases to be hard SF if it invalidates any of the above categories, or even that the genre lacks female characters. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, for instance, is both fabulously philosophical and supported by a wonderful knowledge of human nature, while Scott Westerfeld’s The Risen Empire is built on immaculate details of technology and society, with chapter time shared equally between vividly written male and female protagonists. But if you were of a mind to analyse the readership of hard SF, it still seems likely that most of them, regardless of other demographic factors, would be male.

Of itself, that shouldn’t surprise us. Little boys have been raised for years with rockets and trains and plastic guns, and for much of the  – still relatively recent  – history of geekdom, things like video games, Dungeons & Dragons, Warhammer and even straight fantasy were deemed by normal society to be the sole province of dysfunctional, dateless nerds. The idea of geekhood as an equal opportunities employer is something which, it seems, despite the long-established existence of female geeks, has only recently occurred to the mainstream world. There are various reasons fo this, and a great deal of iconic female sci-fi/fantasy at which to point the expostulating finger. For instance: Tamora Pierce, author of The Song of the Lioness quartet, grew up resenting the lack of female warrior heroes in fantasy novels and thereinafter set about writing some of her own, with brilliant results. Gene Roddenberry was prevented by network politics from making the first Star Trek captain female, but that didn’t stop Uhura and Janeway from getting their dues. Most obviously from the point of my generation, Buffy the Vampire Slayer proved that popularity and geekdom weren’t like oil and water: not only was it possible to put a beautiful blonde in a horror setting who didn’t get killed off in the first five minutes, but TV shows could be fantasy-based and still pull in the big ratings.

In fact, if you look at the past fifteen years of film, books and broadcasting, you’ll see a meteoric rise in mainstream awareness of fantasy. Commensurate with the rise in special effects technology, there have been innumerable film adaptations of classic sci-fi/fantasy novels – not to mention TV shows – once computer processing power made the concept seem more viable and less cheesy. Even before the advent of J.K. Rowling in 1997, the mantle of World’s Best-Selling Author belonged to Terry Pratchett. Throw in a diverse range of sci-fi fantasy programming – The X-Files, Roswell, Charmed, Firefly, Stargate, Sliders, Farscape, True Blood, Heroes, Supernatural – and it’s plain to see that public awareness of the geeky sphere is bound to have skyrocketed since the mid-nineties, if only by dint of a casual glance at the TV guide or ticket office.

All of which has helped to take social notions of geekdom away from the hard SF, lone-nerds-in-basements days of yore and instead present something friendlier, more gender-neutural. Women, of course, have been reading fantasy alongside men for as long as it’s been a separate genre, but with the patina of mass-appeal thus gained, publishers have seemingly felt able to try something new, with the consequence that previously well-established genre boundaries in the world of sci-fi fantasy have started to fall by the wayside. Ever since the established stereotypes of Who Buys What went flying out the window – and though this has undoubtably occurred, it’s still debateable as to when – geeks en masse have proven to be such a diverse demographic that the blurring of genre lines, far from deterring potential readers, has acutally become an individual draw.

Which brings me to the current trend in paranormal romance and urban fantasy, and that particular proliferation of vampires. While there’s a case to be made that fanged fiction is the literary equivalent of a dot com bubble – certainly, no trend goes upwards forever – I’m sceptical of the notion that it will all come to nothing. Urban fantasy, apart from anything else, has always been the gateway drug of make-believe: particularly on television, viewers who might otherwise be put off by fantastic elements are comforted by the simltaneous presence of what is real and familiar, while others of us get our kicks from seeing the norm subverted. The fact that Harry Potter and Edward Cullen have helped move this phenomenon from screen to page seems overdue, and not in the least bit faddish. Which isn’t to say that public opinion won’t steadily turn elsewhere until the Next Big Thing – that’s only human nature. But for all that vampires are the current flavour of the month, the idea that they’ll vannish between airings is absurd – Stephenie Meyer no more invented the oeurve than did Anne Rice.

Both despite and because of this broadening of geekishness to new and wonderful realms, hard SF remains a beloved, male-dominated genre in its own right. But if one were interested in drawing conclusions about the varying ends of a given spectrum, paranormal romance would seem to be as feminine and popular a fantastic subsidiary as hard SF is masculine. Which is why, to reach a long-awaited point, I don’t think it’s going anywhere: because for the first time, fantasy has found a foothold which isn’t mainly male or gender-neutural by virtue of diversity, but expressly, purposefully feminine – and proud of it. More than anything else, the current boom in paranormal romance feels like the response of a market which has hitherto existed, but remained largely untapped, populated by the kind of intelligent, imaginative women who might shy away from picking up a Harlequin romance novel, but who still – often without realising it – have been hankering for a little bit of literary lust. 

Ironically, it’s taken a surge in YA fantasy for this to become apparent, assuming the legions of grown women lining up to buy Twilight are anything to go by. But if there’s one thing the sexual revolution and the mainstreaming of fantasy have taught us, it’s that guilty pleasures – even when they’re not so much guilty as wildly, passionately longed-for pleasures – are nothing to be ashamed of.

There is every reason why today should have seen me curled in a foetal ball of nausea, hissing at natural light and sobbing at the prospect of solid food, viz: the fact that I stayed up until nearly 4AM last night listening to music from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and doing my level best, along with Fiona, in whose house we are currently lodging, to polish off a fifth bottle of wine. There are precedents for all these things, usually resulting in the afforementioned state of misery. Instead, I woke up at quarter to nine, made myself a large serving of scrambled eggs with pesto, ham and fetta, drank some OJ, brought the washing in, watched some Stars in Moderately Priced Cars segments from Top Gear on YouTube, and then spent the rest of the day writing. Admittedly, this also involved a nap around 3PM, the making of BLT sandwiches for our hungover household and a reasonable quantity of internetting, but by and large, I’ve had a productive day. Which is astonishing.

Currently, the sequal to Solace and Grief is sitting pretty at 50,000-odd words, many of which are being systematically replaced with better ones. As a WIP, The Key to Starveldt has been causing me endless strife, partly because of my perception that the second volume in any trilogy is inherently the trickiest, but mostly because I stuffed it up bonza on the first go. Happily, those scenes are now a thing of the past – well, almost – and the process of trying to fix my own errors before anyone else can point them out has been an extraordinarily valueable learning curve. After months of strategic note-making, scene-rearranging, word-scrapping and character-changing, I’m finally making what feels like genuine progress. Sure, the word count isn’t rising much, but that’s because I’m deleting old words at a rate  roughly consumate with my addition of new ones. 

And this time, it feels right.

 

 

Warning: spoilers ahoy!

As keen readers of this blog may have noticed, I am currently overseas on what has thus far been a holiday. I say thus far because at some point in the near future, I will have to find myself a job, however temporarily, in order to supplement our saved monies with new monies. But until that happy day arrives, I will continue to enjoy a glorious abundance of reading time. Since our departure on August 20 – eighteen days ago – I have read fourteen books. And of those fourteen, eight have come courtesy of Charliane Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse/Southern Vampire series. Only the most recent volume, Dead and Gone, has escaped my eagle eye, and that’s because (a) it’s still in hardback and (b) I want to savour it. Also, I only finished From Dead to Worse last night. At 1 am.

Being a regular occupant of the fantasy/sci-fi/paranormal section of various bookshops, I think I can reasonably claim that, up until the recent advent of the True Blood TV series, which is based on the books, Charlaine Harris was not taking up nearly so much shelf space in Australia as is currently the case. In fact, I only knew of the series through an online article comparing the roles and personalities of various women in vampire books, and despite having had True Blood recommended to me by several friends – and despite the fact that the article itself mentions True Blood – it wasn’t until I wandered into a store and found a prominently displayed copy of Dead Until Dark emblazoned with a reference to the TV show that I realised one was based on the other. It was enough to make me buy the first book, which I finished at the airport, and from there on in, I have been shamelessly hooked.

So let me cut to the title of this piece: Sookie Stackhouse – and Charlaine Harris – are awesome. With each book, I find myself making notes on exactly why the series works; I can’t vouch for True Blood, not having watched it (yet), but here are my top 5 reasons why Sookie Stackhouse beats the pants off every other vampire-lovin’ heroine on offer:

1. The Setting

Sookie Stackhouse lives in a little town in Northern Louisiana called Bon Temps. Unlike Sunnydale, home of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Bon Temps is not endowed with a local hospital, seaport, airport, military base or university campus as the narrative requries: rather, it genuinely is a small town, and manages to remain so despite Sookie’s many adventures. Despite her strong cast of locals, Harris feels no pressing need to set every single incident in Bon Temps, happily moving events to bigger cities like Shreveport, Dallas and New Orleans; and when she does write about Sookie’s home ground, there’s always a strong sense of local humdrum. People hold grudges; they get married, or engaged, or pregnant; and while these happenings aren’t at the core of the series, they nonetheless glue everything together.

2. The Real (and Unreal) World

This is something of a sticking point for urban fantasy stories. The notion of a secret world existing beneath the real one is definitely intriguing, but the very fact of that secrecy means that the real world must play second fiddle to supernatural events: the magic-world can impinge on real-world events as a matter of course, but except for human ignorance necessitating secrecy in the first place, the reverse is rarely true. By creating a setting where vampires alone of a thriving supernatural world have revealed themselves to the public, Harris has created an intriguing, original balance between the real and the magical. There is a publicly anti-vampire church called the Fellowship of the Sun, and there are maenads, fairies, half-demons and their kindred keeping out of sight. There are vampire-exclusive hotels and airlines, and hidden inbred communities of wereanimals. There are vampire groupies (fangbangers), humans who make an illegal living from draining and selling vampire blood for its potent qualities (Drainers) and anomalies like Sookie. In the backdrop of each story are supernatural politics: werewolves and shifters debating whether to take the vampire path and reveal themselves, vampires trying to ‘mainstream’ and live among humans, ancient vampire politics revitalised for the modern age, and laws being blocked or passed in government that affect the vampire community. Perhaps most significantly, the effect of Hurricane Katrina finds its way into the narrative, a real-real world event crossing into real-and-magical world territory. As per Anne Rice’s established canon, Harris started out by treating New Orleans as a vampire mecca, and set the sixth Sookie book, Definitely Dead, in the city. It was published after the hurricane had struck, but as its events took place – quite by accident – in the months prior to Katrina, Harris was able to integrate the tragedy into Sookie’s chronology without recourse to retconning. As a consequence, the plots of the following volumes – All Together Dead and From Dead to Worse – are both contingent on Katrina having disrupted vampire and werewolf territories, forcing migrations between states and providing Sookie with houseguests from New Orleans, friends whose homes were destroyed or damaged in the disaster. At a micro level, Harris has a profound sense of events having consequences, and of the fact that sometimes, there’s a delay between cause and effect. None of her Sookie books is entirely cathartic, but rather consists of a segment of life, some aspects of which lead naturally to future plots, while others don’t – and in a supernatural series, that particular realism is wonderful.

3. The Human Element

Thanks to Harris’s skills as a writer, Sookie Stackhouse is an entirely believable character. Having been raised in Bon Temps, she’s never been to college and is largely self-educated; she says her prayers at night before falling asleep, worries about the choices she makes, budgets for house repairs, shops, works, pays her bills, and in every important respect reads as a real person. This is true of all Harris’s characters, even when they aren’t entirely human: there are no straw men to be found, and the fact that Sookie is a telepathic narrator means that even passing characters can have their thoughts refreshingly outlined without the need for a break in narrative voice. Even the vampires, to whom Sookie is attracted precisely because she can’t read their minds, feel like representatives of a real and different species in their own right: Harris has managed to make them both alien and familiar all at once, and not just brooding humans with a fetish for necks. 

4. The Chemistry

There’s something very sexy about the Sookie Stackhouse books – and by ‘sexy’, I don’t mean our heroine spends 90% of the time with her kit off. Sookie enjoys sex, and there’s certainly some thrilling scenes, but the sexiness comes from the chemistry of well-crafted relationships, not just mindless boinking. The fact that Harris has distinguished fangbangers – vampire groupies – as a social phenomenon of her new world order is a welcome brow-raise to the legions of vampire heroines desperate to get themselves bit and turned. Sookie doesn’t want to be a vampire. She wants a family, a loving partner and money in the bank; and her dealings with vampires, when not sexual, focus primarily on the latter qualification. Even when she’s in love with one of the undead, she never so much as contemplates eternal life. There’s an extraordinarily welcome realism to the notion of a female heroine who is neither pining for centuries of love with the first vampire she meets nor constantly jumping the bones of anything supernatural. At times, Sookie might be looking for love in all the wrong places, but like so many real women, the important thing is that she is looking, and not just for a one night stand. Her telepathy means that any relationship with a normal human would be shortlived: it would simply be too painful to be constantly aware of all the negative thoughts, repressed fantasies and disloyal impulses that cross the regular human mind – and if we, as readers, are honest with ourselves, we can understand this in a heartbeat.

5. The Genre

Ignoring their paranormal and romantic themes, the Sookie Stackhouse novels are well-written mysteries in their own right. Harris’s gift for realistic background detail and her avoidance of false catharsis makes the whodunit element a genuine page-turner. Sookie-as-narrator thinks in a playful, often humerous voice, with an earthy, sensible grounding  – perhaps an uncommon feature of fantasy heroines, but one which serves both creator and character in excellent stead. The Sookie Stackhouse books would be at home in multiple sections of the bookstore, and yet are decidedly unformulaic. It is not a requirement of each book that Sookie has sex, or kills someone, or falls in love – rather, there are various things which may or may not happen, and each story is a different triangulation of familiar points. Events progress; relationships end; minor characters dip in and out – the people behave like people. There is humour, and danger, and luck – the latter always being a tricky thing to write, but which Harris pulls off with aplomb – and there is comfort, and loss, and a natural advancement of Sookie’s knowledge of the hidden world. Harris has said recently that she has a couple more Sookie books in her, and while I fervently hope this is the case, I also hope that, when she does eventually leave Bon Temps to fend for itself, she only closes half the doors, and leaves a couple of windows open. Because that  realness – that sense of possibility, of the day to day, of small events making big waves and big events causing micro changes – is what creates such an abiding sense of affection for the series. Sookie Stackhouse is a wonderful gal, and luckily for both her and Harris, she’s found the writer she deserves.

As has been previously mentioned, I am very much enjoying the UK. We leave Surrey for Bristol tomorrow, having been in our current locale for exactly two weeks. In the spirit of commemoration, therefore, here is a list of things I have learned since being in England.

1. Alcohol and supermarket food, especially cheese, are cheaper than their equivalents in Australia, even accounting for the dollars/pounds conversion.

2. Train fares are more expensive, but better value for money, seeing as how British rail and the tube actually work. (Connex, take note!)

3. Fish finger sandwiches with mayonnaise are extremely tasty.

4. Sloe gin is, as the name suggests, regular gin with sloes in’t. Sloes are small, purple-brown berries. On their own, they do not taste wonderful. Neither does gin. But mix them together, and by God, you have a spiritous, mule-kickin’ beverage that drinks like port, warms like whiskey and hammers like dawn. Also, it is delicious.

5. Sloe gin is, as the name suggests, gin. Drinking it as if it were port is therefore not recommended.

6. Camden Markets is my new spiritual home. On an average Thursday at 3pm, the crowds were equivalent to that of any street festival you’d care to name, and bounteous with (but by no means limited to): tattoo parlours, striped stockings, blue hair, market stalls, African food, Lolita Goths, silversmiths, canals, rainbow knits, anime, punk, leather and lace. There is a pub called the World’s End, and beside it, a shop called Underworld. It is a magic place.

7. There are many excellent bookshops, first and secondhand, on Charing Cross Road, into which I could cheerfully (though inadvisably) take a shopping trolley and a credit card. Of these, Foyles is the most mindboggling. It is huge. If Camden Markets were not my spiritual home, then I suspect Foyles would be.

8. Luggage has a tendency to grow overnight, in the fashion of mushrooms.

9. Deadlines become hazy when they were set on a different island.

10. We will soon be living with a cat called Genghis. Which is awesome.