fbook icon 60The Amazing Mr Carroll

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All my life I’ve been intrigued by Lewis Carroll’s Victorian masterpieces: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. As a little girl, I found the books irresistible, even though there were parts that terrified me. Being the kind of child who liked order and stability, I couldn’t cope with a chaotic world where rules changed by the minute, if they even existed at all. Reading Alice was like watching a scary movie – you would put your hands over your eyes and then take a quick peek anyway because you couldn’t help yourself. Perhaps that’s why the storyline and characters have lived in my subconscious ever since.

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As an adult I’ve come back to Carroll’s work unencumbered by the fear factor that plagued my childhood reading of it. I’ve discovered the delightful word play and the amazing levels of meaning embedded in the text.

When I was writing the first draft of THE JADE WIDOW, it struck me that my two female protagonists were facing a similar dilemma to Carroll’s Alice - the search for identity in a changing world. For Alice, the journey is a fantastical one; for Amy and Eliza it’s a life journey with serious choices to be made. Who and what do they want to be? Which path will they choose? Where will it lead? What happens if they break the rules? Or can they change them to suit themselves?

My childhood copy of Alice in Wonderland was a 1904 edition, passed down from one generation of my mother’s family to the next and now residing with me. Although the cover is battered and a few of the colour plates have been ripped out, it’s basically intact. You can see some of the pages here.

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When I was in Year 6, our teacher announced that she was staging a musical version of Alice in Wonderland and sought candidates for the leading roles. At that point in my young life I secretly dreamed of being an actress, so naturally enough I wanted to play the heroine. Sadly it wasn’t to be. I could act reasonably well, but I was hopeless at singing and dancing. The starring role went to my best friend, who happened to be a beautiful ballet dancer. What part was I given? The Mad Hatter? The Doormouse? The Cheshire Cat? None of the above. I played a shellfish in the lobster quadrille, where I performed a very clumsy soft-shoe shuffle. 

Deborah O’Brien

November 2013

 


fbook icon 60Film Review: 'About Time'

 

If you’re the kind of writer who pens heart-warming, bittersweet stories with quirky, endearing characters, you can sometimes confuse ‘charming’ with ‘cloying’, and ‘poignant’ with ‘corny’. It’s difficult to get the balance right, but for the most part Richard Curtis has succeeded in his new film, About Time.

As the title suggests, the plot is predicated on time travel. You could argue that this device has been done to death – from Doctor Who (for which Curtis wrote the Van Gogh episode) to Back to the Future to The Time Traveller's Wife and Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris.

Like Allen, Curtis adopts a low-tech approach, eschewing fancy time machines, rocket ships or special effects. Allen used a clock chiming midnight and a vintage car to trigger his time warp; Curtis employs that classic English staple, the wardrobe. But unlike Allen, he neither yearns to experience a long-ago era nor to hobnob with its luminaries. Instead, Curtis takes a small-scale, slightly illogical but deeply personal approach to the sci-fi elements of his story. And I suspect that’s one of the reasons why it works as well as it does. The other reason is Bill Nighy. From the moment we hear his delightfully twitchy explanation of how the adult males in the family can journey back in time, we’re prepared to play along with an intriguing possibility. After all, who hasn’t asked themselves: If only I’d done that differently?

Inevitably, where there’s time travel, there’s also a love story. In About Time we have two ‘love stories’: the romance between Domhnall Gleeson (Tim) and Rachel McAdams (Mary), plus the loving relationship between Nighy and his red-headed son. As a parent and a daughter, I found their scenes together incredibly moving.

The supporting cast is superb – the magnificent Lindsay Duncan as Tim’s mother, Joshua McGuire as the nerdy but lovable Rory, Lydia Wilson as Tim’s eccentric and endearing sister, Richard Cordery as the adorable uncle (you just want to hug him) and Tom Hollander as the self-obsessed playwright. It's also poignant to see Richard Griffiths in what must have been his last film. And who wouldn't love the brief cameo from the gorgeous Richard E. Grant?

There are a few occasions when Curtis hits us over the head with his carpe diem message – including the voiceover at the end – though it’s done with such charm that I really didn’t mind.

I’d recommend this film to anyone who enjoys a clever, funny, feel-good story. But be prepared to shed a few tears – I cried on and off for the last forty minutes, yet I wouldn’t call it a tearjerker. That’s the magic of About Time. Even though it teeters on the edge of being corny and contrived, it rarely loses its balance. 

Deborah O’Brien

October 19, 2013

 


fbook icon 60The Jade Widow @ Mr Chen's Emporium

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How did I spend my weekend? Was I madly writing my next novel, or pulling out weeds in the garden, or even working through the embarrassingly high pile of ironing in the laundry basket? No, I have a confession to make - I was building a model. You can see the result in the picture above, based on Chris Nielsen's enchanting illustrations for the covers of MR CHEN'S EMPORIUM and THE JADE WIDOW.

When I was a child, I could spend hours making houses out of Lego. The size was limited only by the number of blocks in our Lego box. I loved drawing house plans too. I yearned to design buildings. But it was not to be. Just as I couldn't become a fashion designer (because I couldn't sew), I couldn't be an architect either. Why? Because I was (and remain) hopeless at maths. Can you imagine the kind of houses I would have designed? They might have looked gorgeous in the drawings, but the walls would have been wonky, the ceilings irregular and the windows ill-fitting.

So I've sublimated the unfulfilled architectural ambitions into my writing and the result is a collection of buildings playing a starring role in my novels, including the Emporium, the Old Manse, the Emporium Hotel and Millerbrooke House.

I'm never happier than when I'm making a 3D model of a building. I suppose it takes me back to the Lego days. This past weekend I sat down with cardboard, scissors and glue and merrily put the emporium together. I didn't have a plan, I just let things unfold (pardon the pun). At the last moment I decided to add the Jade Widow and the porcelain urns. 

My next project (which might have to wait until I've emptied the ironing basket) will be Amy's Emporium Hotel. I'm looking forward to making that fairytale turret a reality!

P.S. You can read about my sewing disasters here.

Deborah O'Brien

October 14, 2013


fbook icon 60Ode to Spring

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I’ve sometimes wondered why Keats wrote an ode to autumn and nothing about spring. After all, it's a season to delight the senses with its blossoms and newly minted leaves. But perhaps that was the problem. Maybe he preferred the mellowness of autumn to the brashness of spring. 

For those who live in a temperate, coastal city such as Sydney, one season tends to merge into the next with very little fanfare. However, here in the tablelands, we’re blessed with four distinct seasons. Admittedly, there’s a long, cold winter, but it’s inevitably followed by a glorious spring. Here’s my own ode to spring - in pictures.

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 The gorgeous garden below belongs to Janice and Tom, who live not far from us. It’s just brimming with old-fashioned flowers and fragrant shrubs.

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And here's our view to the west on a spring afternoon.

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Deborah O'Brien

September 2013


When a Platypus's Fancy Turns to Love

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For the past few days we've been watching something very special - two platypuses swimming in the same area of our creek. We first spotted them from the living room window on Friday. Straight away we grabbed our cameras and raced down to the creek. And there they were, swimming and duck-diving in the midday sun. So much for the scientists who maintain they're only active at dawn and dusk. Living with them on a day-to-day basis, we know differently.

If you've read MR CHEN'S EMPORIUM or THE JADE WIDOW, you'll know that the platypus is essentially a solitary and independent creature, who spends most of the year on his or her own. It's only in late winter and spring that we ever see two of them in close proximity. Why? Because it's mating time. Afterwards they'll go their separate ways.

The platypus is an amazing animal with a bill and webbed feet like a duck, tiny eyes like a mole, fur like an otter and venom like a snake (in the male's hind spur). In MR CHEN'S EMPORIUM Amy Duncan's little brother has a nasty encounter with a male platypus after trying to dislodge it from its burrow. Serves him right, as far as I'm concerned. I've actually seen two teenage boys beating the banks of the creek with sticks in an attempt to upset the platypus. As they were on the other side of the creek, all I could do was yell at them. I must have given them a fright because they ran away and we haven't seen them since.

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As you can see from the picture taken this morning, a platypus will float low in the water and that makes it very difficult to photograph. Unfortunately we didn't manage to get both platypuses in the same shot. You can clearly see the concentric circles of ripples that are often the first sign a platypus is present.

A floating platypus actually looks like a little crocodile, which I suppose reflects its primeval reptilian origins. Egg-laying mammals or 'monotremes', as the scientists call them, are, in fact, the oldest form of mammal. There are only two such species in existence and both live in Australia  - the other is the echidna, also known as the spiny anteater.

A platypus can reach quite a speed when it's swimming along the surface - we estimate it can go at about 8 to 10 kilometres an hour, but I just read a reference book which said they can reach speeds of up to 35km an hour! I imagine that would be over a very short distance.

Here is a part of our creek where we often see platypuses. They like to forage among the fallen willow branches.

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N.B. There is some debate about the plural of the word 'platypus'. Scientists tend to use the same word for singular and plural - one platypus, two platypus . . .  In my books I've used the plural form 'platypuses' because it avoids confusion. I've heard people say 'platypi', but I suspect it's a misguided attempt at a Latin plural. To tell you the truth, it makes me shudder. 

Deborah O'Brien

September 23, 2013