Let’s be honest: Prey has problems

Diversity in films is an inherently good thing. Every story is told from a point of view, and more points of view mean more original stories, something of which I’m always in favour. Done well, altering race or cultural background can even improve a character. Michael Clarke Duncan in Daredevil (2003) is my favourite example of this – giving the Kingpin a boy-from-the-’hood back story made him far more complex and interesting than the one-dimensional villain portrayed in the Marvel comics.

The trouble is Hollywood has started writing scripts with diversity as its primary concern… and picking characters first before attempting to build a story around them is bad creative practice. Unless you’re penning a character study, the story idea has to come first, because it helps inform who the characters should be. Maybe they’ll be diverse, maybe they’ll be largely one race; worrying about that should not be the writer’s focus. He or she should be choosing characters that fit the setting and ensure conflict and verisimilitude.

I liked the idea of Prey. Putting a fierce Native American warrior tribe such as the Comanche up against the alien warrior society established in the earlier Predator films struck me as a fundamentally good concept. And even though having a female protagonist did suggest a level of ‘diversity first’ thinking, it didn’t concern me too much. The whole point of the original movie was that Dutch ended up outmuscled and outgunned and had to use his wits to survive. A female lead might put an interesting kink in the formula.

And Prey does have some redeeming qualities. The cinematography is quite beautiful, the action scenes are well choreographed, and the performances, generally speaking, are competent. The costumes are also fairly authentic, even if the actors involved tend to be too beautiful to convince the audience they are part of a warrior people living off the land in the 18th century. (In fact, the Nasty White Men are more convincing in this respect – more on them later.)

Now, before I pick the movie apart, let me disclose something. The original Predator is among my all-time favourite films. I believe it’s one of those movies snooty film critics could not or would not deign to understand, in much the same way stodgy music critics could not begin to comprehend N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton, much less its success. Contemporary reviews which did praise Predator tended to focus on the special effects and completely overlook everything else that made the film work.

Perhaps ironically, then, the least of Prey’s failings is its overuse of CGI. Rendering gore with computer graphics is an inevitable part of modern special effects and, applied the right way in the right situations, it can be effective. But in Prey CGI is thrown about with gay abandon and during the final ten or fifteen blood-soaked minutes the use of computer graphics is so profligate that the finale loses most of its impact.

Next issue is gimmickry. In fairness, gimmicky weapons have been a problem in every Predator film since the original (the updated weapons in Predator 2 had a certain logic, at least – a decade had passed and it was feasible the predators would have developed new technologies just as humanity had). Not only does Prey give us gimmicky weapon overload, it disrespects existing Predator lore in the process. During one scene, the predator sets up floating devices (why does he need to enter a special code for that?) before wandering off to let them massacre the Nasty White Men remotely. In what way does that correspond with an alien race that enjoys the thrill of the hunt? The predators could have just shot at them from space and been done with it.

On now to the antique pistol. This one really gets my goat. It’s an attempt at a nod to its forebears, but in doing so Prey it completely disrespects one of the most memorable pieces of lore added in Predator 2. Remember the scene where the predators hand an antique pistol to Danny Glover as an acknowledgment of his dogged determination in defeating his adversary? Presumably the human who originally owned the pistol had been a sufficiently worthy opponent for the predators to keep his weapon as a trophy. In the clumsy hands of the Prey writers, however, it is now no more than a trinket, a gun stolen from the Nasty White Men who are little more than grunting savages.

As for the herbs that “cool the blood” and make Naru invisible to the predator… do I really need to elaborate on why this conceit is absolutely ridiculous?

The script, generally, has problems; its reduction of the white pioneers to a gibbering plot device (much as Native Americans were in the old cowboys-and-Indians flicks) being a comparatively minor transgression. Prey barely has a storyline. I suppose you could level a similar criticism at the first two Predator movies, but at least they had memorable characters and high stakes (Dutch Schaffer and his team trying to stay alive long enough to rendezvous with the rescue chopper, Mike Harrigan trying to figure out who is behind a rash of murders that have no clear motive). The nearest thing Prey has to a motivational through-line is Naru attempting to prove herself as a warrior, which is all very right-on and feminist, but it renders the predator incidental to the situation. It might as well be a bear.

Dialogue was among the most memorable elements of the first two films and, even when it was being self-consciously corny, it remained eminently quotable. In Prey, there’s not much dialogue to speak of and what there is either comes across as cliched or anachronistic (I actually winced when Taabe said “I’ve gotta get me one of those” about the horses).

Last and perhaps worst of all is how the predator meets its demise. I was anticipating – preying for? – some strategic brilliance from Naru, but instead she emerges victorious thanks to a combination of implausible luck on her part and wanton stupidity from the predator.

I can only assume those calling Prey “the best film since the original” have seen none of the films since the original, because by any objective measure it’s really only on par with Predators and The Predator (the Alien vs Predator films are really a different franchise, in my opinion). Trying to deflect well-deserved criticism by claiming it’s rooted in sexism or racism, as many Twitter types have done, is tiresome and intellectually bankrupt. Let me reiterate: the female lead and the Native American perspective are not the problem with this film. The problem is, it’s not very good.

Dystopian fiction essay in Aurealis #153

Life experience can make an enormous difference to the way a person interprets a novel. Back in the late 1990s, I read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World for the first time and its prescience (at least as I saw it then) had a profound impact on me. I was peripherally enmeshed in the party drug scene at the time, and Huxley’s vision of a world made soft and obedient through mood-altering drugs seemed a far more accurate prediction than the paranoid nightmare outlined in George Orwell’s 1984. Of course, this was the last gasp of the era before the September 11 terrorist attacks changed politics (and social media changed how those politics would be disseminated and debated) forever, and Orwell’s concerns are now front and centre again, but to a kid in his early twenties, Huxley’s foresight seemed remarkable.

When the estimable non-fiction editor at Aurealis, Terry Wood, suggested a look back at some older sci-fi writers might make a good topic for an essay, and he listed Huxley’s name as a possible subject, it set my neurons afire. I had in more recent years read and been similarly impressed with Ira Levin’s dystopian novel This Perfect Day and it rekindled my love for the genre. Once I’d officially received the commission from Terry, I commenced my research with a re-reading of Brave New World

Never before had I revisited a book and found such a vast disparity between my recollections of it and what was on the pages before me. What I had retained from my first read-through – the drug use – amounted to a small fraction of the book’s total, and I might as well have been encountering the characters and huge tracts of plot for the first time. I also recollected the pacing being more frantic. On this second read – more than two decades after the first – I found the centre section of Brave New World rather plodding. Odd indeed, since my tolerance for a more languid pace has, if anything, become greater. In a sense, it was as though two different people had read the book.

But reacquainting myself with Brave New World (and 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 and This Perfect Day) proved to be quite the intellectual journey and, as I assessed each book, a clear recurring theme began to emerge – one which formed the framework for the essay in Aurealis, titled ‘Individualism in 20th Century Dystopian fiction’. If you have an interest in this sub-genre (which melds sci-fi, horror and political allegory in a unique way), I hope you’ll buy a copy of the magazine and send me your thoughts about the essay and the subject at large.

Novella available for pre-sale

Last year I wrote a horror story called ‘The Pub at Crokers Crossing’. While I was pleased with the final product, it had two things going against it. One, it was an Australian story populated with Australian characters, and US markets are often allergic to such qualities. Two, it ran to nearly 9,000 words – too long for most short fiction markets and far too short to be a novel.

I’m super-excited to announce it found a home at Black Hare Press, a small publisher operating out of Melbourne. ‘The Pub at Crokers Crossing’ goes on sale next month in e-book, paperback and hardback and is available to pre-order now.

The blurb: “Two retired couples on a caravanning holiday decide to visit a ghost town they find on an old map, but the town has not been abandoned entirely—as they soon discover in terrifying fashion…”

And here’s a sample to whet your appetite:

The road doglegged before widening out and pushing back the dense brushland. The town hove into view a few moments later: a weather-beaten timber building that might once have been a church or a schoolhouse; a brown and rust-torn water tank perched on drunken stilts; a cleared area (now overrun with weeds) that served as a graveyard for flatbed trucks and ramshackle farm buildings. In the distance, noxious reeds had choked a creek down to a chain of stagnant ponds.

The hotel, hunched in the centre of town like a punch-drunk pugilist, was the only structure in any sort of repair. Sections of the corrugated tin roof curled up at the corners and a creeping plant had run riot through the gutters, but hardwood columns at each end lent the pub an imposing air. Parked outside were a few newish-model cars. Beside us a sign, now more lichen than pine and paint, whispered that this had once been Crokers Crossing.

News: The Vanishing Point #4 now available

Available to pre-order now, and going on sale later this week, is issue #4 of The Vanishing Point, which contains my short story ‘Bloodborne’.

It’s a body-horror piece set in one of my favourite milieus, the Australian outback. The elevator pitch? “A seemingly innocuous mosquito bite leads to unimaginable terror.”

If it has a theme it’s probably “the loneliness and isolation that come with living in a remote area”, but it’s not really that kind of story – this one’s designed to make you squirm. I hope you enjoy it.

Transgressive literature’s limited shelf-life

I have in my possession a copy of Junky (1953) by William S. Burroughs. It’s a 2009 Penguin Classics edition, which means it hasn’t spent long in my book collection, yet I have no idea how I came to own it. An impulse purchase at an airport, perhaps. I’d always believed I’d read it, yet when I picked it up again recently and began to thumb through the pages, I discovered I had abandoned it a short way in. I could see why; it’s a series of loosely connected autobiographical vignettes disguised as fiction and provides little that could be construed as a storyline.

This time around I persevered (it improves as it goes along) and got through all its pages, including the introduction and the glossary. There have been all sorts of retroactive attempts to justify Junky as a classic – an existentialist classic, a counter-culture classic, a gonzo classic published while Hunter S. Thompson was still a wet-behind-the-ears Air Force enlistee. But what I came away with was an appreciation for how limited the shelf-life of transgressive fiction can be.

Between 1930 and 1970, literature pushed boundaries more than ever before, depicting with bare honesty things which up to that point had been proscribed by restrictive Victorian-era mores. In Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928), D. H. Lawrence was scandalously truthful about sexual desire. With Junky, Burroughs lifted the lid on homosexuality and drug use. In Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), Philip Roth went into obscene detail about sexual fetishes. In each case, the transgressive topics about which the authors wrote lent them notoriety, but once the shock factor wore off, their work was left to survive on its merits – and in all three cases, the results were middling.

Lawrence probably fares best, his tale of forbidden love between the titular lady and her gamekeeper at least employs a classic theme, although tiresome pacing and prose make his book a bit of a slog. Junky is the most competently written of the trio, with vivid descriptions of hard drug use and a kind of sordid energy running through it, but the choppy non-storyline and abrupt ending make it feel more like a series of diary entries than a novel. Portnoy’s Complaint is easily the worst of the lot, transgressive for the sake of it and marred by an absurdist streak that divorces it from reality.

Transgressive fiction can be done well. Chuck Palahniuk has made an authorial brand out of it. But even he is selling himself short, in my opinion, because his stories and novels have literary merit beyond their shock value. His transgressive topics are a means to a thematic end, not a cheap trick, and for that reason his work likely won’t age in the same fashion as the novels mentioned above.

It’s a salutary lesson for any neophyte author. Write about whatever the hell you like, but make sure you have a sound reason for choosing your subject matter. Gratuitously pushing boundaries and breaking taboos might draw short-term attention, but it won’t result in timeless literature.

Stories and novellas and essays, oh my

Home renovations, family commitments and my day job have left scant time to update my website. But the silver lining is I now have plenty of news to relate about upcoming publications.

First off, the recently released Aurealis #150 features my essay, ‘The slow-burn brilliance of Midnight Mass – a dissection and appreciation of Mike Flanagan’s exceptional Netflix series. Here’s a short excerpt:

Like many Gen X/Y writers, [Flanagan] suckled at Stephen King’s creative teat and King wrote the rule book on character-building in a small town setting without boring the reader. This means the reader invests in the characters and feels more keenly the misfortune that befalls them later. Flanagan uses this as a blueprint for Midnight Mass, often devoting two-thirds of the early episodes to character development and garden variety drama before bringing the supernatural element to bear.

A later edition of Aurealis will play host to another essay, ‘Individualism in 20th Century dystopian fiction’. This one delves into four landmark works in the genre published between 1930 and 1970: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury and This Perfect Day by Ira Levin. Rather than simply reheat the same old thematic discussions, I approached each book from an individualist perspective and, I hope, put a new spin on titles that are nearly threadbare from decades of critical evaluation.

Things are no quieter on the fiction front. On the way shortly is Sci-Fi Lampoon’s unforgettably-titled The Fuckening, which will contain my longish story ‘Imaginary Murder’. The Fuckening is an anthology dedicated to humourous speculative fiction about everything going wrong, and that’s an apt description of ‘Imaginary Murder’.

I’ve also just signed a contract with Vanishing Point, a new fiction magazine, to publish my short story ‘Bloodborne’ – a creepy, nasty, skin-crawling tale of isolation and infection.

Third up is another project I’m not at liberty to speak about, but it’s perhaps the most exciting – a very Australian novella that will appear under the auspices of a small-press Australian publisher. More on that when the time comes.

Shortlisted for Australian Shadows Awards

The nominated essay appeared in Aurealis #127.

I’m delighted to report my essay ‘The Curious Reclassification of Peter Benchley’s Jaws’ has been nominated for an Australian Shadows Award.

The essay investigates the question of genre, specifically whether the novel Jaws should be deemed thriller or horror and how the uncertainty came about.

It’s my second Shadows Award nomination – another essay, ‘Suffer the Little Children: An Analysis of Parental Horror in Stephen King’s Early Fiction’, was shortlisted in the 2019 awards.

Big thanks go to non-fiction editor Terry Wood at Aurealis for his continued interest in my ramblings. He has agreed to publish two more of my speculative fiction essays during 2022.

The Aurealis issues in which these essays appeared (#119 and #127) are still available – click on the bibliography link above if you’re interested in buying a copy.

Fingers crossed I can get the gong this year!

What this writer learned from the pandemic

Life’s pleasantest times don’t always involve big occasions or events. Back in February 2020, I was underway on a new horror novel and decided to take a day’s leave from my regular job so I could work on the manuscript uninterrupted. It promised to be a hot day, so at around ten o’clock I took my iPad to the local sports club, bought a coffee, and sat in the air conditioning to do the pretentious author thing – write in public.

Seated in a booth, coffee at hand, I got underway. If it wasn’t the single most enjoyable writing experience of my life, it easily rates in the top three. During the next few hours I churned out 3000 words (and added another 1000 or so that evening, a personal best). I can still remember the scene I was writing, which involved a small-town priest running afoul of the law for drink driving. The words just poured out of me. I don’t think a chapter has ever unfolded in my imagination with such clarity.

A few weeks later, I was no longer permitted to leave my house except for essential travel and exercise.

Like a good many writers, when COVID lockdown was first announced I shrugged my shoulders. By nature writers are solitary creatures who spend large chunks of time inside. I’m also a film and TV buff, so I suddenly had extra hours in my day to catch up on the shows and movies I’d never got around to. I burned through the final 50,000 words of my novel in a couple of months. COVID lockdown brought definite inconveniences – I really missed the gym – but on the whole it struck me as a net positive.

As “flatten the curve” became a month and then the pandemic stretched into its first year, however, my mood changed. Australia, on the whole, got off pretty lightly when it came to lockdowns and restrictions, but COVID still took a psychological toll.

Reflecting back on the past two years, I see it was the uncertainty as much as the isolation that made life a chore. Bunkering down and not seeing friends and family would have been more tolerable with a clear finish line, but of course each new variant pushed the finish line out of reach again and threw work plans into disorder. My psyche had always run on a pretty even keel, but I didn’t realise how much I owed that evenness to vigorous gym sessions and the prospect of what tomorrow would bring.

It was especially bad during the winter months. I’m a summer person and tend to get down in the mouth during the colder months anyway, so the August 2021 lockdown in Sydney was probably my bleakest point. It didn’t help, either, that my wife and I were stuck at home with two kids, one of school age. Concentrating on anything for more than 15 or 20 minutes without interruption was close to impossible. I understood why some people felt the need to take to the streets and protest.

This creeping despair manifested most keenly in my lack of creative spirit. I had no drive to write fiction at all. It was as though the powerline feeding the creative centre of my brain had been cut. I wondered whether my fiction-writing career was over – a dismal and depressing thought.

My grandfather lived to be 98. Right up until his final few years, his mantra was, “You’ve gotta keep busy.” Most men of his generation downed tools on their 65th birthday and put their hands out for a pension; he worked until he was 66 and only retired then because his lousy eyesight made it difficult to do the necessary driving and bookwork. In his seventies he learned how to operate a personal computer and used it to write articles for the Colostomy Association journal he edited. He kept gardening all the way into his nineties. When his eyesight and hearing failed, however, he ended up becoming a hermit. A proud man to the end, he refused to go into an assisted living facility, so he almost never left the house. During my bouts of COVID-lockdown self-pity, it was that period in Grandpa’s life I thought about. The most optimistic and vital man I ever knew spent his last five years in lockdown. By the end, he must have wished for death.

Routine, structure, exercise, mental exertion, positive social interactions – these are the things that keep people sane and happy. Playing it safe in the early months of the pandemic made sense, but no one in authority paid more than occasional lip service to the devastating mental effects of lockdowns and restrictions as they dragged on.

Once Sydney’s second major lockdown was lifted in September 2021 and there were murmurings from my state’s new premier that we might move towards “living with COVID”, my mental state improved. Warmer days helped, too. In November, the non-fiction editor at Aurealis, Terry Wood, got in touch to ask if I might like to contribute an essay. The thought was daunting – it had been so long since I’d written anything unrelated to my day job – but fearfulness is often a bad reason to decline. So I proposed not one, but two.

Commencing research on the first essay (which will appear later this year) acted like jumper cables on my brain’s dead creative battery. I also started work on a new short story. Once that and the second essay are complete, I hope to pick up the thread of a novel I abandoned at the 20,000-word mark when lockdown sucked my will to write. In addition to the Aurealis essays, I have a couple of short stories awaiting publication and the novel I mentioned at the start of this post is under serious consideration with a small traditional publisher. I also found a healthy way to use Twitter (it’s harder than you’d think) and, yes, I’m updating this blog for the first time in months.

The point is, I think, that idleness doesn’t achieve anything. Yes, everyone needs downtime, an opportunity to decompress, recover, socialise, have fun, do nothing. But downtime should only constitute a pause in your wider timeline. If COVID taught me anything, it’s that having too much spare time is as bad or worse than being too busy. Responsibilities, deadlines, routine and structure are important, because they force you to do things you might not otherwise do. They make you work, work leads to achievement, achievement leads to happiness.

You’ve gotta keep busy. Words to live by.

Why woke weakens writing

Attempting to appease the diversity police is a no-win situation.

While I very much enjoyed Liane Moriarty’s latest novel Apples Never Fall, along the way one thing kept pulling me out of the story: nearly every minor character is ethnic.

Christina Khoury, the detective investigating Joy Delaney’s disappearance, is of Middle Eastern descent. Her partner, Constable Lim, is presumably Asian. The champion tennis player peripherally tangled up in the investigation is Harry Haddad. The kid across the road is Jacob Azinovic. And on and on it goes; nearly every incidental character in the novel has a non-Anglo name.

It wasn’t something I’d noticed in Moriarty’s books before and I assumed she’d done it at the behest of her publisher, but then inadvertently came across what I suspect is the real culprit: articles such as this one in The Guardian.

The core problem, of course, is that Moriarty’s a rich white woman living in a rich white suburb in the leafy streets of northern Sydney, and hasn’t a clue what life is like for Hussein Hussein in Granville. So she is reduced to sticking ethnic-sounding names on minor characters to satisfy the diversity police.

Attempting to appease such folks is a no-win situation. If you do write characters outside approved ethnic boundaries, you’ll be accused of ‘cultural appropriation’, or ‘insensitivity’ or whatever buzzword is popular among the woke set this week. If you don’t include minority characters, then your book will be accused of being ‘too white’.

The only real answer is to write whatever the hell you like and refuse to participate in the Guardian’s diversity litmus test. (Unless of course you are from an ethnic minority, in which case your fiction will be labelled ‘brave’ or ‘insightful’ no matter what you write because the racism of low expectations is now doctrine among what a Spiked columnist recently dubbed the ‘counter-Enlightenment’.)

I must confess to some experience in this. I’m about 20,000 words into a new novel set in the US. One of my characters is a female police officer and, at some point early on, I considered making her black. Not for a particular reason; only to appease those agents and editors who would read my manuscript down the line and apply a diversity check. The result? Everything to do with Charlene’s character stalled. No matter what I tried to write, it felt forced and fake. So in the end I forgot all about her skin colour, and soon enough her character began to blossom again.

You can’t bullshit the muse. She won’t play along if you’re not being honest about what you see and hear. I have no issue at all with diversity in fiction, but if you’re drawing attention to a person’s colour or sexual orientation or whatever, it had better serve the story. Otherwise, it’s gratuitous tick-a-box pandering – the literary equivalent of Oscar-baiting.

Another novel I’m shopping around at the moment features a gay character. I included him in part because I’d never written a gay character before and thought it would be an interesting and enlightening experience (“willed understanding” was how Stephen King once described writing about a Jewish character), but also because during my occasional intersections with the gay scene I’d observed that party drugs often featured highly, and addiction is a key theme in the novel.

Adding a character to your book because someone else thinks you should is really pre-emptive censorship – and censorship always makes writing worse. Always. Censors have been with us since the invention of the printing press, but in the past thirty years or so the literary world has betrayed its own principles. It used to be transgressive, the victim of censors. Today, too often, it censors itself or tries to censor others.

Many self-appointed experts now pooh-pooh the ‘write what you know’ doctrine, but for genre writers especially there’s no better way to ensure your more fantastic elements are couched in believable reality. So if you grew up in an all-white suburb and all your peers are middle-class professionals, don’t let anyone make you feel bad about using that milieu in your fiction.

It sure beats tacking ethnic names onto minor characters in a feeble attempt at ‘diversity’.

My strange relationship with Liane Moriarty

Once in a while a structural beam rots out and your whole life comes crashing down. That happened to me in early 2005. I was invited into a meeting room and informed my services would no longer be required at Derwent Howard Publishing. I was 27 at the time.

In a sense, I’d brought it on myself. For the previous two years I’d worked on a magazine called What DVD (back then you could still sell a magazine about DVDs) and in many ways it was my dream job. If it had been my sole responsibility, I probably would have remained as editor of What DVD until it died a natural death. But in addition to this monthly 98-page magazine, which I was producing with the aid of a designer and a small clutch of freelancers, I was also editing a monthly Kmart catalogue and occasionally creating movie-themed magazines from scratch. That’s right, sometimes I was putting out three titles a month.

‘Busy’ doesn’t describe it; some days I’d arrive in the office at 8am and still be making notes on DVD special features at 11pm, only stopping in between to eat or commute. For these CEO-style hours I was remunerated precisely $45,000 per year.

Sometimes I am pathologically honest, and that’s why I went to one of the publishers and declared, “I’m not coping. I love my job, but I’m starting to burn out.”

Rather than investigate ways to lighten my workload, the publisher’s ‘solution’ was to close What DVD immediately and have me work across an assortment of other titles. This seemed a rather drastic measure, but I simply shrugged my shoulders and went along with it. I was there to create interesting magazines, not make business decisions.

Then, a couple of months later, kaboom. I took my paltry redundancy payout and left the Derwent Howard offices, jobless and shellshocked. My girlfriend and I had a car loan and rent to pay, so I didn’t have much time to dwell on the redundancy’s psychological effects. I started doing some rats-and-mice freelance work while applying for new jobs. In the past, I’d moved from role to role with a ballerina’s insouciant grace, so I didn’t foresee any troubles finding a new job.

Three months later, I was still unemployed.

That depressing period of my life wasn’t an out-and-out write off – in addition to job hunting I also wrote my first published novel, Ghost Kiss – but desperate for full-time work, I accepted a role as sub-editor on That’s Life magazine. Fatefully (in the context of this article, anyway), it was published out of Pacific Publications in North Sydney.

In some ways Derwent Howard felt like a gentleman’s club for the 21st century: due to the content of the magazines (video games, DVDs, technology), the staff was overwhelmingly young and male. The Christmas parties became the stuff of legend and infamy. Most days DH felt as much like a frat house as a workplace. In contrast, the editorial team on That’s Life was almost entirely female, corporate and strait-laced. The chief sub, the only other man, was ex-military. Everyone was nice enough, but I didn’t feel any great urge to foster friendships.

Which meant I spent most lunchtimes either at the gym or reading a book. North Sydney had an excellent bookshop and, if I needed new reading material, I would spend a pleasant half-hour or so browsing its shelves.

During one of these browsing sessions I picked up a book titled Three Wishes. Why it caught my eye don’t recall; perhaps I’d investigated everything else and decided to move outside my typical sphere of interest. I read the first couple of paragraphs and bought the book on impulse.

Back then, Liane Moriarty was just another chick-lit author in a literary marketplace churning with chick-lit authors. But her writing had a spark that set her apart. Her characters were recognisably Australian, specifically from Sydney’s northern suburbs, and Moriarty seemed to understand Aussies and their motivations far better than most of Australia’s so-called ‘literary’ writers.

I went on to purchase her next two novels, The Last Anniversary, and What Alice Forgot. I enjoyed Last Anniversary, which invoked a strong sense of place, but as a long-time speculative fiction reader I was less enamoured of What Alice Forgot. Here’s the telling paragraph from a review I wrote back then:

Moriarty’s prose is clean and easy to read, if a little inelegant at times. She also painted herself into a corner as far as the denouement: Neither the ‘realistic’ nor the happily-ever-after ending would have quite rung true.

That was in 2009, nearly four years after my short six-month stint at That’s Life. I sort of parted ways with Moriarty after that. Call it an amicable separation. Then, in early 2018, I was waiting for a flight at Sydney Airport and nosing around in the bookshop for something to read. Nothing appealed… but then I spotted the name Liane Moriarty. When I picked up Truly Madly Guilty, it felt like contacting an old flame on Facebook. I read the blurb and the first paragraph, then trotted up to the counter and bought it.

I expected an entertaining book. What I didn’t expect was Moriarty’s prodigious improvement as an author – that spark I detected in 2005 had ignited into a full-blown bonfire. Her approachable prose, high concept ideas and understanding of human foibles remained, but she had added to her authorial quiver a mastery of suspense, intricate plotting, and thematic weight equal to that of critical darlings like Chris Tsolakis. Truly Madly Guilty, despite its remnant chick-lit trappings, is unquestionably great Australian literature. Here’s the brief review I posted on Goodreads:

When she is on song, Liane Moriarty is one of the best Australian authors working today – and Truly Madly Guilty is an absolute masterpiece. Relatable characters, intricate storyline, a wicked twist, and an awful lot going on below the text. Easily the best book of hers I’ve read.

I’m presently reading her latest book, Apples Never Fall, and while it doesn’t quite have TMG’s atomic impact, it does have all the modern Moriarty hallmarks. When I’m reading her books, I get an image of an old steam locomotive. First it’s idle at the station, loading up with passengers, then it lurches forward and commences a slow chugging, before building up speed and then roaring along in a cloud of smoke, cinders and noise.

Yes, my association with Liane Moriarty has been quite a ride.