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Monday, 15 December 2014

Owls Do Cry - Janet Frame (1957)

Those who are familiar with Jane Champion’s film - An Angel at My Table (1990), would have an awareness of both the hardships and the triumphs of Frame’s life. Owls Do Cry was her first novel and like her admirers work, Patrick White, it is a fine example of high modernism. The style is organic; words tumble along with allusive child-like poetic imagery. It is quite beautiful, but can present a challenge to those unfamiliar with modernist forms bending narratives. Owls Do Cry follows the fortunes of the Withers family, including Daphne, whom is modeled on Frame’s own experiences (although in interviews Frame advised against seeing her work as autobiographical). There is also pointed social satire; revealing New Zealand’s growing middle class to be shallow and hypocritical. The novel is profoundly sad and left me feeling bereft and slightly adrift. I admired the writing but did not enjoy the overall experience; it felt like I was being forced to confront some deep inner core of melancholy. Tackle Owls Do Cry when you are feeling robust and adventurous, otherwise it could turn out to be an emotionally draining experience.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

The Paris Architect - Charles Belfoure (2013)

I wonder if Charles Belfoure is the only architect to have ever written a novel in which the main protagonist is an architect? It sounds like a recipe for literary disaster, but to give Belfoure credit the outcome does have its merits. In Nazi occupied Paris architect Lucien Bernard is offered much needed money to design hiding places for Jews by a rich Jewish industrialist. Lucien is a reasonably well drawn character who initially has little sympathy for the Jews, but then undergoes a moral transformation.  Although it is no great literary triumph The Paris Architect is an old fashioned pot-boiler that does produce some genuine narrative tension. However many of the German characters are one dimensional evil Nazis and there is an improbable feel good ending that you can’t help liking despite its cheesiness. Against the odds the novel draws you in and although Sacred Hearts (2009) was a much better written novel I enjoyed The Paris Architect much more, although some of my book club members would disagree. Read this one on the train, or propped up on your sick-bed when you can’t bear too much intellectual strain!

Monday, 10 November 2014

The Ark - Annabel Smith (2014)

Annabel Smith is a Perth based author who has followed her two previous books, A New Map of the Universe (2005) and Whisky Charlie Foxtrot (2012) with The Ark, an edgy post apocalyptic novel set in the near future. The Ark is a radical departure for Smith; it is both available as a traditional print book and digitally as an ebook with the option to use an APP that allows the reader to interact and contribute to the world depicted in the book. In addition the novel experiments boldly with form and style. Clearly this is a novel with one eye set on the future.

Sometimes experiments with narrative form can detract from the story, but fortunately with The Ark Smith has blended form and plot seamlessly. The novel is set in two parts, the first set in 2041 and the second in 2043. The ark itself is a state of the art seed bank in which a small group of biologists and their families have taken shelter from a world in the throws of a post peak oil chaos, leaving the natural environment ruined. The Ark could be a typical post-apocalyptic novel, but the fact that the narrative form predominantly consists of electronic media of the near future provides a new and engaging angle. The characters communicate with both the outside world and each other using various future mediums such as Gopher, Dailemail, parlez-vite vitality (like a chat room), and Articulate, which is a voice recognition technology.

The real strength of The Ark is the fact that Smith has created compelling characters whom are both complex and sympathetic, despite using few of the usual narrative techniques to build character. The dialogue is entirely electronic, complete with fonts and software frameworks used by the various mediums. There is no authorial voice and none of the traditional methods are used to give the reader an idea of the settings, with the only descriptions coming from what the characters are saying to each other. The narrative is completely carried by character perspective, with some sections dedicated to specific characters.

Smith has taken some great risks with The Ark, but thanks to quality writing and a strong plot she has succeeded admirably. Also intentionally or not The Ark says something deeply profound about humanity and the ending can be interpreted in a number of different ways. The Ark is an intriguing novel that offers something new in a market crowded with future dystopias and hopefully it will find the audience it deserves.

Annabel Smith’s website can be accessed here for more information about the novel, the APP and the world of The Ark.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Portions From a Wine Stained Notebook - Charles Bukowski (2008)

So what do you do when you are feeling oppressed by nuns and sick to your stomach? Read some Bukowski, that’s what. It was a no brainer reaching for this, the first of two recent volumes of previously uncollected short pieces, including some from his infamous “Notes of a Dirty Old Man” columns and other rare Bukowski miscellany. Bukowski’s writing makes you feel better, it soothes the rough edges of life and gives you a smelly beer-soaked hug and a cuff around the ear for daring to have any pretenses. Portions From a Wine Stained Notebook covers all the Bukowski bases, from musings over the stupidity and cruelty of humanity, to the greatness, or not, of other writers, drunkenness, perverted sex, John Fante, women, assorted lowlifes, tragedy, bathos and pathos - sometimes all at once. Although a fine Bukowski collection, it is not quite up to the standard of Absence of the Hero (2010) and some of the pieces are bordering on substandard for Bukowski. Still, it’s well worth a read for Bukowski enthusiasts; others should start with the immortal novels, Post Office (1971) and Women (1978).

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Sacred Hearts - Sarah Dunant (2009)

Sacred Hearts is historical fiction set in a convent in Ferrara in sixteenth century Italy. Medieval political intrigue melds with the rigors of convent living as the narrative follows the struggles of a rebellious fifteen-year-old novice called Serafina and the egregious demands this places on the Abbess and the apothecary, Zuana, whom is also the most engaging character. Read for the library book club whilst under the influence of various viral invasions (yes, they were medieval on my ass, so to speak), this novel did not sit well with me. Dunant’s prose style is merely adequate, bordering on dull.  Although the historical aspects were reasonably interesting, it was not enough to sustain my attention and provide a counterbalance against the moribund narrative pace, the endless whispered prayers, the smoothing down of habits and acts of god caused by termites. I’ll remember Sacred Hearts as book club fodder and although it has its appeal for some readers I struggled, which forces my hand into giving the novel a mediocre rating.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

The Weary Narrative

Like a good book life can be complex and demanding and sometimes it can be very wearing indeed. It's been a winter's end blighted by disease and after five weeks with various illnesses I find myself slowed down to a crawl with something akin to post viral fatigue; so I've decided to par back my life in order to rest and that includes sitting in front of a computer screen in excess of what I already have to do at work. I've decided that at least till the end of the year I'm going to write one paragraph about each book I read, to both help me recuperate and to refresh my attitude. Hopefully it will be a great paragraph though!

My malaise has also led me to the decision that once I start writing more I'm going to focus on fiction rather than the blog, for a while at least. Unlike Mr Charles Bukowski (above) after he quit working at the post office, I don't have that much time to write, so once I start to feel better I'm going to concentrate on some short stories that have been percolating for while. Now, time to rest...

Monday, 15 September 2014

Man Plus - Frederik Pohl (1976)

Frederik Pohl is a science fiction great who published work between 1937 and 2011 before he passed away in 2013. Pohl won multiple awards, including the Nebula Award for Man Plus. He followed that up with a Hugo and a Nebula in 1977 for Gateway. Man Plus features a brilliant premise in which a human, Roger Torraway, is biologically engineered to live on Mars unaided by a suit or breathing equipment. Such a premise enabled Pohl to explore the outer limits of technology and the future of space travel. Although we are no where near developing cyborgs, humanity is beginning to take significant steps in space and there is a real sense of urgency, with the Mars One project and the likes of Steven Hawking warning that humans must become a multi-planet species in order to avoid extinction.

Although Pohl is clever enough not to be specific, Man Plus is set in what appears to be an early twenty first century future. Things are typically going badly for humanity, although forays into space have become common enough for there to have been a number of manned missions to Mars. Tensions are high between the Earth’s most powerful countries - America and China, and natural resources have become scarce. Computer modeling indicates that the extinction of humanity is probable and this spurs America to develop the Man Plus program that will enable humans to live on Mars. After the death of the first “monster” Roger Torraway becomes the cyborg savior of humanity (now there’s a headline I’d love to see...).

Ostensibly Man Plus is about the colonization of Mars, but perhaps the most significant theme is humanity’s relationship with technology. Cyborgs are a common science fiction trope, but Pohl’s treatment is uniquely visceral. Torraway is an everyman astronaut whose fallible humanity makes his transformation into a monstrous cyborg profoundly affecting. The horror of what the surgeons do to his body is palpable because Pohl succeeds in making a fairly improbable near future biotechnology believable. Torraway effectively becomes a Martian demon with superhuman strength and augmented senses. The sequences in which he is testing his new found senses are almost psychedelic in nature; it would have thoroughly entertained all those mid seventies acid-heads.

The great strength of Man Plus is the portrayal of a man who no longer recognizes himself as human, yet is still governed by human psychology. There is a brilliant sequence in which Torraway, desperate to see his wife, escapes the desert complex he’s sequestered in and appears in the bedroom of his home. The interaction between Dorrie and Torraway perfectly encapsulates the feeling of the ‘uncanny valley’ not that long after the concept was invented. Pohl also manipulates the reader into both enjoying the spectacle of Torraway as cyborg monster and engaging emotionally with the tragedy of his lost humanity.

Pohl’s writing style is now perhaps a touch old fashioned and the fact that the story is told in hindsight means that some narrative tension is sacrificed. To Pohl’s credit the hard science of travelling and surviving on Mars in Man Plus is believable. When the expedition finally makes it to Mars what transpires is exciting and intriguing. As with many of the great science fiction novels there is a twist. Perhaps I’ve read a few too many as I guessed what was happening about two thirds of the way through, but it didn’t spoil my enjoyment in the end. There is a 1994 sequel called Mar’s Plus for those curious as to what happened next; isn’t that the essence of science fiction, the question of what happens next? Although improbable in some aspects, Man Plus captures the sense of what it must be like to be on the cutting edge of what is scientifically possible; something that the participants of the Mars One project must be familiar with. They may not be about to be transformed into cyborg Martian freaks, but if they succeed it will transform humanity in ways that perhaps we have yet to imagine.