Tuesday 31 December 2019

Bookends 2019

It's been a great year for reading, with no books being rated by me as mediocre. The worst book of the year was The Last Hours by Minette Walters (2017), which merely read like a passable historical fiction novel, which is no great crime. There were some disappointing books, such as The Crying Lot of 49 by Thomas Pynchon (1966), which seemed dated and unfocused. David Marusek's sequel to the excellent Counting Heads (2005) - Mind Over Ship (2009), struggled for coherence and left me underwhelmed. 

The best by far were Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively (1987) and Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake (1946), two totally different but equally sublime novels. I'll be definitely reading more by Lively and Peake in the near future, and so should you! A shout-out goes to Sailor Twain by Mark Siegal (2012) and The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis (1986) for being the most entertaining books of the year. The most important book, for unfortunate reasons, was Sapiens by Yuval Harari (2011); a must-read if you want to understand where humanity has come from and exactly why it was almost inevitable the we should find ourselves in our current climate change predicament. Appropriate reading for humanity's last golden age? I wish that I could be more optimistic on the last day of 2019, but frankly rather than bury my head in the sand, like Australia's ruling Triple C Liberal Party (Climate Change Criminals), I'm going to bury my head in more books next year (including a recent Christmas gift - Bowie's Books (2019), hence the gratuitous Bowie picture above...).

Monday 16 December 2019

On Some Faraway Beach: The Life and Times of Brian Eno - David Sheppard (2008)

Rating: Excellent

The Book

I've had On Some Faraway Beach sitting on my shelf for a decade, mostly because I don't really read  biographies much any more (or music related books for that matter). Due to some random reason my brain decided that it was time, something Eno would appreciate I'm sure (after all, I do use a system to choose what books I read, but I also leave room for randomness). David Sheppard's biography of one of modern music's most ubiquitous and important figures is particularly satisfying, even though it does suffer from the usual problem of too much focus in some eras and not enough in others. This is understandable, after all many reading this biography would be much more interested in Eno's amazing 70's and 80's period, than Eno's still prodigious but less fascinating 2000's activities, which are relegated to a succession of brief passages, although somehow even at this point Sheppard manages to cram enough compressed Eno detail to satisfy the seriously curious. Sheppard is a consummate writer, whose writing style is resplendent with erudition and jewel-like adverbs; however such literary indulgences suit a cultural figure such as Eno, whom is both a sensualist and an intellectual. Sheppard telescopes in on Eno's most important moments - his time in Roxy Music, his early solo albums, his 'invention' of ambient music and his incredible musical collaborations with the likes of Robert Fripp and David Bowie. It feels like you are placed completely within Eno's (past) world and are then invited to explore. For Enophiles On Some Far Away Beach is very satisfying indeed but for the more casual, yet curious fans, the biography may be just all too much to absorb in the end.


I've long been an appreciator of Brian Eno's music, and this biography has certainly reignited an interest in his music, which leads me to believe that those with a more casual interest should be compelled to listen to at least some of his music. On Some Faraway Beach reveals a prolific artist who works tirelessly on both his own projects and in collaboration with others. If you are put off by the notion of ambient music (if not then try On Land (1982) for starters) then fortunately Eno had his well perfumed fingers (Eno collects scents...) in many a musical pie. Listen to his work with Bowie, Talking Heads, John Cale and of course, the first two Roxy Music albums, although Eno is perhaps more well known for his production work for the likes of U2 and Coldplay, if that's where your tastes lie. Eno has often been accused of being pretentious (something he's actually welcomed) and this biography does little to dissuade such thoughts, however Eno's approach to music and culture in general is absolutely fascinating. His obsession with working with systems that use initial agreed elements that then either play out or influence a given musical situation has led to a great deal of brilliant music. Then there is his Oblique Strategies cards that contain advice to get you out of a creative impasse, or to generate new ways of thinking about music and art. If you are not particularly interested in reading On Some Faraway Beach then please do listen to Eno's music, which is diverse, immersive and ultimately extremely rewarding.

Thursday 28 November 2019

Moon Tiger - Penelope Lively (1987)

Rating: Sublime

Moon Tiger is the best Booker Prize winner I have ever read and also one of the best novels I have ever read. Moon Tiger is only two hundred plus pages long, yet it contains everything you could possibly want from a novel. Lively has filled Moon Tiger with meaty themes - love, death, history, tragedy, war and incest (yes, incest...). The writing is simply superb and Lively manages that rare feat of experimenting with narrative form, yet remaining eminently readable throughout. Often a scene is described through the eyes of one character and then is repeated through the eyes of another, allowing multiple perspectives sometimes within just one page. Lively does this so well that it barely interferes with the novel's flow; something that also applies to the sudden switches between second and third person (something Lively is careful not to overdo). The novel is also determinedly non-linear, fragmented even, yet the jumps in time never detract from the engaging story being told; the life of Claudia Hampton, a 76 year old British woman on her death bed remembering her life in a manner that equates her personal history to that of the Twentieth Century.

In Claudia Hampton Lively has created an arrogant and sometimes cruel protagonist who is also an absolutely relatable and sympathetic character. Claudia is a fiercely intelligent and determined feminist (without ever referring to herself as one) who is caught up in the ructions of the mid Twentieth Century. Blagging her way into a journalistic assignment in Cairo during Rommel's push into Egypt, Claudia meets and falls for Tom Southern, the captain of a tank division fighting the Germans in the desert. As they lay entwined on the bed in the heat of the night a brand of mosquito coil called Moon Tiger burns steadily, representing one of the most obvious, yet also most deftly handled analogy for the passage of time and the finality of its passing I've ever read. I was continually impressed by the quality of Lively's writing, but she saved her most impressive moment for the last two paragraphs for what is the greatest death scene I've ever read. Across just two paragraphs Lively manages to profoundly encapsulate what it is to be alive, followed by what means no longer exist in the world, leaving you breathless with emotion and wonder. Just amazing...

Thursday 7 November 2019

Titus Groan - Mervyn Peake (1946)

Rating: Sublime

It's hard to know where to begin with this amazing novel, the first in the Gormenghast Trilogy, except to simply say that it is unlike anything else I've ever read, even though it is obvious just how influential Peake's novels have been. Gormenghast is the name given to the massive rambling city sized castle that is a world unto itself. Gormenghast houses the Groan family, whom have ruled for centuries and whose lives are governed by a multitude of rituals and rules, many of which are hilariously and inexplicably bizarre. Although powered along by multiple plot strands Titus Groan is a character based novel. Titus Groan is newly born at the beginning of the novel and therefore the adult characters dominate the narrative. These characters have fantastic Dickensian names such as, Swelter, Fray, Lord Sepulchrave, Nannie Slagg and the one and only Dr. Prunesquallor. Never have I been so enamored by what are essentially grotesque, vain and unsympathetic characters. The main protagonist is a classic anti-hero - Steerpike, a kitchen urchin who escapes the clutches of the obese chef, Swelter, to go on to hatch Machiavellian plots to advance his influence over Gormenghast.

Titus Groan is brimming with memorable scenes and world-building that is highly imaginative and strangely compelling. Peake's prose is beautifully ornate, erudite and highly descriptive without falling prey to pretension or rank excessiveness. It took me about one hundred pages to become used to Peake's prose style; often sentences required re-reading, but then after that I was re-reading them for the sheer pleasure of the beautiful language. The novel's Gothic sensibility is enriched by tragedy, deadly rivalries, intelligent humour, one hundred white cats and a strange sense of poignancy that pervades the shadowy rooms and corridors of Gormenghast. I have a beautiful illustrated edition (Peake was also an accomplished artist) published in 2011, featuring an introduction by China Mieville and containing the other two novels - Gormenghast (1950) and Titus Alone (1959). I'll be definitely reading these novels in the near future, but meanwhile it looks like Neil Gaiman will be involved in a new attempt at adapting the Gormenghast novels for a television series in the near future, which, for once, totally makes sense.


Monday 21 October 2019

The Children's House - Alice Nelson (2018)

Rating: Admirable

Due to some leave from work it has been a while since I have had to read a novel for the library's book clubs, but the time came and The Children's House turned out to be almost tailor made for book club discussion. The novel features some serious themes; trauma - childhood trauma in particular, and its consequences, refugees, alienation and the healing and nurture that families can provide. The principle protagonist is Marina, an academic and writer whose life is shared with her husband, child psychologist Jacob and his son, Ben. Marina's life changes when it intersects with an African refugee, Constance and her young son, Gabriel. Constance is traumatized by the Rwandan genocides and is obviously incapable of looking after Gabriel. As the novel progresses the characters back-stories unfold, revealing families both torn apart by dysfunction and circumstance, but also united by their need to heal. The Children's House is undoubtedly a novel for our times

Despite its noble intentions The Children's House is a flawed novel, with a ponderous pace that causes reader concentration to flag and disinterest in the characters lives to creep in. Alternate chapters that swing back and forth in time add to the disjunction. There is a great deal of description and very little dialogue, resulting in the authors voice dominating in a way that makes it hard to connect with the characters and their stories. The narrative style is also quite self-conscious, making it obvious that every turn of phrase has been burnished for public consumption. Half way through an unkind thought entered my mind, that the novel was popular fiction masquerading as literary fiction, although this is unfair both to the author and popular fiction itself. However something happened in the last third of the novel that changed my mind, the writing seemed more deftly executed and the emotional undertow of the characters stories began to pay off. I also realised that despite the dominance of the author's voice Nelson had been showing, rather than telling the stories of the characters, and quite subtly too. Ultimately the novel was saved from a mediocre rating with its beautifully effecting denouement, in which the narrative's multiple stands are brought together in a sensitive and emotionally effecting manner. Essentially Alice Nelson has done what every novelist strives to do - win over the (cynical) reader and bring something of worth into their life, and for that I can't help but display a degree of admiration.

Monday 7 October 2019

Vikings: A History - Neil Oliver (2012)

Rating: Admirable

I am an avowed fan of the History Network's Vikings series, which is apparently extending to a sixth and final season this year. I have often wondered how much of the series was based on what is known about the Viking era (quite a bit as it turns out...) and was looking for a succinct history, when I spied Oliver's book languishing on a table at Planet Books. Neil Oliver is an archeologist, historian and BBC presenter of shows such as Coast (2005), The History of Ancient Britain (2011) and Vikings (2012), from which this book is based. Oliver's writing style is very much like his TV presenting and you can certainly picture him looking rigorously Scottish whilst standing on a cliff-top discussing just how the Vikings came to strike fear into the hearts of Europeans between the eighth and eleventh centuries. Vikings is perfect if, like me, you want an easy to digest short history of the Viking era. Vikings is akin to an amiable but passionate historian holding forth with a class of wine in front of a roaring fire; you don't have to concentrate all that hard, but you can still feel like you are receiving a solid enough historical account.

Although the Vikings were a dynamic people, the first part of the book keeps you waiting around for quite a while for the real action to start. Oliver spends the first 100 pages of the book giving the back history of the northern European peoples who became the Vikings through the Mesolithic, Neolithic, Bronze, and Iron ages, as well as the wider historical context leading up to that first historically recorded Viking raid on Lindisfarne Abbey in 793. This is all very necessary, however I was left feeling that this part of the Vikings story could have done with some brevity, particularly as the book is not an extensively detailed history of the Vikings. Vikings contains maps, a list of principle Viking figures, colour plates and a timeline, all of which are very useful as Oliver takes you on a mostly chronological accounts of the viking era. Although not all of the most significant Viking historical events are contained within Oliver's book (I did some reading online as well...), there was enough to give you a rounded idea of who the Vikings were and just why they were significant part of European Medieval history. If you are interested in an exhaustive account of the Viking era (as I now am) Vikings can be viewed as an adequate entree to further reading.

Sunday 15 September 2019

Sailor Twain or The Mermaid in the Hudson - Mark Siegel (2012)

Rating: Excellent

I don't read many graphic novels, but when Sailor Twain was gifted to me from a friend who works in another library (it was a 'weeded' library discard...) and I was told that it was considered to be one of the classics of the genre I made a mental note to give it a read. A year later and with the need for something easy to read whilst on holiday Sailor Twain turned out to be a beguiling distraction. In the late 1800s Captain Twain sails on a large steam-ship ferrying pleasure-seeking passengers up and down the Hudson River. The ship's owner, Jacques - Henri de Lafayette, has gone missing and his brother, Diedonne, has taken his place. Twain has an uneasy relationship with the mysterious womanizing Diedonne, but becomes embroiled in his own secrets when he rescues an injured mermaid and hides her in his cabin. Their ensuing relationship becomes central to the narrative and also a rich source of poignancy. Twain is an engaging every-man character, whose kindheartedness leads him into the literal and psychologically murky waters (yes...) of the beautiful mermaid of the Hudson River.

Sailor Twain works so well because the narrative is complex, with intriguing characters and allusions to literature, culture, history and myth. The story is satisfying on many levels and features an ending that is both final and ambiguous, which is difficult to achieve. The artwork is darkly beautiful and is responsible for much of the narrative tension, with most panels featuring a deep level of detail, both with the characters themselves and the settings.

Sailor Twain encourages slow and careful reading, with the artwork drawing (yes...) you into the narrative in enticing ways. I also took my time because I was enjoying it so much that I didn't want it to end. Siegel has a way of illustrating characters that seems simple and yet captures their essence perfectly. The atmosphere is shadowy, it always seems to be raining and the mermaid and the river have an almost Gothic allure that is addictive. Most of all it made me wish that mermaids were real, and perhaps they are...

Tuesday 10 September 2019

The Stochastic Man - Robert Silverberg (1975)

Rating: Excellent

Robert Silverberg is one of those science fiction writers who has seemingly been around forever (born in 1935), and is legendary for his prolific writing; he began submitting short stories to science fiction magazines when he was a teenager and apparently at certain stages in his career wrote over a million words a year. Fortunately Silverberg is also a quality writer and I read quite a few of his novels when I was a teenager, enjoying them immensely. The Stochastic Man happens to be the last novel Silverberg wrote before 'retiring' from writing in 1975, before returning in 1980. The novel is set in 1999 and features a protagonist, Lew Nicholas, who has 'stochastic' skills that allow him to hone in on statistically probable future events. Into Lew's life comes Martin Carvajal, a man who can actually see the future. Precognition is an almost irresistible premise to the average science fiction fan and fortunately in this case The Stochastic Man does not disappoint.

Despite the fact that much of the narrative is politically focused, with Lew using his future wrangling skills to try and help the Kennedy-like presidential aspirant Mayor Quinn, the novel is taut and compelling. The Stochastic Man is also a fascinating glimpse into what Silverberg thought the future might be like, in New York at least. In the mid 1970's when the novel was written New York was in decline and Silverberg extrapolates from there, placing a wealthy elite in security protected buildings whilst the rest take their chances on the mean streets. Drugs are legal and are just another consumer product, sexual mores are loose to the extent that open relationships are the norm, but perhaps the most prescient future event is revealed when Lew wonders why the host of a party has the window screens shut on one side of his apartment. Lew realises it is to block the view of the ruined Statue of Liberty, destroyed by a terrorist attack - wrong building and a few years too early, but it still sent a shiver down my spine regardless. The primary reason why The Stochastic Man works so well is the range of sympathetic characters, in particular Lew Nicholas, whose life radically alters in challenging ways when he meets Martin Carvajal, the sad-eyed "destroyed" individual, haunted by his visions of the future. One can't help but feel sorry for both characters, but the novel ends on an unlikely positive note that strangely made me feel a little better (but not for long...) about the current dysfunctional era we are living through, that it too will pass and better times may be ahead (but I doubt it...).

Friday 30 August 2019

The Crying of Lot 49 - Thomas Pynchon (1966)

Rating: Admirable

Thomas Pynchon is perhaps the most famous cult author, not just because of his unorthodox work, but also because of his purported reclusiveness. Pynchon offers up a heady combination in the context of Western post-war culture where everything is viewed as being justifiably up for grabs. I'm kind of ashamed to admit it, but The Crying of Lot 49 is the first Pynchon novel I have ever read. I do have Gravity's Rainbow (1973) on my shelf, but opted for this novel because of its refreshing brevity. Unfortunately despite Pynchon's reputation I have been left underwhelmed and wondering whether the novel is a brilliantly complex post-modern puzzle or a now passe mundane indulgence (it is probably a bit of both). The novel's Wikipedia entry notes that The Crying of Lot 49 can be viewed as an example of post-modernism and perhaps also a satire of post-modernism itself, a technique that  ironically lies at the heart of post-modernism in any case. Reading the Wikipedia entry was, in some ways, more entertaining than the novel itself; perhaps this could become the new way to read novels, just read other people's interpretations, don't go to all the trouble of reading the actual novel itself, no need to ponder all the obscure cultural and historical references, the clever word-play and biting satire....

Sorry, what was I on about? Who knows - anyway, back to the review. The Crying Lot of 49's main protagonist, Oedipa Maas, is named as executor of the estate of a former lover and therefore becomes exposed to the supposed existence to an alternative postal service that goes back centuries - originating in Europe and still operating in a clandestine manner in 1960s California. The novel is brimming with unusual situations and strange characters, but despite this The Crying Lot of 49 was mostly mundane rather than intriguing. Perhaps it is due to an overexposure to post-modern techniques that really hit the mainstream in the 1990's in cinema and television in particular. In fact Pynchon himself appeared (well, his voice at least...) in The Simpsons as himself, satirizing his reputation as a weird recluse. Despite my mild disappointment the novel was worth reading and I did enjoy the satirizing of conspiracy theories in general, which I believe is the main theme of the novel; it was published three years after the assassination of Kennedy after all, which became one of the most prevalent conspiracy theories of them all. Sorry about the lukewarm review Mr Pynchon (if you ever read this...), but I promise I'll still get around to reading Gravity's Rainbow one day, or maybe I'll just read about it...

Monday 5 August 2019

Helliconia Summer - Brian Aldiss (1983)

Rating: Excellent

Helliconia Summer, the second volume in the Helliconia trilogy, is superb old-school science fiction. The novel is superior to Helliconia Spring (1982), partly because the world it depicts is far richer in summer than it was in its emergent state in spring. The novel also contains much more detail about humanity's observational satellite - Avernus, in orbit around the planet, as well as Helliconia's stellar and biological history. The novel's world-building is splendidly detailed, fascinating and ultimately entirely satisfying. During summer the planet's human-like life forms are dominant and their civilization is akin to that of Earth's late middle ages. The planet's other intelligent inhabitants, the Phagors (as pictured on the book cover) are much more passive during summer, surviving and biding their time until winter returns. The Phagors are curiously compelling aliens, despite being mostly impassive and enigmatic. Although Phagor culture is less sophisticated than that of the 'humans' they make them seem childish and vain in comparison.

Part of what makes Helliconia Summer so satisfying is the weave of complex multiple plot strands that also feature well rounded and believable characters. The characters are generally dynamic and relatably human in both their motivations and flaws. I couldn't help but get caught up in the characters individual stories as they struggled to cope with the planet's continual cultural and geographical shifts. Like the first novel there are long sections detailing particular narrative threads, however there is much more dynamism to the narrative in general, making it far more compelling than the first novel. Despite being nearly 600 pages in length I really did not want Helliconia Summer to end, it was thoroughly enjoyable and I couldn't help but wonder why it has never been made into a series akin to something like Game of Thrones; it certainly has the complexity and scope to satisfy most modern viewers, even those who failed to understand Game of Thrones denouement.

Monday 22 July 2019

The Old Devils - Kingsley Amis (1986)

Rating: Excellent

The Old Devils is one of those rare novels that is quite brilliant and has also won the Booker Prize. That is a bit harsh, as there have been quite a few winners that have been exceptional, but also some that are very disappointing indeed. The novel is erudite, stylishly written and also is very very funny; full of wit, satire and outright laughs. This is also a rare feat, as I've found that humorous literary fiction is hard to find and therefore I conclude that it is difficult to write. I only have to think of that notoriously reprehensible Man Booker Prize winner The Finkler Question (2010) and its risible attempts at humour to confirm that suspicion. There is, of course, another rarity at play in that the son (Martin Amis) is just as good as the father and I can't think of another quality father son combination in literature.

The Old Devils follows a coterie of elderly Welsh couples whose chief shared interest is drinking and attempting to deal with their various ailments and life disappointments. Back into their lives after decades in London comes Welsh poet Alun Weaver and his wife Rhiannon, a great beauty who left a number of the old devils heartbroken in her wake. Alun is one of those larger than life characters whose charisma and outrageously bad behavior as both a malcontent and philanderer almost steals the novel (and I suspect gave Amis an opportunity to satirize himself as an added bonus...). However Amis created a host of well fleshed out characters both male and female that elicit both insight and poignancy. The novel does perhaps go on a bit and has a few flat spots, however the emotional and satisfying ending makes up for any minor shortcomings. The Old Devils is an extremely satisfying novel and I'm going to start collecting Amis' books whenever I see them and also try and rectify the fact that I haven't read his infamous debt novel Lucky Jim (1954).

Sunday 30 June 2019

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind - Yuval Noah Harari (2011)

Rating: Excellent

About six months ago I had a friend over for dinner and he brought along a friend of his I'd never met before, who noticed my copy of Sapiens on one of my book piles and proceeded to enthuse about it; he also mentioned that reading it made him decide to become a vegetarian, which was something I found puzzling at the time. Now I've read Sapiens I can fully understand its power to create life changing decisions. Sapiens takes a cold hard look at humanity as a species, not just our origins but just how we've arrived at this point in our history. Sapiens is not a blow by blow historical account of humanity, rather Harari examines particular significant turning points in our history and the manner in which we have shaped our shared destinies for better or worse. Harari divides the book into four parts: 'The Cognitive Revolution', 'The Agricultural Revolution', 'The Unification of Humankind' and 'The Scientific Revolution', which gives you a very good idea of the main focus of his arguments. 

We are, in many ways, a remarkable species, however throughout Sapiens our flaws are repeatedly revealed, something that stands out the further you progress through the book and the reality is there's no escaping it. Just one of a long intersecting line of hominins descended from apes, Homo Sapiens embarked on a journey of adaptation that is characterized by repeated destruction of the natural world and of each other. The agricultural revolution, Harari argues, did much more harm than good and trapped humanity in a cycle of disease, deprivation and misery and led to untold suffering of all the animals we rely on for sustenance (the source of my new acquaintance's vegetarianism). This is just one example of the double edge sword of humanity's progress through history.

Early in the book Harari notes that the word Sapiens means 'wise' and Homo means 'man' - so we are men who are wise, something that my own world view (I've always been an atheist and now have embraced nihilism, which is very freeing to say the least) has a hard time reconciling. Perhaps the most compelling argument made by Harari is the way in which humanity has the ability to organise ourselves by using 'fictions' that create realities that are not rooted in the objective world around us, such as money, nationalism and religion. These fictions have united us as a species and have helped foster much of our evolutionary success, however they have also led to great suffering and decision-making that has led to calamities that have left us with a future that is cloudy at best. 

A fine example of the negative power of these fictions is the recent Australian election. Australia's Liberal party is one of the most morally reprehensible governments in modern history, yet they easily won the election and increased their parliamentary majority. In Scott Morrison we have a Pentecostal Christian (don't get me started) who a few years ago brandished a lump of coal in parliament to illustrate his belief that coal is nothing to be afraid of (yes, he is a climate change denier/criminal). The principal fictions at play here are capitalism, combined with an ideological belief that humanity's impact on the world is negligible and in any case absolutely necessary in order to maintain the status quo. The election was dubbed by many commentators as the climate election, yet despite having seen the leader of our country brandish a lump of coal in parliament Australians chose to ignore the most urgent problem of our times to vote for him anyway (I know it was more complex than that, however climate change is the main deal here). Clearly the fictional systems we are enmeshed in sway our thinking in such a way that we can happily choose to ignore the objective fact of climate change.

A certain Homo Sapien with some 'harmless' coal

Although Sapiens is not a flawless book; Harari often labours his points with lengthy extrapolations that sometimes cause the book to get bogged down, it is an important book. It is pleasing that Sapiens has remained a best seller for years and it is partly down to the fact that Harari has achieved the right balance between intelligent writing and producing a text that can be readily read by the general population. Sapiens should be part of the high school curriculum, although no doubt that would start a fresh bout of culture wars with the right arguing that Harari is too left wing and therefore dangerous to our treasured cultural fictions.

Monday 17 June 2019

Asymmetry - Lisa Halliday (2018)

Rating: Excellent

There's a scene right at the end of David Bowie's twenty minute video Jazzin' for Blue Jean (1984) where Bowie's rock star character, Screaming Lord Byron, leaves with Bowie's every-man character's female interest (Bowie plays both characters). Every-man Bowie engages in a tirade against the retreating rock star and then breaks character and talks to the director (Julian Temple) and production crew about how the scene should be re-shot. Bowie and Temple then argue about the merits of being 'clever clever'. Asymmetry is just like Bowie and Temple's postmodern take on the music video; it is 'clever clever' and perhaps a bit too clever for its own good. It also uses most of the typical postmodern techniques that have become all too familiar and therefore a bit stale. The novel is arranged into three seemingly disparate sections - Folly, Madness and Desert Island Discs, yet they are connected by a series of clues. There are innumerable allusions to writers and novels and the female protagonist in Folly is called Alice and she does indeed descend down the rabbit hole into a relationship with a much older man, a writer called Blazer, whom is based on Philip Roth, whom Halliday had a relationship with when she was in her twenties. I could go on...(but I only write two paragraphs these days...)

I completed Asymmetry with feelings of ambivalence, cynicism even; however I had to admit to myself in the end that the novel was quite an achievement. The writing is tightly focused, littered with beautiful imagery and manages to be both playful and profound, in particular during the middle section written from the perspective of Amar, an Iraqi/American citizen held for questioning at Heathrow airport in the early 1990s. Amar's character is nicely rounded, but more significantly he becomes a mouth-piece that enables Halliday to talk about political issues whilst at the same time acknowledging how talking about political issues in literature is fraught with pointlessness and pomposity - now that's clever clever. Halliday manages to pack a lot of thematic juice into what is a refreshingly short novel. She covers relationships, aging, the anxiety of influence, the role of literature in culture and the existential difficulty of finding a meaningful path through life. Asymmetry may annoy you, frustrate you, but in the end it's worth the effort and indicates that just maybe there is life left in postmodernism after all.

Thursday 23 May 2019

Mind Over Ship - David Marusek (2009)

Rating: Admirable

Mind Over Ship is the sequel to Counting Heads (2005), an excellent novel I read before the time of this blog, some eight years or so ago. I bought Mind Over Ship not long after and I now wish that I had read it far sooner due to the fact that it is a direct continuation of the first book and also features many of the same characters. Consequently I struggled to connect with the plot, but I could at least remember most the fascinating details of the future Earth created by Marusek. Many typical science fiction tropes are present, such as AIs, high levels of mechanization, body regeneration, clones, interstellar spacecraft and extreme capitalism; however Marusek's refreshing writing style make these familiar themes into a unique proposition. In Marusek's future world (2135) clones are commodities and his exploration of clone psychology is often both entertaining and disturbing. The novel also teems with countless different kinds of nano-bots that function as everything from annoying swarms of paparazzi 'bees' to spy 'nits' that hide within the folds of the scrotum (yes, the scrotum...).

Despite the novel's obvious charms I did not enjoy it as much as the first book. Although it did take me a while to find my feet memory wise the main problem was that the plot was too diffuse to be compelling, particularly during the middle third when the narrative should really begin to tighten. Mind Over Ship instead read just like a series of things that happened and when there were major plot developments they were lost among the detail. Adding to this problem were the multitude of characters, all with their own particular role to play within the overarching story carried over from the first novel and all jostling for attention. It was difficult to identify with one main protagonist, the closest being the 'Russ' clone - Fred, who was paranoid he was suffering from 'clone fatigue', but his character was ultimately just too prosaic to carry the novel forward to its relatively disappointing endgame. Despite these criticisms if you are curious to read what is ultimately very good science fiction I'd read both books back to back to get the most out of Marusek's immersive world-building.

Monday 29 April 2019

The Birdman's Wife - Melissa Ashley (2016)

Rating: Admirable

The Birdman's Wife is a novel based on the life of Elizabeth Gould, a talented artist who married the Victorian era English ornithologist John Gould. As with many talented women Elizabeth became eclipsed by her husband, even though she was the exceptional artist and, if the novel is to be believed, he 'merely' caught, killed and then stuffed the birds that she rendered alive again via her beautiful paintings. I knew nothing of either Goulds, but now thanks to Ashley's beautiful prose and detailed narrative, I feel much more intimately knowledgeable regarding this husband and wife team. The novel also illuminates the particular world view of Victorian era naturalists and scientists in general; that the natural world could be, and must be, categorized into endless classifications. Therefore the novel can at times be a distressing exploration of the Victorian propensity to destroy and interfere with the natural world for the sake of their demanding curiosity.

As with many of the book club novels I would never have chosen The Birdman's Wife to read of my own volition and within this context it unfortunately failed to win me over. Although Ashley's prose is particularly beautiful and it is essentially quite well written the endless descriptions of painting techniques and stuffing birds caused me to, at times, to lapse into a state of of delirious boredom. Although Elizabeth and John Gould led fairly interesting lives relative to many who lived in the mid 1800's, they did not lead dramatic lives. There was the tragedy of Elizabeth's babies who died before their time (in the end she had eight children!) and her own early demise due to childbirth, but other than that there is not much in the way of narrative tension. There are some parts in which Elizabeth is upset over her relegation to being merely John's talented wife, however if Ashley's depiction is to be believed she was no trailblazing feminist. Ultimately The Birdman's Wife is the perfect novel for a particular kind of reader and that is absolutely fine, it was just not 'my kind' of novel, one that kept me awake...

Monday 15 April 2019

Japan Story: In Search of a Nation, 1850 to the Present - Christopher Harding (2018)

Rating: Excellent

Late last year while I was reading Mishima on the plane flying from Perth to Melbourne it occurred to me that I should source a book about the history of Japan. The very first night in Melbourne I walked into the fantastic Readings book store in Carton to find Japan Story waiting on the shelves in the well stocked history section. Harding's biographical blurb at the back of the book indicates that he is a cultural historian; which is perhaps why his approach in Japan Story is certainly different to most other history books I've read. Harding uses the lives of particular individuals, from doctors, writers, feminists, revolutionaries and ordinary people to illustrate how each phase of Japan's modern history effected their lives both practically and psychologically. There is still plenty of fairly straight historical reportage, but ultimately Harding's approach is both intriguing and refreshing. Also Harding's writing style reveals a rigorous thinker with a deft touch, something that is not always evident in some historians work.

Harding manages to say considerably more about Japan than just where their aggressive expansionist desires came from that climaxed in the middle of last century; I completed the book feeling like I understood the nation and its peoples considerably more, including the evolution of Japanese family life, feminism, the arts and politics. It was particularly fascinating to read about how Japanese society was effected by and dealt with the multiple forces of modernism in the early twentieth century relative to what I know about how it effected western society. In this way the book is aptly named, as Japan Story does indeed outline a story that is divergent from familiar western histories, which is a valuable thing in our self obsessed nationalistic age.  

Sunday 31 March 2019

Mishima's Sword: Travel's in Search of a Samurai Legend - Christopher Ross (2006)

Rating: Excellent

After reading Yukio Mishima's novel Runaway Horses (1970) I searched my library's catalogue for books about the author and the sole result was Mishima's Sword. It is a curious book indeed; part travelogue, part philosophical rumination, part biographical and part quest. Mishima's Sword is quite a personal book, with Ross revealing intimate details of his life, many of which he relates back to Mishima and his books, or his own interest in martial arts. Whilst the book is not attempting to be a Mishima biography, Ross does examine details about Mishima's life, in particular those related to his final day, which Ross recounts gradually throughout the book until we get the gory details of his last moments at the end of the book. 

Mishima's Sword could easily have been an exercise in futility, an ineffectual miss-mash of themes and styles, however it is very well written and is formatted in short sections that effectively highlight each thematic thread. Mishima's Sword is not the book that will provide all the answers when it comes to understanding Mishima's work, but it does provide an effective dissection of the nature of obsession. Ross talks about some of his various lifelong obsessions, such as using martial arts as a means to purge an inferiority complex brought about by childhood bullying. Then there are the obsessions that Mishima pursued throughout his life that ultimately contributed to his highly orchestrated ritual suicide. The book's denouement provides philosophical insight into such weighty themes as bathos, cathartic release and death. Mishima's Sword is well worth reading if you are in the mood for something totally different, but you'll also learn some things along the way as well, including becoming a expert in Samurai swords, which may well come in handy one day...

Monday 18 March 2019

Little - Edward Carey (2018)

Rating: Admirable

Little is a novel about how a woman born Anna Maria Grosholtz came to be the world renowned Madame Tussaud. The novel traces Grosholtz's life from childhood through to her time in Paris leading up to and including the period in which the French Revolution occurred (1789 - 1799). Little is a peculiar, fascinating and mostly enjoyable novel which exudes Gothic charm. Like most historical fiction there are aspects of the narrative that are present in order to provide a compelling plot, rather than reflect what is definitely known. Either way Tussaud was an intriguing character and Carey succeeds in creating an authentic first person voice for her character. The other main protagonists are impressive too, such as the crepuscular like Philippe Curtius, who taught Tussaud the eccentric art of wax modeling.

There is much to like about Little, including Carey's idiosyncratic illustrations that fill the book with visual cues and sometimes macabre imagery. Carey is a skilled writer with a unique style, however I did end up becoming impatient with the narrative and at times just plain sick of reading it. Little was a book club selection and I often take into consideration the state of my enthusiasm for a novel I would not normally choose to read as I near its last third. If it really holds my attention till the end I tend to rate it higher, therefore whilst I'm sure many readers would justifiably consider Little an excellent read, I'm giving it my equivalent of a three star rating. It could just be that, like many contemporary novels, Little is just simply a bit too long, but don't let that put you off, as the novel is well worth your attention if you are an adventurous reader.

Sunday 24 February 2019

Nightwood - Djuna Barnes (1936)

Rating: Admirable

Almost everything about Nightwood is beautiful, from the eloquent introduction by T.S. Eliot, the intensely baroque language and the special green Faber and Faber edition (as pictured above) that exudes style and class. The novel's content, however, is a different matter altogether. Nightwood's characters are tortured, dissolute and trapped in dysfunctional cycles of their own making. It is also a great example of prime modernist writing, the prose being opaque, elliptical, poetic (Eliot points out in his introduction that lovers of verse would get the most out of the novel), and the narrative is episodic in a fragmented way. It is a typical modernist novel in that the detail defies easy interpretation; especially when the transvestite doctor (during certain nights at least) Mathew O'Connor spouts endless monologues of lyrical but nonsensical opinion and advice to the tortured women involved in a love triangle - Robin Vote, Nora Flood and Jenny Petherbridge, and yet the overall meaning is apparent.*

The novel is known to be one the earliest significant examples of lesbian literature and for that alone it makes for fascinating reading, particularly as the novel is a known example of a roman à clef narrative from that period. However despite Nightwood's reputation and charms the novel did not make for a particularly enjoyable reading experience. Like many modernist narratives it would be best appreciated as part of a literature course at university where all the hidden meanings and arcane language can be teased out and understood. If read as a novel to casually enjoy feelings of tedium gradually creep up, making the short novel a challenge to complete. Nightwood is really frozen in time, like a beautiful leaf preserved in an old book. No one writes like the modernists any more and if they do it ironically seems quaint and out of place. I'm pleased to have finally gotten around to reading it, but it is unlikely that I'll be recommending it to others to read.

* If you must know I believe that the novel represents its characters as being slaves to their subconscious desires and such desires are animalistic, particularly when expressed during the 'wilds of the night', which then leads them to suffer and never find the happiness they desire.

Saturday 2 February 2019

The Last Hours - Minette Walters (2017)

Rating: Admirable

The Last Hours is one of those novels that is completely adequate, enjoyable even, but then quickly fades from view after completion. The novel is set in the summer of 1348 at the onset of the first wave of the Black Death in a demesne called Develish in Dorsetshire. Led by the plucky and intelligent Lady Anne, the population of Develish survives the plague by retreating behind the moat protected main residence and refusing the re-entry of anyone, including her egocentric and violent husband, Sir Richard. There is a large ensemble of characters, most of whom are well rounded enough, including the bastard serf, Thaddeus Thurkell, on whose hard-working shoulders much of the narrative rests. A special mention must go to Lady Anne's daughter, Eleanor, whose extreme levels of petulance, stupidity and cruelty almost steals the show.

Lady Anne and Thaddeus Thurkell are characters that embody the massive changes the Black Plague brought about, shattering the well established feudal system to create a new social and economic order. Readers who know a bit about medieval history will find enough to enjoy, however despite the dangers of the plague and the perilous position of Develish I did not find the novel to be particularly compelling. Walter's style, despite making her name as a crime writer, seems reserved and polite, as if the lengthy novel is a children's bed-time story designed to be read in episodic form to aid getting to sleep. Although this seems like faint praise, readers who enjoy novels with the right kind of substance (enough to engage, but not too much to tire you out on a hot afternoon) for a holiday read will love The Last Hours.

Sunday 13 January 2019

Ancillary Justice - Ann Leckie (2013)

Rating: Admirable

Ancillary Justice has the reputation of being one of the best science fiction novels of the last decade. It won the Hugo Award, Nebula Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award, among others. Leckie has also been compared to the late, great Iain M. Banks. These are certainly high accolades, however the novel left me feeling slightly disappointed. The plot was good enough, as were the characterizations and the various settings. The problem was with the novel's pacing coupled with Leckie's particular writing style. Perhaps this is because the principle protagonist, Breq, is in fact a remaining fragment of a vast spaceship's A.I. consciousness; giving the writing style a sense of coldness or distance that then results in difficultly fully engaging with the story (at least it did for me). In terms of the novel's pacing, narrative tension lags during the parts of the story where there is a great deal of talking, often whilst the characters are in one location. This does work well in terms of establishing characters and further plot extrapolation, however because this happens quite often the novel sometimes flirts with dullness.

Despite these criticisms Ancillary Justice is quite a good science fiction novel. It is appropriate that Leckie is compared to Banks, as he is my yardstick for great modern science fiction. Leckie, like Banks, has created a far future human galactic civilization, the Radch, which like Banks' Culture civilization has highly advanced technology, including A.I. spacecraft, but also coupled with the same moral failings we've always contended with. However where Banks' writing sparks with ideas and verve, Leckie is a bit more pedestrian in comparison. Despite this I still recommend Ancillary Justice (I nearly gave it an excellent rating, and besides, Banks is a hard act to follow, even he struggled in the end...) and I will read the other two books in the trilogy,  Ancillary Sword (2014) and Ancillary Mercy (2015).