Wednesday 30 December 2020

2020 - Reading Through the Calamity: The Best and Worst (of Times)


My latest read - some fantasy!

As we all know, 2020 was a doozy, however I still managed to get a bit of reading done. I'll get right to it: reviewing the year I realise that I awarded no sublime ratings, it obviously just wasn't a year for the very best, however there were quite a few excellent ratings, the best of which was Vernor Vinge's novel A Fire Upon the Deep (1992), which simply burst with ideas and was written to a high standard. Damascus (2019) by Australian author Christos Tsiolkas was superb as well, uncompromising and compelling, it was also the best book club book I read all year, particularly as many book club choices were admirable at best. Querelle of Brest (1947) by Jean Genet was perhaps the most psychologically intense novel I read all year, and also one of the most unusual. It was also a good year for reading non-fiction, with six entering my brain via my book-shaped eyes, the best of which was Slavoj Zizek's The Courage of Hopelessness (2017), although he certainly is an intense man.

In some ways it was an odd year of reading, in which I reached for some books that I might have normally overlooked, such as Communion (1987) by Whitley Strieber, mostly to satisfy a curious reading itch I'd had since I was a teenager; the book was dubious, but I'm pleased that I finally read it. One of the worst books of the year was Space Ark (1981) by Thomas Huschman, which I read because I needed something light, which is was, but it was also far from the best science fiction you could read, unlike Revelation Space (2000) by Alastair Reynolds, which was superb. Two of the worst books were Before the Coffee Gets Cold (2019) by Toshikazu Kawaguchi, which was very stilted, and The Man Who Saw Everything (2019) by Deborah Levy, which was kind of pointless. Both were book club books and both came during a time when Perth was shut down during the beginning of the pandemic - they made for disappointing reads unfortunately. By far the worst book was Simon Goddard's Ziggyology (2013), which garnered a rare rating of reprehensible. I haven't changed my mind about that rating, so sorry to the person who commented, implying that it was all a bit harsh, I still feel just as harsh in fact. 

In any case, onwards toward another year of reading. I will not promise to read more books, as between working full time, a relationship and all the life admin things that have to be done it seems that I can never read more than about twenty four books in a year. Still, I might read more next year because I'll be spending less time reading about the reprehensibility of Trump in the media. I'd like to personally thank all 81 million + Americans who voted him out, you were on the right side of history.

Friday 25 December 2020

The Haunting of Hill House - Shirley Jackson (1959)


Rating: Excellent

I've long known about Shirley Jackson, but had never considered reading her until I found out about the movie Shirley (2020), with Elizabeth Moss portraying Jackson. I bought The Haunting of Hill House in preparation for watching the film and it turned out to be an interesting experience. Jackson's style is quite unlike any other authors I've read, although it is difficult to say exactly why. The best I can do is that it is slightly awkward, in that sometimes it seems to be brilliant prose and other times it seems to be, well, a bit contrived. Perhaps this is because one of the principle protagonists, Eleanor Vance, is certainly neurotic, disturbed even, and Jackson takes great pains to alert the reader to this fact. Eleanor is invited to Hill House, along with two others (Theodora and Luke) by the scientifically minded Dr Montague, who wishes to spend some time in the house to experience first hand its supposed supernatural activity. Jackson does set the scene well, with evocative descriptions of the house and the emotional effect it has on the protagonists, in particular Eleanor, who is both drawn and repulsed by its somber gothic architecture.

Elizabeth Moss as Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson's version of a haunted house tale has been so influential, it is difficult to imagine what kind of an impact it had when it was originally published. The novel subverts the typical ghost narrative by strongly implying that the true horror lies within the characters psyches, in particular Eleanor, and any actual supernatural occurrences are either happening within Eleanor's head or she is indeed causing the manifestations with telekinetic abilities. I'm not giving anything away here, as such an approach is so common now. Jackson even has some fun satirising the whole idea of paranormal research when Dr Montague's wife and her ultra pragmatic assistant, Arthur, turn up to take charge of proceedings. Mrs Montague's approach is a source of satirical humour in a narrative that is otherwise uptight with neurotic tension. Although by the time I was half way through the novel I still couldn't make up my mind whether it was quality literature of above average pulp, I kept on being drawn back, as if I was Eleanor, both repulsed yet ever more attracted to Hill House's grim endgame. The Haunting of Hill House is a curious novel, at times it seems totally over the top, yet much of the action is implied and the reader has to do some work to make sense of what is actually happening. The novel left me wanting to read more of Shirley Jackson's work, particularly after viewing Shirley, which has now become one of my all time favourite films. Jackson herself was also a fascinating character and I advise reading up about her before you read any of her work or watch the above mentioned film.

Shirley Jackson as Shirley Jackson

Tuesday 22 December 2020

The Dictionary of Lost Words - Pip Williams (2020)


Rating: Admirable

The Dictionary of Lost Words is a charming and engaging novel which covers a fascinating period of history that includes the creation of the first Oxford English Dictionary (1879 to 1928). For bibliophiles and logophiles such a novel cannot help but be enticing, however it took me around eighty pages before my interest was piqued; it might be because I'm usually not that interested in novels' that begin with the main protagonists' childhood, but it wasn't just me, as quite a few people in my library book clubs also found the novel very slow at the beginning. The main protagonist in question, Esme Nicoll, enjoys a childhood that revolves around the 'Scriptorium', a glorified shed where her father, Harry Nicoll, toils at putting together the dictionary (the novel goes into quite a bit of detail about the process, which is fascinating) along with historical figures such as Sir James Murray, C.T. Onions and Rosfrith Murray. As Esme gets older she is invited to work within the Scriptorium and this is where the novel becomes much more interesting, as the reader becomes immersed in the amazing task of putting together the dictionary.

As the novel progresses Esme grows older and is confronted with adult life within Edwardian society, which includes dealing with an unwanted pregnancy, patriarchal attitudes and the kind of real life tragedies that make narratives compelling. There's the suffragettes, one of which becomes a close friend, and one of the best portrayals of the civilian impact of WWI I have ever read. During all of this Esme sets about gathering words that are not part of the OED, many of which she hears from women of all classes, such as her bondmaid (famously this word was accidentally left out of the OED), Lizzie, and a colourful former prostitute Esme meets down at the markets. These are the words that become part of her dictionary of lost words, including the C - word, which was definitely not part of the first OED! Esme is quite a character and I've always thought that if you start having emotional reactions about what is happening to characters then the author has written quite a fine novel; not only that but Williams has also produced a clever denouement that manages to tie up all of the narrative strands, of which there were many, and makes you think at the same time. If I rated books using a numerical system then The Dictionary of Lost Words would be given three and a half, however using my system I'm rounding down to admirable (rather than excellent) due to the very slow beginning, but if you can get through that then it is a quality debut novel.

Monday 30 November 2020

Mao II - Don DeLillo (1991)


Rating: Excellent

Don DeLillo is my favourite literary fiction author and has been ever since I bought a copy of The Names (1982) from a Perth airport book store in 1989 before I embarked on a trip to Europe. Mao II, of all his novel's I've read so far, is certainly his most literary. The novel features no discernible plot, instead it acts as a focus for various thematic ruminations, such as the cultural agency of terrorists, the declining cultural agency of authors and the individual versus the crowd. The novel features an aging renowned author, Bill Gray, who lives in hiding whilst struggling with writers block, or at least a severe decline in inspiration. Gray hides away from the attention he received due to the perceieved profundity of his work; however an idealistic fan (Scott) tracked him down, ending up working for him obsessively, along with a stray young woman (Karen) rescued from the streets who was one of the hundreds of brides married off to a Korean in a Moony ceremony in the opening scenes of the novel. Meanwhile a photographer, Brita, who only takes photos of authors, has been invited to take photos of Bill Gray, the first in a very long time. The novel ends up taking us, and Bill, to the Middle East, where a young poet is held hostage by a terrorist organisation. All of this is typical DeLillo fodder and you can't help but read the novel carefully, trying to tease apart all the implied meanings and subtexts, which is great fun really, well, for me it is anyway.

As usual DeLillo's prose is spare, delivered with a gravitas that flirts with pretension, yet never succumbs (well, to me at least...). There's something about the way DeLillo writes, whenever I read one of his novel's I realise that during that time I look at the world differently; everything appears to contain hidden layers that are revealing themselves to me. Despite the lack of plot to drive the novel forward, Mao II engages both the heart and mind. There's something about an author of DeLillo's stature writing about writing, creating a fictitious author to convey something about what it is to be confronted by the blank page, to do it every day to hopefully create something worthwhile. Just how worthwhile is one of the most interesting themes in Mao II. An author, like a cult leader, holds multitudes in his/her sway, yet there is virtually no contact made, unlike the cult leader who has regular corporeal contact with other humans. Both, however, are superseded by the terrorist, who both attracts followers and strikes fear into the hearts of whole nations, as opposed to the author and cult leader, both of whom could easily be ignored by the majority. There appears to be a perception among critics that in light of the events of September 11, only ten years later, DeLillo was prescient regarding the impact of terrorism on Western culture, and perhaps rightly so. Meanwhile for anyone wanting to explore DeLillo's work, I wouldn't start with Mao II, despite its layered depths, instead I'd go with The Names (1982) or his post-modern masterpiece White Noise (1985), either way, DeLillo is well worth reading for anyone interested in modern literary fiction.

Tuesday 10 November 2020

A Fire Upon the Deep - Vernor Vinge (1992)


Rating: Excellent

Vernor Vinge is a very interesting character, he's a retired mathematics and computer science professor, but is perhaps more significantly known as an early adherent of the concept of the technological singularity. Vinge also wrote one of the first science fiction stories about cyberspace, with his novella True Names (1981). I picked up A Fire Upon the Deep pre pandemic in Melbourne from the superb Readings store in Carlton and I'm so glad that I did because it is one of the best science fiction novels I have ever read. Like the novels of Iain M. Banks, A Fire Upon the Deep is packed full of highly imaginative ideas. The novel is conceptually brilliant, with a fully realised galactic wide ecosystem dived up into 'zones of thought', that uses an internet-like 'use-net' system of communicating. The novel has everything - a multitude of weird aliens, space battles, transcendent alien intelligences, cool space-ships, duplicity and even something called 'god-shatter' (no, I'm not explaining it).

Vernor Vinge has one of those writing styles that is both easy to digest and yet conveys enough complexity to keep you fully engaged. Vinge also shines at characterisation, although he is better with the alien characters than with the human ones, such as the Nyjoran, Ravna Bergsndot, who is an intrepid librarian stuck in an awkward galaxy wide AI blight type of situation (yes, that's right, a librarian). Aliens such as the smallish tree-like Skroderiders, who scoot about in technologically advanced carts, somehow seem much more developed in character, but this is a minor criticism, as is the slight dip in pace around the middle of this long novel. Perhaps Vinge's greatest creation however, are the Tines, who are highly complex and enduring alien characters that I will not reveal anything about so that you too can have the pleasure of discovering how they tick. It is the Tines that I'll miss the most and I consider them to be one of the most fully realised alien races in science fiction. I'm not surprised that Vinge won the Hugo Award for A Fire Upon the Deep, as its combination of an engaging plot, fascinating characters and its refreshing take on many space-opera tropes makes for compelling reading. I knew that I was reading quality work when I came to a point in the narrative in which I could barely stand what might happen to the characters, so I had to jump ahead to make sure that they would be all right before I commenced reading again, which is something that very rarely happens to me. Vinge wrote a prequel called A Deepness in the Sky (1999), which is now on my ever lengthening to read list.

Sunday 25 October 2020

Hamnet - Maggie O'Farrell (2020)


Rating: Admirable

Shakespeare is always a fascinating writer to ponder, considering his literary legacy coupled with how little is known about him, something that has left plenty of room for the various conspiracy theories concerning whether it was someone else who wrote all of those amazing plays. Fortunately O'Farrell is no conspiracy theorist, rather she has written an interesting novel around what little is known about Shakespeare's son, Hamnet, whom died at the age of 11 from unknown causes. O'Farrell, appropriately for our times, depicts that it was from the bubonic plague. Despite the title of the book and Shakespeare looming large, the novel's main focus is Agnes (Anne Hathaway), her life and how she deals with the death of Hamnet and the absence of her playwright husband in London. Shakespeare himself is never referred to by his name and is given very little agency in the narrative, a bold move that mostly works, however the novel often becomes much more vital when he is around.

I struggled with Hamnet. Initially I was drawn in by O'Farrell's sumptuous style and fine descriptive powers, but as the novel progressed I became much less engaged. I came to the conclusion that although the novel was a fine piece of work, it just wasn't for me, yet I had to read it for the library's book club. This disinterest unfortunately highlighted the novel's flaws, rather than its strengths. O'Farrell goes to great lengths to give Agnes a fully rounded character and a determined agency over her world, which is absolutely valid, however at times this came across as forced and unnecessarily mystical in nature (Agnes is depicted as having prophetic and intuitive powers). Often scenes that were meant to be poignant dragged due to excessive detail and repetitious interior monologues (Agnes). Ultimately I found Hamnet to be rather dull, only engaging my full interest for short periods. To be fair, O'Farrell has fashioned a fine novel, including an engaging section describing the journey of a flea that brought the plague to Stratford and an emotionally resonate final section that revealed just how Shakespeare may have coped with the passing of his only son. Hamnet is worth your time if you love historical fiction that effectively evokes its times and gives flesh to little known characters, so don't necessarily be put off by my lukewarm response, read it and decide for yourself.

Sunday 4 October 2020

Tomorrows vs Yesterdays: Conversations in Defence of the Future - edited by Andrew Keen (2020)


Rating: Admirable

Tomorrows vs Yesterdays is the kind of book that needs to be read in the year that it was published, not because it might be prescient, but because the issues it discusses are absolutely pertinent right now. Essentially the thinkers interviewed by Andrew Keen are considering such issues as economic inequality, social media, the crisis of democracy and AI. The book is divided up into four sections: The Crisis, Waking Up from Utopia, Democracy and the Digital Revolution and Fixing the Future. Tomorrows vs Yesterdays is undoubtably an important book, but it is also a convenient way to gain quick insight into these important issues from thinkers whom have published books on the subjects without having the read those books. The interviewees are loosely divided up into those who think that things should be wound back and somehow reset and those who believe that we should find ways of working with the various drivers of current trends that are taking us into an increasingly bleak and uncertain future. Keen is a fine interviewer and overall the book is engaging, but despite the cautious optimism of those in the future camp I finished it still feeling pessimistic about the future.

Tomorrows vs Yesterdays is a hard book to give an overview of, as there are so many ideas discussed, so I'll pick one interviewee from each section in the order they are listed above. Shoshana Zuboff published the book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (2018) and the issues she discusses makes for somber reading; such as the constant data mining of everything we do online and also via CCTV by the likes of Google and Facebook etc that is used to manipulate us and sell us consumer goods. David Kirkpatrick published a book called The Facebook Effect in 2010 that was mostly optimistic about the social media platform, however within the last decade he has changed his mind, strongly criticising Facebook's strong reluctance to regulate abuse of its services as well as its ruthless pursuit of user data for profit. Peter Pomerantsev wrote a book called This is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality (2019) and he talks about the abasement of social media and the net in general by right-wing propaganda, something Trump and his allies have excelled at in the most evil and insidieous way possible. In the fourth section the likes of Richard Stengel, author of Information Wars (2019), cites strong regulation of the online environment and the use of the likes of Facebook to educate, rather than spread disinformation and exploit our data. As I've already mentioned, I'm not optimistic! If you want a well put together heads up regarding these issues and more, then this book is up to the task, but if you want to avoid being further depressed about the state of our world then spend the money on a good bottle of wine instead (I did both...).

Monday 28 September 2020

Damascus - Christos Tsiolkas (2019)


Rating: Excellent

Although I've only read two of his novels (the other being The Slap (2008)), I'm convinced that Tsiolkas will go down as one of Australia's greatest writers. There are many reasons, but the main one is that he bridges the gap between popular fiction and literary fiction, therefore introducing more mainstream readers to accessible, yet complex themes, coupled with his almost brutal narrative style that leaves the reader nowhere to hide. Damascus takes on the first ninety years after the death of Jesus in a manner that both attracts and repels, depicting the cruel world of the Roman occupation of the Middle East and the troubled mind of Paul, both before and after his conversion on the road to Damascus. Typically for historical fiction the 'truth' is bent and warped to fit prevalent themes, predominantly a realist depiction of the times; with Tsiolkas almost completely sidelining the 'supernatural' events on the road to Damascus, instead focussing on Paul's sexuality (he wrestles with homosexuality) and the notion that Jesus was actually just an outspoken and rebellious Jew who inspired a religion that is often referred to disdainfully as a death cult.

One of the most striking aspects of the novel is the insight gained into how the poor quality of life for anyone who wasn't a Roman or, to a lesser extent, a Jew, would have made a new religious movement that proclaimed that all are equal in the eyes of God a highly attractive notion. The novel begins with the stoning of a young women, then goes on to depict the lives of slaves, male and female prostitutes, the poor, women who are forced to abandon their unwanted baby girls to the elements and the early adherents of Christianity, who were cruelly killed and tortured by the Romans. It's gruesome, stirring stuff and also utterly compelling. Perhaps my favourite section ( the novel is fragmented through time, sometimes jumping decades) is Faith, which is narrated from the first-person point of view of a Roman soldier called Vrasas. This section opens with the bloody rush of stream of consciousness narrative as Vrasas and his companions are covered in the blood and guts of a sacrificial bull. Through Vrasas the reader is emerged fully in the pagan Roman world and experiences first hand its disdainful attitude toward the strange beliefs of the Christians in their midst.

I wonder just how dedicated Christians may view the more controversial aspects of Damascus. Paul is homosexual and has doubts about his version of Christianity even many years after his conversion. Tsiolkas includes Thomas as the twin brother of Jesus, a twin brother who advocates a much different version of the Christian faith than Paul's, which came to dominate, resulting in the version we still have (to endure) today. Thomas denies the resurrection, instead seeing it as symbolic of the renewal that comes with spring; he believes that the kingdom of God is already here on Earth and talks about he and Jesus loving being on the road, where Jesus could be away from all the responsibilities that await him in Jerusalem. Within Tsiolkas' own struggle with the faith he was brought up with he's written a brilliant novel that not only gives a realistic depiction of the first century of Christendom, but also provides a narrative that is deeply thought-provoking and moving, something that is sorely needed in popular fiction.


Sunday 13 September 2020

Communion - Whitley Strieber (1987)


Rating: Admirable

When I was a child in the 1970's I was obsessed with UFOs and aliens. I'd have dreams that featured seeing the night sky filled with alien spacecraft, including one in which a bright white cigar shaped UFO hovered over my backyard. I was taken to see Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) by my father, which both fascinated and freaked me out. I remember when Communion was published and seeing it on the shelves gave me the creeps, even though I was older (17-18) and my perception of the UFO phenomenon had changed. In my adult life I've read a lot of science fiction and books on cosmology, astronomy and physics and I've given the possibility of advanced alien life a great deal of thought. I'm sure it's out there, somewhere; but the universe is so massive and space/time so difficult to traverse that the question of whether alien life has visited Earth is, for me, mostly tinged with scepticism, which is how I approached reading this book. 

Initially Communion is very convincing. Strieber outlines his emergent memories when he is prompted by his increasing paranoia and other psychological disturbances to seek help and undergo hypnosis. His memories of being visited by the aliens in his country home and his experiences on their space-craft is genuinely creepy. Strieber's musings about just who these creatures are, their possible influence on humanity, their motivations and his own philosophical position on the phenomenon is interesting and sometimes even compelling. However as the book progressed through his childhood memories, his family's recollections and finally Strieber's thoughts about the possible mystical influences of the alien creatures (revolving around triads) it became less interesting and even laughable. Aside from being a sceptic I approached reading the book in an anthropological manner because I've long thought that the UFO/alien phenomenon is tied to humanity's need for the 'other'; the strange, half seen creatures that inhabit our imaginations that used to manifest as fairy creatures but now, with the advent of the technological age post WWII, manifest as aliens. Were Strieber's experiences a manifestation of an inherent need for the 'other', something beyond ourselves that therefore defines who we actually are? Possibly, but in any case it was nice to read the book that introduced many of the alien abduction tropes into popular culture pre The X Files (1993-2018), but other than that I remain both unimpressed and sceptical. 

Sunday 30 August 2020

The Man Who Saw Everything - Deborah Levy (2019)


Rating: Mediocre

The Man Who Saw Everything is a novel in two parts. I quite enjoyed the first part, but unfortunately my level of interest completely fell away during the second half. The novel concerns Saul Adler, a very good looking young man who is hit by a car having his photo taken by his artistic girlfriend at the famous Abbey Rd crossing in 1988. His girlfriend then breaks up with him just before he embarks on a trip to East Berlin to undertake research, where he becomes romantically entangled in the lives of a brother and sister who are compromised by life in the Eastern Block. The first section is told from Adler's point of view, however during the second half of the novel you come to understand that his self perception and his perception of those around him is significantly lacking. Adler is again hit by a car at Abbey Rd (or is it the first and only time? I have my suspicions...) in 2016 at age 56. He is badly hurt and spends the second half of the novel in a hospital bed being visited by people from his past, while ruminating over his life in an opiated haze.

The Man Who Saw Everything is an ironic title, as Adler does not see himself as others see him and Levy uses this as a means to explore the notion that life, perception, and history itself is fragmented and unreliable. An argument could be made that the the novel is quite clever in its exploration of such themes (it's a divisive novel, with a portion of my book club members loving it - the others were totally dismissive), however both Adler and the narrative failed to hold my interest and I became totally indifferent to its (actually limited) charms. Adler is not a particularly likeable character, he is obviously both damaged and narcissistic, which is fine, as I often enjoy antiheroes, but coupled with the fact that the narrative becomes so diffuse and opaque, there is very little motivation to spend the time to work out what is actually going on. While I was still writing this review I began reading the Christos Tsiolkas novel Damascus (2019) and the difference between the two novels made me realise that post-modernism is totally dead. Tsiolkas' brutally straight-forward writing style was incredibly refreshing and dynamic compared to the oblique exploration of the subjectivity of reality in The Man Who Saw Everything

Monday 10 August 2020

Dead Babies - Martin Amis (1975)


Rating: Admirable

Way back in 2014 I decided to read all of the Martin Amis novels in sequence, having just read his first novel, The Rachel Papers (1973). Now finally, six years later, I've read another! Dead Babies is, firstly, not quite as good as The Rachel Papers, although Amis's prose style is consistently excellent, the themes and subject matter are more dated in comparison. It comes across as a primary influence on the English TV show The Young Ones (circa 1980s). The novel is a satirical skewering of empty hedonism, class snobbery, the faded hippy dream and pretty much everything else that was happening in culture at the time. It's also full of nasty solipsistic characters whose decadence and desperation knows no bounds. The narrative takes place over one weekend in a manor owned by the extremely rich neurotic Giles Coldtstream, called Appleseed Rectory, where the residents are joined by three Americans and a"golden hearted whore" called Lucy Littlejohn and also a "practical joker" called Johnny. The characters are too numerous to comment on with any depth, but Keith Whitehead warrants a particular mention due to his sympathetic status as a fat, short, disgusting "court dwarf", who bears the brunt of the others questionable behaviour, particularly from the Americans toward the end.

There's some humour in the novel, but mostly it's extremely dark, particularly once the Americans arrive and start doling out weird drugs that are meant to make the recipients experience whatever state of mind they desire. It sounds like fun, but it isn't, not for the characters and not for the reader; personally I don't mind these sorts of narratives, but Dead Babies made me react at times as if I could catch the scent of day-old vomit. There is a narrative thrust in the form of a plot based around the mystery of just who Johnny is and why he is, for example, leaving Diana nasty letters and tearing up treasured porn magazines (Keith's). Apparently the novel is a parody of the very English county house murder mystery narrative of the type popularised by Agatha Christie, but they were never as gruesomely perverse as this. The ending is entertaining enough, but I didn't really care what happened to the characters, which I suspect was Amis's aim all along.

Monday 27 July 2020

Querelle of Brest - Jean Genet (1947)

Rating: Excellent

I've long known about Jean Genet by reputation, but initially through Bowie's sneaky play on his name for the 1973 song The Jean Gene. I found a copy of Querelle of Best in WA's Mostly Books about five years ago when it was closing down. I was amazed at the time as it was the only Genet book I'd ever seen around. I didn't really know what to expect, but such was the quality of Genet's prose within the first few pages I felt more than willing to be be immersed in the seedy sailor world of Querelle. Ah yes, Querelle - a young sailor (matelot) full of raw sexual swagger, ranging about in the fog shrouded harbour town of Brest in the south-west of France. Querelle is somewhat of a sociopath, robbing, killing and taking advantage of those around him. He also just happens to be gay and most of the sex in this novel is of the homosexual kind; some of it is quite explicit, but some is merely implied. If Querelle of Brest were published today it would still be regarded as shocking, but not necessarily due to to the homosexual sex scenes (although they'd still shock some people, but then they wouldn't be reading Genet in the first place really), rather it would be for the extreme psychologies of Querelle and many of the other characters. There's not a great deal of love in this novel, rather human relations are presented as sadomasochistic and desperate. Coupled with Genet's unyieldingly rigorous prose style, this makes for compelling reading.

Genet was certainly a great writer, although style-wise barely any authors write with such florid and knowing prose any more. No doubt the likes of Bukowski would have hated Genet's style, being the opposite of his pared back existential prose. The novel flirts with postmodernism, with its slightly hyperreal tone, fragmented form (although subtly) and Genet's meta authorial interjections; even suggesting toward the end of the narrative that Querelle had being getting up to things that were unknown even to the author. Since finishing the novel I've read that one of Genet's main themes in his work over-all was the struggle for identity. Many of the characters in the novel, including Querelle himself, are in a state of psychological flux, and as such the homosexual elements throughout the novel are actually secondary to the exploration of the human psyche. However this would not stop many people from being perturbed by some of the scenes in the novel and I had to be a bit careful reading it on the train lest someone read over my shoulder, receiving an early morning shock to their conservative senses. Still, I'm sure Genet would have enjoyed the thought of one of his novels' still causing consternation seventy or so years after publication.

Friday 10 July 2020

Ziggyology: A Brief History of Ziggy Stardust - Simon Goddard (2013)

Rating: Reprehensible

Although literature is a key passion in my life, music does take precedence and Bowie is my main-man (excuse the pun, fellow Bowie fans...). I approached Ziggyology with optimism due to its rather unique premise of exploring the cultural influences brought to bear on Ziggy as a concept and as a character unto himself. It is well known that Bowie readily acknowledged that Ziggy took over his persona at times during the height of Bowie's ascension to stardom. Instead what I read bitterly disappointed me in almost every way. Ziggyology is unfortunately a totally wasted opportunity, as it does not provide serious Bowie fans with anything particularly new regarding Bowie's Ziggy Stardust period and also it fumbles its attempts at presenting an alternate view.

Goddard's attempt at a different take on a familiar story, with a long initial synopsis of the varied cultural influences brought to bear on both Bowie (and therefore Ziggy) and his generation, including Beethoven, H G Wells, Japanese kabuki theatre, the BBC show Quatermass (circa 1950s), Vince Taylor and the Stanley Kubrick films A Clockwork Orange (1971) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), is squandered by a quasi academic style that renders any real insights as superficial. Goddard could have provided a serious account of such cultural influences, but instead it reads like a rush-job to endure before you get to the juicy bits about Bowie and Ziggy. The fascinating cultural influences are indeed there, but who really cares? The second great sin is Goddard's flawed approach at examining Bowie's psychological state during the period he evolved the idea of Ziggy and, more significantly, the intense effects it had on his psyche once things really got going. A potentially decent stab at this is marred by scenes in which Goddard depicts Bowie as locking himself in a bathroom at his twenty-fifth birthday party, looking at himself in the mirror and saying "What's it going to be, eh?" A number of times he also depicts Bowie as thinking to himself that "It takes a lot to pretend to be someone else...' Such an insight! This trite approach is unfortunate when a far more interesting and reasonably obscure influence on Bowie regarding the human psyche and concepts of self was Ronald Laing's book, The Divided Self (1960), in which Laing attempts to make madness comprehensible, by, in part, examining personal alienation and the invention of other 'false selves'. This would have been far more interesting than the pop psychology and potted family history presented.

Other aspects of Ziggyology also rankle, such as Goddard's 'aren't I a clever lad' writing style, which grates more and more the longer the book goes on. Even worst is the fact that Goddard is continually putting words in the mouth of Bowie. Unless these words are taken from interviews (some could be, but I didn't recognise any of them), then such a technique can't help but be a dodgy business. Goddard also regularly counters and compares Bowie's career with that of Marc Bolan's (T-Rex), which is fair enough, as they were both friends and rivals, however Goddard increasingly paints Bolan in a negative light beyond a reasonable level and he comes across as being extremely catty in the process. It is known that Bolan certainly had his moments, but there's no need to denigrate him to make Bowie look better. Frankly Ziggyology would have been better as graphic novel, as it's tone and treatment of Ziggy Stardust suits that medium better. Recently one has a appeared and even though I've just looked at it in a book shop I enjoyed that experience far more than reading this paltry attempt at depicting the arrival of Ziggy Stardust and the impact it had on Bowie's career.

Sunday 28 June 2020

Before the Coffee Gets Cold - Toshikazu Kawaguchi (2019)

Rating: Mediocre

I've read quite a bit of Japanese fiction and I love the spare, poetic prose and the unique narrative forms that are often employed by many Japanese authors. Before the Coffee Gets Cold looked promising, with an intriguing time-travel premise. In a small, very old Tokyo cafe you can sit with a coffee and travel back in time, but you can only stay as long as the coffee remains warm, and if you don't drink it before it gets cold then you are trapped in time. It turns out that there is much more to it than that, but unfortunately it also turns out that this novel is fatally flawed. Firstly Before the Coffee Gets Cold very obviously suffers from having been adapted from a play and then translated into English. The prose is stilted to the extent that I could almost be willing to believe that it was written by a wooden post. The first section - 'The Lovers', is frustrating to read due to a great deal of hesitant and fragmented dialogue, one dimensional characters and, to be frank, a flirtation with sheer narrative tedium.

Before the Coffee Gets Cold does improve gradually, with some reasonably believable emotional scenes between husband and wives, two sisters and, lastly, a mother and child. The main characters are fleshed out slightly more, but the dialogue remained very stilted, resulting in a low ceiling for sympathetic connection with the characters and their various travails. One intriguing character, who is a ghost, forever trapped somewhere in-between the past and the present (I assume...), but occupying the very seat that allows time travel, could have presented an opportunity for some fascinating narrative possibilities, however she was underused and remained merely a narrative device. I'm certain that performed as a play the novel's themes of fate, tragedy and the healing opportunity afforded by a change of attitude, would have come across much better, but as a novel it totally fails to convince.

Sunday 21 June 2020

Charles Bukowski - Sunlight Here I Am: Interviews & Encounters 1963-1993 - Edited by David Stephen Calonne (2003)

Rating: Excellent

Most regular readers of this blog would be aware of my love for Bukowski's writing. I've read most of his most important works, but I also have quite a few books like this one laying around, in this case for about a decade! Sunlight Here I Am is a great idea executed well; a collection, in chronological order, of interviews with Bukowski, ranging from his very first interview in 1963 and ending with his very last in in 1993. Calonne notes that while this is not all of the interviews with Bukowski, it features many of the best ones. It's a beautiful book, well laid out and featuring drawings by the man himself and a selection of photographs not seen elsewhere. From the first interview there comes a realisation that Bukowski is fully formed, already displaying his perceptive and blunt point of view, holding forth regarding the highs and lows of his life so far and the nature of poetry. There is a definite pattern across all thirty six interviews, the interviewer notes Bukowski's reputation (often followed by an admission as to their trepidation meeting him), Bukowski talks about his past (this aspect becomes repetitious - an unavoidable inherent flaw) and then there is a fascinating discussion that varies depending on the era the interview takes place.

What emerges out of all these interviews is that both Bukowski is as you'd expect him to be, but also there are plenty of surprises even for the hard core Bukowski fan. The fact that Bukowski was such a booze-hound coupled with his disdain of following any cultural trend meant that I was amazed to discover that he smoked grass quite regularly and that he tried LSD and magic mushrooms on a number of occasions. Although his thoughts regarding sex and women are more sophisticated that his detractors would have you believe, his views on politics and philosophy is typically blunt, as is his tendency toward misanthropy. Generally it's a real treat to read Bukowski in full flow and he pretty much provides great copy on most occasions. Along the way you also discover what he thinks of other past and contemporaneous writers, that he felt that his balls were the biggest going around, that he admired Frank Zappa, but regarded both Paul McCartney and John Lennon with disdain; that he hung out with Sean Penn who brought his then girlfriend, no other than Madonna herself, around for a visit! Bukowski notes that when he intimated that Madonna was pretentious Penn bristled with anger but backed down when Bukowski said that Penn knew deep down that he could take him (resulting in Bukowski liking Penn even more...). Such highlights mean that Sunlight Here I Am is well worth tracking down for any Bukowski fan, not only because it is pure Bukowski, but also for the unique insight it provides into one of America's greatest writers.

Tuesday 26 May 2020

Revelation Space - Alastair Reynolds (2000)

Rating: Excellent

My finger isn't exactly on the pulse when it comes to Alastair Reynolds; twenty years after Revelation Space was published and after about eight years of having it sitting on my shelf, I've finally read it. It would have been okay if I was aboard a lighthugger in a reefersleep capsule traveling near the speed of light, then perhaps only a year would have passed. In any case, I digress before I've even began, which leads me to perhaps the novel's only significant flaw: Reynolds tendency to pack in the detail, extrapolating wherever possible. Fortunately the majority of the time such narrative indulgences are either entertaining or actually do service the novel's world-building, however on occasions one wishes that a ride in a shuttle was just a short segue to greater things, rather than a chance for a character to mull over a multitude of possibilities. That aside, Revelation Space is brilliant hard science fiction, with a compelling plot that doesn't give up its mysteries right till the end and an ensemble of characters who both fascinate and confound. I've read some criticisms regarding the characters sometimes one-dimensional personalities, but I figure that humans five hundred years into the future who augment themselves with AI implants and live in extreme environments would be as consistently intense as many of these freaky characters.

Revelation Space has all the ingredients of modern space opera, yet manages to make something fresh (or it did 20 years ago), invigorating and decidedly Gothic in nature. Featuring three intertwining narrative strands that coalesce around the Resurgam system, where humanity has discovered an ancient alien civilization that has been eradicated by a suspiciously timed 'Event', the novel fluctuates in intensity as the plot unfolds, mostly switching between the monomania of the eccentric but brilliant scientist Dan Sylveste, and the crew of 'Ultras' who inhabit the 'lighthugger' Nostalgia for Infinity (such names are no doubt a nod to Iain M. Banks...). Although the Ultras themselves are a compelling bunch, led partly by the hard-nosed Russianesque Ilia Volyova, it is the machines that inhabit the Revelation Space universe that enthrall. Nostalgia for Infinity is one cool ship, powerful yet decaying; virtually a skyscraper sized spaceship packed full of mysterious chambers and a gunnery full of weird alien weapons. Oh, and did I mention Sunstealer, the Gothic monstrosity that inhabits the gunnery's computer systems? There's so much packed into this novel that it can't help but be impressive, both conceptually and stylistically, but no doubt if you are a science fiction fan you would have read Revelation Space already, if not, don't wait as long as I did. Now, onto the other novels in the series (at some stage...).

Sunday 3 May 2020

Running Dog - Don DeLillo (1978)

Rating: Excellent

Don DeLillo is one of my all time favourite novelists and I have deliberately not rushed to read all of his novels so that I can always have some lurking there waiting for when I feel that certain itch to immerse myself in his unique narrative style. DeLillo wrote two of the great post-modernist novels, one could even call them guidebooks to post-modernist thought - White Noise (1985) and Underworld (1997). Running Dog does not scale the lofty heights of those two novels, but it does deliver enough intellectual DeLillo thrills to illicit a certain literary smug satisfaction. Running Dog features a typical DeLillo premise: various shady factions maneuvering to get their hands on a film that purports to contain footage of Nazi's getting up to carnal naughtiness in the last days in Hitler's bunker as the Soviets creep ever closer. DeLillo pulls the reader into this circle of lust over the film, making you want to see and know just as much as the next nefarious 'businessman'.

Typically for a DeLillo novel Running Dog has an ensemble cast of characters, rather than one main protagonist leading the way. This is certainly not a weakness due to DeLillo's ability to bring alive the psychological core of a character in a just a few lines - "He appeared younger than twenty-two, looking a little like a teenager with a nervous disability. High forehead, prominent cheekbones, large teeth. He seemed intense, over-committed to something, his voice keening out of a lean bony face..." Coupled with DeLillo's dialogue, which is stripped down, yet bursting with a deeper complexity, irony and a rhetorical self awareness, the novel can't help but to delight. I burst out laughing a number of times, including after the very last line, which is a difficult thing for a novelist to achieve. Even more effective is the realisation that if the premise of the existence of an amateur Nazi porn film wasn't disturbing enough, the reality of what actually is on the film has its own subtly disturbing implications. I thoroughly enjoyed Running Dog at a time when I really needed something to take me away from our current reality, which, as we all know, has its own disturbing implications. I have no doubt that DeLillo will be one of those authors who pen a post-plague novel in the tradition of many great novelists.

Friday 17 April 2020

The Constant Gardener - John le Carre (2001)

Rating: Admirable

I had high hopes for The Constant Gardener when it was picked as a book club read due to the fact that in recent times I have had an urge to read novels from genres that I am not usually attracted too. John le Carre is famous for his espionage novels such as The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963) and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) and although this novel is described as a thriller I was hoping for some intense duplicity and entertaining action sequences. The novel is set in Nairobi and takes in the British diplomatic set, morally compromised doctors and drug researchers, ruthless pharmaceutical companies and Tessa Quayle, a beautiful (of course) lawyer and social activist who stirs the hornets nest of all of the above and pays a grisly price.

The Constant Gardener begins promisingly, with the pompous and narcissistic character of Sandy Woodrow, a British diplomat, leading the way. Unfortunately Woodrow is not the main protagonist of this well written but ultimately flawed novel, rather it is the British horticulture loving Justin Quayle, older husband of the problematic Tessa. Perhaps the greatest flaw is that Justin is a character lacking depth and spark, which somewhat squanders the reader’s inclination to sympathize with his predicament. Ultimately the novel is just too long and has too many lengthy scenes with characters endlessly conversing, in particular there a number tedious police interview scenes, resulting in less than sparkling dialogue. There are also long tracts of official documentation that does not make for enthralling reading. In addition there are too few scenes in which there is a ratcheting up of narrative tension, which the novel sorely needed. Despite the novel's flaws le Carre is obviously a classy writer who boasts a significant reputation, so I’m sure that some of his other novels are much better than The Constant Gardener.

Wednesday 8 April 2020

The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll: Collected Music Writings / 2005-09 - Robert Forster (2009)

Rating: Excellent

For those who do not know who Robert Forster is (shame on you...), he was part of one of Australia's greatest songwriting partnerships with Grant McLennan in The Go-Betweens. As previously mentioned on this blog, Forster can really write, and The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll was a joy to read due to his gentle erudite wit, carefully crafted turn of phrase and in many of these critical pieces, an unexpected generosity even to those subjects who exist on the other-side of the rock and roll spectrum from Forster and his ilk. A good example is his review of a Delta Goodrem album called, imaginatively, Delta (2008), written, as with many of the selections here, for the quality left-wing Australian magazine The Monthly. Forster treats his subject seriously and in the process reveals some interesting insights into how the multi producer approach, pitting each producer against the other in order to result in as many hit singles as possible, has rendered countless albums bereft of "Flow, experimentation and fun..." One of the tests of good writing is if the author can make a subject you have no interest in fascinating, and Forster does this many times throughout this collection.

Although some of the subjects Forster wrote about here were not in my usual field of interest there are plenty that are, such as Bonnie Prince Billy, The Shins and Brian Ferry, but that's not all, the collection also covers books, such as Mark Seymour's Thirteen Tonne Theory (2008) and concerts, with the most interesting being Nana Mouskouri's farewell tour! There's also some short essays, such as The Velvet Underground's influence on The Go-Betweens and the Credence Clearwater Revival song Have You Ever Seen the Rain? The best of Forster's other writings is the two pieces on the passing of McLennan, which cannot help but be poignant, although Forster's quality prose really shines though here. The book ends with a fascinating section entitled - The 10 Bands I Wish I'd Been In, and there's some curious selections, such as Peter Paul and Mary and The Great Society; but also some that are understandable - The Band 1967, The Wailers 1972, Talking Heads 1975 and Bowie and The Hype 1971 (Bowie's pre-Spiders band).

I don't normally quote too much from the books I read, but I'm going to present here Forster's 10 rules of rock and roll, as featured at the beginning of the book, and my comments about each rule. I'll then present my own 10 rules of rock and roll, from the point of view of a music obsessive, rather than that of a musician.

Robert Forster's 10 Rules of Rock and Roll

1. Never follow an artist who describes his or her work as 'dark'.

Fair enough I guess, but why? Are such artists too pretentious or are they against the spirit of rock and roll?

2. The second-last song on every album is the weakest.

Initially I thought that this rule was spurious to say the least, however thinking about it I conceded that Forster could have a point; where would you put the weakest track? You wouldn't put it first, or second (you need that one-two punch to open with), you wouldn't end an LP side with it, and it certainly would not be the last track on the album. You wouldn't open the second side with it either, but it could maybe be the second track on the second side, or the third? However if you do place it second last overall and have a fantastic track to finish with the listener will forget that the second last track is weaker than the rest, instead they'll remember the last track and therefore, as an extension, the album as a whole.

3. Great bands tend to look alike.

In what way? Clothes? Haircuts? Height? Looks? I can think of some examples - The Monkies, The Small Faces,  The Byrds, The maybe Forster has a point.

4. Being a rock star is a 24-hour-a-day job.

I have no doubt!

5. The band with the most tattoos has the worst songs.

Absolutely correct!

6. No band does anything new on stage after the first 20 minutes.

Quite possibly, but what about Bowie's on stage innovations over the years?

7. The guitarist who changes guitars on stage after every third number is showing you his guitar collection.

Fair enough, but what about alternate tunings? Twelve string guitars?

8. Every great artist hides behind their manager.

Until they sack them!

9. Great bands don't have members making solo albums.

Whilst their band is fully operational I take it? Makes sense, but Steve Kilbey from The Church is an exception to this rule.

10. The three-piece band is the purest form of rock and roll expression.

What about The White Stripes?

My 10 Rules of Rock and Roll

1. Any genre that begins with the word Nu is reprehensible.

2. The Velvet Underground are the most influential band in rock and roll.

3. The intersection between the intellect and the primal is where the greatest rock and roll lies - i.e. Iggy Pop/The Stooges.

4. The 1970s was the greatest overall decade of rock and roll and music in general.

5. The four-piece band is the purest form of rock and roll expression (two guitarists is best).

6. Psychedelia is the most fecund rock and roll genre.

7. To be a truly great rock and roll band a truly great drummer is essential.

8. The greatest bands have an essential chemistry between the members - no band member can be replaced successfully.

9. The Pixies in their heyday were the last truly original rock and roll band.

10. Bowie.

Wednesday 11 March 2020

Space Ark - Thomas Huschman (1981)

Rating: Mediocre

After the intense intellectual stimulation of Slavoj Zizek I needed something light and easy, so I reached for Space Ark (say it loud with lots of echo...), a book I found in a curio shop in Mt Barker in the heart of the south west of Australia, the kind of shop that sells all the stuff your grandma had plus records and books. As I had hoped Space Ark is pure pulp science fiction and was thoroughly relaxing and entertaining. They really don't write them like this anymore; I doubt any novels in recent decades would open with the lines: "Morning sunlight streamed in through the big cathedral windows. Twenty mental retards were at play on the smooth, polished floor." Three hundred years in humanity's future a scientist with the snappy name of Centaurus has discovered that a nearby supernova will shortly decimate Earth, but when he reports this to the Earth system president, Hassim Dupre, he is locked up and the information is suppressed. Hubschman makes a point of revealing how the powers that be distrust what the science says in order to protect the status quo of their power hungry and corrupt government - sounds familiar? Replace climate change with the supernova and you have a pulp science fiction novel for our times.

Centaurus is rescued from his incarceration by one of the mental retards (who's just faking it...) and is given a lift on a makeshift space ark, complete with animals and a leader who is actually a Simminoid, an ape who has been given human hands and has had human DNA spliced into his makeup to make him into an intelligent slave (this is a thing three hundred years from now). Of course they leave in the nick of time, only to discover that they are being pursued by Dupre and his military space ships. The novel basically becomes a sometimes tense chase narrative and as these kinds of stories go it is entertaining enough. What lets the novel down is its rather simple dialogue and a narrative that is light on explication. The space ark travels "...away from the sun at better than the speed of light-quite a bit better...", but no attempt is made to explain how this is done. Elsewhere it is indicated that Einstein's theory of relativity has been superseded, apparently by the return of Newtonian theories! Towards the novel's denouement a hopeless situation is rectified by an ex machina plot device that is cliched to say the least. This leads to an ending with mystical overtones that I both appreciated and groaned about. I'm probably being a bit unfair with my rating for Space Ark, as it provided me with great entertainment, but when comparing it to other great science fiction novels and writers it suffers in comparison, so my Simminoid hand is forced.

Friday 6 March 2020

The Courage of Hopelessness: Chronicles of a Year of Acting Dangerously - Slavoj Zizek (2017)

Perhaps the best back-page author photo ever...
Rating: Excellent

The Courage of Hopelessness is my first significant encounter with Slavoj Zizek (pictured), the infamous Marxist, Hegelian and Lacanian philosopher, academic, political activist and writer, among other abilities and pastimes. The back-page blurb indicates that Zizek is arguing that the only way forward is to fully acknowledge that humanity's situation is hopeless. As a recent convert to existential nihilism I have to agree that humanity's situation is dire (and of course it doesn't matter to me if we face extinction). Zizek does indeed argue for such a stance, whether he does successfully is arguable, although he is very convincing. Throughout Zizek also covers a great deal of cultural, philosophical and political issues, so much so that the book demands a great deal of thought and concentration.

Firstly I was surprised by Zizek's academic writing style, which is well structured and rigorous; I had the idea that he'd be much more feral in his approach. The first part of the book, entitled 'The Ups and Downs of Global Capitalism', covers where the destructive impasse of neo-libralism has brought us to, particularly regarding its corrosive effects on democracy, which is both fascinating and terrifying. Zizek is unrelenting in his critique of neo-libralism and it is entertaining stuff indeed. The second chapter in part one, 'Syriza, the Shadow of an Event', covers the Greek economic crisis and its handling by the EU. I learned a great deal, but it was a boring subject that Zizek does not really illuminate in an entertaining way (I could imagine him saying that he's not here to entertain...). Much better is 'Religion and its Contents' in which he examines China, ISIS and religion and its discontents in recent history. It is complex and intriguing and demands re-reading, as Zizek truly is a counter-intuitive thinker let loose within the decay of world civilization.

The second part, again presented in three chapters, ranges widely across such subjects as terrorism, sexual politics and finally comes to rest at the rise of populism. His thoughts on the 2016 electoral battle between Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump are insightful and he basically concludes that either option was "the worst option", that a Clinton victory would have produced a situation in which the neo-liberal status quo would have continued on with little opposition. Although Zizek notes that Trump was a grotesquely appalling option, stating that "Trump is the purest expression of...the debasement of our public life."and that neo-liberal forces will rally around him like flies do around shit (which they did), Zizek argues that he will provide an energizing focus for a true alternative to rise from the left, rather than just more apathy and disillusionment. The Courage of Hopelessness was published in 2017 and in the years since you could argue that Zizek was prescient, with focused political and cultural opposition toward Trump's vulgar and damaging political presence emerging from the left and the centre. As the 2020 election political theatre in the USA drags on we have been seeing a movement to the left with Bernie Sanders, but at the time of writing it looks like the centre will be offered up as an alternative to Trump's right-wing freak show in the form of the much maligned Joe Biden. Good luck Joe, is all I can say, you are going to need it! I'll leave you with one of Zizek's best comments about Trump, which is both insightful and darkly hilarious:

"When a man wears a wig, he usually tries to make it look like real hair. Trump achieved the opposite: he made his real hair look like a wig; and maybe this reversal provides a succinct formulation of the Trump phenomenon. At the most elementary level, he is not trying to sell us his crazy ideological fictions as reality - what he is really trying to sell us is his own vulgar reality as a beautiful dream."

Sunday 23 February 2020

The Silence of the Girls - Pat Barker (2018)

Rating: Admirable

The Silence of the Girls is the first novel for the library's book club I've had to read for a while, due to the meeting cycle being interrupted by a much needed library refurbishment. The novel recounts Homer's The Iliad (8th BC) from the point of view of Briseis, who is captured by the Greeks when they sack the Trojan city of Lyrnessus, which is situated close to Troy. Briseis, who is a minor character in The Iliad, becomes the prize of Achilles, allowing Barker to freely examine one of the most famous Greek literary characters from the perspective of an intelligent and cultured Bronze-age woman. I began the novel with great enthusiasm, which lasted about eighty pages until I felt the need to brush up on the story of The Iliad, which then unfortunately revealed the narrative arc of the novel, taking away some of my enthusiasm. Unfortunately this also coincided with the novel becoming increasingly dull, as Briseis' narrative world was confined to the Greek camp on the beach-head and the various tents housing either drunken and macho Greek warriors, the wounded or other female slaves bemoaning their lot in life.

Barker's thematic thrust involves examining the cost of war, all the untold suffering and the trauma, particularly that of female slaves such as Briseis; however much of this suffering is described in a first person (Briseis) matter-of-fact manner that is mostly devoid of tension, resulting in a narrative that is often flat and dull. For a novel that focuses on the trauma of dislocation and war, there is little psychological intensity, particularly when it comes to the female characters. Despite Barker giving voice to a mostly silent female character of The Iliad, ironically the male characters steal the show. Achilles and his childhood friend, Patroclus, both come across as far more complex and conflicted characters and because the narrative arc is essentially focused on what happens to them, Briseis frequently ends up being the voice that tells their stories. In contrast Helen of Troy only has a few brief scenes, however she comes across as a much more satisfying character than Briseis. Barker obviously has the skill to reveal her inner world in a compelling manner, it is a pity it didn't quite happen that way when it came to Briseis, otherwise The Silence of the Girls would have been a much more satisfying novel, particularly as it is a noble idea to subvert what is essentially a story about men and Gods putting their ego fueled stamp of the (ancient) world. The majority of the book-clubbers felt that, despite some redeeming qualities, the novel was a wasted opportunity, among many other grievances - apologies to the author, I hope you don't end up reading this review!


Tuesday 14 January 2020

Helliconia Winter - Brian Aldiss (1985)

Rating: Admirable

Helliconia Winter is the third and final book in the the Helliconia Trilogy, the others being Helliconia Spring (1982) and Helliconia Summer (1983). The novel begins at the end of autumn and the planet of Helliconia is moving into the beginning of a winter that will last 300+ years, causing the human-like denizens to suffer greatly from the collapse of civilization that had reached its zenith in summer, including falling prey to the 'fat death' (which causes binge eating, including cannibalism), which in reality changes human physiology in a manner that allows a greater chance of survival during the harsh winter. For the other main dominant species, the Phagors (as pictured on the book cover), winter results in potential dominance once more over the humans (or Sons of Freyer, as they call them...). This is a very basic synopsis of the novel, which is essentially dominated by a world building narrative in its truest sense. Although they are mostly well developed, the principal protagonists are merely actors on a massive environmental stage in which Helliconia and its yellow-orange dwarf star, Batalix, follow a highly elliptical 1200 year orbit around the Type A Super-giant star Freyer. For fans of epic world building novels the Helliconia Trilogy is up there with the best and Helliconia Winter, although not quite as good as the first two novels, is quality science fiction and despite Aldiss' old-school style it is written in an intelligent and compelling manner.

Helliconia Winter is the lesser novel in the trilogy due to a number of factors; the principal characters, such as Luterin Shokerandit from the northern continent of Sibornal, have less agency in the face of declining conditions, whereas in the first two books the world is opening up to great possibilities due to the advent of spring and then summer. This novel includes much more information about Earth's history and the space station Avernus, which orbits Helliconia and transmits footage back to Earth. The depiction of Earth's future is standard science fiction fare, as is what happens to the six thousand inhabitants of Avernus (although there are some pretty freaky descriptions of giant genitalia called 'perambulant pudendolls'). However the main flaw lies in the fact that despite the trilogy being based on fairly hard science fiction concepts, including believable biological and cosmological principles, Aldiss introduces a seam of dubious mysticism into the narrative, which weakens the original premise. Some of the philosophical ruminations of future humanity are also a bit cringe-worthy, which is perhaps fair enough for humans that do nothing all day but pontificate whilst lazing in mobile towns pulled along by the energy of bizarre white lifeforms called 'geonauts'. Despite these minor flaws Helliconia Winter was an entertaining and satisfying end to one of the great trilogies in science fiction.