Detailed review –'Doctor Sleep Induces Namesake: An Extended Diatribe on First-Ever King Sequel – found on my blog: http://wp.me/p2fWob-o8...moreDetailed review – 'Doctor Sleep Induces Namesake: An Extended Diatribe on First-Ever King Sequel – found on my blog: http://wp.me/p2fWob-o8(less)
Good on Paper is the debut novella of Melbourne writer Andrew Morgan. According to his bio, Morgan was a recipient of an Australian Council Varuna Wri...moreGood on Paper is the debut novella of Melbourne writer Andrew Morgan. According to his bio, Morgan was a recipient of an Australian Council Varuna Writers’ Centre mentorship and won the prestigious Melbourne Lord Mayor’s Creative Writing Award, and so, guided by word of mouth and those impressive credentials, I sought this out. It’d been awhile since a book had tickled my funny bone, and this looked primed to do it.
In truth, Good on Paper was something I’d wanted to read for awhile. Its subject matter struck me as brave – surely prospective publishers would’ve seen it as the author biting the hand? As a student of publishing, and as a keen observer of the industry, I was eager to see how Morgan would portray publishers. From the offset, it was clear they’d be lampooned, and that their work practices would be examined and mined for comedy. Who wouldn’t want to read that?
The book opens with an introduction to Nettie, our everywoman, as she is contracted for the most memorable editing gig of her career. In a cast of larger-than-life weirdos, Nettie effectively functions as the voice of reason. Morgan has written Nettie as a single working mother with relatable, everyday insecurities. As is wont to happen to editors, she is trodden on a lot, but proves her mettle with a relentless work ethic and general strength of character (that’s right! No wallowing!). I enjoyed Nettie and was impressed by Morgan’s efforts to make her convincing.
Nettie is contracted by my favourite character, Augustus, the pragmatically minded Managing Director of August Publications. Augustus seems somewhat pompous, but is mostly acting out of desperation. His mission statement is to enrich and ennoble the literary scene with thoughtful, original works. But such an enterprise proves financially unsustainable and so, driven by a need for remuneration, Augustus is forced to consider works that have more commercial appeal. It’s the quintessential balancing act of the independent publisher and, with the scale tilting towards financial ruin, Augustus is driven to take the biggest financial risk of his career.
Enter Josh Henry, one-time literary wunderkind. On the strength of a few short stories, Josh was the unlikely (and perhaps implausible) talk of the town. He was scooped up by a major publishing house and his novel, the endearingly pretentious The Future We Left Behind, was rush-released to critical condemnation. His career in shambles, Josh fell off the grid until – you guessed it – Augustus seeks him out and gives him an offer too good to refuse.
Augustus tasks Nettie with overseeing the rewrites of Josh’s failed manuscript. The pair wishes to help Josh actualise his true vision for the novel, but they also hope to use the lingering negative publicity to their advantage. As par the course for failed writers, Josh has descended into alcoholism and is paralysed by his insecurities. Although initially something of a cipher, Josh Henry is an interesting (if exaggerated) portrayal of the working writer. His inability to produce new work frustrates Nettie, but is all too relatable to other writers.
Although Good on Paper’s focus is locked squarely on the troubled and enigmatic Josh Henry, I found Nettie’s relationship with her daughter, Charlotte, its most compelling aspect. This mother-daughter subplot was essential and humanising, and stopped the proceedings from becoming too cartoonish.
As a literary-themed caper, Good on Paper is first-class. Nettie’s friend-turned-rival, the debonair, faintly ostentatious Xanthe, proves an interesting foil, and the pace scarcely relents. Morgan’s aim here was not dissimilar to what Max Barry achieved with his corporate satire Syrup. A taut, almost singularly minded novel, entertaining the reader was at the perpetual forefront of its objectives. Thankfully, Good on Paper is more grounded and reined-in than the sometimes outlandish Syrup. This is a real tale with real people, but shown through an absurdity filter. For a book reported to be about something as seemingly dry as the Australian publishing industry, Good on Paper is refreshingly larger than life.
Despite my enjoyment, I did have some minor issues with Good on Paper. Firstly, I must admit I grew fatigued by the various reversals which occur towards the novella’s end, a criticism I also levelled at Syrup. Although a short, rollicking read, I found there were also a few transitionary scenes could’ve been pared back. Like a diligent babysitter, Nettie checks on Josh, gets the ring around, appears to make headway, then rinses and repeats. Though perhaps intentional (it could be demonstrating the day-to-day frustrations of life as an editor), it was hard not to feel like the plot was treading water towards the middle. Josh Henry’s hijinks endlessly compound and, although this ratchets up the tension, it felt, as the novel’s central complication, a bit frivolous. To that end, I wonder whether Good on Paper would’ve been stronger with a few more compelling subplots; or, failing that, as a short story, (it could’ve been one perspective in a multi-POV anthology about the publishing industry). Who knows, though? These are just the nitpickings of a highly critical reader.
Ultimately, Morgan has written a witty, heartfelt and thoroughly entertaining meditation on the importance of editors. (There’s even a loving nod to the career of Max Perkins.) Morgan seems deeply versed on the rigours of publishing, and he must be commended for exploring what could be seen as an ambitious, esoteric subject matter. I think writers – particularly Australian writers – will get a real kick out of it. His unique vision of Melbourne’s literary scene was a real treat.(less)
Thirteen Stories is the inaugural entry in what I assume will become a series of short fiction anthologies. Released exclusively in ebook format, Thir...moreThirteen Stories is the inaugural entry in what I assume will become a series of short fiction anthologies. Released exclusively in ebook format, Thirteen Stories showcases a wide array of established and burgeoning Australian literary talents. Many of these stories have been sourced from other Australian literary journals (some were even published in other Busybird publications); others placed highly in short story competitions (of particular note, Louise D’Arcy’s 'Flat Daddy' was the recipient of the 2010 Age Short Story Award). I think republishing high-quality and obscure (occasionally out-of-print) stories is a noble and worthwhile venture, as it will lead readers to some great stories from yesteryear.
Much of my 2013 was spent immersed in Australian short fiction, therefore I was familiar with a few of these authors (A.S. Patric, Laurie Steed, Les Zigomanis, Louise D’Arcy and the eminent Ryan O’Neill, to name a few). Others, such as George Ivanoff, Kirk Marshall and Bel Woods, were on my radar but I had not yet had the pleasure of reading them.
Overall, I would say Thirteen Stories is a strong and diverse (dare I say eclectic?) collection. Each story was highly readable; there was no air of self-importance (as can sometimes be the case with literary journals). The collection was entertaining and refreshingly no-nonsense. Reader enjoyment was always at the forefront, even in the more ‘literary’ stories. My personal highlights were Ryan O’Neill’s ‘Missing’, Patrick Cullen’s ‘How My Father Dies in the End’ and Bel Woods’ devastating ‘Mama Says We’re Modern-Day Romani Cos We Got a TV’ (this one packed a major wallop; I wasn’t sure about the voice at first, but was won over in a big way). George Ivanoff and Les Zigomanis enthralled with their terrific bookstore-themed sexual fantasties, ‘Tall, Dark and Handsome’ and ‘Bookstore Fetish’, but a special mention must go to Erol Engin for ‘The Sea Monkeys’, a charming story about parenthood and nostalgia.(less)
Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is part memoir, part essay collection. As of 2006 (the initial publication date), Muraka...moreHaruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is part memoir, part essay collection. As of 2006 (the initial publication date), Murakami had successfully run twenty-six marathons and published eleven novels, making him an authority on writing and running. But this is not a How-To guide; from the offset, the humble writer stresses that his only intention is to share his accumulated wisdom and experience. And that’s precisely how this book should be taken. Murakami candidly and casually details his philosophies on writing, running and growing old. I didn’t learn a whole lot from this, but I don’t think I expected to.
Although this is billed as a sort of memoir, the biographical components of the book are the lightest. Murakami shares plenty about his running history, but comparatively little about his early life or fiction. I found this somewhat disappointing. Before I picked this up, I’d heard that the book equally explored Murakami’s writing and running lives, and that there were parallels between them. In reality, only about fifteen percent of this book deals with Murakami’s fiction, and the parallels drawn between novel-writing and marathon-running are pretty superficial. Make no mistakes: this book is for runners, not Murakami fans.
Fortunately, running’s my new favourite pastime, so I found plenty to enjoy. Murakami pens his thoughts as they come to him, giving us great insight into the mind of someone preparing for a long distance event. Events are jumped between with abandon and, when combined with a stream of consciousness approach, left the book feeling structurally disjointed. This was something I was unable to get past. It all feels a bit haphazardly thrown together, and the later portions (where Murakami digresses into discussing triathlons) drag. I can’t really pinpoint what would’ve made this a better-rounded read. It’s a little repetitive (Murakami trains for a marathon, completes it, does not meet his own unrealistic expectations, trains more, tries again), but then it’s only a short book so I’m not sure how much could conceivably be cut.
Regardless, the actual content of the book is (mostly) very good. Murakami has a unique way of seeing the world. He’s a modest guy, and his unpretentious views are wonderful. We’re so used to reading things that are laced in irony, so when someone as sincere and earnest as Murakami comes along, we have to stand and pay attention. Murakami views running as some transcendental act – although he’s careful not to get all metaphysical. It’s impossible not to absorb some of Murakami’s passion. I would genuinely call this an inspiring read, and that’s not a descriptor I’d use lightly.
Reading Running, one could think Murakami is foolish, doggedly stubborn. He is, in a sense, but has a remarkable spirit. His story really demonstrates how much we’re capable of achieving with just a strong work ethic and the right attitude. All the rest (bar luck and talent) is superfluous; Murakami teaches us to believe that anything is possible. Reading this, I may just believe it.(less)
I would say Steven Amsterdam is one of my favourite Australian writers, but he was born and raised in America and I’m not sure which country he prefer...moreI would say Steven Amsterdam is one of my favourite Australian writers, but he was born and raised in America and I’m not sure which country he prefers to align himself with. Nevertheless, he shot up my list of favourite contemporary authors on the strength of his – in my opinion, criminally underrated – second novel, What the Family Needed, (my review of which can be found here).
Things We Didn’t See Coming, Amsterdam’s debut, caused a minor stir when it was published in 2009 by the then-fledgling independent publisher, Sleepers. The novel – and I use the term loosely; more on this later – received wide critical acclaim, and marked both Amsterdam and Sleepers as ones to watch.
Like its follow-up, Things We Didn’t See Coming is presented as a series of quests or episodes. Instead of chapters we have interconnected (though also self-contained) stories, some of which reference and build upon earlier instalments. It’s an unconventional way to write a novel – if this is, in fact, a novel (Junot Diaz’s seminal This is How You Lose Her follows a similar structure, though identifies itself as a short story collection). Whether Things We Didn’t See Coming is a novel or short story collection is largely a matter of semantics, and I didn’t dwell on it.
The story follows an unnamed protagonist from one hood to another (child to adult, that is) while looking at the way civilisation transitions after an unspecified (possibly Y2K-related?) apocalyptic event. Unlike in your typical apocalypse story, civilisation in this story endures, rather than collapses. There’s poverty, sickness and a return to living off the land, but this is not the scorched, uninhabitable landscape of King’s The Stand or McCarthy’s The Road. Though survival and desperation play their parts, I would say this book is more about the protagonist’s desire to find purpose, and to live a rich, spiritually (though not religiously) fulfilling life. It’s neither depressing, nor sentimental, but it is life-affirming. While civilisation hasn’t collapsed, it has regressed back to basics and, without the encumbrance of old fixed societal hierarchies, our protagonist – and humanity at large – is forced to redefine the reasons for carrying on.
Of course, these issues aren’t handled heavy-handedly; in fact, for an apocalypse story, Things We Didn’t See Coming is a surprisingly fun read. Despite unmentionable hardships, the characters never become bogged down in their own melancholia. Even in the protagonist’s pettiest moments, he displays an underlying grace and strength, which made him worth rooting for.
It also helps that Amsterdam’s prose sparkles with assurance. It helps keep things buoyant, as does the lively cast of secondary characters (Juliet, Jeph and the ever-spirited Margo). Amsterdam seamlessly combines the sensibilities of both popular and literary fiction. He presents classic literary tropes, such as the exploration of the human condition, in a light and entertaining manner. He’s not necessarily a comic writer, but his stories are expertly paced and free of filler.
Having said all that, I have a major grievance to share. The episodic structure, which worked so well in What the Family Needed, felt horribly disjointed here. I give credit for the unconventional presentation, but such experiments should enhance the narrative to justify existing. The only purpose this episodic structure served was to provide Amsterdam easy outs whenever he wrote himself into a corner. I try to assess books on their own merits and with an open mind; I’m not opposed to this episodic structure on principle – as I said, it worked wonders in What the Family Needed. My issue here is that Amsterdam resolutely refused to elucidate the nature of the apocalypse or the parameters of the world. Again, not a problem in and of itself; The Road follows a similar tact, whereby McCarthy deliberately withholds details about why the world has changed. In that book, and in this one, the reader is expected to take things as they are, despite the lack of explanations. It works a treat in The Road because, really, the history of the world doesn’t matter; it’s not the heart of that story.
The narrative in Things We Didn’t See Coming shifts at every interval. It’s not just that the world and main character develop in secret during the gaps between stories; it’s that whole plotlines are disregarded as quickly as they’re introduced. Every event in this book is rendered irrelevant by the proceeding story. Now, I’m not a finicky reader; I don’t need closure to enjoy a story. My favourite form, the short story, is often famously open-ended, but I do have my limits. Though enjoyable to read about, the world in Things We Didn’t See Coming felt thin and ill-defined. Instead of one comprehendible apocalyptic event, the world goes through many changes: floods, droughts, viral outbreaks, war of the classes, spikes in theft, oppressive governments, and more. It’s like Amsterdam wasn’t sure what tact to take, so he took them all. Individually, each thread is compelling, but none are given any follow-through. It’s difficult to invest in a situation when everything will inevitably be thrown to the wind come the next story. To make matters worse, the stories are only ever twenty-odd pages long, yet it takes up to six for the reader to find their bearings (‘The Forest for the Trees’ and ‘The Profit Motive’ were particularly obtuse).
All up, the lack of concrete answers proved too much for me. In What the Family Needed, chapters shifted to accommodate different characters’ perspectives. Sometimes the previous character’s arc was left open or unresolved, but characters recurred – or made cameos – in subsequent stories, so I was never left frustrated. In Things We Didn’t See Coming, the protagonist’s relationships with Margo and his father were about the only arcs with any sort of resolution – and neither was particularly satisfying. I really think this book would’ve worked better had it been a series of contrasting apocalypse stories featuring different characters and situations, though set in the same world. I would’ve found it more palatable had I not been positioned to expect cohesiveness and traceable character development.
I don’t mean for this to sound overly negative: there was a lot to enjoy about Things We Didn’t See Coming. I suppose my own expectations are ultimately what let me down. Still, this is only Amsterdam’s debut; it’s unfair that I should hold it to the standard of his later work. This book is certainly worth checking out if you want a unique take on apocalypse stories.(less)
I don't suppose I'm the target audience for this book, Little White Slips, a short story collection which follows the lives of various fractured femal...moreI don't suppose I'm the target audience for this book, Little White Slips, a short story collection which follows the lives of various fractured female characters. There was plenty to relate to, but the overall impression this gave me was like eavesdropping on the salacious or frivolous (depending on the story) secrets of the female patrons in the corner of a cafe. These characters pour their hearts out, revealing candid information about their issues with weight, self-esteem, their work lives, sex lives, and their relationships with men and other women. That's just the kind of intimacy author Karen Hitchcock deals in, and she does it well.
So why did I read this book if I’d already identified that it wasn't really in my wheelhouse. Well, as with a few of my recent reads, I sought Little White Slips out on the strength of the eponymous story, which was featured in Best Australian Short Stories 2010. I found, in that story, there was something about Hitchcock's writing that really spoke to me. It was confident and achingly contemporary, thus I was compelled to delve deeper into her body of work. (Disappointingly, this is all she’s published. Here’s hoping, since it’s been out a few years now, that a follow-up is on its way.) 'Little White Slips' is reproduced here, of course, and it was a pleasure to revisit. There are a few other stories that reach its heights.
'Drinking When We Are Not Thirsty' was, without a doubt, the strongest story on offer, and a fine way to jump-start the collection. It is a sprawling, gut-wrenching account of a medical student – also a wife and mother – preparing for her specialist exams. Hitchcock, a medical doctor herself, so wholly inhabits this character, who is unflinchingly determined, yet overwhelmed just the same. The author positively bleeds onto the page, so potent is the character's turmoil. A charming Irish doctor proves a wicked foil.
Unfortunately, 'Drinking When We Are Not Thirsty' set the bar unprecedentedly high, leaving every subsequent story feeling, in varying degrees, like a bit of a disappointment. Don't get me wrong: each story had its own great little moments, but these rarely built into anything more. Thus they remained only that: moments. An early story about familial relationships and eating issues was an early highlight, but it was followed by a lacklustre Miranda July-esque comedy about the wife of a psychologist who uses a Freud figurine to solve her marital communications breakdown. I found this story's relentless attempts to be quirky trying. Another such mid-range story, featuring polar bears, was similarly exhausting.
Ultimately, this wild unevenness prevented me from finding much enjoyment in this collection. Some of the stories were excellent, and were told with deftness and subtlety; others – frankly, the majority – were overt, overwritten, samey and tonally off (as in 'Shrink', which I found neither funny nor enlightening). I don't think I'd recommend this collection as a whole but, as a debut, it shows promise. Hitchcock's medical knowledge, it’s worth noting, gives her a unique perspective, but I do hope her next collection offers more diversity.(less)
Clocking in at only four stories long, Michael McMullen’s The Stonemason and Other Tales is short but sweet, an intriguing sampler of punchy horror ya...moreClocking in at only four stories long, Michael McMullen’s The Stonemason and Other Tales is short but sweet, an intriguing sampler of punchy horror yarns. It opens with the title story, an eerie gothic piece that put me in the mind of Poe himself. From there we have ‘Beneath the Falling Stars’, a twisted confessional by a man whose swirling paranoia has him actually anticipating the forthcoming apocalypse. ‘The Gift’ shows how unrequited love is not always as sweet as you might expect, while closer, ‘The Incident at Outpost 51’, proudly wears its main influence, John Carpenter’s The Thing, on its sleeve.
Each story was an intriguing morsel in its own right. McMullen’s is an engaging new voice. Measured and intelligent, he has truly grasped the art of writing suspense. However, I did find myself wishing for more: more depth, more stories, more surprises. I think the middle two worked best because they seemed to focus more on internal character development.
(Good horror – smart horror – requires strong, believable characters with dreams and desires. Neglect this inclusion and you’re merely putting hamsters through their paces.)
‘The Stonemason’ showed incredible promise from the offset, with a marked emphasis on atmosphere and a great premise (reporter drives to a remote location to interview a renowned local stonemason). However, for me, it didn’t go anywhere wholly original; that is to say, the outcome of the story did not live up to the opening’s potential. ‘Outpost 51’, again, conjured great atmosphere. The, err, monster in this story was creepy and original, and the setup kind of put me in the mind of that great Treehouse of Horrors episode where Bart, the boy who cried wolf, is terrorised by a gremlin riding along the outside of the school bus. There’s a strong, underlying tension. However, I just wasn’t invested in the character, or his journey, and so the somewhat conventional outcome left me underwhelmed. That’s not to say it was a bad story or anything; rather, it felt like enjoyable fodder that would’ve been better suited to pad out the middle of a longer, more substantial collection.
So, really, my major issue with this wasn’t to do with the stories, or the writing; it was my craving for more. I think if this were six–seven stories long it might’ve fared better. I also would’ve loved if McMullen could’ve allowed one to two of his stories to really stretch their wings over a dozen or more pages. Having four very brief flash-in-a-pan horror outings compiled like this left the whole feeling like less than the sum. It would’ve been nice to have this rounded out by, for example, a nicely paced longer short that really delved into the character’s psyche over a series of thrilling set pieces – so, perhaps a psychological thriller, or something (something like a longer take on ‘Beneath the Falling Stars’). Such an inclusion would’ve perfectly contrasted these shorter tales and left this collection feeling both more substantial and more well-rounded.
Still, as a wonderfully priced introduction to McMullen’s writing, The Stonemason and Other Tales offers terrific value. I can think of no finer way to whittle away that hour train ride to work. McMullen’s writing is a fitting love letter (albeit a brief one – a love post-it, perhaps?) to all things horror. I genuinely can’t wait to see what he offers next. (less)
Eric Nyuland's Microsoft-commisioned novel, Halo: The Fall of Reach, is an excellent addition to the Halo canon. As a sci-fi novel, though, it is mere...moreEric Nyuland's Microsoft-commisioned novel, Halo: The Fall of Reach, is an excellent addition to the Halo canon. As a sci-fi novel, though, it is merely adequate. Nyuland proved himself a better writer than expected, but this book was still a little hammy and overstated in places. The set pieces are spectacular – truly thrilling and cinematic throughout – but the novel's pace was jeopardised by its running time. At almost four hundred pages, and with the titular battle of Reach resigned to the last seventy pages (like an afterthought), this was far longer than it needed to be.
To Nyuland's credit, though, main characters, Captain Jacob Keyes and John-117, are handled with a lot more depth and conviction than their handling in the sister stories of the video games. Each of the main characters had layered, believable motivations and – gasp! – feelings. (That's right, Master Chief had opinions about war long before 343 Industries gave him a more well-oiled voice box.) Master Chief's origins were particularly well-handled, and I also found the head of the Spartan Project, Dr Catherine Halsey, a necessarily complex individual.
At this point, with Halo: Reach and a slew of other expanded universe stories out there, one might question the relevance of Halo: The Fall of Reach. Effectively, this book serves as the immediate prequel to the first game, Halo: Combat Evolved and, I think, its relevance holds after all these years. See, it's one thing to have a loose understanding of the history of the Halo universe, but reading about it – involving yourself in the lives of these characters as the events happen – is another entirely. The Fall of Reach really coloured the events of Combat Evolved for me. It also gave the Human–Covenant war a greater resonance; a reader really feels what's at stake for humanity, whereas, in the games, it's just neat to blow stuff up.
For anyone with even a passing interest in the Halo universe, Halo: The Fall of Reach is essential reading. It could've been better, sure, but it also could've been a whole lot worse.(less)
I wasn’t expecting to like this half as much as I did. To be honest, I picked it up on a whim – not because it sounded interesting, but because Fyodor...moreI wasn’t expecting to like this half as much as I did. To be honest, I picked it up on a whim – not because it sounded interesting, but because Fyodor Dostoyevsky is a seminal and influential writer and this, Notes From [The] Underground, seemed like the most accessible entry point. I didn’t expect this translation to be quite so funny, readable, or emotionally charged.
Much of the short but philosophical first section, ‘Underground’, was lost on me. I dipped in and out, fleetingly bored, engaged and awed, in turns. There were some incredible observations in here, but I feel more effort was required on my part to get the most out of it. At any rate, I ploughed through it easily enough. It was a fitting precursor to the longer second section, ‘Apropos of the Wet Snow’, which, amusingly, chronologically pre-dates the first section.
‘Apropos of the Wet Snow’ – also known as The Actual Narrative – was outstanding! Witty, enlightening and tragic, Dostoyevsky proves masterful at writing characterisation. The Underground Man is the original misanthropist. It’s compelling, the way he adamantly resists his own nature. Swelling with pride and resentment, The Underground Man struck me as someone desperate to connect, yet pathologically unable to do so. He was compelling and tragic and was really what appealed to me most about this book.
Had a complicated relationship with this one — my first Vonnegut read. A disorientating opening and tell-heavy first half had my interests waning, but...moreHad a complicated relationship with this one — my first Vonnegut read. A disorientating opening and tell-heavy first half had my interests waning, but it really picked up in the second half (when the referenced characters from the first half appeared). For the most part, the narrative is absurd, so I was surprised to find myself genuinely affected by the final development.(less)