Monday, May 22, 2017

Offshore

by Andrea Jones

Offshore is a superb romantic thriller set against a background of refugee politics. In the near future the UK begins detaining asylum-seekers on the island of Alderney in the English Channel. A shady Australian company is contracted to run the operation. Into this ugly scenario comes Kate, a naive support worker fresh from London, and Abra, a Syrian refugee with a lot of charm and potential. Things get messy from there on in...

Australian writers often address themes of xenophobia but generally don’t write about real detention centres. It may be that publishers are keen to sidestep what is only the most contentious topic of the last twenty years, or it may be that writers feel they don’t know enough about the camps to write about them confidently (journalists are barred from Manus and Nauru). I found it interesting to see this author tackle the subject head-on. The premise of a UK offshore centre was unfortunately only too credible, yet it cleverly gave the author space to create a fictional narrative.

Concept aside however, I found the most admirable quality of this book was the prose. The writing is tight, with appropriate cultural references, no wasted sentences and lots of character detail. I found the characters very well defined, even considering the difficult territory explored in the second half of the book (no spoilers here). I especially found the female lead very believable. She is flawed, sexually impulsive, and somewhat unbalanced emotionally. The relationship between her and Abra felt quite fresh and different (this isn’t a “yawn” romance at all).

The plot is quite original, and generally smooth and convincing. I did however wonder why Kate was allowed so much freedom at the camp. Was she a volunteer or paid employee? It was all a bit vague. Also, Samuel seemed the type to simply kill a difficult detainee rather than set them free as he does in the middle of the book. I would have preferred a little more description about the detention centre and I thought the second half of the book was probably the strongest.

I have to say I enjoyed this book a great deal. Once I was a few pages in I wanted to keep reading and I found the prose elegant and a pleasure to read. Highly recommended.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Disco Biscuits

Edited by Sarah Champion
Hodder and Stoughton 1997

The sequel to Trainspotting is in the cinemas at the moment so let’s get nostalgic and visit some short fiction from the 90s. Disco Biscuits is a hefty nineteen stories published at the height of global rave fame in 1997. Perhaps nothing here is going to blow your mind but there’s also nothing here below par. I thought the best stories were little gems by obscure authors.

One I like is "Electrovoodoo" (Michael River). A bunch of kids eat their rave flyers and visit a scary post-human drain world where electrical appliances are set to rule over a dying planet. Another fun one is “Mile High Meltdown" (Dean Cavanagh). In this story a crack-addled pilot on a passenger flight forces a jungle crew to spin records over the cabin PA.

The use of recreational drugs is the common element in all of these stories. Mostly the descriptions feel very authentic. There's one or two stories that try too hard with extreme quantities, and in one story a boy dies slowly from bad drugs while remaining quite lucid and calm (implausible and melodramatic). The story which I felt said it best was "Heart of the Bass" (Kevin Williamson). A young protagonist takes a modest quantity of drugs that none-the-less are far stronger than expected. He then experiences a bizarre hallucinatory series of events which are quite different from the actual bizarre events of the night as experienced by his friends. Insert some sexual anxiety and party relationships and this story just felt right. It was probably my favourite and it even had a happy ending.

In summary - a nourishing slab of creative fiction about the rave scene.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

general blog revision...

I've become a Goodreads user. You can find me there as Heffy. I'm posting a lot of less formal reviews to Goodreads.

I duplicated all the reviews from this blog to Goodreads, then I removed some of the negative reviews. 

My intention now is to reserve this space for books that I think deserve more attention. They may be subversive, or Australian, or just criminally obscure.

Entropia

by Samuel Alexander
Simplicity Institute Publishing 2013

This is essentially a manifesto for a sustainable way of living. It's presented as the fictional account of an island society protected from the general collapse of global civilization. There are some good ideas here and I strongly identify with the themes of this book.

However I can't honestly say this is a satisfying read. The presentation style gets tedious after a few chapters. We are supposed to believe that the narrator has left the successful island of Entropia and is telling us all about it in the past tense. However this never feels particularly authentic because there are no funny annecdotes, no fleshed out characters, no tension. The story is essentially a projection about what life could and should be like in the future: "we do this with our resources because of this"..."our political structure is like this for these reasons"... etc and the device of telling it in the past tense just gets in the way after a while.

The tone is also a bit waffly. There's often times long paragraphs with only a word or two of substance.

Conspicuously absent in this discussion of Entropia is the subject of information technology. There doesn't seem to be much mention of communications or computers. This was disappointing to me because I was (am) curious to know how these technologies fit in with the author's vision of a sustainable society. I also wondered why none of the young folk of the island ever attempted to reestablish contact with other parts of the world. These omissions are somewhat explained at the end of the book.

By the way, it's worth sticking it out for the ending. If you're understandably bored in the middle of the book you may be reassured that something interesting does indeed happen in the last chapters.

I have probably sounded a little critical so far but there were a lot of things that resonated with me. Probably my favourite part of the book was the "charter for the deep future" - basically the constitutional statement for the people of Entropia. For example: "We affirm that providing enough for everyone, forever, is the defining objective of our economy, which we seek to achieve by working together in free association".... "We affirm that maintaining a healthy environment require creating a stationary state economy that operates within environmental and energy limits" ...etc etc.

Apparently there has been the creation of an actual planned community based on the ideas in Entropia. So I'm eager to hear about it perhaps in a future book by this author.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Arms Race and Other Stories

by Nic Low
Text Publishing 2014

This is a fun bunch of fiction from a refined Melbourne gentleman (well he's been seen around these parts). The writing is fresh, individual and unfashionably speculative. There's a feeling of whimsy and an almost fairy-tale quality to some of the stories. They explore some fertile ideas and territories.  It's quite dense and I get the impression that each story has been reworked many times.

My favourite stories are "Rush" and "Data Furnace". In Rush Aboriginal activists start a mining company. They are granted an exploration licence for what might be considered sacred land - Melbourne's biggest war memorial (the Shrine of Remembrance). Data Furnace is set in a climate disaster future and London has frozen over following the collapse of the Gulf Stream. Most of the city is evacuated but two employees stay on working in a data centre. They become reliant on the servers for warmth, and try to attract more traffic. It seems they need an amazing youtube gimmick in order to survive.

It's worth mentioning that the stories are set all over the place. Each one takes us to a wildy different location - Laos, Rajasthan, Manhattan. Almost feels like you're on a backpacker journey (with a possible preference for New Zealand). 

I was however sometimes disappointed by the endings of these stories. Sometimes the final paragraphs introduced new themes and ideas that weren't particulary complimentary to the preceding work. Other times the story appeared to be cut short before the climax. I wondered if perhaps the stories had been compromised to fit the fairly narrow requirements of literary periodicals.

Highly recommended and hope to see more from this author!

Friday, January 16, 2015

Emergence

by John Birmingham
Pan Macmillan 2014

There must have been a mix up at the Christmas factory because a copy of this landed in my stocking. My first thought was to palm it off as present to somebody else, but the opportunity didn't arise. Like some other folks I know, I was a big fan of the "felafel-era" Birmingham, and disappointed that he subsequently began producing fantasy-action novels. I would have liked to see him take the sharehouse theme worldwide. Or something like that. Anyway, the thought occurred to me that I hadn't actually read any of his fantasy-action novels so I decided to give this one a go.

The story begins with a horde of demons attacking an oil rig off the coast of America. And the plot only gets crazier from there! The protagonist Dave Hooper manages to kill one of the demons with an axe, before he falls unconscious and wakes up in hospital. Soon Dave discovers that he has super powers (yes, really). He can move terribly fast and has incredible strength. He has also inexplicably acquired the knowledge of the demon he killed. With the help of his trusty axe (technically it's a splitting maul), he helps the American military defeat a horrific demon attack on the city of New Orleans.

You would be correct in thinking this book is very silly indeed. The demon horde feels a lot like it escaped from the Warhammer role-playing franchise. Apparently these demons ruled the earth thousands of years ago, treating humans as cattle and fighting amongst themselves. I wondered why none of the scientists in the book mentioned the peculiar absence of any fossil remains of this demon civilization. Possibly I skipped over that page. One thing I did like was that the demons seem to become sexually aroused during the carnage. Call me depraved but I thought it gave these guys an edge over your average fantasy monster.

The story may be ridiculous but Birmingham writes well and the dialogue and descriptions kept me amused. I was chuckling to myself in more than one place as I rediscovered his sense of humour. I also enjoyed the reprobate protagonist. Dave Hooper is the sort of guy who blows his pay check on hookers and cocaine.

A book like this isn't going to change your life. However if you're looking for some hilarious trash this may be the book for you (and I mean that in the best possible way).

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

No Limit

by Holly Childs
Hologram 2014
 
Wow. This punchy novella totally blew me away. My head's still reeling from it days later. The promo calls it "sugar-rush prose" - which may be a big understatement - each page feels like another line of no-doz. This is dense, fast writing. Every sentence is manicured and processed for maximum impact, but it retains a strong sense of "flow". There's so much here that you could read it several times in succession without getting tired.

The story recounts the farcical adventures of a group of international internet addicts who go to a squat party in Auckland. Flights are grounded due to a volcanic eruption that cleverly parallels the disruptions of 2010 (when ash drifted into Europe from Iceland). The leading character is a girl who is actually named Ash. There's also Haydn, Misty, Dick, Mack, Fidget and Bassy. Narrative highlights include ridiculous sex scenes at the underground party, and two visists to an absurd internet cafe called "Ne Plus Ultra".

The defining feature of No Limit is however the prose. The sentence structure, content and composition are superb. There's a lot of name-dropping, hat-doffing to other artists, self-reflection and elements of postmodernism. There's also a lot of internet culture here, more than I can remember finding in any other novel. Other themes include bisexuality and fashion (as in clothes).  The writing wanders through a lot of esoteric territory but it remains accessible and has a great sense of humour.

My main criticism is that the narrative disintegrates somewhat in the second half. It becomes exhausted like a raver on the morning after and abandons whole characters and plot concepts. What happened to Misty and the green cosmetic? Is the book purposely being left open to a second installment?

I put a link to the bookseller up there to the left. You are doing yourself a disservice if you don't check this out.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Life.exe

by Stephen Moles
Philistine Press 2013 

This novella smacks you in the face with a truly radical literary style. It's strongly reminiscent of dada or surrealism, or maybe "cut and paste". The descriptive sentences are warped and twisted to the point where they feel as though they've been generated randomly by a computer program (and they may well have been). However there's enough narrative to keep you ploughing through the paragraphs of insanity - I'd describe the narrative as contemporary, sexy and existential.

Here's an exemplary sentence if you weren't feeling curious already: "I explained that having no clothes put me in a hot butter tray, but she gripped me by the wrists and became extremely old."

Real amazing writing. And it's free.

PS: I truly have no idea what the cover is supposed to show. It strikes me as a dead Irish famous person from around about a century ago. But that would have nothing to do with the novel so I'm probably incorrect. Maybe it's meant to be quixotic?

PPS: I just discovered the author's blog which resolves some of the enigmas. But I recommend you read it first with the enigmas in place.

Exit Nothing

by Pat King
KUBOA 2012

This is a fun and warm short novel. The first chapter or two are a little deceptive - the vibe is dreamy and gothy. Then the tone changes and things get more rollicking. I was reminded of the honest, straight-up style of "Jesus' Son" (Denis Johnson), and maybe "Praise" (Andrew McGahan).

The narrative is not chronological and consists of short adventures taken arbitrarily from the young narrator's life. He loves two cities - Philadelphia and Balitmore, and two girls - Anne and Kaye. The other recurring character is a guy known only as the "Mad Poet".

My only criticism is that despite a lot of drinking and smoking the story still feels a little light and fluffy. I would have liked to see a bit more grime and craziness. On the other hand it was refreshing to read about a guy who likes to go to poetry readings with his girlfriends.

I found this free on smashwords! 

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Unaustralians is now free online

Yes that's right. You can grab it from smashwords or via that link to your left. I even made up a pdf version for small screens.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Monkey Wrench Gang


by Edward Abbey
first published 1975

As you may have noticed I'm on a search for fiction to the theme of environmental activism. The Monkey Wrench Gang is something that fits the description well. Wikipedia tells me that this is a widely known book and as of 2012 there's even a film adaptation being planned. I couldn't get through this book however without a lot of flick-reading. It was fun but it didn't really rock my world. 

The story follows a group of four renegades as they systematically destroy things all over the American Southwest (which means the Colorado river, Utah, Arizona, etc). The gang consists of Seldom Seen Smith, George Hayduke, Doc Sarvis and Bonnie Abbzug - all of them talented, exceptional people who remarkably have almost identical opinions about what needs to be done. Basically they want to blow shit up, particularly dams and power plants. They also have an inexplicable love of corny jokes and bad puns.

The first two-thirds of the book passes with just about no conflict or drama whatsoever. It's a gratuitous destructive romp with no sense that the gang is really at risk. The drama improves in the final third when the agents of law and order finally start hunting down the saboteurs. 

The biggest win of this book is the amazing descriptions of the landscape. Clearly the author knows the place intimately and is describing real places that he has watched being built up and over. 

I would have liked to get hold of the Robert Crumb edition but the copy I read was pretty plain actually. Seems like Abbey did a lot of writing so I'm interested in reading some more when I get the chance. (But next up I think I'm going to get back to the mission statement and review something unknown and undervalued).

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Thought Crimes

by Tim Richards
Black Inc. 2011

Tim Richards is a rare thing - dark, literary, Australian and published. I've read several of his books before (many years ago now), but the quality of Thought Crimes took me by surprise. These are some heavy-hitting short stories!

There are twenty-one stories here and the dark tone is set early on with "The Enemies of Happiness". A new teacher in a disadvantaged school grapples with the discovery that one of her students has had their ribs surgically removed, only so they can perform fellatio on themselves. "V2" is probably the first really great story that the reader encounters: An autistic man murders the recently released Myra Hindley and the Australian government struggles to cover it up. (I won't spoil any more of these stories for you, promise.) The creme de la creme of this collection are "Dog's Life" and "The Darkest Heart". When you find yourself reading a paragraph several times, just to savour the use of particular words, you know you are looking at some fine writing.

However, if you're looking for satisfying endings, you might not find a lot in Thought Crimes. There's a lot of abrupt, ambiguous, cryptic, and anti-climactic endings here. At first I thought Richards was simply spectacularly bad at finishing his stories, but then I realised that over half of these stories have previously appeared in literary periodicals (ie Meanjin). I now suspect that a lot of these stories have been cut down to fit the narrow specifications of the magazine editors. Maybe Richards needed to make the stories more "literary" and less "speculative" in order to get them published - and hence some of the ambiguity. 

I was in fact disappointed to find Richards doing the standard thing of thanking the various magazines at the end of the book, because it seems that in many ways these magazines are holding Richards back. I'd love to see Richards let loose on the world  beyond the narrow confines of current literary acceptability. I believe he could produce something sprawling, surrealistic and marvellous - a work of true genius. Publishers be damned!

(I'm still giving this five out of five stars though.)


The Lifted Brow No.7

Published 2010

While I'm in a reviewing mood I thought I might mention The Lifted Brow. I'm specifically talking about the Lifted Brow no7. Some of the other TLB publications I've read were less to my taste. However number seven really packs a punch. It's a remarkable collection of wild unregulated fiction from writers you've almost certainly not heard of (at least I haven't). They seem to be mostly young Australian and American authors.

There's no index, no publisher page, no author bios and only a very short editorial. In fact I don't even know how many stories are in here. At a guess I'd say about thirty (not including a few comic strips) and they're mostly fairly long stories. There's also a lot of extra artists who have apparently contributed by drawing small penises and shoes in the little spaces above and below the stories.

The collection starts out with an untitled, uncredited and truly bizarre story about a guy called Ricky. He seems to be losing his mind on some type of dissociative drug (well that's my interpretation). From there we get two super short stories of only a paragraph each and then a long, surreal piece about a vindictive santa claus who transforms the protagonist's father into a reindeer. After that is a story about a dinner date featuring a Liberian warlord in a house where every object and surface is completely covered in carpet. Following this is a comic but apparently factual account of a Bachelor and Spinster ball in rural Queensland. The collection continues on in this way, and there's a lot of it. I'm inclined to think the first half is of somewhat better quality than the second half, but there's certainly nothing bad here.

Thanks TLB for no7! Can we have some more like this one day?

Monday, July 15, 2013

In Arcadia


by JD Shaw
Published 2013

This is a comic novel that depicts a near future Melbourne collapsing at a social level. The woes seem to be economic and agricultural in nature but the precise cause isn't exactly clear. The "climate" does get a few mentions however so it fits quite neatly alongside some of the other books I've been reading lately.

The hero and narrator is a typical Melbourne dad (Tom) living with his family in a place that feels very much like Brunswick. Unfortunately the streets of the inner north are becoming overrun with unemployed vagabonds (even more than usual it would seem). Tom and his family decide to flee to the farthest edge of suburbia - to a walled community called Arcadia. Of course there turns out to be some pretty unpleasant things going on in the community and Tom is soon deeply entangled in most of it.

The thing I thought most important about this book was the portrayal of characters desperately trying to hold on to a vanishing suburban ideal. In the quest for luxury these characters are very quick to dispose of their notions of morality. The other thing I liked a lot were the farcical scenes of misadventure and destruction. There is some wildly unfashionable comic writing going here and I was laughing out loud in quite a few places.

My only criticism is that I wanted a lot more detail about what was going on in the rest of the city. The story ends with a sense of a new journey beginning so perhaps (hopefully) the author will keep writing and produce a sequel one day.

**** four stars!

Monday, April 8, 2013

Fly

by Anne Witherall
published 2012

A copy of this found its way into my hands. It's pretty great. It's a loose memoir/fiction novel set in the Melbourne punk scene of the late 1980s.

Annie (aka Agro) flees Adelaide at the young age of fifteen. She's determined to be a punk and the locals don't understand her, so she takes the train to Melbourne. She slips smoothly into the punk scene, and soon is squatting with two friends, Dee and Mel. The story is a mixture of annecdote and what feels like a lightly sculpted narrative.

Annie makes for an interesting lead character. She's saving up money to have cosmetic surgery, in order to conceal a scar across her torso. Ironically it was this scar that helped steer her into the punk scene, where being a freak is something to be proud of. I thought this apparent contradiction in her character gave the book an edge over similar stories.

In order to make quick money she travels back to Adelaide sporadically in order to buy marijuana by the pound. It seems like a long way to go for marijuana, and one of the characters remarks that weed is harder to score in Melbourne than heroin. This is just one of several concepts in the novel which I found vaguely incongruous. However, a lot can change in twenty-five years... who knows maybe it really was like that in the 80s.

I actually preferred the narrative sections of this book, as opposed to the annecdote sections. The narrative sections have a strong Romper Stomper vibe, and I think this book could be adapted into a good movie. I also liked some of the descriptive passages, which tend to celebrate the punkness. Here's one example: "Little black turds littered every surface and made my room smell like a mouse cage. I felt my earlobe. All my earrings were missing and flakes of dried blood coated my fingers. The sign of a good night."

The narrative could be improved and the loose ends tied up. But then it wouldn't be punk.