Monday, October 30, 2017

Scoundrel Days

by Brentley Frazer
University of Queensland Press 2017

This autobiographical tale traces the development of a boy into adulthood and for that reason you could call it a coming-of-age story. However, in Scoundrel Days, most of the genre conventions are turned upside down, and the narrative is so different, it feels more correct to call it an "anti-coming-of-age" story.

I just googled "anti-coming-of-age" and sure enough various critics have used the term to describe a wide variety of stories. I'd like to cautiously propose that in this type of story the protagonist is far less mutable than they have any right to be. Instead they are stubbornly sure of themselves and resistant to change. Rather than stumble with trepidation through their teenage years they seem to bypass puberty entirely and charge into adult situations with an unwarranted confidence.

The Basketball Diaries is a good example of an anti-coming-of-age story (I read this recently). Another example may be "the Catcher in the Rye" (Holden Caulfield is only a school student but frequents bars and passes for an adult). But that's enough of that, let's move onto Brentley Frazer (there are spoilers that follow).

Scoundrel Days begins in outback Queensland. Young Frazer grows up with a Police officer for a father and a religious family attached to Christian cult apparently known as "the Friendlies". From here Frazer moves to Townsville and begins highschool. Incredibly, he loves literature from an early age, and often mentions the books he's reading - the collected works of Byron among others. It's not explained how he is exposed to such material. Frazer doesn't seem to frequent libraries and his attendance at school is rather thin.

Anyway, back to the story. In Townsville he commits petty crimes with a gang of other young teens and makes a close friend: Reuben. Reuben develops into a key character that dominates the first half of the book. Reuben loves fighting, is exceptionally handsome and extremely promiscuous. He is also deeply conflicted and bent on revenge - his uncle abused him as a child, culminating in a savage attack that left his feet scarred and without toes. He also has only one testicle.

Frazer and Reuben have many adventures. Occasionally they aren't above rolling kids smaller than themselves, despite complaining about the exploitative treatment they themselves receive from society. They also smoke a hell of a lot of cigarettes. So many scenes involve the sharing and smoking of cigarettes that I was surprised they didn't contract emphysema.

Towards the middle of the book Frazer meets Candy, and she becomes his girlfriend and the key character in the second half of the book. They have a lot of sex, and travel around to Port Moresby, Brisbane and Melbourne. Candy shares her girlfriend with Frazer. It's clear to the reader that Candy is a rare find. Not only a beautiful, intelligent sex-fiend, but also wealthy, and incredibly - possessed of an unending love and tolerance for a scruffy young poet with no prospects. Frazer however treats her badly. He repeatedly sleeps with her two sisters and cheats on her often.

It almost hurts to read this part. I wanted to reach into the book and brutally slap Frazer. He throws this extraordinary girl away, apparently believing instead in some libertarian code of rotten behaviour. Arguably, this relationship and the failings of the protagonist are the most important part of the story.

Following their split up Frazer returns to Townsville and then Brisbane. He becomes jaded. He hangs out with performance poets, sleeps around a little, but nothing seems fun anymore. Time goes by. It's not clear how old he is. Presumably many years have passed. The story ends as he falls into what he feels is a different kind of love. He meets a girl called Sunny and he implies he will treat her differently.

This was the best Australian novel I've read in a long time. There was a lot here I could relate to. I wanted to give this four and a half stars (but alack that's not possible in Goodreads). I have deducted points because I often found myself wanting more than the author was giving. I would have liked more description (in a couple of places the poetic description is amazing), and I would have liked just a little more consistency in detail (some years skip by, then we get pages devoted to just a day or two).

There's a lot of material here and I think the author could easily write further novels based on the same experiences. One novel might focus on Reuben, a second novel focus on Candy (I'd like to see that anyway).

Amazing, crazy tale. Check it out.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Blockpanda

By Drew Gates
Green Ant Press 2013

Punk, strange, amazing - this is tough book even to describe (but I will have a go). Roughly speaking it is the adventures of Charlie, Dean and Snowy in an apocalyptic war-torn Sydney from a parallel universe. The Chinese military is beseiging the outer suburbs using war machines that seem to date from World War One. Meanwhile the cityfolk are running wild in "the Darklands", where sex and drug parties happen on a farcical scale. If that seems interesting to you then you should probably ignore the rest of this review and jump straight into it (I'm going to rant on for a bit and it may compromise your "what the fuck!" experience).

This novel is evidently inspired by Burroughs and the "Interzone" as well as possibly "a Clockwork Orange". It also made me think of Australian punk films such as "Smoke 'Em If You Got 'Em"(88) and "Going Down"(83). Occasionally the novel makes its literary influences far too obvious and starts to feel like a homage (ie the Chinaski stuff). I would have preferred less of the overt references - this book stands alone as a totally unique work.

I still have no idea what is up with the title - Blockpanda. It doesn't seem to have any relevance to the story. But maybe I just don't get it. It's also never explained why there aren't more shells falling into the Darklands. Or what the pink mist is. I'm also skeptical that Ibotenic acid passes unchanged through the human body (I even went to wikipedia with that one). Also note that a lot of the ideas here appear in "Underneath the Stairwell" in a lesser form (I would encourage readers to avoid that book entirely).
 

I occasionally felt the work was slanted too far on the hetero male side of things. There's not many female characters and there's someone called the "Quacking Faggot" who is the subject of various unflattering annecdotes.

I thought some of the narrative elements didn't coexist too well. For example the twins didn't fit very well alongside Marion. It was no problem for me that a lot of the story was weird vignettes from the Darklands. But maybe some of the overarching elements should be cut in order to properly develop the other overarching elements.

Despite the prose being actually very fluid and even well-edited, the story retains a very raw, punk, imperfect feeling. So I'm reluctant to imply that it could be improved with more work. This is the most fun Australian novel I've read in years.

The Crooked Beat

by Drew Gates
published 2010

This was the first of three Drew Gates books I read - I've also reviewed Blockpanda. A third book called Underneath the Stairwell is incomparably bad. Avoid. Anyway here's my review for "the Crooked Beat"....

Trainspotting is a good reference point here (the movie more so than the book) - “Crooked Beat” has the similar squalid, hilarious, rolling-disaster vibe. Yes this is a heroin novel, although LSD25 has a strong supporting role and really steals the show in a few places.

This is a story of a drug odyssey into Thailand and India, in what feels like the early 90s. The narrator Dean tells us that he identifies as a “dope fiend” rather than a “junky”, which may be a reason why the story stays up and moving and doesn’t get boring. Mostly Dean is dealing and consuming, moving from place to place and meeting crazy travellers. There hardly seems to be a page go by without someone vomiting out a window. However all the madness is interspersed with some very nice descriptive passages of the landscape and a bit of introspection here and there.

A couple of times I felt Dean was in urgent need of a boot to the face which sadly was not forthcoming. For example he picks on a German girl who understandably doesn’t want to sit next to him and he beats up an Indian dealer for no good reason and it doesn’t seem to bother him afterwards. Mostly though I was sympathetic to the young fiend.

I think my favourite parts here were the descriptions of the Goa trance party scene. I liked that after every party there seemed to be people losing their mind and rolling around naked. It made techno seem raw and risky again.

Recommended.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Clade

by James Bradley
Penguin 2015

This is amongst the best cli-fi I've read. The book is a collection of ten stories stretched across several generations of the same complicated family. The stories are in chronological order and we see the environment deteriorating globally and locally as the book progresses. Most of the stories (chapters?) focus on a single character dealing with a local catastrophe.

Adam is the first character we meet, a worried scientist in Antarctica contemplating his wife's fertility treatment and wondering whether having a child is rational thing to do (I thought this was probably the strongest story). We also meet Summer, his rebellious daughter, battling with an autistic child through a devastating flood. Later on other characters grapple with epidemics and extinctions. Some chapters deal with rather different themes, such as the search for extraterrestrial life.

By jump-cutting through the decades we witness the planet change for the worse in a way that is impossible to show in a single narrative. However the jumps between the stories are sometimes discombobulating. The first two stories deal directly with Adam and his family. The third story feels very jarring indeed as we are abruptly introduced to unrelated characters and the theme moves onto cancer rather than climate change.

The novel doesn't explain the name "Clade" so I looked it up on wikipedia: "A clade is a group of organisms that consists of a common ancestor and all its lineal descendants, and represents a single branch on the tree of life". Ok, nice. I guess the name reflects the family connections between the characters in the story.

This is a fairly short book, there are only ten stories and all up it weighs in around 50 000 words. You could read it all at once or just pick a story here and there. But definitely give it a look.

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).