Tuesday, 17 January 2017

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

With a third of this book behind me I was still unconvinced. The sentence structure was annoying and I couldn’t work out if that was intentionally infantile or just sloppy, there was much redundant and overly expository dialogue and the story seemed to be going along a well-worn and not very interesting path.

Then, it was like someone had set fire to the kindling, and it took off.

All the Birds in the Sky is about two people – Patricia, a witch and Laurence, a scientific genius – who grow up hectored by the same people in the same junior school. As they grow and develop their powers, they end up on different sides of the battle between magic and science. The magic side is hell bent on protecting the planet, while science seems only interested in preserving the human race.

As well as being spokespeople for their sides of the argument, Patricia and Laurence develop a continuously threatened relationship which adds considerable momentum to the story.

In the latter stages of the book, the stakes are raised exponentially, with each side willing to destroy either the human race or the planet to preserve the other.

The book also includes an intriguing and potentially valid explanation for constructing wormholes using the force of gravity.

Charlie Jane Anders had previously received praise for her novelette Six Months, Three Days.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Original gothic with more than a touch of the golem

Despite its modern setting, Strange Bodies reminded me very much of some of the original gothic horror stories.

One reason was the “framing” method of storytelling. The novel begins with the description by an antique shop owner of her meeting with an old friend from many years ago, Nicholas Slopen. He is definitely Nicholas, she can be sure by his turn of phrase, his mannerisms and importantly, the intimate knowledge of shared experiences. Yet, curiously, he looks nothing like Nicholas. In fact, she believed Nicholas had been killed in a car accident a few years before. And then, this new Nicholas dies.

Later, she finds a thumb drive that contains his memoir. And compelling reading it makes, from his study as a scholar of Dr Samuel Johnson to his marital breakdown, his involvement with some shady Russians, and into the horrific but strangely compelling world of golem, “mankurts” and resurrection.

Devotees of metaphysical mysteries will enjoy Strange Bodies, especially if you have an inclination to contemplate the meaning of existence and the nature of “self”. It is equally enjoyable for lovers of the English language – as not only do we intimately delve into Johnson’s world but grapple with the conceit that “being” is based upon language. There is even a touch of the new East-West realpolitik, and a terrifying excursion into drug-imprisoning psychiatric hospitals.

In all, it is a rich book with enough going on to keep a wide variety of readers turning the pages right to the end. (Faber)

Saturday, 19 March 2016

The Goblin Emperor (and twelve hours in RPA emergency)

The Goblin Emperor saved my life - or at least my sanity - one hectic Friday night at Newtown's social off-ramp, the emergency department of Royal Prince Alfred Hospital.

I'd heard rave reviews of this fantasy novel by Katherine Addison (the pseudonym of Sarah Monette) but found it almost impossible to track down a print copy, so I downloaded a Kindle version to my phone.

And then I stupidly broke my hand and found myself at RPA emergency, among the first wave of weekend tragedies.

I was greeted by wide open toilet doors and the sound of overdosed teenagers throwing up, and struggled over to grab a triage chair. At first I was very relaxed as I had my bag of ice and the triage nurse saw me straightaway. I said no to medication because I figured I wouldn’t be there long.

“Oh, you’ll need the medication,” he said.

Six hours later I went back to check if they’d forgotten me. I was told I hadn’t been waiting six hours at all, only five hours and thirty-three minutes. “That’s nothing,” he said.

So, afraid to leave my spot on the blue chairs, I got hungrier, colder and more tired as I waited for the doctor to come and take me through to the mythical world behind the glass door.

I was, of course, on the lowest rung of the ladder. Several people were cancer patients needing urgent pain relief. One woman couldn’t breathe and another man was having panic attacks. One dishevelled man needed an abscess cut from his tooth.

“Give me a scalpel and I’ll do it myself,” he yelled.

He had packets of Starburst lollies, the only thing he could suck nourishment from, and he offered them around to everyone. He smelled like a Newtown footpath, and I said thanks but no thanks as he told his life story, how he’d been abused by his stepfather, and then by another man after leaving home, and then his struggles through life. After nine hours he got seen but yelled at the doctor and was escorted out by security. Only through the intervention of a rough looking but sympathetic nurse was he let back in.

A procession of babies was rushed through, and each time I shivered at the parent’s panicked impotence. Each was rushed to the front of the queue and all had left by the end of the night. An intellectually impaired couple argued while one waited for medication. Two young men came in, one’s hand wrapped in a bloody cloth. Still pissed, they were laughing and joking about the accident: a stumble with a schooner glass. After another five hours the laughter died down and eventually the parents arrived to help. A lesbian couple came in – one a small, tough tattooed woman with a half-shaved head and a blue singlet; the other, her girlfriend, looked like a posh school alumnus – except she had a fresh bloody scar right across her face. I never found what had happened.

Behind the glass wall I could see even worse cases brought in by ambulance and the police – the results of fights, car accidents and more serious misadventures.

All this time – until I was finally discharged into a drizzly Newtown dawn – I read The Goblin Emperor on a three-inch screen. I balanced the phone in the crook of my right arm, as I was using my good left hand to hold the dribbling ice-bag in place. I was glad I had something to read, although the fantasy world of the Elflands was a long way from the reality of the RPA emergency.

Of the book, what can I say? I think the rave reviews overstated the entertainment value of Addison’s world. For a start, the names were near indecipherable, all having extremely similar prefixes which it took me three-quarters of the book to work out.

One reviewer compared it to Game of Thrones. If so, it’s GoT without any nudity, salacious sexuality – or even standard sex – express violence, wars, battles or bloodshed of any significant type. There is bugger all magic and worst of all, they never ever leave the bloody castle! Even when a spy is sent to the communist-infested airship factory to uncover a regicide plot, we only hear about it second-hand.

However, the protagonist is likable and does grow into his role, and he has a strong voice. And I must admit, despite my criticisms, I read the whole thing straight through, as it was strangely compelling.

So, if you feel like a sexless, bloodless, low-magic, battle-free Game of Thrones focusing entirely on court intrigue and set wholly within a castle, this might be your thing. But I'm guessing that's a limited audience.

(Tor Books)

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

The Rolling Stones: 50 Years (and the art of physical homage)

In rock ‘n’ roll parlance, I “paid homage” to a paperback copy of this book.

We were in Melbourne for Christmas, being hosted for the big feast by my niece’s generous Italian in-laws, and sleeping (for want of a better word) in a seemingly flash Airbnb in a nearby suburb.

We soon found out the house wasn’t as flash as we thought. Melbourne was 40-plus in the day and still 30 at night, and the house's aircon had only one setting: Freezing Blizzard with Deafening Jet Engine Roar. The windows were all conveniently painted shut lest any fresh air find its way inside. Even worse, the bedroom lights could never be fully turned off, there were no forks and the stove needed someone to keep their hand on the knob the whole time you were cooking.

In fact, the only well stocked part of the whole house was the bookshelf, which included amongst its decent reads several rock biographies. Not one of the books had ever been opened however, let alone read, and I felt that was sad.

I started reading The Rolling Stones: Fifty Years by Christopher Sandford because I remembered a Keith Richards comment that learning open tuning was transformative, like the shutters being lifted on how to actually play guitar. As a sloppy spare-room guitarist, I was normally happy to knock out folk standards and the odd bluegrass tune, but had been generally reluctant to take on the mysterious art of fiddling with the tuning keys to get deep inside the blues.

But just the week before, my guitarist son had shown me a couple of songs in open D, including Prodigal Son, the Reverend Robert Wilkins tune the Stones “paid homage” to on Beggar’s Banquet – without attribution or payment by the way.

So, as I struggled to lift the shutters on open tuning, I thought I’d take inspiration from Keef and delve into the Stones bio. Once I started I couldn’t stop, but we had to go back to Sydney I had barely scratched the surface. Still, as we hadn’t slept at all, I felt I was owed a bit of compensation, and so I applied the “homage” rule.

I assumed the bit where Keith learned how to play open tuning was in his tender years in Dartford. But in fact, it was only when Ry Cooder sat in on a recording session that Keith wondered what the hell he was doing, and Cooder showed him all aspect of open tuning, even getting the groove going with a riff that sounded “very much like” the intro to a later Stone’s hit, Honky Tonk Women. Sandford covers himself by stating there is “absolutely no question of piracy on Keith’s part”.

However, one paragraph later he reports how Cooder was less than impressed with the “homage” they paid his riffs:
Cooder went ballistic a year or so later and publicly charged the Stones with stealing his best licks. “They’re bloodsuckers, man.”
He wasn’t the last to complain about not being credited for co-writing songs, and even if the collaborators did get a mention, it never transferred into royalties. Brian Jones’ replacement Mick Taylor was particularly disillusioned by his inability to get inside the brackets with (Jagger/Richards), and left the band largely because of it.

It wasn’t just riffs they borrowed: wives, concubines, girlfriends, girlfriends’ boyfriends – all seemed up for grabs. But after a few hundred pages of the non-stop sex and drugs and rock and roll I got tired. I can only imagine how they felt!

At least they showed admirable stamina.

(Simon & Schuster)

Monday, 26 October 2015

Vietnam: A History (not a place)

Vietnam is a war, not a country. At least that seems to be the case to a lot of Americans.

We were in Hanoi taking a long overdue break, doing all the usual things like eating frogs by the side of the road, getting laughed at in the shops for needing “elephant sized” shoes and having smiling strangers rub my Aussie sized belly for luck while nodding and saying “Buddha, Buddha” over and over again.

Of course we went to the Vietnam National Museum of History, an old style house of propaganda lined with pictures and flags and the occasional guillotine to demonstrate how the French finished off any unruly peasants who wouldn’t do the right thing and just starve to death.

It got me wondering about the whole French Indochine thing, tainting my image of Catherine Deneuve sailing through a misty Ha Long Bay while grateful Vietnamese practiced the art of the perfectly baked baguette.

So I searched high and low for a history book in English that covered the period from the mid-eighteenth century to the present day. Finally, in a dusty alley off Trang Tien I saw the plastic wrapped Vietnam: A History and noting it was 70mm thick, assumed it would be comprehensive. But all was not as it seemed.

If I’d been more observant I would have noticed that the cover boasted a recommendation from the Washingto Post, and hailed the book as the equal of the TV series American Experiemce. Once I removed the plastic – having already paid, of course – I realised it was there to stop browsers seeing the quality of the pages. It had been pirated, seemingly on a 1970s photocopier running low on toner.

In the introduction, Karnow talks about the practice of photocopying books in Vietnam and says he’d even seen one of his own pirated in this way. I can vouch for that!

But the biggest disappointment was that almost all the book was about American participation in the Vietnam War – or the American War as they call it in Vietnam. And that meant that I had to carry around half a kilo of surplus paper to discover some answers about the French period.

One more disappointment was that once I accepted the book was about the Vietnam War, I thought I’d look up the interesting bits – that is, to an Australian, the bits that had Australia in it. The result? Three entries. One, mentioned in a list of countries that refused to increase their “token deployments”.  Two, Lyndon Johnson once went to Australia. Three, Australia was one of several members of the “irrelevant” South East Asian Treaty Organisation.

And that out of about 300,000 words.

So now I know our place in history: token and irrelevant, but okay for a short holiday.

(Penguin - via photocopier)

Friday, 3 April 2015

The Rivers of London (and the subterranean city life)

After visiting a mate in Norfolk a few years ago, I found I had a spare hour to kill in London, so I wandered around the Thames where I’d worked at a few pubs and bars in the early eighties. I very quickly became lost, and even found myself on the wrong side of the river. I finally realised my whole memory of how to get around the city was actually based on the Tube map, and not on any surface reality at all.

I finally found one of my old workplaces. On this sweaty summer’s day, it was filled with lager louts and European sightseers. The floor was sticky and the staff frazzled. I had trouble recognising the location let alone the pub, a place where I’d appeared as a broke colonial one foggy autumn morning, daunted by the sight of the domineering publican in his three-piece suit lording it over the staff, insisting we show respect as we were in full view of the Houses of Parliament. My services ceased to be required after I called a customer “mate”.

But of course, in London nothing is quite as it seems. The Lord of his Manor was in fact a notorious drunk and womaniser, who held court in the latter hours of the evening in an increasing sway of plummy vowels and dribble, with one hand on a scotch and the other searching for the nearest bottom. He was finally pulverised by someone’s husband, and lost the pub.

When I saw Ben Aaroniovitch’s Rivers of London, I was particularly impressed with the cover - a map not so much of the streets of London, but its rivers, many of which now run underground. I was intrigued by the difference between the surface topography and the subterranean, and bought the book.

And, in a background sense only, it did enlighten me about what lies beneath the city. Of course, in a crime and mystery sense, it also dealt with what lies beneath the society: in this case, sleaze, power and magic.

I enjoyed it as a good and easy read with a likeable protagonist. So much so, I bought the next two books in the series, Whispers Underground and Moon over Soho, only ten dollars each at Berkelouw in Leichhardt.  There are now two more books, Broken Homes and Foxglove Summer. The rate he's churning them out, there will no doubt be a TV series soon.

It has been described as a cross between Harry Potter and The Bill, but is more sexy and stylish than either of those, without the gravitas of the former or the desperate reality of latter.

If my old boss was in the book, he would have had his face sucked off by a demon in the form of a sexy young woman, rather than just being beaten up by her husband.

And he probably would have deserved it.


Saturday, 13 December 2014

The Border Trilogy (and how alcohol killed the video store)

Although I love the Stanmore Network video store, it is almost certainly doomed. Apparently the DA is in for it to become yet another bargain basement bottle shop.

But while it's still there, I waste the occasional Saturday afternoon browsing the thousand or so titles. Not too long ago I spotted a Matt Damon movie called All the Pretty Horses. Even though it was obviously about horses (at the time I knew zero about horses, which I figured was probably the right amount) I earmarked it as something I might be able to sit through on a rainy evening, because Damon is rarely in rubbish.

Before that rainy day arrived, I saw the paperback for sale at Marrickville's Addison Road markets, and recognising it was by The Road author Cormac McCarthy, I bought it for a dollar.

Starting it was like trying to get an old Ford going on a cold day. It took me three stuttering attempts before I got past the first, ponderous page. But like the old Ford, once you get it turned over, the V8 kicks in.

All the Pretty Horses is the first of the three stories that make up The Border Trilogy (the others being The Crossing and Cities of the Plain). I won’t go into too much detail about them except to say I liked the first one enough to buy the next two (brand new, in an omnibus), and that they share style, sentiment and characters.

They are all stories of loner horsemen drifting in and out of Mexico, sometimes at a bareback canter, sometimes loping broke and barefoot. They all seek something but don’t know what it is: either a lost way of life or a meaning to their own. The books are set just before and just after World War Two, but they often seem set in a timeless, almost mystical world.

The two protagonists, John Grady Cole (in the first and third books) and Billy Parham (in the second and third), are real men in the tough, no-nonsense Western way, but also show great compassion and are willing to sacrifice everything for their loved ones, and even sacrifice much for animals from their own horses to wild wolves.

As befitting a story that crosses cultures, the style has long passages of heavy cowboy philosophy and elements of Latin magical realism. But as soon as you think it might become too heavy, the action shifts to a tense chase, a bloody shoot-out or a desperate but believable act of inescapable violence.

Like the characters, the reader goes on a long but worthwhile journey.

Much of the dialogue is in Spanish, even when they’re not in Mexico, and while you can get the drift of what they’re saying, it helps to have a Spanish dictionary on hand. I downloaded SpanishDict for free and had it on my phone. Now I know all sorts of words in Spanish, particularly camino, cabello, hermano, muchacho.

So now I know a lot more about horses than I did before, though most of it is in Spanish.

(Random House)