Nov 25

Who Should Have Won This Year’s National Book Award

As a reminder here is a list of the nominees with a helpful link to my reviews:

If you’ve read my reviews you’ll know that my favorite book on this ballot was Karen E. Bender’s Refund.  And if I’d had the final say in relation to the Fiction category this is the book I would have awarded.  But I’m not at all upset with the eventual winner – Adam Johnson’s dark and confronting Fortune Smiles.  The stories featured in the collection are uniformly good and while they may have not have crept under my skin like those pieces in Bender’s book, this is still high quality and intellectually honest writing that’s worthy of recognition.

The real disappointment is with the novels.  I really liked Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House a vibrant family drama, set in Detroit, peopled with characters that I came to care about.  It’s easily the strongest novel on the list and I look forward to seeing Flournoy’s work – this is her first novel – feature on many a future awards list.  However, the two heavy weights, Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies and Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life failed to impress me.  And I’m not alone.  While all the talk before the awards was that one of these novels would win the category, the negative reviews that have emerged since both books have been published (and especially since the shortlist was announced) have led some to believe that this tainted their chances.  And yes, there’s no doubt that both books are polarizing – a quick skim of the internet shows either gushing adulation or utter hatred from critics.  I’m in the second category, especially with the Groff which I found to be a poorly conceived and bloated novel with its unsympathetic characters and its attempt to be dark and edgy, while really coming off as a poor person’s version of Gone Girl.  A Little Life is a much better novel, and within its 900 pages there are genuine heartfelt moments that linger on well after you’ve completed the book.  However,Yanagihara’s over the top depiction of sexual abuse – AKA torture porn – undermines the novel’s subtle notes in regard to recovery and friendship and love.

So a definite hit and miss year for the National Book Award.  But the two collections are marvellous and if you do nothing else at least give those books a try.

[This is the last in a series of lengthy blog posts about books and awards.  The blog will return in a few days but in a retooled format that suits the author’s busy lifestyle.]  

Nov 23

Book Review: Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson

Bottom Line

A powerful, intellectually honest and confronting collection of six stories.

Representative Paragraph

An excerpt from “Interesting Facts”

This was a year after my diagnosis, surgery, chemo and the various interventions, injections, indignities and treatments. When I got sick, our youngest child turned herself into a horse: silent and untamable, our Horse-child now only whinnies and neighs. Before that, though, she went through a phase we called Interesting Facts. “Interesting fact,” she would announce, and then share a wonder with us: A killer whale has never killed a person in the wild. Insects are high in protein. Hummingbirds have feelings and are often sad. So here are some of my interesting facts. Lupron, aside from ceasing ovulation, is used to chemically castrate sexual predators. Vinblastine interrupts cell division. It is a poisonous alkaloid made from the purple blossoms of the periwinkle plant. Tamoxifen makes your hips creak. My eyebrows fell out a year after finishing chemo. And long after your tits are taken, their phantoms remain. They get cold, they ache when you exercise, they feel wet after you shower, and you can towel like a crazy woman, but still they drip.


Adam Johnson’s Fortune Smiles – recent winner of the National Book award – collects six very different stories, both in terms of tone and plot. The opening piece, “Nirvana” is pure science fiction, set in the near future where an algorithm developed by our protagonist, which allows people to speak to a holographic representation of the President, has gone viral. The next story slingshots the reader back to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and a decision that faces UPS delivery driver “Nonc” in regard to his infant son and whether he stays in New Orléans or searches for his fortune elsewhere. Other stories include the challenges faced by a group of North Koreans who have defected to South Korea (“Fortune Smiles”) and a confronting piece about a man, struggling with his own predilection for young girls, waging an electronic war with the peddlers of kiddie porn (“Dark Meadow”).

What does link each story, aside from some very fine writing, is Johnson’s willingness to confront subject matter and situations that generally make us feel uncomfortable.  The aforementioned “Dark Meadow” doesn’t pull its punches, its depiction of how child pornography is both produced and disseminated provides us with a glimpse of a world that is all too real – whether we want to acknowledge it or not. The same goes for “Nirvana” and its treatment of  depression and disability – the protagonist’s’ wife suffers from Guillain-Barre syndrome.  “Hurricane Anonymous” is brutally honest about the devastation and lack of basic services that faced those who survived Katrina.

At the top of the pile though is the magnificently titled, “George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine”.  It’s not only the best story in the collection, but also the most powerful and confronting (yes, even compared to the one about kiddie porn).  It’s told from the perspective of Hans Backer, ex-warden of an East German prison where the secret police (the Stasi) psychologically and physically tortured the “prisoners”. These were mostly dissidents (artists, poets, writers) who didn’t hold truck with the oppressive communist regime.  Backer, who lives next door to the prison – now tourist attraction – remains a true believer. While walking his dog, he’s quick to correct tour guides about the so called torture that occurred. For Backer the prisoners were never unduly harmed or mistreated.

Johnson remains true to Backer’s worldview for the entirety of the story. There are brief moments of self-awareness, pangs of guilt over how he treated his wife – who he clearly still loves even if she has left him and taken their daughter with her – and a brief acknowledgement that the cells were possibly a little smaller than he remembered, but overall this a man who took pride in his work and who detests that the tour guides, most of them ex-prisoners, are now spouting these lies. After spending a whole day with one tour group, administered by an ex-prisoner / guide who remembers the warden’s bureaucratic cruelty, Backer decides to finally head on home.  However…

It’s when I’m walking toward the main gate that I hear Berta directing the students toward the hospital wing. “And now for the house of horrors,” she calls out. Her tone is indignant and angry. I stop walking, watch them file inside, and even from here, I can hear her indicate the rings in the walls where sick inmates were manacled and the waiting stations where wheelchairs were chained. Next she’ll start again on those nonexistent exams and begin spewing the usual hogwash about how Dr. Werner healed the patients only enough to endure more interrogation.

This I cannot take, this is too much to stand.

This decision to once again correct the lies of people like Berta leads to an astonishing scene where Backer, willingly, undergoes the water torture suffered by so many others.  Johnson keeps the meaning of this scene deliberately opaque.  Is Backer subconsciously punishing himself, washing away his guilt, or does he genuinely believe that only a demonstration of his courage will prove his and the prison’s worth? Whatever the reading, Johnson’s unwillingness to provide Backer with an epiphany or the reader with a neat and well packaged moral is the true power of this story.

Fortune Smiles is a fantastic collection and a worthy winner of the National Book Award (even if I did like Karen E. Bender’s Refund a tad more).  While the dark and challenging subject matter won’t be for everyone, I still heartily recommend the book for the quality of the prose and, most of all, the intellectual honesty that Johnson applies to each story.

Nov 20

Book Review: Echopraxia by Peter Watts

Weaponised tornadoes, posthuman monks, sentient mould and the subtle conditioning of the human brain are only some of the concepts you’ll find in Echopraxia, the second novel in Peter Watt’s “Firefall” series. (The first book, Blindsight, garnered multiple award nominations including a Hugo). This is hard science fiction that’s having a grand old-time exploring difficult, nebulous concepts such as free will and faith. So much so that the novel’s plot regularly stops, almost abruptly, so these concepts can be discussed and teased out. It makes for a slightly frustrating but often times exciting reading experience.

Now, I haven’t read Blindsight so I can’t be sure how many of the concepts and notions introduced are original to Echopraxia. The impression I got, though, was that Watts was continuing a conversation. As he says in the detailed “Notes and References” at the end of the novel (with 140 footnotes no less), if Blindsight was about consciousness, then Echopraxia is about autonomy and free will. And while I’m sure Echopraxia works better as a book if you read it side by side with Blindsight, in my view it also functions adequately as a standalone novel.

This standalone aspect is facilitated by the introduction of Daniel Bruk, a biologist on a sabbatical out in Oregon who gets caught up in a conflict between Valerie the Vampire and the Church of the Bicameral. Before Daniel knows it, he’s been whisked away on a spaceship called the Crown of Thorns which is on a mission to Icarus, a space station that’s started receiving data from Theseus – a spaceship lost a decade ago that was the subject of Blindsight.

Daniel Bruks is our everyman. Unlike the bicameral monks or military officer Jim Moore, or Doctor Lianna Lutterodt, Bruks has never been augmented. In a world that’s speeding toward the singularity (Bruks’ wife left him and her physical body to join other virtual minds in a reality dubbed Heaven) Bruks is a fossil, a man who needs to wear peripherals, such as the cutely named gimp mask, to access information. For the first half of the novel, Bruks is as confused as the reader as he tries to figure out why he’s been brought along on this mission (or pilgrimage) to Icarus and why the people around him are so beholden to the inscrutable Bicameral monks and their hive mind.

And it’s here, as Bruks talks to the other crew members – specifically Moore, Lutterodt and the pilot of the Crown of Thrones, the spiky Rakshi Sengupta – that Watts first explores notions of faith and then digs deeper into the concept of human autonomy and free will. In terms of faith, I appreciated the discussions Bruks had with Lutterodt as to why she, a woman of science, is willing to follow and obey the Bicameral monks. There’s a whiff of theology 101 about their early discussions, but these conversations develop nicely into a debate about what God truly is in relation to the base code of the Universe. What I enjoyed is how even-handed these conversations are. Bruk’s is an atheist, Lutterodt is a believer and I never felt that either was ‘winning’ the debate. As a result, these discussions are some of the strongest and intellectually satisfying moments in the novel.

Watts exploration of human autonomy is less of a discussion between characters and more a pivotal part of the plot. As the book progresses we discover that everyone – ranging from the enigmatic monks, the high functioning Valerie the Vampire and the crew on-board the Crown of Thorns – have been manipulated in some way. In most cases the manipulation is covert, abstruse glyphs scrawled on a wall that trigger a certain reaction or emotion. What becomes clear though is that the human mind is malleable, that no choice is ever truly free. I found this to be bloody depressing because I have the naïve belief in free will and that people are responsible for their actions. The notion of culpability isn’t a nice to have, but a necessary function of a “civilised” society. Watts most definitely thinks otherwise, and the conclusion of the novel only reinforces his notion that genuine autonomy is a myth. It’s great stuff because it took me well out of my comfort zone.

For all the ideas and intellectual shenanigans, the actual plot is the weakest part of Echopraxia. Partly that’s because of the stop / start nature of the narrative as I note above. While the discussions and digressions are genuinely fascinating and the highlight of the novel, you do sometimes wonder whether Watts didn’t just collect a bunch of essays on the topics he’s interested in. Consequently, the stuff involving a sentient mould found on the Icarus and the motivations of both the monks and Valerie get a little lost in the noise of ideas.

Having said all that, this is a still a fantastic example of why hard science fiction is not a dying art. When it’s written this well, hard SF can challenge our notions of who we are and the future direction of humankind.

Nov 19

Book Review: Refund by Karen E. Bender

Bottom Line

If there’s any justice, this collection will win this year’s National Book Award.  It’s that good.

[Note: I wrote this review, including the Bottom Line, before the winner, Adam Johnson’s Fortune Smiles, was announced.  So I suppose there is no justice…!  (Though Fortune Smiles is also a great collection – review forthcoming).

Representative Paragraph 

I love this…

I did not believe that God had sent me, and I hoped Aviva would not leave her infant daughter loose in the bed again, and that her daughter would not be accidentally smothered or worse by her wild sons. I hoped that we would find jobs that would not make us so eager for this free lunch, and I hoped we would find friends that would make us less eager for any sort of company. I hoped that we could find something in common with Aviva and Rabbi Jacob, because they were, in fact, nice. I kept thinking of her baby, the sight of her sleeping, tiny, loose, on the bed. It was all I could think about. We kept eating and eating, and at the end of lunch, we helped her bus the dishes and stood with her in the humid, tin-foiled kitchen. I thought of that tiny baby lying on the bed, sitting there like a toy or a shoe, revealed by her brothers under the sheet, and then I loved that baby, that tiny perfect being, loved her as though she were my own. As Aviva said goodbye, the baby was cradled on her shoulder. Shana opened her eyes and stared at me. My heart jumped.

—Bye, we said to Aviva and Rabbi Jacob.

—Bye, we said to Joshua and Adam.

—Bye, we said to Shana.

We turned and walked out of their townhouse onto the sidewalk, and when I turned around, I saw Shana still looking at me, with her clear bright eyes, and I felt those eyes on me as we went on into the day, under that blazing, empty sky, my family and I, to our own particular uncertainty.


imageWhile the 14 stories in Karen E. Bender’s short story collection, Refund, span a twenty year period there’s a consistency to the themes that feature throughout. Most of the stories have a middle America vibe coupled with a creeping sense of ennui and hopelessness as families battle to survive in a shifting, narrowing economy.  Beneath it all there’s a feeling of awkwardness, especially between family members, as siblings and parents and married couples struggle to find commonalities.

If that sounds depressing, fear not. The stories are infused with a wry sense of humour and a keen understanding of human nature. These might be short stories, but in an economy of words Bender draws well developed, sympathetic, relatable characters, most of whom are woman – 13 of the 14 stories are told from the female perspective. More than that, while there’s a number of stories where at least one parent is unemployed, or the family is barely scratching a living above the poverty line, each work is very different in terms of tone and plot. Bender avoids sameness by allowing for the unexpected. For example, the opening story, “Reunion” has a horrifying moment where a man opens fire on the attendees of a thirty year school reunion. For most writers it would be the focus of the piece, but for Bender it’s acts as catalyst for the protagonists mid-life crisis. In the “Candidate”, a political hopeful running on an anti-gay, family values agenda knocks on the door of Diane Bernstein, a single mother who has better things to do with her day then listen to a rant about homosexuals. Midway through a sentence, the candidate topples over in a dead faint. It’s a surprise both for the reader and Diane, but it’s also not the focus of the story which is about faith and politics.

While all the stories are excellent the one story that really plays to Bender’s narrative and thematic strengths is, predictably, the title piece, “Refund”. John and Clarissa, struggling to make ends-meet as artists, are desperate to enrol their three year old son, Sammy, into an expensive private pre-school. When they are both offered short-term employment at a University in Virginia, they see this as an opportunity to raise the money for the tuition by accepting the job and sub-letting their low rent apartment at an inflated rate, which happens to be located a few doors down from the World Trade Centre (AKA the trendy part of town). This story takes place during September 2001, and you all know what happened next.

Bender’s description of New York a handful of days after the falling of the twin towers highlights both the subtlety of her prose, but also her ability to avoid cliché and sentimentality:

Burning concrete and computers and office carpets and jets and steel girders and people. There was nothing natural about the smell; it tasted bitter and metal in her mouth and blew through their neighborhood at variable times; the mornings began sweet and deceptive, yet the afternoons became heavy with it. She began to get a sore throat, and her tongue became numb. The girls at the American Lung Association table gave her a white paper mask and told her that there was nothing to worry about, but to keep her windows closed and stay inside. She walked against the small stream of people wearing paper masks. The streets were dark and shiny, the sanitation trucks spraying down the street to keep the dust from lifting into the air. A man walked by in a suit and a gas mask. Did he know something that they did not? Where did he get the gas mask?

The deceptive sweetness in the air, the bitter, metallic taste, the man with the gas mask, all vivid images – but all tainted by a lingering anxiety, a fear that someone might know more than you do, might know that the air is poisonous, that there might be further attacks, that the place you live in is not safe.

Fantastic prose aside, what’s surprising about the story is how Bender uses entitlement and privilege to explore the way different people deal with unexpected tragedy and horror. Even before Clarissa and John have returned home they receive an email from the woman they sublet the apartment too, Kim, requesting a refund. Not only was she disappointed with her lodgings, Kim, wants John and Clarissa to pay her $1,000 for every nightmare she’s experienced since witnessing the destruction of the towers. As Kim’s letters becomes increasingly unhinged – with constant references to the terrible condition of the apartment, questioning how anyone with a modicum of pride could live in such squalor – I found myself belittling Kim’s experience – I mean, it’s not like she was in the towers, is it? – while feeling sympathy for the poor struggling artists. And yet what becomes clear is that these angry missives asking for impractical sums of money are Kim’s only way of coping with the horror she witnessed. It’s powerful stuff.

While I’ve chosen to speak about ‘Refund’ it’s not my favourite piece in the collection. That would be the oh so wonderful and touching, “Free Lunch” where a middle class family – both the husband and wife have been made redundant – are invited over for Passover lunch by the local Chasidic (Lubavitch most likely) Rabbi. Bender perfectly captures the anarchy of the Chasidic home, that mix of warmth and religious devotion and an endless supply of children who refuse to behave. And while at its heart “Free Lunch” is a story of a husband and wife trying to come to terms with the economic reality of not having jobs, of not being able to provide for their own children, it’s a surprisingly optimistic story.

Last year a collection, Phil Klay’s powerful set of stories about the Iraq War, Redeployment, won the National Book Award. I’m hoping this year the judges sidestep favourites like Fates and Furies and A Little Life and once again hand the award over to this magnificent short story collection. It’s seriously that good.

Nov 18

And the shortlists for the Costa Book Award – Best Novel and Best First Novel – have been announced…

… and there’s at least one surprise.  Here are the nominees:

Best Novel

  • Kate Atkinson: A God in Ruins (Doubleday)
  • Anne Enright: The Green Road (Jonathan Cape)
  • Patrick Gale: A Place Called Winter (Tinder Press)
  • Melissa Harrison: At Hawthorn Time (Bloomsbury)

Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life was nominated for the Costa Book Award in 2013, so it’s not entirely surprising to see the sequel shortlisted for 2015.  I liked, but didn’t love Life After Life, but I know this is a very different novel and Atkinson is a wonderful writer so I’m looking forward to reading it.  But the book on this list that really stands out, based on the praise it’s received, is Anne Enright’s The Green Road.  It was long-listed for this year’s Man Booker and there was an expectation it would be short-listed a month later.  Still, here it is and I’m intrigued to see what all the fuss has been about.

I know very little about the other two nominees, but that’s no bad thing.  I knew nothing about Marlon James novel either – when it was nominated earlier this heat – no we all know how that turned out.

Best First Novel

  • Sara Baume: Spill Simmer Falter Wither (Windmill Books)
  • Kate Hamer: The Girl in the Red Coat (Faber)
  • Andrew Michael Hurley: The Loney (John Murray)
  • Tasha Kavanagh: Things We Have in Common (Canongate)

The big surprise for me is seeing The Loney on the first novel shortlist.  Not because I didn’t like it, on the contrary I think it’s a marvellous book that deserved far more genre attention than it received.  I just didn’t expect that the novel, originally published by Tartarus Press, would get any recognition by a mainstream award.  Having said that The Loney has clearly found a second life with publishers John Murray (an off shoot of Hodder & Stoughton) and I’m delighted to see it feature here.  In fact it’s going to take a damn good effort from the other three nominees to knock my love of Andrew Michael Hurley’s book off its pedestal.

And finally, it’s fantastic to see that of the 8 novelists, 6 are women.  I know I shouldn’t have to note this everytime I announce a shortlist, but just take the Goldsmith Prize as an example of how far we have to go in terms of gender and cultural diversity in awards lists.  Anywho, I won’t get to these books until later in the month, so I’m hoping there will be reviews in December.

Nov 17

Book Review: Defenders by Will McIntosh

imageAbout a quarter of the way through Defenders, Oliver Bowen – a CIA operative – is transported in a submarine to a secret base on Easter Island. There he’s introduced to the Defenders, genetically engineered super soldiers, seventeen foot tall with three legs and a mastery of tactics who have been born and bred to save humanity from an invading force of starfish shaped aliens. The Luytens (those would be the aliens) began their invasion of Earth a few years previously and due to their technological dominance, and a happy knack of reading the mind of any human within an eight mile radius, they’ve been winning the war. Since their arrival, an estimated three billion or so people have been killed. The Defenders are seen as humanities only chance for survival. Not only are they tall and fast and experts in military strategy, the Defenders also lack serotonin, the key neurotransmitter that allows the Luytens to know what we’re thinking.

It’s an intriguing enough set-up and McIntosh does an excellent job in treating the war between humanity and the Luytens as more a slaughter than a fair fight between two equal forces. There’s a number of harrowing moments where we see the starfish in action, killing soldiers and civilians alike just because they can predict exactly what that person intends to do.  In particular, there’s one frightening scene where thousands of people, evacuating Atlanta, become sitting ducks for the Luytens on the highway leading out of town.  As our hero, Lila, and her father run for their lives, we are provided with a glimpse of the massacre as people are burnt to a crisp, stuck in their vehicles.

But the moment Oliver is introduced to the Defenders, the moment he is told that they have been engineered to hate and kill Luytens, I knew exactly where the novel was headed. I knew (and this is a spoiler) that the Defenders would beat the Luytens. I knew that the Defenders, bred only for war, would eventually turn on their creators. And I knew that humanity would ally with the remaining Luytens (because I was sure some would survive) and find a way to stop the Defenders. And because I could see the entire book mapped out in front of me, any of the tension, horror and tragedy McIntosh had created in the first quarter of the novel was lost.

So why did I keep reading? Partly because McIntosh keeps the chapters nice and short and the action – as predictable as it is – moves at a pace. And partly because I was hoping that McIntosh would do something surprising with the narrative. And there’s a suggestion, at least in the second part of the novel, that McIntosh is aiming for something more than just the creation turning on the creator trope. Specifically, after the Defenders beat the Luytens and they surrender, the Defenders request a home of their own. Hilariously, they want Australia and the Alliance (a wartime UN) decide to agree to that request. (Yes, us Aussies get sent to the wilds of Canada). 15 years later, an envoy of diplomats are sent to Australia, on invitation from the Defenders, to discuss relationships moving forward. And this is where I thought McIntosh would move in a different direction, because we get to see the culture that the Defenders have created for themselves since the war with the Luytens. It’s really good stuff, and there’s some genuine insights to the Defender’s make-up as they struggle with high culture at the same time hoping, wishing, that their creators will admire what they’ve achieved.

But then things turn to shit and we’re back to widespread destruction and slaughter as the Defenders – spurned by their creators – take revenge on humanity. The last half of the novel is death, death and more death as our heroes fight, escape, nearly die and run away from the Defenders only to eventually join with the Luytens in a desperate bid to fight back.

I know you should only review the book you were given, not the book you wanted, but I can’t help but feel that McIntosh took the easy way out in terms of plot and narrative. The death of billions becomes a statistic rather than a tragedy and the plight of his characters (Lila, Oliver, Kai and Dominique), all flawed and broken given they’re all survivors of the war with the Lutyens, isn’t enough to elevate the book beyond it’s very predictable and basic trappings. There are some great moments in this novel and a promise of something different. Unfortunately it never eventuates.

Nov 16

So Who Should Have Won The Goldsmith Prize

For those of you who have forgotten (which includes me) here are the nominees and links to my thoughtful, though confusing, reviews.

Kevin Barry’s Beatlebone was announced as this year’s winner of the Goldsmith Prize.  And while I really liked the book – enjoyed both the wonderful prose, the inventive structure and Barry’s exploration of genius and creativity via the psyche of John Lennon – it wasn’t my favourite novel on the shortlist.  Similarly, as much as I adored Satin Island I would not have awarded it the prize.  Rather, in a moment of reflection, I realised that the book I liked the most, the book that affected me emotionally and intellectually, the book that does dazzling things with structure and prose, was Max Porter’s début novel, Grief is the Thing with Feathers.  At 13,000 words it’s not even a novella and yet it’s the most honest and unflinching portrayal of grief I’ve read in a long time (and given how many literary novels deal with grief that’s saying something).  But it wasn’t to be, and that’s fine, because Beatlebone is certainly a worthy winner, though unlike Satin Island I’m not convinced we will see it appear on other award lists in 2016.

However, for an award that strives to “open up new possibilities for the novel form,” I don’t think any of the books on the shortlist achieve this lofty goal.  That’s not to say there wasn’t experimentation on display, whether it’s Barry intruding into his own narrative with an extended author’s note, or Porter mixing poetry and prose while blurring the line between the symbolic and the real.  And yet none of these books, as magnificent as some of them were, challenged my preconceived view of what the novel is capable of achieving.  I suppose in this multimedia age I’m expecting the Goldsmith Prize to deliver me works of fiction that straddle the divide between the analogue and the digital, and do so in a manner that’s more than just a gimmick but instead reshape the novel for this century.

It would also have been nice to have seen more diversity in the authors nominated.  6 white men smacks of a narrow look at the field.  I say that, though, with very little awareness of what was published this year and how much of it falls into the specific purview of the Goldsmiths.  Others versed with the literary output in 2015 are likely to have a more informed view.

Having said all that, looking at the shortlist as a whole, this was a good year for the Goldsmiths.  Three standout novels – that I’ve noted above – a very good book in Richard Beard’s Acts of Assassins with its playful and yet intelligent take on Jesus and the apostles; a nice, but slight, novel (or novella, again, it’s very short) in The Field of the Cloth of Gold by Magnus Mills; and one truly execrable novel – Adam Thirwell’s pointless and indulgent Lurid & Cute.  It’s the only real duff note though.  I’d still recommend five of the six finalists and that’s a damn good hit-rate for any awards shortlist.



Nov 15

Book Review: The Memory Garden by Mary Rickert

imageThe Memory Garden by Mary Rickert might be a début novel, but anyone who has read Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine in recent years, or keeps in touch with the plethora of Years Best anthologies, will be aware of M. Rickert’s quirky, unsettling, brilliant short fiction. For a number of her fans, myself included, the publication of her first novel is something to cheer about.

Unfortunately the novel is rubbish —

— I’m kidding, it’s fantastic. It’s so good that I’m a little sad the book hasn’t garnered more award attention, though I’m pleased that the Locus voters, in their wisdom, nominated The Memory Garden in the best First Novel category. Those who did should pat themselves on the back.

While Rickert never tells us where the novel is set, most of the action takes place in an old house in the woods owned by Nan, a woman in her seventies who everyone in town thinks is a witch. Fifteen years before the opening of the novel, Nan opens her front door to find a baby in a box, newly born with a caul over her little face. Although in her mid 60s, Nan adopts the baby and names her Bay. While Bay has always known how Nan found her, it’s only when she celebrates her fifteenth birthday that Nan reveals the caul that covered Bay’s face and her belief that Bay is a witch.

This revelation, not surprisingly, puts a strain on their relationship. The word “witch” is a pejorative, an insult, a curse and Bay refuses to accept that as she was born with a caul she can accurately predict the weather and speak to ghosts. Seeking assistance, Nan invites over two friends for the weekend, Ruthie and Mavis. This is the first time these friends have been together in more than fifty years, separated by the tragic death of their friend Eve.

For a novel that’s reasonably short and set mostly in the one locale, there’s allot of story to peel away. We have questions about how and why Eve died. Who the mysterious Mrs Winters is. Whether Bay is actually a witch. What secrets both Mavis and Ruthie are keeping from Nan. What’s marvellous is how Rickert oh so subtlety reveals the truth about each of the characters, reveals the tragedy of Eve, the influence of Miss Winters, the coming of age of Bay. And she does this without relying on lengthy flashbacks. Yes the past is revisited, specifically the lead up to Eve’s horrible death, but each of these flashbacks is short, almost abrupt. Because The Memory Garden is focussed more on dealing with the past than dwelling on it.

It’s also a novel that’s very much about motherhood and the tension between letting your child go and trying to protect her from all that might harm her. For Nan it’s this constant awareness of her own fragility and that suddenly Bay might find herself alone. For Bay, it’s about making her own decisions, forging her own path, while knowing that her time with Nan is limited. Rickert excels in teasing out this tension while avoiding the angst and melodrama that might come with it. There’s no screaming matches, broken crockery or slamming of doors. Just the realisation of a complicated and yet loving relationship between mother and daughter.

In the Author’s Note at the conclusion of the novel, Rickert explains that when she would describe the novel to other people she wouldn’t mention that it featured “witches.” She felt that the very word “seem[ed] to diminish rather than inform.” But as Rickert reflects, that’s actually the point. Not that witches have been getting bad press for centuries – which they have been – but how mainstream society diminishes the role of older women. Rickert’s intent, other than to recast the term witch in a more positive light, is to recognise that older woman still have a voice, especially when it comes to dealing with loss and pain and death.

With its elegant, beautiful prose and its engaging, believable characters, and its themes about loss, guilt, death, magic and motherhood,The Memory Garden is one of the best genre novels published in 2014.

Nov 14

Book Review: Beatlebone by Kevin Barry

Bottom Line:

An experimental, heartfelt, passionate novel about that time when John Lennon went to visit his island just to get away from it all.

Representative Paragraph:

John Lennon deconstructs himself

JOHN: Do you really want to know what I am? Do you? Well I’ll tell you exactly what I fucking am. I’m fucking anxiety. And I’m fucking lust. And I’m a fucking booze hound and I’m a fucking dope fiend or I was and I’m a fucking sad Scouse sentimental bastard and I’m the most competitive prick on the face of the planet actually and I’m a jealous greedy black-hearted English cunt full of bitterness and fucking poison and fucking rage and I’m the sweetest fucking angel, too, while we’re fucking here and while we’re fucking at it or at least sometimes I am and that is who I fucking am and that is what I fucking am and yeah I miss me dead fucking mam and yeah I want to piss on me dead fucking dad’s fucking bones coz he didn’t fuck her enough and he didn’t make her fucking happy and you know what that makes me?

A delighted silence – three breaths are held.

JOHN: It makes me fucking special fucking no-how!


Beatles’ fans aside, I doubt the average person knows that in 1967 John Lennon bought an island, named Dorinish, off the west coast of Ireland.  I certainly didn’t.  Kevin Barry, though, uses this neat little factoid as the basis of his second novel, Beatlebone.

Set in 1978, a beleaguered John Lennon decides to visit his island to get away from it all.  Hounded by the media, Lennon relies on the locals to not only find Dorinish but also protect him from the public eye.  But due to inclement weather and the ever encroaching media, Lennon’s guide, the mysterious Cornelius O’Grady, takes John to Achill Island and the Amethyst Hotel, a home for devotees of Primal Scream therapy.  It’s there that John begins to confront some of the demons that drew him back to Clew Bay and his island in the first place.

In his author’s note – that runs for about thirty pages and features, abruptly, two-thirds of the way through the narrative, because it’s that sort of novel – Kevin Barry states that:

Fictional and biographical treatments of John Lennon have tended either towards hagiography or character assassination, and I felt the wisest practice was not to do any traditional research among the texts.

While I can’t vouch for Barry’s assessment of how Lennon has been treated in the past by other writers, I doubt even those versed with the minutiae of his life will have come across anything as different and strange as Kevin Barry’s unpeeling of John Lennon’s psyche during this period of his life.  By setting the story in 1978, Barry can both explore Lennon’s childhood and the deep-seated feelings he has toward his parents – and what a fucked up relationship that was – while also investigating Lennon’s desire to once again be creative (in 1975 Lennon retired from the music industry to look after his son Sean.  He comes out of retirement in October 1980 only to be assassinated two months later).

While there’s a clear experimental bent to the novel’s plot and structure, Barry doesn’t short change us when it comes to the prose.  Like Lennon, the language is a lovely mix of contradictions, raw and violent – the word “fuck” appears so often it  becomes another verb or adjective – coupled with a lovely turn of phrase.  This is typified by the following paragraph —

The first of the morning comes across the trees. The lake hardens with new light. He wakes to a head throb – it hurts even to think. He cannot place himself, quite. It hurts especially to fucking think. He lies on his belly on the smooth stones by the edge of the lake. He feels great age down the reptile length of himself. He lies still and cold and listens to the water of the lake as it moves. He retches again. He has a pinhole in the centre of his forehead and all of the world’s pain screams through. He is sweating fucking bullets. A flicker comes from the night at last. He turns painfully onto his back and sits – he sees the empty boarded pub, a grave jury of trees, the morning patrol of skinhead crows. Accusation in the yellow of their pin-bright eyes; he retches. Accusation in the black gloss of their coats; he retches. The night in flitters and rags comes back to him; he groans. Arrows of light are flung through the pines. He hears nearby a deep bovine suffering. He turns to find the van with its side door halfways open and a pair of boots stuck out at odd angles. He goes on his fours across the stones. He retches as he crawls and by slow evolution of the species at length brings himself to an upright stance and walks. He sets one monkey foot in front of the other until the van is reached. He pokes his head in back to find Cornelius red-eyed, purple-faced and lowing.

— I just adore how an evocative image like “the night in glitters and rags comes back to him”, can exist side by side with Lennon’s constant need to retch as he recovers from a brutal hangover.

Barry’s decision to interrupt the narrative with an extended author’s note might be seen as some as indulgent, pretentious and all that’s wrong with literary fiction.  But Barry’s journey to write Beatlebone, which included visiting the real Amethyst Hotel, dilapidated and possibly haunted, and confronting a fear of isolation and loneliness, reflects the novels exploration of creativity and the darkness and fear and pain that inspires great art.

Beatlebone may not be a love letter to John Lennon, but as a portrait of an artist and the creative process it gives us a unique insight into his psychology.  It’s not sentimental, nor is it cynical and nihilistic.  But it is original and genuine and utterly compelling.

Nov 09

Book Review: The Clockwork Dagger by Beth Cato

I’ll be honest, there’s no way I would have read The Clockwork Dagger by Beth Cato if it hadn’t been nominated for a Locus award. For one, as I’ve ranted about previously, I’m not a fan of steampunk. And for two, the cover, while not awful, has a generic quality that puts it in the same category as paranormal romance and urban fantasy – genres I don’t tend to pro-actively read.

But in spite of these hard-coded prejudices, I found myself really enjoying The Clockwork Dagger. The novel has its flaws, which I’ll get to in a moment, but it’s also immediately engaging.  I’d expected it would be another slice of steampunk set in a faux 19th Century England with characters who wear goggles and where dirigibles and zeppelins dot the sky. And while The Clockwork Dagger does have those elements – the goggles and the zeppelins – what I found surprising and compelling was that rather than rely on a more traditional setting, the novel features a textured and layered secondary fantasy world with an intriguing magical system that works nicely alongside the steampunk.

Against this backdrop we have the story of Octavia Leander, an orphan who is brought under the wing of Miss Percival where she is taught to be a medican – a healer. It soon becomes clear that Octavia is gifted, that she has unparalleled access to the magical forces that allow medicans to aid the sick and dying. When the novel begins Octavia has been sent on her first mission to assist the town of Delford where the people are suffering from a plague. The problem is that the two warring forces on this secondary fantasy world – the Caskentia and the Wasters – know that Octavia is special and both have plans for her.

There’s a breathlessness to the world building as Cato moves rapidly from describing the political situation, to explaining how Octavia performs her magic, to the appearance of gremlins, creatures engineered in a laboratory that are attracted to silver. The introduction of all these concepts, while definitely adding depth to Cato’s world, does suffer from a case of info dumping-itis. But I’m willing to give it a pass because you can see that Cato is striving to do something different here, to fuse together a variety of subgenres (steampunk, fantasy, romance) and produce a setting that’s not entirely original but has a unique quality. And when the book does finally settle down, and we get into the meat of Octavia’s story, I was pleasingly wrong-footed by a number of the revelations.

As much as I enjoyed the novel, I wasn’t always that fond of Octavia. I liked that she wasn’t willing to abide by the sexist attitudes of the men around her, but I found her angst over how people were dying because of what she is to be repetitive. Yes, I can see why she’d be upset. When she left Miss Percival she was unprepared for the violence and death that ultimately follows her. But there’s a point where the constant self blaming becomes annoying. In addition, Octavia’s relationship with Alonzo, a steward on the airship who she is immediately attracted to and who turns out to be more than he seems, was a subplot I never cared much about. It’s not that I have an issue with romance in my books, it’s just that the progression of the relationship is probably one of the more predictable aspects of the novel.

Overall, though, The Clockwork Dagger is an entertaining read set in a secondary world that’s different and surprising and, refreshingly, not what I expected at all.

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