The Secret River by Kate Grenville (2005) 334 p.

William Thornhill is born into poverty in 18th century London, only achieving modest prosperity after being apprenticed to his childhood sweetheart’s father and becoming a bargeman working on the River Thames. But after the death of his parents-in-law, the accumulation of debt and repossession of his boat drives them back into the spiral of poverty, and Thornhill begins thieving to make ends meet. Caught and convicted of stealing a load of Brazil wood one night, he is sentenced to transportation to New South Wales, accompanied by his wife and infant child.

Australia, though a harsh and alien land to the English convicts, was in some ways also a land of opportunity. Granted his ticket of leave, Thornhill soon realises that this is a place where he can accomplish something impossible for him in England: the possession of land. Establishing a freehold on the Hawkesbury River north of Sydney, he has his first encounters with the native Aboriginals, and soon comes to realise that he can only accomplish his dream by dispossessing others of their land.

Grenville’s sense of place is evocative. You can feel the cold fog of London, Thornhill working in the Thames up to his waist, the living hell of Newgate Prison. The scruffy, struggling colony of Sydney is equally as immersive – the heat, the insects, the bizarre nature of the trees to a European eye:

She was inclined to take it personally about the trees,wondering aloud that they did not know enough to be green, the way a tree should be, but a washed-out silvery grey so they always looked half dead. Nor were they a proper shape, oak shape or elm shape, but were tortured formless things, holding out sprays of leaves on the ends of bare spindly branches that gave no more protection from the sun than shifting veils of shadow.

The Secret River runs an inevitable course towards violent confrontation between the settlers and Aboriginals, but does so without seeming preachy or heavy-handed. The novel is told entirely from Thornhill’s point of view, but despite being pushed into horrific acts, he remains a sympathetic character. There is no question that the British Empire brutally dispossessed Australian Aboriginals of their land, their culture and their heritage, and that they remain a discriminated underclass two centuries later. But what had never occurred to me before was that in many cases, the people directly killing them and taking their land were an underclass themselves: Britain’s poor, forced into crime by desperation, and sent to a distant land where their only chance of prosperity was to go to the fringes of settled land and naturally come into conflict with the locals. Thornhill’s determination to own land is not motivated by greed, but by fear; he knows what it is to be poor, and wishes to secure a future for his children. It’s a sad story, and Grenville masterfully balances our sympathy for the Aboriginals with our sympathy for a poor, stricken man given the tantalising chance to create a bulwark against starvation and misery.

The Secret River is excellent historical fiction; I could recommend it for the opening London chapters alone. But it becomes truly great after Thornhill’s transportation to Australia – a sad and frightening novel of two cultures colliding.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932) 255 p.

Brave New World is a classic of both literature and science fiction, depicting a future world state which is (depending on your point of view) both utopian and dystopian. The populace is kept controlled and perpetually happy by a mixture of drugs, sleep learning and infant conditioning, the family unit has been abolished, free love is the norm (“everybody belongs to everybody else”) and there is no longer any religion, literature or non-conformist thinking. In certain parts of the world, people are kept in “savage reserves,” and the plot of Brave New World largely revolves around a “savage” from New Mexico who is taken from his reserve and brought to London, where he clashes with what he sees as a numbing and degraded civilisation.

Brave New World is most often compared to George Orwell’s 1984, both being British science fiction novels from around the same time which examined a dystopian future. It actually reminded me much more of Fahrenheit 451 – a novel which no doubt was greatly drawn from Brave New World. In 1984, the state oppressively controls information; in both Huxley and Bradbury’s novels, the state has successfully trained the populace to not desire information. In both novels, people are kept entertained with the science fiction version of bread and circuses. Huxley argues a little less forcefully than Bradbury that most people are dumb, since the characters of his novel have been manipulated and conditioned from birth, but the feeling is still there. Orwell’s novel, to my mind, is more timeless and important. Elements of all three books have been realised to at least some extent, but 1984’s government surveillance and propaganda is probably more pertinent than, say, drawing some kind of parallel between the trashy mass media of Brave New World and modern society’s love of reality TV and talent shows.

Both books, however, are classics because of the important (and at the time, unprecedented) things they have to say, rather than their worth as actual literature. Brave New World is required reading for anybody working their way through the human canon, but I didn’t really enjoy it.

Last Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie (2008) 670 p.

I didn’t overly enjoy the first two volumes of Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, but finished it off because I like to finish what I start and because I already had access to all three books. Last Argument of Kings is probably the strongest of the series, because it actually has a sense of importance and urgency, and brings the plot to a close. But this is hardly high praise.

Abercrombie is merely competent as both a writer and a storyteller – not bad, but not particularly good either. The thing which generally annoyed me most about this series (apart from the fact that Abercrombie badly needs an editor, but that’s par for the course with fantasy) is how irritatingly self-aware it is. Abercrombie said he set out to “turn the fantasy genre on its head.” He does so by having a Northern barbarian, a dashing young warrior, a wildling, a wizard and his apprentice go on a quest for a magic stone. Now, granted, you can argue that he merely set this up in such a cliche manner so that he could then upend it and present what he thinks is his unique twist: that the world is a horrible place, bad things happen to good people, and happy endings are for fairytales. This still means you’re wading through more than 1,500 pages of fantasy that is, on the surface, mostly stock standard.

In the previous book, Before They Are Hanged, the “grimdark” angle largely annoyed me in the dialogue and narration. The same little bits of wisdom and supposedly sage observations about the reality of the world come up over and over again. I was especially surprised that Logen and his Northmen didn’t fucking drown in their own world-weary stoicism. This is all still here in Last Argument of Kings, but it works its way into the plot itself. The novel runs about 100 pages beyond where another fantasy author might end the story, turning what appears to be a fairly standard happy ending into something a little more grim.

And I had no problem with that at all. The “grimdark” notion has been roundly criticised in many quarters, but although I ultimately disliked these books, that wasn’t the reason why. Firstly, Abercrombie maintains a sense of humour throughout, preventing the books from dropping into sheer horror and misery. Secondly, and more importantly, it’s a perfectly valid take on the genre. The last hundred pages are the best in the book and the series – certainly better than the infinite number of battle scenes and Glokta’s inner narrative that preceded them.

The problem is that this isn’t nearly as original as Abercrombie thinks it is. He winks at the reader far too often. Take this, for example:

“I’m trying to get through this damn book again.” Ardee slapped at a heavy volume lying open, face down, on a chair.

“The fall of the Master Masker,” muttered Glokta. “That rubbish? All magic and valour, no? I couldn’t get through the first one.”

“I sympathise. I’m onto the third and it doesn’t get any easier. Too many damn wizards. I get them mixed up with one another. It’s all battles and endless bloody journeys, here to there and back again. If I so much as glimpse another map I swear I’ll kill myself.”

Fifteen pages later:

The sun glinted on raised sword and lance, on shield and full armour. Banners streamed and snapped in the wind. It was quite the display of martial grandeur. A scene from a lurid storybook with a muscular hero in which meaningless words like honour and righteousness were often repeated.

The book is scattered with these self-referential moments which go far beyond being tiresome and begin to actively hurt the tone of the novel. (That second segment also gives you a taste for Abercrombie’s adjective addiction.) It’s too clever for its own good, and not really clever at all – as I pointed out in my last review, George R.R. Martin had already been writing grim, realistic fantasy for ten years at this point, and I doubt he was the first. You can no longer write a “grimdark” story and stand on that alone. Neither Abercrombie’s story nor his writing is strong enough to compensate for this.

The First Law trilogy is perfectly competent fantasy, and if you’re a regular reader of the genre you will probably enjoy it. If, like me, you’re seeking out the best the genre has to offer, then give it a miss.

I’ve made good on my promise to finally finish End Times, and sent this message out to the mailing list the other day. If you’re not on the list, here it is:

Good news, everybody!

I’ve spent the (southern hemisphere) summer in a blissful, idyllic, non-working sabbatical back in Perth, living with my Dad again in between the past three years I spent living in Melbourne and my coming plans to live in London.

Not having a full-time job means I’ve been able to focus on writing, and that means I’ve nearly finished End Times. In story time, we left off in October 15; I’m now up to December 25, and will hopefully be finished in the next couple of weeks. Merry Christmas.

So I’m going to start updating End Times again in June this year. Why am I sending this email now, then? A few reasons. (And I was actually going to send it yesterday but realised you might think it was a cruel April Fool’s Day joke.)

1) It’s been a hell of a long time, and I thought some of you might appreciate a chance to re-read the story before getting back into new updates.

2) I’m leaving Perth on the 21st of April, travelling to the US (where I’m going to be a riding a motorcycle across the country with my dad) and then flying to London in early/mid June, where I’ll have to start the bothersome business of finding a place to live and a job etc. So even though End Times itself is almost finished, I won’t actually be in a position for the next 8-10 weeks or so to be regularly posting. This is also why I’ve said “June” rather than a specific date. I’ll get on it as soon as I can once I’m in London, but I don’t know exactly when that will be yet. Once I do, I can assure you it will be a regular schedule of at least three updates a week.

If you like, this is also a chance for you to promote the story on forums, Twitter, word of mouth, whatever. It can be just like the old days again when there were lots of readers instead of you core loyalists! Once it’s all said and done, I’m considering self-publishing it on Amazon or Smashwords or whatever, so the more readers, the better.

That leads me on to another thing – I’m totally fine with you saving, printing etc your own versions of the extant story. That’s partly because if I intend to self-publish I may have to take it down from Livejournal, but also because the internet has changed a lot since 2005, and I wouldn’t rely on Livejournal to be around in perpetuity.

I’ll send out another email once I’m in London with my shit sorted out, so I can give you a more exact date.

I’m looking forward to seeing this long story to its conclusion, and I hope you all are too. Thanks for sticking with it for so long.

The Thief of Always by Clive Barker (1992) 157 p.

10-year-old Harvey Swick is bored as only a child can be, languishing in the doldrums of a grey and drizzly February, when a mysterious visitor offers to take him to a place of excitement and adventure. Not looking a gift horse in the mouth, Harvey goes along with him, and soon finds himself living in the idyllic Holiday House – a magical micro-kingdom where the mornings are springtime, the afternoons are summer, and the evening brings Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas in quick succession. Before long, of course, he begins to suspect the house is not as perfect as it seems.

The Thief of Always is a really great children’s book that combines elements of fantasy and horror, weaving a suspenseful fairytale while also examining the nature of childhood, growing up, and the inevitable passage of time. I really wish I’d read it in primary school, but I still enjoyed it as a 25-year-old. It’s a quick, fun, clever read, and while I can’t unreservedly recommend it to all adult readers, I can definitely recommend it to kids around the age of ten.

Dubliners by James Joyce (1914) 256 p.

I have a list of major authors whom I’ve never read in a Notepad file: Dickens, Faulkner, Carver, Woolf, etc. This stems from being a young reader in the 21st century, looking back across history at the overwhelming weight of the human canon. My theory is that while there are far too many great books in the world for anybody to read in one lifetime, you should try to read at least one book from all the major authors, to sample their style and see if they take your fancy or not, to discover whether you want to pursue their works further. James Joyce is on that list, and since there is not a chance in hell I’m ever going to read Ulysses, I thought it appropriate to read his short story anthology Dubliners.

I’m not going to try to talk my way around it: I hated this book. It was extremely tedious. Rarely did any of the fifteen stories gathered within capture my attention in any way; more often than not, I found myself distracted and daydreaming, and had to keep snapping my focus back to the page. I finished the book yesterday and can properly summarise exactly zero of the stories for you. I can tell you virtually nothing about the plots they contain, let alone the thematic weight they are supposed to carry. This is not to say that they are bad or useless or pointless; merely that whatever literary heft they have was lost on this reader. Dubliners, just so we’re clear, is not written in the same deliberately confusing modernist stream-of-consciousness style that Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake are. It’s a perfectly normal, ordinary style of writing. It’s just very, very boring.

I’m not a stupid or crass reader. I have read, enjoyed, appreciated and even loved the works of Herman Melville, Ernest Hemingway, J.M. Coetzee and Peter Carey, to name a few. But I hated Dubliners, and if that makes me a philistine then so be it.

Far To Go by Alison Pick (2010) 311 p.

I picked this up back in 2011 when it was longlisted for the Booker Prize and I wanted to read all the nominees; however, it was cut from the final shortlist before I read it, so I never got around to it.

Many of the books longlisted that year had a twin in terms of theme and subject; Far To Go and Half-Blood Blues are both novels dealing with lesser-known aspects of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. In the case of Half-Blood Blues this was black German citizens; in the case of Far To Go it is the Kindertransport, a rescue mission in the year preceding the war which successfully took nearly 10,000 Jewish children to sanctuary in the United Kingdom from Nazi Germany’s sphere of influence.

Far To Go takes place in Czechoslovakia, first in the Sudetenland and then in Prague, following the Bauer family: father Pavel, mother Anneliese, nanny Marta, and six-year-old Pepik. The Bauers are secular, non-practising Jews, but of course this does not matter to the Nazis. As the oppressions upon their freedom slowly multiply, and as the continent slouches towards war, the Bauer family must make a difficult decision about whether or not to send Pepik away. Much of the novel is about the uncertainty the Jews of Europe faced in the lead-up to the Holocaust. It seems incredible to someone in the modern day that Jews would not take any opportunity they could to flee, but we have the benefit of hindsight; it would have been a difficult thing to abandon a hometown, a family business, friends and relatives, when one had no idea that the oppression would culminate in genocide. It’s particularly awful when reading of families who fled to places which they believed would be safe but which we know were not: Prague, Amsterdam, Paris.

More importantly, though, Far To Go is about the fog of history and memory, tying in with the fate of the transported children themselves: their lives were saved, but they were cut off from their families, their culture, their history. The Kindertransport was only intended to be temporary, but the families left behind almost always died in the camps; these Jewish children were cut adrift. Segments of Far To Go are narrated by a mysterious woman who similarly feels a sense of loss, of not belonging, despite not being from the Kindertransport herself. By the end of the novel it is clear that it has been, somewhat, a piece of metafiction; an imagining of a past that is impossible to reconstruct.

Alison Pick is more well-known in Canada as a poet than an author, and Far To Go is only her second novel. Her prose is competent and flows well, yet never sat quite right with me; too often the dialogue feels constructed, the writing feels a little uncertain of itself. This is less noticeable later in the book, as more momentous and emotional events are occurring, but for the first 100-odd pages it felt a bit awkward. She also sometimes feels to be trying a bit too hard to establish a sense of time, awkwardly inserting bits of contemporary culture (“She could see a copy of the new Henry Miller book, Tropic of Cancer.”)

In this sense it is similar to Half-Blood Blues in more than just subject matter; I would regard both novels as good, but not great. (Interestingly, both also have a protagonist who betrays loved ones to the Nazis as retribution for their own perceived betrayals, and are then forever haunted by that moment of selfishness.) Half-Blood Blues is probably the slightly better novel, which is perhaps why it was shortlisted over Far To Go. Neither, in my eyes, ever really deserved to win it. They are both competent, compelling, important books in which the author successfully instils the emotion and passion necessary for such a serious subject; yet I felt they also both lacked something, some final spark which would have carried them over the finish line and made them truly great.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925) 144 p.

One of the great American novels – or more accurately, novellas – The Great Gatsby is a book that belongs on anybody’s TBR pile, but which came to the top of mine when the film adaptation was released, in case anybody tried to drag me to go see it and thus ruined the plot. That never ended up happening, though, so I’ve only just now got around to reading it.

Taking place in the fictional wealthy neighbourhood of West Egg, Long Island, The Great Gatsby takes place over the summer of 1922, in which the narrator, Nick Carraway, moves into a modest home next door to the much larger mansion of the enigmatic Jay Gatsby. Nick’s wealthy cousin Daisy and her insufferable husband Tom also live nearby, and Nick learns that Gatsby has a mysterious obsession with Daisy.

There are a couple of lavish parties held at Gatsby’s mansion, which I suppose was the reason Baz Luhrmann was drawn to adapting it to film. (Recently I discovered that Lurhmann is apparently straight. Sure, mate.) Most of The Great Gatsby does take place in and around great wealth – mansion parties, fine restaurants, antique dining rooms – and the novel has been called a critique of the jazz age and cautionary tale about the American dream. But I didn’t find the characters’ wealth (apart from Gatsby’s new money) to be particularly relevant to the novel’s overall theme, which is about infatuation, disillusionment and attempting to recapture the promise of the past. (It reminded me quite a bit of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians in that sense, in a very different sort of way.)

A lot of American readers apparently remember this book from high school, and dislike it, and I can understand why. It’s a short book rich in symbolism and metaphor, so I can see why it would appeal to English teachers, but teenagers have yet to suffer the disappointments and lost dreams which make a book like The Great Gatsby relatable. The novel has one of the most famous closing lines in fiction…

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly back into the past.”

…but to sixteen-year-olds who have their entire lives stretching ahead of them – who perhaps, like the teenagers in Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, are waiting until graduation so their “real” lives can begin – these words are meaningless.

So I’m glad I read The Great Gatsby at this stage in my life. It has a power and a tone to it I would have been unable to appreciate when I was younger. Having said that, the plot does unfold rather oddly; Gatsby’s final fate has little to do with his own confidence that he can “repeat the past,” and more to do with a series of crazy coincidences. So the structure of the book is a little shaky, perhaps, but it’s held up by the brilliance of Fitzgerald’s writing. I could immediately see why he is considered one of the finest writers of the 20th century; his prose has a clear, lyrical quality to it which never actually reads like writing. In particular, I noticed that he was one of those lucky writers who can clearly and egregiously break some of the most fundamental rules of writing without suffering the consequences.

The Great Gatsby is an excellent novel, and for its historical context it certainly deserves to be mentioned among the greatest American novels of the 20th century. It’s a shame that it’s force-fed to so many understandably unwilling American high school students.

The Giver by Lois Lowry (1993) 179 p.

The Giver is apparently fairly well-known in the US as a classic of young adult fiction, although until I found it on some list or another I’d heard of neither it or its author, Lois Lowry. The novel follows Jonas, a twelve-year-old boy living in an unnamed community where everything is safe and content, and everybody’s life is planned out, but in which there is no freedom or choice.

Lowry does an excellent job developing this world, which an adult reader will quickly see for a totalitarian nightmare, but which a child might at first think of as desirable. One of the first things that will tip an adult reader off – aside from the speakers everywhere and the creepy social order – is the use of the term “release” for the elderly, for repeat criminals, and for weak infants. Clearly a euphemism from an adult’s perspective, but a child reader might not catch on that quickly.

I found the beginning of the story compelling not because it presents an interesting, young-reader examination of a totalitarian community which is also quite readable for an adult – though it does do that – but because it presents an interesting science fiction mystery. The Giver clearly takes place at some point in the distant future; although the citizens travel by bicycle and still use technology as ordinary as planes, there are also elements of their technology which seem to verge on magic. The fact that the world is not as safe and controlled as the community’s leaders would like it to be is suggested on the very first page, with Jonas recalling the time an unknown aircraft flew over the community and sent it into a panic. I was deeply drawn into the book to learn how and why this situation came about; what secrets lay in the past, and outside the community itself. In that sense, as an engrossing sci-fi mystery, it reminded me of Christopher Priest’s Inverted World.

In that sense, however, it also fails. I was prepared to give this book a very high score, but it let me down in the ending, as very little of the world’s history is explained, and although Jonas does leave the community, we learn almost nothing of the world outside. (Apparently there are loose sequels set in the same world, and I may read them.) It also ends quite abruptly, although I certainly wouldn’t call it a bad ending. None of these things are flaws, exactly; The Giver is an excellent piece of YA fiction which introduces important themes and concepts to a young audience, and remains engaging and readable even for an adult. It’s not quite the book I wanted it to be, but that’s my problem, not Lowry’s.

A few weeks ago the New York Times published a travel article called “Catching Perth’s Wave in Western Australia,” a gushing puff piece you could be forgiven for thinking was financed by Tourism WA. Amongst the article’s more amusing claims were that Perth is “eco-fabulous” (it is the least sustainable city in Australia), that it has “spotless subways and free public buses” (Perth’s terrible rail network is entirely above ground, and the buses are only free in the CBD) and that sometimes it seems “as if everyone in Perth was under the age of 30″ (I would argue that it seems as if the city is controlled by the elderly, who dislike noise and disturbance and would like to be in bed by 9pm.)

I’ve lived in Melbourne for the past three years, and came back to Perth this summer to relax for a while and see my family before moving on to the UK. I am something of a Melbourne snob now, but I still don’t hate Perth as much as I used to, because I know that I can leave now; I no longer feel trapped. I can understand why it appeals to a certain type of person, particularly older British migrants who want peace and quiet and warmth, or young Australians who don’t care about the isolation or lack of culture, and just love the hot weather and the beach. Whatever floats your boat.

Many people – usually people who have never lived elsewhere – have been keen to tell me that Perth has changed, by which they usually mean that the liquor licenses have been relaxed somewhat and there are some small bars now… but they still have to close at midnight on Friday. The CBD is still a ghost town on a weeknight after 6pm, it’s still near-impossible to get a restaurant meal after 9pm, and public transport is still virtually non-existent. It’s still a worst-case scenario in terms of suburban sprawl, stretching nearly 100 kilometres from Port Kennedy in the south to Alkimos in the north.

But I’m not interested in bashing Perth anymore. It’s a suburban wasteland, sure, fine, whatever. Some people like that. “If you don’t love it, leave,” as they say, and fair enough. I did leave. What I want to do is point out that the local media frenzy about a single NYT travel article is evidence that Perth still hasn’t outgrown its inferiority complex; its anxiety about its place not just in the world, but in Australia.

A rose-tinted travel article is not proof that Perth is now the equal of Melbourne or Sydney or, as the NYT writer on the all-expenses-paid junket says, Brooklyn. It is proof that travel writers have a certain number of column inches to fill each year, and need to attract a certain number of eyeballs. When writing about an Australian city, you can either churn out another article about Sydney or Melbourne, cities every foreigner has heard of, or you can look a little further, find a lesser-known city, and talk it up a bit. It’s the same reason Lonely Planet listed Adelaide in its top ten cities for Best In Travel 2014: not because Adelaide is genuinely a better destination than Sydney or Melbourne, but because Lonely Planet needs to keep things fresh and avoid repeating itself so that it can sell more books. That’s how the travel writing industry works.

Working yourself up into a lather about a travel piece – whether you’re local media gushing excitedly, or a self-congratulatory expat sneering at it – is silly. Perth was not praised in the New York Times because it has become a great city. It was praised in the New York Times because such articles serve as good clickbait.

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