You are currently browsing the monthly archive for July 2011.

Given the recent national hysteria about the carbon tax, which is going to cost people earning less then $100,000 a year a devastating +20 cents, I thought I might mention a few things about climate change. You may have heard of this. It’s been big in the media in the last few years. The media is also big on talking about the climate change “debate,” which does not exist. 97% of people qualified to hold an opinion on the matter concur that it is happening, which is why it grinds my gears when the Prime Minister has to say on national television that she “believes” in man-made climate change.

I don’t. I can’t “believe” in climate change any more than I can “believe” in my scarf or my laptop or my nose. It exists. It is happening. We caused it, and the only question now is whether we’re going to take action to reverse it, or whether we’re going to collapse into a tangle of squabbling idiots while the atmosphere is ruined around us. Smart money is on the latter.

Yet you’ll see a lot of talk in the media about the “debate” on climate change, which they’ll usually express as giving equal airtime between an esteemed climate scientist and an English aristocrat with an undiagnosed mental disorder, or between a representative of the Commonwealth’s official scientific agency and a representative of the mining industry. It’s utter bullshit and I am going to appeal against it based not on empiricism but on rationalism.

The ironic thing about the climate change debate is that it is, by and large, a subject of faith. Like most people, I can only grasp the fundamentals of any given scientific issue, and that includes climate change. I take the scientific community at their word, because I cannot personally verify their information. It’s all out there, and you or I could go look it up. I could even reproduce it here. I’m not going to, because graphs and charts and scientific studies exist beyond the realm of my attention span, and I have neither the time nor the inclination to try to understand them. Few people do. So it comes down to trust, and whom you choose to place it in.

On the one hand we have our elected Prime Minister, CSIRO, and 97% of the world’s climate scientists. On the other hand we have Lord Monckton, Andrew Bolt, Alan Jones and – the man behind the curtain – various lobby groups and alliances associated with the mining industry.

Which of those sides stands to benefit from the status quo?

It didn’t take long after the government announced its carbon tax policy for an ad campaign to be released by the Australian Trade & Industry Alliance, producing a series of misleading “facts” objecting to the government’s decision. The ATI did not exist prior to the carbon tax hysteria. It was formed solely to combat it, and one needs only click on their “about us” section to get an inkling of what this alliance consists of. The Australian Coal Association. The Mineral Council of Australia. The Australian Steel Institute.

Is a lobby group of polluting industries, formed during the announcement of a tax on polluting industries, really the organisation you want to listen to for unbiased information?

There is absolutely nothing unusual about huge corporations distorting the truth and pouring millions into propaganda in order to preserve their own profit margins. Unethical, yes, but not surprising. Corporations exist to make money. (They can even claim that they must distort the truth and create propaganda, because they have an ethical duty to give their shareholders a return; to keep their promises.) The climate change debate is a struggle between the national interest and the vested interest; the interest of a few powerful people who meet at the intersection of polluting industry, politics and media. It is completely unremarkable that such people would exploit their influence to deny climate change and protect their wealth.

What is remarkable is that ordinary Australians – people who stand to lose from climate change, who gain nothing from corporate profits – believe them. Andrew Bolt’s column is the most widely read in Australia. One only need skim the comments on any given article there, or on The Australian or news.com.au or The Drum, to wonder if wilfully blind climate skeptics comprise a majority of our population.

Some of them are diehard partisans who will criticise anything the Labor Party does. Some of them are diehard tribalists who will believe anything Andrew Bolt writes. Some of them are simply naive, and believe that because mining corporations provide us with jobs, they must love us and have our best interests at heart.

Yet I think most climate skeptics – and this includes many people I know in real life – believe climate change isn’t happening because it’s easier that way. It would be so nice, wouldn’t it, if we could go on the way we are? Chugging along in our cars, using our coal power plants, not having to change one tiny whit of our lifestyle. Say what you will about Al Gore, but the title of his film could not have been more perfect. Climate change is inconvenient, and when Australians suffer inconvenience they squeal like stuck pigs.

To return to the faith comparison, this is similar to the reason I think many people believe in God and an afterlife: it’s easy. It’s nice. It’s comforting. They shut out the evidence and the facts and their own nagging doubts, and embrace the myth, because it makes life so much easier.

And so we have this ludicrous “debate:” our elected officials, national science agency and leading researchers vs. shock-jocks, right-wing journalists and mining companies who stand to lose money if we take action on climate change. All because Australians are self-centred skinflints who are happy to let our planet slide into environmental ruin because they don’t want the price of groceries to go up a few dollars.

It’s all really depressing. I’m not the kind of person who looks back on “the good old days” or “the greatest generation” with misty-eyed fondness – the 1940s were, after all, a time when women couldn’t hold real jobs and Aboriginals couldn’t vote – but the last time an Australian generation had to face down a dire threat, they were asked to sacrifice a lot more than a few extra bucks a week. Some might think it specious to compare war with climate change. I almost think it myself. That’s because our brains are still, fundamentally, primate brains. They react to sudden, shocking things like bombs and gunfire, and are complacent about gradual threats like climate change – which will ruin us, financially and physically, more than any war could.

So, as usual, the problem isn’t the media or the government or even big corporations. It’s us. It’s the fact that most of us haven’t learned to critically assess claims, to scrutinise the motives of the person making them. Most of us suffer from normalcy bias, which means we’ll gladly listen to anyone who tells us it’s not really happening, so we can go back to driving our 4WDs and watching The Biggest Loser on our plasma flat-screens. Most of us, even if we do believe in climate change, will scrounge around for reasons why we don’t need to do anything – because it’s not happening as fast as they say it is, or because our contribution wouldn’t make a difference, or because Juliar’s Great Big New Tax won’t immediately solve the whole problem. The Herald-Sun has a higher circulation than the Age not because Rupert Murdoch is an evil Sith Lord who exerts eerie powers over the populace, but because most people are happier to read an oversimplified, sensationalist story that stokes their anger than they are to read in-depth, unbiased, fact-based journalism. It’s not stupidity or even ignorance – it’s just laziness, and an unwillingness to think laterally about how and why people tell you things.

Stop doing that. You don’t need to bury yourself in the last ten years of scientific journals, spend all your free time examining the different carbon pricing schemes in countries across the globe, or fly to Antarctica and take your own ice core samples. Just think for a moment about who Andrew Bolt’s largest patron is, and why mining industries are opposed to the carbon tax, and whether CSIRO is a more reputable source on scientific matters than News Ltd and Lord Monckton.

But I know that any climate skeptic or Boltite who reads this isn’t going to do that. They’ll dismiss it as leftist-warmist-Nazi-fascist crap, and go on listening to their propaganda, and claiming that the real propaganda is the scientific evidence, and 150 years from now our planet will have warmed, our arable land will have been decimated, our economy will be in ruins, we will be wracked by drought and bushfires, and the descendants of today’s climate skeptics will be howling with indignant rage that the government of today didn’t do anything to stop it.

Advertisements

It’s been a while since I issued myself a good challenge, but after being all bitter and cynical about The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet not winning the Booker prize last year (or even advancing beyond the longlist), despite the fact that I hadn’t read a single one of the other contenders, I’ve been toying with the idea of reading every Booker nominee in 2011. Of course, there’s only a few months between the announcement of the longlist and the awarding of the prize, so for the last few months I’ve been making shrewd predictions about which books might make the longlist, so that I wouldn’t have to scramble so much once it was announced. I just started reading this year’s Miles Franklin winner, That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott, which didn’t make the list. I also suspected Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child would be on it, because even a smash repair apprentice in Toowomba could have figured that out. And that was about it. So my predictive skills are about as sharp as federal Labor’s PR skills, and scramble I shall.

The 2011 longlist was released a few hours ago. I hereby challenge myself to have read every potential Booker winner before the prize is announced on the 18th of October. (This gives me some wriggle room; if I pick wisely, I can avoid reading any books that don’t make the shortlist, announced on September 6th.)

I haven’t heard of most of these books (or authors, for that matter) so let’s do some googling to pull up some promotional blurbs.

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (England)

Tony Webster and his clique first met Adrian Finn at school. Sex-hungry and book-hungry, they navigated the girl drought of gawky adolescence together, trading in affectations, in-jokes, rumour and wit. Maybe Adrian was a little more serious than the others, certainly more intelligent, but they swore to stay friends forever. Until Adrian’s life took a turn into tragedy, and all of them, especially Tony, moved on and did their best to forget.

Now Tony is in middle age. He’s had a career and a marriage, a calm divorce. He gets along nicely, he thinks, with his one child, a daughter, and even with his ex-wife. He’s certainly never tried to hurt anybody. Memory, though, is imperfect. It can always throw up surprises, as a lawyer’s letter is about to prove. The unexpected bequest conveyed by that letter leads Tony on a dogged search through a past suddenly turned murky. And how do you carry on, contentedly, when events conspire to upset all your vaunted truths?

On Canaan’s Side by Sebastian Barry (Ireland)

‘As they used to say in Ireland, the devil only comes into good things.’ Narrated by Lilly Bere, On Canaan’s Side opens as she mourns the loss of her grandson, Bill. The story then goes back to the moment she was forced to flee Dublin, at the end of the First World War, and follows her life through into the new world of America, a world filled with both hope and danger. At once epic and intimate, Lilly’s narrative unfurls as she tries to make sense of the sorrows and troubles of her life and of the people whose lives she has touched. Spanning nearly seven decades, it is a novel of memory, war, family-ties and love, which once again displays Sebastian Barry’s exquisite prose and gift for storytelling.

Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch (England)

‘I was born twice. First in wooden room that jutted out over the black water of the Thames, and then again eight years later in the Highway, when the tiger took me in his mouth and everything truly began.’ 1857. Jaffy Brown is running along a street in London’s East End when he comes face to face with an escaped circus animal. Plucked from the jaws of death by Mr Jamrach – explorer, entrepreneur and collector of the world’s strangest creatures – the two strike up a friendship. Before he knows it, Jaffy finds himself on board a ship bound for the Dutch East Indies, on an unusual commission for Mr Jamrach. His journey – if he survives it – will push faith, love and friendship to their utmost limits. Brilliantly written and utterly spellbinding, Carol Birch’s epic novel brings alive the smells, sights and flavours of the nineteenth century, from the docks of London to the storms of the Indian Ocean. This great salty historical adventure is a gripping exploration of our relationship to the natural world and the wildness it contains.

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt (Canada)

Hermann Kermit Warm is going to die. The enigmatic and powerful man known only as the Commodore has ordered it, and his henchmen, Eli and Charlie Sisters, will make sure of it. Though Eli doesn’t share his brother’s appetite for whiskey and killing, he’s never known anything else. But their prey isn’t an easy mark, and on the road from Oregon City to Warm’s gold-mining claim outside Sacramento, Eli begins to question what he does for a living–and whom he does it for.

With The Sisters Brothers, Patrick deWitt pays homage to the classic Western, transforming it into an unforgettable comic tour de force. Filled with a remarkable cast of characters–losers, cheaters, and ne’er-do-wells from all stripes of life–and told by a complex and compelling narrator, it is a violent, lustful odyssey through the underworld of the 1850s frontier that beautifully captures the humor, melancholy, and grit of the Old West and two brothers bound by blood, violence, and love.

Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan (Canada)

This is a new part of an old story: 1930s Berlin, the threat of imprisonment and the powerful desire to make something beautiful despite the horror. Chip told us not to go out. Said, don’t you boys tempt the devil. But it’s been one brawl of a night, I tell you. The aftermath of the fall of Paris, 1940. Hieronymous Falk, a rising star on the cabaret scene, was arrested in a cafe and never heard from again. He was twenty years old. He was a German citizen. And he was black. Fifty years later, Sid, Hiero’s bandmate and the only witness that day, is going back to Berlin. Persuaded by his old friend Chip, Sid discovers there’s more to the journey than he thought when Chip shares a mysterious letter, bringing to the surface secrets buried since Hiero’s fate was settled. In “Half Blood Blues”, Esi Edugyan weaves the horror of betrayal, the burden of loyalty and the possibility that, if you don’t tell your story, someone else might tell it for you. And they just might tell it wrong…

A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvette Edwards (England)

It’s been fourteen years since Jinx’s mother was brutally stabbed to death in their home in East London. Fourteen years for Jinx to become accustomed to the huge weight of guilt and anger that has destroyed her life. Fourteen years to nurture an impossible shame. Out of nowhere, Lemon arrives on her doorstep. An old friend of her mother’s, he wants to revisit the events leading to that terrible night, and Jinx sees the opportunity to confess, finally, her hand in the violence. But Lemon has his own secrets to share, and over the course of one weekend they strip away the layers of the past to lay bare a story full of jealousy and tragic betrayal. Narrated with a distinct and fiery spice, Jinx and Lemon must find their own paths to redemption in this stunning debut novel.

The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst (England)

Alan Hollinghurst’s first novel in seven years is a magnificent, century-spanning saga about a love triangle that spawns a myth—and a family mystery—across generations.

In 1913, George Sawle brings charming, handsome Cecil Valance to his family’s modest home outside London for a summer weekend. George is enthralled by his Cambridge schoolmate, and soon his sixteen-year-old sister, Daphne, is equally besotted by both Cecil and the stories he tells about Corley Court, the country estate he is heir to. But what Cecil writes in Daphne’s autograph album will change their and their families’ lives forever: a poem that, after Cecil is killed in the Great War and his reputation burnished, will be recited by every schoolchild in England. Over time, a tragic love story is spun, even as other secrets lie buried—until, decades later, an ambitious biographer threatens to unearth them.

Rich with the author’s signature gifts—haunting sensuality, wicked humor, and exquisite lyricism—The Stranger’s Child is a tour de force: a masterly novel about the lingering power of desire, and about how the heart creates its own history.

Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman (England)

Newly arrived from Ghana with his mother and older sister, eleven-year-old Harrison Opoku lives on the ninth floor of a block of flats on an inner-city housing estate. The second best runner in the whole of Year 7, Harri races through his new life in his personalised trainers – the Adidas stripes drawn on with marker pen – blissfully unaware of the very real threat all around him. With equal fascination for the local gang – the Dell Farm Crew – and the pigeon who visits his balcony, Harri absorbs the many strange elements of his new life in England: watching, listening, and learning the tricks of urban survival. But when a boy is knifed to death on the high street and a police appeal for witnesses draws only silence, Harri decides to start a murder investigation of his own. In doing so, he unwittingly endangers the fragile web his mother has spun around her family to try and keep them safe. A story of innocence and experience, hope and harsh reality, Pigeon English is a spellbinding portrayal of a boy balancing on the edge of manhood and of the forces around him that try to shape the way he falls.

The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuiness (Wales)

The socialist state is in crisis, the shops are empty and old Bucharest vanishes daily under the onslaught of Ceaucescu’s demolition gangs. Paranoia is pervasive and secret service men lurk in the shadows. In The Last 100 Days, Patrick McGuinness creates an absorbing sense of time and place as the city struggles to survive this intense moment in history. He evokes a world of extremity and ravaged beauty from the viewpoint of an outsider uncomfortably, and often dangerously, close to the eye of the storm as the regime of 1980s Romania crumbles to a bloody end.

Snowdrops by A.D. Miller (England)

Nick Platt is an English lawyer living in Moscow during the wild Russian oil boom. Riding the subway on a balmy September day, he rescues two willowy sisters, Masha and Katya, from a would-be purse snatcher.

Nick soon begins to feel something for Masha that he is pleased to believe is love. As the snow starts to fall, the sisters introduce him to Tatiana Vladimirovna, their aged aunt and the owner of a valuable apartment. Before summer arrives, Nick will travel down to the sweaty Black Sea and up to the Arctic, and he’ll make disturbing discoveries about his job, his lover and, most of all, himself.

Snowdrops is a fast-paced drama that unfolds during a beautiful but lethally cold Russian winter. Ostensibly a story of naive foreigners and cynical natives, the novel becomes something richer and darker: a tale of erotic obsession, self-deception and moral freefall. It is set in a land of hedonism and desperation, corruption and kindness, magical hideaways and debauched nightclubs; a place where secrets, and corpses, come to light when the snows thaw.

Far to Go by Alison Pick (Canada)

When Czechoslovakia relinquishes the Sudetenland to Hitler, the powerful influence of Nazi propaganda sweeps through towns and villages like a sinister vanguard of the Reich’s advancing army. A fiercely patriotic secular Jew, Pavel Bauer is helpless to prevent his world from unraveling as first his government, then his business partners, then his neighbors turn their back on his affluent, once-beloved family. Only the Bauers’ adoring governess, Marta, sticks by Pavel, his wife, Anneliese, and their little son, Pepik, bound by her deep affection for her employers and friends. But when Marta learns of their impending betrayal at the hands of her lover, Ernst, Pavel’s best friend, she is paralyzed by her own fear of discovery—even as the endangered family for whom she cares so deeply struggles with the most difficult decision of their lives.

Interwoven with a present-day narrative that gradually reveals the fate of the Bauer family during and after the war, Far to Go is a riveting family epic, love story, and psychological drama.

The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers (Scotland)

Jessie Lamb is an ordinary girl living in extraordinary times: as her world collapses, her idealism and courage drive her towards the ultimate act of heroism. If the human race is to survive, it’s up to her. Set just a month or two in the future, in a world irreparably altered by an act of biological terrorism, The Testament of Jessie Lamb explores a young woman’s determination to make her life count for something, as the certainties of her childhood are ripped apart.

Derby Day by D.J. Taylor (England)

As the shadows lengthen over the June grass, all England is heading for Epsom Downs – high life and low life, society beauties and Whitechapel street girls, bookmakers and gypsies, hawkers and acrobats, punters and thieves. Whole families stream along the Surrey back-roads, towards the greatest race of the year. Hopes are high, nerves are taut, hats are tossed in the air – this is Derby Day. For months people have been waiting and plotting for this day. Even in dark November, when the wind whistles through the foggy London courts, the alehouses and gentlemen’s clubs echo to the sound of disputed odds. In Belgrave Square old Mr Gresham is baffled by his tigerish daughter Rebecca, whose intentions he cannot fathom. In the clubs of St James’ rakish Mr Happerton plays billiards with his crony Captain Raff, while in darkest Lincolnshire sad Mr Davenant broods over his financial embarrassments and waits for his daughter’s new governess. Across the channel the veteran burglar Mr Pardew is packing his bags to return, to the consternation of the stalwart detective Captain McTurk. Everywhere money jingles and plans are laid. Uniting them all is the champion horse Tiberius, on whose performance half a dozen destinies depend. In this rich and exuberant novel, rife with the idioms of Victorian England, the mysteries pile high, propelling us towards the day of the great race, and we wait with bated breath as the story gallops to a finish that no one expects.

Overall: the only book on this list I know anything about is Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, because conventional wisdom dictated it was a shoe-in for the prize. I’ve never read any of Hollinghurst’s previous books, though I do feel spiteful towards him for stealing David Mitchell’s Booker in 2004. I was also hoping it wouldn’t be nominated, because it’s the size of a phone book, which will make reading all 12 of these difficult. So that’s a good start! I’ve also heard of Snowdrops, Pigeon English and Jamrach’s Menagerie, since we stock all of those at my store, but I didn’t know anything about them until just now.

Of the books on offer, Jamrach’s Menagerie, The Sisters Brothers and The Testament of Jessie Lamb seem the most intriguing, since they all break out of the Booker-bait mould. Smart money is already on The Stranger’s Child, though, since it cosies itself into the Booker-bait mould like a cat into an occupied bed on a rainy morning.

This year’s selection continues the British-centric trend of recent years: only three of the authors on the list aren’t from England, Scotland, Ireland or Wales, and they’re all Canadian.

That conclues my half-aware 3 am ramblings. I have 83 days to get through this list; if I’m canny enough I don’t have to read all of them. CHALLENGE ACCEPTED!

A Darkling Plain by Philip Reeve (2006) 533 p.

God damn, this is a great series.

A Darkling Plain is the final installment in Philip Reeve’s beautiful, creative, swashbuckling adventure series Mortal Engines. For some reason there is a statistical spike in the fourth book of a series being huge. Wizard And Glass, Harry Potter And The Goblet of Fire, and now A Darkling Plain, which clocks in at over 500 pages and is nearly twice the length of any of the previous books.

Infernal Devices was the first book in the series to end on a cliffhanger, with Tom and Hester parting after Hester’s bloodthirsty rampage aboard Brighton, and Hester being taken out into the desert by her old friend and enemy, the Stalker Shrike. A Darkling Plain opens six months later, with a ceasefire in place between the Green Storm and the Traktionstadtsgesselschaft. Tom and his daughter Wren have returned to the Bird Roads aboard their old airship the Jenny Haniver, and Tom is trying hard not to think about his old wife.

Anyone who hasn’t read the previous three books would be befuddled by that paragraph; as with any series, the final book is not really the ideal entry point. All finales build upon what came before them, but I was impressed with how Reeve managed to touch upon nearly all of his previous inventions here: Stalkers and Old-Tech, the clash between cities and “mossies,” Lost Boys and limpets, Brighton and Airhaven, Pennyroyal and Sathya and Khora and the Stalker Fang, and even London itself. When I read this book for the first time, I felt like I was revisiting a familiar and much-loved old house, and I felt the same way the second time around. In Mortal Engines and Predator’s Gold, Reeve crafted one of the most original and intriguing worlds young adult fiction has ever seen; in Infernal Devices and A Darkling Plain, he tears it apart with all the reckless, theatrical zest of a Hollywood director, laying waste to people and airships and entire cities. It’s incredible stuff, and Reeve has a beautiful visual talent with words, whether he’d describing a tranquil mountainside pasture or an enormous city being obliterated by an orbital weapon.

Yet Reeve’s skill is much more than just stage-magic; the Mortal Engines series also displays his knack for understanding and expressing complex emotions. Fishcake is perhaps the most wretched and pitiful character in the book, a Lost Boy ruthlessly abandoned by Hester at the climax of Infernal Devices, who clings to the only love he can find by rescuing and repairing the damaged Stalker Fang. Anna Fang’s memories are caught within the Stalker’s harsher mind, and Fishcake finds himself trapped in an abusive relationship as she switches between Anna, the loving mother he never had, and the Stalker Fang, a heartless machine.

He did not remember calling anybody that before. “Mummy.” He was crying, and the Stalker comforted him, stroking his head with her clumsy hands and whispering an old Chinese lullaby that Anna Fang had heard in her own childhood, on the Bird Roads, long ago.

And Fishcake slept, and did not wake up until she turned into the Stalker Fang again and stood up, dumping him on to the floor.

Shrike, too, is one of the novel’s strangely empathetic characters. A robotic Stalker, he seeks love in Hester Shaw, a reliable companion, patiently waiting for her to die so he can have her resurrected like himself. Yet Shrike is more than a single-minded character; in spite of his obsession with Hester, or perhaps because of it, he also cares about others. As the novel approaches its climax, he clearly and simply accepts that he has a role to play in saving the world, without any selfish ulterior motives, and attempts to carry that role out for no reason other than it being the right thing to do.

“THEY WOULD NOT BELIEVE US,” said Shrike. “THEY THINK WE ARE PAWNS OF THEIR ENEMIES. I MUST GO TO ERDENE TEZH AND SEARCH FOR HER MYSELF.”

“Is that your idea?” asked Hester suspiciously. “Or is one of Oenone’s secret programmes still running in that brain of yours?”

Shrike turned to look at her. “I DO NOT KNOW. BUT DR. ZERO REBUILT ME FOR A PURPOSE. I AM THE ONLY ONE WHO CAN DESTROY THE STALKER FANG. I MUST SEEK HER OUT AND REASSASSINATE HER.”

“Thought you couldn’t kill anybody.”

“STALKERS ARE NOT ALIVE, SO IT WILL NOT BE KILLING,” Shrike said patiently. “EVEN IF IT WERE, IT WOULD HAVE TO BE DONE.” He waved one massive hand at the windows, at the mountain burning in the south. “IF SHE IS ALLOWED TO CONTINUE THIS DESTRUCTION, MILLIONS OF ONCE-BORN WILL PERISH.”

While we’re on the topic of characters, I must note that I was disappointed (as I was the first time around) by Tom and Hester’s reconciliation. Hester reveals to Tom that Valentine was her real father, and blames her bloodlust on genetics. Tom, by and large, accepts this as a reasonable answer. I felt this was a cop-out, one which undermined not only Hester’s violent character arc, but also the schism between herself and Tom, which was handled so terribly well in Infernal Devices.

Not to matter, though, because at that point in the book so much other stuff is happening that it’s easy to forgive Reeve’s slip-ups. Like Infernal Devices, A Darkling Plain begins slowly but soon kicks into high gear, and the climax of the novel is astounding, a fitting capstone to the previous thousand pages of this wonderful world. There are books where you care deeply about the characters, who are well-crafted and express all the foibles and sufferings of real people; and there are books of high adventure, where the characters make a crazy and desperate bid to save the world in a series of action set-pieces in exotic locations. In very few books do these two things overlap. A Darkling Plain, along with the other books of the Mortal Engines series, is one of them. The climax is split into two parts, one taking place in the ruins of London and one in a lonely house on a lake in a Himalayan valley called Erdene Tezh. I want to avoid spoilers in this review, but suffice to say that while the London climax is more action-packed, the Erdene Tezh climax is intensely more moving. There is one particular scene – Hester, Tom, Fishcake, Pennyroyal, a knife and an airship – that is flawlessly executed. Every word falls into place; the story barrels forward with an unstoppable momentum. The culmination of Tom and Hester’s story is a beautiful, terrible, heart-rending kick in the guts. And the final chapter, in which Shrike arrives at Erdene Tezh too late, is the perfect finishing touch to a fantastic series of novels. There are stark few stories where the characters grow on you so much that tumultuous events in their lives can affect your own, at least to the point where you don’t want to read any other stories for a little while, as you reflect and digest. A Darkling Plain is one of these rare, beautiful few.

I recall thinking the first time I read A Darkling Plain that it was badly paced; that the chapters taking place in the ruins of London were too bloated, too stretched out, that they compromised the novel. Reading it the second time I was surprised that they didn’t seem too stretched out at all; they don’t really take up all that many pages. They do, however, lack something. I couldn’t put my finger on what exactly. Some kind of sparkle or shine; possibly any interesting characters, since the background cast of Londoners feel like cardboard cut-outs. Reeve did a great job at creating limited characters who appropriately filled a background (nothing more and nothing less) in Anchorage in Predator’s Gold; in London, he doesn’t quite manage it, and as a result the London chapters feel a bit tedious. Maybe it’s something else, too – in any case, I was always happy when a London chapter finished, and a new one began in Erdene Tezh or Batmunkh Gompa or Murnau. On the topic of the book’s length in general, it can sometimes feel disjointed or bloated, and the first half moves at a slow enough pace that the book as a whole, despite its size, doesn’t actually seem to contain much more than any of the previous three books did. But no matter – the previous three books were all brilliant, and so is A Darkling Plain, even if it has a bit of empty space in it. By the time I reached that perfect climax, I no longer cared about any fiddly little faults anyway.

I think it’s clear that I love these books too much to offer an impartial review. But I also feel that, beyond my own blinding love and nostalgia, they are genuinely some of the best young adult novels that have ever been written. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy may have greater literary merit, and JK Rowling’s Hary Potter series may be far more popular, but while I loved both those series, neither of them made me care as much about the characters or feel as deeply engaged with the story as Mortal Engines did. Philip Reeve is forever destined to be an underrated author, because nothing short of Harry Potter levels of hype and prestige would do the Mortal Engines series justice.

Reeve has written several prequel novels – Fever Crumb, A Web of Air and Scrivener’s Moon – which take place a thousand years earlier, at the dawn of the Traction Era. I haven’t read these before, and I’ve bought all of them in preparation, but the thought of reading them fills me with dreadful anticipation. I’m concerned, of course, that he will never live up to the astronomical standard set by the Mortal Engines series. We shall have to wait and see. I need a good gap between them, so that I can properly digest A Darkling Plain.

Such terrific, wonderful books. I’m sad to have finished reading them again, but I know that I’ll revisit them many times throughout my life.

A Darkling Plain at The Book Depository

Ahoy hoy! We are finally in The House. We moved in about two weeks ago, actually, but still don’t have Internet. I’m at the library on Flinders Lane with an awful busker’s Beatles covers floating up through the windows from street level.

Our original moving day was, you will recall, March 12, but it was delayed again and again because Jamie’s conveyancer (whom he is now taking to court) was a deceptive charlatan. So that’s a total of 110 days late.

On the evening of the 30th, I borrowed Kristie’s car and headed up to the airport, to stand around in the blustery winds outside the Tiger terminal waiting for Chris. I say “terminal” but it’s actually an enclosed concrete area of barbed wire fencing containing a luggage carousel and porta-potties. I already nursed a hatred for that airline after one of the worst flights of my life, but any lingering thoughts I might have had of ever using it again were wiped out by standing outside that haggard refugee camp. (In any case, it was grounded by the aviation authorities for safety breaches a few days later, and remains grounded, and deserves to be grounded.)

Chris stumbled out of the concentration camp looking a little pale and worse for wear after his bout of glandular fever, and we hopped back in the car and cruised down the freeway, past the city and back to the Camberwell house. Jamie had rented a removal truck and already packed most of our stuff into it, but he needed to pick up a few things from his previous residences, so Chris and I took his bike and Kristie’s car while he and Dave went off in the truck. We went straight to the house, only to find that it had no electricity.

“Just check the fuse box,” Jamie said when we rang him.

“No, yeah, we’re doing that,” I said.

“Well we’ll have to ring the electricity company or something.”

“Alright,” Chris said. “We’ll see you when you get here. Well, actually, no we won’t, because there’s no lights.”

We set about moving our stuff into the house in the dark, using our scant reserves of phone battery to see. The house hadn’t been lived in for a while – we still have no idea what the conveyance delay was caused by – and had a musty smell to it. I said, “This is reminding me very strongly of…”

“…last year,” Chris finished for me.

We cracked open a few half-warm beers by taking them outside and smashing them on the letterbox, and sat in the empty living room drinking until Jamie and Dave showed up in the truck. Jamie had been making some phone calls too, and it turned out that the power had been switched off because the electricity company thought nobody was living there. The conveyancer was supposed to notify them that we were, but of course they didn’t. We moved in on Thursday night, and didn’t get power hooked up until Tuesday. At least on the second day we got some candles.

And so here we are, home sweet home, in Sunshine West, the third place I’ve lived in since moving to Melbourne. I moved around a lot when I lived in Perth as well, but it was always in the same area – somewhere in the City of Stirling, never more than a few kilometres from the ocean, upper-middle-class suburbs like Trigg or Carine or Karrinyup at the northern end of the bell curve that hugs the coast. In Melbourne I’ve vaulted all over the city. First there was Essendon: middle-class but still blue-collar, prosperous but not wealthy, the kind of suburb full of solidly middle-class “working families” that both political parties always pander to. Probably a marginal seat in federal elections. Then Camberwell: an old-money suburb, not as snobbish as Toorak or Kew but still very well-off, the streets dotted with European trees and students in private school uniforms. Old houses, churches and plenty of trams. (The wealthy suburbs of Perth lack this European analogy; even Dalkeith and Peppermint Grove are full of garish modern mansions. Perth is a new-money city.) Doubtless a Liberal safe seat.

And now Sunshine, an outer suburb of plain houses built in the 1970s, wide treeless streets, lots of highways and traffic lights and fast food stores. Physically it resembles the suburbs of Perth too close to the freeway; places like Balcatta or Balga, far from the ocean, where the average household income starts to drop. Other parts of Sunshine resemble a rural town like Collie, full of rednecks and bogans; other parts are closer to Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. The residential streets here are sandwiched in between industrial zones and commercial lots. The avenues are lined with warehouse-like stores selling things like tyres or paint or screen doors; when the wind is up, you can smell fumes and chemicals from the factories. More than half the traffic is semi-trailers and trucks, which makes riding a motorcycle dicey. It’s also a hot-spot for crime. On our first night here Chris heard gunfire in the distance; when I rang my insurance company to tell them my new address, I was informed my premium would be going up; all the petrol stations are pre-pay after 6 pm.

It’s a long way from Camberwell. Maybe 30 years from now, after they develop Fisherman’s Bend and rezone the industrial wasteland below the West Gate Bridge and gentrify Footscray, Sunshine will become more respectable. Until then it’s one of the hard suburbs of Melbourne, full of struggling families and Sudanese immigrants and feral bogans. My vehemently left-wing beliefs are about to clash with the removal of my middle-class white existence.

The house itself is OK. It’s sort of plonked into the lot at an odd angle, the walls not parallel with the fences. It’s fairly basic, with thin walls and no insulation (and a Melbourne winter is pretty brutal). The shower is well fucked; the head is level with my neck, and doesn’t go up any further, and the floor is coated with years’ worth of grime and mould. (We bought wooden slats from Ikea to stand on. ) But it’s gradually shaping up into a home; Jamie and Dave made some shelves out of planks and ladders, and we got a TV and some couches, and I bought a bed and a chest of drawers from a used furniture shop down the road. I don’t mind sleeping on a mattress on the floor, but these rooms are way smaller than Camberwell, and I need the storage space.

I’m finally getting around to the job hunt in earnest, sending out unsolicited applications and going into the city to use the library’s internet whenever I get the chance. I’m growing tired of working at the airport. It occurred to me the other day that I was better off at Coles: I got paid more, didn’t work as hard, got longer breaks, didn’t work in such an inconvenient location, and didn’t have to start at 5 am some days. The only difference is that it’s more dignifiying to work in a bookstore than in a supermarket. But at the end of the day I’m still in retail. And Lagardere is one of those tiresome retail companies that’s constantly trying to increase profits by putting relentless pressure on the $16-an-hour drones at the very bottom of the pecking order, urging them to meet sales targets and upsell and blah blah blah. Recently three of us were sent to Brunswick to do coffee training to cover the baristas’ breaks, because they’re too cheap to put two baristas on at a time. The coffee training was woefully inadequate, so we’ve been nipping into the cafe whenever we get the chance, to watch and learn from what they’re doing. A few weeks ago one of my co-workers was doing that when the CEO of the Asia-Pacific division happened to pass by (that’s the bother of working in a major transport hub) and screamed his head off at her for being in the cafe rather than on the floor selling books – despite the fact that it was late at night and you have a clear line of sight to the registers from the cafe. He swore at her and the barista in front of customers and told them that they needed to “justify their position there.”

If it had been me I would have tossed my lanyard at him and walked out. I don’t know where the fuck people get the idea that a part-time retail job, with shit hours and shit pay, is some kind of esteemed privilege that has people clamouring at the gates. On the contrary, our staff turnover is amazing. Kristie was working at a retail store in the Bourke Street Mall before she left for Europe and had to put up with the same bullshit – “perform or you will be replaced,” “the reason we’re not making budget is because of your poor sales performance,” etc. I utterly loathe retail companies like hers and mine, who treat you only with as much courtesy as is required by federal law. Coles, in comparison, paid me more than the minimum wage and gave me longer lunch breaks, simply out of generosity. Other companies squeeze every fucking dollar and treat their employees like garbage. There’s no way I’m going to put in 110% (or even 80%, for that matter) at a job that pays me $16 an hour and requires me to get out of bed at 3.30 am. And there’s something disgusting about a CEO with a triple figure income screeching and howling in anger at a girl who earns $16 an hour and reducing her to tears. All the money that we make for that store is fed up the chain to Paris and goes towards mansions in Provence and speedboats in Barbados and private school fees for some rich asshole’s kids. And the more you earn, the less actual work you have to do, as I’ve decided after many hours of watching suits in the business class lounge knock back whiskeys and pile up their plates at the buffet. The harder and more unpleasant your job is, the less you are actually rewarded for it.

I’m not advocating communism. I just want to be on the other side. And so I’m sending off resume after resume in the hope that someone will take pity on me and give me a shitty entry-level position writing copy for shit I don’t care about. At least then I’d earn more money. I actually had a job interview yesterday, at Melbourne University Press, for a three-month internship. That was nice simply for the act of going to Carlton. Something about living in Sunshine and working in Tullamarine, commuting up and down on the Western Ring Road at the fringes of the city, usually before dawn or after sunset, makes me feel like I’m living at the periphery of human society. Like a rat scuttling in the shadows. If I can’t live in the city, I damn well want to work there.

Lost On Earth by Steve Crombie (2010) 342 p.

A long-held dream of mine and Chris’ is to fly to Alaska, buy motorcycles, ride them up to the Arctic Ocean, and then ride them all the way south down the Americas to the very southern tip of the continent. Since I’m currently scraping by on minimum wage in a shitty dead-end job, and this dream is years and years away, it was time to do what I did back when I was working at Coles before backpacking: live vicariously through others! Lost On Earth is an account of Steve Crombie’s motorcycle journey in the other direction, from the far south all the way up to the Arctic.

I mentioned in my review of A Time Of Gifts that there are two types of travel writers: dreamy, ruminating ones like Patrick Leigh Fermor and witty, conversational ones like Bill Bryson. Crombie fits uneasily between the two types. He is the kind of young traveller who likes to throw himself head-first into other cultures, experience strange situations and learn as much as he can about the people he meets, but he doesn’t come up with anything particularly profound (nor does he try to). He is also a mid-level wordsmith, the book being a fairly basic account of where he went, what he saw and how he felt about it. I’m fairly certain the book wasn’t ghostwritten; Crombie isn’t terrible with words, but a lot of his sentences and descriptions are quite clunky (from the first paragraph in the book: “the sparkling cobalt Pacific Ocean.”)

Crombie reminded me slightly of the protagonist from Alex Garland’s The Beach – fictional, yes, but a representation of a certain class of backpacker; the kind who makes travel a way of life, the kind who are always seeking something better or more incredible, the kind who set themselves on a level above most other travellers. To be fair, Crombie certainly does have balls of steel. He puts up with hardships that would have had Chris and I complaining for days and days, like sleeping on a muddy riverbank with nothing to eat, or riding across the mid-winter Andes in sub-zero temperatures. Yet there’s something depressing about it all. Crombie is driven on and on with a sense of purpose, and yet – as I suspected would happen at the end – he finds himself deeply depressed upon his return to Australia, because he has finished what he set out to do and has no more to occupy him. (“And when he saw the width and breadth of his empire, Alexander wept, for he had no more worlds to conquer.”) As a reader I really, really wanted him to just move to the UK and settle down with the woman he claims to love throughout the book. Not because I wanted him to straighten up and fly right and start working for The Man – if something makes you happy, then go for it – but because the thing that makes him happy is extremely expensive and unsustainable. It lends the whole book an air of melancholy.

And so Lost On Earth lacks both the warm affability of a Bryson book and the thoughtful reflections of a Fermor book. I still found it interesting because it’s a journey I plan to undertake myself, but I can’t recommend it to others.

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (1992) 301 p.

Co-winner of the 1992 Booker prize, along with Barry Unsworth’s less famous Sacred Hunger, Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient takes place at the tail end of World War II in an Italian villa, where four characters are drawn together: a Canadian-Italian spy named Caravaggio, a British-Indian sapper named Kip, a Canadian nurse named Hanah, and the titular English patient, a badly-burned man with a mysterious past. The novel follows their aimless existence in the “strange time” at the end of war, and details their struggle to come to terms with their experiences.

The English Patient is the first novel I’ve read in a very long time where I already knew what was going to happen, because I’d seen the film version. The movie focuses very heavily on the patient himself, while the book spreads the limelight more evenly – Kip in particular is given a lot of time.

Ondaatje’s prose is generally considered excellent, although I wasn’t a big fan of his style. It’s short and clipped – if you’ve seen the film and heard the way Ralph Fiennes narrates, you’ll know what I mean – and while this works well for the memories, dreams and recollections of the dying patient, it feels ill-suited to the other characters. I was actually quite surprised at how truncated and dreamlike the desert segments feel, given that they make up the majority of the film. Most of the book takes place in the crumbling Italian villa. Another notable difference between book and film is that the book ends with the atom bomb being dropped on Hiroshima, and Kip’s devastated reaction to it. (“They never would have dropped such a bomb on a white nation,” Caravaggio thinks, a line that didn’t make it into the film – probably because it’s true.)

It is undoubtedly an excellent novel, and certainly more deserving of the Booker than Sacred Hunger was, but something about knowing how the story unfolds spoiled it for me. This was another case where Ondaatje’s dreamlike prose was a hindrance, as certain phrases or sentences would immediately summon a screenshot from the film to my mind’s eye. Nevertheless, an objectively good book and well worth reading.

In The Winter Dark by Tim Winton (1988) 132 p.

I haven’t read anything by Tim Winton (who comprises one third of the Holy Trinity of Australian writers, alongside Patrick White and Peter Carey) since high school, when I was obliged to force my way through Cloudstreet for English Lit. I suspect I’d like Cloudstreet a lot more now that I’m older and appreciate good literature, but I do still suspect Tim Winton of being similar to Cormac McCarthy – an excellent author, but one whose novels all tend to be pretty much the same.

In The Winter Dark caught my eye because of its horror themes:

Night falls. In a lonely valley called the Sink, four people prepare for a quiet evening. Then in his orchard, Murray Jaccob sees a moving shadow. Across the swamp, his neighbour Ronnie watches her lover leave and feels her baby roll inside her. And on the verandah of the Stubbses’ house, a small dog is torn screaming from its leash by something unseen. Nothing will be the same again.

Winton mentions the darkness itself quite a lot throughout the book, including the quote in the epigraph, and I was half-expecting him to pull something metaphysical. He doesn’t. As in all good horror literature, the monster is never quite seen or explained, but as huge amounts of livestock are found mangled and mutilated, there is no doubt as to its tangible existence.

Winton does, however, focus more on the characters than anything else; this is a literary novella with horror elements, not vice versa. The climax was somewhat contrived, and while he manages a foreboding note here and there, there aren’t many parts in the book that are actually frightening. It’s not a bad book at all, but it’s not particularly worth seeking out either.

In any case, it did bring me up to 25 books before the mid-point of the year. With luck I may be able to beat 2008’s 50-book streak.

The Book of Other People edited by Zadie Smith (2007) 287 p.

There’s a common consensus amongst booksellers, publishers and authors that short story anthologies don’t sell nearly as well as novels. J.G. Ballard called them the “loose change in the treasury of fiction;” George Orwell thought that most modern short stories were “utterly lifeless and worthless, far more so than most novels.” I’ve quoted Michael Chabon’s perfect description on contemporary short stories so often on this blog I can’t do it anymore in good consciensce.

I used to disagree with prevailing opinion, but I’ve read quite a few anthologies this year and I’m starting to realise I was wrong. Whether it’s Stories, The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard, or The Best Australian Stories 2010… none of these books grabbed me. They all suffered from the weak links in the chain. I can count the number of short stories I have read in my entire life that I really, really enjoyed on the fingers of one hand.

I suspect I even suffer from the common bother of disliking short stories simply because, as Orwell pointed out, they’re so truncated; you don’t get a chance to unwind and stretch out, to really get to know the characters. The Book of Other People opens with a story by David Mitchell, my absolute favourite author of all time, yet it didn’t really do anything for me. That didn’t bode well for the rest of the collection, which mostly featured writers I’d never heard of.

I started reading short story anthologies in order to practice my own (a short story being a much quicker way for a young writer to achieve the validation of publication), but I think I’m getting fatigued from the constant disappointment. This is not to say that short story collections are usually bad – indeed, The Book of Other People isn’t bad – but they are almost universally average and forgettable. I suppose an anthology actually subverts the purpose of a short story, which is supposed to be a quick dose of fiction, standing by itself and read in a single sitting. An anthology is an attempt to collate short stories into something more like a novel, and the stories suffer for the comparison.

Archive Calendar

July 2011
M T W T F S S
« Jun   Aug »
 123
45678910
11121314151617
18192021222324
25262728293031