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Shriek: An Afterword by Jeff Vandermeer (2006) 345 p.

Three years ago I read City of Saints and Madmen, and added Vandermeer to the pile of authors who have a great imagination and some degree of talent, but who have a tendency to ramble on about boring crap and sorely need an editor (see also: China Mieville, late Stephen King). While working at my bookstore I was entranced by the cover of Finch, which is the third book in Vandermeer’s Ambergris series, and I figured I could probably skip the second one. Then, during the agonising collapse of REDGroup, when Borders and Angus & Robertson stores were ejecting themselves of their contents like the dying animals they were, I begrudgingly picked up Shriek: An Afterword for five bucks during a clearance sale.

I can tell why there were so many unread piles sitting around in the store even as workmen were stripping the fixtures. Shriek: An Afterword is terribly tedious, one of those books in which I found it almost impossible to keep my attention on the page. It takes the form of an “afterword” written by Janice Shriek to a historical work by her brother Duncan, detailing their long, sad and sorry lives. Duncan himself has discovered her notes and adds his own comments and remarks throughout the text.

It’s ironic that a work of meta-fiction which deals so heavily with writers, publishing houses and editing is so badly in need of editing itself. Shriek: An Afterword sprawls across 345 large format pages, following Janice and Duncan’s childhood, Duncan’s early work as a historian, his ventures into the undeground below Ambergris, a war that comes to the city, and – excruciatingly – a drawn-out love affair with one of his students. Vandermeer’s prose is reminiscent of China Mieville at his absolute worst. While it’s often clear that Mieville is capable of greater writing, it seems to me that Vandermeer’s prose has actually degenerated since City of Saints and Madmen, a book which I found (in parts, at least) to be not bad. Shriek: An Afterword adds no imaginative flair to the world of Ambergris which wasn’t already present in City of Saints and Madmen; it’s just a boring love story shoehorned into a somewhat interesting world.

When fantasy lacks literary merit, you at least want it to be entertaining. Shriek: An Afterword fails on both counts. I’ll still read Finch, but I don’t have high hopes for it.

Amulet: The Stonekeeper by Kazu Kibuishi (2008) 187 p.

I’m well aware that Amulet is aimed at children, but I adore Kazu Kibuishi’s Copper comics, and love his covers for the Flight anthologies, and I read a review somewhere that compared Amulet to the works of Miyazaki, which was all I needed to hear to shell out ten bucks. Amulet: The Stonekeeper is the first graphic novel in a series, which follows the adventures of a young girl as she and her brother are drawn into a fantasy world after moving to a house in the country following the death of their father.

Comparing it to a Miyazaki film is a bit generous, but it’s certainly good kid’s adventure story, with monsters and alternate worlds and quirky little robot characters. Kibuishi indulges in his passion for awesome vehicles, and the final image in the book is particularly neat. It’s a fairly simple story but strong on art, and I’m sure I would have enjoyed it a lot more if I was nine years old. As it was I was still pretty happy with it; I mean, it only took me about half an hour to read all 187 pages. (I finished this more than a week ago, just forgot to actually post the review.)

It did seem a little dark and gloomy, though, compared to his bright and airy Copper comics. They spend a lot of time underground, and even when they emerge it’s into a rain-soaked pine forest.

Anyway, I thought this was a pleasant enough children’s tale; I won’t rush out to buy the sequels, but I can definitely recommend it to kids and parents.


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Fever Crumb by Philip Reeve (2009) 301 p.

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Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I have something of a love affair with Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines series. There’s obviously a fair degree of nostalgia involved, but I do honestly believe that his sprawling, swashbuckling, creative adventure series is one of the best young adult series every written, combining high adventure with a level of character development rarely seen in YA fiction (or any kind of science fiction or adventure fiction, for that matter).

So I approached Fever Crumb fairly secure in the knowledge that it wasn’t going to be as good, because nothing could live up to that (see also: Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive). Taking place a thousand years before the events of the Mortal Engines series, Fever Crumb is set in the squalid ruins of the once great city of London, where a primitive society lives amongst ancient buildings and landmarks. Formerly ruled by the Scriven, a race of genetically mutated humans, the novel begins fourteen years after the Scriven were overthrown and (supposedly) wiped out. Fever, an orphan girl, is being raised by a society of engineers living inside the hollowed-out head of a statue of the Scrivens’ toppled king.

Shades of the Mortal Engines future to come can be seen throughout the book. London is threatened by nomad hordes to the north, who travel about in hordes of moving citadels and “traction castles.” This builds towards the novel’s finale, which clearly sets out the legend of the foundation of London as the first Traction City. Most importantly, the nomad hordes operate the cyborg Stalkers that are still going into battle in the wars of the Mortal Engines series, and Fever Crumb is in part an origin tale of a returning character. (Since the book takes place a thousand years in the past, readers of Mortal Engines should be able to guess which one.) I wasn’t sure how I felt about this; his origins didn’t really need to be explored, although Reeve handles it well, and it does lead to one of the character’s most touching moments.

I can’t find the exact quote, but Reeve mentioned somewhere on his blog that the Fever Crumb series probably wouldn’t appeal to those who loved the Mortal Engines series for its big-screen drama, mayhem and explosions. That’s not the only reason I loved the series, but it’s true that Fever Crumb is generally a quieter, more muted story. It has a number of semi-comical scenes which suggest that it’s either aimed at younger readers, or that Reeve is indulging in his childish side. (And some of those names made me cringe – B@ttersea and Ox-fart Circus? Really?) There are still a handful of strong moments where you can see the old Reeve shining through, like when the statue’s head collapses or when, as I mentioned before, we have a poignant moment with an old character. But on the whole, this isn’t anywhere as good as Mortal Engines, on both character and plot terms.

It’s still a good book. Philip Reeve is one of the era’s finest writers of young adult fiction, and Fever Crumb is is a much better book than 95% of it cohorts. It’s absolutely not a book anyone should read before the Mortal Engines series, and it’s not as good, but I have heard that it picks up later in its own series. I’ll be reading A Web of Air, the sequel, before long.

The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham (1953) 240 p.

This is the second of John Wyndham’s excellent four-book stretch of science fiction novels, and I recall it generally being my favourite. It followed his hugely successful novel The Day of the Triffids, and repeats the theme of human society collapsing in the face of an alien intelligence.

Obviously there are a number of differences between the two novels, but from the viewpoint of a post-apocalyptic fiction fan, the key difference is timing. The Day of Triffids follows an apocalypse that occurs literally overnight, whereas The Kraken Wakes takes place over many years. The novel follows journalist Mike Watson and his wife Phyllis as they investigate mysterious fireballs that have begun descending from the sky and landing in the deepest parts of the Earth’s ocean. A British bathyscope expedition investigating this phenomenon has its cables cut,and responds imprudently with nuclear depth charges. Before long ships mysteriously begin to sink. Further nuclear bombs dropped into the deepest trenchs and chasms of the ocean in retaliation don’t always go off. Sediment and ooze are showing up in ocean currents, suggesting mining activity on the seabed. The attacks on ships expand until virtually the entire ocean is a danger zone. Something is down there. What are we going to do about it?

Wyndham handles the gradual emergence of the threat masterfully, creating a profoundly disturbing menace that is never seen, lurking in the dark and pressure-crushing depths of the ocean – the only place on the planet we cannot venture. Human society thus grapples with a completely unbelievable threat. All throughout the book, action by government leaders and military figures and ordinary citizens is hampered by denialism, partisan poilitics, worries about the stock market, suspicion of the Soviet Union, media sensationalism and accusations of alarmism. It’s a strong and depressingly realistic portrayal of people bickering and squabbling in the face of a looming threat, too caught up in their petty pre-existing issue to face it down properly. Wyndham delivers some scathing critiques of many aspects of human society and the human mindset, but as a natural writer he lampoons the media best. In one example, Mike and Phyliss discover that following the unexplained sinking of a ship, every newspaper has independently decided to compare it to the Marie Celeste.

“Wasn’t the whole point about the Mary Celeste that she didn’t sink?”

“Roughly – yes, darling.”

“Well, then what is all this about her for?”

“It is what is known as an “angle,” darling. It means in translation that nobody has a ghost of an idea why the Yatsushiro sank. Consequently she has been classified as a Mystery-of-the-Sea. This gives her a natural affinity with other Mysteries-of-the-Sea, and the Marie Celeste was the only other M-of-the-S that anyone could call to mind in the white heat of composition. In other words, they are completely stumped.”

She nodded, and we went on working through the pile, learning a lot more about the Marie Celeste than we did about the Yatsushiro.

In addition to realistically portraying how mankind reacts when faced with gradual threats, The Kraken Wakes has some truly creepy and disturbing moments – not just the unknown and unseen creatures lurking below human reach, but also with a number of other scenes, particularly a Brazilian navy party encountering a deserted island. The novel’s final third is a devastating climax to all that comes before it, but I don’t want to give anything away.

As with The Day of the Triffids, the book is remarkably well-aged, but Wyndham still shows his upbringing – the Soviet Union is unfailingly portrayed as a nation of stupid, one-track mind paranoiacs, while the United States is a nation of trigger-happy cowboys. And, like The Day of the Triffids, The Kraken Wakes has a sudden and optimistic ending which comes out of nowhere and seems rather tacked on. Nonetheless, mankind is in a pretty sorry state at this point, and The Kraken Wakes does a marvellous job of showing denialism, rash decisions and vested interests preventing people from tackling a challenge until it’s almost destroyed them. Written in the early1950s, I’m sure the specific example Wyndham had in mind was the Appeasement of Hitler (one character even draws this comparison), but I’m sure the savvy reader might think of a contemporary example – particularly as they reach the final third of the book.

In any case, The Kraken Wakes is a brilliant classic science fiction novel, my favourite John Wyndham book, and probably in my top ten favourite books of all time. Read it.

I bought a bunch of books off The Book Depository. Then I thought, “I shouldn’t have done that, I should be saving up for that motorcycle. That’s the problem with online shopping. You don’t have to pick them up and walk to the counter and stand in line, so you don’t have any time to reconsider.” Then I thought, “I’m glad I live my life in such a way that ‘saving up for that motorcycle’ is considered the more responsible financial course of action.”

The Lost Continent by Bill Bryson (1989) 293 p.

Bill Bryson left his hometown of Des Moines as soon as he was old enough, emigrating to the United Kingdom and settling down as a journalist. He returned to America some fifteen years later to make a grand tour of the country, avoiding major tourist attractions and grand sights and instead exploring small town American life.

As one would expect from any Bryson book, The Lost Continent is very readable and very funny – yet it’s also strikingly sad. The title refers to how much America had changed since Bryson left, and how it was lost to him – consumed by generic strip malls and franchise stores, and populated by people who liked it that way.

It was pretty well an ideal town – one of those rare American places where you wouldn’t need a car. From almost any house it would be a short and pleasant stroll to the library and post office and stores. My brother and his wife told me that a developer was about to build a big shopping mall outside town and most of the bigger merchants were going to move out there. People, it appeared, didn’t want to stroll to do their shopping. They actually wanted to get in their cars and drive to the edge of town, where they could then park and walk a similar distance across a flat, treeless parking lot. That is how America goes shopping and they wanted to be part of it. So now downtown Bloomsburg is likely to become semi-derelict and another nice little town will be lost. So the world progresses.

This struck a chord with me. What I loved about Seoul was that I could walk out my front door and be less than three hundred metres away from a grocery store, restaurant, bar, bank, pharmacy, fast food place and subway station, as opposed to my current home in an industrial Australian suburb where I have to get in my car and drive five kilometres to the shopping centre.

But Bryson isn’t just railing against the destruction wrought by car-driven urban planning and unchecked consumerism; he regularly cites statistics on crime and education which suggests America is beginning to decline. This book is from 1987. Had Bryson visited today he probably would have had a brain aneurysm.

The sentiment is not confined to America. Bryson regularly savages the notion, still in full force today, that cost-efficiency is more important than anything else.

I left Santa Fe and drove west along Interstate 40. This used to be Route 66. Everybody loved Route 66. People used to write songs about it. But it was only two lanes wide, not at all suitable for the space age, hopelessly inadequate for people in motor homes, and every fifty miles or so you would pass through a little town where you might encounter a stop sign or a traffic light – what a drag! – so they buried it under the desert and built a new superhighway which shoots across the landscape like a four-lane laser and doesn’t stop for anything, even mountains. So something else that was nice and pleasant is gone forever because it wasn’t practical – like passenger trains and milk in bottles and corner shops and Burma Shave signs. And now it’s happening in Britain, too. They are taking away all the nice things there because they are impractical, as if that were reason enough – the red phone-boxes, the pound note, those open London buses that you can leap on and off. There is almost no experience in life that makes you feel more suave than jumping on or off a moving London bus. But they aren’t practical. They require two men (one to drive and one to stop thugs from kicking the crap out of the Pakistani gentleman in the back) and that is uneconomical, so they will have to go. And before long there will be no more milk in bottles delivered to the doorsteps or sleepy rural pubs and the countryside will be mostly shopping centres and theme parks. Forgive me. I don’t mean to get upset. But yyou are taking my world away from me, piece by piece, and sometimes it just pisses me off. Sorry.

Part of this can no doubt be chalked up to an ageing man’s nostalgia, but I think it is true – in every country, not just America – that things aren’t what they used to be. As an example, all the old neighbourhoods of Melbourne are full of lovely laneways and colonial townhouses and European trees and shopping streets. Meanwhile the newer neighbourhoods, like the one I live in, are full of detached brick cubes and no trees and shopping centres enclosed by carparks. The really new ones, at the very edge of any city, are full of garish lavender and maroon McMansions, and these are the worst neighbourhoods of all. The newer a tram model is, the uglier it is. Federation Square (opened 2002) is the hideous counterpoint to Flinders Street Station (opened 1910). You can’t have campfires in summer anymore. Ferry routes all over the world are closing down because of budget airlines. The world is definitely losing itself.

The Lost Continent is a good book. It cops a lot of flak for being “cynical” or “negative,” which is rubbish. First of all, Bryson is honest, and is making an honest critique of modern America. Secondly, it is the job of a travel writer to have a bad time. Happy memories and good experiences generally aren’t interesting to read about – and they certainly are’t funny. Humour is Bryson’s stock in trade, and this would be a much less enjoyable book if he wasn’t constantly snarky and acidic.

With the completion of The Sense of An Ending, I’ve wrapped up my Booker Prize Challenge 2011 with more than a week to spare. Prediction time!

There are two different picks to make: which book deserves to win, and which book will actually win. The first is much simpler beacause it essentially means “which book did I like the most?” From worst to best, they were:

6. Pigeon English
5. The Sense of an Ending
4. Snowdrops
3. Half-Blood Blues
2. The Sisters Brothers
1. Jamrach’s Menagerie

Pigeon English is the only one I outright disliked, although the top two are the only ones which I think are definitely worth reading. Jamrach’s Menagerie is by far the greatest: an exciting and evocative adventure story which eventually becomes a gripping and terrifying tale of a brutal ordeal. Carol Birch has penned a marvellous novel which is head and shoulders above its competitors,and she absolutely deserves the 2011 Booker prize.

But will she actually win it? Unfortunately, my personal opinions do not always set the standard the rest of the world follows, so there’s always the chance the jury may select something different. Predicting which book will actually win involves examining the jury itself – specifically the books it selected for the longlist and the shortlist, and public comments made by its members.

General agreement holds that this year’s longlist had some unusual selections, and even more unusual was which books made it to the shortlist. Snowdrops was a particularly suprising wild card, being a genre novel that doesn’t make apologies for itself and, while not a bad book at all, doesn’t deserve to win one of the world’s greatest annual literary awards. (Not because it’s a genre novel, but rather because it’s not a particularly amazing genre novel.) The Sisters Brothers and Half-Blood Blues are more “literary” than Snowdrops, but still unusual inclusions, given that they are unusual books. The jury’s decision to accept these books – and its decision to cut literary heavyweight Alan Hollinghurst – is quite telling. It’s backed up by statements from the panel, with Chris Mullen saying the books had to “zip along” and Stella Rimington saying “we were looking for enjoyable books.”

This set literary snobs all a-flutter because, as we all know, Literature Is Not Meant To Be Fun. I’ve talked in the past about my Venn Diagram theory of literature: that there are books with literary merit, and there are books that are fun and enjoyable to read, and that a deadly boring piece of literature which won critical acclaim is not really any better for you than the latest ghost-written Robert Ludlum thriller. There are plenty of books which are interesting and fun while still having literary merit, so why bother with the other types? I feel quite sorry for critics who have convinced themselves that “readability” and “enjoyment” are Bad Things, and somehow mutually exclusive to Real Literature.

So the shortlist selection and judges’ comments reveal that that Booker panel this year is largely in line with my own ways of thinking about literature. Or, in other words, I believe that Jamrach’s Menagerie is the book which both deserves to win and will win. It combines a 19th century boy’s adventure and a grisly ordeal of survival with a very poignant tale about brotherhood, friendship and sacrifice. It is one of the best books of the year and absolutely deserves to sit alongside previous great winners like Life of Pi and The English Patient.

(If this prediction is wrong I am going to have such a hissy fit.)

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (2011) 150 p.

It seems appropriate to finish my 2011 Booker Challenge with The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes’ story about memory and history and how subjective they can be. Somebody pointed out to me that the books on the longlist could be thematically twinned; Half-Blood Blues and Far To Go are both about Nazi Germany, Jamrach’s Menagerie and Derby Day are both set in Victorian England, Snowdrops and The Last One Hundred Days are both novels about expats, and so on. In that case, The Sense of an Ending is partnered with The Stranger’s Child, as both are about the unreliability of history – though Barnes clearly has more self-restraint, with this 150-page book barely classifying as a novel.

The Sense of an Ending follows the life of Englishman Tony Webster, and is split into two parts: one with Tony recounting his school years when he met his friend Adrian and his college years when he met his first girlfriend Veronica, and one taking place in the modern day when, long abandoned, they suddenly intrude back into his life and provide him with a mystery to solve. The predominant theme of the book is how our memories, like all our thoughts, are warped by our own feelings and emotions – often deliberately. Tony has had a fairly mundane and comfortable life, a pleasant marriage and an amicable divorce, a cordial relationship with his daughter and a relaxing retirement. Yet the book has a great sense of loss to it, of closed doors and missed opportunities, and Tony often speaks of inventing pasts for himself, of giving Veronica an “edited” version of his life when they meet again. Similarly, he changes and influences past events in his own memory; removing his own guilt in certain places, and allocating it to others. For the most part it’s done quite skillfully, but much of the book takes place within Tony’s head, and he does tend to cover familiar ground on the subject.

The ending, when it comes, is something of a puzzler. I’m going to avoid discussing it in detail because of spoilers, but suffice to say that it doesn’t exactly tie up all the loose ends.

The Sense of an Ending is one of those books that’s diffficult to pass judgement on because I found it fairly unremarkable and forgettable. I’d certainly rather read a 150-page book than a 600-page goliath like The Stranger’s Child, but that does mean it leaves a fleeting impression, and – while it certainly wasn’t bad – I don’t have much to say about it.

BOOKER VERDICT

There are two things I’ve heard people say, a lot, about this book’s chances. The first is that it’s too short, which seems specious; if it was too short to win, it wouldn’t have been nominated. The other is that it’s not Barnes’ best novel and that it would be more of a lifetime achievement award, like Ian McEwan winning the Booker for Amsterdam or Martin Scorsese winning the Oscar for The Departed. I’m not familiar with Barnes’ previous books, but I did find The Sense of an Ending to be fairly middle-of-the-road. I also dislike “lifetime achievement” awards and think they go against the idea of the Booker – but they’ve happened in the past, so they can happen again.

Overall, I personally don’t think The Sense of an Ending deserves to win the Booker, but I’m more hazy on whether it actually will. I wouldn’t bet on it, but I wouldn’t be overly surprised if it did.

The Sense of an Ending at The Book Depository

In those days, we imagined ourselves as being kept in some kind of holding pen, waiting to be released into our lives. And when that moment came, our lives – and time itself – would speed up. How were we to know that our lives had in any case begun, that some advantage had already been gained, some damage already inflicted? Also, that our release would only be into a larger holding pen, whose boundaries would be at first undiscernable.

– From “The Sense of an Ending,” by Julian Barnes

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