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The Dog Stars by Peter Heller (2012) 311 p.

Civilisation has collapsed. A superflu killed off a huge chunk of the population and a blood disease wiped out some more not long after. The planet is warming, drying up the rivers and snows and killing off some of the fish. Hig, our noble protagonist in this familiar post-apocalyptic world, lives in a fortified airfield in Colorado with his loyal dog Jasper and his aggressive, semi-trustworthy neighbour Bangley.

Hig is a hunter, fisher, builder and a pilot. Bangley is an ex-military survivalist gun nut. Hig scouts the land in his ageing Cessna while Bangley keeps them safe with his formidable arsenal of weapons and his shoot-first mentality. One of the first tip-offs that this is going to be a really good book is how skilfully Heller sets up the relationship between the two: they have little in common but depend on each other for survival, with an uneasy edge of mistrust, as Hig somewhat suspects Bangley might one day kill him and has contemplated doing the same.

Hig’s skills and interests reflect the author’s own, and you can tell Heller knows what he’s talking about. There’s lots of hunting and fishing and flying and poetic descriptions of the landscape, and I couldn’t help but be envious of Heller – in true Hemingway style, he’s not just a great outdoorsman, but a great writer too. (It occurred to me several times throughout the book, as Hig and Bangley built sniper platforms and fixed engines and grew crops, that for all my post-apocalyptic reading and writing habits, in the event of the real thing, my sheer lack of technical knowledge would leave me dead within months.)

Bangley protects them from other survivors, rag-tag clans of wanderers and killers who roam the post-apocalyptic wasteland looking for victims and supplies. Bangley is entirely hostile, while Hig sometimes tries to negotiate, usually to his peril. (One particularly intense scene details Hig trying to get back to the airfield after a hunting expedition with nine pursuers after him, Bangley guiding him on the radio.) Hig holds out some faith in the goodness of others, still, and when he picks up a faint control tower transmission from the airport at Grand Junction, beyond the range of a two-way trip in the Cessna, he decides to risk everything and sets out to investigate.

The Dog Stars is a beautiful book, told in a semi-stream of consciousness manner with lots of paragraph breaks and sparse punctuation, memories of the past combining with wistful reflections on the present. I often find this irritating in novels, but here it works – although Heller does employ my pet peeve (originated I believe by Cormac McCarthy) of dropping quotation marks for dialogue. It’s as enjoyable to read about Hig fishing up in the Rocky Mountains as it is to read about a heart-pumping, adrenaline-filled escape from murderous pursuers. He’s a likeable character and you quickly come to care about him.

What I felt prevented The Dog Stars from being great rather than merely good was that it follows the tropes of post-apocalyptic fiction fairly predictably. It’s interesting to note that every post-apocalyptic tale always brings with it limitless hordes of brutal, violent men – call them raiders or bandits or scavengers or whatever – who are unflaggingly hostile. (I suspect this was taken directly from Mad Max 2 and absorbed into the genre without close examination, but if you can think of an earlier example, let me know). Now, I have no naivete about human nature, and I’m well aware that in most cases the collapse of civilisation would lead to human beings killing each other for a can of beans. But in the event of a superflu – which, in The Dog Stars, is said to have killed off more than 99% of the population – there would be canned goods and bottled water aplenty and no need to fight over them. I’m not saying people would band together into utopian communes, but nor do I think literally every single person you met would be out for blood. I always find it annoying when – as in, say, The Road – the main characters are presented as Good People who would never kill for resources, and who luckily never have to make the choice. In both The Dog Stars and The Road the only killing the main characters ever do is in self-defence or vengeance, always against those bandits/marauders/scavengers who have magically turned into Bad People. The only book I’ve encountered thus far where the characters realistically have to choose between killing for resources or dying themselves is John Christopher’s The Death of Grass. It seems an underutilised area of examination for a genre that’s supposed to be all about hardship and brutality.

That doesn’t, mind you, prevent The Dog Stars from still being a really good book. Heller clearly leans more towards literary fiction than post-apocalyptic fiction, and the issues I have with The Dog Stars are my problem, not his. Highly recommended.

The Sea by John Banville (2005) 264 p.

The Sea, winner of the 2005 Booker Prize, reminded me Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending. They’re both short, dull books about old men reflecting on their childhoods. Maybe that’s all you need to write about to win the Booker. Barnes’ is in any case the stronger book, dealing as it does with the unreliable nature of memory itself. Banville’s The Sea is an unremarkable novel following an elderly art critic as he returns to the seaside holiday house of his childhood after the death of his wife from cancer. The Sea is told in a fragmented style, jumping back and forth between his childhood and his wife’s slow death and his present existence in solitude on the Irish coast.

Sometimes I read an acclaimed book and don’t enjoy it, which was the case with The Sense of an Ending, and I feel like the fault is mine – that I missed something, or that I wasn’t smart enough to appreciate it. Not the case with The Sea, which is boring, plain and simple. It’s mostly blather about Max’s boyhood crushes and sexual repression expressed in tiresome, pretentious prose:

One moment she was Connie Grace, her husband’s wife, her children’s mother, the next she was an object of helpless veneration, a faceless idol, ancient and elemental, conjured by the force of my desire, and then something in her had suddenly gone slack, and I had felt a qualm of revulsion and shame, not shame for myself and what I had purloined of her but, obscurely, for the woman herself, and not for anything she had done, either, but for what she was, as with a hoarse moan she turned on her side and toppled into sleep, no longer a demon temptress but herself only, a mortal woman.

I suppose Banville gets points for realism – reading The Sea is exactly as entertaining and enlightening as listening to an old man pontificate at length about sexual memories from his childhood. There’s also an unlikely ending to his childhood tales, a boring twist, and a non-climactic climax as where gets drunk on the beach. And I often wonder why authors who write in such overwrought prose style, and who insist on seeing deep portents in every glance and comment and plastic bag flying down the street, don’t stick to poetry.

On a final note, this was shortlisted alongside Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, which is the far superior novel. A shame, but neither the first nor the last time the Booker committee made a terrible decision.

10. Burning Chrome

When the afterimage faded from Earth’s monitor screens, the Alyut was gone. In the Urals a middle-aged Georgian technician bit through the stem of his favourite meerschaum. In New South Wales a young physicist began to slam the side of his monitor, like an enraged pinball finalist protesting TILT.

Looking back on this collection, I was unsurprised to notice that I remembered choice phrases or overall tone more than I remembered the actual plots of the stories themselves. William Gibson has always (for me, at least) been an author more about style than substance – or perhaps an author so closely immersed in crazy post-modern academia that my simple caveman brain can’t tell the difference between the two. I enjoyed the hell out of Burning Chrome nonetheless.

9. The Fatal Shore

Upon the harbour the ships were now entering, European history had left no mark at all. Until the swollen sails and curvetting bows of the British fleet came round South Head, there were no doubts. The Aborigines and the fauna around them had possessed the landscape since time immemorial, and no other human eye had seen them. Now the protective glass of distance broke, in an instant, never to be restored.

I was talking to a Kiwi co-worker a while ago and trying to get out of them the specific date New Zealand was first settled – a question Wikipedia and Google had failed to answer. I didn’t understand, at the time, that there was no specific date; that New Zealand had been first settled in dribs and drabs by missionaries, whalers and pirates, and that Australia’s 17-ship fleet of official British settlers was the exception amongst New World nations, not the norm. Did you know that the First Fleet was the largest voyage ever undertaken by such a large group of people, and that nothing on par with it before or since had ever been attempted?

My point is that Australian history is more interesting than many Australians imagine. Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore is not a comprehensive history of Australia, but it is an exhaustive history of the British convict transport system, an integral part of early Australian history. It’s fascinating, vivid and compelling in a way I never expected history books to be, probably becuase Hughes (who died a month after I read this book) was usually a critic, not a historian. The Fatal Shore is well worth reading for anyone who wants to learn more about Australian history.

8. A Monster Calls

The monster smiled. It was a ghastly sight. If I must force my way in, it said, I will do so happily.

The concept for A Monster Calls originated with Siobhan Dowd, but before she passed away from cancer she entrusted it to Patrick Ness, who has done a sterling job with it. A Monster Calls is an illustrated YA novelette following a boy whose mother is dying of cancer, who must also cope with nightly visits from a horrifying monster demanding to know “the truth.” An adult reader will quickly see this is an allegorical novel, but figuring out what it’s an allegory for (before it’s revealed, I mean) is not as obvious.

Aside from being an excellent story, the first hardback edition of A Monsters Calls is an aesthetic beauty, enhanced on every page by Jim Kay’s beautiful illustrations – or rather, in the sence of invoking horror, his horrible illustrations.

7. A Game of Thrones

“If you would take a man’s life, you owe it to him to look into his eyes and hear his final words. And if you cannot bear to do that, then perhaps the man does not deserve to die.”

Sometimes I use a single book to stand in for an entire series – in this case, A Game of Thrones truly is the finest book in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. That’s not to belittle the series as a whole, which is an excellent saga of political fantasy, but none of the subsequent books can quite match the power of the first. Perfectly voiced, brilliantly paced and containing some of the most unexpectedly shocking scenes a reader will ever find in genre fiction, A Game of Thrones deserves all the applause it gets.

6. The Magician King

That’s what death did. It treated you like a child, like everything you had ever thought and done and cared about was just a child’s game, to be crumpled up and thrown away when it was over. It didn’t matter. Death didn’t respect you. Death thought you were bullshit, and it wanted to make sure you knew it.

A wonderful, enthralling and bittersweet sequel to Grossman’s novel The Magicians, The Magician King takes Quentin Coldwater on quests and adventures through multiple worlds, and features more of the author’s adept combination of literary deconstruction and genuinely enjoyable adventure. Best of all, Grossman doesn’t merely repeat the themes and morals of the first novel – which would be tempting, given how unique they were for the genre the first time around – but develops Quentin into a more mature and likeable character, which is an admirable accomplishment, given that the point of the first novel was partially about Quentin’s inability to develop and mature.

5. King City

There’s so much of this town that I never think about. All this city going on all at once. You can spend forever in a place like this and still see hundreds of new faces every day. Face. Face. Face. All of everyone piled up on each other. I wonder how much is going on in all those windows.

Cities are amazing places. Millions and millions of people rubbing up against each other, all the stories inside their heads, all those little universes concentrated into one. On a map they look like spiderwebs shooting roads out. what was King City about? I can’t remember, exactly. But I can remember what it felt like – a big, bold, brash, fun adventure in an awesome, crazy city where anything can happen.

4. The Long Walk

“Do you think you’ll win, Ray?”
Garraty considered it for a long, long time.
“No,” he said finally. “No, I… no.”

Stephen King is widely known as a horror writer, but I’ve always found the appeal in his books to be their fascinating situations: a superflu wiping out civilisation, a mist full of monsters enveloping a town, travelling back in time to prevent JFK’s assassination, and so on. I never find his books unsettling or disturbing, let alone frightening. That changed with The Long Walk – a young adult novel set in a dystopian America where a hundred teenage boys participate annually in the titular competition. They start on the US/Canadian border and begin walking south. There are no rest breaks. If you stop, you get shot. Last man standing wins. It predates Battle Royale and The Hunger Games by a good few decades (King began writing it during the Vietnam War, and it’s at least partly an allegory for conscription) and he manages to make the whole thing horribly realistic – the cold gaze of the carbine-bearing soldiers, the fanatic screaming of the onlookers, and the terrible agonising pain of having to walk or die. One of his greatest novels.

3. Riddley Walker

There wernt nothing terbel happening and yet there wer. Whats so terbel its just that knowing of the horrer in every thing. The horrer waiting. I dont know how to say it. Like say you myt get cut bad and all on a suddn there you are with your leg opent up and youre looking at the mussl fat and boan of it. You always knowit what wer unner the skin only you dont want to see that bloody meat and boan. Never mynd.

The gimmick of Riddley Walker is that it’s a post-apocalyptic novel written in debased pidgin English, mimicking the manner in which people might speak two thousand years after a nuclear holocaust. The marvel of Riddley Walker is that Hoban has actually developed a consistent form of pidgin with its own rules, quirks and phrases. But beyond its inventiveness, Riddley Walker is simply an excellent post-apocalyptic sci-fi novel. Hoban’s invented language is brilliant, and I’m glad he wrote the book with it, but the impressive thing is that he didn’t even need to.

2. Disgrace

“I don’t agree. I don’t agree with what you are doing. Do you think that by meekly accepting what happened to you, you can set yourself apart from farmers like Ettinger? Do you think what happened was an exam: if you come through, you get a diploma and safe conduct into the future, or a sign to paint on the door-lintel that will make plagues pass you by? That is not how vengeance works, Lucy. Vengeance is like a fire. The more it devours, the hungrier it gets.”

Disgrace – deserved winner of the 1999 Booker Prize, written by Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee – is the kind of book where it’s difficult to explain why it’s so good. It merely is. You can throw around staple book review words like “masterful” and “elegant” and “engrossing” or you can just say that this is a really, really, really good book – one of the finest novels of the last 25 years, with not a word or a sentence out of place, remarkably accessible for a Nobel Prize-winning novelist, and all packed into a concise two hundred pages.

1. The Magicians

Brakebills let out for the last two weeks of December. At first Quentin wasn’t sure why he was terrified of going home until he realised that it wasn’t home he was worried about, per se. He was worried that if he left Brakebills they’d never let him back in. He would never find his way back again – they would close the secret door to the garden behind him, and lock it, and its outline would be lost forever among the vines and the stonework, and he would be trapped out in the real world forever.

What would happen if your childhood fantasies came true? What if you could really go off to Hogwarts to study magic? What would happen if you could really walk through a gateway into Narnia to have fantastic adventures? Would it make you happy?

The fundamental themes of Grossman’s novel The Magicians – that realising our fantasies could ultimately be hollow, that the perfect is the enemy of the good, that ennui is a pervasive gloom that can’t easily be defeated – seem trite when summarised. Grossman succeeds in writing about them by creating a fantasy world that is authentically exciting, desirable and fantastic. If Brakebills, his American wizard college located in upstate New York, was merely a stylistic metaphor for Hogwarts (as it doubtless would be if a proper “literary” author had written it) The Magicians would be a dull, stale novel. But Brakebills is a place that’s genuinely appealing to imagine, as is Fillory, Grossman’s Narnia fascimile. By creating a fantasy world that simultaneously celebrates and deconstructs the fantasy genre, Grossman has written one of its finest novels, and The Magicians is the best book I read in 2012. It also contains one of the most disturbing chapters (and ending to said chapter) that I’ve ever read. Read this book.

A Dance With Dragons by George R.R. Martin (2011) 1184 p.

A Dance With Dragons is the fifth and most recent of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, so I’m now up to date. I can’t help but wonder what the TV producers will do when they inevitably catch up to Martin in a mere three years’ time, unless they pull a Peter Jackson and decide to stretch some books out into multiple seasons.

A Dance With Dragons was initially meant to be one book, along with A Feast For Crows, but it grew too large and unwieldy to fit in a single volume. Rather than ask his editor to do his job and reduce some of the bloat, Martin split the story into two volumes in the most convoluted way possible – they run chronologically alongside each other, except A Dance With Dragons has all the best characters, and also runs maybe an extra 400 pages chronologically past the end of A Feast For Crows, so some characters from that book start popping up again. Not much, though – there’s only two chapters each from Cersei and Arya, and merely one from Jaime. Martin had some weak excuse about not wanting to cut the big book in half without a momentous climax, but neither of the two new books really has one anyway, apart from the end of Jon’s story in A Dance With Dragons. It’s not a huge issue, but it is irritating that he chose to split the book in the worst way possible.

Anyway. A Dance With Dragons is a better book than A Feast for Crows, simply because it has the better characters in it. Tyrion is on the run and in exile after murdering his father, and has probably the best arc in the book, as he copes for the first time in his life without access to power and wealth and learns what it truly means to be a dwarf. Daenerys is attempting to maintain her control over a city she has conquered in the east, Jon has been named commander of the Night’s Watch, and Stannis is marching south to take Winterfell from the usurpers of the North. The novel flags somewhat towards the end, as the focus largely shifts to Daenerys and the east, while I was always more interested in what was happening in the North – but overall it’s a solid book, probably the best in the series since A Clash of Kings.

There were two aspects of the novel that didn’t sit right with me, apart from its drawn-out conclusion in the far east which didn’t actually conclude anything. The first is Jon being commander of the Night’s Watch; this occurred at the end of A Storm of Swords, but it’s in A Dance With Dragons that we see him actually giving orders and making decisions and uneasily carrying the burden of leadership etc. I just couldn’t buy it. The guy is, what, 17? And he’s in charge of hundreds of men much older and with far more experience? Nope. The second issue I had was an egregious bit of retconning which seemed to stem from Martin deciding that he’d killed off too many of the kings in the War of Five Kings, and deciding to introduce a new claimant without a speck of foreshadowing.

Aside from these flaws, A Dance With Dragons is a solid iteration in an excellent fantasy series. I can’t wait to read The Winds of Winter in 2017.

Happy New Year! As of January 1, I have two more short stories published and freely available to read online. The first, West Gate, can be found in Allegory. The second, Cottesloe Beach, is in The Waterhouse Review.

These two stories are the first I’ve ever been paid for, even if it is a small amount, and I’m very grateful to editors Ty Drago and Gavin Broom for finding my work good enough to compensate with legal tender. It’s a nice way to begin 2013, and hopefully by the end of the year I’ll find myself higher in the Google rankings than the South Carolina sex offender who shares my name.

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January 2013