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The Famished Road by Ben Okri (1991) 500 p.

Winner of the 1991 Booker prize, The Famished Road is a Nigerian novel detailing the childhood of a boy named Azaro, a “spirit child” who lives amongst ordinary people while also seeing the fantastic world of African spirits.

Okri is a poet as well as a writer, and it shows. Despite running for 500 pages The Famished Road is effectively plotless. Azaro lives with his parents in a compound on the outskirts of an unnamed city, seeing spirits, having dreams, and so forth. There’s a lot of crazy visions and supposedly inspiring revelations, but not a lot happens. It’s mostly meandering magical realism.

I can appreciate the skill. I can appreciate the objective quality. There are some passages in here which are quite beautiful. But by God this book was a slog – a long, hard, painful, counting-down-the-pages-left slog. I’m sure there are many readers who enjoy this kind of novel, and I can see why it won the Booker, but it was absolutely not for me.

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (1915) 107 p.

The Thirty-Nine Steps is a WWI-era thriller by John Buchan; in the introduction, he mentions in a letter to a friend that he wrote it because he was bedridden with illness and had exhausted his own supply of easy, amusing thriller novels, so he decided to write his own. The novel follows protagonist Richard Hannay, a Scottish-born Rhodesian miner who has recently returned to the mother country and finds himself embroiled in a plot to throw Europe into war. With the man who warned Hannay of the plot soon murdered in his own flat, Hannay finds himself on the run in Scotland, pursued by both the conspirators and the British police.

I think I picked up The Thirty-Nine Steps because it was on the BBC’s Big Read, and because I recently got an ereader and was looking for public domain novels to download to test it out. It’s a relatively entertaining lark which reminded me quite a bit of Geoffrey Hosuehold’s Rogue Male (though I liked it better, since it has more variety in it) and no doubt enthralled many a soldier in the trenches of France. It moves along at a decent pace and clocks in nice and short at just over 100 pages. I’m just not sure why it’s so famous or why it made the Big Read list – there are probably hundreds of thrillers from the era that are of about the same quality. The Thirty-Nine Steps is entertaining enough, but if you die without reading it your life wasn’t necessarily a waste.

10. The Shadow of the Torturer

The picture he was cleaning showed an armored figure standing in a desolate landscape. It had no weapon, but held a staff bearing a strange, stiff banner. The visor of this figure’s helmet was entirely of gold, without eye slits or ventilation; in its polished surface the deathly desert could be seen in reflection, and nothing more.

Gene Wolfe’s highly regarded fantasy/science fiction epic is full of tantalising, vague descriptions hinting at the scope of his created world, Urth, which is actually our own Earth hundreds of thousands of years in the future, after civilisations have risen and fallen like tides on a shoreline. (The segment above, though it’s easy to miss it, is a description of an astronaut on the moon .) I found this tiresome by the second or third book in the series, but the first volume is fresh with creative wonder.

9. Earth Abides

Men go and come, but earth abides.

Earth Abides bridges the gap between apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, beginning with university student Isherwood Williams surviving the plague that decimates mankind, and forging a group of survivors in the slowly decaying ruins of San Francisco. Eventually, as he grows older and tries but fails to teach his children about their lost heritage, he sinks into dementia knowing that he is the relic of a vanished civilisation, the final link between the wonders of the past and the new hunter-gatherers of the future. Earth Abides is a strongly written science fiction classic intercut with surprisingly beautiful vignettes of mankind’s domain returning to nature.

8. River of Gods

“By the way. In case you ever wonder what the Americans are decoding. They have found something in space and they have no idea what it is.”

A sprawling cyberpunk tale set in a balkanised India in 2047, River of Gods is one of those sci-fi epics that manages to cram in everything: artificial intelligence, first contact, genetic engineering, robotics, climate change, political change, and whatever else you could imagine the future will hold. It’s a coherent and believable vision of a future India, and if it’s a little rambling and unfocused, you can forgive that, because McDonald’s imagination is so grand it’s fun to go along for the ride.

7. Dark Eden

Nothing had changed. All we still had was Eden and each other, five hundred of us in the whole world, huddled up with our blackglass spears and our log boats and our bark shelters.

More than a hundred years ago astronauts Tommy and Angela were stranded on Eden, a rogue planet of eternal night, where green-blooded alien creatures skitter in the glowing light of geothermal trees in tiny valleys surrounded by freezing darkness. Now, with Tommy and Angela long dead, their five hundred descendants are approaching a Malthusian catastrophe as their inbred numbers grow ever more and and the game grows ever less. Chris Beckett’s most impressive achievement, to my eye, was Dark Eden’s overpowering sense of claustrophobia – not just the eternal gloom and the valley only a few miles wide, but the claustrophobia of living in a religious, authoritarian tribe, never able to go anywhere else or do anything different, writhing in the impossible knowledge that you and your people are trapped and alone in the darkest depths of space.

6. The Yellow Birds

Murph called to me once, in the small hours before daybreak, and asked me if I thought we’d be OK. I kept looking out the window, even though the night had covered it over completely with a small layering of ice. A streetlamp glowed with pale orange through the opacity. The air was cool and crisp in the room and I pulled my rough wool blanket tight around me. “Yeah, Murph. We’ll be OK,” I said. But I didn’t believe it.

The Yellow Birds initially appears to be a fairly autobiographical first novel by former soldier Kevin Powers, full of the heartache and anguish and trauma one would expect. As it goes on a mystery begins to develop and we realise that the protagonist, Bartle, has secrets he is hiding about his time in Iraq – secrets that have the military’s criminal investigation division sniffing around. The book is ultimately more about the pain of returning from war than being at war, and Bartle’s mid-book page-long breakdown rant is one of the best pieces of prose I’ve read in a long time.

5. As I Please

By shooting at your enemy you are not in the deepest sense wronging him. But by hating him, by inventing lies about him and bringing children up to believe them, by clamouring for unjust peace terms which make further wars inevitable, you are striking not at one perishable generation but at humanity itself.

Probably the best of the four books that comprise Orwell’s collected essays, letters and reviews, because most of As I Please consists of the column he wrote which bore the same name – short weekly pieces which cover topics as broad as international politics, the joys of gardening, the ideal pub, memories of his time in Burma, American comics, etc. Orwell was not just a great writer but a fascinating man, the kind interested in anything and everything, who enjoyed everything life had to offer and served up an opinion on all of it.

4. Jack Maggs

The entire Haymarket was like a grand ball. Not just the gas, the music, the dense, tight crowds. A man from the last century would not have recognised it; a man from even fifteen years before would have been confused. Dram shops had become gin palaces with their high great plate-glass windows, their engraved messages: ‘Gin at Threepence – Generous Wines – Hot Spiced.’ This one here – it was like a temple, damned if it was not, the door surrounded by stained panes of rich dye: rosettes, bunches of grapes. The big man pushed his way up to the bar and got himself a dram of brandy which he drank in a gulp. When he turned, his face revealed a momentary confusion.

Peter Carey’s twisted take on Dickens’ Great Expectations, one doesn’t need to have read the original novel to enjoy this tale of of a misunderstood convict returning home to London from the penal colonies of New South Wales. As an Australian reader, I was most struck by how my home appears as a strange and exotic place in the eyes of Maggs’ London acquaintances – a country of parrots and pelicans, with names like Parramatta and Taree, mentioned only through Maggs’ words and memories, standing in stark contrast to the familiar Dickensian landscape in which the novel actually takes place – sooty London and green and pleasant Gloucestershire. Peter Carey seems incapable of writing a dull paragraph, and while he does a brilliant job of imitating Dickens’ style, this is unmistakeably a book of his own magical prose.

3. The Dog Stars

Bangley, tell me what the fuck you want me to do? What should I do?

Breathe, I want you to breathe. They are stalking you Hig. They have all day. The way they see it. No rush. You are moving slow, they will close the distance. Little by little. Then they will charge you. They have done it before. They move like they have done this before. Copy?

The Dog Stars brings nothing new to the post-apocalyptic genre, but everything it does, it does brilliantly. Peter Heller’s first-person train-of-thought writing style is difficult to get into at first but soon becomes lyrical, painting a beautifully haunting picture of a derelict Colorado. The main character’s escape from a group of pursuers on his way back to his fortified airfield, aided only by his ex-military partner over the radio, is one of the most suspenseful set pieces I read all year.

2. Lord of the Flies

“-Or else,” said the Lord of the Flies, “We shall do you. See? Jack and Roger and Maurice and Robert and Bill and Piggy and Ralph. Do you. See?”

Anyone who can still remember the cruelty of children – the schoolyard politics, the bullying, the falling into line, the dominance of strong personalities whether they’re good or bad – will find Lord of the Flies to be disturbingly plausible. I’d seen the 1990 film version, but knowing how the story unfolds does nothing to alter the brutal impact of this bloodthirsty novel. Although it can sometimes read like it was designed to have essay questions for the class at the back, it’s nevertheless a brilliant and gut-wrenching book that deserves its literary reputation.

1. Oscar & Lucinda

This was in Devon, near Torquay. To pretend – as Theophilus did – that this was almost tropical, is like referring to a certain part of Melbourne as “the Paris end of Collins Street.” It is quite reasonable if you have never been to Paris, but once you have been there you can see the description as nothing more than wishful thinking. When I visit Devon I see nothing tropical. I am surprised, rather, that so small a county can contain such a vast and indifferent a sky. Devon seems cruel and cold. I look at the queer arrangement of rocks up on the moor and think of ignorance and poverty and cold, always the cold.

While there were moments in Oscar and Lucinda where I might fairly say I was bored, this is one of those books that grows so strong in retrospect, and leaves so many little moments glinting in your memory. Lucinda arriving in Circular Quay on a barge smelling of cabbages; Oscar’s father’s heart-wrenching farewell gift on the docks at Southampton; Oscar washing out inkpots in a Sydney laneway;a sudden burst of cockatoos flying behind a bushranger’s shoulder as he levels his pistol at Wardley-Fish. Most of all – beyond Carey’s endlessly entertaining, half-funny half-tragic prose – I was amazed by this novel because after 450 pages of mostly whimsical romantic comedy, it suddenly plunges into a dark and brutal nightmare, coming to a horrifying conclusion on the Bellinger River as flying foxes flap and flutter in the dusk above the sound of screams. One of the finest Australian novels I’ve ever read.

Illywhacker by Peter Carey (1985) 600 p.

Because I didn’t like Bliss, I skipped ahead to Peter Carey’s first Booker Prize winner, Oscar and Lucinda, which I found to be excellent. So I was pleasantly surprised to go back to Illywhacker, Carey’s second novel (and the first nominated for a Booker) to find that it was also an excellent work – a funny, tragic, picaresque epic.

Herbert Badgery, Illywhacker’s protagonist and omniscient narrator, begins the novel by announcing that he is “a hundred and thirty-nine years old… and a terrible liar.” The story begins in Victoria in 1919 when he is thirty-two years old and engine trouble forces him to land his plane in a country field, where he meets the picnicking McGrath family. This chance encounter leads to his friendship with Jack McGrath, with whom he plans to open an aeroplane factory, his romance with Jack’s teenage daughter Phoebe, and the subsequent deaths, births, weddings, adventures and trials that follow – and this is just in the first third of the novel.

After reading Oscar and Lucinda I compared Carey, or at least an aspect of his writing, to Terry Pratchett – a sort of wry, witty sense of human nature and a dry way of dropping random information to sum up encounters between two different people. For example, when a self-important woman attempts to convince a policeman of her importance:

“My father was a Colonel McInlay,” she told the sergeant who had successfully conspired to shoot a major in Ypres.

There’s an element of Carey’s style which also reminds me of Michael Chabon’s, particularly in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, though I can’t quite articulate why. A sort of omniscient third person perspective that expounds upon the characters’ thoughts and feelings and futures, without ever seeming overdone.

For all the comparisons, Carey undoubtedly has a unique writing style. I particularly like his knack for imbuing Australian place names with a sense of fabulousness, admiring their innate lyrical beauty: Jeparit, Bendigo, Jindabyne, Geelong, Terang. (Perhaps this is part of why I didn’t care for Bliss, which takes place in city suspiciously like Brisbane which nonetheless goes unnamed.) Illywhacker covers more of Australia than any of Carey’s other books, rambling across Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland, and Herbert Badgery has an insight on everywhere:

I have heard people describe Bendigo as a country town. They mention it in the same breath as Shepparton or Ararat. These people have never been to Bendigo and don’t know what they’re talking about. The Town Hall is the equal of anything in Florence; the Law Courts would not look frumpish in Versailles. And if there are farmers in the streets, dark cafes with three courses for two and sixpence and, in Hayes Street, a Co-op dedicated to Norfield Wire Strainers and Cattle Drench, it does not alter the fact that Bendigo is a town of the Gold Age.

If Illywhacker has an underlying theme beneath its sprawling family saga, it’s the cultural cringe and the Australian sense of inferiority. At the beginning of the novel, a 32-year-old Badgery is determined to establish an Australian aviation industry; later, he becomes disillusioned with his job selling Ford cars, and rants against the Holden slogan, “Australia’s own car,” given Holden was owned by GM. When a guest at his wedding says “I could fancy I was sitting, at this very moment, in Paris,” Badgery says he was “so happy I could not find it in my heart to ask the old gentleman what was wrong with sitting in Melbourne.” He has nothing but contempt for the Australians who behave as Englishmen:

You would think Cocky Abbot a reasonable fellow until you met the son, and then you saw what was wrong with him. It was what happened in this country. The minute they began to make a quid they started to turn into Englishmen. Cocky Abbot was probably descended from some old cockney lag, who had arrived here talking flash language, a pickpocket, a bread-stealer, and now, a hundred years later his descendants were dressing like his gaolers and torturers, disowning the language, softening their vowels, greasing their way into the plummy speech of the men who had ordered their ancestors lashed until the flesh had been dragged in bleeding strips from their backs.

There are also elements of Carey’s light touch at magic realism – an adoptive Chinese father who teaches Badgery an invisibility trick, a priest who swears he once saw a fairy, a jar containing a severed finger which sometimes, to different people, contains completely different things. Badgery’s self-confessed liar status makes it difficult to tell what really happened and what’s just a shaggy dog story, but as Badgery warns on the first page: “My advice is to not waste your time with your red pen, to try to pull apart the strands of lies and truth, but to relax and enjoy the show.”

Illywhacker is a great, garrulous, tottering tower of a novel, which is much better than it has any right to be. Oscar and Lucinda is probably the better book, being quite a bit more tightly plotted, but both of them are brilliant: wonderfully written Australian adventures full of odd characters, magical landscapes and Peter Carey’s unique, beautiful prose. Illywhacker is a gem.

Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds (2000) 545p.

Alastair Reynolds is one of those fairly big names in modern sci-fi, like Peter F. Hamilton or Greg Bear, whom I’ve been meaning to read for ages now. Revelation Space, his first novel, is a space opera taking place hundreds of years in the future, focusing mainly around the dusty, Mars-like planet of Resurgam, where archaeologist Dan Sylveste is studying the Amarantin – the planet’s native species, wiped out 900,000 years ago by a massive coronal event.

Reynolds’ galaxy is not exactly a bustling hive of variety – we visit only two worlds, and the two extant alien species are a type of sentient, planet-covering algae and unknown, uncontacted beings called “Shrouders” who live behind hostile barriers in space. Reynolds’ fictional world is more of a dark and frightening place, where humans live under strange political systems, half-ruined cities are gripped by nanotech “plagues,” and academics explore long-dead alien cities. I particularly liked the atmosphere aboard the Nostalgia for Infinity, a starship where much of the story takes place, massive in scale yet crewed by only five people. Reynolds gives the impression the ship was once a much grander and greater vehicle, but has fallen into decay and loneliness as the remaining crew spend most of their time in cryogenic sleep, travelling from star to star, searching for a cure for their dying captain.

Reynolds is also, unfortunately, one of those science fiction authors whose writing ability lags well behind his imagination. The book is bloated and ponderous, with occasional action sequences broken up by long passages of awkward dialogue and exposition. There is not a single likeable character in the entire cast – which I think was intentional – but neither are the bad attributes of those particular characters very well-founded. For example, when the crew of the Nostalgia for Infinity visit Resurgam to recruit Sylveste, they opt for the stick rather than the carrot – despite the fact that it’s been well established that this is a cut-off, struggling colony world and the starship would have plenty to offer its citizens in exchange for Sylveste. The answer to this, I imagine, is simply that the ship’s acting captain is an asshole – but it still comes off as unrealistic. Reynolds is one of those authors who I imagine as being a very friendly, pleasant fellow in person, yet creates fictional worlds in which various Machiavellian characters act with brutality and subterfuge, and nod coolly at each other, explaining in stilted exposition that they respect each others’ brutality. I don’t mind reading about unlikeable characters, but I prefer them to be believably unlikeable.

As for the plot itself, it’s not too bad, when all’s said and done – except for a point midway through the novel when one character explains to another exactly what’s at stake, and this information is kept from the reader. A little way down the track, Reynolds does this again, and again, and again, and by the time the climax is taking place, every single character knows what’s going on except for the reader. Letting characters know things that the reader doesn’t is a technique that can be done well when used subtly and sparingly, but not when the author openly has a character say they’re about to explain everything, then end the chapter and jump to another story thread. It’s brazen and clumsy and did not endear me to the story.

Revelation Space is not a bad book, by science fiction standards, but neither is it particularly good. I’d be open to reading more books by Reynolds in the future (this was, after all, his first) but I won’t be rushing to do so.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884) 378 p.

On my first day after moving to Melbourne I walked from Jamie’s house in Brunswick all the way down into the CBD, and on the way I stopped in at Brunswick Bound and – this being a time when I purchased books at a ratio three times greater than I was reading them – picked up a Penguin edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I didn’t get around to reading it until three years later, in my last week before moving out of Melbourne, which is a pleasing little reflection, no less so for the fact that I did it deliberately.

I’ve never before read The Great American Novel, but it’s amazing how much of it already existed in my subconscious thanks to being referenced and imitated in so many other works of art – Huck Finn and the nigger Jim going down the Mississippi on a raft, obviously, but also the thieves in the wrecked paddle steamer, the two conmen who claim to be a duke and a king, and the hiding of money inside a coffin. It’s also interesting, though, how the book doesn’t conform to what I’d thought it would be – a novel about an unlikely friendship between a black slave and a white boy, the boy trying to help the slave escape to the free states. Huck is actually deeply torn about helping Jim escape, believing it to be wrong, and comes close to turning him in more than once. And the book – like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which it’s a direct sequel to, another fact I didn’t realise – is more a string of interconnected encounters than a straightforward novel. Which brings me to the book’s disappointing conclusion, in which Jim is recaptured and Huck’s friend Tom Sawyer uses his captivity as a means of playing out all his romantic fantasies about rescuing prisoners from adventure novels he’s read – digging tunnels, scratching messages in tins, baking rope ladders in pies etc. This joke runs for a hundred pages too long, becomes insufferable, and drags the book down into sheer farce.

Which is a shame, because for the most part The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a good, fun adventure novel with solid literary foundations, and an interesting history; part of the reason it’s considered the first great American novel is because it was the first written in an American dialect – Huck’s twangy, conversational Missouri narration. I can’t say I deeply loved it or was swept away by it, but that’s the way with these things. I’m always happy just to find a 19th century novel that’s easy to read.

“Every now and again I have to sack a decent copper for police brutality, and I do sack them, you may be sure of that, for doing what the average member of the public might do if they were brave enough and if they had seen the dying child, or the remains of the old woman. They would do it to restore in their mind the balance of terror. Often the law treats them gently, if it worries about them at all, but a copper, now, he’s a lawman – certainly if he works for me – and that means his job stops at the arrest, Mister Stratford. So what’s stopping me from squeezing the life out of a murderer who has broken into the room he thought would hold my little boy with, oh, dear me, such a lot of little knives? Why will I squeeze him only to unconsciousness, while despising myself for every fragment of breath I begrudge him? I’ll tell you, mister, that what stands between you and sudden death right now is the law you don’t acknowledge.”

– from “Snuff,” by Terry Pratchett

Happy New Year! I’m a bit late on this, because I was out camping with no internet, but Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction has once again been kind enough to publish me. “Customs” is the fourth story in my ongoing Black Swan serial, and it’s available for free in TQF Issue #46 in a variety of convenient formats right here. This is the first Black Swan story that went straight to Theaker’s without ever being printed here, so enjoy!

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January 2014