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

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

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

Dubliners by James Joyce (1914) 256 p.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Giver by Lois Lowry (1993) 179 p.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie (2007) 614 p.

The second novel in Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, but I’m afraid this one was a bit of a step down. The Blade Itself had its flaws, but I was willing to overlook them because it seemed like it was going somewhere interesting. It ended with several of the main characters united into a single group, about to set off on a quest – a vague and unspecified quest, but a quest nevertheless.

Before They Are Hanged follows them across hundreds and hundreds of pages of windswept grassland with not much happening. In another story thread, Superior Glokta is sent to an Arabic-flavoured city to defend it against the incursions of a rival empire; in another, Major West struggles through the Union’s war in the North. Both of these threads were more interesting than the main quest, but neither seemed particularly relevant to the series’ outcome either. I’m not entirely sure where Abercrombie is going with it all.

The thing that mostly bothered me about Before They Are Hanged is the same thing that bugged me about the first book. (Not the Tom Swifties – he’s eased up on those.) It’s hard to articulate, but it’s just a general lack of lustre. It never drew me in. His writing isn’t bad, but neither is it particularly good. He spends less time on things that might be interesting – the world, the quest, the stakes – and more on amateurish arcs of telegraphed character development, and hammering home the same few points over and over again. Take, for example, Abercrombie’s apparent revelation that battles are brutal and bloody and that the life of an adventurer is not all it’s cracked up to be. This observation might have held more weight if he’d written these books in the 1970s or 1980s; I know George R.R. Martin covered it in the 1990s and since I’m not well-acquainted with the fantasy genre I’d be surprised if he was the first. And there’s nothing wrong with this, per se, except that Abercrombie bangs on and on and on about it. Sometimes I feel like the entire series is an excuse for him to have grizzled old veterans lecture young, inexperienced dandies about the realities of combat. This is particularly egregious in the war in the North, where Logen’s war-hardened old comrades, who drift through the book with a sort of resigned stoicism, are exasperated at every turn by the Union’s incompetent and underequipped armies, led by a foolish Crown Prince who thinks of battle as nothing more than a path to glory. It makes no sense whatsoever that an empire which controls a significant size of this fantasy world is hopeless at war. There are too many straw men in this book. (Ask yourself how many stupid leaders there are in A Song of Ice and Fire, and the answer, of course, is none – there are leaders who are arrogant or reckless or cruel or stubborn, but never stupid.)

I’m continuing to read this series largely because I don’t like to leave things unfinished, and because my girlfriend already owns all the books. The third and final volume is Last Argument of Kings, and if Abercrombie can pull something interesting out of the hat and actually wrap this series up in an unexpected or entertaining way, then I’ll forgive the glacial pace and clumsy development of the first two books.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959) 246 p.

Stephen King called The Haunting of Hill House the greatest American horror novel of the 20th century; I think I picked it up after reading this Guardian list of 10 unconventional fantasy novels. It revolves around parapsychologist Dr Montague’s investigation of the titular mansion, for which he recruits two young women with previous paranormal experiences, Theodora and Eleanor, and the mansion’s heir, Luke.

The novel largely follows Eleanor’s perspective, whom it eventually becomes clear is an unreliable narrator. Jackson deliberately makes it difficult to tell the border between Eleanor’s own mental instabilities and the house’s disquieting effects. Which is not to say that Hill House’s “haunting” (the details of which I won’t spoil) is a figment of her imagination; Luke and the doctor witness their own paranormal events, and in one particularly disturbing moment Theodora and Eleanor are outside at night when Theodora witnesses something behind them and screams at Eleanor to run. Much of the book consists of the characters speaking, in banter which can sometimes grow tedious, but I can appreciate that the chaff is necessary to make the terrifying moments stand out all the more.

The novel is flawed somewhat towards the end; I’d been having a a perfectly creepy time (partly because I made sure to only read it late at night) when all of a sudden Dr Montague’s wife and her friend Alan show up to join the household. Mrs Montague considers herself a paranormal expert as well, of greater expertise than her husband, and both she and Alan are tiresomely drawn as pompous characters to add an edge of comic relief to a novel which really didn’t need it.

Nevertheless, The Haunting of Hill House is a pretty solid haunted house story, with some genuinely scary moments and a well-drawn, brooding atmosphere. There’s a wealth of analytic material there – feminist and gothic and what have you – if you feel like writing an essay on it, but for the ordinary reader it’s just a good, creepy horror novel.

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March 2014