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House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds (2008) 473 p.

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I was lukewarm about Alastair Reynolds’ debut novel Revelation Space but recently found myself going down a Wikipedia wormhole of his fictional universe while I was bored at work, remembered that in terms of sheer creativity and ideas I actually quite liked him, and figured he was worth another crack. The Revelation Space sequels are exactly the kind of books I was happier to read the Wikipedia synopses of rather than slog through hundreds of pages of more padding and thinly drawn characters, so I thought I’d jump ten years further into his career and read House of Suns.

I’m glad I did, because it’s really quite good. Revelation Space took place in a universe a few thousand years into human colonisation of the galaxy: a cold, bleak and frightening place full of extinct alien civilisations, decaying cities and autocratic governments, where humanity is clinging to life rather than prospering. House of Suns takes a rather different tack: humans are still the only intelligent life to arise in the galaxy, but after six million years we’ve splintered, evolved and gene-tweaked our way into a million daughter species who have flourished in every corner of the galaxy – a steady tide of thousands of different stellar empires rising and falling. The novel is built around the concept of “shatterlings,” the thousands clones of wealthy industrialists who – back in the solar system, six million years ago – sent them forth to explore the galaxy. Thanks to the time-dilating effects of near-light travel, cryogenic freezing and generally advanced medicine, these clones operate on an entirely different timescale than other human civilisations; at one point a different kind of near-immortal describes the protagonist as “a bookworm who has tunnelled through the pages of history.” The shatterlings have powerful starships, conduct engineering feats on grand scales, trade with other civilisations for their immense amount of accumulated knowledge, and are generally perceived by lesser human civilisations as something like angels or gods.

Plotwise, House of Suns revolves around the shatterlings Campion and Purslane of the Gentian Line, i.e they are both clones of a woman named Gentian. They’re engaged in a taboo love affair and are on their way to one of the regular reunions held by the Gentian Line  every few hundred thousand years. Upon their late arrival at the designated system they discover their Line has been ambushed and nearly wiped out. Most of the book is a mystery, as Campion, Purslane and the other surviving Gentians try to figure out who tried to annihilate their Line, and why.

House of Suns grabbed me right from the beginning. Over ten years of his writing career Reynolds has really improved: there’s far less bloat, the plot moves along at a cracking pace, and information is never brazenly withheld from the reader (a repeated sin in Revelation Space). The characters are still a bit flat, but I found it nice to read about people who are friendly and helpful to each other, rather than the cast of Revelation Space, who were bafflingly hostile and suspicious of each other even when they were natural allies. The plot gets a bit complex towards the end, but most of the loose ends are tied up and the conclusion is really quite nice. Highly recommended for sci-fi fans.

Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow (1974) 270p.

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It took me about fifty pages to realise why I was finding it difficult to get into Ragtime: there’s no dialogue. Which is not to say the characters don’t communicate with one another, bur rather that the entire book is summary, not scene. When there is dialogue it’s of the free-flowing, single-paragraph, no-quotation-marks sort of style, which absolutely drives me up the wall. It makes me feel as though the entire book takes place in a dream – underscored by the fact that none of the central characters have names, referred to simply as “Mother” or “Younger Brother.”

Which is a shame, because Doctorow writes quite beautifully in other ways, painting an evocative picture of New York in the very early years of the 20th century: the Lower East Side slums, the communist meetings, the power of the great industrialists. Probably not since Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay have I read a book which so joyfully celebrates the zeitgeist of another era without ignoring its moral failures, its racism, its poverty.

It’s not bad. It’s fine. I just wish Doctorow had written Ragtime as more of an actual, you know, narrative. One with characters and talking and other shamefully passe concepts.

The North Water by Ian McGuire (2016) 326 p.

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A novel set on a whaling ship in the 19th century, especially one longlisted for the Booker Prize, will inevitably draw comparisons to Moby-Dick. You can forget about that; The North Water is completely different. Sure, it still focuses on the dark heart of man and ineffable temptation and all that, but this is more Jack London than Herman Melville. I was actually quite surprised, given all the broadsheet praise it got, how plot-driven and gripping it was – not that that’s a problem.

Patrick Sumner, a disgraced Army surgeon, signs aboard the Volunteer out of Hull, as does Henry Drax, a brutish and violent harpooner. There are various threads at play: a corrupt owner and skipper plotting insurance fraud, and Sumner’s valuable gold ring coveted by his unscrupulous shipmates. But the main story here is about Sumner and Drax, a principled man versus a monster, and the crimes and rivalry that play out between them.

This is one of the most compelling page-turners I’ve read in quite a while, which is a pleasant surprise when you’re going in expecting a Moby-Dick knock-off. It can sometimes be a little too neat; the conclusion in particular feels a bit perfectly Hollywood, with the story coming geographically full circle and the guilty being punished for their crimes, although this is tempered somewhat by a melancholy epilogue. I can see why it didn’t make the Booker shortlist; it’s a cut above most historical thrillers, but still lacks that certain something to make it truly great. But for its sense of adventure, its intricate gears of plot, of cause and effect, of going in entirely unexpected directions – I liked it a hell of a lot.

Sleepwalk and Other Stories by Adrian Tomine (1998) 102 p.

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Fuck me dead, Adrian Tomine was a depressed young man. Sleepwalk is his first published collection, put out when he was just 24 and collecting material from his early black and white comics. It clocks in at just over 100 pages but it took me a couple weeks to get through it because virtually every story is has the bleakness and melancholy dialled up to 11. Break-ups, deaths, divorces and violent assaults punctuate a world in which the overriding theme is one of a complete failure to connect with other human beings; a pervasive sense of loneliness and depression in which all relationships are fleeting and the gulfs between individuals are ultimately unbridgeable.

Stand-outs (I can’t bring myself to call them “highlights”) include “Layover,” about a man who misses a flight and spends the day until the next one mooching about his hometown, feeling awkward about going back to his housemate or his girlfriend, wondering if anybody’s really going to miss him; “Supermarket,” about the forced interaction between a blind customer and a grocery clerk who shops for him; and “Drop,” a one-page comic about a man falling from a high road in Japan. (Interestingly, this was one where I thought I picked up a hidden layer of meaning; the narrator is describing the death of his father, who “accidentally” fell from the road; but since the father was alone at the time, how could the son know what happened? Is it perhaps an explanation he’s made up for himself to avoid the idea that his father committed suicide?)

It feels a bit unfair to criticise the stories here for being bleak, since Killing and Dying isn’t a barrel of fun either; but Killing and Dying manages a lighter touch, a sense of humour, a sense of hope, while Sleepwalk is full of the angst we all remember and love from our teens and early twenties. The constant use of a narratorial voiceover bothered me as well; Tomine hadn’t yet learned to let his art speak for itself. It’s a good collection, but clearly the work of a younger man.

I missed her so much that I wanted to build a hundred-foot memorial to her with my bare hands. I wanted to see her sitting in a vast stone chair in Hyde Park, enjoying her view. Everybody passing could comprehend how much I miss her. How physical my missing is. I miss her so much it is a vast golden prince, a concert hall, a thousand trees, a lake, nine thousand buses, twenty million birds and more. The whole city is my missing her.

Eugh, said Crow, you sound like a fridge magnet.

– From “Grief is the Thing With Feathers,” by Max Porter

Wrong About Japan by Peter Carey (2004) 121 p.

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In 2002 Peter Carey felt like taking his manga-obsessed son on a paid trip to Japan, so he pulled some strings in the publishing world and wrangled himself an advance to go interview some famous Japanese anime creators and then scratch out a book about it. (That’s not me being harsh; he openly admits his motive.) The result is Wrong About Japan, a fairly slim volume which has about enough material for maybe a feature article in the Sunday papers, but not really a book

The interviews within – ostensibly the purpose of the whole thing – tend to run along the lines of misunderstanding, of Carey’s assumptions about the artists’ intentions being sometimes flat-out wrong. I particularly liked his time with Yoshiyuki Tomino, creator of Mobile Suit Gundam, in which Carey repeatedly asserts that there must be something intrinsically Japanese about the notion of children at war, particularly for a manga/anime franchise which was developed by people who were children during World War II. Tomino seems bemused by Carey’s questions and says that he specifically avoided giving Gundam any specific cultural elements at all, in order to make it more globally popular and sell more toys. Then Carey is informed by his translator:

“Mr. Tomino thinks,” said Paul, “that there is maybe something in your own character which is interested in national identity.”

Which I thought was hilariously perceptive; there’s no indication Tomino had any idea who Carey was before their meeting, but there’s no doubt that the author of books like Illywhacker and Jack Maggs is indeed obsessed with the concept of national identity.

But despite a few good moments like this, Wrong About Japan doesn’t really have the legs to be worth a full book, and I certainly preferred his other travel memoir, 30 Days in Sydney. Worth reading for Carey fans if you find it in a library or a thrift shop, but I wouldn’t bother seeking it out.

Hicksville by Dylan Horrocks (1998) 248 p.

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I’ve never been a fan of superheroes, which means in turn that I’ve never been a fan of comics, even though I like the art form. (It’s a pain in the ass to find acclaimed comics that don’t feature superheroes, although this Goodreads list is quite helpful.) Hicksville isn’t a superhero story, but it is a meta-work about superhero comics, following a journalist trying to trace the origin of a hugely successful cartoonist by travelling to his hometown of Hicksville in an obscure corner of New Zealand; an odd little place where everybody is obsessed with comics.

I can’t remember the last time I cracked out the Field of Dreams analogy, but it goes like this: you will never understand the love that certain people (always Americans or Canadians) have for the Kevin Costner film Field of Dreams unless you grew up playing baseball and have a deep and overwhelming sense of nostalgia about it. Hicksville works much the same way. I can see how a comics tragic would adore it. As an outsider I can look at it, and respect it, and didn’t feel it was a waste of my time; but I could easily tell that I wasn’t the target audience.

The magician seemed to promise that something torn to bits might be mended without a seam, that what had vanished might reappear, that a scattered handful of doves or dust might be reunited by a word, that a paper rose consumed by fire could be made to bloom from a pile of ash. But everyone knew that it was only an illusion. The true magic of this broken world lay in the ability of the things it contained to vanish; to become so thoroughly lost that they might never have existed in the first place.

– From “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” by Michael Chabon

Killing and Dying by Adrian Tomine (2015) 121 p.

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Adrian Tomine wasn’t a name I knew before I heard of this acclaimed comic collection, although I quickly recognised his drawing style: he’s one of the most regular cover artists for The New Yorker, and has a distinctive style of understated, pastel, almost motionless scenes which manage to capture those small, revealing moments in life. (My favourite is probably the central one here.)

Killing and Dying takes six of Tomine’s short comics and puts them in a collection that’s sad, funny, and surprisingly moving. Tomine has lived in New York for more than ten years, but nearly all of Killing and Dying is set in the drab California landscape of his youth, a perfectly rendered place of quiet suburbs, freeways, and cheap apartment buildings. (I love the cover: that bleak little Denny’s squatting at the edge of an intersection beneath a smoggy urban sunset.) If there’s one word to describe Tomine’s stories, it’s “subtle.” Comics are of course an excellent medium for subtlety, with all the unspoken details the artist can leave in the background, but Tomine is particularly good at it. The title story, “Killing and Dying,” is about a nervous teenage girl who decides she wants to try stand-up comedy, and her parents’ differing reactions to this – until about halfway through, when you suddenly realise it was a different kind of story all along.

The only problem I have with Killing and Dying is a problem I have with most of the comics and graphic novels I read, which is that it’s far too short. But it’s a beautiful book – both for its stories and as a physical hardback – and well worth your time.

Truth by Peter Temple (2009) 361 p.

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Somewhere along the way I picked up the notion that it’s okay for your personal life to be hopelessly, irredeemably fucked – divorced, alcoholic, sleeping in a flophouse – as long as you’re also a homicide detective. This is a theme that runs through so much great detective fiction, from The Wire to The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, stretching all the way back to the great cop shows of the ‘60s and ‘70s – shows I couldn’t actually name but which have been satirised and parodied ever since. Sure, it’s a cliche, and I’m sure most homicide detectives probably actually have happy family lives – but it’s a cliche that I like. Maybe we’d all feel a bit better about our own shitty lives if instead of slogging off to our boring admin jobs we actually had something hugely important to devote our office hours to. A homicide detective is one of the noblest lines of work there is.

Detective Chief Inspector Stephen Villani is the head of homicide for Victoria Police. His life, in accordance with the aforementioned narrative tradition, is fucked. His wife has left him, his teenage daughter is running wild with drug addicts and street thugs, his career is on thin ice because of a botched police operation in Temple’s earlier novel The Broken Shore (in which he was a minor character) and his father, who lives on a farm on Melbourne’s outskirts, is stubbornly refusing to leave in the face of an advancing bushfire. Over the course of a few days in a sweltering Australian summer, Villani’s personal life collides with two high profile murders: a prostitute in a penthouse apartment and a grisly, torturous revenge killing of a trio of infamous gang members.

As in The Broken Shore, the first thing you notice is how unique Temple’s writing style is. It’s either punchy short sentences or long flow-on sentences with commas. More than any other writer I’ve ever read, Temple perfectly captures Australian dialogue, particularly amongst Australian men – truncated, laconic, nobody ever expending more words than they need to. It takes a while to get into it, but it’s also beautifully poetic at times:

The truck stop on the Hume. Swooshing highway, a hot night, airless. As you opened the car door, it would hit you: petrol, diesel, heated rubber, exhaust gases, chip-fryer oil, the smell of burnt meat.

He stood in the scorching day, the trucks howling by, buffeted by their winds, they flew his tie like a narrow battle standard.

The cold day was drawing to its end. They walked into the wind, the leaves flowing at them like broken water, yellow and brown and blood, parting at their ankles.

Temple was writing Truth during the devastating Black Saturday bushfires which killed 163 people, and this is mirrored in the book, as Melbourne is covered in a pall of smoke from bushfires advancing on the city’s outskirts. It has an excellent sense of place to begin with, but this gives it a sense of time as well, of being squarely placed in an event; the city-dwellers constantly reminded of the fierce danger of the rural world beyond their ken.

The fire would come as it came to Marysville and Kinglake on that February hell day, come with the terrible thunder of a million hooves, come rolling, flowing, as high as a twenty-storey building, throwing red-hot spears and fireballs hundreds of metres ahead, sucking air from trees, houses, people, animals, sucking air out of everything in the landscape, creating its own howling wind, getting hotter and hotter, a huge blacksmith’s reducing fire that melted humans and animals, detonated buildings, turned soft metals to silver flowing liquids and buckled steel.

This is the crime novel that won the Miles Franklin, Australia’s most prestigious literary prize, and rightly so. Not just for Temple’s rich language and sense of place, but for the subtle ways he examines Australian masculinity. In the office, in the boxing ring, in family life, on the streets: everything in Villani’s world comes down to men, and how they express their domination over others, both women and men. Broken, brooding men who hide their emotional core may be a tired old theme, especially in Australian fiction, but I nonetheless found it deeply engaging – especially at the novel’s climax, when Villani returns to his father’s farm during the raging height of the bushfire.

Truth still has its flaws. There are far too many peripheral characters who are referred to by surname only, which became pretty bad, for me, when Villani solved one of the murders and went to confront the killer. The killer’s identity is kept hidden from the reader even as Villani begins speaking to him, but when the big reveal came… I only vaguely recognised the name and couldn’t remember who he was supposed to be, which robbed the moment of its gravity just a tad. And I have to repeat my complaint from The Broken Shore: Temple is a hugely skilled writer who doesn’t seem to realise that his novels do not need to feature larger-than-life villains or culminate in gunfights. Yes, police are often involved in life or death situations, and yes, one of these moments midway through Truth was masterfully done and one of the most tense and unputdownable set-pieces I’ve read in a while. But they stack up as the book goes on, and it stands out as unrealistic, especially when Temple had managed to make everything else in his fictional Melbourne – the people, the places, the dialogue – so pitch perfect.

Although I do have to disagree with one element. Temple portrays Melbourne as a hard and violent city full of junkies, muggers, rapists and killers; Villani remembers a time “when the CBD was still safe enough to walk across at night.” It’s hard to say whether this is:

a) A police officer’s view – a jaded man who’s only ever seen the worst of the world
b) An old man’s view – Temple is in his sixties, and there’s a touch of “back in my day” about it
c) A sort of alternate universe or grim future in which Melbourne has denigrated to a city on par with Detroit or Johannesburg
d) All three

Rest assured, foreign readers, that Melbourne really is a city of bearded baristas, overpriced laneway bars and quirky hipster nonsense markets, which regularly tops various charts as the world’s most liveable city. I feel safer here walking the streets at night than I have in any city outside Korea or Japan, including other cities in Australia. This all ties in with my continual bemusement that, despite being a sunny and happy country with one of the best economies and highest standards of living in the world, Australian fiction is almost uniformly bleak and miserable.

Anyway – those are small flaws, on the whole. I liked Truth a lot. I liked Temple’s writing style, I liked his sense of time and place, and the climax was one of the most affecting things I’ve read in a long time. The Miles Franklin was richly deserved.

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