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Posts tagged ‘Mardi McConnochie’

The Voyagers wins FAW Christina Stead Award

Mardi McConnochie, The VoyagersI’m thrilled to announce my partner Mardi McConnochie’s most recent novel, The Voyagers, has won the FAW Christina Stead Award for Best Novel. I know I’ve said it before, but it’s a fantastic book and it totally deserves it. If you’d like to know more about it you can read Angela Meyer’s interview with Mardi or read the first chapter for free, otherwise you can find prices for print copies on Booko (or you can grab it for 20% off via Booktopia), or buy it in digital format from the Kindle, Kobo and iBook stores.

And while you’re there you might want to check out Mardi’s blog, which is a bit occasional (though no more so than this one has been lately) but very worth a look.

Lev Grossman’s The Magician King

I’ve just uploaded my review of Lev Grossman’s The Magician King, which appeared in Saturday’s Sydney Morning Herald to my Writing page, but if you can’t be bothered clicking through I’ve attached the text below. To sum up in a sentence, it’s brilliant: funny, addictive and ferociously intelligent, and if you haven’t read it or its prequel, The Magicians, you should do so immediately.

You might also want to check my partner, Mardi McConnochie’s piece about it over at her blog, Big Red. You’ll be glad you did. And if you’d like to read more about Grossman and his books, you can visit his website.

The Magician King
Lev Grossman

A few years ago A.S. Byatt wrote a famous critique of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, dismissing them as “jokey latency fantasies”. In it Byatt argued that unlike works such as Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising or Alan Garner’s troubling and often unsettling children’s books which demand children grapple with a world larger and stranger than they had previously imagined, Rowling’s books allow children to fulfil their infantile fantasies of unrecognized importance and power.

Whatever one makes of Byatt’s argument, it’s difficult not to wonder whether her essay played a part in the formation of Lev Grossman’s exuberantly entertaining 2009 novel, The Magicians. At once loving homage and deadly accurate deconstruction, it imagined a world where magic is real, and asked, with considerable sophistication, what it might mean if that particular fantasy came true. And in the process it created something at once strikingly original and deliberately subversive, not just a story about the loss of illusions and the beginnings of adulthood that was simultaneously an exercise in re-enchantment but a exploration of the manner in which power and trauma distort our inner selves.

The Magicians centres on Quentin Coldwater. “Sarcastic and spookily smart”, Quentin is also, as his friend Julia admits to herself at one point, “basically a kind person who just needed a ton of therapy and maybe some mood-altering drugs”. Lonely and isolated at high school, Quentin’s one solace (other than his hopeless passion for Julia) is his absorption in the Narnia-like Fillory novels. Yet when an alumni interview for Princeton turns into an exam for an ultra-secret, ultra-exclusive school for magicians called Brakebills, Quentin finds himself initiated into a world where his oddness is no longer a liability, and where, amazingly, Fillory is more than just a story.

Grossman’s follow-up, The Magician King, begins two years after the events at the end of The Magicians. Quentin is now one of the kings of Fillory. It’s a good life: populated by magical creatures and impossibly beautiful, Fillory is as close to perfection as any place could be. But as Quentin is beginning to realise it’s also a little bit boring. And so, when a carelessly arranged day in pursuit of an enchanted hare ends in tragedy, Quentin decides to embark on a quest. As quests go it’s no big thing, just a trip on a refitted sailing boat to an island in the Eastern Ocean to find out why the inhabitants haven’t been paying their taxes. But for the now-restless Quentin it seems enough just to have a purpose again.

These early chapters unspool with a brisk efficiency, but the novel only really kicks into gear when Quentin stumbles on a golden key, which when used does not transport him somewhere magical, but dumps him and his childhood friend and fellow tetrarch, Julia, back on Earth. Desperate to return, the two of them must navigate a hitherto unglimpsed magical underworld populated by self-trained wizards and witches, and utterly unlike the cosy prep school world of Brakebills, a process that gives Quentin his first glimpse of the price Julia, who was rejected by Brakebills, paid to acquire her powers. But as they discover on their return to Fillory, their experiences on Earth were only the prelude to a much larger and more perilous quest to save not just Fillory, but magic itself.

If much of the pleasure of The Magicians lay in its unfeigned delight in the books from which it drew its inspiration, much of its power lay in the tension between the magical elements drawn from C.S. Lewis and Harry Potter and elsewhere and the restless, dissatisfied and painfully human dramas of its protagonists. For all its playful energy it was ultimately a surprisingly dark book about loss, and failure.

Something similar is true of The Magician King. Once again the book riffs wickedly on the tradition it inhabits, managing to seem as comfortable invoking the secret lore of 1970s role-playing games and Neal Stephenson novels as it is gesturing to Le Guin and Tolkien. And once again it manages the not-inconsiderable feat of managing to be both extremely funny and utterly believable.

Yet it is also a more ambitious book than The Magicians. Moving beneath its surface are a series of deeply disquieting questions about the corrupting nature of power and the theological underpinnings of fantasy worlds such as Narnia. The gods Quentin and his friends glimpse are not benevolent, but cold and distant, while their expressions on Earth are not just capricious but actively malevolent. Certainly it’s safe to say that you’ll never look at Aslan the same way again.

Despite the achievements of writers such as Guy Gavriel Kay and Neil Gaiman Fantasy is a genre that has long struggled to be taken seriously, often treated as faintly ridiculous or an embarrassing overhang from childhood. In The Magician King Lev Grossman demonstrates it is neither, producing a book that does not simply crackle with energy and ideas, but which manages to be at once an inquiry into the underpinnings of the tradition it occupies and a brilliantly eloquent demonstration of its possibilities. The Magician King is not a book for children, or even a book about the stories of childhood for grown-ups. It is quite simply one of the smartest, funniest, most exciting novels you’re likely to read this year.

Originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 15 October 2011.

Mardi McConnochie on The Voyagers

Mardi McConnochie (photo by Gene Ross)

My apologies for the flurry of posts, but I just want to recommend you take a look at Angela Meyer’s interview with my partner, Mardi McConnochie, about her fabulous new novel, The Voyagers, which explores not just the genesis of the novel, but some of the historical and sociological background underpinning it. And as I mentioned yesterday, if you’d like to catch Mardi at Sydney Writers Festival she’ll be appearing on a number of panels, including ‘A Question of Character’ tomorrow, Au Pairs’ on Saturday and ‘Over Here’ on Sunday, as well as in conversation with Sophie Cunningham on Friday. And if you haven’t bought The Voyagers yet you can grab the ebook from the Kobo Bookstore, check hard copy prices on Booko or read an extract on the Penguin website.

Sydney Writers’ Festival

This week is the second of Festival Director Chip Rolley’s Sydney Writers’ Festivals, and unlikely as it seems, it looks even bigger than his first.

Full details are available on the SWF website, but guests include David Mitchell, Tea Obréht, last year’s Man Booker Prize-winner Howard Jacobson, Michael Connelly, philosopher A.C. Grayling and James Gleick. Sadly another of the major overseas guests, Liao Yiwu, was last week prevented from travelling to Australia by Chinese authorities, a decision that serves as a stark reminder of the challenges facing writers and dissidents in the People’s Republic.

If you’d like to catch me at the Festival I’m doing four events. On Thursday I’ll be discussing anthologising and The Penguin Book of the Ocean with Tim Herbert and Best Australian Stories editor and novelist Cate Kennedy in ‘On Our Selection’; on Friday I’ll be joining Malcolm Knox (whose new book, The Life, I’m halfway through and loving (info and ebook here, hard copy prices here)) and Lisa Pryor for a session about writers and fatherhood entitled ‘Daddy, Daddy, I …’, and on Saturday my partner Mardi McConnochie and I will join Mandy Sayer and Louis Nowra for ‘Au Pairs’, a session about life as one half of a literary couple. I’ll also be speaking to Georgia Blain about her fascinating new book, Too Close To Home on Thursday morning.

And if you’d like to see Mardi, she’s also on a number of panels, including ‘A Question of Character’ on Thursday, ‘Over Here’ on Sunday, and in conversation about her new book, The Voyagers, on Friday.

The Voyagers

One side-effect of my sporadic posting over the last few months is the fact I haven’t had a chance to talk about my partner Mardi McConnochie’s new book, The Voyagers, which was released this week.

As Mardi’s partner I’m obviously biased, but I think she’s a wonderful writer and this is a particularly wonderful book. Like all her novels it’s not just beautifully constructed and written, but warm and funny and finally very moving. But it’s also very exciting to me because I think there’s little doubt it’s her richest and most emotionally rewarding novel to date.

As some of you may be aware, the novel focusses on an American sailor, Stead, who returns to Sydney in 1943 hoping to see Marina, a girl he met on shore leave during his last visit to Sydney five years earlier. Travelling to her mother’s house he is shocked to discover she is missing, and has been for several years, having disappeared not long after she arrived in London to study music. Knowing he needs to see her, to know she is alright, Stead sets off to find her, beginning a journey that will take him around the world.

As the description above makes clear the book is quite explicitly a romance, albeit a reasonably unconventional one. But it’s also much more than that. Like all Mardi’s novels it’s deeply concerned with the ways women’s lives are shaped by the societies they inhabit, and the choices and compromises they are required to make.

These are questions that are explored with great verve and wit in Mardi’s first novel, Coldwater, which transplants the Bronte sisters to a penal island off the Australian coast (and which was one of the Washington Post’s Books of the Year back in 2001) but in The Voyagers they’re given added heft by the effects of the war, and the way it allowed women freedoms that had never been available to them before.

Given the recent debate about the ways writing by women is still marginalised by the literary establishment I think it’s worth asking why exactly a novel about such questions is marketed as a romance, when a novel about men fighting would almost immediately be classed as capital “L” Literature, but I don’t want to push that point too hard here. What I do want to say is that despite its incredibly elegant plotting and structure the real strength of the book lies in the intelligent and unsentimental depiction of the relationships at its centre, and in particular the complexity of feeling it brings to bear on the relationships between the women whose lives occupy its final third, much of which takes place in a Japanese prison camp, and the children in their care.

Anyway, I won’t bang on too hard. Suffice it to say I think it’s a wonderful, funny and deeply moving book, and one everybody should read. If you’d like to know more about it there’s an interview with Mardi at Booktopia, and you can read an excerpt on Penguin’s website. And while the reviews haven’t really started to come in yet, there’s a very good (and very smart) one on the Readings site, and another in the May issue of Australian Book Review (sadly not online). And if you’d like to buy a copy it’s available from Readings and Booktopia, or you can check prices at Booko (where you can also check out prices for Mardi’s other novels, Coldwater, The Snow Queen and Fivestar). And finally, if all that’s not enough, Mardi’s also a guest at the Sydney Writers’ Festival.

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