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Posts tagged ‘Book Reviews’

Yoko Ogawa, Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales

RevengeTowards the end of ‘Afternoon at the Bakery’, the opening story of Japanese author Yoko Ogawa’s slim but mesmerizing volume, Revenge, the narrator describes the discovery of the body of her late son, who suffocated after crawling into an abandoned refrigerator.

“He’s just sleeping,” she says, refusing to believe he is dead, “He hasn’t eaten anything, and he must be exhausted. Let’s carry him home and try not to wake him. He should sleep, as much as he wants. He’ll wake up later, I’m sure of it”.

It’s an exquisitely unsettling moment, and not just because of the way it plays upon our deep-seated sense of the strangeness of death, its closeness to life, but because of the way it evokes a particular sort of psychological instability, reminding us of how easy it is for our minds recoil from reality and take refuge in fantasy and denial.

Yet it might also serve as a microcosm of the emotional landscape and method of the book as a whole. For as becomes clear when the image of the abandoned refrigerator recurs to deeply disquieting effect in the book’s final pages, the stories in Revenge are not so much a collection, or even a suite or sequence, but something more closely resembling a set of uncanny matryoshka dolls, each nestled inside the last like the dead boy folded into his refrigerator.

For many readers this sort of metafictional gameplay will probably be reminiscent of Murakami, in particular his sprawling opus, 1Q84, with its worlds within worlds and floating cocoons. But where Murakami’s fiction is characterised by the tension between the curiously bland, almost affectless, prose (and its digressive fascination with cooking and running and whatever else seems to take its author’s fancy) and its surreal elements, Ogawa’s draws much of its power from somewhere considerably darker, the almost preternatural clarity of the prose belying the profound cognitive dissonance that lies at the heart of many of these stories.

Sometimes that dissonance reflects a disengagement from reality, rather as the calm words of the narrator of ‘Afternoon at the Bakery’ offer an unsettling suggestion of a mind both rational and profoundly disturbed, a quality that is repeated in ‘Old Mrs J’, in which the slightly-over-familiar landlord of the neighbour turns out to have murdered her husband and buried him in her vegetable plot, an act that has led, in one of the book’s more disturbing images, to crops of carrots resembling human hands (apparently the carrots are “plump, like a baby’s hand, and perfectly formed”).

Elsewhere though it takes other forms, as in stories such as ‘Welcome to the Museum of Torture’, in which a young woman abandoned by her boyfriend (whether for her disturbing affectlessness or for her interest in a nearby murder is never entirely clear) finds herself fascinated by the exhibits in the titular museum, or ‘Lab Coats’, in which a young woman with a crush on her co-worker hears her shocking confession (the story ends with the unnerving image of a tongue lolling out of the pocket of a used coat. “It’s still soft,” the narrator says. “And maybe even warm”).

As the repeated images of bodily mutilation and death suggest, much of the power of the stories in Revenge lies in their capacity to articulate anxieties that are usually suppressed. And certainly the book is at its strongest when it is exploring repression and sublimation, rather than in more deliberately surreal moments such as ‘Sewing for the Heart’, in which a bagmaker is commissioned to make a special bag for a woman whose heart is outside her body.

Yet in many ways what is most striking about Revenge is the way its nested imagery echoes and recurs, weaving a web of implication that is as suggestive as it is disturbing, and giving shape to a world in which the line between reality and our most morbid imaginings is never entirely clear.

Recent Reviewage

Shining GirlsDeep in the final stages of the second draft of my new novel, so no time to post, but thought I might link to a few recent reviews. First up I’ve got a long piece on Patrick Ness’ The Crane Wife in the Sydney Review of Books, in which I talk a little bit about about folk tales and the way contemporary writers tend to (mis)read them. It was a fun piece to write and I’m really pleased to be a part of the SRB, which – much to the credit of its editor, James Ley – seems to have come into the world pretty much fully formed, delivering one fantastic piece after another.

Over in today’s Weekend Australian I’ve got a piece on Lauren Beukes’ science fiction-inflected riff on the serial killer novel, The Shining Girls, and going back a few weeks, a longish piece on Jami Attenberg’s The Middlesteins and Michael Kimball’s Big Ray, both of which feature obese characters. And if you’re interested you can also check out my reviews of Ron Rash’s Nothing Gold Can Stay and Sean Howe’s excellent and extremely entertaining history of Marvel Comics, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story.

I’ve got several more pieces due out over the next few weeks, as well as a story I’m really pleased with, so will link to them as they appear.

The Best Australian Stories 2012

Best Australian StoriesSince it’s been out for a couple of weeks this is a little after the fact, but I wanted to say how delighted I am my story ‘The Inconvenient Dead’ has been selected for this year’s Best Australian Stories (which comes complete with a spiffy redesign). The volume, which was put together by Sonya Hartnett, also includes stories by a bunch of good people such as David Astle, David Sornig, Romy Ash and newcomers like Rebecca Harrison, and while I haven’t read all of it yet, I’m happy to report that what I have read is fantastic.

I’ve also added three reviews to the site: my pieces on Patrick Flanery’s striking and often unsettling exploration of trauma, memory and complicity,  Absolution and Dana Spiotta’s stunning third novel Stone Arabia (if you haven’t read it run, don’t walk to your nearest shop and buy it now), both of which appeared in The Weekend Australian earlier this year, and my review of Peter Heller’s haunting excursion into apocalyptic fiction, The Dog Stars, which ran in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age a few months back. And while we’re on the subject of reviews you might also want to check out my piece on James Meek’s The Heart Broke In, which appeared in The Weekend Australian a few weeks ago.

And the novel? Nice of you to ask. It’s grand: not there yet but close-ish to a (very rough) first draft, which is nice.

Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth (and some other reviewy stuff)

Some of you may have noticed I had a review of Ian McEwan’s new novel, Sweet Tooth in Saturday’s Weekend Australian.

I’ve reproduced the review over the fold in case you’d like to read it, but before you do I thought I might point you toward my reviews of Karen Walker’s vastly overhyped The Age of Miracles and Lauren Groff’s wonderful Arcadia, both of which appeard a few weeks ago, and both of which are books I want to fold into a longer piece I’m working on about the current fashion for dystopia, and what it tells us about the state of science fiction and our imagining of the future more generally.

And while you’re there you might want to check out my reviews of G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen, and Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, both of which I’ve now posted on the site.

Pascall Prize for Criticism

I’m incredibly excited to be able to say that on Saturday night I was awarded the Pascall Prize for Criticism. It’s a huge honour, and needless to say I’m delighted, although in a way the really wonderful (and weirdly humbling part) has been how many people have written, tweeted or sent messages to say congratulations.

If you’d like to read my acceptance speech, it’s available on the Pascall website, as is the Judge’s Report, but since I suspect most of you won’t make it over there I’d like to say again how grateful I am to the judges, Geordie Williamson and Alison Croggon (both of whose work I admire immensely) and to the Pascall Foundation itself, for its commitment to the idea of criticism as something important and worthy of celebration. You can also read an extended interview with me over at Stephen Romei’s blog, A Pair of Ragged Claws.

I should also thank all of you, since at least part of the reason I was chosen was the work that appears on this site, work that has been shaped considerably by the generosity and intelligence of the many, many people who have taken the time to comment and engage with each other here. I’m aware things are a bit slow around here at the moment but hopefully that will change once I’ve got a couple of the things I’m working on locked away.


I’ve got reviews of Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker and John Lanchester’s Capital in this morning’s papers. You can read the Lanchester piece unpaywalled at The Weekend Australian, but because the Harkaway isn’t on the Sydney Morning Herald site I’ve posted it over on my Writing Page.

If you’re interested you can also read my review of Harkaway’s first book, The Gone-Away World, but in the meantime I thought I might post the first couple of paragraphs, which touch on some ideas about the way changing cultures of reading are transforming literary culture I’ll be exploring further in the not too distant future:

“I sometimes wonder whether the real transformative force in contemporary writing isn’t digitization but fandom, and more particularly the technologies that underpin it. For while digitization is transforming the publishing landscape, the internet is breeding not just a new breed of highly engaged readers deeply invested in their particular area of interest, but also a new hierarchy of taste, founded not in traditional literary verities but in ideas of delight and generic awareness.

“Fandom’s rising power is visible in phenomena as seemingly unconnected as the hegemony of the superhero movie and the influence writers such as Neil Gaiman wield on Twitter. Yet it’s also visible in the rise of a new kind of fiction, one whose playfulness and generic promiscuity might once have seen it labelled post-modern, yet which more effectively elides the boundaries between high and low culture and art and entertainment than the writers of the 1980s could ever have dreamed of doing.” Read more …

Totally Hip Book Reviews

I’m a little muzzy this morning from last night’s Sydney Writers’ Festival Opening Party (oh yes, the writer’s life is a fabulous one) but one thing I definitely remember from last night was a conversation in which I was recommending Ron Charles’ hilarious video reviews to somebody. Since that person’s identity has now fled my mind, I thought I might use that conversation as an excuse to post his rather fabulous review of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Unfortunately Ron’s taking a breather from producing them for a while, but if you’d like to see more you can visit The Washington Post’s Totally Hip Book Review page or Ron’s Youtube Channel. In the meantime, enjoy!

The Dervish House

A couple of posts ago I was talking big about returning to regular posting, something I managed for all of about a week before everything fell in a hole again. I’m not going to make any more rash promises for the moment, simply because I’m still caught in the perfect storm of work and external commitments that has made blogging difficult since the end of last year. But I will try and make sure I do a bit better than I have in recent weeks.

In the meantime, I’ve got a few things happening around the traps. Over at The Spectator’s Book Blog I’ve got a long piece on Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House, which despite being passed over for the Arthur C. Clarke Award in favour of Lauren Beukes’ rather fab Zoo City won the BSFA Award for Best Novel last week and is shortlisted for the Hugo Award for Best Novel. As I say in the piece it’s a travesty a writer of McDonald’s talents isn’t better known outside SF circles, especially given how little separates his work from that of writers such as Richard Powers and David Mitchell, so if you don’t know him I really do recommend checking the book (and indeed the review) out.

Elsewhere I’ve posted my review of Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife to the Writing page, something I promised to do weeks ago. Obreht is in Sydney for Sydney Writers’ Festival in a few weeks, and the book is both good and interesting, so take a moment to check it out if you get a chance.

And finally if you’re in Sydney you’ve got two chances to hear me gasbagging on in the next couple of weeks (and then about a thousand once the Festival begins, but I’ll do a separate post about that soon).

The first is on this week’s episode of TVS Channel 44’s Shelf Life, which features an interview with me about reviewing and writing online. I’ve not seen it, and the first screening was actually last night, but the show is on air three more times this week: today (Wednesday) at 1:30pm, Friday at 8:00am and Saturday at 12:30pm. If you don’t get Channel 44 or you’re outside Sydney you can stream the show from the TVS website.

And if that’s not enough I’ll be appearing alongside P.M. Newton, Kirsten Tranter and Sophie Hamley as part of When Genres Attack at Shearer’s Bookshop in Leichhardt at 7:30pm on Friday 13 May, a session devoted to exploring what it is that fascinates each of us about genre television and fiction, and to asking some questions about how we think and talk about genre, and how that’s changing as the cultural landscape changes.

And yes, I’ll be back later this week. At least I hope I will.

Castaways, Menageries and Horses

Apologies for the extended break in transmission, which is attributable to too much travel, too much work and a week in bed with some kind of virus. Since I’m still trying to get the edits on Black Friday done and finish a story for a collection that will be out later this year, as well as trying to catch up on all the work that didn’t get done while I was away and sick, things might stay a little quiet around here for a few weeks. But I’ll definitely be getting a few things up, in particular a piece on Wayne Levin’s gorgeous new book, Akule, which I reread over the weekend, and is simply amazing.

In the meantime, you might want to check out my review of Carol Birch’s Jamrach’s Menagerie, which appeared in The Weekend Australian on Saturday. I have to confess to not having read Birch before, but there’s a lot to like in this one (not surprisingly it’s recently turned up on the longlist for this year’s Orange Prize), not least the way it manages to eschew the fairly prosaic mode of much historical fiction in favour of something much more vivid and particular. Spookily it’s also a riff on the wreck of the Whaleship Essex, a story I was complaining was following me around just the other day.

Further afield Faber have uploaded a terrific recording of Willy Vlautin reading a new story based on the characters from Lean on Pete, which comes complete with music by Richmond Fontaine. And if you’re looking for reading matter I can thoroughly recommend both Lauren Beukes’ Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlisted Zoo City (urban fantasy, set in South Africa, with gangsters, guns and muti), which is both very stylish and a lot of fun (you can read the first chapter online) and China Mieville’s new one, Embassytown, which is out soon (I’m reviewing it, so I can’t say much beyond it’s one of the best things I’ve read in quite a while). Again the first chapter is available online.

And finally, I know it’s been out for a while, but this track from The Duke and the King’s new one, Long Live the Duke and the King, still rocks my world.

2011 and all that

Wayne Levin, 'Circling Akule', © Wayne Levin (click to embiggen)

Despite having given myself an open-ended holiday from the site I think there’s no denying that even in the Antipodes the summer is over once Australia Day has passed. To which end I’m getting back on the blogging horse. I suspect things will stay a little bit slow around here for the next week or so (my daughter doesn’t go back to school for another week and a half) but I’m still aiming to get a few things up in the not too distant future.

That said, 2011 is looking like a big year for me in general. Unfortunately it looks like my new novel, Black Friday, may now not be on shelves until early 2012, but I’m about to launch into editing it, and once that’s done I’ve got two more books I’m hoping to knock over reasonably rapidly, which will make for a busy year.

Elsewhere, The Penguin Book of the Ocean has been going gangbusters, with one reprint already under its belt, and a brace of very, very positive reviews. I’ll pull together some links for those soon, and if I can find it links to the interviews I’ve been doing about it over the break, but in the meantime if you’d like to buy a copy you can check prices on Booko.

Some other bits and pieces that might be of interest. First of all, I’m planning to post something about it soon, but in the meantime you might want to check out Wayne Levin’s stunning new book, Akule. Anyone who’s seen a copy of The Penguin Book of the Ocean, or read some of my previous posts about Wayne and his work will have a sense of how extraordinary his work is, but if not check out the sample pages and if you get a chance, order a copy: it’s wonderful, and like all of Wayne’s books comes with a terrific essay by another of the writers featured in The Penguin Book of the Ocean, Tom Farber.

To continue with The Penguin Book of the Ocean theme, Kevin Hart, whose pulsing, luminous poem, ‘Facing the Pacific at Night’ also appears in the collection has a new book, Morning Knowledge on the way as well. It’s not out for another week or so but it’s already possible to pre-order copies.

And finally, since I’m about to go and tidy up a long piece I’ve written about ghosts and ghost stories, you might want to check out my review of Peter Ackroyd’s The English Ghost: Spectres Through Time, which appeared in The Australian a couple of weeks ago.

I hope you’re all well, and have survived the summer, particularly if, like many Australians, you or your family have been caught up in the flooding and fires of recent weeks. And however it began, I hope 2011 is a great year for all of you.

Sherman Alexie’s War Dances

I’m off to speak at the Emerging Writers Festival in an hour or so, but in the meantime I thought I’d pop up my review of Sherman Alexie’s War Dances, which ran in yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald. I think it’s fair to say Alexie is a rather bigger name in the US than he is here in Australia, but hopefully Scribe’s publication of War Dances will change that a bit. Certainly War Dances is one of those books I read with increasing excitement, a feeling that culminated with the incredibly assured title story, which is one of the best pieces of short fiction I’ve read in some time (indeed if you read only two things out of the collection, make sure they’re ‘War Dances’ and the opening poem, ‘The Limited’). With a couple of weeks distance I suspect the collection as a whole is a little less consistent than I felt it to be when I was reading it, but it’s still a very striking, intelligent and blackly funny book, and well worth a look.

You can read the full review here.

Magic squids and mid-life crises

Just a quick note to say I’ve got reviews in both The Australian and The Sydney Morning Herald this weekend. The first, in The Australian, is of Michael Cunningham’s rather underwhelming new novel, By Nightfall. As someone who admires a lot of Cunningham’s work (especially his last book, the gloriously weird Specimen Days) I wanted to like By Nightfall more than I did, but in the end it’s just too finely wrought and exquisitely felt to ever quite come to life.

The second, in The Sydney Morning Herald, is of China Miéville’s Kraken. Some of you may have seen my review of the nominations for the 2010 Hugo Award for Best Novel a few weeks back, which talked a bit about Miéville’s last book, The City And The City, which went on to share the Hugo with Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl. As I said in that review one of the things that’s fascinating about The City And The City is how thoroughly it expunges the glitter of Miéville’s earlier work, and in that sense Kraken reads like a return to more familiar territory for Miéville (if a writer as restlessly imaginative as Miéville could ever be said to have a “territory” in any meaningful sense). But it’s also a much more light-hearted and playful book than many of Miéville’s earlier books, a quality which is oddly disarming at first but which (at least to my mind) means the book never seems prepared to fully commit to its own existence in some deep sense.

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Frederick Reiken’s Day for Night

My apologies for the somewhat sporadic posting over the last couple of weeks, but I’ve just been completely overwhelmed by work and domestic responsibilities (sick children, impending delivery dates etc). I’m away for a chunk of this week so that’s unlikely to improve immediately but hopefully things will be back to normal soon.

In the meantime I thought I’d link to my review of Frederick Reiken’s Day for Night, which appeared in last Saturday’s Weekend Australia. I’ve just had a poke round online, and I’m not really clear whether it’s a book that’s got a big push behind it or not, or whether it’s likely to get much media attention, but even if it doesn’t, it’s worth a look. It’s not a perfect book (I could have done without the cult plotlines and the weird superhuman 1960s radical/angel/golem) and it’s quite an odd one in many ways, but because it’s so dependent upon the intricate web of coincidence and layered imagery that holds its disparate pieces together it’s also the sort of book which creeps up on you in subtle and unexpected ways.


The Future Eater: John Wyndham and his Plan for Chaos

I’ve got a long piece about Penguin’s “new” John Wyndham novel, Plan for Chaos, in this morning’s Weekend Australian. As I say in the review, it’s a pretty dreadful book, but if you’re an admirer of Wyndham (as I am) it’s not entirely without interest, if only for the way it offers a link between his career as a pulp novelist before World War II and the amazing run of novels that begins with The Day of the Triffids and ends with The Midwich Cuckoos.

If you’re in the mood for a Wyndhamesque Saturday you might also want to check out my post from a while back about The Day of the Triffids, and why British visions of the end of the world differ so much from American fantasies about the apocalypse. Or you could take a look at David Ketterer’s excellent introduction to the Liverpool University Press edition of Plan for Chaos. And if you’d like to take a look at the rather fab Brian Cronin covers Penguin have commissioned for the reissued set of Wyndhams they’re available on Penguin’s blog, and make an interesting contrast to the covers I remember from the 1980s (Penguin’s UK site also features a rather fun historical index of all Penguin’s SF covers for those who want to take these things to extremes).

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Book Review Bingo

This time last year The Book Examiner’s Michelle Kerns compiled a list of the 20 most annoying book reviewer cliches. Now, in the interests of having a bit of fun with them, she’s gone one step further, and compiled cards allowing readers to play Book Review Cliche Bingo.

It’s a funny piece but Kerns has a serious point. As someone who writes a lot of reviews I’m all too familiar with the unhealthy allure of Reviewerspeak. So much of what you need to do in a review is formulaic (situate the book, give a sense of the plot, pick out some of the main threads, communicate something of what does and doesn’t work) that’s it’s easy to fall back on formulaic language and devices. It’s a problem that’s accentuated by the increasingly abbreviated length of reviews (though to be fair to my editors at The Australian and The Sydney Morning Herald the slide in review length has been halted and to some extent reversed over the last year or two) and by the fact that the brutal truth is that when you review for a living you do occasionally come across books you don’t have much to say about, or have days when the juices really aren’t flowing.

But Reviewerspeak is also part of a larger shift in our critical culture. Part of it, as I’ve said before, is to do with a broader decline in educational standards. The shared literary culture that once underpinned our judgements about books has largely vanished, and that makes it difficult to carry on sophisticated conversations about books. In the absence of that culture people – reviewers and readers – tend to fall back on the lingua franca of book talk, which is, increasingly, that of marketing.

But by the same token it’s important not to confuse the health of our critical culture with the health of the newspaper review pages (just for the record I think this is one of the major problems in Gideon Haigh’s recent assault on Australian reviewers). I don’t actually accept the argument that the dead hand of Reviewerspeak lies heaviest on the pages of our broadsheets (evidence for the defence reviewers such as Delia Falconer, James Ley, Geordie Williamson, Richard King and Kerryn Goldsworthy to name just a few) but even if it does, then the boom in online forums for the discussion of books offers an antidote, by admitting new and often interesting voices into the conversation.

All the same, I’d see Kerns’ list, and the thinking behind it as reflective of a process any decent reviewer should be engaged in at all times. I’m not particularly guilty of most of the sins she enumerates (“unputdownable”? I mean, really) but I certainly have my tics and tendencies, and many years of writing to deadline and length has taught me bad habits as well as good. I’ve developed various strategies to help me keep the worst of those in check. Some of these are pretty simple: every so often I’ll ban myself from using a particular word, or a particular formulation for a few weeks or months, for instance. Others are more complex: I make a very real effort to avoid putting myself in the way of banality by making sure I avoid reviewing books I feel unable to be forthright about (my test of a conflict of interest is actually quite simple: if I hated it would I feel able to say so).

But in the end it’s really about having pride in your craft and skill as a writer. Whether I’m a good reviewer or a bad one (and I change my mind on that front daily) one thing I do know is that writing isn’t just a representation of thought, it’s a way of thinking, and as such the search for original language is indistinguishable from the search for original – and by extension interesting – things to say.

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