“Shiver: A Novel” by Nikki Gemmell

I’m sure that Shiver isn’t news to most readers; Nikki Gemmell’s first novel has been around for over a decade. But I only picked this up myself today for $3.00 at an op-shop. It’s my guilty pleasure. when I’ve shuffled around housemates and bills and bank deposits, and I have picked up (and forgotten) some groceries, I cross the road to the local Salvos and check out the books. I started indulging when they had good old pulpy SF&F for 50 cents each, but recently a lot of people with perhaps slightly better taste than my own have been planting some very good books.

So here is my first encounter with Shiver. It’s the Books Alive printing. The text is fat and black and heavy, and on some pages spotty and vague from the printer’s. Like any Vintage cover art, It’s wonderful, and means something far more to the reader once the book is finished.

The story is that of a young woman who is the only journalist on a trip to the Antarctic stations to drop off researchers, workers, and supplies. There’s a lot of intensity with the interpersonal relationships, and internal dialogue. Tense is subjective to tone and pacing, and short sentences felt like short news articles. The entire novel feels silent in my mind; I can’t envision the voices of any other characters, and the entire effect has left me feeling as if I’d paused in the early morning of the desert to reflect on the past; as if the long travels and vivid experiences that form the bulk of the novel are being filtered through distance and time and the vagueness of memories.

What really struck me was how tied into landscape the emotions of the book are. It is heart and soul and plot device and home all at once, and the setup for some repetition and climactic moments is incredibly well integrated. My favourite line is on the first page, and it captures the language, the persona of the narrator, and the imagery and feel of it for me: “The meanest motherfucking desert of them all has given me an addiction for wide lands and tall skies and air that hums.

The power and connection between place, landscape, weather and self is overwhelming at times. I experienced several of my own moments of resonance with the narrator’s descriptions of and reactions to her surroundings. I’m curious to see if landscapes are as vivid in Gemmell’s other work, or if it was simply tied into the nature of the Antarctic and the story that was being told.

Belated introduction

I’ve posted a lot of entries today, because I’m shifting my book reviews over from my Google account to here.  I’ve only discovered WordPress recently, and I’ve fallen in love, I think.  I find it wonderfully easy to use.

I’m hopefully going to be posting more in the future.  I drafted a concept blog for a paying position that I didn’t get, so I have this wonderful idea all for myself.  I can take as much time as I need to make some really wonderful articles.  It might mean that it’s a long time between posts, but when I do get a short essay done, it will hopefully be fascinating for any interested readers out there.

Here’s the introduction to my concept, that I can finally post here:

There are two very important things I have learnt as a book addict while studying Archaeology in Australia. The first is that nearly everyone who lives here feels attached to the land. Not as deeply or personally as many traditional indigenous groups, but we are connected. The second, quite obvious to anyone who has travelled enough, read enough, or simply spent enough time squinting down at Google Earth, is that Australia isn’t a single environment or a single, unified place. Pre-colonisation, there were uncounted thousands of unique languages and cultures that flourished in incredibly different ecologies. Smaller “countries” and distinct experiences of life all tied up into the land, water and air of each micro climate.

Though we’ve become far more interconnected through homogeneity of our structures and media in the last hundred years or so, there is still this uniqueness of environment. My cousin will return to Coffs Harbour to live, despite the general trend away from seaside residences. She was born on that land, and though she’s lived inland to complete a degree, she wants to go home.

It’s what is so beautiful about Australian fiction; whether it’s deep thoughtful literature or just a high fantasy adventure, occasionally readers will stumble upon hints of their land, their home. Their tree near the carpark on the oval that they walked past every day during school. But those scenes won’t be the same for everyone. It’s a wonderful lottery because these hints of local scenery (as well as language and history) permeate all sorts of genres and characters. Australian fiction is like one large lottery of resonance.

For me, whenever I pick up a book, I find that anticipation and excitement sometimes greater than my curiosity in the story itself: will this remind me of my early childhood in Adelaide, or my adolescence in Canberra? When it hits you, that deep personal resonance, you feel it in your heart and your head and your bones. But perhaps you simply haven’t found the right book yet. That’s quite alright. I’m going to be reading, reviewing, interviewing and blogging here to do my best to make sure that more people can share my exquisite delight in Australian fiction. I might be a book lover and an Archaeologist, but I also spent many formative years of my life working in school libraries. My other life’s great passion is finding books for people so that they can find that wonderful moment themselves. I look forward to rising to the challenge, and sharing some great reads with you all.

“The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana” by Umberto Eco

I loved reading this book. Like many dealing with the process of aging and death, it is more about living and experiencing the world than a lot of books dealing with younger and healthier protagonists. Yambo, the man character, wakes from having a stroke. He has no memory of the people in his life, or the events, but he can recall the books that he has read. He attempts to heal and recover, and come to terms with a world that is both alien and uncomfortably familiar to him.

I’m a sucker for books about books, but this really filled a craving that I hadn’t know I even had. I now wish for more books that show a reconstruction of self through memories and feelings attached to beloved novels. Even though gender, age, and culture separate me from Yambo, I truly felt as if I saw myself in him. I blame the garage sale comic books of my childhood for at least part of my resonance with this. Perhaps, even, being so removed has made it a more pleasant experience for me. I remember an exploration a fellow student made into an older character who had a similar conclusion to Yambo, in a short story class many years ago. As teenagers, the entire class was fascinated with the concept. But our much older teacher, sighed heavily and said that things like that really just exhausted and tired her.

So, depending on your concepts of mortality, age, and infirmity, this book may delight or astound or exasperate or threaten or exhaust you. But regardless, I recommend it: you’ll love the books, if nothing else, and Eco’s prose always satisfies.

“The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles” by Haruki Murakami

I originally posted this to a Livejournal community a few years ago, but wanted to repost it here with some following thoughts that I’ve had since:

– – –

I’m surprised that, now I think to check, nobody’s put any of Haruki Murakami’s novels in the taglist or memorable entries. I’ve found his meandering, often trippy narratives very entertaining and at times disturbing.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles being the most recent I have read, I’d like to take the opportunity to reccomend it to everyone here. It’s been translated into English for quite some time, and can probably be found in any Borders or Dymocks. Based on a short story initially published in one of his anthologies (Murakami writes a novel one year, and a short story collection the next), it follows a middle-aged Japanese man on a Tuesday.

Having left his job, he completes housework while his wife continues in the workforce. On Tuesday he needs to make dinner, and go looking for their lost cat, who is named after a distasteful relative.

The plot is slow, but ever-present. It involves, as many Murakami novels do, a surreal interaction between this world and some other, supernatural, plane of being. What begins as a normal story following a very normal man is slowly revealed to be a very strange and twisted story following someone who was, debateably, never quite normal.

Although not as disturbing as, say, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, another Murakami novel, I truly enjoyed The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, and was at loose ends for two days while I made my way through it. I was caught up, and unable to stop worrying about the characters.

– – –

A few months ago, I ran across some information that suggested that The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles had been cut and re-ordered and edited significantly during translation. I got caught up in the horror of it, and vowed to renew my Kanji practice so that one day I could read this book in its’ raw state. But that was before today, when I ran across this site. It is a discussion between translators that has some interesting insights into the history of Japanese translated literature in English, but also into the Japanese publishing and editing process.

Popular authors, one translator says, often undergo far less editorial attention; their books are rushed out. Murakami has been known to edit and alter parts of his text on subsequent publications, and that the edits for The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles involved at one time Murakami sending possible cuts across to the translator/editor, and the translator sending a complete cut and edited English text back. The process is much more symbiotic than I expected, and fascinating. I’ll still press on with my studies and aim to read Murakami’s novels (and many others on my list) in their native Japanese, but until then I’ll be happy to read the discussion in the link posted above.

“The Tea House Fire” by Ellis Avery

I’ve found myself recommending this one to quite a few people this week. I picked it up from a clearance table while working in a remainder store, and it was worth all the $3.50 I spent on it and more.

I am, of course, a sucker for tea ceremonies and insightful descriptions of Western female experiences of Japanese culture. Sir Phoebus’ Ma and Fear and Trembling are books that I find myself returning to occasionally despite my huge unread piles and lists. It’s a pretty depressing story at times, full of unrequited love and self suppression. The Tea House Fire is a bit of a beginner’s introduction to Japanese traditional society and early interactions between “eastern” and “western” cultures through the politics of tea ceremony. Integrated well with the voice of the protagonist and the events within the story the intricacies and weight of a traditional, patriarchal, reclusive society enhance rather than bog down the narrative.

The themes of homosexual romance are handled intelligently and the conclusion is so satisfying that I carried a warm feeling around in my chest for days afterward. I won’t say too much, in case I spoil anything for anyone, but there are some very lovely aesthetic and romantic scenes that I will return to soon and gladly.

I hope that you all enjoy The Tea House Fire as much as I did. If not, then please comment and share your thoughts with me!

“How To Live Forever” by Colin Thompson

I bought this book at a charity auction because of the blurb on the back. It promised houses made of books, and mystical adventures. It was the houses made of books that sold me, really, because I’m a sucker for gimmicks like that.

It was a generally readable book. I didn’t flinch or cry out in indignation. The language was good for the intended age-group. But the vagueness of everything sat a little wrong with me. Apart from a few vivid colours, and a hollow feeling in the protagonist’s chest when he yearns for a monogamist hetero-normative family unit, it’s surprisingly non sensual for a children’s book. It does a lot of listing of actions and events. But the true joys aren’t joyful, the true terrors aren’t scary – just red and gratuitously bloody, and even then only the once. I never did get the hit of bibliophilic scents and textures that I was longing for.

Also, I could have sworn that the old lady from The Dark Crystal had a cameo appearance as an old woman called Bathline. Once her mad repetitions aren’t needed to add a sense of mystery to the plot, she sadly becomes a simple tired old side character, however.

In the end, I just felt that I’d read an interesting story, but one that just couldn’t shake the Author’s persona from the characters’ speech. It’s the first of his books that I’ve read, though, and he’s apparently done many many more. I’m going to keep my eyes out for his other work.

“The Court of the Air” by Stephen Hunt

I am currently not reading Court of the Air by Stephen Hunt. After forty-nine pages, I have yet to find a hook that appeals to me. While the concept of a dark and disturbing fantasy steampunkish world appeals to me… the “applying the tech with a technology to the tech drive, captain!” formula established in Star Trek scripts has been applied liberally here.

Nearly every second noun is something new to the reader from the world setting, but is not explained at all by context. There is – as far as I can tell this far in – little characterisation for the two protagonists. I know that they are orphans, and at the power of others. But I don’t care much for either of them; there’s hardly anything there to care about.

I had to work too hard to press on, and I only began reading it on the recommendation of my GM, so I looked up a few reviews. What amused me most was that a lot of reviewers seemed to think that the Court of the Air was Hunt’s first novel. A quick skip and a jump over to his profile site, and it easy to discover that after a career in journalism Mr. Hunt found success with his first novel, For Crown and the Dragon, in 1994. Court of the Air was published in 2007.

His life history page on his website claims of For Crown and Dragon that: “The novel and its related short fiction sparked a sub-genre, flintlock fantasy”

(Edit: Apparently, this could be a simple mistake. In a book review, a reviewer termed the phrase “flintlock fantasy” mentioning For Crown and Dragon and a couple of other recently published novels. I would take that to mean that the reviewer had identified a trend in fiction publishing and sales, but I’m sure that Hunt could have quite easily interpreted it to reflect more on his own MS.)

Also, that: ” His novels are now published by HarperCollins in the UK alongside their two other fantasy best-sellers, JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis.”

Now, his books aren’t unreadable. Still I’m not going to invest the time in about 600 pages of it. Not when it’s competing with Wintersmith and The Gap series in my pile. But I’ve read a lot of HarperCollins novels and I’d like to say that there are doubtlessly other fantasy books in their line that enjoy slightly better sales than this one. He’s not just comparing himself to the Voyager imprint, but to two of the most famous fantasy writers of the last few decades. In my mind, that’s a very big claim to make.

I am curious about the hype over his first novel. I might check it out someday. But life is too short to read books that annoy me, so Court of the Air is going back to my GM, where it will be re-read and appreciated.

“Makers” by Cory Doctorow

I loved Little Brother, and Doctorow’s essays on DRM and other digital rights issues are spot-on, most of the time. I reccomend his work to lots of people, every time I meet them, because it’s informative and wonderful and free!

And yet…

I downloaded his most recent novel, Makers, for a trip I took for archaeology and family business. Stuck it on my phone, which delivered one paragraph per page view. I had spent a while looking forward to reading it, had been saving it for quite some time.

Now there are issues I’ve had with Doctorow’s prose from day one. Issues that involve immersion, and sometimes the over-insertion of factoids and gadgets (often to the point where his novels feel more like a visit to Boing Boing than a narrative). But the one, huge turn-off for me was Disneyland. World. The world of theme-parks, and in particular, innovation and free speech versus the Imagineers.

I was quite happy to wince past some painful scenes with the characters, and I survived the flat and emotionless descriptions of most relationships in the book. I even sighed only once over the way that sex was oddly written, and references to sexual relationships were oddly unbalanced for a novel with several focal protagonists.

But I’m a little scared that Doctorow is going to return to Disney, theme-parks, and similar themes every few novels. He’s either entranced with it, has some strange fetish for messing with the mouse, or he’s learnt that the Magic Hacked Kingdom sells more. I read the whole thing, and enjoyed it, but nowhere near as much as other novels of his that I’ve read.

With both Makers and Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, I found the books became exhaustive in their trivia, and exhausting. I’m not an American, and I don’t care about theme parks. Perhaps that’s what has spoilt the book for me, a lack of immersion in a culture that does. I’ll still read everything this man writes, and I reccomend you all do, but I certainly won’t be as excited about his next book as I will about re-reading Foucalt’s Pendulum in a few weeks.

“Death at Intervals” by Jose Saramago

I enjoyed reading this, though it seemed a little short, and a little distant. Since I read an English translation from the Portugese, I perhaps simply lack the cultural context to full appreciate this; I know that as I read Haruki Murakami novels, I can almost taste the kanji. If I had the time, I would love to read every book I encounter in its’ original language.

But, enough of my wistfulness, and on to the text! Death at Intervals is well written, though a bit inconsistent at times; the novel beings with long descriptions of the social problems that arise when death takes a holiday, then zeroes in closer on the protagonist as almost an afterthought. I don’t want to spoil much of the experience of the book for anyone, but the tone changes so significantly towards the end that it seems strange for a novel. Many of the descriptions and scenes seem as if they would be far more suited to a film or animation than a traditional novel.

I found it somewhat difficult to accustom myself to the punctuation of this book. In the Harvill Secker/Random House edition I picked up (and I am assuming this is preserved from the original text), no quotation marks are used. Speech is only marked with commas and capitalised sentences. New paragraphs are rare, and on the page I have open, two characters are having a short discussion that is hard to follow, being on one line of the page.

However, once I was finally acclimatised to the style, I found that the characters are each so distinct that there is hardly ever any confusion. It establishes an interesting feel to the novel, that echoes the oddness of the main character’s experiences.

I thoroughly enjoyed this, though I would not reccomend it to many people. Some will find the punctuation style offputting, others will find the subject matter too morbid. I merely found it amusing and sweet. I imagine that I will gain a lot more from this on a second read-through, and I love books that grow from revisitations. However, I don’t think I’ll be coming back to this one until I’ve given some of Saramago’s other novels a try.

“The Ladies of Grace Adieu” by Susanna Clarke and Charles Vess

I adore this book. In the edition that was sent around my neck of the woods, a beautiful cover and gorgeously thick, friendly pages decorated with Charles Vess’ illustrations enhance the experience of reading Clarke’s wonderful stories.

I loved Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. I waited until the end of my Ion exam in my second year and hotfooted it over to the Co-op with my friends. We all picked up dichotomous white and black covered books, beautiful in their simplicity, and spent the next two weeks taking out time to savour her first novel.

I enjoyed The Ladies of Grace Adieu much more than I did JS&MN. Perhaps it was the shorter format, or that the footnotes and masculinity laden atmosphere of that first title were exchanged for stories with far less digression. Perhaps it was because I read this collection over a long, lazy break, whereas I had to rush to finish JS&MN in time to start another stint of studying.

Clarke’s writing is delicious and restful. Her characters are recognisable, identifiable, and comfortable to me in a way that many fantasy characters are not. Perhaps it is simply the British nature of it all; I loathe American Protagonists, and can’t help but wince when I encounter them in my books.