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“I know what you can do, I’ve seen it. You hold no mysteries, Thaddeus Blaklok.” Kultus, by Richard Ford

2011; Solaris Books

288 pages; ~$9.99.

A friend bought Kultus from the estimable Pulp Fiction Books based purely on its ridiculous cover and blurb (its ridiculosity). I borrowed it afterwards and read it as part of the Literary Exploration 2013 challenge for my Steampunk genre selection.

Needless to say, neither of us were disappointed with Kultus‘s ridiculosity.

Protagonist Thaddeus Blaklok is an occultist mercenary and all-round badass who operates in the grimy steampunk city of Manufactory. The story starts with a gory demonic murder and pretty much stays on that level for the rest of the book. During his quest to get a hold of the Key of Lunos, Blaklok punches and shouts his way through waves of cultists, street rats, and demons. There’s a few hints at some kind of backstory for Blaklok; he seems to have been an important member of ‘the Community’ of occultists in Manufactory, and there are a few references to a tortured past. For the most part, though, Thaddeus is a one-trick pony. He sees no avenues of social interaction beyond hitting and shouting; to him, everyone is either a hapless authority figure (who get in the way, and so must be avoided) or an idiot (who can safely be hit until they stop moving).

So, in all, it’s dumb fun. Dumb – because the characters are one-dimensional at best – but fun nevertheless. There’s demons, “snappy” one-liners, and plenty of steam-powered violence. Manufactory is a pretty standard dirty, zeppelin-dotted steampunk city, although there are a few nods to imagination (the Spires, certain radioactive wastelands). I’m led to believe that demons are fairly standard in steampunk, but Kultus adds angels as well, which stirred things up a little. There’s also the requisite cast of simpering gutter-dwellers, cowardly slumlords, and even a team of hilariously-named superpowered assassins.

The writing itself is… dreadful. I know I’m used to literary fiction (whatever that is); I know I’m a snob when it comes to this kind of thing. In genre fiction, the writing doesn’t have to be groundbreaking. It’s the strength of the ideas which can carry the story. However, not only is Kultus pretty bog-standard in its ideas, the writing is really, really bad. As in ‘I’m not sure how this got published’ bad. I counted three – three! – instances of confused pairs (peel/peal; brake/break; breech/breach), any one of which would be painful enough, but three? Anyway. I think the best way to demonstrate the quality of writing is with a quote.

“Any advantage he could get might give him the edge he needed, and he was sorely in need of an edge.”

Says it all, really.

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“And there are never really endings, happy or otherwise.” The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

2011; Harvill Secker.

387 pages.

 

Note: A few minor spoilers below.

I chose The Night Circus  as my Magical Realism book for the Literary Exploration challenge. Magical realism is traditionally the genre which I enjoy the most. By nature it’s difficult to define, but essentially the ‘magical realism’ tag can be applied to stories which are generally realistic, but which contain fantastical elements. The archetypal One Hundred Years of Solitude blends magic and reality perfectly. Or, for a more recent example, look to Life of Pi, which contains scenarios unlikely enough to count as magic, though from a distance the world appears to be the same as ours. As it turns out, I probably wouldn’t count The Night Circus as part of this genre, though such categorisations are nebulous at best. Better to take the book on its own merits.

The story of The Night Circus jumps around in the decade surrounding 1896, and I enjoyed the novel’s use of nonlinear time. The titular Circus appears without warning, is open only at night, and disappears just as suddenly. It’s a magical, monochrome realm, where everything is always perfect – quite the opposite of a real circus. In the Night Circus, there are wondrous, impossible displays, true magicians, and all manner of subtle sorcery which ensure a wonderful evening. I found this infinitely preferable to my experience of real circuses, which involve a lot of noise, impolite crowds, and, not to put too fine a point on it, the smell of shit. This magical, dreamlike circus immediately drew me in. “This is the precise flavor the circus should be. Unusual yet beautiful. Provocative while remaining elegant.”

As always, all is not as it seems, and the Night Circus is actually just an arena for a contest. Two magicians, Marco and Celia, are bound to each other by their masters, and pushed into a competition. I was really excited by this – a magical duel, stretched over years, sounded awesome. Each master delights in being vague, and the rules of the contest even more so. In fact, for two thirds of the novel, one of the contestants is not even aware who they are up against. Sadly, a game which nobody is sure how to play – not the contestants themselves, and certainly not the reader – is not a good recipe for conflict.

So let’s talk about conflict.

The two main characters, Celia and Marco, are magicians, able to influence reality in a number of impossible ways. They’re pitted against one another from a young age, and quickly dedicate their lives to the contest. However, the stakes are never clear, and each magician spends a lot of time trying to find out for themselves. It’s nearly impossible to engage with the contest or the players within it, because there’s no clear goal or rules. Naturally, the two young magicians fall in love. Even this felt arbitrary and unconvincing, despite the surface beauty and wonder of their blossoming relationship (such as it is). The love subplot is also intended to increase the conflict between the magicians and their masters. However, with the stakes so low, there was never the sense of rebellious desperation you might expect. Each sinister master remains quietly benevolent, in action if not speech.

The closest thing The Night Circus has to an antagonist is Marco’s trainer and father figure, the shadowy Alexander. His motivations are generally unclear, beyond his desire for Marco to win the contest (although, again, this desire doesn’t stretch to actually telling Marco what constitutes winning). He’s sinister, apparently omniscient, and appears to contribute to the death of a character – but it’s a minor, undeveloped character, so even this fails to increase the tension or sense of urgency.

There’s also a number of subplots involving other people connected with the circus, especially Bailey, who is torn between his family’s pressure to stay home, and his own desire to leave and be part of the circus. The story visits him at various stages of his child- and young adulthood, where he becomes enamoured with one of the circus performers and is eventually called upon to save the Circus. However, even this subplot lacks much tension, because in the Circus, everything is perfect.

Bear with me here. The biggest draw of the circus setting is its difference to a real circus – that is, it’s clean, beautiful, and fun. Visitors experience events and displays which could only occur in dreams. Despite the wonder this implies, this is where The Night Circus falls down. In the real world, nothing is utterly flawless. The Circus is – and so becomes unreal. Things are unusual, certainly, and of course the reality-warping conjuration is obviously not just sleight of hand. I couldn’t help feeling that if only the Circus had gone further one way or the other – been more real, or more fantastical – it could have worked. It’s beautiful, yes, but when every setting and feature is perfect, it becomes oddly drab. Everything feels constructed, the conclusions foregone. With no character conflict to speak of, and a one-dimensional setting, the story quickly dropped into tedium.

I did my best to focus on the wonder. I tried to open my mind to awe and surprise. I wanted something magical, but still real; fantastic, but subtle. The Night Circus had some wonderful imagery, likable characters, and an interesting structure – but in the end, it felt shallow and cold.

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“I would absolutely, positively, freeze my head.” Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan

2012; Text Publishing.

224 pages; $28.99.

 

Gasp! A book that’s not part of my Literary Exploration thing!

…Anyway.

There was a fair bit of buzz around Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore after it came out last year. It was recommended to me a few times; I’m interested in the debates around paper versus electronic reading. When I learned that the novel was about a twenty-something semi-deadbeat who works in a musty bookshop, well. I can resist only so much vicarious seduction.

There may be a spoiler or two below, but not much more than is revealed in the blurb. You are warned. 

Mr Penumbra was a pure, vicarious joy to read. It’s no secret that I love crusty old books, and working a night shift in a place which, in my mind looked like Archive in Brisbane, with only myself and the occasional odd night person for company… well, it sounded like heaven. Read into that what you will.

The book tells the story of Clay Jannon, a recently-unemployed Silicon Valley tech nerd. After the economy crashes, there’s not much work around for wunderkind graphic designers; he stumbles into the titular bookstore and begins working the graveyard shift. The store has a few new and second-hand books at the front (much being made of Dashiell Hammett), and towering, shadowy shelves of mysterious tomes at the back. Naturally, Clay is forbidden from opening these. Mysterious!

To begin with, nothing much happens (as to be expected – 3am is not traditionally a good time for book sales) except that, occasionally, strange old people will come in, return one of the mysterious tomes, and withdraw a new one. Clay is, naturally, quite curious, and being a Millennial tech nerd, starts using his computer to look for patterns. He meets Kat, who works for Google, who quickly becomes involved in the pattern search. From here, Mr Penumbra becomes a treasure hunt. Clay and his friends use computers, programs, and Google to try to break an ancient code, earning the ire of a traditionally-minded secret society.

Which brings us to the theme of Mr Penumbra: old versus new. Clay uses modern methods – data visualisation, book scanning, and the like – while the society prefers to use the old methods, citing it as the only way to stay in the spirit of the hunt. It’s an old battle – the fun of solving the puzzle versus the satisfaction of having the answer. Of course, even using the power of Google (did I mention Google yet?), the puzzle is not so easy to solve, and… well, anyway. I was always a strong proponent of paper books. I vowed I’d never buy a Kindle. Ebooks have no heart, no soul, I said. The convenience of carrying a zillion books in one device does not outweigh the feel of paper under your fingers. And the smell! New or old, books smell great.

‘”The smell!” Penumbra repeats. “You know you are finished when people start talking about the smell.”

Hm. Never mind, then. I got a Kindle as a gift, later, and was immediately converted. There’s something about the feel of that in your hand, too – not to mention the whole ‘magic word-displaying rectangle’ thing. Sometimes I forget that we’re in the future. Mr Penumbra talks about Kindle a lot; Mr Penumbra himself is a member of the traditionally-minded secret society, but is also curious about new book-related technology. He’s also interested in Google (I can’t remember if I mentioned Google yet) and how it can help solve the puzzle.

The theme is interesting and timely – a lot of people seem to swear by paper or electronic books, and many happily embrace both. Beyond reading, it also opens up questions about whether technology can take the fun out of things. It reminded me of solved games, where the outcome can be predicted at any point. Or how an online journalist hunted down the human behind everybody’s favourite twitter spambot, horse_ebooks. Mr Penumbra argues that sometimes, there’s value in observing something mysterious and beautiful without trying to figure out how it works. Sometimes the value is in the doing, not in the solution. Or, at least, in working things out yourself, rather than just Googling it.

Did I mention Google? Mr Penumbra does. A lot. I mean, one of the main characters works there, and there’s plenty of other tech-brand namedropping (I was especially pleased to note references to Mario and xkcd), but it got a little bit out of hand. It might just be an offshoot of the other thing that dragged me out of Mr Penumbra‘s world – the coincidences. Or serendipity, whatever you want to call it. My point is that, when Clay has a problem, he also knows someone who has the exact set of skills to solve that problem. The first few times I thought, sure! He lives near Silicon Valley, makes sense he’d meet someone who works at Google. He needs to make an exact replica of something, and he knows someone who works at Industrial Light and Magic as a genius prop-builder. But then, later, he needs to track down an antique artifact  lost for a century. And… he knows someone who has access to the Secret Museum Artifact-Finding Database.

These are nitpicks. I loved this book – first, because it let me imagine I was working night shifts at a second-hand bookshop, and later because I love old-fashioned puzzle quests. The rafts of pop culture references, the most I’ve seen since Ready Player One, were fun and generally unintrusive (as references should be). I could say that Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore will appeal to anyone has an opinion in the paper vs ebook debate, but really it will appeal to anyone who loves books, or even just a good contemporary adventure story.

Do you love your bookshelves, or prefer Kindle-y simplicity? Do you think Google is going to take over the world? Has it already? Drop me a comment!

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“Your life’s going to go a lot of exciting ways before you’re dead.” Canada, by Richard Ford

2012; Bloomsbury.

432 pages; $29.99.

 

First, a note: this is the second book I’ve read for the Literary Exploration 2013 challenge. It’s under the category of ‘literary fiction’. I already read a lot of that, so it’s not exactly exploration, but anyway:

 

First, I’ll tell you about the robbery our parents committed. Then the murders, which happened later.”

That’s the first couple of sentences of Richard Ford’s Canada, and it hooked me right away. Impossible to resist.

That opening sets quite a scene, doesn’t it? We’ll hear about a robbery, then some murders – sounds like a thriller.

Well… not really.

Our protagonist is Dell Parsons, fifteen years old at the time of most of the story. He’s nerdy, interested in chess and bees, but it’s his parents who define him. His father is a cheerful ex-Air Force bombardier. His mother is a tightly-wound Jewish schoolteacher. As we learn right away, they robbed a bank, and that’s what the first half of Canada looks at.

Robbing the bank, for Dell’s parents, is suicide. It makes perfect sense at the time (even to his usually-sensible mother); it ends the lives of those who carry it out (their free lives, anyway). Much is made of the sense of weightless freedom the parents feel after deciding to rob the bank. It’s the last decision they’ll ever have to make. Of Dell’s father: “He always believed he wasn’t the kind of man to rob a bank. This was his great misunderstanding.” There’s a sense that they unconsciously know what they’re getting into – looking for a way out of their lives – but going about it in an indirect, roundabout way. It’s obvious from the narrator’s fifty-year distance, but too huge for anyone to see at the time.

The pace of this section is slow but incredibly deliberate. Chunks of information are interspersed throughout Dell’s reflections on his parents’ natures, the workings of the world, and other metaphysical quandaries of interest to a teenager in 1954. Those chunks, though, often have a huge impact on the story being told, and are mentioned only in passing. Every time something pops up – such as a chapter ending with, ‘I was never there again.’ – it requires a quick rearranging of the reader’s beliefs and expectations.

Something like that, anyway.

At first, I didn’t like the second half of Canada. It felt peaceful, dreamlike – nothing like the burning build of the first half. Eventually I decided that it’s supposed to. The second part, which takes place in Canada (finally) represents Dell’s quiet acceptance of his new position in life. After spending the first part reminding readers how aware children can be of their parents’ true intentions, and how readily they adapt to difficult situations, Dell proves it in the second. It’s a big gear change, from theory and introspection to practice and consequence – but it works.

The third part is a coda, which rejoins Dell in the present day, fifty years later. It’s used to wrap up the few lingering loose ends – most notably, for me, the question of what happened to the narrator’s disappearing twin sister. But I found it unsatisfying because, earlier in the book, so much information is presented in asides and digressions. From the first lines, the reader begins to build an idea of what happened and what’s going to. Part three wraps up the story a little too neatly, though it’s still masterfully told. With the theme that life is messy, that you can’t always predict what will happen – “no matter the evidence of your life, or who you believe you are, or what you’re willing to take credit for or draw your vital strength and pride from – anything at all can follow anything at all.” –  I found it a little jarring to be simply told what happened to everybody. (The last few sentences, though, are wonderful.)

As in many American novels, the setting is integral. Canada reminded me of Annie Proulx’s Wyoming stories (though not quite as desolate as all that). The scenery – Montana’s prairies, Canada just to the north, the small towns of North Dakota – all push Dell’s father into the bank robbery scheme. In the end, Dell’s parents’ personalities, history, and location make such a scheme all but inevitable.

Here in Australia we don’t really have anything like the US-Canada border, especially in 1954 when the border was not so tightly controlled. It’s just a step away. With the wide-open spaces of Montana pressing down, making people feel lost and invisible, and that huge unknowable country resting gently to the north, is it any wonder that Americans felt isolated, yet somehow beseiged? Is it any wonder that Dell’s parents feel the unconscious need to escape, to be away, no matter the consequences?

Well – I don’t know. I’m young, poorly traveled; a naive child, really, at this scale. But it’s a testament to Ford’s writing that I have these ideas at all. I was transported slowly but seamlessly. I got a glimpse of the small-town life I’ve never experienced, and I got a flash of how that life can exert silent, grinding pressure on people.

That’s the joy and the melancholy of this book. You’re swallowed up by the wide-open spaces of the prairie and the disintegrating ghost towns of the Saskatchewan wilds.

That’s the reason I read so much American literary fiction, I think. Wide spaces. Woods. Colleges. Highways. The long, slow burn of lives, in four hundred pages. If you liked the feeling you got from Bad Dirt, or you just like really good fiction, I think you’ll like Canada too.

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Weather Above Ground, or, the importance of knowing one’s ancestry

There was a heaving, brass-plated furnace in her ancestry; a people, as you know, who are unusual but not unlovable.

This oddity popped up in stories of her line. A burnished great-grandfather who spontaneously combusted. An aunt who could light stoves with a touch.

She had little to mark her burning past except, perhaps, hot skin, and a mental warmth (which could be ascribed to other things).

And so, little was thought of it, until she met a man who had some waterspout or lake djinn among his ancestors. They met and lived in steam.

Of course, we know now that furnace is a dominant trait, which explained the searing winds and bright, cloudless days that followed her everywhere.

When she left on a holiday, the rain clouds, indignant at their exclusion, returned. They sulked over the city until she came back, and burned them away.

 

(please forgive this unscheduled interruption. Normal programming will return in the next few days)

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2013 Literary Exploration challenge, part three

It’s part three of my Literary Exploration challenge reading list for 2013! Here’s part one (with a little bit of background on the challenge), and here’s part two.

Today brings six more genres and six more books. We’re at the halfway mark! How exciting.

13. Graphic novels

Jan Strnad & Richard Corben. Ragemoor.

I’m out of the loop with comics these days. My dad used to collect them, and taught me a little bit about Alan Moore, Carl Barks, and Grant Morrison, but I haven’t paid much attention in the last few years. So, when I read about a Lovecraftian horror comic about a living castle, fueled by blood and beseiged by armies of worm-men, it went straight on the list.

 

14. Gothic

Charlotte Brontë. Jane Eyre.

Wuthering Heights was the last book I finished in 2012, and by all accounts, Jane Eyre is better in many respects. I don’t feel qualified to analyse – or, to be honest, even have opinions on – classics like this. But Jane Eyre is firmly in the ‘should have read by now’ list, and so it appears here.

 

 

 

15. Hard-Boiled

Dashiell Hammett. The Maltese Falcon.

Oh, how I do love a bit of hardboiled detective fiction. I happily read all of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels in a row (and if you haven’t read The Big Sleep or The Long Goodbye, do yourself a favour) and so spent some time searching for something similar. Dashiell Hammett’s name kept coming up, with The Maltese Falcon generally agreed to be his best. This could be the beginning of another beautiful friendship.

 

 

16. Historical Fiction

Hilary Mantel. Wolf Hall.

Hilary Mantel is the literary name of the moment, with her latest Bring up the Bodies winning awards and critical acclaim all over the place. Historically, I don’t have a great deal of interest in historical fiction (see what I did there?), but I didn’t have much of a choice here. By all accounts, Wolf Hall is fascinating, gripping, and very, very long.

 

 

17. Horror

John Ajvide Lindqvist. Harbour.

Well. Apart from World War Z, Frankenstein, and Dracula, everything in the top horror books on Goodreads is by Stephen King. I won’t give him the satisfaction, so I chose Harbour, John Lindqvist’s followup to the amazing(ly terrifying) Let The Right One In and Handling the Undead. Both of those novels gave me shudders for days, so I have high hopes for Harbour.

 

 

18. Humour

DBC Pierre. Vernon God Little.

A fellow Achewood aficionado put me on to Vernon God Little, so I feel safe in assuming that we share a similar sense of humour. The combination of dark humour, postmodern style, and sadly timely theme of school gun violence should be very interesting. And… funny. Um.

 

 

 

 

That’s it for today! I think I’ll finish my list over the weekend.

Did I miss anything? Do you have a better suggestion for any of these categories? Did you love a book I’ve listed – or hate it? Let me know in a comment.

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What I read: The Long Earth; Telegraph Avenue

A few little catchups.

 

The Long Earth.

 

Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter.

Doubleday, 2012.

It had potential. The context is really cool: the Long Earth is the possibly-infinite lines of parallel Earths. Humans learn how to ‘step’ between these Earths, which are generally similar to the ‘main’ earth, except without humans. I’d really like to read a story set in this world – I think it’d work well as a game as well. But this novel felt like nothing more than a proof-of-concept. There aren’t many characters to get attached to or conflicts to care about. I can’t help thinking that without the authors’ star power, this book would have had a lot of trouble getting published.

 

 

 

Telegraph Avenue.


Michael Chabon.

HarperCollins, 2012.

I love the way Michael Chabon writes. Kavalier and Clay was one of the first ‘grown-up’ books I ever read, although I don’t remember enjoying it much the first time through. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union remains one of my favourite books of all time. There’s always so much happening in Chabon’s stories; subtleties of pace and demand are masterfully and inexorably woven. His style is literary – wanky, if you’re feeling less charitable. But I love it anyway.

That said, Telegraph Avenue seemed to meander much more than other Chabon novels. The first third, in particular, feels like a bunch of incredibly well-characterised people just… bouncing off one another. It’s an epic, with any number of colliding plots and complications, but I just didn’t feel as connected as I have with Chabon’s other books.

Other notes: the third part (of five) is twelve pages, and consists of one sentence. That section should be compulsory reading for anyone wanting to learn how to use commas properly. Barack Obama appears – but it’s 2004, and he’s an ‘obscure Illinois politician’. Oh, chortle!

 

More to come.

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what I read: Leaving, by Timothy Ativas

Leaving.

Timothy Ativas.

Skyline Press, 2012.

The first half of this book was a real slog. The toil turned out to be worthwhile, though: the second half, especially the ending, is fantastic.

‘Leaving’ is mostly the story of Sam, a middle-aged man, as he travels across the continental United States, east to west. He leaves his home in Boston  in pursuit of his daughter, who moved to San Francisco some years before. The whole country has suffered some kind of (frustratingly underdescribed) calamity, which has led to most of the population emigrating.

The story follows Sam as he travels, mostly walking, and deals with the runins with bandits, shut-ins, and kind samaritans that you would expect in the post-apocalyptic setting. However, most of the action, such as it is, occurs in Sam’s head. As I mentioned before, this part of the book is rather plodding; Sam has plenty of time to mull over the many, many failings of his life. His laundry-list of mistakes and bad decisions is fun for a while, but becomes repetitive quickly. When it comes to stories like this, it can work when flashbacks are interspersed.

His relationship with his daughter isn’t explored too deeply in these sections, which makes their meeting all the more interesting. The meeting itself is rather abrupt, but the relationship which emerges afterwards is poignant and heartbreaking. She has been working in the rapidly-fading seaside city, unable to leave, while seemingly everyone else is fleeing the country.

As a fan of apocalypses and related ephemera, I was disappointed by the lack of exploration of the calamity itself. Like The Road, the event and its causes are alluded to only vaguely. The important part is what happens afterwards.

I don’t want to spoil anything: you’ll just have to read it yourself.

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what I read: The Ottoman Motel, by Christopher Currie

The Ottoman Motel.

Christopher Currie.

Text, 2012.


Admission: I enjoyed this book, but not as much as I wanted to.

Possible reason for my dissatisfaction: based upon blurb-skim in the bookshop, I was prepared for a creepy paranormal story about missing parents, uncaring townsfolk, a boy lost and alone, a (literally) shadowy conspiracy.

I was wrong. This is a story of old crimes: unsolved mysteries, haunting memories. A small town with a long history of tragedy and lies. A thoroughly human, scarily plausible story.

Looking back, the blurb doesn’t actually point to a a creepy supernatural story – way to jump to conclusions, self! – so I needed to do a little bit of mental rebalancing.

The Ottoman Motel wasn’t a bad read. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t much care for unreliable child narrators (though I do seem to keep reading books featuring same). However, the protagonist Simon is a convincing picture of a confused kid with traumas both old and new. His interactions with the slightly ‘off’ town of Reception and its similarly haunted inhabitants are evocative and realistic.

I was less satisfied with the overall story, however. The overarching mystery – the disappearance of Simon’s parents – is approached from a number of different angles, but none of them seem to really stick, and are lost in the sea of complications the other characters bring. There’s a lot going on here, and it’s all interwoven almost perfectly. But the breadth of the story elements ultimately leaves the book as a whole feeling a little shallow.

The creepiness of the setting, and most of the town’s inhabitants, is communicated very well; overall, the writing is excellent. I’m really excited to see where Currie goes next.

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what I read: Past the Shallows, by Favel Parrett

Okay, fair reader, it has been several months since my last post, but I think a lot about abandoned blogs, and rather than build on that (to open blogging, perhaps?) I’ve decided to resurrect this one, instead.

(Also, I like the name.)

 

Since my last little book review (Threats, by Amelia Gray) I’ve been eating up as much new fiction as I can get my hands on. My old plan of reading all the ‘books I should have read by now’ is on hold for a while. I have bunch I want to talk about, but that’s for later. For now:

Past the shallows.

Favel Parrett.

Hachette, 2012.

 

The first thing that hit me about this novel is the setting. The remote Tasmanian coast is immediately shown as a place of wild beauty, both deadly and life-giving. The abalone that live out in those black waters – past the shallows – is given a new name on the first page.

Treasure.

 

Head time is split between eleven-year-old Harry and his older brother Miles as they struggle through life after their mother’s untimely death. Their father – referred to but once simply as Dad – is a near-voiceless figure of malevolence. Throughout, Dad and the ocean are drawn as a parallel; unpredictable, dangerous, inescapable. Harry fears the ocean. Miles understands its movements, its shifting currents, its treachery, and does not trust it.

Harry’s point of view is understandably naive – though he’s been through a lot, he’s still young. As with most (all?) unreliable child narrators, many scenes are much more tense and emotionally striking when seen through the eyes of an uncomprehending child. I did find some of his more obsessive and jubilant sections somewhat grating, but his fundamental kind and friendly nature won through.

I found Miles and his interactions with his brothers – younger Harry and older Joe – were much more interesting. We see him  try to protect Harry from Dad’s unpredictable moods. We share his desire to extract them both from the future that seems set in stone for both of them – working on the boat with Dad, fishing for abalone. Throughout, there are signs that Joe tried to hold a similarly protective role, but his methods are vastly different.

The writing itself is beautiful and evocative. Many reviewers have compared Parrett’s writing to that of Tim Winton, and I tend to agree. I’ve never visited Tasmania, let alone its remote coast, but those storm-thrashed beaches are clear in my mind’s eye. The characters are almost universally well-drawn and emotive. All the excitement, uncertainty, and fear of the family is communicated flawlessly, and every adrenaline rush and heartbreak is resonant and haunting. I am not too proud to admit that I shed a manly tear or two at the end of the story.

After recovering, I was left with a few unanswered questions, and there was one spelling mistake (a confusable pair – thanks a lot, university!) that dragged me out of the story. But in all, Past the Shallows is a superbly written exploration of family and brotherhood.

 

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