Friday, March 2, 2018

Writers [on Writing]: Hilmer Wolitzer

This is from the final page and final paragraph of the collected essays of Writers [On Writing] from The New York Times; and seems a fitting way to end these posts.

'I still agree with Wallace Stegner that talent is a prerequisite for the future professional. But there's a place in the classroom for other interested parties who, in their ardent analysis of one another's writing, become much better readers. And God knows we can always use more of them.' 
                                                               Hilma Wolitzer, 'Embarking Together on a Solitary Journey

Thursday, January 4, 2018

25 Exceptional Short Stories from my 2017 Reading

My list of stories this year could have easily been twice as long,  but of the 122 short stories I've read in 2017, I've put down 25 of what I thought the most exceptional stories.  I'm always in two minds about these lists, especially ones from anthologies I've stories in, I do, however, feel that dialogue is integral in supporting the genre; I realise that some writers are fearful –perhaps justifiably so in the social media age– of participating in the reading conversation. As always, the list is about celebrating and supporting short fiction.

‘Palm Court’ James Salter (That Glimpse of Truth ed. David Miller)                        

‘Almost Days’ DK Mok (The Year’s Best Australian Fantasy & Horror 2015 ed. Liz Grzyb & Talie Helene)    
‘The Ballad of Paul Nonetheless’ Sherman Alexie (War Dances)                          

‘Yesterday, Near a Village Called Barden’ Joe Abercrombie (Sharp Ends)            

‘Half Past’ Samantha Murray (The Year’s Best Australian Fantasy & Horror 2015 ed. Liz Grzyb & Talie Helene)                                                                                 

‘The Chrysanthemums’ John Steinbeck (The Long Valley)
‘Breaking and Entering’ Sherman Alexie (War Dances)                                                

‘Live Bait’ Frank Touhy (That Glimpse of Truth ed. David Miller)                             
‘The Children Stay’ Alice Munro (That Glimpse of Truth ed. David Miller)             

‘The Murder’ John Steinbeck (The Long Valley)                                                              

‘The Senator’s Son’ Sherman Alexie (War Dances)                                                    
‘Salt’ Sherman Alexie (War Dances)                                                                              

‘At the Beach’ Bernard MacLaverty (That Glimpse of Truth ed. David Miller)        

‘Emergency’ Denis Johnson (That Glimpse of Truth ed. David Miller)                         

'Lizzie’s Tiger’ Angela Carter (That Glimpse of Truth ed. David Miller)                 

‘Big Bang Theory’ Sherman Alexie (War Dances)  (flash fiction)  

‘War Dances’ Sherman Alexie (War Dances)                                                                  

‘Two’s company’ Joe Abercrombie (Sharp Ends) 
‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’ Flannery O’Connor (That Glimpse of Truth ed. David Miller)                                                                                                                            

‘2B’ Joanne Anderton (The Year’s Best Australian Fantasy & Horror 2015 ed. Liz Grzyb & Talie Helene)   (good story for current refugee issues).               

‘Saint Katy the Virgin’ John Steinbeck (The Long Valley)                                            

‘Bluebeard’s Daughter’ Angela Slatter (The Year’s Best Australian Fantasy & Horror 2015 ed. Liz Grzyb & Talie Helene)                                                               

‘Sleepless’ Jay Kristoff (The Year’s Best Australian Fantasy & Horror 2015 ed. Liz Grzyb & Talie Helene) (suspenseful twists)                                       

‘The Harness’ John Steinbeck (The Long Valley)                                                           

‘The Dying Room’ Georgina Hammick (That Glimpse of Truth ed. David Miller) 

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Reading Review 2017

Books Read in 2017:

Although I found Sy Montgomery's The Soul of an Octopus a little too whimsical for my own personal liking, I've enjoyed all of the 27 books I've read this year.  Here's the list (the couple in bold were first published in 2017): 

Where Song Began Tim Low (expository)                                                            

The Year’s Best Australian Fantasy & Horror 2015 ed. Liz Grzyb & Talie Helene 

Such a Long Journey Rohinton Mistry                                                                      

The Heroes Joe Abercrombie                                                                                     

The Long Valley John Steinbeck (collection)                                                                    

Sharp Ends Joe Abercrombie (collection)                                                             

War Dances Sherman Alexie (collection)                                                              

The Red Pony John Steinbeck (novella)                                                                            

Last Man in Tower Aravind Adiga                                                                           

Vintage PKD Philip K.  Dick   (collection)                                                            

Seventeen Poisoned Englishmen Gabriel Garcia Marquez (collection)

The Goblin Emperor Katherine Addison       

Jude the Obscure Thomas Hardy 
The Girl in the Glass Jeffrey Ford                                                                             

The Good People Hannah Kent                                                                        

The Name of the Wind Patrick Rothfuss                                                                

By Blood We Live Glen Duncan                                                                      

Norwegian Wood Haruki Murakami                                                                                 

The Wise Man’s Fear Patrick Rothfuss                                                                     

Red Country Joe Abercrombie                                                                                   

How to be Both Ali Smith                                                                                            

Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction: How to Create Out-of-this-World Novels and Short Stories Orson Scott Card, Philip Athans, Jay Lake & the Editors of Readers Digest (expository)                                                                                                        

The Giver Lois Lowry (YA)                                                                                         

Gilgamesh Joan London                                                                                    

House of Names Colm Toibin                                                                                               

Crackpot Palace Jeffrey Ford (collection)                                                      

The Soul of an Octopus Sy Montogomery (expository)                                                 


As per usual I could add many more from the year's reading list. 


Where Song Began by Tim Low 

While not all the geographical and botanical details interested me, Where Song Began is an impressive book about Australian birds. I'd recommend it for not only lovers of nature but: 
  • for those interested in Australian history (did you know wattle birds were prized food sold in poultry stores due to their sweet nectar-infused meat? Or that mutton birds were the source of our beach tanning oils?) 
  • for those interested in why Australian birds are flying Einsteins (did you know that our blossoming Eucalyptus trees played a major role in the evolution of our birds' brains?)
  • for those interested in why our birds are so long-lived and evolved (did you know that not only do cockatoos live 50 - 70 years, they continue to learn throughout their lives? They also don't learn from imprinting, but from socialisation and being taught. Did you also know that magpies  socially vary in different parts of Australia? It's only in the South-West, for instance, that they live in family gangs.)
The work is an incredible achievement. 


I thought the anthology The  Year's Best Australian Fantasy & Horror 2015 fab too, but bias prevents me from waxing lyrical.

 The Long Valley John Steinbeck 

I've grown to love Steinbeck's work in recent years. I read East of Eden last year and it's easily one of the best works I've read, so it came as no surprise that The Long Valley delivered a vault of rich tales. I'd already read and loved the story 'Johnny Bear' in the anthology Points of View. The story, my personal favourite in the collection, is a courageous and marvellous dark fantasy. I hope the spec-fic world starts using 'Johnny Bear' in more anthologies as it's one of the best urban fantasy stories around. The novella The Red Pony is also strong, as are most stories in the collection. Look out especially for 'The Chrysanthemums', 'The Murder', 'Saint Katy the Virgin' and 'The Harness'. In fact, only one story ('Flight'), disappointed.

Sharp Ends by Joe Abercrombie 

This is a great companion for Abercrombie's novel The Heroes. It won't suit everyone's taste, but that's part of the enjoyment of Abercrombie. These grimdark stories are rollicking and feisty, gusty and humorous. Abercrombie's tales have the key ingredient of any good heroic adventure story: the ability to entertain. His bold elaborate style is also refreshing.

   War Dances Sherman Alexie     

A wonderful blend of stories, both fiction and personal, along with poetry and vignettes. I love Alexie's ability to connect –with an honest, observant, gently comical and tender insight– with what it is to be human. These touching stories are a delight, and if you haven't yet read Alexie, I encourage you to to take a dip. In War Dances, I especially enjoyed 'The Ballad of Paul Nonetheless', 'The Senator's Son', 'Salt', and ''War Dances', but Alexie's compassionate, grounded narrative voice means that there's something to like in every piece. 


Such a Long Journey Rohinton Mistry

As a Greek-Australian, I really related to this novel due to socio-cultural reasons. In Perth, the original Greek community, chiefly from Asia Minor, Egypt and the island of Castellorizo, settled prior to WW2 and many before WW1. I've even got a few grandparents of Greek background born in Australia whose parents migrated before WW1. Many of these Greeks desired to maintain traditions of language, religion and Easter customs, some of which are no longer existent in contemporary Greece. I remember sitting on my Yaya's (Mary Pitsikas') lap as a child and, even though she was born in Australia, she'd speak to me in Greek, she also sang Greek songs on the piano with all the family (including the Katavatis clan). I endured Greek school, or Greek school endured me (I was a bit of a rascal) and we were brought up in a fairly 'Greek' style. 

I do value this cultural heritage (which is slowly vanishing). My wife is Indian Malaysian, so I don't value the culture in any exclusive way - the Greek community was less integrated in the past.

I also feel a sense nostalgia for what was. And Such a Long Journey explores this sense of cultural loss, its riches, and the general nostalgia, but in a far more magnified manner. 

It's not nearly as dramatic, or as thrilling, as Mistry's excellent A Fine Balance, but I see Such a Long Journey as every bit its equal. On the surface, the story is about Gustad Noble and his array of family problems. Gustad, a bank clerk, has a daughter with an unknown illness, and his son has been awarded a prestigious scholarship, but to the disappointment of his parents, he has dreams of a more artistic nature. One of the Noble's former neighbours, Major Balmoria, is involved in some political intrigue and Gustad is caught up in the net. The novel is set in a time of political turmoil, that of Indira Ghandi; the backdrop is of India readying for war against Pakistan over Bangladesh.

But what I connected with most is the novel's insight into the rapidly dwindling –and once hugely influential– Parsi community of India. These people of Persian ancestry, who originally fled Islamic persecution (the Zoroastrians weren't one of the three religious groups that adhered to the 'old book') and settled in India, follow the world's oldest religion. The novel explores the challenges of preserving an ancient culture in the modern world: prayers in an ancient, and often misunderstood, language; keeping faith through marrying another Parsi; the many cultural barriers and changing traditions too. A classic example is that the 3000 year old tradition of Zoroastrians leaving their deceased on towers to be consumed by carrion birds is being modified.

Mistry conveys this sense of nostalgia, along with his realistic acceptance of change, in this wonderful novel. It might be relatively slow moving, but it's an exceptional exploration of a minority group battling to maintain their own identity; of whether it's possible to preserve the ancient religion and its customs in a modern world, or whether it is just a fading dream held on to by the older generations.

Mistry's style is honest, loving, detailed, and he brings levity to his narrative by blending drama with humour. As such, Mistry is one of the leading novelists of our era.   

The Heroes Joe Abercrombie

Once again, this novel won't suit everyone. It's a unique read as it's entirely centred around a war between The Union and the North. The Heroes is a warrior's world, and this novel cleverly details all the stages of a war, from the initial early skirmishes, right through to full blown battles and the aftermath. Abercrombie manages to keep a focus on relationships as his mad characters engage in their sharp dialogue alongside their sharp blood wetting. The Heroes explores the grey futilities of war along with its political and class machinations, all the while keeping the reader intrigued with its hilarious, larger-than-life, and often seriously flawed, characters. Many of which return to the 'mud'.

I do, however, find that Abercrombie's late character plot twists, aren't always successful. They're too purposeful and deliberate, but that's a minor quibble, and as stated, this is a great read.

Abercrombie upturns the scales of archetypal heroes and villains and cowards, in a cynical and entertaining look at humanity. The Heroes allows the reader varying perspectives from a gallery of colourful characters, and ultimately, there are no 'true heroes' at all.

Best Movies of 2017

Although vastly different films, my two picks for this year are Thor: Ragnarok and The Killing of a Sacred Deer.  I might post a couple of reviews down the track.

Best for 2018. Hope it's a loving and meaningful year. 

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Writers on [Writing]: Elie Wiesel

When Kafka...spoke of his wish to see his tales turned into prayers, he was more than likely thinking of Rabbi Nahman. Only he did the reverse: He transformed his prayers into tales. Was Rabbi Nahman then Kafka's teacher? Perhaps, but surely he is mine.  

Ellie Wiesel, 'A Sacred Magic Can Elevate the Secular Storyteller'

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Premiere of the short film 'Coffee' on the 20th October at UWA

My brother, Matthew Nicholas Phillips, is a physiotherapist by trade, but acts in plays, music-videos and short films.

He decided to adapt the first story that I'd written ('Coffee' published in Dotdotdash Magazine5 - I think in early 2011in to a short independent film, with the aid of videographer and co-director, Alex Lorian. Their product, the short film 'Coffee', is premiering on the 20th this month at the University of WA (UWA) Social Sciences Lecture Theatre.

It was a pleasant surprise when Matthew told me he'd like to make a film of the story. My involvement was limited to meeting the exuberant, talented local cast and film-making team; and briefly explaining that 'Coffee' was my first story and a bit of a twisty, Dahl-esque one. I also mentioned that the dialogue was a little artificial, so that when they had the script (not adapted by me) to be wary of that element in the story and make the adequate changes.

I feel as though I've evolved as a writer since my first couple of stories, but for my parents, my uncle Terry Pitsikas, and my brother, Matthew, 'Coffee' has always been their personal favourite. So much for the evolution of a writer...

I know I'm digressing here, but there are a couple of stories from the magazine 'Coffee' was published in that I really admire. One is 'R & L' is by Ryan O'Neill, a writer who always brings some originality to the short story form. 'R & L' cleverly explores lingering colonial values and attitudes, when an Australian volunteers to teach English in Rwanda. And 'Lollies' by David McLaren is an insightful Australian story about separation, family connections and disconnections.

As for  the film, 'Coffee', I haven't seen it yet, so it'll be completely new to me on the night too. I felt it important that the filming team and actors had free artistic license. Film is a different genre, and I'm eager to see what creative arcs they have taken with the short work.

The film will premiere before a longer independent film, Subject 36 by Alex Lorian.

A bouzouki player has provided the playing for the soundtrack. Although in his teens, Anastasis Karamintzas is an incredible talent. Everything he does is crisp and sharp, he's up there with the best I've heard. I've been playing plenty of rembetika and laika in the car since I was sent a snippet of the soundtrack.

Tickets are $15 for the Premiere on
Friday 20th October, 7:30 at the UWA Social Sciences Lecture Theatre. There is an intermission after 'Coffee' before the film Subject 36. Click on  Booking for the link and details.

Love to see you there!    

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Paul West: Writers [on Writing]

I have a porous vision, into which anything can get, and I welcome all invaders, knowing the world is richer by far than a wall of identical shoe boxes, whose mildewed aura defeats what's creative. 

Paul West, In the Castle of Indolence You Can Hear the Sound of Your Own Mind

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Alice Walker: Writers [on Writing]

Meditation has been a loyal friend to me. It has helped me write my books. I could not have Possessing the Secret of Joy (about a woman who is genitally mutilated)  without it; writing The Temple of my Familiar (my "great vision" novel of how the world got to be the way it is) would have been impossible. The Color Purple owes much of its humor and playfulness to the equanimity of my mind as I committed myself to a routine, daily practice. 

Alice Walker, Metta to Burial and Other Marvels: A Poet's Experience of Meditation 

Friday, July 14, 2017

Kurt Vonnegut Jr: Writers [on Writing]

A year after I got there, Engle rescued an economically drowning Richard Yates, one of the most excellent writers I ever met, a second time.

                          Kurt Vonnegut Jr, Despite Tough Guys, Life Is Not the Only School for Real Novelists

Both Kurt Vonnegut Jr and Richard Yates taught at the famed Iowa Writing Centre. The reasons I love the above line are threefold: firstly, it illustrates Vonnegut's admiration for Yates in spite of the pair's writing being poles apart; secondly, it shows Vonnegut's ability to see greatness in a writer whose commercial success arrived posthumously; and thirdly, it's about two writers I esteem – both authors were accomplished in their own unique ways.

Vonnegut is best seen as a satirist, not in the richer British tradition of Martin Amis or Will Self, but in a more minimalist, cutting way. Vonnegut's characters and their drives are relatively simplistic, but always fun and effective; his prose is spare, which helps add weight and an acidic sharpness to his jokes.

My uncle introduced me to Vonnegut in high school. It wasn't the traditional introduction through his two most celebrated works: Slaughterhouse-Five or Breakfast of Champions, but via Bluebeard, a novel that is still one of my favourites by Vonnegut. Bluebeard is the story of the fictitious Armenian-American minimalist painter Rabo Karabekian. It furthers Vonnegut's exploration of the psyche of prisoners of war that he is renown for.

Since Bluebeard, I've read plenty of Vonnegut. My preferred Vonnegut works are a little less known...well, lesser known for Vonnegut. 

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater is a satirical delight, examining all that is erroneous within the US. Wealth and power are as much the protagonists here as are Vonnegut's fairly uncomplicated, but once again, very effective, views of right and wrong.

Another favourite of mine is Timequake.  Although maligned, especially by critics at the time, I see Timequake as a wonderful fusion of genre. It's really Vonnegut's philosophising on life as much as it is a fiction novel. In effect it's his blended non-fiction/fiction manifesto. In fact, most of the content in Vonnegut's A Man Without a Country: his criticisms of the US; his addressing of life's ironies; along with presenting his own beliefs and values, have actually all been laid out beforehand in Timequake. I've a feeling that down the track more readers will see the beauty of Timequake, especially when they realise A Man Without a Country is, in essence, a rewrite of Timequake, albeit in a more accessible form.

A couple of the interviews in God Bless You, Dr Kevorkian are also a hoot.

Which brings me to Yates, the writer Vonnegut justifiably labels 'excellent'. Although Raymond Carver is often seen as the iconic American short story writer, personally –for me at least– Yates towers over him (as does John Cheever), so it's refreshing to read about Vonnegut's appreciation of Yates, a writer whose work is so different from his own. The tips I've read or heard from numerous short story writers frequently reinforce their own personal writing styles rather than giving homage to the broader repertoire of effective styles out there. That's not the case here. While Vonnegut is a crisp minimalist satirist, Yates captures and expands on moments in time. Relationships are put under the microscope in displays of prose mastery. Yates' exploration of the human condition includes our sense of nostalgia, life's bitter turns, mislead lust and misplaced ambition, the marvel and tragedy of love and loss, along with the bittersweet aspects of life, in nearly every story. His two collections, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness and Liars in Love, magically capture the imaginings, along with the urban discontent, of everyday Americans. Although not nearly as funny as Vonnegut's work, these collections are two of my all-time favourites.

I hope Vonnegut's appreciation of Yates only furthers a reader's appreciation of Vonnegut. It evidently does for me.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Writers [on Writing]: John Updike

Updike refers to a favourite novel and protagonist of mine here in the whisky priest from Greene's classic The Power and the Glory

I've read plenty of impressive commentary by Updike, but only one novel: The Witches of Eastwick. I was in high school when I read it and I'm not sure whether I was mature enough at the time to appreciate it. I'm saying this because only a couple of years ago, I read Updike's short story, 'A and P' and loved it. I wonder what my younger self would have thought?

Like the whisky priest in The Power and the Glory–no matter how bad it gets, he can still put God in men's mouths. We can still put truth in men's heads.
               John Updike, Questions of Character: There's No Ego as Wounded as a Wounded Alter Ego

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Writers [on Writing]: Scott Turrow

"Was Ulysses really a great work of literature, if almost no one read it for leisure, and if the few who dared found it so taxing? What did writers owe their audience? How easy were we supposed to make things for them? And what were we entitled to demand in return?"

Scott Turrow, An Odyssey That Started with Ulysses

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Recent Book Launches, Ticonderoga's 21st Birthday at Swancon #42 and Current Reads

Ticonderoga Publications 21st Birthday (Swancon #42)

Ticonderoga Publications celebrated an incredible 21 years in typical TP style. Editor Liz Grzyb made over 50 delicious cupcakes with the TP logo in a variety flavours (I had the cookies and cream).

Russell B. Farr presented an intriguing overview of Ticonderoga's rich history, with respectful mentions given to numerous writers and editors, including Sean William (a Guest of Honour) and Jonathan Strahan, who were both in attendance.

The celebration also included a post-launch and preview-launch. Alan Baxter's collection, Crow Shine was 'post-launched', and I bought a copy. It was great to meet and spend some time with Alan – one of the Guests of Honour at Swancon#42 –especially as we've been anthology mates a couple of times before (Dreaming of Djinn ed. Liz Grzyb and Bloodlines ed. Amanda Pillar).

The Year's Best Australian Fantasy & Horror 2015 Ed. Liz Grzyb & Talie Helene was also 'preview-launched' at the 21st birthday. This was the 6th Volume so far. I read an excerpt from it, along with fellow Perthite, Stephen Dedman, and the ever affable, Cat Sparks.

My story 'Lady Killer', which I am very humbled to have included, is on the darker psychological side and doesn't contain as much dialogue as what I'd normally write. It was an enjoyable experience compressing the life's stages of a flawed protagonist into a short story. A sphinx felt the perfect vehicle with which to do this due to the Sphinx's famed riddle to Oedipus. The story was first published in the Aurealis Award winning anthology Bloodlines. 

Alan Baxter pointed out at the reading that Liz Grzyb had written a dedication to me at the front of the anthology. This had me caught up in alliterative 'G's: I was gushing, gobsmacked and giddy - but also very thankful and appreciative.

A Few Other Buys (other than a stack of Ticonderoga books): I bought Lotus Blue, Cat Sparks' debut novel, one set in a dystopian Australia. It had a rave review in Locus Magazine recently. Last time Sparks was in Perth, she'd recently released her collection The Bride Price. 

I also bought Thoraiya Dyer's debut novel Crossroads of Canopy, which also looks a treat.

And finally, Jonathan Strahan's newly released The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume Eleven. If it's anything like the one I read last year (Volume Six), it will be a bounty of rich stories. Strahan & Brown's Locus Awards Anthology played a huge role in inspiring me to write long short stories, and also understanding that the long short story/novelette genre has great value as a narrative vehicle.

I had a fab time in my couple of days at Swancon. I played a few games, bought a truckload of books, caught up with friends, and met some wonderful people. I also saw The Aurealis Awards, which had a superlative lineup of finalists. Please see the link below, as these awards, including the shortlists, usually make for wonderful reading. Congrats to all nominees.

Launch of Rubrik by Elizabeth Tan 

Liz Tan and I studied a unit together on writing novels, I was a postgrad student, and Liz an undergrad, and you could see Liz' talent shining through in the class, her writing seemingly effortless in its fluidity and beauty – so it was a pleasure to attend the launch of Liz Tan's debut novel Rubrik at Beaufort Street Books. It was an emotional evening for a variety of reasons, but also an exciting one. Rubrik looks like a 'Tan Special' with a menagerie of quirky offbeat characters and weird events. It's also set right here in my hometown of Perth, but not quite the Perth as we know it...I did say menagerie, didn't I?

Current Reads

Just read Such a Long Journey by the magnificent Rohinton Mistry. It was Mistry's first novel and it isn't as large in scope or melodrama (which was fine with me) as the justifiably acclaimed A Fine Balance. The work explores a similar era in India's history, during what Mistry again portrays as Indira Gandhi's incredibly corrupt reign, but this time the backdrop focusses on the Indo-Pakistani 1971 War involving Bangladesh. Such a Long Journey fascinated me in a cultural sense, as it delves into the rich heritage of the Parsi community. The Zoroastrians of India are now a dwindling people, and this novel explores both the community and family's connection to the faith and culture along with its fragmentation, providing for a nostalgic, melancholy tone throughout, yet Mistry always manages to imbue his work with humour, making it all the more poignant and effective.

Where Song Began by Tim Low: An epic feat. This is all about Australian birds. Our songbirds, parrots and cockatoos are long-lived and fiercely intelligent, and Low spells out why. The research, details and many anecdotes are superb.

And the next novel my bookclub has chosen is The Good People by Hannah Kent, as we all enjoyed Kent's debut novel Burial Rites.