Monday, January 1, 2024

Reading and Writing Review 2023

 Books Read 2023

 

Bourbon Penn 31 Ed. Erik Secker (journal/ anthology)

Constantinople: The Last Great Siege 1453 Roger Crowley (history)

Aurum: A Golden Anthology of Original Australian Fantasy Ed. Russell B. Farr (anthology)

This Immortal Roger Zelazny

Palm Sunday Kurt Vonnegut (memoir/collection)

The Physiognomy Jeffrey Ford

The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday Saad Z. Hossain (novella)

Fireheart Tiger Aliette de Bodard (novella)

Lessons Ian McEwan

Not So Much, Said the Cat Michael Swanwick (collection)

Beggars in Spain Nancy Cress (novella)

Bourbon Penn 26 Ed. Erik Secker (journal/ anthology)

The Passenger Cormac McCarthy

My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales Ed. Kate Bernheimer (anthology)

Give Me Your Heart Joyce Carol Oates (collection)

Tender is the Night F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Factory Witches of Lowell C.S. Malerich (novella)

Things of the Hidden God: Journey to the Holy Mountain Christopher Merrill (memoir/expository)                                                                              

Yellowcake Summer Guy Salvidge

Asimov’s Science Fiction September/October 2018 Ed Sheila Williams (journal/magazine)

High Times in the Low Parliament Kelly Robson (novella)

When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain Nghi Vo (novella)

Doctor Fischer of Geneva or The Bomb Party Graham Greene (novella)

The Porcupine Julian Barnes (novella)

The Ghosts of Sherwood Carrie Vaughn (novella)

Coffee, Sex & Health: A History of Anti-Coffee Crusaders and Sexual Hysteria Ian Bersten (history)                                                                                        

Doctor Rat William Kotzwinkle                                                                                   

 

I spent most of the year novellaing. I’ve always been a fan of the form, so one day I rocked up at Stephens Books in Perth and bought all the Tor novellas he had on offer. Lucky for me, all read so far have been entertaining.

 

On the short story front, I’ve read two editions of Bourbon Penn (26 31) and four stories from One Story; both publish the longer version of short stories to an excellent standard (Asimov’s also had many wonderful longer stories). Although, I’m a proud lifelong subscriber to Overland Literary Journal and a fanI do wish they’d include a few longer fictional pieces. In fact, Australia’s general word limits in literary journals are creating a false representation of the short story at a national level, which concerns me. 

 

This list of standout reads this year will be short due to time and life parameters. Almost all the books I read over the course of the year are worth reading, with only one I’d warn readers to stay well clear of. 

 

Publishing FrontI had ‘An ‘80s Tenement Love Story’ published in Bourbon Penn 31. Bourbon Penn is a delightful place to have another story in. I can honestly say that all the accompanying stories have more than just merit, so to have a 30 odd pager in Bourbon Penn for the second time is a true privilege. 


The curator of Auslit sent a lovely uplifting message with four simple words: "I loved this one", which made my day as I have no expectations that Auslit ever read my work with their enormous role. 


Erik Secker and the Bourbon Penn team do a fabulous job supporting literature and genre, and that joyous area in which the pair meet. Bourbon Penn is the kind of product that suits my own reading taste to a tee. The stories are layered, often meta, always entertaining, but also sublime in terms of the aesthetics of either a courageous narrative voice or controlled prose. 



Planet Books Mt Lawley                                                       

 

Most Enjoyable Reads


I’m savagely limiting myself to one per genre, which is incredibly unfair on so many great books. I am also keeping it short this year too in terms of commentary. 

 

History: Constantinople: The Last Great Siege 1453 by Roger Crowley

 

Crowley's work is clearly reminiscent of Runciman’s classic The Fall of Constantinople 1453, and like the Runciman predecessor,  Crowly explores the huge siege of a once glorious city, and the small but valiant defence provided by those dying embers of the ‘New Rome’. The siege has ignited the imaginations of writers and readers for hundreds of years. Crowley ensures we understand its international elements and significance, and the fact that this siege had it all: land, maritime, and even underground elements, along with two inspirational leaders of the era in Constantine Palaiologos, and Mehmet, along with unheralded military weaponry. The event itself was a crucial turning point in history with the clear establishment of the Ottomans as a true superpower not only in The Middle East, but also in Europe, along with the demise of the Byzantines; many of who had already fled en masse to the Greek quarter in Venice along with Southern Italy, whereby they, in turn, provided a major impetus for The Renaissance. And there is plenty of irony in the Greek presence in Venice as no place did more damage to Constantinople than Venice itself with its egregious sacking of the city; a sacking from which Constantinople never recovered from. 

 

Like Runciman before him, Crowley manages to focus on the narratives of the siege, rather than a raw bludgeoning of endless details. And it is Crowley’s capturing of these individual stories within the scope of the overall larger narrative, which make it a delight. 




Anthology: Aurum: A Golden Anthology of Original Australian Fantasy Ed. Russell B. Farr 

 

Aurum: A Golden Anthology of Original Australian Fantasy Ed. Russell B. Farr (anthology) is made up of novelettes or novellas, depending on where you believe the arbitrary cut-off is. Each one of these novelettes is an entertaining read. Numerous were in my previous list of best stories read for the year. A couple of works draw on more traditional tropes, which I have no problem with as the execution is superb, while others are innovative and experimental in nature. But I admired each and every work. A consistently superb anthology.



My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales Ed. Kate Bernheimer is also excellent. The anthology is incredibly eclectic with many wonderfully written stories. 

 

Novel: This Immortal by Roger Zelazny

 

This novel was awarded the Hugo along with Dune in 1966 in what was a tied place. And while Dune went on to become an iconic cult classic for many SF fans, the innovative, albeit chaotic, This Immortal, fell into relative obscurity.

 

This was not the 'best' read of the year, but for a variety of reasons, I found it the most enjoyable. In This Immortal, post-apocalyptic Earth is in danger of completely collapsing, and it’s now a perilous tourist resort for blue Vegans (an alien people, not entirely different from today’s equivalent…). The hero of the story, Conrad Nomikos, is a mysterious survivor with a long history in the Aegean. He claims he is a kallikantzaros but he is an anthropomorph. But perhaps Conrad is even more than a kallikantzaros, and yesterday’s Pan? As a reader you are unsure at times as to whose side Conrad belongs to, but you can’t help but barrack for Conrad Nomikos, whose Greek island home is destroyed early on in the story along with his lover. Conrad is typical of a Zelazny hero: self-deprecating, cunning and elusive, irreverent, but also laden with hidden powers. 

 

Not all will enjoy This Immortal, but Zelazny’s mish-mash of modern Greek folktale combined with Classical Greek mythology, combined again and with his own zany sci-fi world building is a treat. Zelazny also really understood the Greek cultural elements of the 1960s. 

 

This Immortal will never enjoy the legendary status of Zelazny’s far more controlled Lord of Light, or the adventurous swashbuckling brilliance of The Chronicles of Amber work. Rather, This Immortal is more of a madcap ride through a chaotic wilderness. The seemingly unplanned adventure makes it a compelling read. Perhaps at the time of reading it, I was after something that was less polished, not superbly crafted, but raw and ambitious. 

 

The subversive nature and courage of Conrad is also refreshing when compared to many of today’s almost apologetic heroes. I’ll confess that Dune has dated far less, yet part of the joy of This Immortal is that it has dated to a ridiculous extent. The unexpected unplanned nature of This Immortal is a reward in itself, especially when compared to the modern era of celebrating carefully sculpted works. The climax and lead up in This Immortal is all fairly psychotic. 

 

This Immortal will undoubtedly divide readers, especially if they are going in with contemporary expectations of what good literature is. Characters in This Immortal come and go, scenes and enemies change without an abundance of logic, and there is also an expectation that you, as a reader, will have mountains of cultural capital, especially regarding modern and ancient Greece. All AOK with me, but be warned…

 

If I were to be objective, I’d clearly state that this novel is stuck in a past era, but, for me at least, that made it refreshing. Although a personal highlight, I’ll provide a final caveat: unless you’re a time traveling sci-fi geek and lover of mythology, who can also deal with dated worlds and characters and random rolls, you may want to avoid This Immortal. And although I enjoyed it that’s a pretty specific caveat…


 

Memoir-collection Palm Sunday by Kurt Vonnegut

 

Like This Immortal, this is another text that will polarise readers. Some parts delight more than others, but as always, Vonnegut’s honesty and wit and conversational honesty won me over.  

 

Vonnegut often uniquely manipulated and blended genre, and Palm Sunday is a wonderful example of this. It contains a bizarre collage of family histories, speeches, reflections on works, reflections on his marriages, reflections on his parents, reflections on his home life and children, stories of his own, thoughts on mental health and family, praise of creative types, letters, and even essays and… the list goes on. And a bit like Zelazny’s aforementioned work, at times Palm Sunday appears to have the structure of a randomly rolled die.

 

So, unless you’re a true fan like me, this may disappoint. Vonnegut meanders all over the place with a recklessness in a structural sense. But for a Vonnegut fan, the sentiment and quirkiness will win readers over, but for others, the sporadic, disconnected nature of the text and its many imperfections, will be just that, an imperfect disordered rambling discourse. 

 

Yet, circling back to the fans, for those who like to sit back and hear Vonnegut chat away and digress all over the place, this will be a treasure chest. 

 

For me, Vonnegut is a celebrated rarity: a truly hopeful cynic. Irony abounds…



Novella: The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday by Saad Z. Hossain

 

Many came close, but in the end I went with zany The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday by Saad Z. Hossain. 

 

After millennia, the mighty Djinn, Melek Ahmar the Lord of Tuesday, is awoken by a cunning retired Gurkha, Bhan Gurung. But those in the nearby city of Kathmandu have forgotten the mystic might of Melek Ahmar. The world Gurung returns Melek to has been ravaged by climate change, and myriad of other disasters. But nanotechnology and microclimates make Kathmandu inhabitable. Karma, the supreme ruler of Kathmandu, is an algorithm of sorts, who supposedly gives out points to its good citizens. Melek wants an old fashioned violent upheaval but modern humans are quite apathetic to his cause, plus the city’s tame inhabitants weirdly don’t share the same passion he has towards old fashioned boozing and brawling. The cunning puppet master, Bhan Gurung, has his own motives for keeping Melek’s outdated egomaniacal spirit alight and firing. 

 

This is simply a fun read, blending the fantasy of Arabian Nights with nano-sci-fi-technology, all in a tale of vengeance that rivals Alexandre Dumas, but at a quarter of the length. The Gurkha and The Lord of Tuesday is a genre-blending mish-mash of entertainment.



 

Collection: Not So Much, Said the Cat by Michael Swanwick

 

Joyce Carol Oates’ Give Me Your Heart contains numerous superb stories, but the bleak overall thematic nature offers little in terms of hope, so Not So Much, Said the Cat by Michael Swanwick is the collection pick this year as the tone and nature of the stories allow for more versatility, and there is also a dose of humour, which can make any text more meaningful and rewarding. I find that Swanwick even at his worst is still a good read, which speaks volumes in itself. As expected, Swanwick has produced an amusing and innovative collection of stories here. It’s nice to know that there’s a writer like Swanwick around who you can turn to whenever you’re in the need for a good short read. 


 

Happy 2024!

 

Hope you all have a happy and meaningful and healthy year with plenty of good reads! 

Tuesday, December 26, 2023

25 Beautiful Stories and Novelettes from my 2023 Reads

Although I read a variety of genre, I'm quite choosy about what I read in the short form. My preferences also tend towards long short stories and novelettes rather than flash fiction. Over the last few years, I've ruthlessly made the yearly cutoff at twenty-five, but as per the norm many more stories beyond the twenty-five listed deserve praise (I'm also too careful about drawing from anthologies I've had stories published in as I have a natural bias towards these works). This year, I read exactly 100 stories. For me, these 25 stories are the very best of an excellent bunch I read this year.  



‘Smother’ Joyce Carol Oates (Give Me Your Heart originally published in Virginia Quarterly Review, Fall 2005)


‘Bluebeard in Ireland’ John Updike (read in My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me Ed. Kate Bernheimer originally published in The Afterlife and Other Stories)


‘The Mermaid in the Tree’ Timothy Schaffert (read in My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me Ed. Kate Bernheimer)


‘The Scarecrow’s Brow’ Michael Swanwick (read in Not So Much, Said the Cat. First published in Fantasy & Science Fiction, October 2008)


‘With this Needle I thee Thread’ Angela Rega (Aurum: A Golden Anthology of Original Australian Fantasy Ed. Russell B. Farr)        



                                        

‘The  Huntsman and the Beast’ Carrie Vaughn (Asimov’s Science Fiction Sep/Oct 2018(only a slight subversion in terms of switching gender, but at the end of the day, it was an extremely entertaining story and does it really matter how deep and innovative the subversion is?)


‘3-adica’ Greg Egan (Asimov’s Science Fiction Sep/Oct 2018)


‘Shatterglass’ Susan Wardle (Aurum: A Golden Anthology of Original Australian Fantasy Ed. Russell B. Farr)


‘Nowhere’ Joyce Carol Oates (Give Me Your Heart originally published in Dangerous Women ed. Otto Penzler)                                                               



                                           

‘Strip Poker’ Joyce Carol Oates (Give Me Your Heart originally published in Dead Man’s Hand ed. Otto Penzler)


‘Mesdames’ Naomi J. Williams (Bourbon Penn 31)


‘Lady Brilliana’ Lucy Sussex (Aurum: A Golden Anthology of Original Australian Fantasy Ed. Russell B. Farr)


‘The Story of the Mosquito’ Lily Hoang (read in My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me Ed. Kate Bernheimer) very simply told Vietnamese fairy tale. 


‘The Crucible’ Ian Bassingthwaighte (One Story #266)


‘A Case Study of Emergency Room Procedure and Risk Management by Hospital Staff Members in The Urban Facility’ Stacey Richter (read in My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me Ed. Kate Bernheimer)


‘Of Finest Scarlet was her Gown’ Michael Swanwick (read in Not So Much, Said the Cat First published in Asimov’s Science Fiction, August 2014)


‘Halfway People’ by Karen Joy Fowler (read in My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate  Me Ed. Kate Bernheimer)


‘Beautiful’ Juliet Marillier (Aurum: A Golden Anthology of Original Australian Fantasy Ed. Russell B. Farr)


‘Teague O’Kane and the Corpse’ Chris Adrian (read in My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me Ed. Kate Bernheimer)


‘The Louder I Call, the Faster it Runs’ E. Catherine Tobler (Bourbon Penn 31)


‘I’m Here’ Ludmila Petrushevskaya (read in My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me Ed. Kate Bernheimer)                                                               


‘Ever After’ Kim Addonizio (read in My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me Ed. Kate Bernheimer. First appeared in Fairy Tale Review: The Blue Issue, 2006)


‘The Brother and the Bird’ Alissa Nutting (read in My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me Ed. Kate Bernheimer)


‘The Colour Master’ Aimee Bender (read in My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me Ed. Kate Bernheimer


‘Body-Without-Soul’  Kathryn Davis (read in My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me Ed. Kate Bernheimer)                                                                                                                                      

Monday, November 6, 2023

Latest Story News: 'An '80s Tenement Love Story' in Bourbon Penn 31

My latest story 'An '80s Tenement Love Story' has just been published in the hallowed pages of Bourbon Penn. This time in edition 31



It's only the second time that I've had stories in different editions of the same journal/magazine and it''s a fab feeling. The previous time was in Overland; a journal close to my heart in terms of provoking political discussion and sociocultural debate. 'Reading Coffee' was published in Overland 204 and 'Submerging' in Overland 214, with different fiction editors: Jane Gleeson-White for 204 and Jennifer Mills for 214. 'Reading Coffee' went on to be short listed for an Aurealis Award, and also reprinted in The Year's Best Australian Fantasy & Horror Vol. 2 and 'Submerging' was reprinted in The Best Australian Stories 2014. And the two stories have been very giving ever since with ongoing anthology homes, both in the the US and Australia. 


 

'Anthropophages Anonymous (AA)', my previous Bourbon Penn story in edition 25 was in Ellen Datlow's Recommended Reading List for the year, and also earned a mention in her introductory essay for her Best Horror of the Year Vol. 14. Ellen Datlow has an eclectic sense of the genre, which I think helps educate many beyond the misconceived notion that horror stories have to reflect either slasher films or gothic ghost hauntings.  


For those interested in 'An '80s Tenement Love Story',  it's another longish story at a little over 6000 words. And although Bourbon Penn is a US publication, the story itself is set in Perth, and there's also a small part set in the rural town of Northam.


Naturally, This is a work of fiction and all characters portrayed in the story are fictitious... but I'll have to divulge that I've broken the rule here: the dog in the story is based somewhat on a friend's canine, Jen Jansen's. So if you know or see Jen at all, a wonderful English teacher, who is often accompanied by her dog on her Swan River promenades, get Sandy to sign a copy by paw, claw or maw.


The editor of Bourbon Penn, Erik Secker, always provides innovative cover art and this time around the work is called 'On Va Fluncher' by arnus. 


I'd additionally like to shout out a big congrats to the fellow contributing writers: Naomi J. Williams, author of the acclaimed novel Landfalls, whose short stories have appeared in numerous luminous 'literary' homes, including Zoetrope, A Public Space, One Story, Ninth Letter, and The Southern Review. Williams is Pushcart Prize nominee five times and also once a winner. E. Catherine Tobler, whose work has appeared in exceptional speculative fiction homes such as Clarkesworld, F&SF, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Apex Magazine. Tobler has also been a finalist for the Nebula and Sturgeon awards, and currently edits The Deadlands. Alexia Antoniou (συγχαρητήρια) is a newcomer.  It's always refreshing to read a writer's debut story, so kudos to Erik Secker on unearthing a new talent. Let's hope Antoniou has plenty more stories to come. Apparently Antoniou is also in member of the folk duo 'Gawain and the Green Knight'. Corey Farrenkopf, whose story homes include Three-Lobed Burning Eye, Smokelong Quarterly, The Southwest Review and, most importantly, in a previous edition of Bourbon Penn (BP 22). Nico Montoya, who lives in Northeast Minneapolis, also has speculative stories appearing in a variety of homes. And Shane Inman has had a story in The Forge and a number of other places. 


Anyone who knows me, knows the thrill I get in seeing writers who I have been anthology or journal mates with before, and this time around it's a privilege to have another story alongside E. Catherine Tobler. We miraculously shared story homes in Bourbon Penn 25. It's wonderful to touch base again. 




Although an American publication, those good people at Planet Books in Perth (getting parochial now), stocked and sold out of Bourbon Penn 25, and guess what?.... Suppose it's a rhetorical question, but Bourbon Penn 31 willl also be on the shelves at both their Northbridge and Mt Lawley bookstores soon.


Bourbon Penn is my favourite place for stories at present. But don't just listen to me, Jeffrey Ford stated that it's: 'One of my all time favourite magazines.' It's hard to find a better recommendation than that from the author of The Shadow Year. 


The book details on Goodreads relate to Bourbon Penn's quality: "Stories from Bourbon Penn are regularly selected for Year’s Best anthologies and have been reprinted in Stoker Award, Shirley Jackson Award, and New York Times Notable collections."


Currently Reading


A collection by a veritable master of the narrative craft, Joyce Carol Oates, called Give Me Your Heart.  As you might well imagine Give Me Your Heart is replete with wicked tales of dark intrigue, suspense and mystery.

 


And Constantinople: The Last Great Siege 1453 by Richard Crowley is one for the history enthusiasts. It also brings back memories of reading Steven Runciman's elegant history The Fall of Constantinople 1453. I'm a keen reader of both Byzantine and Ottoman history and 1453 really is the terminal point of the Byzantine era, along with the Ottoman Empire clearly cementing itself as the European superpower of the time. 


A Rare Sporting Interlude:


2023 AFL:  My footy team, The West Coast Eagles, received the wooden spoon this year. Yazz sings it all: 


We've been broken down

 To the lowest turn 

Bein' on the bottom line 

Sure ain't no fun

....Hold on, hold on, hold on, 

oooh, ooh, ahh. 

The only way is up, now, baby...' 


Three true champions of the era were farewelled: Norm Smith medalist and twice fairest and best, captain Luke Shuey, was a player which every forward would want to have the ball in his hands. Boots was an excitement machine, who weaved and raced through midfield packs and never surrendered. Ironically, although a grand final hero and a super finals-player in general, he was never rewarded an All-Australian guernsey, and he deserved more than a few. One of my earliest memories of Boots was at a live game at Subi Oval with my dad. Although midfielders are often judged by their possession tally, Shuey sprinted over 100 meters from the play to mark a player, who was three kicks away, which really was emblematic of his team-first mentality. 


Shannon Hurn, the premiership captain, and one of the most lethal kicks in AFL history –and the other Eagle player who you wanted to have the ball in his hands– farewelled the side as twice All-Australian (and he was worthy of plenty more). Bunga also ended his career as the Eagles games record holder at a colossal 333 games. 


And Nic Naitanui, whose physical presence around the ball was the fiercest I've seen. Although as ferocious as a Cape buffalo bull in ruck contests, his gentle hands were softer than eiderdown, allowing  for wizard-like hitouts. Nic Nat retired with three All Australian guernseys,  two best and fairests, and a mark of the year. 


A huge thanks to all three for an abundance of highlight reels. Along with last year's retiree,  Josh Kennedy, and current defender, Jeremy McGovern, they were really the best Eagles players of the modern era. Hopefully, Oscar Allen and Liam 'Flying' Ryan will continue to create mercurial moments for the next generation of players and fans. 


Cricket: The Ashes Test Series was cricket at its entertaining best. Whether you appreciate Bazball or not, the English strategy brought out some exquisite batting and bowling from both teams. Mitch Marsh's century in the Ashes, after being twelfth man for an eternity, was the stuff of myth. Let's hope his limited over form continues to reap dividends too. Speaking of limited overs, I'd love Stoinis a little higher in the batting order.  


And elsewhere, the aging Indian stroke player, Virat Kohli, is still majestic to watch, and Rohit Sharma in the limited overs form seems able to hit boundaries off any ball.  


Soccer: The Matildas getting through to the semi-finals in The Women's World Cup was an epic moment, enrapturing the nation. 


And I know this sounds like a terrible betrayal, deserving of walk-the-plank punitive measures, but I've jumped ship in the Premier League from Manchester United to follow Tottenham Hotspur (COYS!), and it's solely because of 'Big' Ange Postecoglou. I've tracked his career since his playing days at South Melbourne, and then his coaching career in Australia, Japan, Scotland and now the biggest league in the world. What a legend! But don't condemn me until you condemn Robbie Williams:

 



And in the Natural World:


In the Dryandra Woodland and Perup Nature Reserve, numbats are clinging to survival. The Perth Zoo is doing a fabulous job in breeding this striking marsupial, and The Numbat Task Force, in turn, are performing marvels by both raising awareness and by aiding in conservation measures. Check the group out on their Facebook page. Whether we like it or not, we are custodians of the natural world, and this gang are doing all they can to ensure that Australia's egregiously criminal extinction record won't include the numbat. 

 

Monday, February 6, 2023

Books Read in 2022

Hag-Seed Margaret Atwood

On Chesil Beach Ian McEwan (novella)

Come Rain or Come Shine Kazuo Ishiguro (novella)

The Last Byzantine Renaissance Steven Runciman (history)

Cleopatra Michael Grant (history)

Train Dreams Denis Johnson (novella)

Barracuda Christos Tsiolkas

The Subtle Knife Philip Pullman

Crescent and Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds Stephen Kinzer (expository)

Bourbon Penn 25 (collection/lit mag)  Ed. Erik Secker

The Book of Dave Will Self

Folktales of Greece Ed. Georgios A. Megas

The Sisters Brothers Patrick deWitt

Dreamside Graham Joyce

Nothing Holds Back the Night Delphine de Vigan (memoir)

The Love of a Bad Man Laura Elizabeth Woollett (collection)

The Lies of Locke Lamora Scott Lynch

Mother Tongue Bill Bryson (expository)

How to Be an Author Georgia Richter & Deborah Hunn (expository)

Mythic Resonance Ed. Stephen Thompson (anthology)

Prosper’s Demon K.J. Parker (novella)

Island 139 Ed. Matthew Lamb (lit. journal)

Fly Away Kathleen Jennings

Black Dogs Ian McEwan

Rubik Elizabeth Tan

The Eternal Machine Carol Ryles

The Hill of Dreams Arthur Machen

To Paradise Hanya Yanigahara

Griffith Review 68 Getting On Ed. Ashley Hay (lit journal)

A Room Made of Leaves Kate Grenville                                                           


                CONGRATS TO SOME KNOWN PERTH LOCALS


I'll open with a warm congrats to a few Perthites first. 

Carol Ryles has worked a long time on her steampunk novel The Eternal Machine, so it is  heartwarming to see it published. The first fifty pages are absolutely impossible to put down. It's also a novel for readers who desire more from their magic than simply 'it exists'.  The Eternal Machine has a rare and unique scientific sense of why and how magic works. Ryles has put a lot of real thought into an authentic and innovative steampunk world. 

Deborah Hunn was a lecturer of mine, whose classes I loved, so it was also a thrill to read her work How to be an Author, which was written in collaboration with Georgia Richter. 

And I had the good fortune of studying with the talented Elizabeth Tan, and finally read the inventive Rubrik, whose emotional launch I attended a few years ago. 


And moving out of WA, I previously met Kathleen Jennings in Sydney in 2012 at the Aurealis Awards for 2011. We have shared a couple of anthology homes together, and we've also shared another four Yearly Recommended Reading lists in the back of Year's Best anthologies. Jennings is a wonderful artist, and she designed a beautiful cover for the Aurealis Award winning anthology Bloodlines (Ed. Amanda Pillar), in which we were also both story compadres. Fly Away is a unique rural Australian dark fantasy with distinct horrific elements. 

And last, but not least, I read Mythic Resonance because Sue Bursztynski has a retelling of 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarves' within. Sue had my second story published, which happened to also be the second story I'd written, so I tracked this anthology down. And by chance, Alan Baxter has a story in it too. Bursztynski's story has the dwarves of the LOTR type, which is how I love my Khazad. 


THE SHORT FORM

In the short form, I only read eighty-nine stories, which is a far cry from my norm. I enjoyed a few stories from Mythic Resonance (Vicky Daddo's was my pick of the bunch, followed by Alan Baxter, Sue Bursztynski, and Jen White's stories)And although more for horror fans, Laura Elizabeth Woolett's dark collection The Love of a Bad Man was of a consistently good quality with strong entry and exit points. Think devotees to quality horror may unearth a real find here. All the narratives are written in first person present, and, as they're from the lenses of actual historical figures, it's a harrowing and nightmarish read. But I guess that's Woolett's intention. 

Due to my limited reading, I'll just mention ten Greek folktales as standouts rather than my usual list of twenty five or so stories. All are from George Megas' collection. As stated last year, please keep the context of production in mind if you do track these folktales down: 

‘Master Semolina’ 

‘The Turtle and the Chickpea’ 

‘The Seven Ravens’ 

‘The King’s Godson and the Baldchin’ 

‘The Navel of the Earth’ 

‘Cinderello’

‘The Two Neighbours’ 

‘What is the Fastest Thing in the World’ 

‘Princess Plumpkin (Pachoulenia)’ 

‘The King and the Basket Weaver’ 

STANDOUT NOVELS AND NOVELLAS

NOVELS

I'm limiting the brief commentary to three from each form. As usual, I could mention many more, but I like to keep my posts a little briefer. 

Hagseed by Margaret Atwood


This was the fourth novel in Hogarth's Shakespeare Initiative. Atwood has some riotous fun here, utilising caricatures for extra hilarity. The protagonist, our modern day Prospero, is the aging theatre director Felix, who although seriously flawed, we are positioned to barrack for. Felix, whose inflated air of self-importance would fuel a battalion of hot air balloons, is putting on The Tempest; partly to resurrect the memory of his own deceased daughter Miranda, who tragically passed away at only three years of age. Yet Felix with his over-the-top character reinterpretations, which include a transvestite on stilts and paraplegics on skateboards, is undone and sabotaged by Tony. Felix is fired, and flees to a hovel on the outskirts where he broods for many years in isolated squalor. 

Eventually, Felix is drawn back into the real world by taking on an educational drama programme for the incarcerated. Felix, under cover, plans his revenge with the old play within a play routine. The retelling, acted out by a colourful array of inmates, while comedic, also explores various interpretations and perspectives of The Tempest. On the more magical-realist side, Miranda's ghostly presence both haunts and guides Felix at times. 

This was my favourite read of 2023. My bookclub also loved Hag-Seed. It is a rambunctious playful read in the same cheeky style as Atwood's collection The Stone Mattress. I have been strongly drawn to books over recent years which utilise meta-elements in their narratives, and Hag-Seed falls into this category. It's an intelligent, hopeful and refreshingly fun novel. Rather than targeting the macabre, Hag-Seed is intended for readers who are after a light hearted, but still intelligent and meaningful work. Whereby Fowles looked at the dark side of The Tempest in his revered The Collector, Atwood's novel reflects the more comedic elements of the play, which is a brave move as so many readers expect these rewrites to be deep and dark and flooded with gravitas. Yet, when the original play was produced it was marketed as a comedy or tragi-comedy, and as such, Atwood has done the original play more than justice. It's a delight! 

Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas


I have a confession to make, I really like Christos Tsiolkas: his interviews, his commentary, his articles, his work in Overland, but prior to Barracuda, I had not yet finished a novel of his. I often felt like the shock or the attempted-shock after shock after shock after shock lost its effect on me.

 Tsiolkas was a leading author in the innovative era of Australian 'grunge fiction'.  I found, however, little to connect with in his other works, and I certainly didn't see too many of those enjoyable moments of characters connecting. For me, these connections and times of light allow dark fiction to resonate more so, but Tsiolkas' lights in my previous reading seemed pretty dim, or at least in the parts I got through.

But Barracuda, although still imbued with the grunge elements of his other work, feels far more human, and there are moments of light, although not huge rays, throughout. This lengthy work is a winner. It captures the polarised class elements that exist within Australia: Tsiolkas explores self-loathing; notions of success and failure; and the loss of self with the search (and often failure) to realise one's place and identity not only within Australia but also within a broader global context. I also love Tsiolkas's inclusivity in terms of his repertoire of characters. In a sensitive writing and reading world, although Greek Australian, Tsiolkas is not fearful of portraying a broad array of characters, including a Turkish mother, another character of mixed Greek and Chinese background, a Hungarian swimming coach, both the privileged and the unprivileged, the upwardly mobile and the stuck, along with a broad spectrum of gay identities. The novel is insightful and gutsy and culturally very apt for the times. 

The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman


The sequel to The Golden Compass, although not quite matching the stratospheric qualities of the first, is still a delightful piece of world building and storytelling. 

NOVELLAS

The novella has become my favourite form along with novelettes and long short stories.  

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan



Once again, McEwan captures the times so well, and he also explores, in his typical manner, the grey areas of morality, or as I like to term it, 'McEwan's moral dilemma'. The structure is especially clever as the ending condenses time and breaks completely from the slowing down of a moment in the rest of the narrative. Another of his finest works. 

Come Rain or Come Shine by Kazuo Ishiguro


Humorous, clever and subversive.

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson



Shades of Steinbeck, but with overt dreamlike elements. Unique and experimental, Train Dreams was short listed for the Pulitzer that was never awarded, and like Karen Russell's Swamplandia, it was worthy of the listing and more...

HISTORY & EXPOSITORY

The Last Byzantine Renaissance by Steven Runciman


One for history buffs alone. Runciman explores a late flourishing of thought in a dwindling kingdom. While their empire diminished rapidly around them, Byzantine scholars managed to keep alive classical philosophy,  scientific and mathematical inquiry, while also separating the spiritual side from the scientific. Not the easiest of Runciman's works but one of his most intriguing. 

Cleopatra by Michael Grant 



An enlightening read for those who want to truly understand the skills and diplomacy and navigation that Cleopatra used to strive to keep the Hellenistic kingdom of Egypt alive. 

Crescent and Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds by Stephen Kinzer 



My uncle told me that this is the best work on modern Turkey, and I happened to read it twenty one years later... It's fascinating to read the book and see where Turkey was and where it is today. For instance, at the time, the once mayor (and now president) Erdogan, did time in jail and became a mocked figure for being an Islamic extremist. Ironically, in the preceding generations, Islamic extremists were kept at bay by the army. My how things have changed... Kinzer's fears have been realised, and his hopes that he had: alliances with Greece with the earthquake aid (when the Turkish army failed to prove effective when the nation needed them most);  potentially a nation that celebrates progressive elements and thinkers; and a member of a relatively modern part of the world rather than kowtowing to religion like many of its southern and eastern neighbours. Well, the hopefulness that Kinzer expresses here tragically hasn't eventuated. 

Kinzer furthered my understanding of Turkey so much, especially regarding his insight into the Kurds; but also topics like the the Korean veterans; journalists and writers and thinkers and how they are curtailed; the degree to which the former pro-Kemalist military prevented an over zealous religiosity in the country. 

However, Kinzer's insight into Cyprus is a lopsided Turkish perspective. For many years, Cypriot Greeks had been calling for  Enosis (unificationwith the 'Fatherland'. As far back as 1950 only 4% of Greek Cypriots voted against unification with Greece (with a voting turn out of 90%).  Kinzer fails to acknowledge that the notion of enosis was long on the cards for the Cypriot Greeks, and he also fails to acknowledge or recognise or even vaguely understand the cultural history of the Cypriot Greek people. It's as if he's unaware that the national anthem of Cyprus is the same as that of Greece. 

Regardless of his warped view of Cyprus,  Crescent and Star is a beautiful work with a cutting and personal and confronting interrogation of modern day Turkey. Well, the Turkey of twenty years ago. Reading it now does not make it worse, in fact the parallels and downslide of Turkey become all the more apparent from understanding its recent past. 

Happy 2023 

Nice to see the world so connected again with high vaccination rates and a less virulent COVID strain. There is still some work to do ensuring all parts of the world have the opportunity to vaccinate. 

Like always, I hope we look after our wildlife, environment, and rich natural heritage, along with each other. 

Wishing you all a meaningful year.