Wednesday, December 21, 2011

On the Simple vs Continuous Tense

On the Simple vs Continuous Tense

A couple of years ago at a writing workshop I heard a book reviewer of a prominent Australian newspaper berate an emerging author over her use of the continuous tense. 'You never, ever should use it,' he said, slapping her work on to the table like some theatrical arsehole.

The reviewer was not alone, many writers demonise the continuous tense, often falsely labelling it passive.

But I use the continous tense now and then. Why? Because when used cleverly it works. It can:
  1. Place emphasis on time and place. It implies that the act istself  is important.
  2. Add richness to a literary piece in a poetic sense and it can slow the narrative pace 
  3. Highlight the character in action.
 The continous tense often destroys the flow of a piece and can enable a feeling of unintended 'telling'. But when used wisely it is an effective tool. Take for example Ruby J. Murray's short story 'Outback' in New Australian Stories 2:

'Mark knows she is looking at him, knows she is running her finger over her lip, which means: nervous, unsure, undecided.'

The  above achieves all the before mentioned points: time slows down to capture that moment and this further highlights Mark's observations, emphasising the sense of attraction. Of course, change it all into the present simple and it still functions well (albeit at a quicker pace) but I think that Murray chose the right tense for that particular moment of the story. And moments are a writer's chief focus - how long a writer lingers on them is debatable and dependent on style, pacing and taste.

No matter what you might have been told, the continuous tense is still a great tool to have in your writing arsenal.



Thursday, December 15, 2011

Dotdotdash Subscriberthon

Dotdotdash Subscriberthon

I confess that I no longer subscribe to Dotdotdash but before you condemn me to the gallows (this is about a subscriberthon after all) let me explain why: they're based in Perth and I attend their funky, innovative and varied launches where I buy a journal as part of the entry package (or is it on top of it? - I can't quite recall).

But subscribe away if you're outside of Perth (or if you're a Perthite not interested in attending their launches). The journal chiefly specialises in fiction and has a spanky layout in coloured glossy pages. It's a celebration of art, photography, graphic design, short fiction, creative fiction and plenty of poetry

.

I think I'll always like Dotdotdash; they're local (with a national following) and they also published my first story in  Dotdotdash5, December 2010. Almost my entire writing group has published there too. Congrats to Mark Welker (now in Melbourne), Daniel Simpsom and Phil English!

The thing I really admire about the journal is that authors remain anonymous during the submission process. Your name and previous publications mean zilch so the playing field levels out. Of course that has meant that the editor, Steven Finch, has missed out on some 'name' authors but then again he's published some too and he, and the editing team, have the undeniable pleasure of unearthing new and exciting talent.

I wish Steve and his gang continued success in the difficult world of literary journals. With the way they promote and market themselves, they certainly deserve their rapid growth. Join them on Facebook to keep up with the fun.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

More Great Short Stories

More Great Short Stories

The whole concept is a little daggy and all in good fun. I'll reitirate that the before mentioned stories consist of some of my current personal favourites and are certainly not indicative of what is ‘best'. For instance with some stories such as "The Bordello in Faerie", I was concentrating on what I loved about it rather than its flaws. In a year or two who knows, the list may be completely different. I think it's already changing - a state of permanent flux if you'd like

There are other notable stories, outside of the many gems written by Will Self, Angela Carter and Joyce Carol Oates, which I’d recommend to any reader:

A Few More Favourites 

'The Swimmer' by John Cheever

'A Bullet in the Brain' by Tobias Wolf

'Lollies' by David McLaren in Dotdotdash5 (an Australian story)

'The Use of Force' by William Carlos Williams

'D.P' by Kurt Vonnegut Jr

'The Killers' by Ernest Hemmingway

'A Habit of Waste' by Nalo Hopkinson

'The Way of the Cross and Dragon' by George R.R. Martin

'Jefty is Five' by Harlan Ellison

'Girls and Boys, Come Out to Play' by Michael Swanwick

As always, interested in your thoughts on the short story list and any of your own favourite works.

   
Nalo Hopkinson

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Short Story: 'Rachel in Love' by Pat Murphy

"Rachel in Love" by Pat Murphy



"Rachel in Love" by Pat Murphy is one of my all-time favourites. Once again, I first read the story in the Locus Awards anthology.

Rachel’s father is not a chimpanzee but she is and she also has memories of being a human daughter. When her ‘scientist-father’ passes, Rachel, the chimp-girl, discovers the big bad world. Pat Murphy has produced a wonderful story, deservedly winning both the Locus and Nebula awards. "Rachel in Love" deals with the in between natures of both the human and the animal; as well exploring issues of identity and acceptance.

The hybrid nature of Rachel gelled with me as some of my writing touches on similar themes. Murphy has crafted a superb story with a seemless, but also touching, narrative 

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Recent Reads and Brief Comments on 'The Shadow of the Torturer' by Gene Wolfe; 'The Quantity Theory of Insanity' by Will Self; 'Flight' by Sherman Alexie; and 'The Bloody Chamber' by Angela Carter




Recent Reads and Brief Comments on The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe; The Quantity Theory of Insanity by Will Self; Flight by Sherman Alexie; and The Bloody Chamber By Angela Carter

I've just read The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe, The Quantity Theory of Insanity by Will Self, Flight by Sherman Alexie and I am currently reading The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter. I never cease to marvel at narrative prose. There are no hard and fast rules for excellent writing - all these vastly contrasting works display an equally effective style.



Gene Wolfe's novel, The Shadow of the Torturer is part of his magnum opus. A giant in terms of the fantasy-sci-fi writing world, Wolfe has received almost every award around. I was led to this novel via a cold and clever novelette: The Death of Dr Island, a Locus Award winner (it is also part of the The Locus Awards - a collection that I've waxed lyrical about in numerous posts). 

While The Shadow of the Torturer was likeable, I can not, however, claim to be absolutely wrapped in it - unlike Wolfe's legion of fans. The work contains glimpses of sheer brilliance, even the library scene early, where print novels come in all manner of boutique cover is something which we may be nearing ourselves (to compete with their electronic equivalent?). 

There is once again that coldness to Wolfe's first person narration as well as his preference for an unreliable narrator. The Shadow of the Torturer is unusually rich in style, with many Greek and Latin words thrown in (including some newly derived ones), which has an effect of further 'classicising' or 'archaising' the future. Some readers may be challenged by this word smith's more vintage prose but I personally enjoy it. Ultimately though, Wolfe's dreamlike traversal from scene to scene may work for some but did not for me. In addition to that, I also had difficulties with the male-female relationships being so highly sexual; the ease in which the protagonist, Severian, drifts from one relationship to another irked me, as did the focus on sexual energy with regards to all his female companions.

I am interested in reading more of Wolfe's shorter works and will probably one day read the sequel, The Claw of the Conciliator (after all Shadow of the Torturer was still a worthwhile read) but for now there are plenty of other novels that have whet my appetite in an overall more satisfying manner. 



The Quantity Theory of Insanity is Self's first anthology. I won’t digress with a discussion on Self’s uniqueness as I've written enough pertaining to his style in previous posts. The Quantity Theory of Insanity did not quite meet my lofty expectations after reading his other collections - the title story and the one following, were (in this reader's opinion) the worst of his stories in the anthology, but then again I have an aversion to some of his psych-babble narratives. The other stories were all strong and typical of the refreshing writer that Self is. The disinterested Amazonian tribe in "Understanding of the Ur-Boro" is Self at his off-beat best; and the man in pursuit of ending all 'waiting' in "Waiting" is a hoot.



In contrast to the antiquated richness of Wolfe and the quirky, showy prose of Self; Sherman Alexie's Flight is a sparse, quick and fun read. Alexie does not bother with detailed descriptions and he reminds me more of Kurt Vonnegut or William Kotzwinkle in his unique ability to use humour and satire. Flight utilises the voice of an adolescent American Indian boy who has been callously fostered about. Flight remains true to the protagonist's voice and does not try to toy around as much with words when compared to Wolfe, Self and Carter. It's honest, critical and successful in illustrating the world of dispossessed people everywhere: Alexie's novel is as relevant to the Indigenous Australian as it is to the American Indian. Flight is simple, overly didactic, but thoroughly enjoyable. If you are seeking rich prose then it may not be suitable but if you like Vonnegut or Kotzwinkle, then pick Flight up. Alexie's short works are also frequently gems.

           
Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber is syrupy-opulent and I’m currently indulging in its decadent prose. Carter has a remarkable voice and her talent is clearly shown by her utilisation of a hybrid narrative in more than a few stories here. The Bloody Chamber reads like a Greek honeyed pastry - suitably rich and naughty. I just want to indulge in a single story at each sitting rather than ruin my appetite. More than one piece of baklava, kataifi or galaktoboureko can spoil the treat.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Overland Subscriberthon and a Journal Subscription Update

Overland Subscriberthon and a Journal Subscription Update


It did not take me long to renew my Overland Literary Journal subscription. The quality of the journal and its frequently courageous stance on issues meant that it had all ticks from me. The calibre of fiction is also impressive: Christos Tsiolkas, Patrick White, Margo Lanagan, Peter Carey, Thea Astley and Charlotte Wood  are just a few names that come to me off the top of my head. Then add the artwork of Shaun Tan in #202 and you've covered almost everything.

Overland Literary Journal is not just for the left, and lets face it, many writers are left leaning, but it is also for lovers of literature. Its pages contain the finest Australian writing and we are fortunate to have it. Moreover, Overland slaves away to inform readers with its online presence: as of last count it had 3,915 friends on facebook, which is a credit to the way it has tackled the electronic age. The twitters (or tweets?), links and blog posts, are frequent and informative, and I for one, have benefited from them.

And that is the dilemna for this independent journal. They are doing so much that we can access for free. So why then buy? It was at the Perth Writers Festival, where I heard Margo Lanagan state that when in doubt go for threes. So I'll give you three reasons:

  1. Tactility: Personally, I am still enthralled by the tactile feel of a fictional story but outside of fic, I am quite content reading away online. So, due to the fiction, usually three stories per issue, which makes 12 fictional pieces a year - it suits me to have it in the hand. 
  2. Supporting a Great Service: Overland provides us with updates on facebook and its website. These are informative, captivating, frequent and free. I go to the local independent bookstore and buy books to support them because I want to keep them around. It is the same with Overland - yes, it is arguably our most subscribed to literary journal but if we want to keep them going in our modern 'capitalist-takes-all- age' then we have to show them the money. Pay them for the service they provide (ironically, this point probably goes against the very pillars the journal stands for).
  3. Ubiquity: I acknowledge that this point is awfully askew regarding a subscriberthon - it's more of a plug for buying it from a bookstore. But personally, I think Overland needs to be seen. It does garner fans from lovers of good writing who discover it on the web but it needs to maintain (and expand) its place in bookstores and the better newsagencies. This way it might meet new fans who appreciate literature. The physical presence of the journal is as important as its innovative electronic one. 
There are a myriad of other reasons too. I'll give you three more quick ones - I wonder whether I am cheating, Margo? Sixing it up and all: it looks great on my coffee table; it opens up discussion; and lastly, as mentioned earlier, Overland is of the highest quality.

So I have renewed my subscription, and I say that if you are a friend of Overland Literary Journal, then you should too. Dictatorial of me, I know. 

And now for the other journal in the deal. It was difficult but I thought I'd try Meanjin this time, which just pipped Griffith Review and Wet Ink. Griffith Review is an eminent journal but it does not tackle genre or speculative fiction, which rules out some wonderful literature. I'll continue to buy the occasional Griffith Review from Planet Books, for the simple reason that it deserves to be read. With regards to Wet Ink,  I like the fact that it seems to push emerging talent and is open a wide genre playing field, but I went with Meanjin this time as I've enjoyed the last few lent to me from friends. In the future I'd like to add Griffith Review to my subscription list (as well as a few others too).

The before mentioned journals, and others like them, require us to help them. Writers need to find suitable homes of worth; readers need to be kept informed and enjoy great writing. We have some fantastic journals, my personal favourite, however - and I have a harem of beloved journals - is Overland. They also pay their writers at generous professional rates, which is a rarity in the modern era. So subscribe and send some love their way in return. Sometimes your relationship with Overland will be volatile and at other times passionate but it will never be anything less than stimulating. 

Friday, October 28, 2011

Recent Book Buys and Recent Reads

Recent Book Buys and Recent Reads


Despite my self-imposed ban, I bought again: evidence that I would have failed as a Spartan.

Readers may think I'm suffering from a multiple personality disorder when looking at the variety here.

After enjoying The Last Werewolf, I bought three Glen Duncan novels: I Lucifer from New Edition



A Day and a Night and a Day from Oxford Books


and Love Remains also from Oxford Books




The embarrassing cover below couldn't prevent me from buying Swords and Dark Magic (an anthology edited by Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders) from a bookstore in Shafto Lane soon to be called 'Stephen's Books'. I loved Strahan's The Locus Awards and this collection seems like it's fun as well as having a celebrity list of authors: Gene Wolfe, C.J Cherryh, Michael Moorcock, Robert Silverberg and Joe Abercombie to name but a few. More importantly, they are all juicy 'long' short stories rather than flash (which I like reading in folktale or fable form).


And my final buy was recommended by Jasmine in New Edition: Four Novels by Marguerite Duras. Which are really four novellas: The Square; Moderato Cantabile; 10:30 on a Summer Night; and The Afternoon of Mr. Andesmas.


On the reading front, I have just finished The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe and I am currently reading The Quantity Theory of Insanity by Will Self; an author I find refreshing. Self is satirical, cynical, witty and loves showing it. He is a stimulating change from both understated prose and also the more poetic narratives. I am glad that there's a writer like Self around. He occasionally misses the mark and some of his psycho-babble stories infuriate me but when on-song, his ostentatious vocabulary combined with his misfit worlds, captivate in a way that not many other writers are capable of.




As always, I'm interested in your thoughts on any of the above books or authors.






Saturday, October 22, 2011

Short Story: 'The Bordello In Faerie' by Michael Swanwick

 "The Bordello in Faerie" by Michael Swanwick


I have previously mentioned that Swanwick is a courageous and innovative writer who sometimes slips into an almost literary version of soft porn. "The Bordello in Faerie" is a typical 'sexed-up' Swanwick story but it is also Swanwick at his most sublime.

A young man, Ned, who starts out as a bit of a buffoon, becomes aware that on the other side of the bridge which separates the world of the mundane from that of the Faerie, there is a renowned brothel. He crosses over and keeps returning to the bordello as the readers' world  - and Ned's - is flipped midway through the story. I won't reveal any secrets here but it was the twist in the middle, as opposed to the dated twist at the end of many short stories, that had me completely.

The story does have its flaws: the afterwards may seem a bit too 'nice' to some readers and his brothel endeavours begin to drag.

In my view, the brilliance of the idea overides the tale's blemishes.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Book Review: 'Anansi Boys' by Neil Gaiman

Outside of the short form, this is the most genre fiction I've read in years!

Book Review: Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman



So much literature ends in tragedy and I was in need of something lighter so possibly the timing of the read affected my take on Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys. It is now my favourite Gaiman novel (with Neverwhere) and I was told by a well-read friend at Planet Books that Anansi Boys was his worst: definitive proof that reading is in the eye of the beholder.

Fat Charlie is your regular Joe: slightly unhappy and plodding through life as an honest accountant for a weasel-like boss. He lives in England and is engaged to Rosie, in a comfortable but sparkless relationship.

Charlie’s youth, with his then together family, was a brief but colourful time in New Orleans. His father was a prankster with who he hasn’t endeavoured to communicate with since he and his mother left for England many years ago.

After being pressured by his do-gooder fiancĂ© to rebuild his family ties before their wedding, Charlie finds out that his father is dead. It further unravels that his dad was a trickster storyteller God of some note and to make things more interesting, Fat Charlie discovers that he has a brother who seems to have taken after his father. That brother, Spider, arrives on his doorstep and Charlie's life begins to take on colour: both horrific, exciting and comical.

Neil Gaiman tells a great story here. The various threads are delightfully woven in a well-structured novel. It kept me smiling throughout with its larger than life characters. Gaiman’s language matches their playfulness in a gripping story.

Anansi Boys is on the lighter side, without being too silly or overly farcical. It’s simply  fun, something akin to an extended bedtime tale. It was more entertaining than the much lauded American Gods (which I still liked). If you’re after a witty chromatic read, then Anansi Boys is for you.

I found it a joy. It will have you singing too!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

'The Great God Pan' by Arthur Machen and a Brief Comment on Bookstores

The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen and a Brief Comment on Bookstores

Why do we bother with bookstores when we can buy online...

Outside of brightening a dull street, bookstores open a physical window for the reading community, not only do they offer respite from a busy world but they also offer readers a conversation with 'bookish folk' as well as actual tactile browsing. 

Independent stores, not only bookstores, are vital in adding colour to our society, it's a break form the chain stream norm that a consumerist society is often sold on. Think about it: variety and culture. Who doesn't want that? In Perth, I tend to order from both Planet Books, New Edition, Stefen's Books - all fantastic independent bookstores; I also occasionally buy from Oxford Books, White Dwarf Books and Crow Books. I do this to support them – I don’t want them vanishing and they offer a far better selection than the chain stores.

I'd been tracking down the out-of-print The Great God Pan but once reissued I ordered it from New Edition in Northbridge. The reasons for the buy vary: HP Lovecraft thought it a masterpiece; Jorge Luis Borges said it is a must read and the first true horror novel, which also greatly influenced his own work; and Stephen King (by the way, I’ve only read The Green Mile) stated:

“The Great God Pan” is one of the best horror stories ever written. Maybe the best in the English language.

Naturally, the trio’s comments about the text were a part of my choosing to read it. A Victorian horror set in England and Wales, acclaimed by Borges, with bizarre links to the Pan’s essence, had reeled me in.

Book Review: The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen. originally published 1894. Revised ed. 1916

Mary, a young girl in Wales is experimented on by Dr Raymond in an attempt to have  human contact with the deity, Pan. The essence of a truly horrific Pan takes over. The girl grows up leaving a trail of deaths behind her. Mary, who is considered both repulsive and attractive, goes to London, where the characters rediscover her as Helen Vaughan. Helen, in turn, leaves another Hellish trail of fear and peril wherever she ventures.

The story grips the reader in terms of the characters tracking Helen’s actions and the unraveling of the unknown. The novella however, seems overly brief and does not achieve the dizzying highs I expected after reading the reviews. It has neither the depth nor the brilliance of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (published earlier in 1886).

Although The Great God Pan, as per the era, is written in a somewhat antiquated style, it successfully fascinates in an historical sense with its capturing of a period in which many were obsessed by the Greco-Roman world. Tension is built throughout but I would have preferred to have been placed into the story more rather than following characters discussing events. The climax is more of an anti-climax, but I certainly did not regret the quick read and for those interested in Victorian gothic, it is appealing in terms of both the boundaries it broke and its context. 

At the time, the critics gave The Great God Pan a pounding for being too licentious. Machen even states in the revised edition’s foreword that it was very popular among England’s female readership who liked the 'salacious' text - thumbs up to Victorian women! Later critics, as earlier mentioned, lavishly praised The Great God Pan, making it the cult text it is today.

Overall, The Great God Pan did not terrify me as it did with Stephen King and many other readers. While it isn't a 'must-read' it is a worthwhile text; it's also one of those stories that remains with you long afterwards.





Saturday, October 1, 2011

'Dance with Dragons' by George R.R. Martin

Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin

Not a review but a liaison:



What can I say? Even after the myriad of pages – I still craved more.
I’m insatiable when it comes to these novels. I know that it is not seen by many critics as a good confession in a literary sense, but I'll happily proclaim that I’m enamoured with the Song of Ice and Fire. Martin is an incredible storyteller and I'm enraptured by his story's many threads.

Yes, the world is too big and overloaded with characters. But then again, the characters are captivating and the world is superbly drawn. Yes, Martin is fixated with words like ‘mummer’ but fans, like lovers, forgive, so we can overlook all those ‘mummers-this’ and ‘mummers-that’. And  I am a fan, a massive one.

In terms of writing, I noted that most chapters end on cliffhangers, fastening you in place until those involved reappear down the track. Not a bad ploy when dealing with a novel of this length.

Like in the musical: Oliver Twist, all I have to ask of Martin is this: ‘Please George, can I have some more?’

Friday, September 23, 2011

Short story: 'Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter' by Chitra Banjeree Divakaruni

'Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter' by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni


An elderly, traditional Indian widow has moved into her American son’s family home. The story follows two days of Mrs Dutta's life, whereby she is in conflict with her new environment and is also struggling with her own fears of detachment, discontentment, and her ever failing attempts to bury these disappointments in order to remain 'properly' faithful to her different New World family.

'Mrs Dutta Writes a Letter' is a beautifully written piece that successfully deals with cultural conflict and self-realisation.

Chitra Banjeree Divakaruni has a great blog for those interested in not only writing but also cooking! Have a read at: www.chitradivakaruni.com/blog/

Monday, September 5, 2011

Book Review: 'The Last Werewolf' by Glen Duncan

Book Review: The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan



Clever and droll, Jake Marlowe is the last werewolf in existence. Basically, he’s a 'killfuckeat' kind of guy, who is also one hell of a writer. Jake is both man and beast: a man who has saved lives against humanity's many monsters (Nazis etc), yet he also literally feasts on people himself. He has a bestial need to satisfy his libido too.

As the narrator, he immediately lures the reader in with a loveable intimacy - despite one particularly grotesque scene from his past. After 200 years, Jake's almost contentedly awaiting World Organisation for the Control of Occult Phenomena (WOCOP) to finish him off. Gainer, whose father was eaten by Jake, is WOCOP's finest and he's waiting for the full moon to take Jake as the beast. But then Jake falls in love as if in a romance novel: truly, madly and deeply. It's his character's metamorphiosis, now he has a responsibility to live, which is great for Gainer, who has been seeking a challenging final hurrah.

Duncan can write and his wit is ceaseless. His language doesn't strive for suitability alone but also freshness like fellow English authors, Martin Amis and Will Self (although not to Self's extreme manner). The line in Jake's journal about Graham Greene's work cuts to the core regarding Duncan's own text: "Graham Greene had a semi-parodic relationship with the genres his novels exploited." The Last Werewolf refers to a range of texts, even Buffy and Angel in a fun read. He purposefully exploits, like Greene, the usual genre motifs - here it is the werewolf and vampire (of course Greene didn't touch those) - and like Greene again, Duncan does much more than any cliched genre novel.

If I had to be hypercritical, I'd say the ending did seem a little too pulpy and pacy; and I'm not sure if the late change in narrative voice was entirely successful. Furthermore, I hope that Duncan doesn't cheapen a great work by selling out with a series of sequels - there is scope in The Last Werewolf to do just that.

But overall it's a highly successful blend of pace and literary merit, an enjoyable novel which rollicks and rambles along.

I'm eager now to go on a Glen Duncan binge and sink my canines into more of his earlier, and apparently more 'literary' work.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Overland #204: 'Reading Coffee' The Writing Process

Overland #204: "Reading Coffe"
And a little on the writing process



It’s a thrill to have a story included in a journal close to my heart: Overland. "Reading Coffee" is my third story published this year and also my third story published in my debut year as a writer. Hopefully there will be many more to come (perhaps one without a beverage in the title.). A hearty congrats to all the contributors in 204, especially the other two fiction writers: Jacinda Woodhead and Charlotte Wood.

I thought I’d take the opportunity to share a small part of the process with you.

I’m not somebody who has a fountain of dazzling ideas, they don’t fall for me from the sky like rain and when I do have one I often examine it briefly and then toss it away in realisation that it’s lacking that indescribable factor that could potentially transform good to great. Yes, it’s the x-factor, how droll.

The idea for the Overland story germinated when I was reading about the 1916 Kalgoorlie Riots in Greek Pioneers in Western Australia by Reginald Appleyard and John N. Yiannakis (a great read for anyone interested in early Greek-Australian history). My Pappou, Lucas Pitsikas, was involved in the commissioning of the book and I’d heard stories about the riots from both him and my uncle, Terry Pitsikas, as a youth. The richness of the story was already there, for me the idea had that x-factor, but I needed to capture the essence and finesse it. After some contemplation, I thought it’d be interesting to embellish the event with some Greek folklore.



Having a family girl like Mary as a protagonist really added the required cultural element. Mary’s family meant that I could delve a little into the nature of the Greek diaspora in Australia at the time. Furthermore, Mary’s age allowed for connection and disconnection, as worried children often experience moments of escape and enjoyment even in the most troubling circumstances (possibly a false generalisation from my own personal observations). Her early ‘discovery’ meant that the tension could simmer throughout while the characters and community were developed.

I wrote the first draft as a skeleton, then fleshed it out with specifics, then culled again for pacing and effect, before laboriously, and often nauseatingly, redrafting again and again and again.

Originally the story had two threads, one was purposefully vague. I cut this due to a difficult-to-publish word limit (even now the story is around 5000 words – I’m not a flash fiction fan). I also sacrificed the thread to make it a generally linear narrative, which allowed for greater clarity and reader accessibility. The culling was literally a ‘kill your darlings moment’ that took an aeon to arrive at. I may explore the vanquished thread at a later date. Who knows - it could become the genesis of another tale?

The opening and ending, in essence, belong to both threads, and I was a little nervous about keeping them but Jane Gleeson-White, the Overland fiction editor, was right in encouraging me to retain both.

I hope that the story brings a little  awareness to our nation’s racist past (although Overland readers are usually a very socially aware group). It’s sad that even today there are the occasional children and grandchildren and great grandchildren of migrants who claim that the ‘new kind’ of migrants aren’t the same. To those people I’d like to scream banshee-like: ‘lights on and wake up!’ The fact is that during previous eras, their parents, grandparents and great grandparents were thought of in a similar, or frequently far worse, manner. Horror, horror!

My prime aspiration, however, is for readers to enjoy "Reading Coffee". For me the story always takes precedence. Ultimately, I’d prefer the reader to leave thinking that it’s a great narrative – any thematic afterthoughts are a rewarding bonus.

As for the genre: I do enjoy, and write, open-ended short stories, this one though, has an almost-closed ending, a rarity in the modern open-ended short story world.

Feel free to comment on "Reading Coffee" and I hope you like Overland #204. It’s a real honour to play a small, humbling part in it – clichĂ©d as it sounds. You can become a friend of Overland Literary Journal on Facebook too. Yes, this is a tacky plug for a journal that’s published me – but I am a fan and subscriber myself.

I’d like to especially thank Jane Gleeson-White who heroically saved me from a couple of anachronisms. Jane was a consummate professional and a delight to work with, a loukoumi herself, whose enthusiasm invigorated me.

And that’s that. For the Perthites out there, Overland #204 will be sold at New Edition and possibly Planet Bookstore. I’ve been told that it’s ubiquitous in its hometown of Melbourne and other states.



And with a final side note on my current reading: I’ve just finished The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan. Lots of fun, easy to sink your lupine canines into; it’s a nicely paced blend of literature and genre, and genre parody. One of my unpolished book reviews about it to come soon. 

Monday, August 22, 2011

Short story: 'Buffalo' by John Kessel

"Buffalo" by John Kessel




"Buffalo" is one of those must read stories, deservedly winning the Sturgeon Award as well as the Locus.


John Kessel is a struggling immigrant in the US who works hard as a logger to get by during The Great Depression. He clings to a flame of future hope and this is why he reads science fiction, especially that of HG Wells. In their first encounter, Jonathon merely sees HG Wells.Their second meeting examines both their lives at a later date.

 
It does not sound like much but "Buffalo" is exceptional. The Great Depression and the US at the time felt well drawn and real. The psyche of a migrant worker; hope through reading and dreams; and the idea of meaning in literature, are all intelligently explored themes here. The atmosphere of the period is tangible too: Duke Ellington is mentioned and Roosevelt's attempts to defy the depression are delved into through the characters dealing with the arduous period.


I'd recommend "Buffalo" to any reader. It lingers like a good whisky well after you’ve finished.




The Locus Awards Anthology is a treasure chest of stories well chosen by the Perth anthologist, Jonathan Strahan. They aren’t the pulpy trashy sort of genre writing but tales that would appeal to any literary minded reader. There isn't a dud amongst them; most are masterworks of the field.  In the collection I also discovered "The Persistence of Vision" by John Varley, which is in 'My Favourite Novella List'  (http://anthonypanegyres.blogspot.com/2011/03/my-favourite-novellas.html). I have a writer friend, Daniel Simpson, who used "Jefty is Five" by Harlan Ellison (another great tale) in his thesis. They are just a couple of the many stories that gleam in The Locus Awards, another one will be mentioned soon. 

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The 'Oneiral' Effect

The 'Oneiral' Effect

I'd like to qualify this before I begin that I view myself as a Greek-Australian. I'm proud of both identities and comfortable with saying so. I am, however, not overly patriotic but interested. I've read Seferis, Elytis, Kazantzakis, Psellus and Herodotus, Thucydides, Plutarch, Euripides, Aristophanes, Aeschylus and Homer (etc); I enjoy Greek music: rembetika, smyrneika, Haris Alexiou, Dalaras, Bithikotsis, Melina Kana, Papazoglou, Lidakis and Malamas (once again the list would go on). I like speaking and hearing Greek.

As for the Australian side: I write in English;  I don't mind saying 'goodaye'; I'm a huge West Coast Eagles fan in the AFL; I follow cricket; and I laughed non stop during The Castle. I care about our nation and who we vote for. I love Whitlam, admire Fraser, adore Perth and wish I could save all of Australia's unique flora and fauna. Go Bob Brown!

So having qualified that I'm proud of both cultures - and not in the nationalistic sense of saying that either are superior to the myriad of other cultures out there - I'd like to post about the 'oneiral effect'.

Often migrants from non-Anglo-Saxon/Celtic backgrounds cling to traditions and values of the eras and countries they migrated from. We often hold ideals of the Motherland/Fatherland being a dreamlike place, where things are purer, people better, the culture superior. For the sake of this slap-dash post, I'm calling this the 'oneiral effect' - there's probably a more formal term out there already in use (but that would require research and this isn't that type of blog) - and as 'oneiro' means 'dream' in Greek it felt for me an apt way to describe it. The oneiral effect often places ethnic communities in a time-warp. Not a complete time-warp but one where things are moving much slower than the state the Motherland is in.

There is a poignancy and beauty in the need to cling to a past that has actually moved on. I know many people in Australia who use Greek words long extinct in the modern vernacular; I know of  traditions that even second, third and forth generation Greeks hold at weddings that have vanished from much of their Fatherland, the Patrida.

With the ease these days of electronic communication this effect will lessen over time but it will still maintain some thin presence. It's both sad and touching; there are dollops of pothos and pathos here. I'm mentioning all this because Neal Ascherson  (in his history Black Sea - the Birthplace of Civilisation and Barbarism - a brilliant work) mentions a story which resonated with me with its depiction of a culture under the full oneiral effect.

Dio Chrysostom (a Greek in the Roman period) was a travelling philosopher and arrived in a dying Greek town of Olbia - on the Black Sea. It was a town of now only 3000, which once had been a vibrant city of 30-50000 people. In the surrounding countryside lived the peoples of the steppe, the nomadic Scythians. Dio had come from the Motherland, so to speak, the modern world and in this largely ruined city he found a people, the Olbians, clinging to a Hellenic culture from a few hundred years ago. This to me is the extreme form of the oneiral effect: distance and isolation in a community clinging to and attempting to maintain the cultural 'superiority' of the motherland.

Dio thought the place odd. Here beards were still worn in an ancient Hellenic fashion, while in Dio's Greece, shaggy beards were no longer all the rage. A handsome young man on horseback on recognising that Dio hailed from the distant Fatherland, boasted to Dio of his Hellenism: his feats of bravery, his interest in philosophy and his many male lovers. While in the Greece of Dio's time, the poetry now concentrated on the beauty of women.

In Olbia, they still all sat down in an archaic fashion outside the Temple of Zeus to hold their debates. Olbians loudly boasted that they knew Homer by heart (can't be a bad thing) yet their Greek was antiquated and poorly accented and the city in ruins. They also wore Scythian clothing and had in turn been influenced from the 'foreign' surrounds. They were like some ethnic communities: both more traditional but also naturally influenced by their region too despite their attempts not to be.

The Olbians in alien lands clung to archaisms in an Hellas long since gone. And although the oneiral effect occurs in our own present day society, not much in our modern wired era of communication compares to Olbia - except in a few rare pockets nearing extinction.

Although, I occasionally feel nostalgic for the Hellas of my grandparents and great grandparents, I realise that times change, culture changes, and that today's world may be growing in terms of population but it is certainly growing smaller on most other accounts. Our global technologically-powered proximity means that the oneiral effect will continue to be diminished too.

The Olbian tale is, nevertheless, touching; and for history buffs, Neal Ascherson's Black Sea, The Birthplace of Civilisation and Barbarism is well worth a read.



Monday, August 8, 2011

Book Review: 'The Secret History of Moscow' by Ekaterina Sedia

Book Review: The Secret History of Moscow by Ekaterina Sedia


In 90s Moscow, Galina, who has experienced visions in the past, sees her younger sister, Masha, transform into a jackdaw and fly away. There's a spate of missing people all likely to have followed suit. In a quest to see what is happening, Fyodor, a homeless street artist; Yakov a cop and Galina jump into Moscow's 'Underground' - a fantastic world of folklore and Russian history.

If you're thinking American Gods and Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, then you've hit the bullseye.

Sedia's prose is quite beautiful and she uses sensory imagery to dazzling effect. Having said that, a bit of fine tuning by the editor may have made this a better piece as on the odd occasion the writing, impressive as it is, jars unintentionally.

It seems to me that Sedia is attempting to convey Russia's compelling but often tragic past to the reading world. She succeeds in painting a vivid picture of both the Russia of the nineties and of the Russia past, right back to folklore times. Invading Mongol-Tartars; early Greek and Scandinavian influences; the idea of Byzantium enduring with Moscow reigning as the Third Rome; Tsarist Russia; Communist Russia; and Post-Communist Russia are all touched on in The Secret History of Moscow.

There are, however, some annoying techniques. Character sketches are used throughout rather than the usual back-story being integrated into the the text. This slows the pace, although I'll admit to being hooked by the tale of Fyodor and Oksana (an attractive gypsy lady). These back story narratives are giant flag posts waving the reader to the different classes and issues in Russia; they could have been interwoven far more subtly.

A similar thing occurs with historical info-drops, but then again it is hard to imagine Sedia's novel functioning without them - readers unfamiliar with Russia would have required some clarity.

Galina (apart from the ending) and Yakov do not seem to develop as much as I'd anticipated and Sedia's dialogue wasn't nearly as convincing here as her prose. It often acts as an uncomfortable insert to tog the story along. Dialogue needs to do more than just that – I’m a firm believer in Janet Burroway’s idea that effective dialogue requires a dual purpose (A Guide to Narrative Craft) .

As for the plot, it lacks some bite and, despite the elegant descriptive prose, seems adolescent at times. The underground landscape appears forced and fairytalish, and the story falls into place a little too late and a little too conveniently. Moreover, there is not enough tension in the novel's central part. Events provide wonder rather than doing more by adding to plot tension. For instance, Yakov meets his long deceased grandfather but it does not progress much further beyond discovering his own grandfather's back-story.

Despite all the before criticism, I'd like to congratulate Ekaterina Sedia on a sound second novel. There are parts that I truly enjoyed and she's certainly a talented writer with a bright future. After reading A Secret History of Moscow I would not be averse to reading her shorter work for a better feel and while the novel, The Alchemy of Stone is not on my immediate reading list, it may well find a place on those shelves in the future. Ekaterina is one of those genre readers with a literary bend and that's the type of genre fiction I like so I hope she enjoys a successful career.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Short story: 'My Side of the Matter' by Truman Capote

"My Side of the Matter" by Truman Capote

"My Side of the Matter" is a humorous short story written from the perspective of a sixteen year old husband, supposedly hapless and caught in the clutches of a pregnant wife and two eccentric aunts. The reader is positioned to sympathise with the husband’s ordeal while at the same time it’s comically unveiled that he’s certainly not blameless in the whole ‘Southern’ fiasco. 

The distinct voice in "My Side of the Matter" makes it an excellent piece for any writer who wants to examine a story in terms of point of view. It also isn’t saturated in the flowery prose that is omnipresent in Capote’s work (which can be dificult for some readers to stomach - although I like it).

While a celebrity in his own era, in contemporary times, Capote is often linked to the film Breakfast at Tiffany's which enjoys a cultish status among fans. Perhaps Audrey Hepburn has ensured that Capote remains in our literary landscape? The release of his non-fiction 'novel': In Cold Blood on screen has also revived another text and any chance of him becoming an ephemeral figure has vanished forever - excuse the pun.

Capote was also an accomplished short story writer, something to be said in a time that saw shorter works thrive and even be handsomely paid for. In addition to "My Side of the Matter", "The Diamond Guitar" is another Capote story well worth a read.

Monday, July 25, 2011

My Blogging

My Blogging


I'm not quite sure about the blogging world. Is my writing here meant to be polished? Because it's more of a chaotic ramble, which I don't bother finessing or fine tuning. Basically, I go down to a local cafe, type some words on my computer and attach a book cover or picture that I find on google image search and then 'publish post'. All done rather quickly - and probably breeching every copyright law there is.

I hope that this suffices. I concentrate on writing fiction and in that genre I'm content to twiddle away for as long as it takes but I won't do that with a blog. For me, they're rough commentaries/reviews that hopefully a few people interested in reading and writing enjoy.

Anyway, my blogs will never reflect the tasty frothy lattes that I consume while writing them - they are more the instant coffee variety: rough, harsh, vulgar and all that counts is the caffeine hit!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Short Story: 'Troll Bridge' by Neil Gaiman

 "Troll Bridge" by Neil Gaiman






I was immediately drawn into "Troll Bridge" due to its classic fairy tale trope. The story explores the various stages of life of a dark protagonist who starts out as a young unaffected innocent. There's an air of mystery throughout "Troll Bridge" that makes for a captivating narrative. Moreover, it made me want to write a story of my own about life's stages - albeit, with a different structure, context and theme. 

"Troll Bridge" is well worth a read from a technical perspective as a writer. An interesting meta-narrative takes place and it also deals with a lot of time in a relatively limited space.

It's an entertaining and thought provoking tale for readers too. 

Friday, July 8, 2011

Short Story: 'Breaking the Pig' by Etgar Keret; and a Commentary on Etgar Keret and 'The Nimrod Flipout'

Short Story: "Breaking the Pig" by Etgar Keret; and a Commentary on Etgar Keret and The Nimrod Flipout



Deborah Hunn introduced me to Etgar Keret with "Breaking the Pig". It was shorter than what I customarily like but its honest style was refreshing and it touched me with the way in which it revealed some simple truths.

It's the story of a quirky boy who has been encouraged by his parents to save coins in a porcelain piggybank. A growing dilemma ensues between buying the treasured Bart Simpson doll or keeping the Piggy Bank, which he has grown fond of. 

Having loved the story, I went a ‘Kereting’. But only discovered one of his anthologies in all of the Perth stores. I bought that book,The Nimrod Flipout, but found many of the 'titbit' stories didn’t quite satisfy my literary appetite. 


The tales are satirical and witty but their limited length prevents them from being what I’d call ‘well composed narratives’. Keret is often more captivated by a story’s concept rather than its actual execution; which causes much of his writing to feel like ‘telling’ summaries of innovative ideas. His flash fiction does, however, illustrate an important insight into modern day Israeli society.  Although there were a few stories that I really admired – the surrealism of Keret’s shorts still make The Nimrod Flipout a worthwhile read - I never found one that quite matched the sheer pleasure I felt on reading "Breaking the Pig".

Keret has been deservedly published in two of my favourite American literary journals: McSweeney’s Quarterly and Zoetrope’s: All Story. I think that Etgar Keret is best read like this – in a collection with other writers; or if you pick up a short story by him on the odd occasion rather than read his work straight through. A little bit of Keret now and then, like a smidgen of vegemite (or caviar for the connoisseur), does wonders, but too much can deaden the effect. 



Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Brief Look at 'Wolfborn' by Sue Bursztynski

Wolfborn by Sue Bursztynski



If anybody knows how to write for younger readers it's Sue Bursztynski. The French medieval tale Bisclavret has been adapted and extended out nicely to novel length here, which hopefully encourages readers to do a little research into folk literature and also set them on the pathway to longer length works.

Romance, medieval castles and keeps, an enchanted forest, the faerie world with Celtic-like Gods and of course werewolves (the good bisclavret and an evil loup- garou) make for an enjoyable and gripping read with the language suitably targeting young adults.

I had the good fortune of meeting Sue earlier this year in Perth and there are few around who know folk and fairy tales as well as her. Sue has utilised her bottomless well of  folk-knowledge to great effect here with Wolfborn.

Monday, June 20, 2011

And More Books (plus a little on Michael Swanwick)

And More Books
(plus a little on Michael Swanwick)

With the exception of journals and perhaps the occasional anthology, I think I’ll impose a ban on my buying for the rest of the year. I have another novel on order but my reading shelf is overflowing.

This time everything was on sale at Planet Books. Thank you, Planet!


BLUE COLLAR, WHITE COLLAR, NO COLLAR
Stories of Work
Edited by Richard Ford


To be honest, stories based in the work place aren't something that I avidly seek out. But this collection I couldn't pass up. The list of authors in Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar would magnetise many a reader: Jeffrey Eugenides, John Cheever, Joyce Carol Oates, Tobias Wolff, Richard Ford, Alice Munro, Eudora Weatly, Jhumpa Lahiri, Edward P. Jones, James Alan McPherson, Annie Proulx, Elizabeth Strout and Donald Bathelme are just a few of the many heavyweights here. Believe it or not, the list goes on.

 


The City & the City by China Mieville


The hype around this novel finally caught up with me.









Stations of the Tide by Michael Swanwick
Swanwick challenges genre conventions and often explores controversial themes. He has been labelled ‘over sexed’ and 'provocative' - and he is. At his best he scintillates; at his worst he can read like a literary version of soft porn.

I’ve read the novel The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, which was inventive and interesting. I liked it and believe that it was an important pioneering work that subverted the usual derivative Tolkienesque elements of high fantasy. While respecting the Iron Dragon’s Daughter, I did not, however, love it like most of the readers I’ve discussed it with. The follow up, Dragons of Babel meandered quite a bit (which I did not mind) and had some captivating parts but overall I felt it was the lesser of the duo.

Contrastingly, Swanwick’s short fiction is more than just good – it is frequently exceptional. He is one of the bravest, freshest and most innovative voices around. At shorter lengths, where his ideas are contained, he has produced some of my favourite stories, which I’ll wax lyrical about another time.

On seeing Stations of the Tide - having recently read and generally enjoyed one of his anthologies: The Dog said Bow-Wow - I thought I’d give his longer length works another try. Plus this one won the Nebula Award.

Why would I read another one of his longer works after not being totally taken by The Dragons of Babel (especially when there are so many great works out there to read)? Well, they were still good and what's more, highly innovative, and, furthermore, Michael Swanwick writes well.