Sunday, January 29, 2012

Brief Book Review: 'New Australian Stories 2' Ed: Aviva Tuffield (2010)

Brief Book Review: New Australian Stories 2 Ed: Aviva Tuffield (2010)

Both Scribe Publications (New Australian Stories)and Black Inc. (Best Australian Stories) should be congratulated for their focus on nurturing and promoting Australian short fiction. These collections are credible homes, which promote both ‘name’ writers as well as those lesser known to a wider reading audience.

I am a late arrival to Australian short fiction and outside of Overland Literary Journal and the occasional Griffith Review I rarely read it at all. Short fiction from overseas just seemed more colourful in general. I was adverse to the repetitive, desiccated and colourless landscapes; as well as stories with plotlines so thin they seemed to dangle by a thread. Of recent times though (largely via journal reading) I have been pleased to discover the bevy of talented Australian writers out there. Even our landscapes, both rural and urban, have developed into something that intrigues me, possibly due to their tangibility.

The reason behind buying New Australian Stories 2 is that A.G McNeil, who works at New Edition Bookstore (while completing his PhD), told me that it included one of his pieces. So to support a fellow Perthite I bought the collection and enjoyed his story‘ Reckless, Susceptible’, which darkly but effectively delves into a relationship while including an interesting thread about animals.

The anthology itself consists of varying themes that all call for reflection within our own lives. There is a certain richness to many of the stories that can make reading challenging at times - but ultimately rewarding. Australian fiction in general seems to move at a slower pace and the old emphasis on place and drawing out almost every moment is still dominant; as is ‘realism’. It was refreshing to read two solid stories brave enough to venture away from the mundane in Sonja Dechian’s ‘The Cats of Unspeakable Kindness’and the metaphorical‘Moth’ by Jennifer Mills.

There were a handful of stories(which I will not mention) that I forced myself to plough through but that was more a matter of taste rather than quality. And a handful of stories is a winning ratio for any anthology of this magnitude – there are 36 all up.

Personally, I perceived eight tales as standouts. ‘Reward Offered’ by John Bauer is a superb piece which focuses on loneliness in the elderly and to what extent they may go to in the search for company and gratitude. The aged protagonist’s devilry captivates in a tale that is also quite touching. Ryan O’Neil’s ‘Four-Letter Words’ is clever, humorous, tragic and sentimental with a witty structure. My one overly pedantic criticism (a product of my Greek heritage) is that the word mania may have come into English via Latin but is of Greek origin and not Latin as stated. ‘Harry’ by Emma Schwarz, explores time, relationships and a partner’s influence when Harry, whose wife is critically ill, is taken on a hotel holiday by his daughter who aims to liberate him a little. ‘Papa’s Last Command’ by Jane McGown is an interesting rural story that successfully highlights issues of racism, bullying and ethics. Its ending, however, may appear a tad dramatic when compared to the surrounding stories. I was hooked by Ruby J. Murray’s ‘Outback’; a well-written story that looks at temptation and fidelity. An ever-present sense of danger is used most effectively in ‘The Chamber’by Meg Mundell to lure the reader in while presenting a range of issues. ‘Static’by Cate Kennedy is a wonderful story that says so much in its family-at-Christmastime fourteen pages; it also suitably lives up to its title in a thematic sense. And finally ‘The Cheroot’ by Marion Halligan is an illustration of sheer prose mastery. I found the plot itself slightly tacky but there is no denying Halligan’s wizardry here. The atmosphere, heat and isolated river setting are written by an author at the peak of her game. Her word choice and voice are as good as I have read.
‘After Rachel’ by Tony Birch; ‘Like a Virgin’ by Tegan Bennett Daylight and ‘Fallen Women’ by Jane Sullivan are also very strong works.

Some critics have presented an argument that many of the stories are not ‘new’, referring to the fact that a number are sourced from literary journals. I find this reasoning quite tenuous. Journals deserve their stories to be promoted to the wider reading public (as do writers). The immeasurable hours that go into a piece mean that a ‘newish’ story deserves as many opportunities to be read as possible.
For the more literary minded New Australian Stories 2 is well worth the read and it comes with the added bonus of allowing you to sample work from some of Australia’s gifted writers.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Brief Reading and Writing Reflection on 2011

Books Read 2011

A Dance with Dragons George R.R. Martin

On Writing Stephen King

The Last Werewolf Glen Duncan

The Bloody Chamber Angela Carter

The Anansi Boys Neil Gaiman

The Lovely Bones Alice Sebold

The Confidential Agent Graham Greene

Flight Sherman Alexie

Song of Kali Dan Simmons

Istanbul The Imperial City by John Freely (History)

The Dog Said Bow Wow Michael Swanwick

The Great God Pan Arthur Machen

Monisgnor Quixote Graham Greene

The Shadow of the Torturer Gene Wolfe

The Quantity Theory of Insanity Will Self

Wolfborn Sue Bursztynski (YA novel)

The Secret History of Moscow Ekaterina Sedia

In the Evil Hour Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I’m just a few stories from finishing New Australian Stories 2 (ed. Aviva Tuffield) and Tales of Old Earth by Michael Swanwick. Both will be included in next year’s list.

Only four female writers were included in my 2011 reading (last year they were all male bar one). I do feel as though this is a habit I need to break. Needless to say, Sue Bursztynski’s novel was a great YA book (the first of the genre that I’ve read in a decade); I bought Alice Sebold’s other novel The Almost Moon after being more than impressed by The Lovely Bones and I have fallen for Angela Carter’s breathtaking prose and consequently swooped on whatever of hers I could find. So hopefully I’ll read a few more female writers in 2012 (I choose from my ‘books to be read shelves’ at random). As usual there was far more parity in my short fiction reading.

I have also read more spec fic/genre than the norm and asides from providing a great escape it was a pleasure to see some excellent work in the field.



I am now subscribing to Meanjin to partner Overland Literary Journal (a journal I adore) and ASIM (for my genre hit). It is a relief that Andromeda is still available in print as Aurealis has succumbed to the electronic form. I prefer reading fiction the old fashioned way – for some vague reason I tend to miss a lot on screen.

I have dropped my Dotdotdash subscription only because I buy it at their launches. Other Australian journals that  I've read and enjoyed include: Kill Your Darlings, Wet Ink and Griffith Review. During 2012, I plan on reading the occasional Southerly and Island too.

From the US I have taken out a One Story subscription, a great concept in which a quality ‘longer short story’ arrives in your mail every three weeks. The idea being that the story itself is the focus and therefore liberated of any surrounding interference (advertising or even other stories). The first one will arrive soon.

There are many other captivating journals in the overseas market (the US have a plethora of outstanding ones). I’ve read: McSweeney’s Review, Tin House, The Paris Review, Granta, Zoetrope: All Story and of course The New Yorker (most of these I’ve picked up at either New Edition or Planet Bookstore here in Perth). In 2012 I would like to taste: Ploughshares, Harper’s, Atlantic Monthly, The Southern Review, Glimmer Train, New England Review and Crazy Horse. My subscription dilemma lives on...

In American speculative fiction I am planning on subscribing to one of the following: Asimov’s, Magazine of F&SF, Weird Tales (still waiting to see how it eventuates with the change of owners) and possibly Shimmerzine.

Interzone in the UK and On Spec in Canada may also be worth a look at.

Feel free to comment on any journal or give your own recommendations.

Short Stories

This year I have anally recorded the short fiction that I’ve read: 96 (many of them long short stories/novelettes). In my nerdy blog fashion I will put up a list of 24 of my favourite short stories from my 2011 reading, which represents a fair chunk at 25%. I am quite selective with my short fiction reading and all but a handful this year ranged from good to exceptional. So the 24 will be a recommended reading list for lovers of short fiction.


If you are interested in my thoughts on any of the novels feel free to ask or even comment on them yourself. I did not want to rank them and although I was surprisingly disappointed by Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ debut novel it has been a great reading year.

Writing Reflection

My first two stories that I had written were published in Dotdotdash5 (Dec 2010) and Andromeda Spaceways (April 2011) and I pinched myself. Then ‘Reading Coffee’ was published in Overland Literary Journal 204 (Sep 2011) and I was ecstatic (to put it mildly). I had always maintained a strong belief in the story but it was still a privilege for it to find a home in the pages of a literary journal I revere - especially as ‘Reading Coffee’ is at the ‘difficult-to-publish’ length of 5000 words. Contributing a couple of blog posts for the Overland website was also a treat.

With my first publication I thought it might have been the work of the Goddess Tyche; the second made me think that perhaps I should scribble away some more, especially as they were both foundational pieces in my writing development (a cause for celebration rather than denigration); and the third both aided and buttressed my self-belief as a writer.


I’ll just continue with my sporadic and hackneyed cafĂ© posts. I don’t aim for them to be anything more than raw and unpolished as my chief focus is on writing fiction. Hopefully the posts are enjoyable and informative to some of the many out there interested in the world of reading and writing.

Happy New Year!

Monday, January 9, 2012

'Istanbul: The Imperial City' by John Freely & 'On Writing' by Stephen King

Istanbul: The Imperial City by John Freely & On Writing by Stephen King

Over the past decade I have been an avid reader of Ottoman history, especially that of Constantinople/ Istanbul. While Constantinople: 1453 to Present by Philip Mansel is (to me) the epitomy on the subject, The Imperial City by John Freely is still an informative and interesting read with well chosen primary source exerpts that really add texture and colour to the work. It is a history of the city in its entirety, from the earlier Greek settlements to the Byzantine Emperors/Empresses, through to all the Sultans and eventually ending with Attaturk, the Father of the Modern Turkish Nation. As it covers a broader scope than Mansel's text it consequently does not have the richness of Constantinople: 1453 to Present but it is still an excellent overview of 'The City' and also an easy read. Anyone interested in Byzantine or Ottoman history would be missing out without reading The Imperial City.

Of recent times, I have found texts on the writing craft and process riveting . On Writing by Stephen King surpassed my expectations. It is an honest and humble memoir/writing text that I was thoroughly absorbed by. King's humility here is extraordinary; and his reading list at the end of the text shows just how literary minded he actually is. The snippets of prose he delivers are a welcome illustration of his refined skills as an author.

King's personal writing history and his recovery from a chilling accident captivate; his writing tips (avoid the passive voice, murder your darlings and avoid adverbs) are useful as are his ideas on creating characters with depth that avoid being charicatures or stereotypes. It is fascinating that King, in order to maintain a freshness of story, usually advocates for little planning - his work largely comes from 'what if scenarios'. I am not a horror fan per se (although it is growing on me) but it is hard to deny King's success or extraordinary talents as an author. On Writing's openess and frankness makes you feel as if you are there with him, sitting in the room and having a chat over a cool drink or cup of coffee; as such, it is a highly recommended read for all writers, and also for those interested in the life of one of the bestselling authors of all time.

 King's biggest tip for emerging writers: simply write and read.