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Two book launches and a crime fiction review

November 18, 2016 Leave a comment

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I’ve been busy this week, not only in chipping away at the draft of City of Rubber Stamps, but also with some other writerly events. Firstly, my review of David Whish-Wilson’s excellent Perth crime novel Old Scores is up at Westerly’s Editor’s Desk. My wife and I had the pleasure of attending the novel’s launch at the suitably noirish Buffalo Club in Fremantle on Wednesday night. There I caught up not only with David but with a cadre of Perth crime fiction aficionados and writers like Ron Elliot, Bruce Russell, Michelle Michau-Crawford and Ian Reid. Old Scores is a rip-roaring trip through eighties Perth and highly recommended. You can read more about it and even a sample chapter over at the Fremantle Press website.

Tonight I’m off to my second launch for the week, this one at the Centre for Stories in Northbridge. It’s launch day for Writing the Dream from Serenity Press, which is a book of non-fiction pieces on writing and publishing by 25 mostly WA authors, including the likes of Juliet Marillier, Natasha Lester and Louise Allan. If you are keen on meeting the authors and picking up a signed copy, then you’ll need to head up to the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre in Greenmount on Sunday 27th November for the second launch date. I’d love to attend this myself, but as I’ll be on my honeymoon in Tasmania it’d be a long way to travel. Writing the Dream is an outstanding and highly practical ‘how to’ guide to writing and publishing as well as being a source of inspiration for aspiring writers. It’s available now from any number of online outlets such as Amazon and Booktopia.

Too old for the Vogel: on turning thirty-five

July 4, 2016 2 comments

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It’s not easy being an emerging writer in Australia, or probably any other country for that matter. Arts budgets have been slashed, bookstores are closing, even the Australia Council is under threat. In this landscape, The Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award is a beacon of hope, offering Australian writers under 35 the possibility of breaking out of obscurity and earning $20,000 as part of the bargain. For a long time it was my overriding literary ambition to one day win the Vogel, and I knew that my final, final deadline was May 31st, 2016. By 2017, I’d be too old to enter and thus for the best part of a decade I’ve seen thirty-five as my expiry date, Logan’s Run style.

I had a plan, one that I first concocted in 2008. I’d churn out a novel every two years in the twelve weeks of annual leave afforded to me in my role of English teacher in WA’s Wheatbelt. For the most part, I kept my end of the deal. I entered my dystopian novel Yellowcake Springs in 2010, and while it didn’t get anywhere in the Vogel it later won the IP Picks Award and was thus published by IP in 2011. I didn’t enter Yellowcake Summer, reasoning that it was a sequel and not likely to feature, but I was unperturbed. I had another far off date in mind, Jan 31st 2016, by which time I’d have completed ten years of teaching and thus would be entitled to thirteen weeks Long Service Leave. I’d take this as soon as it became available, in Term 1 2016. This would give me the opportunity to give the Vogel one final crack.

Unfortunately, but seemingly inevitably, it didn’t work out like that. In 2012, I spent the best part of the year working for the State School Teachers Union of WA, which made for a welcome break from teaching but blew my Long Service Leave date out to October 2016. I knew exactly what this meant: there’d be no last hurrah in 2016. If I was going to win the Vogel, I’d have to do it the hard way.  The novel that materialised, my first crime novel, was Thirsty Work, which was written in part during my Katharine Susannah Prichard residency in 2013. I put what I thought to be the finishing touches on the novel in April 2014, during a second residency at the Fellowship of Australian Writers WA. I sent off my Vogel entry a month before the deadline and then, reasoning that it was folly to put all one’s eggs in the one basket, sent an extract of the novel to Fremantle Press. I went back to work with high hopes.

Six months later, Thirsty Work hadn’t been shortlisted for the Vogel, Fremantle Press had rejected it (albeit with words of encouragement) and my marriage of twelve years was over. In the summer of 2014/15 I had two choices: to stick with Thirsty Work and try to make the changes Fremantle Press had suggested, or twist and try to write a new novel in time to enter it into the Vogel in May 2016. I stuck, and struck out: Fremantle Press rejected the revised version of Thirsty Work, the novel was rejected by at least a dozen other Australian publishers, and I’d be turning thirty-five in less than eighteen months.

I did have an idea for a subsequent novel, City of Rubber Stamps, but it failed to cohere in time. I produced an abortive 10,000 word start on the novel in 2015, but in my heart I knew I wasn’t ready. During these months, I produced a handful of short stories when I had the chance and had some success in publishing these. Writing short stories seemed an altogether happier task than slogging my way through drafting novels that’d likely never see the light of day anyway. In the summer of 2015/16, I wrote only two short pieces: ‘Hard Travelin”, which will appear in November 2016 in Writing the Dream, and ‘The Not-Bird’, a retread of an earlier story. I was, and quite probably still am, at a low ebb.

Now, in July 2016, a month shy of my thirty-fifth birthday, I have that Long Service Leave up my sleeve, but by next year I’ll be too old for the Vogel. My last day of school for the year will be September 23rd, my daughter’s eleventh birthday. Thereafter I’ll have four glorious months to get cracking on City of Rubber Stamps. I’m getting married again in that time, too. My partner and I will be spending two weeks trekking around Tasmania in a campervan, but I’ll have my laptop handy. I might be too old for the Vogel, but with any luck there’ll be other dawns and new horizons.

Book Review – In Ecstasy by Kate McCaffrey

July 23, 2008 2 comments

In Ecstasy is Perth author Kate McCaffrey’s second novel for teenagers. It was released in April of this year by Fremantle Press, and should be widely available in W.A. and elsewhere. McCaffrey is a high school English teacher like myself (and a lot of other writers, apparently) and her novel seems directed toward students in the 14-17 age group.

In Ecstasy mainly concerns two Year 11 girls, Mia and Sophie. The novel is narrated from both points of view, and they aren’t always in ‘time sync’ with each other. This is done to heighten tension and to withhold certain information at particular times, and for the most part I thought it was done well. Without being a teenage girl myself, I felt that McCaffrey has done a good job of appealing to the particular target audience. The language and slang seem appropriate, and there was nothing that seemed out of place or jarring.

Sophie and Mia are going in different directions. At the beginning of the novel they are close friends, and have been for some time, but they drift apart over the course of the narrative. Sophie is initially confident and perhaps the more popular of the two, but this changes rapidly. Mia is initially shy and reserved, envying her friend’s looks and demeanour, but her confidence blossoms, in no small part due to the drug Ecstasy.

This book is a virtual travelogue of the pitfalls of teenage life, including but not limited to drug use (ecstasy, marijuana, alcohol, cocaine), underage sex, date rape, and teenage pregnancy. As the novel progresses, we begin to see the two girls drift apart as Sophie withdraws from the drug/party culture. (Interestingly, a similar thing happened to myself at a similar age.) Mia, however, becomes more and more embroiled in the world of drugs and parties, and her health eventually suffers as a result.

Mia’s sense of self seems to come from a couple of sources: firstly, the ecstasy itself; and secondly her relationship with the ultra popular and rich Lewis Scott. This propels her into the popularity stratosphere, but it doesn’t last long. Without wanting to spoil the novel for potential readers, everything goes pear shaped for Mia. Consequently, her story is the dominant one in this novel, and here I encountered a potential problem. Sophie ends up becoming the more sensible of the two girls, and her narrative withers away to virtually nothing. Some of her sections are less than a page in length. But Mia’s story is interesting enough to sustain this reader’s attention.

I’m not sure if McCaffrey intended to address the idea of patriarchy and sexual equality at all, but I thought the novel did so in an implicit way. Most of the girls and women in this novel are in some sense slaves to men, be it physically or emotionally (or both). There is a reverse example, in which young Dominic seems to fawn over Sophie. I have noticed myself that ‘equal rights’ has gone backwards a long way in the past twenty years or so in this country, and In Ecstasy seems to reflect that in the enormous pressure these young girls feel to conform to notions of beauty and fashion sense. It’s very sad to think that we live in a world where girls are put under these kinds of pressures, but there it is.

Ultimately, In Ecstasy is a successful novel. It manages to cleverly interweave a tale around a number of important issues teenagers may face. It avoids being too blatantly an ‘issues novel,’ while carefully mapping this terrain. Most importantly, McCaffrey does this as an insider, not an outsider to the worlds of teenage experience. Any parent with teenage children should read this, as should the teenagers themselves. Hell, my daughter isn’t yet three, and I’m already worried by some of the material in this book, such as the odious Glenn. Highly recommended.

Kate McCaffrey has a wordpress blog of her own at katemccaffrey.wordpress.com

Book Review – Hal Spacejock: Just Desserts by Simon Haynes

April 24, 2008 Leave a comment

“Hal Spacejock: Just Desserts” is the third in Simon Haynes’ humorous SF series, and it’s the best yet. Before I get into discussing this book explicitly, I want to give potential readers an idea of what makes this series different to most of the other SF on the market today. The “Hal Spacejock” books are funny, very much in the tradition of “Red Dwarf” and “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” but there are plenty of things that make them different, and in some facets superior, to those famous titles.

For a start, there aren’t any aliens in the Spacejock universe. It took me two-and-a-half books to realise this, but it’s worth pointing out. This isn’t a gaudy, exotic, higher-state-of-consciousness type SF future; it’s a run-down, penny-pinching, two-bit swindling kind of future, and Hal Spacejock is often the biggest swindler of them all. In fact, there’s nothing especially futuristic about any of this. Spaceports are rundown and decrepit, empty places where weeds grow through the cracks in the pavement and old robots sell out of date chocolate. There are a number of parallels with early twenty-first century Australian life, and Hal’s frustrations aren’t that dissimilar to our own. Malfunctioning coffee makers, prangs with other vehicles (one with a yellow sticker, no less), internet scams and annoying voice recognition software are some of the perils Hal faces on a day to day basis.

Paradoxically, however, the Spacejock novels can’t really be described as parodies, neither of science fiction nor of modern life in general. The reason for this is that, beneath the veneer of exploding spaceships and burning fuel canisters, there lies a gentle comedy of some distinction. I found that the more of this series I read, the more I enjoyed it, largely due to the interplay between Hal and his robot friend, Clunk. This relationship is love-hate in nature, and both give as good as they get, but there’s a pleasing warmth about all of this. And robots in these novels are often the most human of entities: they make mistakes, get offended and plan alternate careers when they feel unloved. The “Hal Spacejock” novels are wholesome rather than techno-savvy, old-fashioned rather than forward looking. This is a kind of science fiction which hasn’t been written for decades, and I for one welcome its return. Having said that, Hal is a scientific luddite, a kind of ‘Golden Age of SF Anti-hero.’ I severely doubt that John W. Campbell would have approved of his attitude toward the gizmos around him.

“Hal Spacejock: Just Desserts” is set in one solar system, and there’s even a convenient map of the system at the front of the book. As usual, Hal is trying to make ends meet by running cargo shipments across empty space, and as usual there are problems galore. That doesn’t stop Hal from stopping to buying the out of date chocolates I mentioned before, and later a whole lot more confectionary. Hal is amusingly childish, so much so that the balance of power between Clunk and he seems to have shifted in the robot’s favour by this third volume. This book follows the tried and tested formula of things starting off on shaky ground, then deteriorating into a poor state indeed, before decaying still further. And we haven’t even met “Just Desserts'” antagonist yet.

Jasmin Ortiz can’t remember very much about her life at all, until she realises that she is a robot with a secret mission. In the hands of a different writer, this scene could have been genuinely horrific, but there’s nothing approaching gloominess in the Spacejock-o-sphere. Instead, Jasmin plugs herself into a power socket and gets on with the business of undertaking her mission. She will require, of course, the use of Hal’s spaceship, the Volante. And this is where it becomes obvious that Haynes has mastered his art. Specifically, Chapter Six is where Haynes picks up all the threads and weaves them together artfully: Jasmin needs a spaceship to transport her shipment; Hal needs a part for the ship which cannot be obtained locally; Clunk has signed Hal and himself up as crew on the Luna Rose; a pallet of coffee-makers arrives at the Volante, and is later mistaken for Jasmin’s shipment. And the narrative unfolds from there.

Space elevators, anti-gravity wells, and no end of spaceships populate this book, but it can’t be said that they are intrinsically important to the storyline. It’s almost as though Haynes has looked at everyday life and transmuted it into SF-speak. This is not meant as a criticism. “Hal Spacejock: Just Desserts” is a funny book because these are all-too-familiar scenarios, and Hal has all-too-human foibles. Occasionally, I felt the veneer of credibility stretching thin (such as when Hal convinces a whole base full of soldiers to salvage a sunken spaceship for him) but generally speaking Hal’s antics are amusing to say the least. The plot motorS along at a cracking rate, and there is even an unexpected twist in the tail this time around. One feels that Haynes is at the top of his game here.

Happily, readers of the “Hal Spacejock” series will not have to wait long to see if the author can top “Just Desserts.” The fourth book in the series, “Hal Spacejock: No Free Lunch” is due for release at the end of May. Call me a Spacejock acolyte-I’ve been won over by the interplanetary shenanigans of Hal and Clunk, and I look forward to the fourth installment with interest.

Writers of interest – Simon Haynes

April 10, 2008 Leave a comment

Simon Haynes is an up-and-coming SF writer whom, like myself, was born in the U.K. but has lived in this fair land for many years. He is the author of the “Hal Spacejock” novels, published by Fremantle Press. Titles in the series are #1 – Hal Spacejock, #2 – Hal Spacejock: Second Course, #3 – Hal Spacejock: Just Desserts, and the soon-to-be-released #4 – Hal Spacejock: No Free Lunch. All of these titles are in-print, and can be obtained from various retailers in Perth and across Australia (#4 will be released on the 2nd of June). You can find a comprehensive list of places to buy Hal Spacejock on Simon Haynes’ website:

http://www.spacejock.com.au/Hal1Shops.html

In fact, Haynes’ website is exceedingly useful, not only in terms of the Hal Spacejock series, but also as a resource for would-be and could-be writers. www.spacejock.com.au contains a number of useful articles on the practice and business of writing. Haynes addresses the perennial questions of how to get a novel published, how to find an agent, as well as technical matters such as how to plot a novel. This is highly recommended reading for anyone wanting to acclimatise themselves to the business of writing fiction.

As I said in my review of #2 – Hal Spacejock: Second Course, Haynes’ story is an inspiring one. And readers and booksellers alike are catching on. Hal #1 recently figured in Fantastic Planet’s Top 10 Bestsellers for March 2008. Who said science fiction was dead? Long live SF.

Book Review – Hal Spacejock: Second Course by Simon Haynes

The story of how Simon Haynes’ “Hal Spacejock” series of novels came to be published by Fremantle Press is an inspiring one. Haynes’ first Spacejock novel was self published (by Bowman Publishing) in 2003, as were the second and third in the series. Haynes did all his own PR in those early years, getting copies into bookstores and making an appearance each year at Perth’s science fiction convention, Swancon. Perseverance finally paid off when Fremantle Press (not usually a publisher of science fiction) saw fit to re-issue the “Hal Spacejock” novels for a wider audience.

It’s not hard to see why Haynes’ books have finally reached their intended market. Hal Spacejock: Second Course is entertaining, amusing and refreshingly unpretentious. Hal Spacejock is a bit of a bum, but a bum in possession of a fast spaceship, the Volante. His robot sidekick, Clunk, provides much amusing banter as Spacejock tries to make a fast buck in the unfriendly world of the future. While this book is the second in the series, it is not intended as a ‘sequel’ as such. It did not seem to matter that I am yet to read the first book in the series. This book is very much in the tradition of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (one of the characters is even called Dent) and Red Dwarf.

Hal Spacejock: Second Course follows a seemingly simple formula. Conversations are full of jokes and handed with a light hand. Things go from bad, to worse, to worse still. And there’s plenty of gratuitous action: explosions, gun battles, and robotic hijinx. Haynes is a skillful writer, but he never forgets that he is writing to entertain. Descriptive scenes are particularly well done, conjuring just enough detail to keep the reader ‘in the loop,’ but not so much as to bog the story down. In short, Haynes knows what he’s doing. The plot is complicated but not convoluted, and the femme fatale, Sonya Polarov, is amusingly manipulative.

There’s nothing particularly futuristic about this book. It’s almost an old-fashioned future, one with space traders, clunky robots (pun intended) and handwritten letters. This is a refreshing change from the post-cyberpunk trying-to-be-cool futures we get so often in SF these days. Hal Spacejock: Second Course is a book that knows its place in the SF tradition, but that doesn’t make it derivative. I will be interested to see whether Haynes can maintain the spark and verve of this novel throughout the rest of the series.

Book Review – Channelling Henry by Bruce L. Russell

April 7, 2008 2 comments

I don’t know if Bruce Russell was a late starter in writing, but he was certainly a late starter in getting his books published. His first novel, Jacob’s Air, won the TAG Hungerford Award in 1995, at which time Russell must have been over 50 already. I haven’t read Jacob’s Air or Russell’s second book, The Chelsea Manifesto, but I know where I can find a copy of both. I knew Bruce Russell slightly in 2000 when he taught a creative writing class at Curtin that I happened to be in. (in my salad days…) He must have been writing Channelling Henry around this time.

So what’s it about? Firstly, the title refers to Henry Miller, the famous (but now apparently out of favour) American writer. I’ve read Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (but I never got through Capricorn) and Anais Nin’s Delta of Venus, so I have an idea of what Russell is referring to here. I wonder if one could fully appreciate Channelling Henry without at least a rudimentary appreciation of Miller’s overblown genius. Anyway, a basic summary of the novel’s opening is this: an Australian writer comes to New York at the encouragement of his aunt; an English woman, also a writer, comes to New York with her teenage daughter.

Let’s see if I can get these character names right. Jeremy Moon is the Australian writer. Cassandra Goldin is the English one, and her daughter is called Demi. Maria Gaudi happens to be hanging around on the airport bus; she works for a professor called Matthew Crane. Henry Valentine is the seedy street vendor, who might be a paedophile and/or Henry Miller’s forgotten son. Jeremy’s aunt Felecity (but call me Flick) turns out to be much more than an aunt…and there are a few other notable characters later in the book. In short, this is a good, strong cast. I found that while the plot of Channelling Henry took a while to get going, I was fascinated with the lives of these people. Time for a small confession: most literature bores me to tears. But Channelling Henry isn’t boring. It’s beautifully written (and yet the words have a purpose beyond being beautiful), the characters are intriguing and the plot is unpredictable. All of this is good.

The novel takes place, for the most part, in pre-9/11 Manhattan. It’s curious that a novel published a mere 5 years ago should be ‘dated’ already, but isn’t it the job of writers to ‘record the present,’ the same way Jeremy Moon records conversations he has? The World Trade Center towers even make a brief appearance, and I can’t help but imagine the planes streaking toward them, less than two years into the future of this novel…. One of the things I enjoyed about this book was Russell’s eye for detail. Like all good writers, Russell knows that quality of detail is more important than quantity, and that there are times when it is not necessary to sketch detail at all. In doing so, Russell controls the flow of his novel masterfully.

I usually like to detail the plot of a novel in these reviews, without concern of ‘spoiling’ the novel for potential readers, but I think that it might be appropriate to withhold too much plot description on this occasion. As I said before, my main enemy in reading fiction is boredom. Dull, uninteresting characters, awash with cliches. Predictable plots with all-too-obvious hooks. Characters who talk precisely how people don’t. And worst of all, pretentiousness. Channelling Henry avoids all of these pitfalls, and it does it through an intelligent and elegant plot structure. It’s not often that books keep me in a state of surprise and attentiveness, but Channelling Henry did both. This is not only a well-written book; it’s also an intriguing page-turner. And here I think Russell may have bridged the divide between literary and popular fiction. Perhaps this is still very much on the literary side of things, but Russell is well aware (and perfectly capable) of telling an interesting story.

This is a meaty book. You can feel the years of work that must have gone into it. At somewhat more than 300 pages, Channelling Henry never drags. There’s even something of a bonus at the end (which I am yet to read): Henry Valentine’s manuscript. I’ve only got one potential criticism of this book, and it’s a technical matter. Russell uses an omniscient third-person point of view, thus gaining insight into the thoughts of central characters. I would have thought it appropriate to at least start a new paragraph before shifting between the thoughts of two characters, but this book seems to jump all over the place in this regard. Perhaps it’s just me, but I found that confusing at times.

I wanted to like Channelling Henry, but I ended up liking it much more than I had expected. I read it over the course of a weekend, and it was never a chore to read. I wonder whether Russell has a new book in the works, considering that this one has been in print for almost five years? All three of Russell’s novels were published by Fremantle Art Centre Press (which is now known as Fremantle Press). In addition to being an excellent novel, Channelling Henry is also a handsome tome with elegant cover art. Really, this is writing and publishing at its finest.