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2014 in Review: My Top Ten Reads

December 21, 2014 2 comments

2014 has been a watershed year for me in terms of the quantity of books I’ve read: for the first time since I started recording these things in 2008, I’ve hit 100 books completed for the year. Most people are fairly astounded when I tell them I read this many books in a year, but I do favour shorter novels and it probably only averages out to about one hour of reading per day across the whole year. That’s an hour that many other people would spend watching television, say. It’s not that I don’t waste time on trivial pursuits — I certainly do — but my commitment to hunting, buying and reading books is such that I always have an immediate to-read list of 10-15 titles.

I tend to be an ‘author reader’, by which I mean that once I decide that I particularly like the work of a certain author, I will hunt down every book by this author and hopefully read every word. It doesn’t always work out this way; at times I decide that I’m not so interested in a certain writer after all, and end up with a pile of their books that I no longer want to read. In 2014, I read three or more books by the likes of Pat Barker, Larry Brown, Mikhail Bulgakov, Michael Chabon, M John Harrison, Haruki Murakami, Peter Temple and Alan Warner. Most of these writers would normally be classified as authors of literary fiction or crime, and that’s a fair representation of where my reading interests now lie. I read a number of young adult novels as part of my job as an English teacher, some of them multiple times, which rather pads out my overall figures. My author of the year would have to be Mikhail Bulgakov. Until this year, I hadn’t read a word of him and now I’ve read his entire published prose output.

2014 may have been a watershed year in terms of quantity, but what about the quality? According to my Goodreads star ratings (which I have completed very assiduously this year), 21 books gained a five star rating. Of these, I have chosen my top ten reads for the year, limiting myself to just one book per author. Here are the ten in no particular order. All come highly recommended from me. Clicking on the covers will take you to the listing for the book on Goodreads.

Union Street by Pat Barker

I’ve now read almost all of Barker, with the exception of her novel Double Vision which I can’t seem to get into. This novel, her first, is the very best of her non-WWI output. Grim, dark and extraordinary powerful.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

In truth I possibly enjoyed A Country Doctor’s Notebook even more than this, but this is the magnum opus and the place where pretty much everyone starts with Bulgakov. I don’t regret giving this devilish satire of Stalin’s Russia my attention.

My Summer of Love by Helen Cross

A friend recommended this and I’m glad she did. I thought this was far superior to Cross’ second novel, The Secrets She Keeps. I loved the writing in this one and the plot had a couple of real kickers to it, too.

An Iron Rose by Peter Temple

Peter Temple is the Australian master of crime fiction and this is one of his very best, maybe the best of them all.

The Dark Road by Ma Jian

Ma Jian is my favourite Chinese writer and I’ve been waiting patiently for some years for a follow-up to Beijing Coma. Well, it was worth the wait. Not for the faint-hearted, the squeamish, or those inclined to depression. It’s that dark.

The Sopranos by Alan Warner

I’ve read a lot of Warner this year, probably two-thirds of his opus, but this one had me laughing the hardest and it’s not often that happens when I read. The sequel, The Stars in the Bright Sky, is a pale imitation.

Dirty Work by Larry Brown

I have mixed feelings about Brown but I have nothing but praise for this, his first novel. The book consists of two profoundly injured Vietnam War veterans chewing the fat, but it’s fat well worth chewing. Here’s a book with heart.


I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down by William Gay

I love country noir fiction: Harry Crews, Daniel Woodrell, Donald Ray Pollock, Larry Brown, Larry Watson and Cormac McCarthy all write it and write it well, but in my opinion none of them does it better than Gay does in this exquisite volume of short fiction. I’d go so far as to say this is my number one book for the year.

The Master of Petersburg by J. M. Coetzee

I like Coetzee: he’s an enormously skillful writer but at times I find him overly dry and that put me off him for a couple of years. The Master of Petersburg isn’t dry and I think it’s even better than his most famous novel, Disgrace. The Russian setting helps, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that Coetzee is the greatest living writer in the English language.

He Died With His Eyes Open by Derek Raymond

In general I’ve liked but not loved the Factory novels, but this one, the first, is very good indeed. I happened to read this after books 2, 3 and 4 and in a way I’m glad that I did, because it was all downhill (admittedly at a gentle slope) from here.

Nova Swing by M. John Harrison

Now this was a surprise. I loved Harrison in my younger years, especially his sumptuous Climbers, but he’s started writing SF again and in general I haven’t warmed to it. I despised Light when it first came out and thus this has sat unloved on my bookshelf for close to ten years, which is a pity as I enjoyed it immensely when I finally got around to it. The same couldn’t be said for the final volume in the Kefahuchi Tract series, Empty Space, which I found close to unreadable.

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Book Review – The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick

February 1, 2010 9 comments

When I started this blog a little under two years ago, it was partly with the intention of writing detailed reviews of the ten or so PKD novels I consider to be the most vital. The Man in the High Castle (henceforth TMitHC) certainly falls into this category. I first read this in 1999 during my first exposure to the world of PKD, and at a guess I’d say that I’m up to my fourth reading by 2010. There aren’t many books I’ve cared to read four times, but the best of PKD definitely warrants this kind of attention.

TMitHC is a unique work in PKD’s vast opus for a number of reasons. Written in 1961, when the author was a tender 32 years old, it is in part an attempt to fuse the speculative riffs of earlier SF novels like Time Out of Joint and The Eye in the Sky with the gritty realism of the author’s then-unpublished mainstream novels like Mary and the Giant and Confessions of a Crap Artist. PKD tried to do this a number of times during his career, with limited success, but TMitHC must stand as a very significant exception. The novel is unique in that it is PKD’s only alternate history novel, set in a world where the Axis won WWII. The third unusual thing about TMitHC is that it is much better written than most of PKD’s work. By 1961, the author had written no fewer than 25 prior novels (according to Lawrence Sutin in his indispensible  biography Divine Invasions), a staggering number. This is not the work of an apprentice, and nor is it the work of an amphetamine-fuelled madman/genius/hack that pumped out twelve novels in two years. This is a work of craft, and it is the novel I’d point to in defending PKD from the allegation that he had good ideas but couldn’t write. PKD could write, so well that his work is still being pored over nearly thirty years after his death, but he rarely produced something as polished as this. In fact, I feel I can say with some certainty that this is the best written of his forty-plus titles. And the fourth reason TMitHC is unique in the master’s ouevre is that it was the only one of his novels to win a major award, the coveted Hugo in 1963. To an extent, this book saved and remade his career. Without it, he may never have gone on to produce novels like Martian Time-Slip, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Ubik and VALIS.

Before I go on, I want to explain how influential this novel has been on me personally. In it, several of the characters use the Chinese Oracle, the I Ching, to guide them through their daily lives. I hadn’t heard of the thing in 1999, but I obtained a copy henceforth (the Richard Wilhelm translation with the introduction by Carl Jung) and have used it since. In TMitHC, PKD has his characters actually sitting down and using the I Ching in a way that serves as a good introduction to the Oracle and the ideas contained within. After using it extensively for several months, I became interested in the ancient Chinese philosophy of Taoism and especially the writings of Chuang Tzu (Zhuangzi in pinyin). One version, Wandering on the Way: Early Taoist Parables of Chuang Tzu, translated by Victor Mair, is one of the ten books I’d take with me to a desert island if I was to spend the remainder of my life there. After that, I read some of the classics of Chinese literature, most notably the epic Three Kingdoms, as well as a number of books on Chinese history. This led me, in time, to modern day China and the writings of Ha Jin, Xinran, and my favourite, Ma Jian (whose novel Beijing Coma I reviewed in 2008 – the review easily has the most hits on this blog to this day). Ten years of inquiry, maybe even of enlightenment (even if only of the personal kind), can be traced directly back to Philip K Dick and The Man in the High Castle. Without it, I would not have been exposed to Taoist philosophy in 1999 and may never have proceeded down this path. So if I or anyone else ever questions the value of literature in people’s lives, I need only to point to my own example.

TMitHC opens in San Francisco with an odd little man by the name of Robert Childan, a man of limited intelligence and sympathy who runs an antique shop full of pre-war American kitsch. His main customers are the ruling Japanese, who apparently can’t get enough of the stuff. In the next couple of chapters, we are introduced to no less than four other viewpoint characters (I’ll explain what I mean by viewpoint characters in a minute). Frank Frink is a Jewish man living in the same Pacific States of America who has recently lost his job and prior to that his wife. Nobusuke Tagomi is a high-ranking Japanese official who needs a gift for an important visitor. Juliana Frink is a judo instructor and Frank’s ex-wife, living in the Rocky Mountain States. And Mr Baynes is a Swedish plastics maker arriving by Nazi rocket in San Fran to meet Mr Tagomi.

*This next paragraph relates to the craft of writing. Ignore it if you aren’t interested in this. *

This is PKD’s technique and he makes it work exceptionally well in TMitHC. The technique is to have a large number of characters who narrate shortish sections (there are often two distinct sections per chapter), giving the reader an insight into their states of mind. This is not the same as having an omniscient narrator who has access to the thoughts of all characters and moves in and out of those minds at will. Omniscient narrators tend to impose a certain monolithic narrative that gives precedence to the perspective of that godly narrator, and in turn the author. PKD does not do this. Instead, he sets a number of individual minds into motion, all with differing opinions and concerns, and basically pits their interests against one another. The characters will come into contact with each other in varying ways, and will ultimately directly influence each other’s lives. So Childan and Tagomi are on opposite sides of an important transaction, Frank and Juliana on opposite sides of the country, and the mysterious Baynes ties it all together. I like this technique so much that I’ve spent a decade trying to teach myself to write like this myself.

*Writing section ends.*

What surprised me this time around reading TMitHC is that the narrative moves very slowly to begin with. Largely the early chapters consist of the characters just thinking about their lives while they attend to mundane tasks like shaving or cooking breakfast. The interest derives from the world they are thinking in and about. Very rapidly we are given to understand that the Japanese and Germans not only won the war but have conquered and divided the United States among themselves. The novel is supposed to be set in PKD’s own time (let’s call it 1962, the year the novel was published), meaning that fifteen years have passed since the war ended in 1947. Furthermore, the Nazis have already remade much of the globe in their image: purging Africa of its natives, hurtling across the sky in their super-fast rockets, filling in the Mediterranean Sea, and conquering the solar system. They’ve made it to Mars already, for example. This is supposed to be 1962 or thereabouts. And here we run into PKD in wild speculation mode of a kind that would not usually be found in an Axis Won WWII narrative. This is the same PKD who, in his next novel Martian Time-Slip, had a fully functioning colony on Mars in 1992. If the rapid conquest of the solar system can be explained away in TMitHC, then it is only in imagining the crazed Nazis at the helm.

The story finally gets going in chapter five, but it does so in an oblique way. Frank tries and fails to get his job back, and a colleague called Ed McCarthy tries to convince him to go into business alone. It turns out that Frank has been in the business of making fake Civil War antiques that are eventually sold to the Japanese. When a man supposedly from a Japanese aircraft carrier comes in to Robert Childan’s shop on the pretext of wanting to buy 12 antique pistols, he examines one of the pistols carefully and declares it to be a fake. Enraged, Childan tries to get to the bottom of how he was sold a fake pistol, and the discovery ends up having a negative influence on Frank and Ed’s employer, as was their intention (there was no aircraft carrier). But the employer suspects Frank and Ed of being behind the sting, and vows to pay them off and find a way to get at them subtly. Such as telling the Nazis that Frank is really a Jew (his real name is Fink, not Frink). In this chapter we also have an extended discussion on the nature of the real versus the forged, and the ultimate inconsequence of such categories. Here, too, were are introduced to a book called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy by one Hawthorne Abendsen, which is an alternate history in which the Allies, not the Axis, won WWII. Only PKD could have thought of that. And here is the genius at work, putting the reader into a disorientating bind of reality vs illusion in a far more subtle way than he would do in any of his other novels. I won’t spoil the rest for those that haven’t had the pleasure of reading this yet. Happy reading.


Book Review – Beijing Coma by Ma Jian

August 21, 2008 3 comments

It’s fitting that I’ve been reading Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma during the Olympic Games. So fitting that the protagonist and his mother’s apartment tower ends up being demolished to make way for the construction of the Beijing’s National Stadium, the Bird’s Nest. But more on that later. Ma is the author of the outstanding travel narrative Red Dust, the short novel The Noodle Maker and the book of stories Stick Out Your Tongue. Only Red Dust can claim to be as important a book as this one, but ultimately Beijing Coma will probably be regarded as Ma’s masterwork.

At 584 pages in length, Beijing Coma is an imposing read. The novel’s main subject is the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, an event which is now unspeakable in China. Needless to say, Ma has long since fled China for the comparatively benign world of London. This event is described in exhaustive detail. What we get is literally hundreds of pages leading up to the ‘crackdown’ that those of us in the West remember best through the image of the unknown ‘Tank Man’ defiantly standing against the oncoming tanks. For those of you too young to remember this, here it is:

Beijing Coma is about a young man called Dai Wei who takes part in the student democracy movement in the months and years leading up to June 4 1989. The book is split into two narratives, both of which are told from Dai Wei’s point of view. The first narrative describes Dai Wei’s childhood and university life leading up to his near fatal shooting on the night of June 4. In the second narrative, which is interweaved with the first, we learn that Dai Wei was shot in the head and is now completely paralyzed. He can hear what is going on around him, but he can’t move a muscle or give the slightest indication that he can understand what people are saying.

I want to discuss some of the problems I had with this novel before I go on to talk about its outstanding qualities. Firstly, the book is long, possibly overly so. To make matters worse, there are no chapters. The novel is punctuated with short italicized passages which usually (but not always) indicate a shift between the two narratives. These short statements are often only obliquely relevant to the main story, and they often use medical terminology. An example from page 118:

“Cortisol seeps into your cells, filling them with sadness and causing your memories of her to ferment.”

Some of these statements are quite poetic, but a great many are pedestrian or even vaguely annoying. The lack of chapters is a significant but not insurmountable hurdle for the reader. Another hurdle is the fact that Beijing Coma sags very heavily in the middle. The problem, to my mind, is that much of what Ma Jian is trying to detail isn’t overly interesting in itself. While it is true that the novel pays off in the final hundred pages or so, many readers will probably give up after two or three hundred pages. Ma’s attention to detail is such that we get pages and pages of fairly insignificant conversation between young men and women who will later become the central figures in the student democracy movement. Worse, the story of Dai Wei’s life after his shooting only becomes interesting toward the end of the novel, and as such I found the first half of the book something of a chore to read. A third hurdle is the fact that Beijing Coma appears to lack an overall shape or drive. Perhaps this comes in part from the fact that we know that Dai Wei will end up being shot and falling into a decade-long coma. Upon approaching the end, I discovered that the book did have a shape after all, but it only ‘paid off’ for this reader in the final hundred pages. My final complaint is that Ma’s writing is, for the most part, devoid of what I might call ‘poetic flourish.’ Perhaps this comes from the translation, but I didn’t feel emotionally drawn into the story until the second half.

Having pointed out some of the book’s potential flaws (at least for the impatient and less careful readers among us – myself included), let me reiterate my belief that Beijing Coma is a tremendously important book. I hesitate to use the word ‘novel,’ for this reads more like journalism than fiction. Ma Jian has said that he considers himself to be a realist, and that his mission as a writer is to describe the people and events he sees around him. In this, Beijing Coma is a success. This is an insider account of the student movement that was so barbarically purged in Tiananmen Square, one so detailed that one can’t help but imagine that Ma Jian himself witnessed the terrible events he is describing. Most of the book is taken up with conversations between members of the student movement. The main characters are too numerous to mention, and it wouldn’t serve much of a purpose for me to try to outline their qualities here. Meanwhile, the second narrative is taken up exclusively with conversations and Dai Wei’s thoughts and reminiscences. This might be unique in fiction; it’s certainly unique in my reading experience – a protagonist who can’t move, speak or open his eyes.

This second narrative starts fairly slowly, as I’ve said. The reader is left to wonder whether Dai Wei will eventually wake from his coma. Meanwhile, he overhears conversations, many of which involve friends who come to see him in the aftermath of the purge. If Dai Wei ever wakes up he is to be arrested by the Communist authorities, so he is pretty much doomed. I guess what I’m trying to say here is that this second narrative seems to lack an escape route or goal. This seems to be Ma’s point here, but it’s a little hard on the reader. It wasn’t until page 373 that I encountered a passage that really seemed to resonate with me. I reproduce it here in full:

“My mother’s always forgetting to turn on the radio. The silence is a torment because it forces me to recognise that I am lying motionless on an iron bed. Whenever I contemplate this truth, I hurriedly return to the streets I used to walk down and try to hide myself in the crowds. After a while, my mind clears, and death shows its face to me. In fact, death has been lurking inside me for years, waiting to strike me down when a disease sends the signal. Most of the time, I pretend not to know it’s there.”

Dai Wei’s body suffers a multitude of atrocities and humiliations over the course of Beijing Coma, including but not limited to: being shot in the head; having one of his kidney’s removed and sold; having his urine sold as a mystical healing liquid (an amusing quote: “I had shingles. My feet were in so much pain, I couldn’t walk. I drank my urine for a week, but nothing happened. But after just one cup of this guy’s urine, I’m completely cured) (p. 427); being screwed by a nurse (Dai Wei likes this – he can still get an erection); having his mouth fucked by a male boarder (he’s not happy about this at all); and finally being virtually abandoned and left to die. As Dai Wei’s body decays, so too does the environment around him, namely the apartment tower that is to be demolished in preparation for the 2008 Olympics, and also his mother’s declining mental health. This narrative gets more and more interesting as it progresses,  to the point where it begins to the chart the sort of territory that J. G. Ballard made his own in novels like Crash and High-Rise.

Meanwhile, Dai Wei and his friends move inexorably closer to the bloodshed that was to befall them on June 4. There is a sense of inertia, of inevitability. One thing that jumped out at me was that the student protesters had ample opportunity to flee, right up to the point that the tanks started rolling into Tiananmen Square itself, but they found themselves unable to pull themselves away. In various ways, they become martyrs to the doomed democracy movement. One of the main characters, Wang Fei, says it best, years after the Tiananmen Square massacre:

“We’re the ‘Tiananmen Generation’, but no one dares call us that […] It’s taboo. We’ve been crushed and silenced. If we don’t take a stand now, we will be erased from the history books. The economy is developing at a frantic pace. In a few more years the country will be so strong, the government will have nothing to fear, and no need or desire to listen to us. So if we want to change our lives, we must take action now. This is our last chance. The Party is begging the world to give China the Olympics. We must beg the Party to give us basic human rights.” (p 505)

Ultimately, Beijing Coma is a triumph. The two narratives finally reach their bleak and harrowing conclusions, to devastating effect. This is not a lighthearted book or one to be dismissed on the basis of a few stylistic quibbles. This is a powerful, vital story. There’s a great deal I haven’t mentioned in this review, such as the symbolism of the sparrow that adorns the book’s cover, or the significance of Dai Wei’s apartment tower being demolished to pave the way for the Beijing Olympics. The most straightforward thing I can say about this is that if you are interested in Chinese politics or the struggle against tyranny and oppression in China today, then you must read Beijing Coma.

Book Review – Stick Out Your Tongue by Ma Jian

April 23, 2008 Leave a comment

Ma Jian is my favourite Chinese writer, due to his outstanding travel narrative, “Red Dust.” Ma is a realist; he has said that it is his intention to depict the lives of the people he sees around him as accurately as possible. But realism is very much out of fashion in Communist China, dangerously so. As such, when “Stick Out Your Tongue” was first published in a Chinese journal in 1987, it was not only banned by the Communist authorities, but a blanket ban was placed upon all of Ma’s future work. Soon after this, Ma moved to Hong Kong and later to London, where he now lives.

At first glance, it’s difficult to see what the fuss is about. “Stick Our Your Tongue” is a very short collection of stories about Tibet, so short that they barely justify being published in book form. What we have here is less than 80 pages of actual stories, as well as an interesting Afterword. It gets worse, however, when one realises that the first story in this volume, “The Woman and the Blue Sky,” is actually in “Red Dust.” All that’s changed is that the story has been changed from past to present tense, and a couple of references to other characters have been removed. This is disappointing, because what is left is around 50 pages of new material.

The new material depicts a series of disturbing events: an old Tibetan man who raped his own daughter, a Buddhist acolyte who is sexually degraded (in the name of Buddhism) and then left to die on a frozen river. This is disturbing stuff, partly because the material is presently calmly, without attempt to cushion the reader. This is Ma’s strength: he is able to look at the world around him and describe it carefully, even solemnly. But this is hardly pleasant reading. One finishes reading this volume wondering what, if anything, one has learned, other than a reminder of the infinite cruelty of human nature.

Ma’s Afterword, written 18 years after the initial volume was published, discusses the repression of the Tibetan people by the Chinese government. This is of course very topical at the moment, but there’s a strange dislocation between the actual written text of “Stick Out Your Tongue” and the ills Ma suffered as a consequence of having written it. In short, there is nothing overtly political about these stories, except by inference. Ma must have carefully avoided any direct criticism of the Communist authorities in his original text. As such, the Afterword, with its talk of Communist repression, seems out of whack with the rest of the book.

What I am saying here is that Ma Jian is a major writer, but that this is a minor book. “Red Dust” is vital reading for anyone even remotely interested in what has been happening in China in recent decades. “The Noodle Maker,” a ‘novel’ which is in fact a collection of thematically-linked stories, is well worth reading too. But I wouldn’t go out of your way to find “Stick Out Your Tongue” unless you are a Ma completist (he has only published 3 books so far). The good news is that this situation is soon to be rectified. Ma’s magnum opus (at nearly 600 pages) is his new novel, “Beijing Coma,” which is due to be released in around a month’s time. I am hoping that it will confirm my suspicion that Ma Jian is one of the most important Chinese writers of his generation.

Writers of interest – Ma Jian

February 17, 2008 Leave a comment

While I procrastinate about producing essays on my favourite ten novels, I thought I’d start a series of short pieces about some writers you might not have read or even heard about. These are writers who I consider, for one reason or another, to be less famous than they deserve to be. The first such writer is Ma Jian. Born in Qingdao (Tsingtao, as in the beer), China, Ma was a self-proclaimed free-thinker and dissident who attracted the ire of the Communist authorities during the 1980s. He wrote an account of his travels around China entitled “Red Dust: A Path through China.” This fascinating book is basically a travel narrative of Ma’s journey through China in the 1980s. I can highly recommend it to anyone wanting to catch a glimpse of the ‘real’ China, as opposed to the veneer of propaganda you are likely to receive from the Communist authorities, especially in the lead up to the Beijing Olympics. “Red Dust” was first published in English in 2001, but Vintage Books put out a new edition in 2006 as part of their Vintage East series. This series, which also includes gems by important Chinese writers such as Xinran and Ha Jin, should be widely available and modestly priced at around Aus $14.95

Ma Jian has also published a couple of other books in English, but at the moment they seem to be less widely available than “Red Dust.” Ma’s first novel, “The Noodle Maker,” was originally published in Hong Kong in 1991, but was only released in English in 2004. Incidentally, the translator of Ma Jian’s works is his partner Flora Drew, whom he apparently now lives with in Britain. There have been a couple of editions of “The Noodle Maker,” both in the US and UK. “The Noodle Maker” can in fact only loosely be termed a novel; it reads more like a collection of thematically linked short stories. Ma is a realist; he has expressed a desire to write about the lives of people he sees around him. As these stories are set in China in the late 1980s, Ma Jian’s realism is highly appreciated, as they offer an insight into the trials of everyday people in China at that time. I suspect that “The Noodle Maker” isn’t for everyone, as the stories within are harrowing in the extreme, but the book does offer a fascinating insight into the generation of Chinese affected by the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s.

Ma Jian’s only other book in English at this time is “Stick Out Your Tongue,” a slender collection of stories set in Tibet. I am yet to read this book, except for the first chapter which can be read on Amazon.com. However, I did notice that there seems to be some overlap between the final section of “Red Dust” and the first chapter of “Stick Out Your Tongue.” It appears that the latter volume picks up pretty much where the former ends.

I am eagerly awaiting the release of Ma’s new novel, “Beijing Coma”, which is due to be released later this year. From the brief snippet I’ve read about it, “Beijing Coma” appears to be about a man who goes into a coma in the 1980s and wakes up in the 2000s to find that the world is more brutal than the world of his dreams. I can’t wait to read it.