Why fiction is necessary, according to Arundhati Roy, and me.

I have heard research shows it is mainly women who read novels now. I have heard multiple men say before that they do read, but only nonfiction. As though fiction is somehow frivolous. This grieves me.

It shows ignorance of all that fiction can teach you, and inspire you to reach for further learning, as they knit together complex realities in a way only an imaginative product can.

“Only a novel can tell you how caste, communalisation, sexism, love, music, poetry, the rise of the right all combine in a society. And the depths in which they combine,” author Arundhati Roy told The Guardian after the publication of her new novel.

“We have been trained to “silo-ise”: our brains specialise in one thing. But the radical understanding is if you can understand it all, and I think only a novel can.”

In 1997, this woman’s first novel, The God of Small Things, astonished people around the world. It won the Booker Prize, which had never before been given to an Indian who actually lived in India. Or an Indian woman for that matter. It’s now sold 6 million copies.

It followed the lives of a woman embroiled in an illicit, intercaste love affair, and of her twin children: how, as it says, “they all broke the rules. They all crossed into forbidden territory. They all tampered with the laws that lay down who should be loved and how. And how much.”

It created the twins’ childhood world in a voice so individual it has haunted me for the past two decades. It remains a standout of my reading life.

But Roy is primarily a nonfiction writer. She’s spent the 20 years since The God of Small Things’ release embroiled in politics, producing essays on topics such as major government dams, the  2002 state-sanctioned massacre of as many as 2000 Muslims in Gujarat and the brutal suppression of tribes whose land is being mined. These will be published in collected book (i.e. brick) form next year.

The news she was publishing a second novel was exciting for the book world; I finally opened The Ministry of Utmost Happiness with the greedy happiness of someone who has a box of chocolates all to themselves.

I soon realised the story unfolds against a vast backdrop of modern Indian history that I frankly didn’t understand.

Here’s four paragraphs I wish someone wrote for me before I started:

  • ‘Partition’ means the division of British India in 1947.
  • It divided three provinces, based on district-wide Hindu or Muslim majorities, to create India and Pakistan.
  • This displaced over 14 million people along religious lines, creating overwhelming refugee crises and large-scale violence, with up to two million dead.
  • It created an atmosphere of hostility and suspicion between India and Pakistan that continues now.

Or, as Roy put it,

God’s carotid burst open on the new border between India and Pakistan and a million people died of hatred. Neighbors turned on each other as though they’d never known each other, never been to each other’s weddings, never sung each other’s songs.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness opens in Delhi in the 1950s, where Partition still reverberates.

The first part follows a transgender outcast called Anjum who lives in a graveyard. There, she has set up a funeral home and guest house, and dreams of motherhood.

Yep, you read all that correctly.

On her first night in the graveyard, after a quick reconnaissance, Anjum placed her Godrej cupboard and her few belongings near Mulaqat Ali’s grave and unrolled her carpet and bedding between Ahlam Baji’s and Begum Renata Mumtaz Madam’s graves … her desolation protected her. Unleashed at last from social protocol, it rose up around her in all its majesty – a fort, with ramparts, turrets, hidden dungeons and walls that hummed like an approaching mob. She rattled through its gilded chambers like a fugitive absconding from herself.

The stories of Anjum’s life are brilliant in themselves.

Anjum called her guest house Jannat. Paradise. She kept her TV on night and day. She said she needed the noise to steady her mind. She watched the news diligently and became an astute political analyst. She also watched Hindi soap operas and English film channels. She particularly enjoyed B-grade Hollywood vampire movies and watched the same ones over and over again. She couldn’t understand the dialogue of course, but she understood the vampires reasonably well.

But after a while I began to wonder where it was all going.

Then the book enters its second part, with an abrupt switch in setting to Kashmir, a region Partition plunged into territorial disputes between India, Pakistan and China that continues today, resulting in almost continuous warfare and civil unrest.

It also switches to a second protagonist, Tilo, an architect who gets involved with Kashmiri independence fighters.

Between these two parts, both told in third person, a first-person narrator is introduced: a drunk hiding out in Delhi while he’s supposed to be in rehab, and one of three men who see Tilo as the love of their life.

I have constructed myself around her. Not around her perhaps, but around the memory of my love for her. She doesn’t know that. Nobody does, except perhaps Naga, Musa and me, the men who loved her. I use the word love loosely, and only because my vocabulary is unequal to the task of describing the precise nature of that maze, that forest of feelings that connected the three of us to her and eventually to each other.

The narrator dips in and out once or twice more alongside a huge cast of secondary characters. While Tilo and Anjum provide some humanity, some whimsy that lightens the darkness of the political setting and the horror and trauma of the country’s warfare and politics, they are never fully revealed psychologically in the way novels conventionally develop characters.

Instead, they form what The Guardian calls an “extraordinary and visceral state of the-nation”.

It was peacetime. Or so they said. All morning a hot wind had whipped through the city streets, driving sheets of grit, soda-bottle caps and beedi stubs before it, smacking them into car windscreens and cyclists’ eyes. When the wind died, the sun, already high in the sky, burned through the haze and once again the heat rose and shimmered on the streets like a belly dancer. People waited for the thundershower that always followed a dust storm, but it never came. Fire raged through a swathe of huts huddled together on the riverbank, gutting more than two thousand in an instant. Still the Amaltas bloomed, a brilliant, defiant yellow. Each blazing summer it reached up and whispered to the hot brown sky, Fuck You.

I spend most of the novel loving this writing, but overall baffled, following gamely along and waiting for it all to come together. The two parts of the narrative do join in the end, and a bit of happy redemption takes place. Yet I’m left still grasping for meaning.

Roy told The Guardian: “What I wanted to know was: can a novel be a city? … can you stop it being baby food, which can be easily consumed?”

She sure can.

“It’s a book that doesn’t pretend to universalise anything or conceptualise anything. It’s a book of great detail about a place,” she goes on. “Writers are being reduced to creators of a product that is acceptable, that slips down your throat, which readers love and therefore can be bestsellers, that’s so dangerous.”

The Atlantic reckoned she went too far, criticising her for a lack of self-editing, confusion about point of view and a lack of humanity for “the very people she tried to humanise.” It called the book a “fascinating mess”.

But she’s still a must-read for me. I’ll probably open her third novel with equal excitement, but more wariness. Like it might either be a box of pralines or a bomb.

Because her writing is still astonishing, like no other writer I can name. It’s not just the magic realist style; it’s like she’s invented her own language. And while it doesn’t mesh as harmoniously with these characters as it did in The God of Small Things, it’s still delightful. Sentences becomes sandcastles, sweet and ephemeral, just existing for the fun of it.

Two men – one white, one Indian – go past, holding hands. Their plump black Labrador is dressed in a red-and-blue jersey that says No. 7 Manchester United. Like a genial holy man distributing his blessings, he bestows a little squirt of piss on to the tyres of the cars he waddles past.

Look, unless you adored The God of Small Things I won’t recommend this. Especially if you’re one of those men who have given up fiction. Starting with this would scare you back off for life.

But it challenged me. We need to be challenged. And if you do read it, now you know at least one person who’d be happy to discuss it with you afterwards!

 

Advertisements

Seven months’ worth of one-line book reviews. Go!

All the fiction I’ve read in the first half of 2018, reviewed for you here in a series of pithy one-liners. Well, they all fit on one line when I wrote them in Word.

Also available in free audiobooks from Librivox.

Entire series of 8 Anne of Green Gables novels, L. M. Montgomery

This series is classic and never fails to bring me joy. You don’t like it, you have no soul.

 

 

Dustfall, Michelle Johnston

Reviewed this for WAtoday here, so I won’t repeat, but an awesome read by a local Perth author.

 

 

 

 

 

Finders Keepers, Stephen King

Sequel to Mr Mercedes. Enjoyed almost as much. Fun, quick crime novel, but not my favourite King.

 

 

 

 

Extinctions, Josephine Wilson

Exquisitely written tale of ageing and renewal. Perth author, won Miles Franklin, Dorothy Hewett awards.

 

 

 

 

 

The Sisters’ Song, Louise Allan

Family saga that vividly evokes womens’ challenging lives in rural Tasmania in 1900s. Perth author!

 

 

 

 

 

Survival, Rachel Watts

Sci-fi novella: evil corporations rule world after Bible-style Flood. Reviewed here. Perth author!

 

 

 

 

 

You Belong Here, Laurie Steed

Sensitively told story of family love and lies, that brings Perth suburbs to life on page. Local author!

 

 

 

 

 

My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante

Begins world-famous series by Italian recluse about hard life in 1950s Naples. Wasn’t sure I liked it.

 

 

 

 

 

The Story of a New Name, Elena Ferrante

Part II. Definitely more readable than first. Began to see why global audience found so compelling.

 

 

 

 

 

Sleeping Beauties, Stephen King and Owen King

Father-son team! Classic King. Huge book, authentic characters in wild plot. Flew greedily through it.

 

 

 

 

 

The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman (audio)

Ghosts bring up human boy in a graveyard. Beautiful, whimsical, touching. A must. Read by Gaiman.

 

 

 

 

 

Mansfield Park, Jane Austen

Classic Austen. Clever and full of dry wit. So relatable: idiots back then are just like idiots now.

 

 

 

 

 

NW, Zadie Smith

A very literary style for Smith. Even as a devoted fan I found it slightly hard going, but worth reading.

 

 

 

 

 

Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen

Highly enjoyable like all Austen, but not my favourite plot. Some quirky breaks through “fourth wall”.

 

 

 

 

 

Body Double, Tess Gerritsen

Rizzoli & Isles crime series. Like a drug. I inhaled this, four hours later needed more. Then, got more.

Vanish, Tess Gerritsen

See above. Nice and graphic, these novels, very easy to read, and Rizzoli and Isles good characters.

The Mephisto Club, Tess Gerritsen

See above. Sick of Tess Gerritsen after this. Crave meatier crime, like Val McDermid or Ian Rankin.

 

Afternoons with Harvey Beam, Carrie Cox

Reviewed here. A funny and highly readable first novel by a Perth author.

 

 

 

 

Now reading… Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy. Stay tuned! 

How Tim Winton got my mojo back, and other stories.

They all hurled sticks for galumphine mutts, their sun-fucked faces shining with adoration.

Tim Winton, Eyrie

The 2017 state election campaign was one of the most gruelling periods of my working life.

It wasn’t all because of the self-imposed workload; equally to blame was the nature of the work.

Without really intending to, I had become what felt like the sole statewide reporter questioning the Roe 8 project, simply because for every story I wrote, more swarmed from the woodwork with questions demanding answers. The more I looked in vain for those answers, the dodgier the whole project looked.

I wrote countless reports on the protests, the machine lock-ons, the clashes with police. I wrote The Idiot’s Guide to Roe 8, and covered the Senate inquiry into the unnecessary slaughter of animals caused by the haste with which the works were being rushed through pre-election. After the release of more than 350 pages of documents when Alannah MacTiernan’s Freedom of Information application was finally approved after the government spent years fighting it, I hunkered down with the documents and finally produced one of the most demanding stories of my working life, Figures fudged in Roe 8 rush job.

Roe 8 was by no means the only environmental issue I covered in the months preceding the election. I covered the Beach not Bitumen campaign against the Esplanade extension through Bush Forever land in Scarborough and Trigg and the No Houses in Wetlands campaign against the bulldozing of Carter’s Lot in Bayswater – including another trawl through Freedom of Information documents showing the approvals for the development had been based on incomplete paperwork.

I covered the establishment of marine parks scientists were calling “paper parks” because of the lack of inclusion of any sanctuary zones for marine life. I covered the race to the bottom that was the evolution of WA’s hunt-to-kill ‘serious threat’ shark policy. I covered the new Biodiversity ‘Conservation’ Act passing into law, complete with a clause allowing an environment minister to approve the extinction of any species should ‘progress’ require it.

Hot on the heels of this charming piece of legislation came the approval of the Yeelirrie uranium mine, ignoring the Environmental Protection Authority’s knockback on grounds the mine would cause the extinction of subterranean fauna species. Things that look like prawns, and aren’t cute, but whose role in purifying our underground aquifers could be significant – things that should be studied further, not destroyed by humans drunk on their own power.

As the election drew near I was going to write an opinion piece drawing all this together, but by then I was just too damn exhausted. (Note, it’s now May that I’m writing this). The only thing that kept me going was the emails that poured in from readers after every story, saying thank you, and pointing me to the next. Still, it was disheartening. I was starting to think it was just too hard to keep caring. Those emails from LinkedIn offering cushy jobs in PR, toeing the company line, were starting to look very attractive.

Especially since more emails were coming in from people asking me to investigate more stories, more stories I would never, even if there were twelve of me, have enough time to get to.

In fact, I just looked at my Evernote and found this. A blurt, jotted then forgotten on February 21.

I am utterly competent, hard, brisk but compassionate and capable. 
I am petrified 
The emails keep coming. 
Fifty-plus a day. 
I worry when i am there, 
more when i am not  
The people continue to reply
I try to leap out of the loop
But i cant stop checking
Clicking
Pecking
At these emails that just keep coming. 

Enter Tim Winton

It was in this frame of mind I picked up Eyrie. I was innocent of its subject matter, having seen it in a bookshop and remembered that I had been planning to read it since its 2014 release. I thought, now is the moment – I was headed to Rotto for the weekend for a wedding and planned serious down time.

Eyrie starts with a jangling hangover and a weird wet patch on the carpet for Tom Keely, divorced by his wife and disgraced in the public eye after an event in his previous professional life as an environmental campaign spokesman left him unemployed. The mining companies would love to have him come to the dark side in their PR departments, but he’s not yet having a bar of it.

Instead, he staggers from blind drunk to blinding daylight, trying to work out how to pay the bills now his old career has locked him out for good. He is “doubly bound, trapped like a bug in a jar – addled, livid, dizzy, butting his head and turning circles”, high up in his ‘eyrie’ – atop a bleak block of flats in Fremantle inhabited by people down on their luck.

The block, in real life, is one nicknamed the ‘suicide flats’, generally regarded as a colossal town planning mistake in Freo.

Into this block of flats, and the mess that is Keely’s life, returns a distant childhood friend, bringing a hefty set of her own problems and a vague but highly uncomfortable sense of responsibility for Keely.

Whenever I mention Tim Winton, one of my most beloved authors, inevitably someone tells me they still have a Cloudstreet hangover after being made to study it in school. I never understood this, but I never had to read it for school. I just read it because that’s the kind of nerd kid I was.

Whether or not they have a point, I say to them – get over it! You are missing out. This book is raw, angry and humbling in its brilliance.

It casts a merciless glare on to the murky underbelly of environmental politics and activism in WA, and their uneasy coexistence with the all-powerful mining industry.

It brings Fremantle and Perth into sharp relief, cities painfully under-represented in our national literature. Ours is a culture dangerously lacking in self-reflection and as Winton shines his pitiless light on Keely, he shines it on us all.

Here’s a glimpse of Freo’s cappuccino strip through the eyes of Keely:

It’s hard to look at but harder to look away, like squeezing a zit under a fluorescent bulb.

The writing makes you realise how long Winton has been honing his craft. It’s as though every year and every book that has passed has made him more devastatingly effective

He doesn’t have to be pretty. It’s stripped down to diamond hardness.

Back to work

The emails have piled up over my long weekend. But this time, a different email lies buried among them.

Would I like to interview Tim Winton pre-election on gas fracking?

You’ve got to be kidding me. I am spent. There is a week to go until I can drop this gargantuan election effort. I am behind. I still have more stories to write than I can poke a stick at. I have researched every bloody environmental issue under the sun in the lead up to this election. Except bloody gas fracking. I have only the vaguest idea of what it even is. I thought, bless me, there was one thing I was going to let slide.

Of course, I make time. I do some hasty cramming. He’s my hero.

People say you shouldn’t meet your heroes, because they will disappoint you. But this is not always true. Winton talks like he writes. He is funny and self-deprecating and wise and full of memorable idioms. He tells me it’s normal to get discouraged when you campaign on environmental issues. He riffs on power and politics and defeat in WA with the authority of someone who knows all the dirtiest secrets. I’m entranced.

He talks for 40 minutes. I try not to interrupt in case he remembers his time is valuable.

I summon energy, pull together research and write another pre-election environmental story. The result got more than 10,000 readers – testament to Winton’s star power.

There has now been a change in government. Polling said Roe 8 was a factor in the decisions of about 20 per cent of voters – a significant influencer.

The new government has helped buy back Carter’s Wetland, stopped the Esplanade extension through the dunes, and has said that while the Yeelirrie mine approval still stands, it will not approve further uranium mines. Its true stance on gas fracking remains to be seen.

My trust in governments, like everyone else’s, runs sadly low. But the election coverage was, nonetheless, worth the effort.

Eyrie? Even more so.

 

Down the rabbit hole with: Jane Austen

One of my favourite things about the world of books and movies is the way they lead you around by the nose, back and forth between them.

14134673_549325998605899_1911022572_n1

An author, genre or entire series can form a rabbit hole, some I emerge from in a matter of weeks, others forming a whole warren that can take years to traverse, interconnecting with other related authors, genres and series. I fell into a warren of Stephen King books and adaptations about five years ago I’m yet to clamber out of, blinking. It doesn’t help that he is master of the cross-reference, meaning new works constantly lead you to back catalogue. Nice sales tactic, King!  

My most recent rabbit hole, literary biographies, saw me off crashing down side route after side route, and I have emerged from one as convert to the cult of known as Janeites.

Three literary biographies survived 2016’s Minimalist Challenge and 2015s Curing of a Bibliomaniac. My experience over the past year writing my own first novel has led me to poke with increasingly greedy interest into the lives of the authors I most admire.

So I devoured A. N. Wilson on the life of C. S. Lewis, Peter Ackroyd on Charles Dickens and my beloved Carol Shields on Jane Austen with gluttonous pleasure, wondering how did they write even one book, which bitter experience now informs me is a gruesome, impossible task?

14515739_1843938409171683_2036898964661338112_n

Deserves its own post. A standout biography.

All these were outstanding and made me determined to fill in the blanks of my reading and to re-read favourites. Starting with the blanks, I’m two-thirds through Oliver Twist and have now read Lewis’ sci-fi novel trilogy. Yes, he wrote space books! (They are a bit heavy. Strictly for extreme Lewis or sci-fi nerds).

Knowing the depth of the rabbit hole Lewis’ non-fiction list represents, and ditto for re-reading the entire Dickens canon, I tackled Austen first, since she was the only  one I’d never read at all. 

Another profoundly affecting book.

Another profoundly affecting book.

The story of her life – and untimely death – moved me and captured my imagination. Lewis and Dickens, while they certainly struggled, at least were born men. All the world wanted from Jane Austen was for her to get married and procreate, but with the encouragement of a lovely Dad she forged her own path, sometimes a lonely and difficult one, and in doing so gave the world gifts it still treasures.

And all to be struck down in her prime. This author who had suddenly hit national fame with just a few works of brilliant insight was struck with sudden illness and wasted quickly to a death at about 40 years old, without so much as a diagnosis. They now think it was perhaps breast cancer, the Shields biography explained.  

It’s hard for a modern soul to comprehend how such a woman, famous, beloved and blessed with a rare genius just flowering, not to mention committed to succeeding despite some serious odds, could simply be permitted to expire without any fanfare or medicine or even a knowledge of why she was dying. And yet this is what happened to Jane Austen, who was denied life and whose further works were hence denied to humanity. 

Struck by these ideas and by the social constraints that inspired Austen as much as they confined her, I picked up a giant omnibus and worked my way delightedly through Sense and Sensibility, then Pride and Prejudice. I found their intelligence and wit, their painstaking evocation of a world complete in and of itself, as utterly worthy of inclusion on any required reading list of English literature – and a damn sight more enjoyable than many other books on said list.

img_20161108_062731

A very large book.

I stopped here, however, having failed to get through the omnibus in six weeks, but now dying to see it all recreated on screen. I had a stab at Mansfield Park, on Netflix, which utterly failed to hold my interest, then turned to the BBC Pride and Prejudice.

This is in itself required viewing, as Bridget Jones’ dedication to Mr Darcy in a wet white shirt shows, and hits the jackpot. Glorious escapism and a near faultless adaptation, with excellent scripting, casting and story transmission. It even preserved the essential humour. The Ministry, who I was by episode three confident enough to drag into it, turned to me and said, “Is this supposed to be a comedy?” “Yes!” I replied, joyfully.

img_20161125_212859

My cheat sheet to get the Ministery up to speed on the plot of Pride and Prejudice.

Next we debated Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but I don’t want to go there. It might ruin my pleasure in the BBC series. It got 5.8 on IMDB, encouraging for a zombie movie, but all things considered it’s low priority. After all, there is The Walking Dead to provide zombies as required when the interminable mid-season break ends. 

Next I’ll probably read Emma, then re-watch the film for 90s nostalgia purposes. I’ve discovered the Ministry hasn’t seen it; terribly remiss, since his only reason is an irrational fear of Gwyneth Paltrow. He hasn’t seen Sliding Doors, either, so we’ve clearly got some remedial work to do these holidays.

Then maybe I’ll hunt out a good screen adaptation of Oliver Twist.

See what I mean?  The rabbit hole is a delightful place to be. It’s amazing I ever come up for air.



 

 

Get under it: Stephen King’s 900-page Under the Dome in five days

Stephen King - Under the Dome

Yerp. It’s big.

The only way you can finish a 900-page book in this amount of time is with the divine aid of the Holy Trinity.

  1. holidays from work
  2. spouse stays at work (so as not to distract you)
  3. book must be freaking awesome

This happy set of circumstances allowed me to arise from the couch On the Fifth Day cramped and red-eyed, but with a glad heart.

The book is about a giant clear dome that slams down, without warning, one fine day over the entirety of a small town in Maine, King’s home town. It tracks the town’s various inhabitants, who are largely under the thumb of a local politician, and observes how they deal with the sudden imprisonment. Poorly, it turns out – spectacularly poorly. And let’s not forget this is America, so they all have guns.

Chaos unfolds, with an outnumbered band of sane citizens trying to protect themselves and their families as they hope for rescue. But as a baffled US Government runs out of options, they must look inside their own hearts and minds  for the answer.

Stephen King has said he had the idea for this book as a young writer but it was essentially too complex, too big, too difficult to write. So he kept it in the back of his mind until he was the kind of writer who could afford to get a researcher to figure out all the scientific ins and outs of what would happen if a giant dome cut off a town from the outside world.

The result is rigorous, fascinating sci-fi with delicious flourishes of the kind of horror only Stephen King can provide (remember the closing scene of Pet Sematary, anyone? Or the opening scene of IT?)

The cast of characters is truly enormous and no amount of commissioned research can help King there – it’s his skill as a novelist, honed over many years, that lets him unfold these simultaneous storylines with dexterity and relentless tension.

This is the most exciting book I’ve read in ages; essentially, after I got out of the Dome, I wanted back in.

That’s why I watched the TV series. Well, two episodes of it. In fact, I was so into this story I began watching the TV adaptation before I had even finished the print version.

It may be that I am being overly judgmental because I was fresh from the book. After all, King and Steven Spielberg are both involved in the production. It should be good. But I stopped after Episode Two. It just doesn’t get the job done. I wouldn’t bother, if I were you.

Just get under the real thing! If you’ve never read King before I there’s no time like the present. Don’t be put off if you don’t like genre fiction (in which case you’re an idiot anyway). The best genre fiction transcends genre, and this gargantuan tale of power, corruption and compassion is a gift from a master storyteller at the top of his game.

 

Bram Stoker’s Dracula – yes, the book – is worth your time

I actually wasn’t expecting to like this all that much. I just thought well, I like horror, and if it’s hung around this long surely it’s good.

I felt like I should have read it already and I also felt a vague curiosity to see what bits I know of the tale are the ‘original bits’ by Bram Stoker and what has been bolted on in various incarnations.

I can’t even remember seeing a proper retelling of anything purporting to be based upon the book. My strongest memory of any Dracula incarnation is the Leslie Nielsen

Bram Stoker's Dracula

Bram Stoker’s Dracula

spoof, with a shudderingly gross Renley eating his flies and Dracula bumbling about a young lady’s bedroom, intoning “nowwwww I am innnnnn de closet”. The Ministry and I also recently watched John Malkovich’s Shadow of the Vampire about the making of Nosferatu, which I had high hopes for but regret to say we both found a crashing bore, uncultured swine that we are.

This book too I found deathly boring for about the first five pages (being of my generation I never have much patience for even the most rudimentary opening descriptive passages) then quite unsuspectingly I fell into it as if into a dark well. I was hopelessly captivated. I finished it in less than a week, quick by the standards of these days when, alas, more things than reading make demands upon me. I recognised more parts than I thought I would – not just the aforementioned Renley with his flies, but also a ship crash, and the poor woman whose bedroom Leslie Nielsen bumbles about in and the bad end she meets – but at the same time there was a huge amount that was completely new to me – all the coolest stuff basically. Even the story of Renley is a rich and mysterious story on its own, and full of pathos.

I’ll tell you why this book was so cool, though – it’s mostly in epistolary (letters) format, alternating letters and journal entries between and of main characters Jonathan Harker and fiancé Mina, her best friend Lucy and her betrothed Arthur Holmwood, Holmwood’s friends Selway and Morris, and finally the doctor and vampire expert Van Helsing, a character so truly lovely he makes the book’s most horrid scenes less grim and more beautiful. There are also newspaper articles on the various creepy events around town as Dracula infiltrates London.

Suffice to say that to represent the tale as just heaving bosoms and fly-eating is reductionist. And it’s this first-person changing perspective, as this edition’s foreword writer Elizabeth Kostova (author of Dracula-inspired The Historian) that really makes it so shivery. You have to watch the writers all put the frightening facts together at their own pace, and there’s plenty of head-clutching while you wait for them to all get together and figure things out before it is too late. By the end, the suspense is positively unbearable. It actually kept me up until past 9pm two nights in a row (I know!) It’s gothic, sexy, scary and graphic. Female readers must grit teeth through the horrifying sexism reflecting the time most accurately, but despite this all the characters are well-drawn. Their tale, and their worry over a friend whose soul hangs in the balance, brought me to the verge of tears several times.

I know when I have had a great read when I immediately seek out all associated movies. I haven’t the heart to go back to Leslie Nielsen now the full blood-and-guts version is ringing in my ears, so to speak, but I have had the Ministry dig out the Winona Ryder/Keanu Reeves version, and though I can barely even say those names in concert without smirking, IMDB has given it a good rating – so we’ll see. Gin martinis and Dracula for dinner tonight then, though perhaps red wine would be more appropriate.

 

Ready, Player Two? Ernest Cline’s Armada and how it measures up

Armada - Ernest ClineErnest Cline’s hit 2011 debut Ready Player One was the pure, unfettered brainscream of a child of the 80s,” as American writer and Juno chief executive Charles Ardai memorably put it.

 

For the uninitiated (where have you BEEN?) the novel wove a veritable treasure trove of 80s movie, gamer and pop-cultural references into an engaging post-apocalyptic sci-fi novel relying heavily on these references for its plot development – a novel at once more exciting, more significant in style and more original in conception than the description I just gave could possibly convey.

In short, it created waves of excitement in every 80s-raised-or-remembering person, one of whom I am proud to be (I was born the same year as The Goonies, yo). It excited the rest of the world too, enough for Steven Spielberg lay claim to directing the movie version, now due in 2017.

So obviously, no pressure on that second novel to succeed, Cline.

Enter Zack Lightman, an 18-year-old gamer who lives with his mom in Oregon. His father died in an explosion at 19, when Zack was just a baby, and the young doppelganger lives in a virtual shrine to the memory of his dad, who bequeathed his obsession with (yes…) 80s movies and games to his son by way of a collection of possessions in the attic of the home Zack and his mother now share with just the ageing beagle, Muffitt.

Zack, a dreamer already dealing with some anger issues and worried about his own grip on reality after spending too much time living in the world of his father’s games, notes and conspiracy theory-filled journals, thinks he must finally have lost the plot when one day he sees a ship from global hit game Armada circling the skies outside his classroom window.

But it soon becomes clear that these is a lot more at stake here than one teenager’s sanity, and this is maybe the first time in history that being a really, really good gamer can be called a life skill – a skill crucial to the future of the human race.

Despite my clearly being a member of the target audience, my kinship with the subject matter here ends abruptly at the word ‘gaming’. Thankfully, my long association with nerds has given me the vocabulary to cope, and even if you don’t care about the 80s or gaming, if you have any interest in the nature of modern sci-fi writing, I’d encourage you to give this a try.

Like its predecessor Ready Player One, Armada features the same endearingly enthusiastic tone, like your best friend chewing your ear off about their latest obsession. A nerd’s wet dream, it’s sharp and humorous, giving the reader an almost immodestly fun ride. It really sounds as though Cline had a ball writing this, particularly some of the wise-cracking dialogue, and that kind of enjoyment is contagious.

The writing is not amazing or life-changing. It’s not full of stirring descriptions or memorable quotes. Several times I am jarred slightly by a choice of adjective or simile. But it doesn’t need to be poetry. The language is entirely functional and the sheer momentum of this story needs no help. The pictures Cline paints are clear as daylight and lent soul by the central theme of Zack’s utter devotion to the idea of his father.

Funnily enough, I remember thinking as I read this that it read a bit like the novelisation of a movie, or indeed the script for one. Cline’s books are both very cinematic stuff, so it surprises me not one whit that Spielberg is all over this.

The author has written a confident and worthy successor to Ready Player One and confirmed his place as a truly original and exciting new voice in sci-fi.

They’ll both undoubtedly make kickarse movies, so keep your ear to the ground (or your eyes on the skies).

Want more sci-fi book reviews? 

Ursula le Guin, The Dispossessed
William Kotzwinkle, The Amphora Project
M. John Harrison, Light
John Wyndham, The Outward Urge