Growing up gay in Gero: how Holden lived to tell the tale

Sheppard contacted a suicide support service that promised an email back within 24 hours. He’d rush home, open his computer and gratefully open the email from the only other human being who knew how he felt.

Holden Sheppard with a friend, aged 19.

Holden with a friend at 19.

He would listen to a song, Joining You, by Alanis Morissette, that told him his thoughts were not the only reality. He would listen to this song on repeat.

With these small actions he tethered himself to the world and waited for the darkness to lift.

Holden Sheppard now.

Holden now.

Sheppard’s now one of Australia’s brightest young literary stars. Thousands of followers check in for his latest daily cheeky Instagram selfie, guessing what colour his mohawk will turn next. He’s attracted national attention for his debut novel, Invisible Boys, which has already won three major awards before its official release on October 1. He’s spending October touring Western Australia, New South Wales and Victoria. He’s an ambassador for Lifeline.

How did he come so far in just a few years? Read the rest of Holden’s moving and uplifting story here on WAtoday

  • If you, or anyone you know, needs mental health support, please call a helpline such as Lifeline 13 11 14; beyondblue 1300 224 636; Mental Health Emergency Response Line 1300 555 788 (Metro) or 1800 676 822 (Peel); Rurallink 1800 552 002; Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467; The Samaritans Crisis Line 08 9381 5555.
  • For specialist help lines including for men, young people, the LGBTIQ+ community and rural residents, see this list.

Stephen King’s The Outsider

I always feel frustrated when people tell me they don’t like the kind of books Stephen King writes, because invariably they don’t know what “kind of books” he actually does write.

He has written horror, yes, but throughout his productive 35-year career he’s also written fantasy, speculative fiction, crime  fiction and thrillers. Some works, such as The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile and the Dark Tower series, are closer to literature, albeit with usually some hint of the supernatural (he can’t stop being fun altogether). As a writer he defies easy classification and smug dismissal.

Recent examples: Sleeping Beauties, with his son Owen King was nominally apocalyptic fantasy, but the epic was set firmly in hyperreal small-town America, like the earlier Under the Dome (which the TV series utterly failed to do justice to).

By contrast, Mr Mercedes marked a confident move into crime fiction, bringing the King characterisation and suspense into a straightforward, if horror-tinged, murder mystery (the Hulu TV series for this did a lot better). Finders Keepers loosely carried on this genre, storyline and characters, as does The Outsider; at least at first.

The official blurb:

An eleven-year-old boy’s violated corpse is found in a town park. Eyewitnesses and fingerprints point unmistakably to one of Flint City’s most popular citizens. He is Terry Maitland, Little League coach, English teacher, husband, and father of two girls. Detective Ralph Anderson, whose son Maitland once coached, orders a quick and very public arrest. Maitland has an alibi, but Anderson and the district attorney soon add DNA evidence to go with the fingerprints and witnesses. Their case seems ironclad.

As the investigation expands and horrifying answers begin to emerge, King’s propulsive story kicks into high gear, generating strong tension and almost unbearable suspense. Terry Maitland seems like a nice guy, but is he wearing another face? When the answer comes, it will shock you as only Stephen King can.

I won’t say how this novel begins to depart from the pattern set by Mr Mercedes and Finders Keepers. That way spoilers lie. Suffice to say it is set some years afterwards and, while borrowing a character or two, is a standalone story. Another glossy, fat, happily page-turning read that requires you only to surrender disbelief and enjoy.

And enjoy I did. If you read and liked the first two, I would definitely recommend it, but I do warn that like Finders Keepers, it doesn’t quite live up to Mr Mercedes. So if you’re new to Stephen King’s crime fiction, do start with that one instead.

 

Madman releases Jasper Jones trailer

Madman Entertainment has finally released the trailer for Jasper Jones, adapted from Fremantle author Craig Silvey’s best-seller and featuring an all-star Australian cast including Hugo Weaving and Toni Collette.

Silvey is also known for his debut Rhubarb, but I and most people I speak to agree Jasper Jones is by far the favourite: a novel you never forget. It’s done the book club rounds because it’s that rarest of combinations, a literary novel and a thumping good read.

Now from Bran Nue Dae director Rachel Perkins, Animal Kingdom producer Vincent Sheehan and Goldstone producer David Jowsey comes this eagerly awaited adaptation.

It feels like it’s been a long time coming, with my anticipation heightened by Barking Gecko’s stage version a couple of years ago at the State Theatre Centre of WA, and more recently by hearing about the advance premiere screening of this adaptation at CinefestOZ in Margaret River some months ago.

The movie, set for theatrical release in March, follows Charlie Bucktin, a bookish 14-year-old misfit living in a small Australian town in 1969.

In the dead of night during the scorching summer, Charlie is startled awake by local outcast Jasper Jones outside his window, pleading for help.

Jasper leads him deep into the forest to show him something that will change his life forever, setting them both on a dangerous journey to solve a mystery that will consume the entire community.

In an isolated town full of secrecy, gossip and thinly veiled tragedy, Charlie faces family breakdown, finds his first love and discovers the meaning of courage.

But don’t think this is going to be boring and worthy. This was a seriously funny and vibrant book – that’s why its following is so loyal.

As well as Collette and Weaving, stars include Levi Miller from Pan and Angourie Rice from the excellent These Final Hours. Just looking at the stills makes me think they’ve cast this movie perfectly. I’m excited!

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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.



 

 

The difference between L.A. Confidential the book and L.A. Confidential the movie

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Firstly, apologies for my four-month absence, but I have been doing some editing for a friend and it sucked up a fair bit of blogging time. On the plus side, I now know how to edit a doctorate and I now know a lot more than before about the architecture of nations that have been colonised by the Portugese than I did before.
On-topic, it would probably be quicker for me to tell you what is the same about the book and the movie: “The first third. Kinda.”

An abandoned auto court in the San Berdoo foothills; Buzz Meeks checked in with ninety-four thousand dollars, eighteen points of high-grade heroin, a 10-gauge pump, a .38 special, a .45 automatic, and a switchblade he’d bought off a pachuco at the border – right before he spotted the car parked across the line: Mickey Cohen goons in an LAPD unmarked, Tijuana cops standing by to bootjack a piece of his goodies, dump his body in the San Ysidro River.

If you’re a fan of the stylish, brilliantly cast neo-noir film do not waste a minute getting this book. You might think with the quality crime oozing from shelves these days there is no point reading a crime novel from 1990 that is set in the 1950s but you’re dead wrong. This is hands down one of the best crime novels I’ve ever read  (and dude, I have read a boatload).

And it is way, way, way different from the film. I finished this book, with lots of “oh my Gods” and goosebumps, wondering how the hell they were going to fit a plot like that into the movie (which I’d seen long enough ago not to remember the plot too well) so of course I immediately forced the Ministry to watch it with me, though he did not take a lot of forcing because it’s pretty rare to get me to sit still for two and a half hours these days.

So the answer to how to fit a plot like that into the movie was, of course, not to. You think you know the story of L.A. Confidential? What you know is basically a subplot of the grand, horrible, confronting, sordid, brain-teasing, almost impossibly complex story that spans decades. You’ll just about need to keep a notebook next to you. By comparison, it makes the characters in the movie look two-dimensional and the plot like child’s play, safe and tame. And this from a person who loved the movie.

On reading, you’ll not only be rewarded by not only a BONUS NEW ENDING and eye-popping violence but the inimitable, sometimes virtually incomprehensible but always awesome L.A.P.D lingo that plunges you headfirst into a time and a place that is long gone (and full of hinky hopheads) but forever exhilarating.

Bonus fact: this is part of James Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet, which also comprises The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere and White Jazz. I’ve only read The Black Dahlia, which was also dark and strong, but it didn’t knock my socks off like this did. The others I’ll get to, but next up for me is Ellroy’s My Dark Places: an L.A. Crime Memoir.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 21: The Mystery of Swordfish Reef (Arthur W. Upfield, 1943)

Books left: 5. Weeks left: 8 (In the words of Douglas Adams, DON’T PANIC)

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Oh no, this was not his natural background, this heaving water which retained nothing on its surface for long. This was 11 January, and the genesis of the case, dated 3 October, was out here far from land. Life and the elements leave their records on the bush for years; but here on the sea life and the elements left no record for even such as he to read.
In all his bush cases he had many allies: the birds and the insects; the ground which was like the pages of a huge book wherein were printed the acts of all living things; the actions of rain and sunlight and wind. And greater than all these added together was his ally Time. And now of all his former allies only Time was with him.

Here lies another author I would never have discovered without working in ye olde secondhand bookshop and being familiar with its ‘literary crime’ section.

Books of this genre are characterised by their size, being neither the new-release “trade paperback” size or the pocket “A-formats” that generally follow. Literary crime novels are usually “B-format,” the same size as your literary fiction, and as they never fit in the general and crime fiction “troughs” so were generally poked into their own sad little section underneath that no-one saw. This was a shame, because these are some of the best books: a little off the beaten track in content as well as location, they represented the best of both worlds. Arthur Upfield proves that this holds true now as ever, a classic example of this rather unlikely genre: this Australian 1940s author’s hero is detective inspector Napoleon Bonaparte, investigator extraordinaire, bush tracker unparalleled and identified as was in those days called a “half-caste” Aborigine.

Upfield’s mysteries have earned their place as classics in Australian as well as crime fiction.

In this title “Bony”, as he prefers to be called, is asked to go to sea, a little swordfishing town called Bermagui on the coast of New South Wales, He must investigate a murder that appears to have occurred on the open water, and that has baffled the local and regional police.

I wondered for the first part whether I would be bored. I am not a particular fan of things angling or any stories that smell of the ocean – for someone who pities genre snobs, I sure do avoid general thrillers and seafaring fiction.

But the passion and suspense of hunting game fish, with all accompanying bloodlust, is masterfully done in this book. I, poor innocent, soon realised that swordfish were not the two or three-foot jobs I had imagined and I quickly became fascinated. I did a lot of Google-imaging before I was sated.

What begins as a charmingly dignified old-school mystery ends in a satisfying wash of adventure.
Without having even familiarised myself with Bony’s usual stomping-ground, I am delighted by the story of his being a fish (ha!) out of water.

When I am in my native bush, gentlemen … everything I observe, except the clouds, is static. On the sea nothing is static. A ship does not leave tracks on the sea.

And oh, the mystery! I was quickly sucked into this tale, with its distinctly Agatha-Christie type premise of a fishing launch, the Do-me, that vanishes without a trace, and the discovery of the murder of one of those aboard when we know she was seaworthy and those on her trustworthy. Like Marple or Poirot, Bony adores a puzzle such as this.

And so, having read all their reports and having gone through their collection of statements, I decided that this was a meaty bone on which to try the teeth of my brain.
It is certainly an out of the way case. I have to admit that I shy clear of crimes of violence where there are fingerprints and revolvers, bodies and missing valuables, and a nark or two in a thieves’ kitchen waiting to inform for the price of a beer. I like my cases minus bodies and minus clues, if possible. Which is why this
Do-me case so attracts me.

Bony is like my beloved Poirot, too, in his immaculate turnout, grand manner and “abnormal vanity” and lack of bother about things like procedure or the chain of custody; “his custom [much like Poirot’s] being to fade away after having placed the key-stone of an investigation into position.”

A note on historical context – apart from the occasional alarming use of the word half-caste, which is to the modern reader the equivalent of throwing a grenade on to the page; and a slightly hair-raising instance of Bony’s “Aboriginal instincts” rising up in a time of extremity to allow a “primitive” rage to rise to the surface, these instances are in exception to the general tone of the book, which has minimal reference to Bony’s origins, apart from the occasional pointing out the lack of prejudice other characters greet him with once they witness his “educated” voice and elegant manners. Perhaps in the other books’ more landlocked settings the racial elements are more pronounced.

Add to Upfield’s masterful mystery and delightful hero a pretty turn of phrase, and like a swordfish, I’m hooked. (Sorry, I’ll stop.).

I have found another crime writer I love… as if I needed one.

More on The Curing of a Bibliomaniac here.

The Curing of a Bibliomaniac part 15: The Famished Road (Ben Okri, 1991)

Books left: 11. Weeks left: 16 (don’t panic; just for God’s sake, stop reading Booker winners and start on the pulp.)

I  heard the earth trembling at the fearsome approach of a demonic being.

Ben Okri - The Famished Road

Azaro is an abiku, or spirit child. Abiku are supposed to only stay briefly upon the earth as real children before returning to their real, permanent existence in the spirit world. As mortal parents mourn their passing, the spirit-children are reborn to another set of unsuspecting parents, only to break their hearts in turn.

When Azaro betrays his companions by falling in love with life and with his parents, his spirit companions are jealous. Manifesting as spectacularly malformed creatures visible only to Azaro, they strive to lure him into situations that will cause his death and therefore his return to them. But he sticks to his decision, though he sees them everywhere he goes and the temptation to go with them floats before him always.

A curious terror, like arms grabbing you from out of a trusted darkness, swept over me.

Each time these horrendous beings manage to trick Azaro and sweep him away, he escapes and returns to his parents, ordinary Nigerians beset by a poverty verging on the desperate, but passionate about each other and about their son.

Meanwhile, politics first seeps, then floods into their world. A Party for the Rich and a Party for the Poor, each with identical promises and brutal methods of persuasion and an army of thugs to prove their points, close in around this previously sleepy village as the army of monstrous spirits gathers unseen around Azaro and his family. White men appear, bringing with them the novelties of motor cars and electricity, and the forests through which Azaro is accustomed to wander begin to recede.

The world was changing and I went on wandering as if everything would always be the same. It took longer to get far into the forest. It seemed that the trees, feeling that they were losing the argument with human beings, had simply walked deeper into the forest.

Meanwhile, the spirits pursue Azaro with ever-increasing ruthlessness towards a climax that will endanger not just him, but his parents as well.

At times, this is like a collection of mad folk tales, with an exhilarating mysticism and power of invention. Each outlandish sentence is stranger than the last and they wash over you like a rapid, bubbling stream. Much of it is beautiful. But after the first quarter it begins to drag. I start to feel trapped, reading barely-varying dreamlike sequences over and over; temptation, near disaster and then new beginnings for Azaro. I begin to wonder, rather desperately, what will be the circuit-breaker.

It arrives too late. I have largely lost interest and am racing through the end, conscious of my looming deadline (which, of course, is not Okri’s fault but that of too many nights on the couch watching Agatha Christie’s Marple) and just wanting to know the outcome.

Though I appreciate the scale and poignancy of the metaphor Okri has spent the whole book crafting, by the time I get to the final pages in which it all comes together I am not appreciating it as much as I feel I should. And there is nothing to kill enjoyment of a novel like the feeling of “should”.

If you are a fan of magical realism or postcolonial narratives or creepy spirits, read this; look, many, many people absolutely loved it. It got the Booker. But for God’s sake, don’t give yourself a time limit. And note there is a sequel.

Keep or kill? I will pass this on, since I can’t say I enjoyed it anywhere near as much as the last Booker winner in the project. To me, I’m afraid it had the unmistakable flavour of a university assignment.

Note: According to Wikipedia, Radiohead’s Street Spirit (a song I have loved since my brooding teen years) is based on this novel. I haven’t the foggiest whether this is true, but if it is, that’s very cool.

 

The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 8: Light (M. John Harrison, 2002)

Books remaining: 18. Weeks left to read them: 35 (could be worse).

There will always be more in the universe. The will always be more after that.

Cover of M. John Harrison's Light

Earth, 1999: mathematician and murderer Michael Kearney is tantalised by the truth of a universe that remains just beyond his understanding, and terrified by the approach of a monster he cannot escape.

The Kefahuchi Tract, 2400: White Cat pilot Seria Mau Genlicher casually destroys the humans who cross her path as she trolls through space. She is trying to uncover the function of a mysterious package that just might alter her future, by releasing her from the fallout of a fateful decision.

Meanwhile, twink and tank addict Ed Chianese is on the run from the evil Cray sisters, hopping from planet to planet to escape his debts – and the memory of a childhood mistake that haunts him.

They weave through a galaxy drenched in a kind of dirty eroticism, populated with cultivars, unafraid of death because they can always come back; rickshaw girls pumped with testosterone and built to run forever; eight-year-old gun punks and their accountants; flame-haired, masturbation-addled New Men; Earth Military Corporation stooges; clones, fetches, shadow operators and the gene tailor, Uncle Zip. Little cats weave their way through everything.

The lights had gone on in those ridiculous glass towers which spring up wherever the human male does business. The streets of the port below were filled with a warm pleasant smoky twilight, through which all intelligent life in Carmody was drifting, along Moneytown and the Corniche, towards the stream of the noodle bars on Free Key Avenue. Cultivars and high-end chimerae of every size and type – huge and tusked or dwarfed and tinted, with cocks the size of an elephant’s, the wings of dragonflies or swans, bare chests patched according to fashion with live tattoos of treasure maps – swaggered the pavements, eyeing one another’s smart piercings. Rickshaw girls, calves and quadriceps modified to have the long-twitch muscle fibre of a mare and the ATP transport protocols of a speeding cheetah, sprinted here and there between them, comforted by opium, strung out on cafe electrique. Shadow boys were everywhere, of course, faster than you could see, flickering in corners, materialising in alleys, whispering their ceaseless invitation: we can get you what you want.

I particularly love the shadow operators, who spend the book trying to care for Seria Mau, their scornful boss, while being soundly rejected.

The shadow operators mopped and mowed. They hung in corners, whispering and clasping their hands in a kind of bony delight.

What were they? They were algorithms with a life of their own. You found them in vacuum ships like the White Cat, in cities, wherever people were. They did the work. Had they always been there in the galaxy, waiting for human beings to take residence? Aliens who had uploaded themselves into empty space? Ancient computer programmes, dispossessed by their own hardware, to roam about, half lost, half useful, hoping for someone to look after? In just a few hundred years they had got inside the machinery of things. Nothing worked without them  

They could even run on biological tissue, as shadow boys full of crime and beauty and inexplicable motives. They could, if they wanted, they sometimes whispered to Seria Mau, run on valves.

It’s not all flashes and bangs. An idea is nothing without its communication and Harrison is a writer who makes you see his ideas for yourself. Pictures arrive in your mind. You know what his cities look like, feel like – just another sulphur dioxide town, a town without hope full of the black mist of engines – while inhabitants are similarly detailed.

It squatted in front of the tank where Seria Mau lived, leaking realistically from the joints of its several yellowish legs, stridulating every so often for no reason she could see. Its bony-looking head had more palps, mosaic eyes and ropes of mucous than she preferred to look at. It wasn’t something you could ignore.

Despite the proliferation of decidedly inhuman creatures, the ever-present threads of fear, escape, hope and redemption make this a very human story. The scale and detail of Harrison’s creation, the complexity of his plot and the beauty and wit of his prose fill me with admiration.

It reminds me of China Mieville, but with more, well, space. It’s bloody good sci-fi/literature, a book I hesitate to categorize for fear of diminishing its importance.

I’ll pass it on – perhaps I can find a roomful of first-year uni students and force them to study it. In a win for the Project, too, while choosing the H book, I realised with a happy lack of guilt that I was Just Never going to read Hugo’s Les Miserables and gave both volumes to an op-shop in a spasm of decisiveness. Don’t gasp in horror, they were those $5 Wordsworth Classics paperbacks they used to sell at Collins. Good for a kid who wants to read EVERYTHING, as I was, but ugly and not worth as collectors’ items if you’ve got no immediate intention to read them.

Hurrah!

The Casual Vacancy (J. K. Rowling, 2012)

Obviously I very much wanted this book to be awesome, and I’m pleased to tell you that it WAS.

Rowling opens with a series of brief character snapshots, which get you completely hooked by the time she plunges into the sordid depths of a town and a council filled with people you mostly hate, but are fascinated by and perversely rooting for, all the same.

In this, it reminded me of Christos Tsolkias’ The Slap, which I must admit I didn’t get much more than a couple of chapters into; because that really was too ugly for me, though I’m prepared to concede that I might have felt differently had I pushed on with it.

There was never any question about pushing on with this novel. It is one compulsive read, and every bit as suspenseful as anything of hers I have ever read, despite its conspicuous lack of wizards.

She gives the most accurate representation of the machinations of an insular community that you could ever hope for – its government, its festering wounds and the age-old prejudices between its haves and have-nots. She articulates so perfectly the enraging, hackneyed arguments of the small-minded and privileged that I found myself getting worked up on many a character’s behalf.

She captures what can be the mad mental anguish of being a teenager, not to mention just being a person, or a part of a family, so well that I found it a little confronting, to be honest.

But at no point was there any danger of me putting the book down, no matter how close to home it sliced.

An extraordinarily intense reading experience, ideal book-club fare, and a satisfying kick in the pants for all who have ever tried to tell me she wasn’t a great writer.