Perth fiction: not just surviving but thriving

Anything could carry disease: a handshake, a coin, a kiss. At least coins and tokens could be boiled.

The first details I heard of Survival, the debut novella of my one-time journalistic colleague Rachel Watts, acted like the most tantalising kind of teaser movie trailer.

First, it was sci-fi, set in a flooded city. Flooded cities are my jam. I’ve always been captivated by the idea of rowing from roof to roof. Grim real-world cyclones and hurricanes aside, I just freaking love it.

Second, it was young adult sci-fi! I’ve always believed YA fiction vitally important. The tone and the quality must be perfect if you’re going to get through to a teenager. A good young adult book means an exceptional book, period. Some of the most formative books of my entire life, those I regularly revisit, are young adult. Lockie Leonard. The Great Gatenby. John Marsden’s Tomorrow series and Ellie Chronicles. Too many to mention, and others whose titles I’ve long forgotten but whose memories I remember vividly.

So when my advance copy arrived I turned to Survival with anticipation and found only more killer elements.

Post-apocalyptic? Check. Natural disasters? Check. Giant squid? Be still, my beating heart. If there is one sci-fi trope I love above all else it is a kraken. John Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes is one of my favourites.

The story is set in a post-climate change world. Governments and economies have collapsed. The Scylla Corporation, the world’s only remaining multinational, rules with an iron fist. Cities are flooded, though people continue to live in them as best they can.

In one such city live two young women. One, a bartender, is living day to day, hand to mouth, grieving the mysterious disappearance of her activist sister.

The other is a number-cruncher who lives in the secure Scylla complex, whose ordered world crumbles the day she finds evidence of something horrifying in Corporation medical research data.

The two, though vastly different, meet by chance and find themselves aligned in their pursuit of the truth.

The book feels a little Children of Men, a little Resident Evil, even a little like the final book in Mervyn Peake’s incredible Gormenghast trilogy, the book of the castle sinking into a rising river.

Watts has done her research. Her flooded world is fully and powerfully imagined: the poverty of half-submerged suburbs, the economies that struggle to adapt and stay afloat, and the shining beacon of a ruling corporation that overlooks it all with chilling indifference.

The pictures appear in your mind fully formed: disease-ridden coins, dropped in jars of bleach at market stalls. The filth that rises in the streets when unbearable humidity condenses into torrential rains. The food seller’s daughter with both feet amputated after an infection. The fishermen who trade in squid that has become the most plentiful resource in a warped ocean ecosystem. The silent presence of a rumoured giant squid, that bears witness to a clandestine meeting in a stadium that the new world has transformed into a giant fishbowl.

In a state in which our own new tricked-out stadium has just opened, in a country in which action on climate change is at stalemate, this dystopian vision is particularly chilling.

I loved the idea of this book from the start because it had so many of the best hallmarks of a genre I love. But there is no hint of the formulaic here. Watts’ streetscapes are completely original and her voice, steely and edgy, is her own.

This debut indicates a promising new voice in Western Australian fiction and happily she’s not short of ideas: the bonus content is four of the author’s previously published stories, gems that indicate a fertile imagination. So: watch this space.

Watts’ novella is available from tomorrow at Crow Books and other select stockists.

And if Perth fiction is your jam, check out some more new releases: The Sisters’ Song by Louise Allan, if you like family sagas and Australian historical fiction; Dustfall by Michelle Johnston if you like your literature with a side of medical thriller; and You Belong Here by Laurie Steed, a beautiful piece of contemporary literary fiction. All in stores now.



The 10 books you must read in 2018

My records show I read 52 books during the second half of 2017 as Stu and I travelled the USA and Canada. That’s two books a week – not bad, considering what else we packed into 26 weeks. I’ve picked the top handful, the books that changed or moved me the most, to make this reading list for 2018, should you choose to accept it. It starts in March, given I got to this post rather later than I planned!

March: The Course of Love, Alain de Botton

Read in San Francisco.

Not so much a novel as popular philosophy novelised, a story examining modern love – not something natural, but something that occurs now, as it always has, within a particular social context. Alain de Botton has noticed that after the old “how’d you meet?” chestnut, no one ever seems to want to know what happened next – after the marriage. He talks about boredom, compromise, fighting, cheating. Childcare, and eventually parent care. The erosion of ideals of passion, perfection, grand romance. And then – what remains. He explores all the evidence that a lover can’t be everything, perform every function and fulfil our every need – and yet how we still expect them to be. This is a conversation society must have – indeed is always having, almost unconsciously and circuitously. De Botton gives it meaning and usefulness via a beguiling and very readable parable. Should be required reading for all adults.

April: The Ellie Chronicles, John Marsden

Union Reservoir, Longmont, Colorado

Read in Union Reservoir, Longmont, Colorado

The follow-up trilogy to John Marsden’s groundbreaking Tomorrow series, these books are riveting. I know I have now listed a trilogy as one book, but hey, they’re short. Together they make up one large book and they’re smarter than plenty of so-called adult novels. As well as satisfying the hunger to find out what happened to Ellie and her friends, they’ll remind you how blunt and delicate and evocative and honest John Marsden’s writing is. I’m so grateful this wonderful man gives us what we so badly need: our own country on the page. You can practically smell the eucalyptus wafting up from the page, yet above all these are stories of people: their loves and losses, grief and courage, the weird bonds that remain when everything else in a life changes beyond recognition.

May: The L.A. Quartet series, James Ellroy

Read in a poky room in LA.

I’m cheating again. This is actually four books. Four big, gloriously fat, difficult books. I had already read The Black Dahlia and L.A. Confidential. While away I completed The Big Nowhere and White Jazz. James Ellroy is known for his razor-sharp prose, hard and dense and staggering. It’s unlike any other author’s writing, ever, and you can’t really say you know crime literature or even American literature without knowing Ellroy. Be careful, though – this is the most violent stuff I’ve ever read (or seen onscreen, for that matter). It’s not for the fainthearted. It requires time and commitment and focus. It’s worth every minute. And I recognise that realistically you’re only going to finish the first one in May. That’s OK. Just make a start.



June: The Diamond Age, Neal Stephenson

Echo Park, LA - a good place for reading

Read in Echo Park, L.A.

For fans of clever, classic sci-fi. So clever I confess to skim-reading some parts I just couldn’t understand (Stephenson is actually a scientist). But above all it’s a rip-roaring story. Nell is a smart but disadvantaged child in a supremely uncaring dystopia. She gets one chance to break free from her origins when she comes into possession of a stolen “book”, the world’s most precious technological creation: a copy of the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. What she learns inside will change history as much as it changes her. This book is top-shelf. There’s a reason Neal Stephenson is as rare as hen’s teeth in secondhand bookstores. He is the real deal.

July: Here I Am, Jonathan Safran Foer

New Orleans

Read in New Orleans.

Modern literature from one of the world’s best. A family saga, an examination of modern Judaism, a visionary contemplation of the fragile peace between fraught nations, a deeply intimate look inside a crumbling marriage. A funny, sad, page-turning read, the kind you can’t put down even when your eyes get sore and you’re afraid to find out what happens. Do it for book club. Give it to anyone. Sink your teeth in. A solid bet.

August: All the Light we Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

Our first AirBnB, in Bangor, Maine

Read here in Bangor, Maine.

I seemed to read a lot of books about marriage, perhaps unsurprisingly given the opportunity to navel-gaze for six months in tiny rooms with the love of my life. The other emerging theme turned out, to my surprise, to be war and Judaism. Synchronicity perhaps, as we looked at so many museums of world history, with the Holocaust staining it all like red paint thrown across a canvas. In this vein I also read the older but still incredible The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak and the Victor E Frankl classic Man’s Search for Meaning. This book, All the Light we Cannot See, won the 2014 Pulitzer after taking the author ten years. I understood why it took so long. The quality and quantity of detail, its careful arrangement, the love and work that went into these parallel stories of a young blind French girl and a young German boy soldier in WWII glimmers from every page. An absorbing, original, readable, beautiful book to bring you to your knees.

September: The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron

Read throughout the east coast and finished somewhere around here, North Carolina.

Still flying off the shelves after 26 years in print. It’s a workbook above all else, an inspiring, amusing and practical book on loosening the pent-up creative artist inside every human – that artist most of us lock up sometime after childhood, and before adulthood. This is perhaps one of the most illuminating books I have ever read. It’s changed the way I see the world, the way I interpret every event. It ensured I not only left NYC having completed my manuscript edit, but that I spent the final few months of our trip churning out the manuscript of a second novel. And it ensured I spent all the intervening time jotting notes for the third. If you’ve ever buried a secret love of drawing, writing, painting, performing, or silently felt longing to write a screenplay or movie or play or just MAKE something, and that little ache just always stays in your heart… read this.

October: Mating in Captivity, Esther Perel

Read by the window in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

You’ve had your Alain de Botton primer and you’re ready for Lesson 2. For anyone interested in marriage, fidelity, sex and passion, healthy relationships and just the art and science of human communication, both are required reading. Esther Perel is a rock-star in the field. She has been interviewed on the Tim Ferriss Show and recommended by Dan Savage of the Savage Lovecast. A holistic, fascinating and vitally refreshing look at the poetry, politics and power of sex and the role it plays in modern relationships, it really changed my perspective. Our subsequent discussions on the topics it introduced deepened our understanding of each other and of society, and without doubt strengthened the foundations of our marriage.



November: On Writing, Stephen King 

Read on NYC subways. Lots of them.

I owe this writer so much for his inspiration and practical advice, as well as the hours of sheer pleasure of devouring everything he’s ever written. He has taught me not only that writing can be fun but that it should be fun. Yes, you can do it. Yes, you can make money. No, you don’t have to be a tortured soul or a starving artist or an alcoholic or suicidal or a drug addict to make good art. This, like all his books, is just a bloody good read. Part memoir, part deconstruction of process and part solid advice, it’s a must-read for all fans. In fact Gerald Winters, owner of the King bookstore in Bangor, Maine, told me the vast majority of King fans, writers or not, name this their favourite of all his works.

December: Radical Acceptance, Tara Brach


Read near Woodstock in the Catskill Mountains, upstate NY

Don’t hold the title against her. The publisher probably made her do it. Tara Brach, also featured on the Tim Ferriss Show, is an American meditation teacher. Don’t hold that against her either. Hell, just swallow all your judgy superior thoughts and excuses about why you don’t meditate for a minute, all right? This book is wise and powerful and compassionate. It’s a thoughtful examination of the role suffering plays in human lives. It offers an – dare I say it? –  enlightened understanding of the experience of being a thinking, feeling, loving, living, feeling, hurting person. It addresses that gap you feel deep inside yourself, the one that usually makes you go and get another glass of wine or handful of crisps rather than thinking about what’s bothering you. Reading this book made me do that thinking and it reverberates through my consciousness daily.


OK, now it’s December, you don’t have time for any more reading. Go do your Christmas shopping.

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.


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 12: The Dispossessed (Ursula Le Guin, 1974)

Books remaining: 14. Weeks left to read them: 23 (I blame Christmas).

Even from the brother there is no comfort in the bad hour, in the dark at the foot of the wall.

Stack of Ursula Le Guin books

Got to keep it real if these are allowed to stay.

I have loved Le Guin since I read her A Wizard of Earthsea, which got made into typically beautiful Studio Ghibli film Tales of Earthsea

I know I have been doing a lot of sci-fi in this project, but I have numerous Le Guin books, so I thought I had better get stuck into them to see if I still wanted her taking up valuable shelf real estate.

The Dispossessed - Ursula Le Guin

The Dispossessed tells of two planets, Urras and its moon Anarres, first populated when a group of anarchists decided they wanted a socialist society without government, law, property or profit. On Anarres, they dreamed, humans would contribute voluntarily to achieve common goals for the good of all, and they voluntarily broke away from Urras.

There is now little contact between the two – eight spaceships a year exchange limited goods, news and publications – until Shevek, Anarres’ most brilliant physicist and a man renowned on both planets, accepts an invitation to be the first Anarresti to visit Urras. There, he will work among his peers and teach for a period at an Urrasti university.

Shevek, though he loves Anarres and his family, is frustrated by not having other brilliant physicists to talk to (I know just how he feels, obviously) and decides to make the journey, both in a desire to develop a scientific theorem that could revolutionise both worlds, and in a belief he can unite the two societies and bury their mutual distrust.

Shevek, however, soon realises that just as he never quite fit in on Anarres, neither does he fit among Urrasti, and his difference begins to weigh heavily upon him.

He had worked hard on his speech, a plea for free communication and mutual recognition between the New World and the Old. It was received with a ten-minute standing ovation. The respectable weeklies commented on it with approval, calling it ‘a disinterested moral gesture of human brotherhood by a distinguished scientist’; but they did not quote from it, nor did the popular papers. In fact, despite the ovation, Shevek had the curious feeling that nobody had heard it.

Shevek slowly begins to see beneath Urras’ beautiful surface and realises he is not an honoured guest, but a prisoner ill-equipped to deal with an all-powerful government that has him entirely at its mercy. His mission is not only impossible but dangerous, and he has made a terrible mistake in coming to Urras.

The loneliness, the certainty of isolation, that he had felt in his first hour aboard the Mindful, rose up in him and asserted itself as his true condition, ignored, suppressed, but absolute.
He was alone, here, because he came from a self-exiled society. He had always been alone on his own world because he had exiled himself from his society. The Settlers had taken one step away. He had taken two. He stood by himself, because he had taken the metaphysical risk.
And he had been fool enough to think that he might serve to bring together two worlds to which he did not belong.

Reading this book was like slipping into a warmed pool of water. There was no discomfort, no reluctance, no resistance, just delicious ease and forward motion. And yet it is not bland, but suffused with droll humour in its depiction of people, worlds apart, but trying to understand each other.

“The one thing everybody knows … is that you don’t drink alcohol. Is it true, by the way?”
“Some people distil alcohol from fermented holum root, for drinking – they say it gives the unconscious free play, like brain-wave training. Most people prefer that, it’s very easy and doesn’t cause a disease. Is that common here?”
“Drinking is. I don’t know about this disease. What’s it called?”
“Alcoholism, I think.”

Scorn and anger running through many of the scenes on Urras, where woman serve purely as decorations, is also illuminated with humour.

184The prose is soaked in political and philosophical ideas, but its simplicity and humanity mean it does not lecture. It is no morality tale, but a story of infinite subtlety and a piercing contemplation of loneliness.

The world had fallen out from under him … he had always feared this would happen, more than he had ever feared death. To die is to lose one’s self and join the rest. He had kept himself, and lost the rest.

I was thoroughly overstimulated, as you can see from my rabid note-taking, and overcome by relief at reading a truly compulsive book again.

photo 2
Keep or kill? Look, I’m keeping it, but I got rid of this pile of L books and surrounds to assuage my guilt (kept all the Le Guin ones though).


Note: This is one of several excellent titles I have read from Gollancz’s Sci-Fi Masterworks series, for example, Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, Dune by Frank Herbert, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, The Invisible Man and The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells and I am Legend by Richard Matheson.

For more titles in this series, click here and particularly, if you have not read I am Legend, banish the movie from your mind and fill the space you made with the original, readable and infinitely more meaningful novel.

More on The Curing of a Bibliomaniac here.