Jack of Spades – Joyce Carol Oates

spadesWriters like to write about writers and the hero of this comic thriller is Andrew J Rush, a successful mystery writer. Rush is quite chuffed when a reviewer calls him the gentlemanly Stephen King but as becomes more and more apparent as the novel progressives it’s probably the Stephen King likeness rather than the gentlemanly, that he values. Unbeknownst to his wife and his agent, Rush has an alter ego in the form of ‘Jack of Spades’, the name he uses as a pseudonym for  other books he publishes. While Rush’s other writing is ‘gentlemanly’, Jack of Spades’ work is brutal and crude, so much so that when rush’s college student daughter spies one of the Jack of Spades books in her father’s study and decides to read it, she is appalled.

Things start to unravel when someone called C W Haider sues Rush for plagiarism. The depiction of the flash New York lawyer that Rush’s publisher assigns to defend him is skewered beautifully by Oates, as is the machinations of Haider, who turns out to be a serial litigant (and, yes, she has also accused Stephen King of stealing from her [Haider’s] self-published works).

Rush, who, when we first meet him as a successful, controlled individual would have let the lawyer do his worst, and not become involved. But Rush has started drinking and can’t sleep: Jack of Spades is whispering in his ear, and by degrees, he starts to bThe_Museum_of_Dr._Mosesecome indiscreet and obsessed by Haider, and his carefully compartmentalised life begins to fall apart.

This is a slight book, but satisfyingly written. The spoof on writers, success, fans and publishing is spot on.

Oates’ dark edge is not so obvious here but is very evident in The Museum of Dr Moses, a creepy collection of stories I recently read by her.

Miss Timmins’ School for Girls – Nayana Currimbhoy

TimminsThis quite long novel set in India in the 1970s is an odd mixture of boarding school story, murder mystery and coming of age story of young, inexperienced teacher Charu but it doesn’t really follow the tropes of any of these genres.

Twenty something Charu who was born with a disfiguring birthmark on her face she calls a ‘blot’ takes a job teaching at a girls’ boarding school in Panchgani, a high scenic area a few hours out of Bombay. She is inexperienced but wins over some of the girls with her teaching of Macbeth, but soon she comes under the sway of a white teacher, Moira Prince, known to the girls as ‘the Prince’ or to Charu as Pin. Pin is wild and the girls steer clear of her but her freedom from convention is attractive to Charu, and she becomes involved with Pin and her friend Merch, a poetry reading, drug-taking man who lives an idle life above a dispensary in town, occasionally teaching at the school.

But no sooner do we get to know Pin, and she has started an affair with Charu, than the Prince is dead, seemingly murdered and thrown off a cliff. The rest of the novel is involved with solving this murder, in one way or another, but quite tangentially.

The middle section switches to the point of view of three of the school girls who were in the vicinity of the tragedy on that wet and windy monsoon night when it occurred. They saw something (including Charu running down from the spot) but are not sure what it all means. They begin investigating, and the main girl, Nandita, who has always liked Charu, is given a dangerous piece of evidence that will point the guilt in a particular direction.

In the last third of the novel we return to Charu’s point of view, the attempted suicide of her mother, and an old humiliation of her father that has diminished the family is revisited. We get to see Charu’s extended family, their meddling and their support, and the pressure put on women to conform. Meanwhile Charu returns to Panchgani and there are arrests and threatened violence, and nothing about the Prince’s death is as simple as it seemed.

All this makes it sound like it is a plot-driven novel but it’s not really. It’s really, I think, the author’s recollections of her own time at a girl’s boarding school and her exploration of how a person who doesn’t fit in, navigates her way around her family and society. What is wonderful about it, for a non-Indian, is a lovely insight into Indian culture that is a far cry from the stereotyped Raj or the gritty urban take on poverty and corruption. I loved the detail of the school still, in the 70s, run on British lines and the unspoken but evident divide between white and brown, the feel of the monsoon and the landscape, and the descriptions of food and family life. It’s a baggy, voluminous tale but the experience of another world is very enjoyable.

Clade – review

cladeThis is a clever, low-key speculative fiction novel where, when the disasters come (climate change, plague), they are normalised into the lives of the characters. If you’ve lived long enough like me, you’ve seen this happen yourself. When I was a child it was inconceivable that animals like tigers or koalas might become endangered, inconceivable that every square inch of the world might be touched by humans – yet here we are.

Clade starts at about our own time with a young scientist, Adam, in Antarctica observing the vanishing sea ice. Adam’s partner, Ellie, is back in Sydney waiting to hear if her IVF treatment has been successful. This family, in a way, is the genetic code running through the book, the stories like the moments of mutation that shift along biology. Bradley doesn’t give us a comfortable narrative arc, but rather a series of linked stories exploring aspects of our possible future that concentrate on human relations – husband and wife, father and daughter, grandfather and grandson, against a backdrop of floods, plague, migration upheavals, repression, all seen through reality as well as the plethora of ‘screens’ and ‘overlays’ pumping out ‘feeds’. Clade, in its structure, reminded me of Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge in the power and emotional depth that can be achieved by building up something through concentrating on a particular aspect and character, and then just letting a certain resonance happen between the different stories. I’m not quite sure how this works and, in a way, it shouldn’t – it should seem disjointed but it’s not.

Climate change, as our esteemed ex-prime minister said, is the greatest moral challenge of our time. There are many dystopian novels around now, and I’m sure there will be more. Bradley’s is a refreshing take on this, rooted in the everyday at a human level, yet at times quite wildly speculative, full of interesting takes on things, on the dark thoughts about the future most of us must have.

 

Turn of Mind – Alice LaPlante

turnofmindDr Jennifer White suffers from Alzheimer’s and she is the narrator of this murder mystery (where she is implicated as the murderer). How is this possibly going to work as a narrative? LaPlante cleverly works out a way to give us an intriguing, tense, absorbing novel. Because of her condition, Jennifer is almost always in the present (although she does, at times, fleetingly remember the past) – but her ‘presentness’ is necessarily only contained in brief passages of clarity. Luckily Jennifer is an orthopaedic surgeon, a well-off upper class resident of Chicago so she is erudite and sardonic.

While it is Jennifer who narrates the story, LaPlante uses the device of a journal that is filled in by Jennifer’s carer, Magdalena and her (Jennifer’s) daughter, Fiona, so that Jennifer can read what was said and done the previous day (for example, when she denies something has happened, Magdalena can point to the section of the journal as proof). There are also some letters and photos that have been pasted in that Magdalena or Fiona feel might help Jennifer to remain tethered to her past life.

It’s a bit of a trick, but probably a necessary one, that laPlante includes the dialogue that Jennifer hears but, obviously, doesn’t ‘narrate’ to us as such.

In this way, aspects of the past are slowly pieced together – what Jennifer’s relationship was with her friend Amanda (who has been found murdered with four fingers on her hand amputated), her husband James, and her children Fiona and Mark. A thread of tension runs through when an inquisitive detective takes an ongoing interest in Jennifer.

Running counter to a resolution of the mystery is the deterioration in Jennifer’s condition. Despite her snippiness, the reader can’t help hoping against hope that Jennifer retains her independence, her lucidity. LaPlante beautifully captures the richness of Jennifer’s remembrances and observations, as well as the black humour of the mind getting things askew.

This aspect of the novel is satisfying in itself, even without the murder device. I guess pitching a novel about Alzheimer’s isn’t as attractive as an Alzheimer’s mystery thriller. I felt the final revelation in this strand was weak but this doesn’t detract from the strength of the novel as a whole. There are a lot of these narrow, limited-focus novels on the market lately – S J Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train. They are a one-trick pony but very compelling for all that.

The Crown – Nancy Bilyeau

Crown-UKI was put on to this novel through a historical fiction site where there were a lot of favourable reviews for it. I can see why, because it is quite entertaining in a Dan Brownesque way.

Joanna Stafford is a novice in Dartford Priory. She hails from an aristocratic family that has fallen foul of Henry VIII’s pogrom against the ‘old faith’. Joanna, as a modern heroine in a medieval frock, is soon out of the priory and involving herself in court and political matters. She goes to see her cousin Margaret burnt at the stake for treason and is captured as a collaborator by the authorities and ends up in the Tower.

To save her father, she is coerced into helping Bishop Gardiner (who is ostensibly working for the king) find a mysterious artifact, the Athelstan Crown, that is supposedly hidden somewhere in Dartford Priory.

Accompanied by two Dominican brothers (again whose allegiance is questionable) she settles back into Dartford, and her quest.

Bilyeau’s research on priory life is thoroughly done but her modernisms in language grate (Joanna is forever saying ‘everything is fine’). I like that Bilyeau has chosen a novice nun as her heroine (an a Catholic one at that – we are all sick of the over-exposure of the Tudors) and she does give Joanna a sense of faith and loyalty to her calling, even if she is the most disobedient novice imaginable (the deadly sins of anger and pride also get a workout).

The story is full of hidden tunnels, scraps of information in library books, clues woven into tapestries, murder by reliquary, secret messages, treachery etc. I won’t spoil the ending but it was a bit of a damp squib after the build up – possibly because there is a sequel The Chalice.

It is all a bit silly but the setting is nicely done, the characters are engaging, and the pacing and tension achieves the objective – a page-turning entertainment.

My top book for 2014

bright star window readMy New Years resolution as always is to watch less television and to read more books. There are very few television dramas, and even documentaries, for that matter, that can match the enjoyment, creativity and soul-uplifting moments of a good book. Yes, there’s Game of Thrones, I’ll give you that and I did like The Code and Homeland but the rest I can live without (I took objection to True Detectives).

So of the books read in 2014, which stood out? There are three that I loved and admired. The wonderful and gut-wrenching Nigerian saga Half of a Yellow Sun. This is one of those books you can just immerse yourself in confident the author knows her stuff and will take you into another world. You go along with the characters of the sisters Olanna and Kainene, and their torrid downfall from middle-class women to desperate refugees, but it is not depressing – the beauty of Nigeria, the hope of a new, fairer state and the interesting, complex characters make this such a rewarding book. After I’d finished reading it I felt an interest in Nigeria, the way you do when you visit a country, and then somehow feel you have a stake in it, so immersive, wide-ranging and detailed is this book.

My next standout was The Bees by Laline Paull. I so admire how Paull managed to make a fascinating and compelling drama out of life in a bee hive, yet she managed this brilliantly. From the first page we are right in there in the life of our heroine Flora 717. Like all good heroines Flora has something to hide so that she is the odd one out so that we see the hive, with its strict hierarchy, from an outsider’s point of view. The life of the hive is wonderfully realised, from the pheromones the Queen emits to keep all the bees compliant, to the tough ‘sages’ who protect the Queen, to the freedom felt by flora when she becomes a forager bee going outside the hive for the first time. Paull’s imaginative recreation is completely stunning.

But, I must say, my top book for 2014 was The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane. This is a small book in scope (the life of an elderly woman and the ‘carer’ who comes to look after her) but huge on control and nuance. I loved the pace of this book and how cleverly McFarlane spooled out the narrative. The novel is all about controlled point of view so that the mystery of who is telling the truth and what exactly is going on is kept in balance right until the end. I love this type of book because there can’t be one wrong note – it has to be as taut as a wire, and The Night Guest achieves that.

So the top three:

  • The Night Guest
  • Half of a Yellow Sun
  • The Bees

BTW – for those interested in the gender issue – 23 female authors read, 10 male. I guess I’m typical there.

Station Eleven

Stationeleven2This novel by Emily St John Mandel, set in Canada, veers between the time before a pandemic that wipes out most of the world’s population, to a time after. In the time before we get to know Arthur Leander, a celebrity actor and Miranda, his first wife. We also follow another young man whose emergency ward doctor friend tips him off that the flu epidemic is the big one, so he stocks up and holds out with his brother in a high rise flat, before he, like most of the other survivors, hits the road to find other people and a new way of life.

Meanwhile, in the post pandemic world we follow the experiences of Kirsten, a twenty something woman, who has joined a travelling symphony and acting troupe that journey around the small settlements that have set up around a lake, and perform Shakespeare and give the odd classical music concert. I like the idea that St John Mandel evokes of the world reverting to something like it must have been in medieval times in small settlements – staying put, hardly knowing what lies beyond walking distance.

The Station Eleven of the title is not, as one might expect, the name of one of these settlements – but it’s the name of a fictional space station veering out of control in space. The character, Miranda, is drawing this graphic novel as a way of coping with her life, and one way or another, too complicated to outline here, this book influences and links some of the disparate characters in the post-pandemic plotline.

The main tension driver in this stream of the novel is the figure of ‘The Prophet’ – who, of course, tells his followers they were saved for a reason, that they are part of the light (sound familiar?) but like many of the cult leaders we now about, his power goes to his head and he uses vicious means to keep his followers (and child brides) under his control. The Prophet is after the travelling symphony for inadvertently harbouring one of these girls who has stowed away in their wagon.

I was so disappointed in this book. It had so much potential but it is a mishmash and totally confused in what it is attempting to say. Why, oh, why is about a third of the book given over to the rise of Arthur Leander as a celebrity actor? Yes, he starts out as nice young man trying to find his way who stumbles on fame, and, yes, we’re happy when he finds Miranda and they fall in love. Miranda, to me, is one of the most interesting characters, especially as the imaginer of the Station Eleven world, yet she is given short shrift. Arthur pretty quickly has an affair with another woman and divorces Miranda. We don’t find out much of her post-Arthur life. Is St John Mantel trying to say something about the idiocy of celebrity culture? But, if so, what? The main thing about Arthur is that all the characters that sit around a dinner party table one night are linked in some (very tenuous) way in the story, but I can’t see that this really mattered, or has any particular meaning beyond providing some glue for the novel.

In parts, this novel is great – I loved the travelling symphony idea with their credo ‘survival is not sufficient’, I liked the description of the post-pandemic world, and thought the portrayal of the pandemic was effective and affecting. I so hoped that Miranda with her artist’s eye would become our heroine, but she doesn’t. As for Arthur Leander, I couldn’t care less about him and have no idea why he was the main character. It’s all very confusing but there’s enough in there to make an absorbing read, if you quickly flick over the Arthur bits.

The Night Guest – Fiona McFarlane

nightguestcoverMuch is made of the tiger in this novel, and that may have been a turn off for some readers, thinking this is magic realism in the vein of Life of Pi. I certainly thought so when I saw the cover for the first trade paperback edition with its cartoonish tiger’s paw peeking around a doorway. The new smaller paperback, that’s just come out, has a more mysterious, evocative cover, in keeping, I think, with the contents of this wonderful novel.

The tiger is a metaphor and doesn’t figure prominently but is a catalyst for much of the action. Ruth is an elderly widow left living alone, in an isolated beach house, having retired there with her late husband, Harry. Ruth is a beautifully-drawn character, tough in some ways but also vulnerable, and full of the memories of a childhood spent in Fiji with her missionary parents. In her isolation, these memories crowd back, especially at night when it seems the insects and hot, fetid atmosphere of Fiji crowds in.

Into Ruth’s self-contained world comes Frida— a large, forthright woman, maybe half-Fijian, maybe not—who says she’s ‘from the government’ and come to help out Ruth around the house. Ruth is surprised, but she has a bad back, and some assistance would be welcome. Frida then begins to insinuate herself into Ruth’s life and the power tussle between the two is played out, at first almost playfully and, as time goes by, a sinister note creeps in.

It is to McFarlane’s credit, and her skill at narrative, that this essentially two-character novel, is so riveting. Both Ruth and Frida are comic in their ways, but the drama of the book depends on us having access to Ruth’s thoughts—funny, sardonic, poignant—and to only know Frida by her actions and her words. But, she too, is funny—a force of nature with her energy and her quirks.

nightguestTPThe writing is also beautifully constructed, conveying with its tight prose and rich imagery, the depth and breadth of Ruth’s world:

Frida sat on the unfamiliar chair and looked at Ruth, impassive. Her obstinacy had a mineral quality. Ruth felt she could chip away at it with a sharp tool and reveal nothing more than the uniformity of its composition.

for example, or

Frida’s suitcase still sat on the sandy grass. It could convincingly have grown from a stalk into a grey-white fruit.

or the acute observation,

Ruth was sensitive to criticism of her father, in that tenuous and personal way in which children are anxious for the dignity of their parents. She worried a great deal for him out in the world.

The Night Guest is an affecting, psychological study with a surprisingly taut, suspenseful element lying somewhere between S J Watson’s thriller Before I Go to Sleep and Jessica Anderson’s wonderful Tirra Lirra by the River. In fact Nora Porteous, of the latter, has much in common with Ruth. Both are fantastic portrayals of older women looking back and assessing their lives, while struggling and dealing with the present.

The Trouble With Flying – Review

BigTroubleWithFlyingFinalCoverwebRichards Rossiter and Susan Midalia (eds)

The Trouble With Flying is the third anthology published from winning entries to the Margaret River Short Story competition. As such, this handsomely-produced book, is an eclectic mix of stories from WA-based writers, and Australian writers, more broadly. There are many forms of trouble in this collection: the trouble with children, the trouble with parents and the elderly, the trouble with the bush and the city, the trouble with love, sex, sickness and death.  Most of the writers here have found fresh angles on their chosen themes, while others take us off on strange and new paths. What they all have in common is accomplished writing that engages and interests.

The title story, Ruth Wyer’s ‘The Trouble With Flying’ features odd-girl-out TAFE student Rita trying to fit in with her new classmates and forming an uneasy relationship with punk-music mad Milo. The fine line of Rita’s life—to fit in or to forever be a loner—is somehow linked to the fate of two birds; a panicked pigeon stuck in a TAFE corridor and a seagull on a beach. This is a moving, tone-perfect story.

Linda Brucesmith’s ‘Bedtime Story’ is another beautifully-pitched story about two young sisters, supposedly asleep, listening to their parents’ dinner party downstairs. The opening line, ‘Don’t dream about ghosts’—the admonishment of Caitie to her sister Poppy—sets up the unsettled tone. Brucesmith pits the limited knowledge of the girls, against the reader’s suspicions, to create a tension and a mystery. What Poppy sees through the bedroom window at the end of the story, may or may not answer the initial statement.

The anthology places two bushfire stories side by side—the ambitious but flawed ‘Firestick Farmer’ by Peter Curry and the gentler, more subtle ‘Butcher’s Creek’ by Mark Smith. The average person pitted against the ferocious unpredictability of fire is a trope in Australian fiction but Smith adds an extra dimension to build tension in his story of a city-slicker couple trying to make it in the bush. They are warned off by a local who used to own their property, but, as is often the case, the well-meaning newbies cross an invisible boundary and are made to pay for an older, harsher reality, not of their making.

Claire Aman’s ‘Zone of Confidence’ belies any tropes; it’s a beautifully-written character study of obsession. The narrator is riding her boyfriend’s motorbike up the Queensland coast, following him as he sails a boat to Cairns for a client. In Aman’s deft hands, we accept the narrator’s actions as reasonable and feel her growing anxiety for the boyfriend’s safety:

The clouds are unpleasant with their grey bellies. I suspect them all. They’re questing for a tiny boat, your brave little sail under a puffy sky. I push them away from the coast. I’ve hurt my throat shouting warnings to you about storms boiling up in the west, and now I’m like a dog without a bark.

The bike ride becomes harder and harder with a resolution that, when we see it, we realise is strangely appropriate.

‘Red Saffron’ by Isabelle Li also stands out for taking on new ground. It is an unusual, elegantly written piece that canvasses an array of ideas from food, to religion, to poetry, to infidelity. It is Li’s achievement that she can make her unsympathetic narrator so compelling and interesting. The character’s wit, keen observation and unflinching self-possession seduces the reader, as it will no doubt also seduce her next intended conquest.

In Rosie Barter’s ‘Grasping for the Moon’ we are back in familiar territory— older woman’s infatuation with a younger man—but the muscular writing and engaging main character juggling Buddhist philosophy and her own desires, make this an enjoyable and taut story. Take this scene where Martha sneaks into the room of her new housemate and finds him asleep naked:

She must not look; but she does. One second, five, ten, she does not know; but when a sudden impulse charges his body, jerks his head towards the wall and he rolls over from her gaze, she jumps. Hand on her thrumming heart she backs out of the room …

Stories about death and dying are hard to pull off. They tend to be overly sentimental, too oblique or they use the inherent emotional reverberation of the subject matter as the only point of tension. Melanie Kinsman’s ‘A Paper Woman’ avoids the pitfalls; while it is the story of a young woman with cancer, it is also about someone falling in love, who thought she never would. The narrator’s pragmatism and clear-eyed observations encourages you to go along with her willingly on her tough journey:

The first time you saw me naked, I was afraid. I had not warned you of the scar. I quivered before you in the room, raw and unclad, afraid of disgust and shock in your eyes. I was a paper woman, thin and flammable. Your gaze was a match.

While you could feel exploited, you never do with this story; it is moving and ultimately uplifting.

The elderly narrator in Kathy George’s ‘Walking the Dog’ isn’t at death’s door, but he’s getting there and he knows it. Concerned with the small things of life, he keeps his head down, making sure things tick over for as long as they can. As with the birds in ‘The Trouble With Flying’ it’s an animal that reflects and elucidates the character:

There’s a guest in the bathroom. A moth. It has large dark wings like a dinghy with sails. Becalmed, it sits on the cistern lid and watches the dribble of my slow pee. When I flick the light switch it bangs and crashes around as if it is blind. It will damage its wings if it’s not careful.

George gives a cleverly nuanced portrayal of the relationship between the narrator and his adult daughter, worried about him but still at the stage where she has to give him room to live his own life. When he makes a joke and she laughs he thinks, ‘It’s nice to know I can still be funny’. Like the moth in the bathroom he knows that his time is limited.

There is a lot of talented writing in The Trouble With Flying, some exceptional. The editors have thought carefully about the placement of stories and this enhances the reading experience. The breadth of the stories on offer means that diverse readers will find something of interest in this anthology to engage and stimulate.

This review is also on Goodreads.

The Bees – Laline Paull

the beesWhat a prosaic title for such a wonderfully imaginative book! Flora 717 is born into a beehive in an orchard, into the flora, the lowest cast in the hive. Soon she learns obedience and service are the by-words for this society. Next to her as she hatches, a new young bee whose wing is deformed is summarily dispatched by the fertility police. But Flora’s horror at this is forgotten as she is bathed in the scent of love that periodically emanates through the hive from the queen.

The beautifully realised world of the hive is a cross between a medieval court and a nunnery, everyone has their place and any deviation is not tolerated, and above all the queen is hidden behind a wall of her priestesses, called the Sister Sages.

Flora’s life would have been one of short, tedious service, if she hadn’t been born with special talents. She can talk, and the rest of her class can’t, plus she’s big and robust. Her qualities are noticed and she’s given the chance to perform different roles: as a nurse in the hatchery, as a forager bee seeking out nectar and pollen, and she even gets near the queen; but Flora harbours a terrible secret that if exposed would see her instantly executed.

Paull has written something like a fantasy adventure but all set within the confines of the hive. Her ability to make the life of the bees come alive with its beauty and terror is quite remarkable. The hive itself has hidden chambers and multilevels, and the various ways of communicating through scent, vibration, pheromones, the bee dance in the dance hall, are wonderfully evoked.

Flora 717 is a feisty, brave character and her friend amongst the drones (they lie around like dandies while the female bees feed and groom them and worship their maleness) Sir Linden, brings humour and poignancy.

Towards the end, as waves of misfortune hit the hive, the tension is ramped up, and Flora has to fight for her own life, and ultimately that of the hive.

There is nothing twee about this book; it is a thrilling adventure full of the pleasures of a strange world richly realised.