Of humans and gods elemental

I’m a committed reader and I do read fairly widely and there’s one particular thing that I love when it comes to fiction; I love stories that blend and blur the lines between reality and mythology. The kind of thing where the lives of men and meddling gods coexist and the environment holds some physical form.

There’s loads of examples of this throughout literature – the Greeks and Romans loved to tell these types of stories, and those stories continue to be told in our own time – think of John Banville’s ‘The Infinities’ and ‘Fifteen Dogs’ by Andre Alexis . In both books the Classical Gods get involved in the modern life of humanity (and canines). And more recently there’s been ‘American Gods’ by Neil Gaiman, and ‘Good Omens’ a joint effort between Gaiman and the late Terry Pratchett. Both of which will be getting the screen treatment very soon!

Cover of The infinites Cover of Fifteen dogsCover of American GodsCover of Good omens

But what about the more elemental gods, the older gods, gods of the earth, environment, and the supernatural world…?

Cover of FlamesI’ve just finished reading ‘Flames’ by Robbie Arnott – a young Tasmanian author with some serious talent! He’s been writing for some years now and has a string of awards following in his wake, and he’s a very welcome addition to the burgeoning Tasmanian writers scene, a scene which includes the rural romances of Rachael Treasure, the gritty historic fiction of Rohan Wilson, and the Booker Prize winner Richard Flanagan. I’m a Tasmanian myself so I do enjoy keeping up with what’s coming out of the beautiful isle, but I wasn’t really prepared for how good ‘Flames’ was going to be! It feels as you read it as if the land of lutruwita (the indigenous name for Tasmania) is itself telling the story and we are the privileged few who get to gain some insider knowledge.

It centres on two young people just after the death of their mother, which itself acts as a catalyst for all that follows. The brother is steadfast and pragmatic and wants to protect his sister so decides to build her a coffin, to which her response is to flee into the wilderness of the South West where she discovers a supernatural aspect to the world around her, and to herself and also to her family. Meanwhile the brother mounts a search to find his sister. On the journey we meet characters that are both at one with the natural world and still finding and settling into their place in it. We meet their father, we learn more about the family’s background, and other characters each of who are portrayed perfectly to outline their purpose in the narrative.

Robbie Arnott’s use of language is poetic and evocative of times past, of the smell of earth, the feel of wind, and the heat of fire. The narrative moves organically from one character to the next, shifting perspectives and fleshing out the magic of the story as it progresses. His descriptions of Tasmania (and you can rely on this ex-pat to confirm) are stunningly accurate and establish a very strong sense of place – you can smell eucalyptus burning, hear the rush of the waves onto the rocks, and you can feel the semi-decayed earth under your feet as you negotiate the wombat burrows.

So; beautiful language, strong sense of place, great characters with depth and purpose, and an engrossing story line – it’s ticked all the boxes for me!

Cover of The buried giantAnd ‘Flames’ is not the only book to achieve this balance between the real, the myth, the supernatural. ‘The Buried Giant’ by Kazuo Ishaguro is the tale of an ageing couple on a medieval pilgrimage with their purpose obscured by a think fog affecting memories, or there’s the outstanding series ‘The Tale of Shikanoko’ by Lian Hearn where we follow a journey of growth within a fantastical Edo-era Japan that has such imagination and rooted in strong mythology and where the everyday is touched with magic both light and dark. As is fellow Tasmanian Richard Flanagan’s great piece of surrealist historical fiction ‘Gould’s Book of Fish – a novel in twelve fish’ which I’m sure was both inspiration and license for Robbie Arnott to create this work, ‘Flames’.

And if you like this particular sub-genre then there’s plenty of films and tele series’ that are similar. You could have a look at ‘The Kettering Incident’, Tasmania’s own supernatural, David-Lynch-esque, tele series. It’s brilliant, dark, a bit creepy, and it’ll show you some places and environments very like those Robbie Arnott has depicted in ‘Flames’.

Enjoy your reading,

^DevilStateDan

A fiction lover’s mid-year review

2018 is screaming past at quite a rate and I have had the pleasure of filling this time with some quality reading!

I’ve made a list of the novels that I have enjoyed so far in 2018 and made comments on each so you can better decide whether they might be for you – my guess is that they’re so good you’ll want to read all of them!

There’s a decent representation of my favourite authors here too – the universe smiled upon us this year for new books from amazing authors. I was particularly excited to get a hold of First Person, the latest from the great Tasmanian Richard Flanagan. He’s a Booker Prize winner for his 2013 novel Narrow Road to the Deep North, and could go again with First Person, it’s very VERY good!

And another great Australian author Tim Winton; I was eagerly awaiting the chance to read The Shepherd’s Hut, another triumph for the doyen of Australian literary fiction.

And then there was The Free by Willy Vlautin. His economy and direct use of language, and his ability to accurately depict the struggles of everyday rural and poor America makes him one of the most exciting American authors working today, in my humble opinion, and he’s producing consistently outstanding work.

And most recently I’ve finally gotten my hands on Macbeth by Jo Nesbo! Hogarth Shakespeare have really nailed it by engaging Nesbo to do Macbeth and it’s definitely one of my highlights for the year – that and Flanagan’s First Person will be hard to top!

I’ve also included some modern sci-fi, some new Scandi-Noir, some historical fiction from NZ, and a classic from Kurt Vonnegut – and I’ll let you read about them yourself 🙂 (Please note that a number of these titles are also available in eBook or eAudiobook formats, so you’ve got plenty of options!)

2018 – The Best of Fiction…. so far!

List created by DevilStateDan

The highlights of my explorations through the fiction collection of Christchurch City Libraries for the first half of 2018. Some titles are new, some have been out for decades, all of them are great!

Cover of First person by Richard FlanaganFirst Person – A struggling writer gets an opportunity to ghost-write the memoir of a notorious con man in 1990s Australia but the road is a slippery one and lines become blurred as our man becomes ever deeper involved.

This is arguably Richard Flanagan’s greatest work to date, and he’s definitely entrenched himself at the top of the heap of contemporary authors.

Cover of Macbeth by Jo NesboMacbeth – This is obviously a retelling of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and what a brilliant treatment and with Jo Nesbo as an inspired choice for author. It’s so obvious to me now that Macbeth was MADE for the Scandi-Noir genre treatment. It’s gritty, dark, violent. Full of power, betrayal, and characters walking the fine line between sanity and madness. For this story Macbeth is head of SWAT in a dangerous and corrupt town and together with his mistress, Lady, the rags-to-riches casino entrepreneur, they embark on a powerplay to seize control of the city. But Macbeth has a sketchy past full of drug abuse and violence and as he relapses things get out of control, people get killed, lines get blurred…

Cover of The shepherd's hut by Tim WintonThe Shepherd’s Hut – The doyen of Australian literary fiction has done it again with this book. It’s the very real account of a young man forced by circumstance to take to the roads and outback of rural Western Australia. Such brilliant descriptive writing will have you smelling the eucalypt in the air, and hearing the crispy arid saltlands crunching underfoot. Jaxie is running and he’s got a vague destination in mind – north. And he’s got to survive the perils of rural Australia, criminals, and the very land that seems to want to kill him from heat, thirst or animal attack. An outstanding book from a great Australian author and written in vernacular language too!

Cover of Machine learning by Hugh Howey

Machine Learning – A set of short sci-fi stories from the author of the super popular ‘Silo’ Series. Hugh Howey is one of the best contemporary science fiction authors working today and these stories are thought provoking, dark, ominous, and challenging. He features some stories from the world of ‘Silo’ as well as stories of AI, Aliens, Virtual Worlds, and some Fantasy too. Beaut writer, beaut stories!

Cover The free by Willy VlautinThe Free – Another winner from one of my favourite authors writing today. It’s a snapshot of everyday life in middle America amongst a group of individuals all experiencing life differently. The solo man keeping two jobs to stay afloat, the nurse who has seen too much and has a strained relationship with her mentally ill father, and there’s Leroy, an injured soldier who drifts between consciousness and another place. The characters all struggle in their way to navigate life and retain their dignity and sense of self, and the authors minimalist writing style is stark and very effective at conveying they way in which real people communicate with each other. If you like the human experience warts-and-all then give this a go!

Cover of The melody by Jim CraceThe Melody – This story centres around an ageing singer/performer who was once a celebrated entertainer commanding full houses of societys elite. Nowadays he shuffles around suffering from the recent death of his loving wife, but then thing take a sinister turn when he’s attacked in his own home by a creature of unknown origin. His world is challenged as he negotiates his way around the incident and who he once was, who he is now, and what his future holds. Supremely well written with great use of language.

Medusa – An outstanding addition to the world of Scandi-Noir and one of the best I’ve read. Solid character building, quick paced action, and interwoven plot of suspicion and intrigue, and a series of grisly crimes in rural Norway – everything you could want in a crime novel! Medusa

Cover of One way by Simon MordenOne Way – What do you do when you want to colonise another planet, say Mars for instance?!? Well you could take a leaf from the book of British colonialism and send convicts to do the hard yards before the rich and elite arrive – and that’s just what America has done in this new sci-fi adventure. A small team of “dangerous” felons are recruited to build the first habitation on the red planet, what could go wrong…? A murder perhaps, and with nowhere to run it’s a spacey-whodunnit! Good writing and full of wit, if you like ‘The Martian’ by Andy Weir or his follow up ‘Artemis’ then you’ll get a kick out of ‘One Way’!

Cover of Only killers and thieves by Paul HowarthOnly Killers and Thieves – A great debut from a new author that really captures the Australian Gothic story. It’s the story of two young men, not boys but barely men, after a traumatic family event that sees them on a journey not of their choosing. The book describes the brutality of life in colonial Australia, the treatment of the indigenous population, and the rigourous adherence to the ‘old ways’ in this vastly alien and seemingly lawless world. If you like your reading to be vivid, violent, confronting, and troublesome then you’ll sure like this one!

Cover of The sons by Anton SvenssonThe Sons – On its initial appearance it seems like another addition to the massive genre of Scandinavian crime novels, but it’s much more and can stand alone as a piece of literary fiction deserving of high praise. Three young men have just served sentences for aggravated armed robbery. They are brothers, raised by the petty criminal and domestic abuser father that they committed their last crime with. On the final sons release we follow what happens next as they try to recreate some kind of normality – whatever “normality” means for each of them though is very different. Starting out I was worried that because I didn’t really like any the characters my attention may sway, but that fear allayed pretty early on by the authors great descriptive writing which bares all to scene of a family torn apart by the criminal inclinations of a small representation of their larger sum. This is part 2 in the ‘Made in Sweden’ series, the first book being ‘The Father’. Can’t wait for the next one!

For more view the full list

^DevilStateDan

Historical Fiction of the Masses

Historical fiction is beaut and I read LOADS of it!

I find that it’s an opportunity for talented writers to explore a tiny part of history and expand on it in a way that keeps within the spirit of the times. With the added bonus of hindsight, they might get into some areas that perhaps weren’t fully described by contemporary historians in factual writings.

There’s another side to historical fiction too, and this is the tendency to lean towards topics & settings centred on ladies holding court in the drawing room or the Upstairs-Downstairs type narrative full of posh English aristocrats, much like the recently popular Downton Abbey or Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall which has had the tele treatment.

There’s nothing wrong with these stories, some of them are written beautifully and they sure make good TV fodder, but my concern is that we may be boxing the term “historical fiction” into these aristocratic themes and subsequently some other great works about the “historical common people” are not reaching audiences that would love them. So let’s get into the gritty side of what I like to call (for lack of a better term) Historical Fiction of the Masses.

CoverA fine example of Historical Fiction of the Masses (and I may be showing by Tasmanian roots here) is one of my favourite books of all time – Gould’s Book of Fish – a Novel in Twelve Fish by Richard Flanagan. He’s a Tasmanian author who most recently won the Man Booker Prize for his work (also historical fiction) Narrow Road to the Deep North.

In Gould’s Book of Fish he delves deeply into the corruption, lunacy and brutality of the penal system of transportation to Van Diemen’s Land in the 17th/18th centuries. This is a history not often told in its full brutal reality by history’s keepers, until quite recently when shame around the perceived “convict stain” was turned around and many people began speaking with pride of their convicted and transported ancestors.

CoverThere’s another very accomplished and award winning Tasmanian author who writes good “Historical Fiction of the Masses” – Rohan Wilson. His two titles – The Roving Party and To Name Those Lost are full of grit and reality and are based on real points of history, and the characters based on real people.

And there’s other great international titles in this vein too, The Revenant by Michael Punke is a survivalist story set in the 19th century Rocky Mountains frontier and has recently achieved a lot of attention with Leonardo Dicaprio claiming his first Oscar for his role as the main character.

CoverThe North Water by Ian McGuire dealing with life on a whaling ship in the North Sea & the ship’s morally corrupt crew was long-listed for this year’s Man Booker Prize

There’s a huge depth of writing in this style and a new title piqued my interest after I heard an interview with the author Eowyn Ivey on Radio New Zealand.

CoverHer book is titled To the Bright Edge of the World and during her interview she expressed her admiration for minimalist writers such as Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy. She even said that one of her best-loved books was Gould’s Book of Fish by Flanagan – how could you resist!? Her book is written as diary entries and other correspondence amongst a group travelling through the wilds of frozen Alaska, their families & their descendants. It’s brutal, realistic and believable with strong engaging characters, a weight of mysticism and a deep plot – all the elements for a fine example of Historical Fiction of the Masses!

Go get some titles like these and get reading! Ma Te Wa.