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Thoughts on the Ockhams

I’m going to rip into a long delayed round of reviews – or at least responses -to novels I’ve read over the past year. Starting with a response to the novels nominated for Ockham NZ Book Awards for 2016, just in time for the new longlist to be announced in November.

To quote myself:

Mostly though, I think I’ll veer towards reviewing for a bit. Works of note, hidden gems. NZ books, yes, but not only, and especially those with something to say. Starting with an appraisal of the NZ Book Awards longlist for 2016. I was, of course, eligible (and not nominated) so reading the chosen works this year has been interesting… to say the least.

The delay stems mostly from most of my time being taken up with the planning and assessing, and documenting, that is the workload of the modern NZ classroom teacher.

The additional problem I found is that when I actually read most of the novels, I did not really feel inclined to bother reviewing them. Now, they were all “good”, at least to a technical degree, hence being longlisted.  But, whatever the various strengths of the novels, I was more interested in exploring the texts’ flaws, which often held a lot more interest for me than the story being told. But I didn’t want to write x-hundred words and have it all come out like critique: not unless that book is impervious and I still recommend reading it anyway. That’s not a review, nor a fair reflection of the text itself.

So, flag that.

I suppose what I really underwent in reading the longlist was an appraisal of my interests and tastes versus those of the Ockham Award judges.

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Not a fan

Upon reading, I discovered I was not a fan of most these novels. I did not enjoy them. I did not have my imagination captured by these texts: not enough to complete reading two, or overlook the flaws in the execution from two others.

In counterpoint, I’d assert the judges obviously were fans of their longlisted texts, making the issues with the texts, for them, non-existent or forgiveable.

Coming Rain by Stephen Daisley (Text Publishing) – Winner
The Chimes by Anna Smaill (Hodder & Stoughton)
Chappy by Patricia Grace (Penguin Random House) (shortlisted) DNF
The Back of His Head by Patrick Evans (Victoria University Press) (shortlisted) DNF
The Legend of Winstone Blackhat by Tanya Moir (Penguin Random House)
The Invisible Mile by David Coventry (Victoria University Press) (shortlisted)
Reach by Laurence Fearnley (Penguin Random House)
The Pale North by Hamish Clayton (Penguin Random House)
The Antipodeans by Greg McGee (Upstart Press)
Astonished Dice: Collected Short Stories by Geoff Cochrane (Victoria University Press)

I did not read all of the longlist: the ones in grey, I chose not to. Some I just couldn’t get my hands on at the right time. I enjoyed Clayton’s Wulf, so will check out The Pale North at some point, and The Antipodeans – I like the premise, and the idea of reading all three of the “rogue” publishers. Not for me, but here’s a review of Reach, too.

As someone who had good skin in the game this one year, the biggest disappointment was seeing a collection of previously published short stories make the list. First, short stories are a fundamentally different text – they honestly did not have enough novels to choose from? And previously published? Now if they were irrefusable, something world-changing like George Saunders, fine – but they didn’t even make the shortlist.

Of the remaining six, there were two reads I found most frustrating. I can see why the judges were fans of them, but to me, they were not wholly successful as texts.
The Legend of Winstone Blackhat had some lovely writing and imagery, particularly in the wind-blown wasteland of the protagonist’s cinema-inspired Western alternate reality. The story tackles a subject of real importance in NZ culture. But. The monotone misery of the boy’s actual life lacked vitality, and its telling simply did not ring true. Poverty and abuse are serious topics and I didn’t feel the author had anything authentic to say.

The other was The Invisible Mile. Coventry creates some lovely sentences and images, tending towards stream-of-consciousness, and the story concept is full of ambition, a drug-fuelled narrator reconstructing his life, that of others, some whole chunks of history while riding the Tour de France. Put those two strengths together and perhaps you can imagine the problem.
Among other things, this book seriously needed editing. At least one more draft. The key issue is that the narrator is insufficiently defined, and his lack of identity – indicative or mingled with a lack of authorial clarity -means we get a load of redundant digressions, internal commentary and orphaned “darlings” in often scatter-shot fashion. I found the writing was best and most readable when the narrative was grounded in a scene, in interaction, and this did not happen often enough. As such, the view of the Tour de France, and the world around him, lacked selection or focus. Some might say this jumble was artistic. For me, the text failed to communicate.

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The Chimes

The Invisible Mile demands attention principally because it was shortlisted, taking the place of, in my view, a superior novel: Anna Smail’s The Chimes. This text was also ambitious, also unfortunately flawed, but to nowhere near the same degree. Indeed, the first half of the text approaches perfection. Yes, I am a huge fan of this novel. It achieves so much, was so readable, did something so new that despite its flaws, it deserves attention.

A London where memory and words are replaced by song, wiped out by the Chimes. This world is beautifully realised, developed layer-on-layer as our hero, Simon, acclimatises to this new city he has entered, only to be constantly disrupted by the systematic erasure of memory – whereon Smaill uses her musical knowledge and artistry to smooth over this narrative complication and we are awed all over again. This is the aspect most reviews focus on, it is where the literary merits and the fantasy storytelling is strongest. If only Smaill had allowed her narrative – with Simon, Lucien, the pactrunners, hunted by the Order – to just stay there, resolve the tale within the city-world she had so powerfully constructed.

Unfortunately, instead of just having her characters survive the imposing world she’d created, she sent them off to destroy The Order and save the world. Smaill’s writing holds up, and the finale will not dismay, but to get to her end, the story becomes ever more convenient and contrived. In the Chimes, the thrall in which the Order held the world was terrifyingly convincing; so the relative ease of Simon’s adventures away from the city makes the oppression of London suddenly seem a Potemkin Village. Those of us who have read and written speculative fiction and SFF know that the bigger you build up the evil, the more you have to do to earn the right to pull it down, and it is damned hard to justify pulling off in the second half of a single book. These stories don’t typically run to trilogies just for royalties and movie rights.

My other mild disappointment was that I had, at a couple of points, thought Smaill was having a shot at the role of the media in our public discourse (the fuckers). The Chimes wipe history, meaning and context, and leave only select repeated truths, creating “an eternal present”; and this chimes with the literary criticism of those such as Frederic Jameson who argue that the establishment media perform the same as a function of late capitalism.  However these thoughts were always dispelled only a few pages later, and the story makes it very plain that the Order are misguided Utopians. This is disappointing because, despite the trope, human existence is certainly not, nor has ever been, in danger of misguided Utopians. Resource-swallowing combines and selfish, greedy, imperialist elites remain the Monster of the Day.

The Chimes is a must-read for anyone who considers themselves a reader. I wish it had been that bit more perfect, because, yes, let the “London” setting disarm the collective prejudices (and hook a UK publisher, a great strategy), but this is straight, great fantasy. There is no intrinsic connection to the contemporary world, just character, and humanity and adventure in the best SFF tradition, and it’d be nice to see NZ publishers and readers start backing those qualities straight off the bat.

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Coming Rain; daylight second

In my view, what Smail attempted, and achieved, eclipsed all but one other that I’ve read from the longlist. Two books I did not finish: Chappy because while the concept was interesting, I found the writing lacked texture, with not enough detail to let me into the world; whereas I enjoyed the busy style of Back of his Head, but simply wasn’t hooked in by the story. They seemed strong texts, just not my cup of tea.

Coming Rain, though, I read before it was declared the winner, and the sheer pleasure of it was like the sun bursting through the eponymous veil.

Pitch perfect prose. A simple period story told with intimate knowledge and detail. I wouldn’t change a thing. My only query over this text is that it’s more of a 1-act play padded out with a parallel narrative; there is no arc of transformation that I’d typically expect of a novel.  But that is only relevant as a judging criteria, had it been necessary to compare more thoroughly with the other nominated texts: it wasn’t. We recognise the characters; we anticipate what will happen; this was far and away the most riveting read on the list, and while others showed more ambition, no one else came as close to perfection in executing their vision. I’m reminded of John Banville when he won the Booker for “The Sea”: he was pleased to see “an art book” rewarded, and this is the same.

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A judge’s duty

My verdict then, is less on these novels than on the merits of the first Ockham NZ Book Awards themselves. They got the winner right, from my reckoning. It’s interesting to me there was such a convergence of publishers this year, yet my best two texts came from overseas. With the publishing industry in such straits, the longlist is important to NZ authors. It is valuable marketing space. If it is a benchmark of quality, it has to have integrity. Or why have it?

This all ties in to the swirling murk that is the “Is NZ fiction boring?” debate that surfaced again this past week as a result of the Book Council report into reader attitudes to our fiction. My answer: well, yes, it’s going to look “boring” if the stories that get published and promoted and celebrated consistently represent a narrow wedge of interests and tastes. Of fans.

And so I come to my conclusion. If we accept that most novels are flawed – that’s not controversial, certainly if you are looking at as small a pool as NZ fiction – then that’s where the judges really begin to earn their bacon, as close, critical readers.Not just as fans.

I was not a fan of Chappy or Back of his Head. However, I could see their clear literary qualities, and had I been an Ockham judge it would have been my duty to not put down those books, not act like a fan. Weigh their merits clearly against my fan-love of The Chimes. Put aside prejudice and respect not the author, or publisher, or genre, but the text. 

Yes, it’s a small a pool in NZ. We will not get 10 works of literary fiction of the standard of Coming Rain every year, not like the Booker. So quality “genre” novels – (what the fuck is genre? a matter for another time) – should inevitably make that list some years. By considering that there might be quality writing beyond the bailiwick of the “lit fic” genre conventions the judges would raise the diversity of the longlist at the same time as populating it with more wholly successful works.

Now it’s 2017. The judges have been named. Their longlist is announced on 22nd of November. I am sure they’ll do their best. It’s always going to be apples v oranges v tomatoes, but that is what they are paid for.

I just hope to hear one of them say, “I’m not a fan of all the books on this list, but I’m damn proud to have put them there.”

 

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What happens next.

A fitting enough title: the last line from The Sovereign Hand. What does happen next?

Just the asking begs a dozen more questions, a deeply personal interrogation that has kept the authorly part of my brain occupied with reflection, conjecture, and outright battle with a few heaving chunks of reality for several months. Even now I’m not sure of the full answer, but I’m more sure of what I want to say.  What to make explicit, implicit, ambiguous. Or totally leave out.

The easy part is, yes, I know what is next in the story. I wrote The Sovereign Hand to be coherent and complete in itself as a stand-alone novel… for myriad reasons. But any reader can see there is clearly a larger story, the transformations of Alexa and Tanner having passed through only one, naive, revolution, there having been much foreshadowing, and other characters still to be fully revealed.  As such there are two, and only two, more books in this wider arc,  much like Raymond E. Feist’s first novels (Magician/Silverthorn/Darkness at Sethanon) or even the original Star Wars Trilogy: the original, and then a duology.

So will I write them?

The trickier part. I really want to. My love of the story drove me through the writing and publishing of The Sovereign Hand, and would do so again. The difference being, I was younger, unmarried, childless, and cheerily sans career back then, not to mention full of “optimism” about how quality writing – plus a more mainstream enthusiasm for “fantasy” (LotR/GoT style) – could overcome the typical prejudice towards a story featuring the occasional goblin or scales and horns.

And so things are no longer so simple, and I know a few things better. Significantly that I can not expect an interested reception from the NZ “book scene” if it looks like fantasy. And to be fair, the only reason I thought that might happen is that Steam Press had already established itself as a quality publisher: we thought that bridge had been crossed. By 2014, though, the “scene” wasn’t so welcoming to Steam Press publications, whether for review or on shelves.  Large volume of a tight selection of works is now the prevailing business model, and it flows from publishers, to booksellers and into which texts are selected for review. All informed by data on who can actually afford to buy books from booksellers in our depressed political economy. The tastes of a older, conservative, wealthy demographic reins supreme.
So, no immediate hopes of springing from NZ to Australia to other international publishers and thereby funding my next novel – although Steam Press may well be front-and-centre at Frankfurt this year, where genre sell well.

To the internet, then, where the conventional theory it seems is your first novel is the peanuts-grade marketing for your second novel in a whole series of novels you can pump out featuring your world and characters which your readership has hooked into. Which I can appreciate, but ain’t what I’m doing (this time, at least) and it stings me like a fissure in my arse (H/T: Maury Ballstein, Zoolander) cos its kinda the inverse of how I was hoping it would work. I know. Boo hoo.

So with that dubious fucking incentive, will I write a follow-up to The Sovereign Hand?
Yes. You can never be read enough, but besides its inability to help me fund a second novel, I’m really happy with how the first one turned out.
Do I know when? No. It is even possible I will write other things first, maybe some short stories set in the same world. Family and work will keep time at a premium this year, and we have a nation-state falling to bits around us. Time to start putting the P back into participatory democracy.

And this site? I’ll always have something to say, including on The Sovereign Hand. Next time I’ll write a bit about the novel’s successes, and may indulge in what it’s “about”.

Mostly though, I think I’ll veer towards reviewing for a bit. Works of note, hidden gems. NZ books, yes, but not only, and especially those with something to say. Starting with an appraisal of the NZ Book Awards longlist for 2016. I was, of course, eligible (and not nominated) so reading the chosen works this year has been interesting… to say the least.

 

The Sir Julius Vogel Awards – nominations open

The Sir Julius Vogel Awards are held each year to celebrate the best in New Zealand sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. The Sovereign Hand is eligible for 2015, and any person, or body corporate, can nominate.

Yes – even you!

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Association of NZ will vote on the final winner, but the number of nominations help with getting short-listed. This system provides a pretty level playing field for NZ authors and their readers and supporters across the world.

So if you’ve read and enjoyed The Sovereign Hand, and hope to see more in the future, or would just like to show your support, nomination could not be easier:

  1. Open an email to sjv_awards@sffanz.org.nz
  2. Copy and paste the field below into the email.
  3. Enter your own NAME and CONTACT EMAIL (or other contact details) for each category. (This is important, to ensure the nomination is valid.)

Only one nomination can be sent per email, but if you would like to nominate another work here is the SJV’s list of some other eligible works.

Thanks for your support.

– SJV Nomination –
Nomination category: Best novel 

Title of work: The Sovereign Hand
Name of Author: Paul Gilbert
What the work is: Novel
Year of First Release: 2014
Publisher: Steam Press
How to contact the publisher/author: stephen@steampress.co.nz
Genre: Fantasy
Your contact details: ………..(important)

Send to:  sjv_awards@sffanz.org.nz

The Luminaries (Forget your feet)

As already noted, I really enjoyed the discourse flowing around the greatest literary occasion to hit NZ in a long time: Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries winning the 2013 Man Booker Prize. It’s also been great reading more thoughts from Catton via interviews and such, they’re all over the internet. And it’s good she’s not shy with her opinions.

And unsurprisingly, prevailing opinion favours The Luminaries. But it is not unanimous, and I know that some are not attempting or finishing the novel, and there is a reason for that. Upon finishing The Luminaries, I felt fulfilled, satisfied and teased out as if after an actual physical workout, but I’d be lying if I said I loved it right from the start. While I don’t do reviews, as such, I will sound off on books that I like, and I figure a little light analysis might help people know how or whether to try The Luminaries out.

Upon winning the Booker, VUP’s Fergus Barrowman himself said the book had a slow start. So I think the first thing to point out is that if you can get a quarter through the book, you might as well keep reading, it will only get easier, better, and more enjoyable. This is not to say the first chapters aren’t skilfully wrought. The Luminaries carries two stories. The one that kicks the novel off is an intricate tale of a dead man’s gold and what 12 men know about it, which of course includes all the lies, misunderstandings and machinations with each person’s “whole truth” making nothing so true, but nothing less whole than a wheeling constellation of relations.

This story, the messy intrigue of “the whole truth”, is well-served by the astrological origins of the text’s structure. Where the novel shines, however, is towards the end. Catton herself has stated her story is, at the heart of it, a love story, and I would agree. But this heart it is only felt in the final, revelatory third once Staines is found and the text tapers to “nothing but the truth”, without the embellishments surrounding the dominant gold/mystery story. The Irishmen Paddy Ryan appears for one moment just to mark this transition where the lovers’ tale emerges from the body of the other. “Give us a tale and spin it out, so we forget about our feet, and we don’t notice that we’re walking,” he says. In The Luminaries there is a lot of palaver from tenuously connected characters, many minutiae of shipping and insurance, the tiny yet significant details of typesetting a paper, and a general mix of coincidences and contrivances that bring the constellation of events together. This is not a criticism in itself, but as these relations are so slender and transient, a lot hinges on whether you are engaged by the presence of the Victorian-style narrator and her insights and asides as to whether you “forget your feet”. I do like a little narration; a good narration not only reminds us we are engaged with a text but invites us to make our own external connections between it and our world. While others, apparently, have been appropriately bewitched by The Luminaries’ narrator, she remained aloof for me.

But while the early content might be a barrier to some persevering with the novel, Catton’s writing is still a huge ameliorating factor. Her skill with sentences is what makes this conflation of circumstances readable, much less converge with masterful sense. The Luminaries is a novel that shouldn’t work, doesn’t quite work, yet does its work perfectly. Together the two stories comprise “the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”, suitably intertwined by the Carvers’ ambitions, and in this the text seems to execute the author’s intent. I confess a wish for the lovers’ and their antagonists to have spent more time centre-stage in a story told with the élan of The Luminaries’ final third. But that would have been an entirely different novel.

Books given, books read

Gifts: The Wind City, by Summer Wigmore; Tropic of Skorpeo by Michael Morrisey; Unspakable Secrets of the Aro Valley by Danyl McLauclan; The Factory World by Joe Ryan; I'm Working on a Building by Pip Adam' Hand Me Down World, by Lloyd Jones2013 was my Christmas of Literary Giving. All my family got great NZ books, as pictured, plus The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion‎ (a thoughtful choice, which my mother promptly vetoed by exchanging it for Amy Tan – sigh.)  Of the seven, I’d only read Tropic of Skorpeo and The Factory World, so I was giving away treasures I actually want to read myself: an inverted narrative about the construction of the world’s tallest building on the west coast of the South Island; Wellington’s Aro Valley has a hotbed of adventure, dark magic and intrigue – maybe with The Wind City‘s Maori gods romping around in the capital at the same time? Definitely no lack of entertaining ideas.

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Of the books I have read recently, I enjoyed Hamish Clayton’s Wulf, historical fiction fusing Te Rauparaha with the Beowulf epic. Sometimes I take just one or two things away from a novel, and in this case it was the evocative emphasis on a New Zealand that was all “black and green”, without the imported autumnal colours. Living in Dairyland, I was really impressed by that simple point, and kinda yearn to be in that long-gone place. Makes me appreciate my time in what remains of our bush even more.

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Kafka’s The Trial. Freedom of information advocate Aaron Swartz was facing the full weight of the US anti cyber “crime” agenda – years of stress, maybe years of jail, millions in punitive fines – after he made academic texts held by MIT available online. Swartz read The Trial in 2011, shortly after his arrest, and according to his father he called it “deep and magnificent” “I’d not really read much Kafka before and had grown up led to believe that it was a paranoid and hyperbolic work,” instead, he’d found it “precisely accurate—every single detail perfectly mirrored my own experience. This isn’t fiction, but documentary.”

Having now read The Trial, it is hard to argue – it resonates with my experiences with Inland Revenue, even challenging a parking ticket, any bureaucratic power. Has anyone not hit their head against a govt department wall? And now they are gathering all our information so they think they have even more god-like powers to judge guilt before innocence, and for anyone hoping to change the world this is chilling to the core.
Aaron Swartz was, of course, driven to suicide last year. No official of any sort will be held responsible for the witch hunt. He was 26.

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The most challenging and fascinating, and impressive, novel I’ve read lately is Sleight by Kirsten Kaschock. As a writer, you are attracted to reading that resonates with your own writing. I enjoy texts that ask the reader to make their own connections, and our understandings of the characters, the story, and “sleight” begin as disparate then coalesce, in the same way the sleight troupe’s practise comes together and arrives as a singular definitive event. In this way, the subject mirrors the novel’s structure, which is always effective, when achieved.

The multi-dimensional, abstract, almost impossible performance art-dance Kaschock created in sleight also resonated with the abstract-impossible aspects of The Sovereign Hand: those elements that are often decribed as “unfilmable”, where concrete description and detail surrender to an impression that eludes reality, and is all the more potent for it. The slake moth of Perdido Street Station and the perpetual train of Iron Council come to mind; the affect of scent in Süskind’s Perfume; In The Sovereign Hand, it’s the diablerie, in particular. All evidence that sometimes you can not just call a spade a spade, that you need richer language to unchain the reader from unthinking signifiers and permit them to draw their own ring around whatever is signified in their mind. That’s what speculative fiction, in whatever genre, does best.

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Next post: Joe Sacco’s Palestine, The Luminaries, and maybe a bit more about my book.

Two hot NZ books

From the myriad possible entry points to blogging about something other than my own novel, I lit upon some exciting New Zealand fiction from two young authors I’ve enjoyed in the past. I’m generally slow to jump on first-book bandwagons, but when I find them both enjoyable and noteworthy I’ll always pick up their second faster.

The first is Anti Lebanon by Carl Shuker. Admittedly I only picked up his first novel The Method Actors, in 2006, because I was deep in my own first draft at the time and wanted to see what a debut novel had to do to win $65,000 (The Modern Prize in Letters from Victoria University of Wellington – didn’t last long, sad to say).

In style, The Method Actors has a rough-hewn edge that I can appreciate, sometimes letting formal conventions lapse as Shuker wrestles to weave the intricate individual narratives into one engaging tale. In truth, not much of the story has stayed with me, except for a moment I came across one striking line –

“Once peoples find themselves both capable and motivated in lying for a cause the concept of truth is immediately anachronism. Superfluous.” (~p 212, ch. “Meredith October 2000”)

There are various other intelligent and feeling things featured around that line on the topic of a hidden massacre of Chinese by the Japanese, a storyline that forms the spine of the book, but damn me if that wasn’t the most worthy single line I had read for a long time. James McNeish recently gave a Janet Frame Memorial lecture where he praised Sarah Quigley and Lloyd Jones (about 20-26 minutes in) as NZ authors with something to say I say Carl Shuker is one of those authors. He shows a critical awareness when viewing the world and its ley-lines of power. So, however effective the writing in Anti Lebanon, knowing the author and the topic, I am confident I will find it a worthy read.

The second author is  Eleanor Catton. Her The Rehearsal is a more recent publication. Like The Method Actors, it featured multiple narratives and is credited with a risky experimental structure. The style is far more polished, however, as sumptuous and seductive as the central arc, that of the goings-on between a schoolgirl and teacher.

Her new novel, The Luminaries, sounds somewhat similar, but taken to the next level. You have a small town instead of school community, a death instead of a dalliance, and a mystery around exactly who-what-why, with the setting of the 1860s gold rush and (I think?) some astrology to boot. Catton is an extremely talented and award-winning writer, and already Booker nominated for this novel, so I’m sure it will dazzle.