Western Australian author Steve Rogers’ novel An Artifact* of Interest is so filmic in character that you’ll excuse me for referencing some Australian movies in this review. It’s a murder mystery set in the Kimberleys with the little-known Bradshaw cave paintings at the heart of the plot – but no spoilers here. As a thoroughly urban Australian who rarely ventures fifty clicks from the coast, I relish the novels and films that transport me to the bush: The terrifying petty brutality of Ted Kotcheff’s film Wake in Fright; Ellen Roxburgh’s ordeal in Patrick White’s novel A Fringe of Leaves; the mystical film version of Picnic at Hanging Rock.
Rogers’ novel is another retelling of the bush: A young city man on a rural adventure; a mysterious death; an anthropological mystery; an unlikely romance. It’s the style that conveys the mood, with Rogers employing present tense and a relaxed regard for point of view, which results in a feel of spontaneity and authenticity of place. Short chapters, suggestions rather than conclusions – these yield a laconic and fluent narrative that leads us through the plot rather than shoving and dragging us. You can almost spot the dissolve between chapters. I loved the imagery of the bush, and my mind kept returning to Margaret Preston’s painting of Western Australian gum blossoms
*Yes, it’s spelt with i for a good reason: Check out the definitions of artefact and artifact.
Find out about Stuart Campbell’s latest novel here.
“Shouty,” I muttered to my companion as the curtain fell on the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of 1984 this month. But while I’m often disappointed by theatre in Sydney, I usually get my money’s worth in the ensuing days as I ponder the reasons.
There was a lot of shouting in this 1984. I was confused (as many critics were) by the stilted university tutorial at the beginning. I felt assaulted by the flashes and bangs. I thought the torture scenes had the tone of a high school play. This wasn’t my 1984.
But just because Orwell’s masterpiece was a seminal text of my youth in the sixties, why should my 1984 be the 1984 of somebody born forty years after me? When I read the book, the world was lurching from one Cold War crisis to another. Young people of my generation seriously believed that we could die in a nuclear holocaust. For teenage me, Julia was the epitome of sexual emancipation. For political me, 1984 revealed the hypocrisy not just of totalitarianism, but of society per se. Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders had exposed the power of advertising: Was totalitarianism so distant from the socially corrosive power of unbridled capitalism?
I couldn’t possibly explain any of this to someone born in 1990. It’s all about me, and I can’t fathom what 1984 means to a me who has never known economic recession, who has probably never been a member of a trade union, whose parents weren’t evacuated from London in WWII, whose foreign bogeymen are Islamists rather than Communists. But the Sydney Theatre Company’s production gave me a clue. It took me a few days, but I got it – sort of.
As a footnote, I used 1984 as a literary prop in my novel Cairo Mon Amour. Check out how I did it here.
Brexit. How the hell did it happen? OK, I confess that if I had been allowed to vote in the land of my birth, I would have voted Remain. But Sebastian Handley’s Brexit: How the Nobodies beat the Somebodies gave me a long pause for quite a lot of thought. He wouldn’t have persuaded me to vote Leave, but his book gives a rare opportunity for insight into the thinking of a committed Brexit campaigner, and is a valuable corrective to the ‘them vs us’ smear that characterised a lot of the so-called debate around Brexit. Handley’s book is highly original, and as such difficult to categorise: Memoir? Handbook for revolutionaries? Political manifesto? Structurally, it’s couched as a breathless series of diary entries. Stylistically, it’s Spike Milligan meets The Young Ones (influences Handley acknowledges at the beginning of the book). The narrative voice is somewhere on a cline from faux-naif to skilled orator. There’s also a love story woven into the gaps between Handley’s indefatigable campaigning for Leave in Brighton. And in the end, Handley answers the question How the hell did it happen? Through quintessentially British amateurism, with small squads of loosely connected enthusiasts bashing out leaflets and learning how to dodge the slow-moving ideological missiles of the Remainers. If like me, you’re still baffled by the Brexit vote, this is essential reading. If you’re a Leaver, read How the Nobodies beat the Somebodies, and have a well-deserved gloat!
Stuart Campbell’s novel Cairo Mon Amour is published 30 June 2017. Click here for details.
Anthony Carilla’s debut novel Convergence takes on the core question of our existence. This audaciously ambitious book builds on physics, biology, pharmacology, brain science and theology to create a complex thriller that goes way beyond the mundane. That’s not to say that that the conventional elements are missing: There are dashes of romance and action to balance the slow-burn plot, and the settings are seductive – the jungles of Cambodia, high-tech laboratories in Europe, and the super-luxury playgrounds of a billionaire businessman.
Carilla takes some big risks with this book: A large cast of characters, attention to detail that can sometimes overwhelm, and a lot of science. But the gamble pays off, with compelling portraits of the main protagonists, and a sense of inexorable progress towards an ending that promises to blow the reader’s spiritual socks off. I confess I didn’t see the simple one-sentence conclusion coming, even though the hints – in retrospect – were there along.
Convergence is a book that will provoke a plethora of questions across the spectrum of readers from the faithful to the faithless. Some will question the science, especially the claims for quantum mechanics (but then it is set in 2038), and some will have reservations about the beneficence of big business and the US government in these days of the Trump ascendancy. But the sublime central message of the book will have universal resonance.
Convergence will be published by Austin Macauley Publishers Ltd. in the very near future.
I was given an ARC by the author and asked to provide an honest review.
Author Kerry Donovan has a new book Ryan Kaine: On the Run enrolled in the Kindle Scout program. If you’re not familiar with this, authors apply to have never-been-published works enrolled, and readers are invited to nominate books for a Kindle Publishing contract on the basis of sample chapters. Here’s the link for Kerry Donovan’s book.
I was lucky enough to read the whole manuscript this week. Being a Kerry Donovan fan, I wondered what to expect from the author’s first venture into the action thriller genre. Tough, handsome hero with a will of iron, deadly training, and the propensity to kill on demand? Well, sort of, except that Ryan Kaine is more than the one-dimensional cut-out figures that blast their way through the paperbacks on sale at airports; he’s got buckets of morality and an urge for redemption. And what a pleasant surprise to meet a couple of old friends from Donovan’s D.C.I. Jones series along the way. I won’t reveal any more, other than to say that Ryan Kaine: On the Run is a romp of a book that leaves a sense of satisfaction rather than a sugar hit.
Have a look at the Kindle Scout link (here it is again), and if you like what you see, give Ryan Kaine your vote.
Bill East’s The Arbutus is a dark and challenging novel that delivers a potent dose of madness, violence and erotic tension with the deliberation of a cannula. Maddie, a woman approaching middle age, returns from England to Peter, the Australian lover she fled many years before. Apparently unhinged and obsessive, Peter confesses to a series of murders at his wooded estate on the outskirts of Sydney. An intricate psychological game of revenge follows: The characters’ psyches are built layer by contorted layer; truths are offered and then undermined; the reader teeters on the edge of resolution, only to be pulled back into the game. Plausibility is often stretched to the limit (if the bizarre plot can be called plausible in any way): Is Maddie’s androgyny credible? Would Peter really have planned such a spooky endgame? On both counts, the author builds a convincing case for Maddie’s weird erotomania and Peter’s convoluted creepiness, and in the end, both their fates were easy to believe in. I rummaged in my reading history to find some novels that The Arbutus might echo. For the blending of the macabre and the world of nature (Peter has a thing about trees), I came up with Patrick Süsskind’s Perfume. For the exploration of twisted emotions, John Fowles’ The Collector and Sebastian Faulks’ Engleby came to mind. For gore, Jeffery Deaver’s The Bone Collector resonated. In the end, though, Bill East has created his own monsters. Crime thriller? Black comedy? Erotic mystery? Homage to trees? I didn’t care as I raced at top speed through The Arbutus.
You can find Bill East’s website here and buy The Arbutushere.
It’s been decades since I smoked, but I haven’t quite given up the habit. Having no desire to inhale burning vegetation these days, I still enjoy a vicarious smoke using the lungs of my fictional characters. In fact, smoking is a remarkably useful literary tool.
I identify four ways to exploit tobacco in fiction, but there are undoubtedly more.
But let me first offer a caveat: If you’ve never smoked, the remainder of this post might not hit that sweet spot: The hit you didn’t get from the first slim, black Balkan Sobranie outside a club in Soho; the hit you missed from the first gorgeous, toasted lungful of a Gitane outside Gare du Nord; the hit you could never experience from a mean-spirited little Players No. 6 after a meat pie and a pint in the Lawnmowers Arms somewhere west of Croydon.
Whoops, I slipped into nicotine reverie. Anyway, here are the four ways I use tobacco without actually smoking the stuff:
Historical setting: When I was a student at London University in the seventies, there were still ashtrays in tutorial rooms. Smoking wasn’t taboo. It wasn’t stigmatised. It was perfectly OK to inflict second-hand fumes on your tutor, or sit at the back of a plane filling the armrest ashtray with dog ends. But nowadays, only bad people smoke, and the best way to cast a negative shadow over a character is to have them light up. But good characters can reminisce about the Good Old Smoking Days. The shortest sex scene I ever wrote, set in 2011, goes, ‘Thea sat up, flushed and tousled, and pulled the covers around her. I lay back and mentally smoked a Gauloise’.
Social gradation: If you’re working in seventies England, as I am with my current work in progress, smoking is a wonderful index for where your characters fit into society: Working class characters smoke roll-ups and cheap fags (the Players No.6 is the epitome of poverty smoking, especially with a packet of ten rather than twenty). Better class smokers are more of your Benson and Hedges types, and homosexual men puff effetely on menthols. Elderly men in tweeds suck on pipes, and posh old geezers smoke cigars. Lesbians haven’t been invented yet.
Filling in a pensive pause: Want to fill a pause while your characters need to have a think? Let them have a smoke. You can tell that smokers are thinkers when you watch those wretched outcasts having a gasper outside the office block and pretending that they are pondering a takeover bid for CitiBank. The key to blowing a tobacco-induced thought bubble is to exploit the physical and psychological details of smoking: Tapping the packet, finding the lighter, the first delicious puff, the sixth puff when you realise how much you hate being addicted, loathing the stinking ashtray. But what a boon for the writer, when a bit of internal monologue can be slipped into the moments of mental vacuum.
Male bonding: What did two blokes do in the Good Old Smoking Days when, left alone, they could find no words? They had a fag, and busied themselves with tapping the packet, finding the lighter, inhaling manfully, etc. Saves on dialogue!
Time for a Scotch, I think.
I write quirky novels about love, betrayal and redemption. Have a look here.