Category Archives: British authors

An Orwell for every age? My 1984 isn’t your 1984.

“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.

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So this is how Brexit happened!

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!

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Stuart Campbell’s novel Cairo Mon Amour is published 30 June 2017. Click here for details.

I’ve nominated author Kerry Donovan for Kindle Scout – will you?

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.

 

Stuart Campbell’s Cairo Mon Amour will be published by Austin Macauley Publishers in the second half of 2017.

Gay love, snappy fantasy, and missing the point

img_0863Somehow I missed André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name in 2007, but a friend kindly lent me a paperback copy (there doesn’t seem to be an ebook edition, and so I spent a few days with the unfamiliar feel of paper between my fingers). I’ve bundled Aciman in this post with two quite different works: A short story by indie author Jack Binding, and the dance piece Spectra, which just opened at the Sydney Festival.

Let me start with Spectra, a collaboration between artists from Tokyo and Townsville, that “explores the interconnectedness of the universe – illuminating the potency of intentional actions and their inherent power to bear fruit in the future”. I had difficulty in finding points of connection between the dance and the theme, and in turn between the music and the light sculpture. At the same time, the athleticism of the dancers was stunning, and there were some highly original components, such as the line of arms that took on a snake-like life of its own. While I left the theatre feeling slightly dissatisfied, the performance stuck in my mind the next day, especially the exhaustion and elation of the young dancers in the curtain call, for whom the emotional force of the piece was obviously authentic and drenched with meaning. I spent the rest of the next day reflecting on why I hadn’t engaged with the piece, concluding that I’d failed to remember that every generation rediscovers the art forms of the previous one, and that perhaps I’d left my empathy at home. The review of Spectra by Deborah Jones filled in the gaps for me.

Jack Binding, an English writer living in Sydney, followed my blog recently, so I returned the favour by downloading his short story Dot Matrix. I’m envious of anyone, Jack Binding included, who can write a short story. All of mine have been overwrought flops. Dot Matrix is a smart, short and snappy fantasy of workplace revenge with a technological quirk that floats somewhere between the paranormal and the paranoid. Check out Jack’s well-groomed website here.

Call Me By Your Name passed me by in 2007. My reading experience of gay literary fiction (is that a genre?) is pretty well limited to Alan Hollingsworth’s The Line of Beauty* and Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, so I dived into Aciman’s novel without much of a frame of reference. It’s a love story on the familiar theme of self-doubt and unrequited desire, but with two male protagonists – a brilliant student summering at his parents’ Italian villa, and a slightly older house guest who is spending the season working on the translation of a scholarly manuscript. Call Me By Your Name is a skilled depiction of emotional and erotic tension, with the pair warily circling the possibility of a relationship, until the inevitable happens. The striking thing about the book is the psychological particularity of this (or any?) same-sex relationship, which is enshrined in the title. There’s inevitably an element of prurience in reading this kind of work; let me say that the sex is handled tactically, as it should be: In good writing, sex scenes have a job to do, other than to provide entertainment. I wasn’t sure of the need for the final chapters. Did it really matter how our men felt two decades later? Did I really need a cup of cocoa after the degustation?

A movie based on the book is to be released in 2017.

*I found the BBC mini-series of The Line of Beauty thin and wan, on a par with the superficial and rushed mini-series of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. Why do they bother? Just read the bloody books!

I write quirky novels about love, betrayal and redemption. Find out more about my books here.

An offbeat mix in my New Year book review round-up

img_0837Having just read two most unlikely companions in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Pamela Crane’s The Scream of Silence, I stumbled across two reads from earlier in the year – Jenny Diski’s The Sixties and C.S. Lewis’s autobiographical Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life.

Diski, who died in 2016 tweeting to her last days, describes in her 2009 book a decade much more colourful that mine. Her sixties was the real thing, not the toned-down version of the outlying suburbs of London where I grew up. But then, who’s to say what was and wasn’t real? Written more than three decades after the events with the hindsight of a dazzling literary mind, The Sixties is the sixties that I wish I’d had, but perhaps nobody had.

I don’t have much to say about Surprised by Joy. I gulped Lewis’s fiction as a teenager, but decades later he comes across as finicky and laboured. I found this book worthy but not especially convincing in the writer’s explanation of the discovery of his faith. The account of his sadistic boarding school was the high point. I learnt recently that the school, carefully disguised as ‘Belsen’, was located in my home town in England on a road I have walked hundreds of times, probably more than once with one of his novels in my pocket.

Now when it comes to worthy, it takes a lot to beat Harriet Beecher Stowe. Somehow, I’d missed Uncle Tom’s Cabin in my reading career, so I downloaded a free copy and braced myself. I won’t comment on the theme of the book, other than to say that Stowe was a fierce critic of slavery, and that her novel sold many thousands of copies when it was published in 1852. What interested me as a writer was the difference in literary technique in the ensuing one and half centuries. Three aspects stood out: One was the manner in which the author intersperses the narrative with her own critique of slavery, addressing the reader directly before hopping back into the action; the second was the unfashionable treatment of point of view, with Stowe directing proceedings from on high and dropping into the consciousnesses of her characters at will; the third was the sometimes impenetrable rendition of slave speech, which fogs the page and invites the eye to skip down. Nevertheless, I found Uncle Tom’s Cabin greatly moving, even though I suspect that Stowe would have got a C-minus in a modern creative writing  course.

Let me finish with something quite different in Pamela Crane’s short story The Scream of Silence. Crane writes psychological thrillers of terrific quality, and this short story – a taster of a longer work that is under way -is no exception. I loved the sense of place – the grittier side of Raleigh and Durham in North Carolina, as well as the desperate whackiness of the first-person narrator. I also admire Crane’s professional and entrepreneurial approach to the difficult business of being a writer. Look her up.

 

Learn more about my books here.

November books: Four novels, four good reads, and four stars each

stuart-head1-bw-hires-portraitOne of the oddest novels I’ve read in recent times is Himmler’s Cook by Franz-Olivier Giesbert. I was swept along by this off-key tale of Rose, the Armenian centenarian, reminiscing about her life from the haven of her Marseille restaurant. She survives the Armenian genocide, suffers multiple sexual predators, becomes great friends with Himmler, and makes plenty of tasty dishes along the way. It’s a clever story and a smart retelling of bits of twentieth century history, but in the end, not entirely satisfying. The difficulty I had was conceptualising Rose as a person rather than a literary device. Perhaps I was looking for too much.

Francis Guenette’s The Light Never Lies took me to British Columbia. This sequel to Guenette’s Disappearing in Plain Sight preserves the central device of the void left by the death of Caleb, husband of Izzy, the glamorous youth counsellor in the remote settlement of Crater Lake. While Guenette’s work is heavy on social issues – mental health, marriage equality, youth suicide, Indigenous rights – it presents a very persuasive reality of fraught relationships, emotional pinch points, gorgeous scenery, and wholesome food you can almost eat off the page. There are a lot of characters to get to know in this longish book, but perseverance pays off.

I read Peter Hobbs’s In the Orchard, the Swallows around the time that the progressive press was fulminating over Lionel Shriver’s remarks about cultural appropriation. I sit on the fence with this topic, having done plenty of cultural appropriation in my own writing. But I felt uncomfortable with Hobbs’s first-person story of a man in the remote border regions of Pakistan recalling his long imprisonment and banal, meaningless torture – the consequence of an innocent indiscretion with a would-be girlfriend in his adolescence. Yes, the text is poetic and lyrical, but I could not drive from my mind the thought, “How would the author know this boy’s experience?” The first-person technique is, I think, the difficulty: It eliminates the distance between the author and the narrator and leaves a taste of implausibility A fine read, nevertheless, if you can ignore the clamour about who’s allowed to write about what.

And this leads me to John M W Smith’s A Crazy Act in Uganda. Smith has solved the cultural appropriation problem in the first two of his Dictator Thriller Series (see also An Unlawful Act in Libya) by interposing himself (or someone like him) as the second-hand narrator of the story. Here, Smith’s literary avatar recounts a story told by an old man about a brutal episode in Idi Amin’s Uganda. Forty years previously the man, a disease epidemic expert, accepts a contract to work on a project to eliminate smallpox; but matters are more convoluted and evil than he expects, and some truly ghastly events ensue. I enjoyed this novella for the tension built into the plot and the cleverly calibrated balance between evil and expediency. There are no laughs to be had here, but I did wonder whether Smith could have injected some of the macabre humour of An Unlawful Act in Libya. But then Uganda’s history is perhaps just too dark for humour.

I write quirky novels about love, betrayal and redemption. You can read about my books here.

My eclectic holiday reads: Sydney-Singapore-Penang

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Eastern and Oriental Hotel, Penang

I left home with a packed Kindle last month for my first ever cruise. My eclectic reading tally was as follows:

Peter Ralph’s The CEO: White Collar Crime took me up the Eastern seaboard from Sydney to Cairns. Mr Ralph specialises in corporate thrillers that are apparently based on extensive experience of the business world. I’d read his Dirty Fracking Business previously and been struck by his profound knowledge of the fracking industry in Australia. The CEO: White Collar Crime is a madcap morality tale of how not to do business: Protagonist Douglas Aspine is a monster, intent on gobbling up profits, women, cars, and anything else that falls onto his plate in his quest to be a top CEO. Alas, the trail of damage lengthens until there is only one way out. In Australia, we have an old-fashioned expression ‘Ya wouldn’t read about it!’ as a reaction to something implausible. Alas, I have a horrible feeling that Australia has more than a few Douglas Aspines, and here’s where you’ll read about it.

After Cairns, we were solidly in the tropics and on course for Darwin. Our ship’s ultimate destination was Singapore, after which we were to fly to Penang, and then return to Sydney via Singapore. So what better book to read next, but Tan Twan Eng’s award-winning The Gift of Rain, set in George Town, Penang, a city I hadn’t visited in more than twenty years. This sinuous novel is the tale of a half-English and half-Chinese son of the powerful Hutton trading family during the Japanese occupation of Penang. It’s a big, ambitious novel that often veers towards the mystical. The star of the book was the Eastern and Oriental Hotel, where we were booked to stay, and I finished the book the day we checked into the

World class Armenian moustaches
Record-breaking Armenian moustaches

dear old thing, with its white shutters and lovely banquet rooms, and photographs of the Sarkies brothers. These gentlemen, bearing record-breaking moustaches, were the very same Armenian brothers who founded Raffles in Singapore.

I wandered George Town, summoning up Tan Twan Eng’s images of the Japanese occupation, but in the meantime I’d started on his The Garden of Evening Mists, an exquisite novel set in the years after WWII, and dealing with the pain of guilt and betrayal as a former prisoner of the Japanese in Malaya rebuilds a Japanese garden in memory of her dead sister. I finished it on the last night of a stopover in Singapore, and after a pre-departure dinner at the venerable Zam Zam Restaurant, I was ready for Kerry J. Donovan’s Cryer’s View, the latest in his The DCI Jones Casebook series.

I’m a big fan of Kerry Donovan, who matures as a writer with every book, and now works in a range of genres: Note his experimental The Transition of Johnny Swift, and his American small town debut On Lucky Shores. In Cryer’s View, we see a strengthening of Donovan’s skill in building complex characters, so that what is at face value a police procedural is a more profound piece of work. I knocked off Cryer’s View just before BA15 touched down at 6am in Sydney, well chuffed, as I think Detective Sergeant Phil Cryer might have put it.

Overall, a great reading experience, and the cruise wasn’t bad either. I’ll award 20 out of stars for the lot.

You can read about my books here.