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.
Somehow 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 storyDot 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.
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.
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
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.
I’m a fan of Kerry Donovan’s DCI Jones English police procedurals, and I particularly enjoyed his US debut On Lucky Shores.
The Transition of Johnny Swift is completely different. This time, the author throws us into a jangling world of motor racing, dire injury, psychological stress, simmering romance, and family loyalty. The spiralling plot has the reader on edge until a clever resolution in the last few pages. I was unclear about what genre I was in until the ending, but this added to the pleasure! The technical stuff – medicine, neuroscience and some weird physics – was convincing enought to keep me engaged. The style – an urgent, present tense meld of introspection, narrative and economic dialogue – pushes the pace.
Netflix’s Marseille promised to be a treat – a French political drama series with big stars and big production values.
Could this be, I wondered, an experience to parallel the superb police/legal drama series Spiral? Settled into couch with drink in hand, I press the button: Big opening, Gerard Depardieu enters a vast stadium, thousands of fans yell in excitement I’m in Marseille.
The actors deliver their opening lines. What comes out?
American English. Dubbed. Voices that don’t fit bodies. Sentences that don’t go with lips. Ventilated corpses. The essence of Frenchness eliminated.
What was Netflix thinking? That its audiences might get tired lips from reading subtitles?
What does a Sydneysider do when they get back from the US? Get a cup of decent coffee, what else? No, I shouldn’t be so cruel – I’ve had espresso in New York and San Francisco that approaches the refined drop we enjoy in Sydney, city of a million coffee snobs. But spare me the warmed-up filtered stuff they serve in US diners! Kerry J Donovan serves gallons of it in this lively novel about Chet Walker, a young itinerant musician whose past is tantalisingly hinted at. Finding himself in the lakeside town of Lucky Shores, he is quickly embroiled in a festering scandal and instantly attracted to Josie, the minx in the diner with the coffee pot and an interesting past of her own. I loved the whole thing, even the sweet ending (I would have preferred a bit of angst, but that’s the kind of writer I am). Chet’s music and lyrics are woven into the plot, but because they are original I couldn’t play them in my head: Hey, Kerry, what’s the chance of getting them recorded on Youtube and embedding the links in the e-book?
I had some questions for Kerry:
Q – I think that On Lucky Shores was your first novel set in the US. What sort of reaction have you had, especially from American readers? After all, you’re an Irishman living in France!
A – Agreed, OLS is my first US-set novel and will come as a bit of a change of pace for my readers. I mostly write UK-based police procedurals, although in one of my books, I did send my hero, DCI David Jones to France to catch a paedophile killer.
Setting OLS in the Colorado Rockies was a bit of a gamble for me and required a heck of a lot of research. Although the resort town of Lucky Shores is totally fictitious, I did want the setting to feel authentic. As for dialogue, narration, and ‘feel’, that was equally as tricky. I considered making my leading man, traveling musician Chet Walker, a British ex-pat, a sort of Crocodile Dundee character, but that would have been a bit of a cheat and I didn’t want to write a ‘fish out of water’ comedy. Instead, I tried hard to find a realistic American voice for the narrator and the characters, and hired an editor from Colorado, PC Zick, to help me with the settings, US grammar, and colloquialisms. She did a wonderful job and so far, reader responses have been incredibly supportive.
Basically, no one’s called me out on my misuse of the lingo. Not yet, anyway.
Q – If you found yourself in the diner in Lucky Shores, who would you most want to have lunch with?
A – Great question and a difficult one. The easy answer would be Chet, or Josephine (the diner’s owner and female lead character), but they’d be pretty much lost in each other and I wouldn’t have much of a chance in the conversation. Young love, eh?
Apart from the two leads, my favourite character is ‘The Ghost’, Sheriff Casper Boyd. He has his own agenda and, like Chet, is a recent addition to the Lucky Shores community. As an outsider, he has a different perspective from Lucky Shores’ other residents. Apart from everything else, he’s more my age than the youngsters, and we’d have slightly more in common. One question I’d like to ask him is why he’s being so tough on Chet. After all, the poor guy only wants to find a gig, earn some money, and move on with his life. Yeah. “What’s your game, Sheriff? Why are you being such a hard-ass?”
Q – People drink an awful lot of coffee in Lucky Shores. Are you willing to share your true feelings about the coffee they serve in US diners?
A – Couldn’t possibly comment. I don’t drink coffee. Never have, never will. I’m old school, a tea drinker through and through. I’m sure all US diners serve delicious coffee all the time, but I’m not an expert and will leave that discussion to others. And by the way, in Chet’s defense, he’d been out in the cold and the rain most of the night and needed the coffee as much for its warmth as its caffeine. And anyway, he’s a big guy and the coffee cups are small. Give the guy a break, will ya?
I came across Australian indie author Ann Massey last year when I picked up her novel The White Amah. Looking at her diverse output, I’m tempted to ask ‘what’s her angle?’ And where does her latest novel The Little Dog Laughed fit into her body of work? In fact, Ann Massey is a conviction novelist, producing work that barracks for the powerless. If this sounds like the work of a humourless ideologue, it isn’t.
Her latest work The Little Dog Laughed is a sparkling time-travel fantasy that showcases her wit, her deep knowledge of Britain in Roman times, and for good measure her love of dogs. And woven into the whole nutty tale is a deeper theme about the travails of people caring for sick or disabled relatives. I never realised what hilarity could be found in a mobility scooter!
Here’s Ann Massey answering a few searching questions I put to her:
Q – The Little Dog Laughed is impossible to place in a genre. Is this a help or a hindrance in finding readers?
A – I’ve been a square-peg all my life and this is reflected in my writing. I know smart marketeers stick to one genre and write series, but I can’t change who I am. I like hopping all over the place, and writing in many very different genres. The reader I’d like to attract is someone like me who reads everything by authors on my shortlist of favourites, and impatiently wishes they would increase their productivity.
Q – Like me, you’re a Pom who has spent the larger part of your life in Australia. Do you think that having a foot in each culture has influenced your writing?
A – I was born in Bolton and grew up in the tough environment of a council estate in post-war Britain. Both my parents left school at fourteen but I was I was fortunate enough to win a scholarship to a Grammar school. The majority of my contemporaries were first generation grammar school pupils, most of them with parents who by economic circumstance had been deprived of an academic education. I believe the justice for all themes that run through my books sprang from the opportunity to receive an education that had previously been restricted to a privileged minority. The plots and their backgrounds, however, are the offspring of a lifetime spent in Australia
None of my books are autobiographical, but in each I have used my personal knowledge of its unique world to give the story a genuine authenticity. For instance, I was marketing manager of the Daily News when Perth’s afternoon newspaper went the way of afternoon newspapers worldwide. Uncertain what I wanted to do, I applied for the position of governess on Minilya, a sheep and cattle station in the Australian outback. The station was located close to the Carnarvon Tracking Station built for the Gemini Space Program. To entertain my pupils, I invented a story about the International Space Station crash landing on a station very like Minilya. Mo, the jackeroo who found the wreckage in my debut novel, The Biocide Conspiracy, slept on a bed very like the one that was provided for me, pictured here
Q – A Little Dog Laughed and Salvation Jane have strong social justice themes but you manage this with a light touch. What’s the trick?
A – Several readers categorised Salvation Janeas chick lit albeit with a message. This was exactly the reaction I was after. I confess that when I began the tone was darker and more serious. But as the story progressed I thought about my readers. I wanted my book to be read by the masses and if they’re anything like me they don’t want to be preached at. So how do you get readers to read a serious commentary on homelessness in Australia? Take it from me it’s very tricky. In the end, I wrote a plot driven story— funny, a bit sad, a little deep and (I hope) inspiring. The ‘up in the air’ ending I considered—the type that always disappoints me— was dropped in favour of a much more satisfying one.
When it comes to the light touch, I might have succeeded too well in The Little Dog Laughed because all its reviews mention that its unique, refreshing, funny, and wildly creative, none mention its dark theme of carer abuse.