The Wasp Factory (Iain Banks) 

This book is fantastic! It is another one of those books, that I go on about, that I found by accident. I had never heard of it until it picked it up, and the only reason I did was because I had finished a book, and needed something to read for the train ride home from work. I don’t even know why I picked it. It was on a shelf, and not displayed prominently on one of the bargain tables, all that was there to draw my attention was the spine. It wasn’t even a big book, just 200 pages; I’m surprised I even saw it.  

Iain Banks was a Scottish author of both general and science fiction. The Wasp Factory was his first novel. In a poll taken in The Independent it was voted by readers as one of the top 100 books of the twentieth century. When it was published in 1984 it received both wide acclaim and condemnation. I can see why it would polarise readers so much. The writing is superb, it is macabre and gruesome with a narrator, Frank, who makes you glad that this is fiction and you have no chance of meeting them in real life. The depiction of violence is chilling, graphic and disturbing. I concede that while I loved this book, it is most certainly not for everyone. If you are at all squeamish I suggest you skip this one.  

The only criticism I have is with the final chapter. The final resolution and denouement, not to mention the ‘explanation’ for the events that had taken place were anti-climactic. The so called ‘surprise’ wasn’t really all that surprising, I had pretty much guessed it almost from the beginning of the novel.  

I would suggest that he wrote the ending first, as most writers are told to do at one point, because it is almost like it comes from a different novel. Even the pacing and the overall tone change from the rest of the novel. Where the story is teased out gradually giving the reader just enough information to want more, maintaining a suspense that is exquisite; the final chapter is rushed with all the action spilling out over the course of a few pages. I am almost tempted to suggest that you stop reading before the last chapter- I wish I had. But, I know you won’t because, like me, I know that you will NEED to know what is on the next page.  

Having said all that, I still think that this is one of the best books I’ve read. It has made me curious to read Banks’ later works. As I said earlier, this book is not for everyone, but if you like horror and the macabre this will satisfy on both counts. 

 

High Voltage- The Life of Angus Young (Jeff Apter)

In 2015 I had the enormous privilege of seeing ACDC perform live. For any fan of music, in particular rock n roll, seeing these guys live should most definitely be on your bucket list (admittedly this is getting harder to do since Angus is now the only one remaining from the original line-up). So, when I saw  a new biography of legendary guitarist and ACDC icon, Angus Young, on the shelves I just had to grab it.

My experience with biographies can be a bit hit and miss, usually miss. They have a tendency to be a bit dull. But, I can say with confidence that this book is not that. It is an incredibly satisfying and entertaining read.

The biographer, Jeff Apter, is clearly a music fan. He is the  author, of of over 20 books about various rock n roll acts, including ghost writing biographies for Michael Browning (Dog Eat Dog)  and Mark Evans (Dirty Deeds), this guy knows his stuff. That’s part of what makes this book so enjoyable. Aside from being well researched, it is obvious that this guy knows his subject inside and out. Yet, he managed to avoid gushing. This is not a fluff piece.

The early chapters in particular were especially pleasurable. It was great to relive the story of the foundations of the Australian rock n roll scene. From the exploits of older brother George in The Easybeats and his enduring songwriting/producing partnership with Harry Vanda, to the moment that ACDC made their explosive entrance onto the world stage, it is a great story all on it’s own. While reading it, I felt compelled to put on my old classic Australian rock albums, which made the experience all the more enjoyable.

Overwhelmingly the main impression is of a band with an incredible work ethic. The dedication and commitment that the band members have, the Young brothers in particular, to the group is awe inspiring. Their no nonsense, no bull shit approach to the idea has remained unchanged for 40 years. Others have tried to label them, they’ve been called punk before there was punk, new wave before there was new wave, and heavy metal. While these movements have come and gone, ACDC has continued on it steady path, ignoring most of it.

If I had a criticism of this book, it’s that we don’t get enough insight into the man himself. This is meant to be about Angus, not the band. But, then maybe that’s the point. The band IS Angus Young, and Angus Young IS the band. ACDC has survived numerous changes in personnel (it is a multi-million dollar industry in it’s own right), but it is the aging, school boy with the devils horns that people come to see.

I would recommend this book to anyone that likes a good read. Even if you aren’t a fan, this book will entertain you.

(High Voltage is currently available in Australia. It is scheduled for release in the UK in October 2017 and in North America in April 2018.)

The Salinger Contract- Adam Langer 

I was a little disappointed when I started reading The Salinger Contract when I found, pretty early in the story, that this tale has little to do with J.D. Salinger, except as a hook upon which the real story is attached to. However, my disappointment was only short lived because the book that is actually on offer here is a great story, and an interesting thriller that will keep your attention through to the unexpected, but not wholly unbelievable conclusion.  

The narrator, Adam Langer, is a stay at home dad in Bloomington, Indiana. He had previously worked as a editor on the now defunct literary magazine Lit, and he has one novel to his name. A novel  broadly based on his own search for his absent father, and which caused a rift between he and his mother.  

While wondering through a soon to be closed down Borders in Bloomington, he sees that one of his favourite authors , Connor Joyce, whom he interviewed some years ago for the magazine, is doing an in-store appearance. He decides  to hang around and see him, not thinking for a moment that Joyce will remember him. But, as it turns out the attendance for the reading is pitifully low, and Joyce not only remembers him, but insist on going for a drink after.   

Langer assumes that will be the last he hears from him, only to get a strange call from Joyce the next day. In a clandestine meeting in the local Hilton’s swimming pool- to avoid any possible bugging devices, Joyce tells Adam the most fantastic story he has ever heard, insisting that it is true.  

It seems that in the short time since their reunion the previous day, Joyce had travelled to Chicago as part of the book tour.  While he was there he met a mysterious, and vaguely frightening character, Dex Dunford and his Eastern European bodyguard Pavel. He is given a tantalising offer. Dex is a collector, and his collection of thrillers written by all the world greatest writers, the twist is that each of the books has been written so that only he will ever read them. Joyce is shown a library with books written by Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Harper Lee and J. D. Salinger. Joyce is offered 2.5 million dollars to write a thriller for Dex. The only condition is that know one else can read about it, and he cannot mention the deal to anyone, ever, or he must pay back all the money.  

What follows is a interesting psychological thriller where the ethics and the responsibilities of being a writer are examined. When a writer puts a novel out there, are they responsible for whatever ideas they engender in their readers, and any subsequent behaviour that comes as a result. When Mark David Chapman was found to have a copy of Catcher in the Rye when he assassinated John Lennon, or when John Hinkley Jnr attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan also carrying a copy of that book; is it reasonable to place any blame at the feet of the author? Did Salinger feel anything at all to know that his writing was the inspiration for such terrible acts?  

This is a good book. The story is compelling and it kept me guessing to the end. If I had any criticism it is that Langer (the author not the narrator) rehashes the list of great authors to often. It seems that whenever one of the characters has cause to mention even one of the authors that have previously worked for Dex it is apparently necessary to list them all, every single time. But, that is a minor irritant which shouldn’t retract too much from your over all enjoyment of what is an entirely original thriller. 

 

 

The Luminaries-Eleanor Catton

The winner of the Man Booker Prize for 2013, The Luminaries is an extraordinary work that uses well known and recognisable story telling techniques, all while pulling the wool over our eyes. A whopping great tome of 832 pages Catton uses 19th century language and styling in a way that will be familiar to most readers. But the story and the handling of character development are not.

Set on the west coast of southern New Zealand during the gold rush of the 1860 weaves together a cast of characters that start out as disparate entities but their lives and their tales become increasingly entwined as they each retell their version of events. At the centre of the narrative is a controversy surrounding the suspicious death of a local hermit; the mysterious disappearance of a wealthy member of the community; the passing out of a popular working girl in the main street as a result of some dodgy opium and the ownership of a pile of gold.

The opening of the book is as much a part of the great deception of this book as anything else. We are presented in the opening pages with elaborately drawn astrological charts and character tables which leads you to think that you have your work cut out for you. I was expecting something of the weight and complexity of a Wolf Hall or Bringing Up the Bodies. But, the more you read, the lighter the story becomes. The characters become less substantial and the story becomes less important.

This book is more of an intellectual exercise than a work of storytelling. It challenges the reader to question what we expect from a novel like this. For me I must admit that I’m not entirely convinced that the experiment worked. It seems that I still need a bit more of a story to maintain my interest, because I found my connection with the book waned from about the 300 page or so and it became a bit of a chore to finish. Given that, I’m not all together convinced that this was the book I would have picked to win the Man Booker. Of  short-listed entries for the same year I prefer the Colm Toibin. However, the fun thing about literary prizes is the debates you can have over the result, so I would encourage you to give this a go so that you can join the discussion.

The Strays- Emily Bitto

Short-listed for the 2015 Stella Prize, Emily Bitto’s novel The Strays is a thoroughly enjoyable novel from a talented new writer. Set in the fascinating world of the Melbourne modern art scene of the 1930’s and 1940’s, most notably the talented artists and their supporters that congregated at Heide.

Heide in Bulleen, east of Melbourne, was the home of John and Sunday Reed, they famously opened their home to a group of artists including Albert Tucker, Joy Hester, and Sidney Nolan. Their collective contribution to Australian art in the 20th century is unsurpassed. But their story was about more than just art, it was about a way of life that stood in stark contrast with the staid, conservatism that prevailed in Melbourne society at the time. They were bohemian and lived a life free of the conventions of accepted morality. The larger than life characters and the almost soap opera-like goings on of the Heide Circle have developed into legend and have long been fodder for the imaginations of writers and other artists. Alex Miller’s 2011, Autumn Laing covered similar territory.

In The Strays, Bitto has changed the names and locations enough to make her story more of a pastiche of that world. The tale is told from the perspective of an observer on the fringe of the group, a young girl called Lily. Lily, the only daughter of a middle-class Melbourne family moves to a new school in Box Hill, which back then was on the semi-rural outskirts of Melbourne. It was the later part of the Depression, and her family had moved there so her father could find work. On her first day of school, Lily meets Eva Trentham, the middle daughter of avant-garde painter Evan Trentham. Lily and Eva become best friends ‘in the way that only pre-pubescent girls can’ and Lily becomes captivated by Eva’s family and their unconventional lifestyle. Lily is in many ways jealous of the exciting and very adult world that Eva and her sisters are growing up in.

Lily is retelling the story as an adult, recalling her life as a child. Her reminiscences while embedded in the innocence and naivety of childhood, also brings with them the benefit of wisdom and hindsight that the grown-up Lily can now add to the situation.

Bitto’s novel is a captivating and entertaining read which explores some of the moral dilemmas surrounding art, artists and creativity in general. There is an unwritten understanding that for creative and artistic people the usual codes of morality and behaviour do not apply. It is understood that to create great art, these people need to be able to operate outside of so called ‘normality’. However, as Bitto’s novel demonstrates, such a lifestyle is not without its casualties. As Lily observes towards the end of the book, it was the Trentham children that were sacrificed in the name of art.

When Evan Trentham and his wife invite their artist friends into their home, they also invite them into their family. Their practice of taking in strays includes Lily. There is a degree of naiveté about the way they trust their friends so implicitly to know where the line is, and that the can expect loyalty from them. The other artists, whether they realise it or not, are take advantage of their generosity; each in their own way taking what they need from them with little in return. whether it be the time and freedom to paint without needing to take a day job; the exposure that association with the Trenthams gives them and the subsequent boost to their careers; or just their daughters.

The relationship between the Trentham children and the artists in residence in the Trentham house brings to mind recent real life controversies in the art world. In particular the case surrounding photographer Bill Henson, and an exhibit featuring photographs of naked young children. The exhibition

raised serious questions about how far artists can stretch the line between what is art and what is pornography, and whether such images constitute abuse. While it is the purview of artists to challenge us and make us uncomfortable at times, it was clear to many that the line had been crossed.