Book Review: Visceral Vices by Shawn Chang

About Visceral Vices

Alexandrines singing of carnage, collapse, a capricious, convulsing wormwood bitterness reeking of decay, dolor, and delusions. Sonnets hissing with treachery, tragedy, a trickling, liminal longing that cannot-and will never-be fulfilled.Stories, alive with guttural shrieks and lilts, breeding demonic aura, human vengeance, and beasts and monsters that, like insoluble echoes or silhouetted revenants, are revived from pluperfect myths, modern inventions, and even spectral, Plutonian remembrances, never to be banished.And, brewing in the cascades of blood and bones, much, much more.Comprising 45 poems and 7 short stories, both previously published and new work, Visceral Vices is the author’s first solo collection, embroidered with leaden barbs, laced with miasmic poisons, and, snaking across corpse-filled fissures, mortally taut in suspension with the surreal, gnarled, writhing skeins of fermenting fancies, plaguing aches, and gratuitous murder.

My Thoughts

I set a very high bar for poetry and short stories. My literary self comes to the fore and I expect excellence. I want the likes of Byron or Shelley. I want Wilfred Owen. I want Robert Penn Warren. I want to feel challenged and moved and even swept away. Which is why I opened Visceral Vices with trepidation. I had not heard of Shawn Chang. Would his words reach my expectations? Could his fingertips brush that bar of mine?

Imagine my delight when I did finally open this book and encountered a formidable talent! Three sonnets in and I immediately paused to read this author’s bio. He is an award-winning Canadian poet whose output has been published in literary magazines and journals around the world. To have these various writings gathered up in one collection is a veritable feast for the reader. Chang composes with breathtaking precision. His writing is fresh, youthful, taut, poised, perceptive, penetrating and considered. I enjoyed “Vernal Kingdom”, “Idylls Bless’d” and “Miasmic Eclipse”, the well-executed short story “Sirens of Lerams”, and the dark irony of “The Ink of Iniquity”. There is so much to savour! I will be returning again and again to this collection. I am grateful for the candid Revenant at the end. Unrequited love and the yearnings of the tormented soul feed the Muse as ever they do.

Chang has a good grasp of Greek mythology which he deploys with aplomb and displays mastery of poetic devices in service to his ideas. The author is not shy of perhaps archaic language, the sorts of words slipping from contemporary view in favour of emojis. Chang harkens back, his poetry and his prose encouraging us to hold on to that which is too easily lost: literary refinement and artistry.

In all, Visceral Vices is dark poetry at its best. How much language can I throw at Chang’s to convey my appreciation and persuade others to take the plunge and see for themselves how good this is? Every aspiring dark fiction author should get themselves a copy of Chang’s book. Will Chang be North America’s next Joyce Carol Oates?

Find your copy of Visceral Vices on Amazon

Isobel BlackthornIsobel Blackthorn is an award-winning author of unique and engaging fiction. She writes dark psychological thrillers, mysteries, and contemporary and literary fiction. Isobel was shortlisted for the Ada Cambridge Prose Prize 2019 for her biographical short story, ‘Nothing to Declare’. The Legacy of Old Gran Parks is the winner of the Raven Awards 2019. Isobel holds a PhD from the University of Western Sydney, for her research on the works of Theosophist Alice A. Bailey, the ‘Mother of the New Age.’

Book review: The Good Messenger by John Simmons

The Good Messenger is the second novel I have read by John Simmons and I have to say I am a fan of this author’s writing style. Here’s why…

John Simmons

About The Good Messenger

1912: Tom Shepherd reluctantly stays for two weeks at Hardinge Hall. Mr and Mrs Hardinge are trying to arrange a marriage for their son Teddy to Iris, daughter of a local businessman. Tommy becomes the innocent messenger who delivers the secret arrangements.

Armistice Day 1918: The First World War has changed everything, especially the closeted world that Iris, Teddy and Tom existed in.

1927. Tom is now a journalist investigating the discovery of a baby’s bones in the woods around Hardinge Hall. Past and present move towards a resolution that might still bring everything crashing down.

My Review of The Good Messenger

The Good Messenger opens with a short and fragmented prologue that sets up a mystery unfolding in the pages to follow – the death of a soldier in WWI, his wife, his mother, a man visiting a prostitute in a doorway. In Part One, Simmons takes his readers back in time to 1912, when nine year old Tommy, the son of a cleaner, spends two weeks at Hardinge Hall. He encounters the benevolent Mr Hardinge and his mean-spirited wife, their son Teddy and his sullen sister, Muriel, along with another guest, Iris, who, if the Hardinges have their way, will be Teddy’s wife. Tommy is bemused, confused, in awe and a little terrified of his new and strange surroundings. An obedient and innocent boy, he obliges when Teddy, Iris and the barmaid Rosie, require him to pass messages back and forth. Part Two introduces Iris as an author, describing through the lens of her protagonist the mixed moods of Armistice Day out in the streets of London. In Part Three we meet Tommy as an adult, Tom, a freelance journalist given an assignment by a newspaper that takes him back to Hardinge Hall. There he unravels the  complex mystery of the Hardinge family, its dark secrets and tragedies, and, he falls in love.

Reminiscent of The Go Between and, in structure, of Atonement, The Good Messenger is a novel to sip and savour. References to Wind in the Willows lends a timeless, magical quality to the first part of the narrative, Tommy making sense of the world around him through comparisons with Mole and Ratty. Tommy’s reality is one of discovery, wonder and enchantment. The reader cannot help but adore the little boy, smile sometimes, feel saddened at others.

The characters throughout the novel are full-rounded and sensitively portrayed. The reader will sympathise with all of Simmon’s cast, even the sour and uptight Mrs Hardinge. The only character that remains somewhat in the shadows for a long time is Tom’s mother. Even when the narrative light shines her way, she remains a background figure, her development perhaps sacrificed to the confines of plot. In my mind, she represents some of the space between the lines of this story, a space for the reader to fill.

The construction of The Good Messenger works beautifully. The novel is at first a story of innocence observing the manipulations and deceptions of others, of class and its barriers, of old money and new, of poverty and its consequences for women, of prejudice, and of propriety and the inevitable antithesis. Simmons conveys well the changing of the times, WWI marking the end of one period of history and the beginning of another. Perhaps The Good Messenger is a novel to read twice, the reader drawn back, particularly to the prologue and Part Two, to reflect and ponder in the light of the revelations that follow, Part Two  especially pivotal in developing the theme of the changing times.

The narrative pace is slow, the storytelling descriptive. Simmons has a soothing style, allowing his readers to ease themselves into the setting and get to know the characters, his voice more a whisper, seductive, spoken with a welcoming hand. In Part Three, the narrative pace shifts up a notch. Simmons makes use of the first person perspective to provide a more intimate and urgent feel. The prose remains soft, but there is a touch more bounce to it. As the plot unfolds and rises to a climax, culminating in a series of shocking revelations, Simmons satisfies his readers and leaves no loose ends.

I commend Simmons for his handling of the trauma of war; his depiction of the soldiers who had witnessed the horrors in the trenches through the perspective of the onlooker, Tom, and the medical profession at the time, are well-researched and insightful.

Simmons’ writing is that of the water-colourist, all muted tones bleeding into each other, the tone never brash or overbearing. The author has finesse, his words seeping into the psyche like balm. Poignant, moving, romantic, and sometimes shocking, The Good Messenger is a lovely book to read, and then to treasure. A classic.

Book review: The Visitors by Catherine Burns

Horror fiction takes many forms. Good horror is an art form, one that requires considerable mastery and imagination. Psychological horror shades into dark fiction – bleak, gothic at times, often literary – and as ever, books can be hard to categorise. Catherine Burn’s The Visitors is one of those books.

 

I’m only sharing some of the blurb as I think the rest is a spoiler.

“Marion Zetland lives with her domineering older brother, John in a decaying Georgian townhouse on the edge of a northern seaside resort. A timid spinster in her fifties who still sleeps with teddy bears, Marion does her best to shut out the shocking secret that John keeps in the cellar.”

The Visitors is a grim read, more disturbing as the story unfolds, the narrative devoid of humour but not wit. The is novel driven by its backstory, and amounts to a acutely observed character study of the protagonist, Marion Zetland, as she observes her brother, John, and his deviant habits. Burns makes a study of dark passion, but not the brooding malevolence of a serial killer, more the banal evil referred to by Hannah Arendt, one laced with pathetic and inane self-justifications. For Miriam, a sad-sack of a woman in her fifties, is as drab, anxious and miserable as they come.

What ensues is a slow unfolding, a game of seek with no hiding, the reader allowed to peak first here, then there, as the narrator reveals Marion’s foibles, and those of her brother, their mother and father. The collective past of the Zetland family is not pleasant. And neither is Marion. She is impossible to like. She is irritating, repellant and frustrating. She has no willpower, no ambition, instead she is a hopeless figure stripped of her will, immobilised by indecision, her morality compromised by the voices in her head. Existing on a diet of biscuits and tinned food, she loses herself in imagination and fantasy, her escape from a lacklustre existence inside the only home she’s ever known.

Then there is the small matter of the visitors in the cellar.

What begin as justifications for Miriam’s inertia eventually turn into justifications for why she acts the way she does when she finally exercises her will. And it is only then that explanations of certain little mysteries emerge. Burns exercises perfect narrative control, in command of her plot and her characters at every turn, her premise a powerful one and demanding to execute. I can only imagine what it must have taken to write this book.

Not for everyone, but for those who do enjoy dark fiction, this novel is superb.

 

Artefacts and other stories by Rebecca Burns

I’m delighted to share my review of Artefacts and other stories by Rebecca Burns

 

 

That dandelion. A flash of stubborn yellow in a dark box of space. It had promised sunshine but had tasted sour. Artefacts. A dandelion. A mayfly. A family, bereft. Items and mementos of a life, lived hard and with love, or long, empty, bitter. In these sharply drawn and unflinching short stories, Rebecca Burns unpicks the connection between the lives we live and what we leave behind.

My Review

The short story form is hard to master. There are many strictures and the word length alone demands taut and pointed prose. Few can manage the heights of Alice Munro. The reader waits for that release of breath as the author provides an astute observation or an elegant and original turn of phrase. Which is why, when I read this latest offering from Rebecca Burns, my mind was switched to critical.

Yet from the first, Burns satisfies the aspirations of the short-story reader, with sublime writing and masterful control, finely balanced with moments of apt poetry.

“She soothed his craggy face into easy, jelly smiles.”

And

“A quick tongue ready to cut through the fudge of clerical life.”

Alice Munro writes of everyday life in Canada. In a similar fashion, Burns turns her attention to the everyday lives of her characters, many set in the period of the world wars, others in the collieries of central England. All her stories are told with sensitivity and compassion. If there was one word to sum up this beautiful collection, it is depth, for Burns has plumbed to the nadir of her own self in the writing, at once never failing to miss a moment of irony. Highly recommended.

The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose – book review

Heather Rose has produced a work of considerable finesse. The Museum of Modern Love sets a high bar for Australian literary fiction.

The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose, winner of the 2017 Stella Prize. Read more of my reviews at https://isobelblackthorn.com/my-book-reviews/

 

 

“Arky Levin is a film composer in New York separated from his wife, who has asked him to keep one devastating promise. One day he finds his way to The Atrium at MOMA and sees Marina Abramovíc in The Artist is Present. The performance continues for seventy-five days and, as it unfolds, so does Arky. As he watches and meets other people drawn to the exhibit, he slowly starts to understand what might be missing in his life and what he must do.”

It is always a delight to read an intelligent book. In The Museum of Modern Love, it is as though the author caresses the intellect through exquisite prose; coaxing, inviting engagement. Rose has produced a deeply introspective, slow-paced book, one that will appeal to lovers of literature, rather than those seeking page-turning entertainment.

The primary setting is the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where the main characters observe a piece of performance art by the renowned Marina Abramovíc, in which the artist sits unflinchingly still, all day for seventy-five days. The object of Rose’ pen is therefore a real life and contemporary figure, Serbian-born Abramovíc, who has loose and controversial associations with Australia. The Museum of Modern Love is faction, a considered rendering of biography in fiction.

What commences as the audience observes ‘The Artist is Present’ is the delicate unfolding of backstory, petal by petal, first here, then there, until the essence of the narrative, a poignant and bruised heart, is revealed.

It is her metier to dance on the edge of madness, to vault over pain into the solace of disintegration.”

Rose is a masterful writer, her depictions of incidental characters sharply observant, yet her prose is always gentle, haunting. The Museum of Modern Love is a meditation, on art and creativity to a large extent, but above that on pain, physical and emotional pain, the anguish of loss and grief. Can themes of art and creativity rescue a narrative that strolls along in the doldrums of lingering despair? The answer is immediate: Yes. ‘The Artist is Present’ installation represents trauma on a grand and complex scale, the artwork a culmination of a lifetime of suffering, depicted in a retrospective piece on display in the museum upstairs. Abramovíc’s artistic and personal pain is juxtaposed with the ordinary pain of ordinary people, yet each time another sits on the vacant chair and locks gaze with the artist, whatever they are feeling is transformed, subtly perhaps, to become a part of this ever changing, yet remarkably unmoving, work of art.

The narrator of The Museum of Modern Love is deft, light, observant, forgiving. If there could be a point of criticism it would be the use of self consciousness, at times the narrator identifying as a disembodied entity, an angel, a muse, naturally omniscient, one given to addressing the reader directly. Some may deem the exploitation of this device unnecessary and intrusive. When it first appears, the reader may be forgiven for worrying that this voice may overpower the narrative, but thankfully it does not.

All fiction is contrivance, a pasting together of characters, settings, themes. When drawing on real people and real events, such pasting can appear awkward and stilted. The Museum of Modern Love is not one of those works. Evident in abundance is Heather Rose’ passion for her subject and deep empathy for her themes. It comes as no surprise that the work won The Stella Prize, 2017.

 

 

The Tower by Marguerite Steen

In The Tower, Marguerite Steen provides the contemporary reader with her valuable insights into the world of the struggling if moderately successful artist of 1950s Britain, a time of post-war transition in society and the art world, as abstractionism grew in ascendancy.

“Painter Tom Proctor and his wife Antonia are among innumerable victims of the so-called Welfare State, their problem complicated by their child, Noelle, who is in desperate need of care. Tom’s career has arrived at an impasse, in which his sole support is the steadfast belief of Antonia in the value and honesty of his work.

Torn between duty to wife and child and artistic integrity, Tom is about to play for safety by accepting a salaried job in an art school. In The Tower, Marguerite Steen delicately explores domestic tension and the strength that comes from a loving relationship against an artistic backdrop she knows so well.”

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In The Tower Marguerite Steen demonstrates considerable literary prowess, painting in words a character riven by situations and conditions beyond his control. Tom Proctor is enduring a form of mid-life crisis. With mounting debts and a wife and child to support, he is torn between satisfying convention and taking risks. He’s broody, wary, given to intense moods, staunch when he can’t afford to be, and prone to bouts of drunken recklessness. His angst centres on finding ways to earn a living from his art in a changing world. He hankers after a past, his own in those early years before the birth of a severely disabled daughter, Noelle, and for a time in the art world when primitivism was valued over abstraction.

The reader senses early in the narrative that Tom’s explanations and justifications for his various decisions take the form of an elaborate excuse for something disastrous. He is confronted with a decision, a fork in the road, two futures presenting themselves, one of security and stability, the other its opposite. What ensues has the flavour of a descent into desperation without redemption.

In Tom Proctor, Steen balances ruthless honesty and self scrutiny with equally acute observations of other characters, particularly the pretentious upper classes in the art and theatre milieu. Proctor’s observant eye is that of a painter regarding his subject and the result is a novel filled with evocative depictions of setting and character.

The Tower is not a work of perfection. Some of the transitions between scenes could have been more deftly handled. At times the narrative feels hurried, some plot points skated over rather than dwelt on, yet if they had been explored in more detail, the narrator pausing, attending, then The Tower would be a different book, and not what it is, a masterful portrayal of one man’s account of his motivations, apprehensions and misgivings in the face of an art scene filled with dilettantes, and a post-war society in transition. Steen provides an intimate tale of an artist battling with authenticity versus compromise, with his conscience, with his own artistic temperament and with his domestic responsibilities.

The re-release of this novel will satisfy a new wave of readers hankering after works composed in a richer style of prose, those who seek not only an entertaining read, but a work that stimulates the imagination and ignites the intellect.

I’d like to thank NetGalley and Odyssey Press for my review copy.

Ghosts Like Us, Inez Baranay

Lately, I’ve started getting into book reviewing. I hadn’t expected to enjoy it so much and it’s becoming something of a compulsion.

Sometimes I post my reviews here on my website. I reviewed Inez Baranay’s Ghosts Like Us, for Newtown Review of Books.

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“Ghosts Like Us is a poetic, ambiguous and subversive exploration of the nature of history and remembering.” Read the whole review here: http://newtownreviewofbooks.com.au/2016/06/09/inez-baranay-ghosts-like-us-reviewed-isobel-blackthorn/

If you are of an intellectual bent, you love the 1980s for its second-wave feminism, or you are into the processes artists go through in their acts of creation, then this is the book for you. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

On Gilgamesh by Joan London

I’m about halfway through Joan London’s Gilgamesh and toying with writing something on Goodreads. Just now I scrolled through the reviews to read what others were saying but stopped when I realised there were over 1,800 of them. I really only have one word to add – bleak.

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And I realise much of the bleakness comes not from the story itself but from an absence of emotional reaction on the part of the main characters, along with a paucity of introspection. As is typical of much Australian writing the feeling in the story is embedded in the action as the main character, Edith, goes through the motions of her difficult life. She isn’t the responsive type and I’m left feeling empty.

The story is straightforward. In 1937, on a tiny farm in the town of Nunderup, in far southwestern Australia, seventeen-year-old Edith lives with her sister Frances and their mother, Ada. One afternoon two men, Edith’s cousin Leopold and his Armenian friend Aram, arrive, taking the long way home from an archaeological dig in Iraq. Among the tales they tell is the story of Gilgamesh, the legendary king of Uruk in ancient Mesopotamia. Gilgamesh’s great journey of mourning after the death of his friend Enkidu, and his search for the secret of eternal life, is to resonate throughout Edith’s life, opening up the possibility of a life beyond the farm.

Alongside the myth of Gilgamesh, there is a motif of perversion running through the narrative, stated almost in passing in the most matter-of-fact manner. It’s a motif that evokes revulsion and a sense of doom. 

Overall the narrative is restrained. I think the idea behind this style of storytelling is that the reader is free to have their own emotional reactions, unimpeded by those of the characters. The downside is that the characters are more like automatons. The rich roundness of their beings duly muted in the rendering, they are at risk of appearing one-dimensional.

In it’s favour I have to say that the narrative is superbly crafted and poised, the prose elegant. Gilgamesh is definitely a book I would recommend.

Well, that was more than one word!

Narrative as Navigation Through the Self: Isobel Blackthorn’s Asylum

(‘Narrative as Navigation Through the Self: Isobel Blackthorn’s Asylum’ by Ness Mercieca was originally published in the October 2015 edition of  The Tertangala)

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They say the mind does not create, and that it only cuts and pastes the stimulus it receives from the outside world.

Author Isobel Blackthorn has a talent for this, in fact, I often get the feeling with her that she is cataloguing my idiosyncrasies. I suspect I am not the only one to suspect this, and that she has an arsenal of our traits and habits to be appropriated for the right character at the right time. It’s the literary skill that brought us Plath’s The Bell Jar, and it goes by the name of semi-autobiography.

When I asked Isobel about her creative process, her words confirmed what John Cleese (whose name my computer insists I correct to Cheese) once said about creativity, that the subconscious will reward you with an idea if you spend long enough contemplating a topic. Here it is in Isobel’s words; “I let the story brew inside me for a while, sometimes years, and when some other far larger part of me has it all figured out, I have a powerful irrepressible urge to write. And I go into lockdown and give that other self total freedom.”

The true art to Plath and Blackthorn’s (Plath-thorn’s, if you like) literary style, however, is dissecting the self. Most authors do it; a mood or thought is isolated. It becomes the embryo from which a new self germinates, and it becomes a complex character. (Ever wonder why writers think of their characters like children? Well, there you have it.) Entire books can be populated by these alternate selves of the author, and a narrative becomes the ship through which the self is navigated.

Who’s at the helm, you ask? Isobel speaks not only of smaller selves, but of a larger one who personifies her creativity; “I prefer to think of my source of inspiration as some other greater me deep inside,” she says, “and every time I write a first draft, I’m paying homage to her, to the muse.”

Isobel’s most recent book, Asylum, is the story of such an alternate self. Yvette Grimm speaks with an incredibly honest voice from the perspective of an illegal immigrant waiting to be told to leave Australia, but having no-where else to go. She has been given a personal prophecy that she will meet the father of her children in Australia, and her hopes of permanent residency depend on meeting him very, very soon.

What resonates the most with me, however, is the creative block that all of this brings about in Yvette. Blackthorn made me want something, as a reader, that a book has never made me want before; I wanted Yvette Grimm to paint. Blackthorn played on a knowledge we all have that when you find inspiration, it’s probably because you’ve found something else too.

Lanzarote: the fulcrum of an empire

The history of the Spanish conquest of the Americas upon the famous voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1492, pivots on an earlier conquest, that of Lanzarote and the Canary Islands.

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Sailing is largely dependent on ocean currents. The Canary current sweeps down from Spain and Portugal along the West African coast, until it reaches the Equatorial current and shoots off into the Atlantic all the way to South America. Lanzarote is the first island in that current’s path.

Lanzarote had long been favoured by marauding Spanish adventurers covetous of the profits procured from dyes and slaves, when, in 1402, Norman knight and ambitious conqueror, Jean de Bethencourt left La Rochelle with Gadifer de Salle and a retinue of men-at-arms. Bethencourt and Gadifer were determined to take possession of the “Fortunate Islands” on behalf of any Kingdom willing to strike a good deal. Following in the tradition of Church-sanctioned conquest, they took with them two priests, Pierre Bontier and Jen Le Verrier, who documented the conquest in a journal that would later become, The Canarian.

And in The Canarian the priests depict Lanzarote as wooded with brushwood, olives and higuerilla. There were natural springs in the foothills of the mountains. There were plains and broad valleys of tillable land. And plenty of rocks to build shelter. And a small and amenable indigenous tribe, (later known as los Conejeros, or Guanches). 

After ‘subduing’ with empty promises the tribal leader, King Guadarfia, Bethencourt sailed back to Cadiz to strike a deal with Henry III of Castile that would make him conqueror and owner of all the islands.

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Bethencourt was a greedy opportunist who knew the islands would bring ample wealth. He’d been keen to acquire the blue dye of the orchilla that clung assiduously to the malpais, and the sanguine sap of the drago trees, for use in his mills back in France.

After much betrayal, treachery and a series of attacks and counter attacks worthy of a Johnny Depp movie, King Guadarfia was a hero defeated. When Bethencourt returned with provisions, men and arms, and of course his permission by King Henry III to conquer all the Fortunate Islands in the name of Castile, Guardafia and his people were worn out and demoralised.

Bethencourt returned to a hero’s welcome. According to the priests, the natives surrendered and were duly baptised. At this point the priests claimed that all present had rejoiced, the heathens brought to salvation at last and a legitimate society born on this beleaguered land.

Of course the priests were biased. Guadarfia had no choice but convert or die.

The stage was set for a later conquest, that of the Americas. Lanzarote was the trading post. Ships laden with gold and silver and other treasures  would put in to harbour en route to Spain, and so began a new wave of piracy.

We’d know a whole lot more about Lanzarote had the island’s official records not been destroyed in 1586, when renegade Jan Janz – Dutch privateer taught by the infamous Red Beards, turned Algerian pirate, Morato Arráez – went on a bloody carnal rampage.

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Based on extensive research for The Drago Tree