Review: ‘[untitled] Issue Six’

ImageThe sixth issue of Busybird Publishing’s flagship literary journal opens with a question: ‘Where has [untitled] been?’ The journal, which ordinarily sees an annual release, was an unexpected no-show in 2013. According to the editorial, the publisher’s self-imposed deadline repeatedly slipped by as the editors-cum-mad scientists deliberated over their largest assortment of stories yet. Talk about perfectionists! But issue six is here now, and I’m happy to report that [untitled] has come back strong.

The issue opens with one of my favourite stories: Josh Donellan’s ‘The Stench of Adventure’, a charming, fictionalised account of the author’s Cambodian travels. Having been to Thailand, I related to Donellan’s depiction of South-East Asian culture. It’s a sweet story, playful in tone. But also worth noting is that the author nails the shameful way privileged westerners treat lesser-developed countries as their personal playgrounds. This story sums up what [untitled] is all about: smart, well-written, entertaining stories that can be enjoyed by anyone. There was no pretension in ‘The Stench of Adventure’, thus it struck me as the perfect opener.

Another highlight was second story, ‘An Open Book’. This story was vintage Ryan O’Neill: the state of a relationship is revealed through passages, doodles and notations made in the margins of a book. It’s quirky, involves a bit of light detective work and appeals to our base voyeurism. Ryan O’Neill’s relentless cleverness continues to impress.

‘The Crying Space’ was a melancholic account of a man experiencing trauma-induced blindness. Despite how it may sound, I found this refreshingly unsentimental. There are no miraculous recoveries (at least not within the timeframe of the story), and main character Bryce is forced to re-evaluate his perception of the world. Author Peter Farrar excels in his sensory descriptions. It’s deeply affecting and impossible not to project yourself into Bryce’s situation.

Wendy Purcell gave a memorable reading from her story, ‘The Broker’, at issue six’s launch, and I’d been thinking about it since. Purcell subtly implements an intriguing, fantastical concept (a pawn broker removes sellers’ memories of the objects they’re divesting from, Eternal Sunshine style) into an otherwise familiar setting. This closing story was a multi-faceted page-turner, and ended the journal on a perfectly poignant note.

The 2013 [untitled] Short Story Competition

Also included in this issue were the winners of the 2013 [untitled] Short Story Competition. Not sure what was in the water this year, but I found all five of these very impressive.

Suzannah Marshall Macbeth’s highly commended ‘Niall’s Edge’, a mournful comment on global warming and our acceptance of fate, was perhaps the most ‘literary’ story in the whole issue. The precision in her descriptions was astounding.

Contrasting this was Venetia Di Pierro’s ‘Rollerbaby Queen’, a buoyant, Fifties-style story about an adolescent friendship. Di Pierro’s story excelled in its rich portrayals of Fifties culture and of authentic teenaged friends growing apart.

Peter R Hill’s ‘She’s All Broken’ was an occasionally funny, sometimes frustrating, always powerful art heist caper. This story’s point of difference was that it starred a disabled protagonist with a fully functioning mind, but communication difficulties. ‘She’s All Broken’ bravely inhabited a minority’s point of view to beautiful effect. Putting the reader inside this character’s skin enables them to experience, first-hand, just how fearful and prejudiced society can be towards the disabled.

Adrienne Tam’s ‘The Human Child’ initially struck me as a moody, atmospheric tale about family dynamics, which it is – but it evolves organically, becoming much more. Tam sucker-punches the reader with a dark late development, transforming the story into a fantastical fable, akin to Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. Well-executed.

Special mention must go to Luke Thomas’ first-place-winning story, ‘Regatta’, about a fractured married couple’s travels through Africa. Luke Thomas’ ‘Real Estate’ was one of my personal highlights in [untitled] issue five, and, for me, ‘Regatta’ cements the author as one of Australia’s seminal short fiction talents. It’s hard to articulate why this story resonated with me the way it did. Listing its superficial qualities feels insufficient. ‘Regatta’ has intangible magic; it’s a perfect marriage of voice, technique, character and story. Thomas wholly inhabits his protagonist, Tom. The story is no meditation on angst, but Tom’s pain is positively palpable. And still he holds things together, hoping, with grace, restraint and occasional wit. The titular boat race becomes a desperate, metaphorical struggle. More than the sum of its parts, ‘Regatta’ is a delicate, Hemmingway-esque story that will doubtlessly stay with me.

Overall Impressions

Unfortunately, not all of the stories in this issue were direct hits for me – ‘Puppet Fears’ was a bit beyond me, and may require closer re-reads; ‘Tilly’ showed fleeting brilliance, but felt tonally confused; and ‘Pretty Birds’, despite inspiring an excellent cover image, was underwhelming and a bit obvious. I’m fast realising, though, that this is the nature of reading anthologies. Different stories appeal to different people; it’s possible – even likely – that others may rate these as favourites. Overall, the sheer diversity of styles in [untitled] issue six was undeniable and greatly appreciated.

I’m thrilled about [untitled]’s return. It is an excellent celebration of Australia’s diverse literary talent, and issue six maintains the high standard set by previous issues. Reportedly, Busybird are working to get issue seven out by the end of 2014, so hopefully the wait won’t be too long for more short fiction goodness.


Review: ‘Good on Paper’

9780980740547Good on Paper is the debut novella of Melbourne writer Andrew Morgan. According to his bio, Morgan was a recipient of an Australian Council Varuna Writers’ Centre mentorship and won the prestigious Melbourne Lord Mayor’s Creative Writing Award, and so, guided by word of mouth and those impressive credentials, I sought this out. It’d been awhile since a book had tickled my funny bone, and this looked primed to do it. Continue reading

Review: ‘Thirteen Stories: Volume I’

ImageThirteen Stories is the inaugural entry in what I assume will become a series of short fiction anthologies. Released exclusively in ebook format, Thirteen Stories showcases a wide array of established and burgeoning Australian literary talents. Many of these stories have been sourced from other Australian literary journals (some were even published in other Busybird publications); others placed highly in short story competitions (of particular note, Louise D’Arcy’s ‘Flat Daddy‘ was the recipient of the 2010 Age Short Story Award). I think republishing high-quality and obscure (occasionally out-of-print) stories is a noble and worthwhile venture, as it will lead readers to some great stories from yesteryear. Continue reading


Review: ‘Things We Didn’t See Coming’

thingsI would say Steven Amsterdam is one of my favourite Australian writers, but he was born and raised in America and I’m not sure which country he prefers to align himself with. Nevertheless, he shot up my list of favourite contemporary authors on the strength of his – in my opinion, criminally underrated – second novel, What the Family Needed, (my review of which can be found here). Continue reading


Review: ‘The Weight of a Human Heart’

ImageFirst, a confession: I’m not a huge fan of experimental literary forms. Nine times out of ten, as I see it, they come off cheap and gimmicky. Maybe that’s an unfair assessment, but many writers seem to play with form just so their work will stand out. To me, it seems like these writers are unsure of themselves. Maybe they feel their work isn’t capable of grabbing readers’ attentions on its own merits so they dress their stories up in clever framing devices. I know that sounds harsh; I’m sure there are writers out there whose only interests are in having fun and pushing boundaries, but these seem to be in the minority.

It’s not that I’m too conservative for experimental forms – I hope that isn’t how it comes across. Rather, I’m distrustful of gimmicks because I’m not interested in shallow writing. See, I’ve found that clever gimmicks often come at the expense of good character development. And since strong characters and narratives are the whole reason I like to read, the trade-off hardly seems worth it. I admit I could have fleeting intellectual appreciation for experimental forms, but I doubted I could ever become emotionally invested in a story that is presented in an obtuse way.

The point of this precursor? Ryan O’Neill is a writer who has developed a reputation for openly experimenting with literary forms. I thought it best to reveal the mindset I was in when I approached The Weight of a Human Heart, Ryan’s debut collection. Admittedly, I had read some of Ryan’s fiction before (in [untitled] and Best Australian Stories 2010), so I had some idea of what to expect. It was in his story ‘The Eunuch in the Harem’ that I first evidenced Ryan’s refreshingly original wit. In fact, ‘The Eunuch in the Harem’ (reproduced in this collection) stands as one of the best epistolary stories I’ve ever read. It’s what drew me to this collection – that, and Ryan’s developing reputation as one of the country’s seminal short story writers. I guess what I’m saying is that I sought The Weight of a Human Heart out despite Ryan’s widely documented experimental leanings. And I’m very glad I did.

Ryan O’Neill has a penchant for trickery, but there’s no hint of affectation in it. If there was, I’m sure I wouldn’t be able to stomach it. Ryan, who I’ve never met, strikes me as less of a show-off and more someone wholeheartedly in love with language and literature. Case in point: The Weight of a Human Heart is overflowing with allusions to classic literature and knowing winks towards what some might consider arbitrary fictional conventions. It’s a love letter to literature in all its forms, and it’s not afraid to poke fun at the very thing it’s honouring.

‘Seventeen Rules for Writing a Short Story’, for instance, is a wild, rambunctious ride in which famous author quotes dictate the direction of the unfolding narrative. Similarly, ‘A Short Story’ delights precisely because the turns it takes are so unexpected. ‘A Marriage in Figures’ is what it sounds like: an analysis of the ideological differences between men and women, one made all the more interesting by its use of graphs, charts and other tactile examples. ‘Typography’ is another effortless visual affair, one that turns its namesake into a plaything. I expect Ryan and the design staff at Black Inc. had a lot of fun laying these stories out.

For a sudden change in direction, I’d like to air a minor grievance I had with a particular story. ‘The Examination’, I felt, though gloriously sub-textual, never really broke free from the shackles of its device. In this story, a disadvantaged African youth confesses his hopes and hardships within the response sections of a written examination. While far from a bad story, it’s a perfect example of everything I don’t like about experimental fiction: the form is limiting and the story too disconnected to offer any emotional resonance. The fact that it tries to be affecting, and succeeds in getting some of the way there, makes it all the more frustrating.

Of course, ‘The Examination’ is the exception, rather than the rule. For the most part, the experiments in The Weight of a Human Heart perfectly complement the stories they’re attached to. In some cases, they even enhance them.

Writers, publishers, or those aspiring to be either, will get an extra kick out of The Weight of a Human Heart. It’s a fun and stirring read, and has an accessible prose-style, but it does demand things from the reader: namely, a similar appreciation for language, literature and everything else it celebrates. It’s a bit like Ryan wrote this book for a secret, undefined sub-culture of literature nerds. While it isn’t completely inaccessible to others (i.e. people without an interest in publishing or with knowledge of literary tropes; people who just want an easy, ripping yarn), I probably wouldn’t go out of my way to recommend it to them. In short, the very thing that makes this book unique – its unrelenting cleverness – is also what will turn some away. A few of these stories – perhaps a quarter – are like little puzzles; the reader must read very closely to discern hidden meanings and gain a fuller appreciation. It’s never more work than it needs to be, but I feel it may deter those after a quick, simple read. (Different strokes n’ all, but gosh, the thought of someone turning this book away because it’s too challenging is very disheartening!)

I fear I’ve portrayed this book as some sort of self-aware comedy. It is, in parts, but it’s also much more. Ryan O’Neill shows great versatility in this collection. Juxtaposing his aforementioned experimental stories are some incredibly poignant reflections on loss, hardship and the infallibility of the human spirit. Ryan has spent time in Europe, Africa and Asia, and it’s clear that these places have influenced his work. Rwanda, for instance, is beautifully rendered in several stories – most notably in the sublime ‘Africa Was Crying Children’ and ‘The Cockroach’. Ryan’s keen observational eye brings these exotic locales to life. The Rwandan stories are powerful, affecting and, crucially, unsentimental. The child protagonist in superhero story ‘The Speeding Bullet’ (my personal standout) is as endearing as you could ever hope to find.

For a collection that prides itself on its willingness to experiment, it’s funny that the more traditional narratives seem to pack the most punch. Neither style would work as well without the other, though; a whole collection of lighter, experimental pieces could feel frivolous, while one with nothing but deep, stirring pieces might seem overwrought.

Excepting ‘The Examination’, the slight accessibility barrier and an over-reliance on the theme of adultery (seriously, at least seven of the stories feature it), I can not recommend this highly enough. Short story collections usually take me a good while to get through, but this I devoured. It’s thrilling being able to surrender to a writer, knowing full well that where they’re taking you is somewhere new and unexpected. The Weight of a Human Heart is full of such surprises. Its commitment to defying my expectations left me constantly smiling.

I genuinely can’t wait to see what Ryan O’Neill comes out with next.


Review: ‘How a Moth Becomes a Boat’


Josephine Rowe first came to my attention when I read the evocative ‘Brisbane’ in Best Australian Stories 2010. That story resonated with me a great deal, so I decided to seek out her other work. How a Moth Becomes a Boat, her first published collection, fit the bill. This is a series of standalone vignettes — slices of life, you could say — which focus on mood and character. Some are hopeful, pretty, while others are bleaker and more melancholic. The settings, themes and character demographics vary wildly, but the whole collection is unified by Rowe’s distinct prose style.

It sounds trite to say it, but Rowe’s writing is just mesmerising. This is literary fiction at its barest and most lyrical and I found these stories left a consistently big impact on me. I wish this didn’t off so gushy, but Rowe’s writing is very intense and focused. She has a gift for saying so much with so few words.

Although this collection is short, it’s perhaps best to savour it and spread your readings out over a few sittings. This means the themes and ideas can percolate. Because, really, the beauty of vignettes lie in the reader’s own private exploration. Plough through too quickly and you’ll be doing yourself a disservice (also, since these are so short, having to reorientate yourself every three to four pages will frustrate). How a Moth Becomes a Boat is more than just technically impressive; it is also emotionally affecting.

If I could level one criticism at How a Moth Becomes a Boat it’d be that some of the individual stories overreached a little. By this I mean that some were too preoccupied with being Profound and Moving. That’s not to say that there were any stories that stood out as bad, just that the weaker ones felt a little engineered. When it works, though, it works. Josephine Rowe can render everyday moments in such a way that they feel full of beauty and meaning. This is an Australian writer to watch.


Review: ‘What the Family Needed’

ImageWhat the Family Needed is the exhilarating second novel by New Yorker-cum-Melbourner, Steven Amsterdam. This had been on my to-read list for a while. It never left my radar because its speculative fiction premise – an ordinary suburban family with superpowers – had me intrigued. What the Family Needed has received a few superficial comparisons to The Incredibles, and while I wouldn’t say that’s entirely off the mark, I do think it’s a somewhat dismissive assessment, one that ultimately sells Amsterdam’s achievement short.

What the Family Needed opens with that classic catalyst, divorce. When Ruth leaves her husband, she and her two children take refuge with Ruth’s sister Natalie. Every family member – three adults and four children – gets a chapter, or section, in their own perspective. These characters don’t remain static either. Unflagged jumps in time and space occur between each section. Main character, Alek, for instance, begins the novel at seven and ends up in his forties. Fortunately, it’s never too much work to find one’s bearings. Personally, I enjoyed having to reorientate and make deductions from the narrative crumbs Amsterdam so effortlessly casts our way. (‘Oh, so that’s what became of that character!’) I won’t hark on too much longer about the shifting narrators, but I will say that while this device mightn’t be for everyone (readers who want to relax, follow an easy narrative, rather than disentangle it, may find themselves frustrated), it makes for a story that refuses to play to the reader’s expectations. Half the fun is surrendering to the narrative and seeing where it’ll lead you next. I loved this; close reading is rewarded and the reader’s intelligence appealed to.

I suppose what any prospective readers want to know about the powers. I would say they are deftly handled; they’re not the focal point of the novel, but they are very prevalent. See, unlike with The Incredibles, the characters in this novel aren’t superheroes. They don’t use their abilities to fight crime, nor do they don’t exploit them to their own selfish ends (well, much). Really, the powers (invisibility, flight and mind control, to name a few; to say more would spoil the surprises) exist to punctuate whatever psychological journey that character is going through. Often they’re symbolic of that character’s traits or spirit which, in lesser hands, might’ve come off as trite as it sounds. What the Family Needed is far from trite, though. If anything, the powers heighten the sense of poignancy. There’s no hammy sentimentality, I assure. I say all this because I want to emphasise that this is not a superhero adventure story. Readers expecting that will be disappointed. What it is is quirky, and sometimes funny, literary fiction. What the Family Needed closely and warmly examines the model of the modern family.

Amsterdam’s prose is warm and full of verve. Though he doesn’t shy away from describing dark subject matter, a playfulness pervades. Really, though it sounds silly to say, I found the tone life affirming.
In a sense, the writing is workmanlike, preferring to focus plot rather than deviate with flowery observations or philosophical asides. (The exception to this is the final section, Alek’s, which takes an almost existential turn.) Amsterdam’s turn of phrase is silky smooth – accessible, but not dumbed down. Rather, it’s the subtext, the narrative jumps and the surprises that will have you contemplating. Amsterdam leaves a few plot points open, as if inviting us to reach our own conclusions. Just the way I way it.

Steven Amsterdam is an accomplished writer and this book, What the Family Needed, is one of my standouts of the year.