Tag Archives: ebook

Jennifer Maiden’s Complicity

Jennifer Maiden, Play With Knives: Two: Complicity (Quemar Press 2016)


This is a sequel to Jennifer Maiden’s Play With Knives (Allen & Unwin 1990), taking up the action maybe ten years later. The manuscript has been circulating  for decades, and excerpts and commentary have appeared in literary journals, but it seemed destined to remain unpublished. Then Quemar Press made a PDF available as a free download last year.

The main characters of the Play With Knives novels (there are two more after Complicity) are George Jeffreys and Clare Collins, who have featured powerfully in at least fifteen of Maiden’s poems in her last half dozen books. The first novel begins with, George, the narrator, as a parole officer assigned to Clare’s case, having to decide whether to recommend her release from prison, where she has served time for murdering her siblings when she was a young girl. There’s a plot involving a serial killer in western Sydney, but the heart of the novel is in their developing intimacy, and their almost obsessive questioning of what it means for both of them to live in the long shadow of Clare’s act.

In Complicity they have both moved on. George begins the novel working for an NGO (Prisoners of Conscience) monitoring dubious legal proceedings in third world countries; Clare is living with a journalist and runs a small business. George returns to western Sydney and their mutual probing recommences, along with a couple of lovingly detailed sexual encounters. As before, there are thriller elements: people are dying from poisoned benzodiazapines, and someone assaults Clare a number of times with escalating violence. As before, these elements are secondary to the ebbs and flows of relationships, and to George-as-narrator’s ruminations. The characters return again and again to  Clare’s childhood crime and to the climax of the first novel, analysing their meanings and their emotional impacts – much as real people might, rather than like characters in a TV thriller.

Lynda La Plante this isn’t. (I love at least some of Lynda La Plante’s TV shows, but one novel was enough.)

In six books over more than a decade now, Maiden’s George and Clare have been materialising in political hotspots all over the world, encountering characters ranging from Somali pirates to resurrected ancient Chinese nobility, with George W Bush and more recently Donald Trump somewhere in between. In those poems, George and Clare have their own adventures, but they are mainly interesting as lenses through which Jennifer Maiden can look at the wide world. In this book, though George Bush Senior’s Gulf War is a significant backdrop, George and Clare’s relationship is the focus. But we come to understand, perhaps even more than in the first novel, what it is about them that makes them such a useful lens. We see them grappling intensely and honestly with Maiden’s version of ‘the problem of evil’: how people who are not monsters can perpetrate atrocities, and how to live honestly with that reality.

aww2017.jpgComplicity is the seventh book I’ve read for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I obtained it, as you can, as a free download from Quemar Press.

Maree Dawes brb

Maree Dawes, brb: be right back (Spineless Wonders 2014)

brb A friend of mine once suspected her husband of having an online affair. He was spending an awful lot of time on the computer and she was fairly sure some of it was in chat rooms. Oh dear, I thought, I spend an awful lot of time online myself – just look at my blog output. What suspicions have I been arousing? While it’s true I’ve made some good friends thanks to the internet, I’m glad to report that chat rooms, multi-user fantasy games, bitcoin, and perhaps especially cybersex have never had the remotest appeal. So brb, a verse novella about raunchy chat room experiences, was a long way from presenting a temptation, though it was a bit of a titillation, and something of an education.

Maree Dawes’s protagonist is known only by her online ‘handles’, of which Boadicea (shortened to ‘cea’ in chats) is the main one. Her spouse, known to us only as ‘he’, is often away from home, and has given her a number of hours online as a gift. (How time flies, that such a gift marks the story as belonging to an earlier epoch! You can almost hear the dial-up tone.) Boadicea ventures into a chat room. After a rocky start she finds a warmly affectionate community, where people exchange an awful lot of ‘huggles’. We learn that it’s nominally a room devoted to books and literature, but from the beginning Boadicea is looking for adventure. She falls in love and has at least one torrid erotic encounter with a disembodied lover. There are hints of cyber-bonks with other, less emotionally significant chatsters, and there’s one piece of serious nastiness.

The narrative never really forgets that it’s all a bit silly, and the tone is generally comic. At the same time real emotions are involved, and the poetry explores a strange twilight state where relationships forged using only keyboard and screen can sometimes seem more substantial than those in the physical world, lacking as it does the delete key and the logout option. [If you’re worried about spoilers skip the next sentence.] For me the most powerful moments come when Boadicea is giving up her online life, tearing herself away from its addictive pull – in what feels like a cross between giving up cigarettes and losing faith in God. [End of spoilerish bit.] The poetry develops a deeper resonance, too, in moments that explore the relationship of words and sensuality, as in this non-computer moment from ‘me: 4 am’, rendered in online conventions:

me: ease under sheet

he rolls over grabs my breast, kisses my mouth smoothes my waist

me: stop
me: wait
me: back off
me: you have to tell me what you are doing
me: I need to know
me:  first the words
me: then the touch

me: these unplanned caresses
me: are too much

After eight lines in which she demonstrates the kind of words she means, there’s this:

oh forget it he says, I want to make love not lyric poems, it’s 4 am go back to sleep

And one is left wondering if ‘me’ was so wrong to want words. Do poetry and sex have to belong to different realms?

Appropriately enough, brb is published as an ebook, available from the pubisher as a PDF direct from Spineless Wonders or in Kindle-compatible or DRM-free ePub formats from tomely.com. I downloaded my complimentary copy to my tablet in the Kindle and ePub versions. The Kindle version was much friendlier. The ePub version made me yearn for the stability of words on paper. [Added later: The publisher asked me to enlarge on these comments, and I then did an experiment which I should have done before making these comments. Part of the difference was that the ePub version’s font size was very large, which played merry havoc with line breaks and even page breaks, whereas the Kindle’s font was of  a size that allowed the poems to sit comfortably within the page. This was not a fault of the file formats, but resulted from the different default settings on the apps I was using. What I said about the stability of words on paper still applies.]

awwbadge_2014brb is the fourth book I’ve read and reviewed as part of the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

The book group go to Bleak House

Charles Dickens, Bleak House (1852, Project Gutenberg version, prepared by Donald Lainsman with revision and corrections by Thomas Berger and Joseph E Loewenstein)

Unless you count comics or movie and TV adaptations, just about anything by Dickens is likely to win me a game of Humiliation (rules at the link). When someone suggested him for our next Book Group title I was happy, and even happier when we settled on Bleak House: Neil Gaiman has been going on about it on his blog recently, and my friend Cassandra Golds says it is a huge presence in two of her recent novels.

Before the meeting:
This is the first book I’ve read on iPhone and iPad, and it was a good experience. The iPad is more satisfyingly book sized, but I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the sense of continual progress that comes with the iPhone. One of the book’s 8041 screens had to be ‘turned’ every couple of seconds – so many words, but in such tiny portions!

I was probably out of harmony with the spirit of the book, not so much because of the electronic devices as because I read it in just a few weeks. It was originally published as a serial over 20 months: if you read one of its 67 chapters a week you would have kept pace. I doubt if anyone much reads at such a leisurely pace any more, and we’re probably the poorer for it. Anyhow, it’s a truly wonderful book which I recommend for when you’re in the mood for sustained, leisurely reading.

I’m confident I have nothing at all original to say about the book itself, so I’ll presume on a little of your time by ruminating on translation issues. Every now and then someone writes an article saying that each generation needs its own translation of [insert name of classic work here]. The idea is that we need to have ancient Latin or Renaissance Spanish served up in contemporary language. By this logic, Italian or Spanish readers need a fresh translation of Dickens every 50 years or so. If so, doesn’t it follow that we need an updating in English just as regularly? After all, the language has changed in the last 150 years, and early 21st century English speakers have a very different, and more diverse, take on the world than their mid-19th century equivalents. Where Dickens could assume that literate English speakers shared a vast set of references – the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, Shakespeare and classical mythology come to mind, and there’s plenty of each in Bleak House – we can no longer do that. Just for the heck of it, I thought I’d see how a hypothetical translator might tackle the opening:

London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.

I thought ‘translating’ this would be a straightforward bit of fun, but by the second word I was in trouble. When I was at university we had three terms, Lent, Trinity and Michaelmas, but surely Dickens isn’t talking about university here? Did the English courts have terms? (Do they still?) What is Lincoln’s Inn Hall, and who is the Lord Chancellor again? And so on. None of this worried me at all when I read the book, but a translator might feel obliged to do something like:

London. The year coming to an end, and the nation’s most eminent judge, the Lord Chancellor, hearing cases in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the Flood had just withdrawn from the face of the earth, and it would not be surprising to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling up Holborn Hill.

There, now that’s more accessible, isn’t it? (No need to gloss the Megalosaurus for 21st century readers, I thought, but the edgy play on biblical and palaeontological versions of prehistory does need clarifying.) It’s not quite Dickens, but then what translation is? Interestingly enough, even being facetious I couldn’t bear to touch what comes next:

Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes – gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

In short, I found the novel irresistible, especially for the way it wallows in language. And Cassandra is right – it’s full of echoes of Clair de Lune and The Museum of Mary Child.

After the meeting:
It’s winter in Sydney, and half of us were away, either home sick or visiting warmer climes. Of the five who showed, three had read the whole book, one was a hundred or so pages from the end, and the last confessed up front that he’d picked up a copy in a bookshop, and then thought, ‘Nah!’, though it turned out he had read it 20 or so years ago.

It was a good book to discuss. We talked about Mr Guppy’s withdrawal of his proposal, the death of Little Jo, the use of catchphrases (‘Discipline must be maintained!’), the pleasure of reading bits aloud. Someone knew that the appalling Mrs Jellyby was based on Caroline Chisolm, and the execrable Skimpole on an actual person. We wondered about the politics, the anti-Jewish nastiness (‘Smallweed is a Jew’), the depiction of industrialisation. Someone had thought about this book in comparison to the other Great Works we’ve read, Anna Karenina and The Tree of Man, and found it suffered from the comparison. I don’t know what I think of that. I know I enjoyed it at least as much as the Tolstoy and quite a lot more than the White, but I suppose enjoyment isn’t everything.

I haven’t been deliberately secretive about this blog and its reports on the group, but nor have I deliberately drawn people’s attention to it. If anyone from the group does drop in, welcome! Please add a comment.