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  • Writer's pictureLee Murray

Mini-Reviews of Volcano City, Snowflake, Backwater, Monsters, War, and Mnemo’s Memories

Wherein Lee Murray tries to review a small portion of the stack of fabulous books she has read lately. Today’s instalment includes Volcano City by Grace Bridges, Summer of Monsters by Tony Thompson, Backwater by Tom Deady, War: Dark Poems by Marge Simon and Alessandro Manzetti, Snowflake by Heidi Goody and Iain Grant and Mnemo’s Memory and Other Fantastic Tales by Dave Versace.

Volcano City is the second book in Bridges’ vibrant EarthCore series and takes place a few months and three hundred kilometres from the first tale Rotovegas. In this episode, instead of the geothermal geyserland of Rotorua, the Earthcore investigative team have converged on Auckland, a city which is home to 49 volcanic cones, and there are rumblings. Rotovegas villain, American tycoon Clement Byron is at the core of it once again. But the Earthcore team are not as they were just months ago: Anira has lost her memory, only able to unlock it while running, and Tiger’s hawk-sight seems diminished. And with over a million people in the nation’s largest city, the stakes are even higher… As a speculative text, Volcano City stands out for its inclusiveness. While women and the older people have plenty to offer society, it’s rare to see these characters given prominence in adventure fiction, so Bridges’ choice to populate her team with ‘heroes’ of all ages and backgrounds is refreshing. And given her large cast of characters, Volcano City has provided another vehicle for developing their personalities and quirks, Bridges highlighting their flaws as much as their supernatural skills. Bridges uses symbolism to good effect, drawing on local mythology, our dynamic landscape, and colourful vernacular to create a truly Kiwi tale that will appeal to readers of all ages. If you can, I recommend purchasing a print copy because the production is gorgeous.

Snowflake is magical realism set in Birmingham and laugh-out-loud funny. My reading diet tends to be serious, so it was a delight to read this tongue-in-cheek bit-late-in-the-day coming of age from comedy collaborators Heide Goody and Iain Grant. In Snowflake, 25-year-old Lori Belkin comes home from holiday in Crete (sporting a slightly off sausage delicacy and a wickerwork ornamental goat), only to discover her parents have upped and moved house in her absence. In true Marian Keyes tradition, Lori has been tossed out on the street, with no money and no career prospects, which means she has no choice but to turn up to the job interview that her parents have set up for her at the local museum. The good news is her BFF Cookie is also working there. The bad news is that Cookie isn’t such a good influence. On the plus side, Lori’s dream man appears to have been conjured from some scrapbook cuttings and he can cook… The plot that follows is a series of disasters of millennial proportions. Luckily, Lori has use of her brother Adam’s slightly snoopy automated apartment, which comes complete with the overbearing body corporate manager, Bernadette. These two are the Chewie and Threepio of this hilariously funny narrative. Fast-paced with a mile a minute complications, Snowflake is pure escapism and great fun. I loved it.

Tom Deady’s work was already on my radar after reading his debut novel Haven, a fabulous tale which went on to win him the Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel, so I was intrigued to see how, two years on, his work had developed. I read the first novella in Backwater, Class Reunion, on the train from Providence to New York (before the spelling mistakes had been weeded out) and I wasn’t disappointed. There is an ‘everyman’ quality to Deady’s work, an ordinariness that is as familiar as it is sinister. We recognise the people he writes about. We’ve stopped in these towns. Met these people. In both Class Reunion and The Grand, Deady’s protagonists are middle-aged men, one running from his youth, the other desperate to rediscover his, both with chips on their shoulders. They’re disillusioned and in denial, but of course neither can see that. Deady makes sure the reader is fully aware and given that both novellas are written from the first-person perspective, this is no mean feat. Deady makes it appear seamless, his narratives simmering with quiet tension. The themes raised in both novellas are universal: unrequited love, misspent youth, and a desire to be noticed. There is also a nod to the insidious nature of involuntary celibacy. I asked the author whether he’d intended to make a statement about the incel phenomena, since there had been a lot of comment about it in the media. “I thought I was just writing stories...” he said. I don’t believe him. Stories rarely appear fully formed. Instead, they are dredged up from our everyday, from the things we are reading and researching, and are rooted in our fears for the people we love. I suspect it is an issue that touched Deady’s subconscious and as a writer, and a father, he was compelled to explore it in some way. Class Reunion and The Grand, two stories dovetailed by time and place, are the result, their quiet commentary making Backwater an important text.

Summer of Monsters by Tony Thompson came highly recommended to me by my Conflux colleague and fellow Guest of Honour, Robert Hood, and since this year is the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, it seemed appropriate that I read it now. Summer of Monsters is a creative non-fiction novelisation of Mary Godwin’s early life, depicting her strained relationship with her beloved scholar father and his shrewish second wife, her tumultuous passage to adulthood, her love affair with poet Percy Shelley, and the events that lead to her writing the iconic science fiction novel which spawned a genre. I enjoyed it. A quick read, the narrative is simple and unembellished, perhaps the result of a deliberate decision to make the story as accessible as possible for modern readers. It’s laid out in three acts: the first chronicling Mary’s younger years, the second introducing Percy Shelley’s parallel childhood (what his childhood has to do with her story escapes me), and the third focused on the summer the lovers spent in Geneva with Lord Byron and Mary’s step-sister Claire Clairmont. Of course, by now the tale of Mary’s life is well known. In this narrative, I get the impression that we’re supposed to feel sorry for her. The child of famous parents, she suffers for the sins of both. Keenly intelligent, she’s denied a formal education since her jealous stepmother believes the funds are better spent on bonnets, or Italian lessons for her sister. In Cinderella fashion, she is shipped off to boarding school and later thrust at Shelley so her father can secure a ‘loan’ which he has no plans to repay. She is starved. Scorned. Sea sick. Against this backdrop, we’re meant to admire Mary for being prettier and smarter (and thinner) than her sister. She’s so clever. So well read. We’re meant to see her as a worthy muse for fashionably poor baronet Shelley, who loves her, whereas rakish Lord Byron merely trifles with Claire. And yet, Mary’s treatment of her sister, who is just as much a pawn of society as Mary herself, is contemptible. Indeed, in my view, the real horror of Summer of Monsters is the lot of Claire, who, despite helping Mary to escape her situation, is mocked and abused by her companions. She is wholly without agency (having even less than Mary). Mary loses a baby but delivers a world-changing manuscript. Claire delivers a baby and loses her, first to Byron and then to tuberculosis, living out her life unmarried and in servitude. Yes, I enjoyed reading this book for its unexpected horror.

With its absolutely stunning cover art by Wendy Saber Core, and provocative interior images by Stefano Cadroselli, War: Dark Poems is a fitting production for a collection by two of the world’s best contemporary poets: Marge Simon and Alessandro Manzetti. It’s Manzetti’s fifth poetry collection, and Simon’s tenth, so they know a few things about putting together a thematically cohesive collection. War does exactly that, bringing together 32 stunning poems, some solo, some collaborative, and set in a range of battlegrounds spanning history and cultures. The poems are chillingly brutal, imbued with the waste and the depravity of war, but the way these poets describe it is bewitching, the images too startlingly vivid to look away. In these lines, where children are “cut to pieces, scattered everywhere, like pomegranate seeds freed from their peel” and “Ezra and Emmanuel are sewn together”, there are moments of softness too, tiny snippets of beauty to lull us into complacency, like cloaks thrown carelessly over chairs, and a soldier’s letters “scented with Muguet”. A sublime collection from two of the best.

Mnemo’s Memories and Other Fantastic Tales is a collection of short stories and flash fiction by Dave Versace. Dave isn’t unknown to me. We met first at a New Year’s party where we ate cheese and drank red wine. But that was well after his fabulously creepy short story Seven Excerpts from Season One, appeared in At the Edge (edited by Dan Rabarts and myself) and I’ve been a regular follower of his Friday flash fiction (free – check out his blog), so naturally I grabbed this volume when it came out. I check the date. Whoops. Way back in February. Still, better late than never. It’s an unusual collection with stories to make you pause, including several from his flash fiction series (I especially love Out of Context) and Seven Secrets mentioned above. They’re unsettling stories, the kind that make you think, “well, of course” which is the point, isn’t it? To bring to light something we have always known. Common to these stories are Dave’s humour, that slightly skew-whiff but wholly affectionate voice of Australia, and underlying themes of music and technology. The pacing is unrushed with plot events unfolding, rather than exploding on the page. Perhaps the best aspect of the collection is the author’s musings on the story behind each story, his inspiration, and even the accident of the story’s publication (or not), which delivered a wonderful glimpse into how a collection like this comes about and made me want to go back immediately and read each tale again with renewed insight. A collection to be savoured. Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I’ve met six of the eight authors named here, and I checked the spelling for one of these books, so you really can’t trust me to be impartial. I recommend you purchase a copy of these fabulous books and check them out for yourself.


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