A book review, with digressions: The Listener, by Tove Jansson

4 03 2015


I first purchased this book in 1981, but I have had to wait thirty-three-and-a-bit years to read it. For I originally obtained it in its initial Swedish form, as the book Lyssnerskan (in which form it was, I was told, even back then, already out of print, just ten years after publication; but, having ordered a job lot of some ten of Tove Jansson’s titles from her Swedish publisher, I received it in the company of the rest of the order — evidently, they succeeded in rustling up a copy of the book for me). Alas, learning Swedish did not turn out to be so straightforward an endeavour as I had hoped it would be, though I did manage to get about a third of the way through Jansson’s Den ärliga bedragaren (recently published, in English, as the novel The True Deceiver) before I admitted to myself, sometime in 1982, that I was missing far too many of the nuances of her prose in my halting attempts at dictionary-assisted-translation for the effort to be worthwhile.


From the above, you may get the impression that I am some sort of Tove Jansson tragic; and yes, I must concede that that is true. It has actually been some years since I have re-read the Moomin books, and yet they, and her hauntingly episodic novel The Summer Book, hold a place in my heart that no other works, by any other author, have yet succeeded in usurping. The belated availability, in English translation, of a steadily-growing list of Jansson’s work for adults – in her lifetime, her only non-Moomin books available in English were her heavily memoirish adult debut Sculptor’s Daughter; The Summer Book, also closely drawn from life (its protagonists represent her dying mother and her niece); and the not-always-convincing novel Sun City – is a cause for bittersweet celebration. It is, perhaps, inevitable that the renewed recognition she is receiving is posthumous; but I wish this had all come sooner, while she lived.

If you have read Jansson’s Moomin books, and if you are somewhat familiar with the body of work of her compatriot Jean Sibelius, you might, perhaps, note a similarity in development. The early examples of both canons are effusive, unrestrained, busy, rich in contrasts, and often very energetic; later examples show much greater restraint and a fine sense of subtlety, with a tendency towards minimalism or towards the use of negative space. (Listen to the tonal sparseness of Sibelius’s Tapiola, one of his last works, and compare it to the final Moomin novel, Moominvalley in November, which is such an exercise in negative space that the Moomins do not, in fact, feature directly at all.) While such a trajectory of artistic development, over the course of a career, is not necessarily unusual, it does seem as though in both Jansson’s and Sibelius’s case it’s taken rather to an extreme; I’m loathe to pin it down to anything characteristically Finnish, or more broadly Scandinavian, but one has to wonder. (I’m not aware, by the way, whether Sibelius and Jansson ever crossed paths, I suspect probably not, since he was fifty years or so her senior, though they did have at least one mutual friend: Sibelius’s biographer and confidante, Erik Tawaststjerna, was a childhood playmate of Jansson’s, and apparently features in Sculptor’s Daughter as the small runny-nosed child who is afraid of bears.) But I have probably digressed long enough. Isn’t this supposed to be a book review?

I was somewhat surprised to learn that The Listener was in fact Jansson’s second book for adults, published in 1971 and predating The Summer Book by a year. (I had always thought that The Summer Book followed directly on after Sculptor’s Daughter.) Reading these stories now, it seems a shame we have had to wait more than forty years for their English translation. They are in their quiet way (and so much of Jansson’s work is quiet) quite outstanding, and I would venture to suggest that The Listener may in fact constitute the best introduction to Jansson’s work for adults for those readers who know of her only as a writer for children. (This is not necessarily to say that The Listener is her best adults’ book per se – I still believe The Summer Book merits that title – but, rather, the collection of short stories provides a somewhat more accessible initial sampler of her work than does the episodic novel. And this first collection of her short fiction has the advantage that the stories are more classically plotted, for the most part, than is the case with her later stories, some of which hew so close to the dictum of white-space prose that they are essentially just lists, more-or-less eschewing an overt plot entirely …)

So, then: the stories in The Listener. There are eighteen in total, several of them so short as to be essentially mere vignettes – flash fiction, I suppose, although the term did not exist at the time of their writing. By and large, it is the longer stories that are the more memorable, for here Jansson has greater rein to show her ability to completely capture, in a sequence of deft, pure, carefully-chosen words, a scene, an event, a betrayal, a secret, a hidden truth that lies at the kernel of us all … I shan’t detail every story, believing it will serve you better if you discover your own favourites among the book’s pages, but the tales that particularly resonated with me were the title story, of a trusted aunt who finds herself so overwhelmed by the burden of familial confidences that she is prepared to take desperate measures; the wonderfully gothic ‘Black—White’, dedicated to Edward Gorey, in which an artist, under pressure to deliver a set of illustrations for a horror anthology, decamps to a relative’s house for some peace and quiet; ‘A Love Story’, in which a couple on holiday in Venice must decide how they are going to handle an obsession with a well-sculpted pair of buttocks; ‘Grey Duchesse’, in which a seamstress is fated to see when those around her are soon to face death, and to need to speak of this; the almost unbearably anticipatory ‘Blasting’, wherein a demolitions expert takes his behaviourally-challenged son out on an assignment with him to the skerries, where he has been contracted to dispose of a fifteen-ton boulder; and ‘The Squirrel’, the collection’s closing story and its longest, in which a middle-aged woman, living alone on a small, treeless Gulf of Finland island, engages in a madeira-fuelled, no-holds-barred battle of wits with a squirrel that arrives one autumn morning on a length of driftwood. The capsule descriptions offered above for these stories might well sound unprepossessing, but in Jansson’s hands the most seemingly innocuous or inconsequential item can become crucial, and utterly compelling; at their best, these are stories that just cannot be improved upon.

Some much-delayed updatery

1 03 2015

It’s been — gosh, look, is that the time? — a shamefully long interval since my last posting on this here corner of teh interwebs, and there are a few items of news, which I shall run through:

1) I’m delighted to see that Charlotte Nash‘s excellently dark deep space yarn ‘Dellinger‘,* which saw publication in last year’s Use Only As Directed anthology (which I co-edited with Edwina Harvey, and which, as I believe I may have mentioned once or twice, is published by Peggy Bright Books), has been shortlisted for an Aurealis Award in the Best Science Fiction Short Story category. (And she gets to double-dip, because she also has an unrelated story, ‘The Ghost of Hephaestus’, shortlisted in Best Fantasy Short Story.) Go Charlotte!

(In a more general sense, it’s good to see other noteworthy names among the shortlistees, and I wish all of the entrants the best of fortune.)

2) I’m also delighted, and more than a little gobsmacked, to discover that my collection Difficult Second Album: more stories about Xenobiology, Space Elevators, and Bats Out Of Hell has also been Aurealis Award-shortlisted, in the Best Collection category. (The competition comprises Lisa Hannett, Rosaleen Love, Ian McHugh, and no less than three Angela Slatters, which is pretty formidable company; I wish them all the best of luck.) And I’m also grateful for the editorial interventions of Edwina Harvey, who ensured that the collection pulled its textual socks up and washed behind its metaphorical ears and, in short, made sure that it was in the best possible shape to venture its way out into the wider world.

2a) I’ve been somewhat remiss, by the way, in failing to report the most recent review of Difficult Second Album, so I’ll do that now. Damien Smith has reviewed it for SQ Mag. I’d encourage you, as always, to follow the link for the full review, but I’ll excerpt here his summary: “in spite of any difficulties associated with stepping up and producing a great follow up collection, I’m going to come straight out and say I really enjoyed this book.

3) A couple of posts back, I mentioned that my distinctly-frivolous story ‘Insecure Alternation‘** was scheduled for publication in AntipodeanSF‘s gala 200th issue. It’s been out for a few weeks now (and in fact I may shortly need to update that link, when the March release of AntipodeanSF is rolled out).

4) Also out for a few weeks now: the latest issue of Aurealis, which features my xenobiological survey novelette ‘Like a Boojum‘, with a wonderful illustration by Lynette Watters. (I always find it a thrill to see an artist’s depiction of something I’ve expressed in word-pictures, as though I’ve succeeded in co-opting someone else into my particular delusions of make-believe.)


* In the interests of completeness, or circle-squaring, or something, it’s perhaps pertinent to point people towards the blog interview I conducted with Charlotte last year, where she talks about the origins of ‘Dellinger’, her writing philosophy, and other good stuff.

** That title, it should be noted, is in fact a fairly meaningless anagram. But since the entire story– [explanation truncated for the avoidance of spoilers]

Two things …

11 12 2014

One: when a week or more ago I announced the upcoming appearance of one of my pieces in AntipodeanSF issue 200, I somehow failed to notice that another of my contributions had just come out in AntipodeanSF issue 198. It’s called ‘News Just To Hand‘.

Two: Peggy Bright Books is currently holding an end-of-year sale, to run (as the term would suggest) until the end of the year. All Peggy Bright Book e-book titles are reduced to $1.99AUD for the duration, and there are reductions in the prices for most of the (earlier) paperback titles as well. You can find further details on the PBB website here.

Also in the slow-off-the-mark department:

30 11 2014

… a couple of further announcements.


First, it gives me great pleasure to announce that no less than four of the stories from Next, last year’s CSFG anthology (which Rob Porteous and I co-edited) have made it into the Table of Contents for the 2013 Year’s Best Australian Fantasy & Horror anthology edited by Liz Grzyb and Talie Helene, and published by Ticonderoga Publications.

The four stories are Claire McKenna‘s ‘The Ninety Two’, Angela Rega‘s ‘Almost Beautiful’, Nicky Rowlands‘ ‘On The Wall’, and Janeen Webb‘s ‘Hell Is Where The Heart Is’. It’s wonderful to see these stories get the recognition they deserve; it’s a pity there couldn’t be room in the Year’s Best TOC for all of the Next stories, but of course them’s the breaks, and four stories making the cut is a very nice affirmation for Next as well as for the authors so chosen.


The other item of business is to unveil what I hope will be on sale in the final week or so of 2014: Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine issue 61, which I have (it seems) been editing for much too long, and which is now almost through the process of layout. The issue of ASIM comprises the following (listed by author order, not in TOC order):

David Barber, ‘A Critic Reviews Pioneer 10′ (poem)
Mark Bondurant, ‘Dry Run’
Fred Coppersmith, “When Jane Was Nine’
A J Fitzwater, ‘Long’s Confandabulous Clockwork Circus And Carnival, and Cats of Many Persuasions’
Kimberley Gaal, ‘In Sheep’s Clothing’
Sinthia J Higgen-Bottom, ‘The First Of His Kind’
Kathleen Jennings, ‘An Apocalypse in Six Genres’ (poem)
Ambelin Kwaymullina, ‘Continuum X Guest of Honour Speech’ (nonfiction)
Rich Larson, ‘Seachange’
Sean Monaghan, ‘Double Team’
Charlotte Nash, ‘Alchemy and Ice’
Patrice Sarath, ‘Bad Dog’
George S Walker, ‘Empty Nesting Velocity’
Sean Williams, ‘Immaterial Progress’

It goes almost without saying that all of the above are excellent. Plus there are illustrations by the redoubtable triumvirate of Lewis Morley, Shauna O’Meara, and SpAE.

I’ll provide an update (and a cover pic) when it’s released to the wild.

In which I am slow off the mark with an update (or three)

30 11 2014

First up, I have been unconscionably slow in mentioning that my story ‘Lakeside on the Via Australis’ has been out for some time, online, in the October issue of Perihelion Science Fiction. It’s another of my Titan stories — there are seven of them out there now — but it should, I hope, work reasonably well as a standalone, even if (a) it does feature a protagonist who’s appeared in an earlier story, and (b, and spoiler alert) it does also serve as part of the setup for an as-yet-to-be-actually-written novel …

Second up, I’m thrilled to be able to report that my piece of flash fiction ‘Insecure Alternation’ is scheduled to appear in the 200th issue of AntipodeanSF, next February. Two hundred issues is a prodigious achievement, and a testament to editor Ion Newcombe’s tirelessness and zeal. I’ve got a lot of fond feeling towards AntiSF, which I would say has given a start to a lot of fine writers, with a target wordlength that (for a new writer particularly) is not too long, not too short. It’s a good venue for experimentation, and the site always has a wonderfully fresh feel to it — which, with the 200th issue approaching, is no small achievement. I’ll give no hint as to the content of my story, other than to suggest it might be interesting to run the title through an anagram generator, and to assert that, really, it isn’t quite fanfic …

Third up, I have been meaning to spruik Tsana Dolichva’s most excellent five-star review of Difficult Second Album ever since said review was released. I’m tempted to quote at length from the review, but instead I shall direct you to follow the link, and shall restrict myself to these two summative sentences: ‘Difficult Second Album is an excellent varied read. I highly recommend it to fans of Petrie’s work and newcomers alike.’

And I’m sure my publisher would think me remiss if I did not point out that the book can be procured from the Peggy Bright Books website

In the interests of signal-boostery …

26 11 2014

… it behooves me to pass along to you the information that the FFANZ voting season, arranged for the purpose of selecting and sending a trans-Tasman fan delegate to the NZ or Australian Natcon, is currently open. Here, through the modern miracle of cut and paste, is the message as it was relayed to me from Edwina Harvey:

We’re  happy to announce that David McDonald  is our nominee in the FFANZ race to send an Australian fan to the NZ Natcon in Rotorua in New Zealand held over Easter 2015.

The 2015 FFANZ voting is now open until  15 December, 2014.

Votes can be paid for via direct bank deposit, paypal or cash. 

Details can be found here: http://dan.rabarts.com/ffanz-201516/voting-for-2015-now-live/

Voting costs $5. (Due to a quirk of currency exchange, that’s $5USD, $5 AUD, or $5 NZD equivalently, but please pay in your local currency rather than seek out the cheapest option.) And as someone who has attended two NZ Natcons in recent years, I can attest that it would be money well spent: while NZ cons are generally smaller events than their Australian counterparts, they’re vibrant and varied and peopled by bright, friendly, creative, engaging types.

I always thought the SJV was a tracked vehicle from the Captain Scarlet series, until …

10 11 2014

New Zealand’s fan-based speculative fiction awards, the Sir Julius Vogel Awards, are currently accepting nominations, as detailed here. The nominations close on 31st January 2015. If you’re interested in nominating work for the SJVs — and you don’t have to be a New Zealander, nor resident in NZ, just ‘a natural person active in fandom’ as I believe the expression has it, in order to nominate — the requirements for placing a nomination are given on this page of the SFFANZ website. If you’ve read or viewed or listened to something memorable and / or moving by a Kiwi creator over the past year, and the item was first published or aired or unleashed onto an unsuspecting universe in the 2014 calendar year, I’d heartily encourage you to nominate that item. If you’ve read ten such things, there’s nothing to stop you nominating them all. The strength of the awards depends on the motivation of a wide and well-versed public: the more diversity there is on the ballot, the more representative is the ultimate award. So read widely, nominate wisely.

With the above in mind, the following list summarises eligible items with which I have been associated:


From Use Only As Directed (all eligible for Best Short Story):

‘Fetch Me Down My Gun’, by Lyn McConchie

‘Always Falling Up’, by Grant Stone [at 7300 words, this is a long short story, but it is categorically a short story according to the definition]

‘Uncle Darwin’s Bazooka’, by Douglas A. Van Belle

‘Home Sick’, by M. Darusha Wehm


From Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine (all eligible for Best Short Story, unless otherwise indicated):

‘Alecia in the Mechwurm’, by Sean Monaghan, writing as Michael Shone (in ASIM 59)

‘Dada’, by Cerberus (Dan Rabarts, Grant Stone, and Matthew Sanborn Smith) (in ASIM 60)

‘Double Team’, by Sean Monaghan (in ASIM 61, upcoming, expected release in December) [this is a novelette, and so is eligible for Best Novella / Novelette]

‘Long’s Confandabulous Clockwork Circus and Carnival, and Cats of Many Persuasions’, by A. J. Fitzwater (in ASIM 61, upcoming, expected release in December) [this is a novella, and so is eligible for Best Novella / Novelette]


From Difficult Second Album: more stories of Xenobiology, Space Elevators, and Bats Out Of Hell, by Simon Petrie (all eligible for Best Short Story, unless otherwise indicated):


‘Fixing a Hole’

‘Buying a Ray Gun’



‘Elevator Pitch’ [this is a novella, and so is eligible for Best Novella / Novelette]

[and Difficult Second Album itself — edited by Edwina Harvey and published by Peggy Bright Books — is eligible for Best Collected Work]


If any of the above have particularly spoken to you, I’d encourage you to nominate them. But I’d also encourage you to nominate anything else that takes your fancy, in the interests of diversity: there’s a lot of good stuff out there …


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