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August 23, 2016

Review: How it Began: a Time-traveler’s Guide to the Universe by Chris Impey, 2012.

Not the sort of book I can read in an extended sitting. Too much information and too many mind-bending ideas. The style is colloquial which is most helpful for an amateur in the field.

Impey’s strength is that he does a fine job of explaining difficult concepts in reasonably simple terms with numerous analogies to the ordinary and everyday. So, to illustrate the chanciness of any one thing occurring, he tells the story of how he met his wife, that the reason his son – this son – is listening to him is because of the peculiarities of a monkey in South America. He describes the size of the solar system in terms of apricots and peas and football fields, etc etc etc.

It works. The strategy allows me to put a new piece of information up against what I already know. Like measuring the starting height for the Olympic high jump in my living room: I can then stand and look at it … and wonder!

There is so much to wonder at.

Thanks to Chris Impey, (I think) I now have a decent grasp of event horizons, black holes, why the sky is so dark at night, how little stuff there is in this universe, why the Big Bang stands up as a reputable theory, and so on. The sheer emptiness of the universe is truly astounding.

I am grateful.

The third section bamboozled me more often. I was altogether lost among the fermions and bosons for a while there.

Impey is a scientist. He grapples with the theological theory of the Intelligent Designer with respect and clarity. He presents a position that is straightforward and reasonable. For me, it doesn’t really matter. I don’t need proofs and arguments anymore; I believe in a divine essence/deity/God/etc because of my experience.

Why am I reading this book? What has it got to do with the next book I want to write? To quote Carl Sagan: ‘In order to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.’ (1980)

August 8, 2016
Why? They inspire me … I love teasing out the technique … I want to learn how
1. from The Return of the King by JRR Tolkien – hardback 1974, p137
– the battle for Minas Tirith
The Nazgûl came again, and as their Dark Lord now grew and put forth his strength, so their voices, which uttered only his will and his malice, were filled with evil and horror. Ever they circled above the City, like vultures that expect their fill of doomed men’s flesh. Out of sight and shot they flew, and yet were ever present, and their deadly voices rent the air. More unbearable they became, not less, at each new cry. At length even the stout-hearted would fling themselves to the ground as the hidden menace passed over them, or they would stand, letting their weapons fall from nerveless hands while into their minds a blackness came, and they thought no more of war, but only of hiding and crawling, and of death.
– I see the men in WWI dugouts enduring a barrage. I imagine JRR reliving those experiences as he writes. Courageous.
– Vocabulary: not many Big Words in this; little words are, here, visceral & effective. The subject is Fear.
– the simile adds depth to the image; it does not take the reader out of the scene with a distracting comparison. The two sides of the ‘LIKE’ balance in sense, visual and mood: flight, death, carrion, the carnage of war, horror.
– The length of the sentences – building, building – like the tension in the men and the atmospherics of doom. The pace is broken; it’s not just a long string of words between fullstops. Watch this. See how many different pieces of meaning JRR has managed in this single sentence and see how the construction of the sentence itself leads the reader away from the light, away from sight, and down to that ultimate stillness – death:
At length / even the stout-hearted would fling themselves to the ground / as the hidden menace passed over them, / or they would stand, / letting their weapons fall from nerveless hands / while into their minds a blackness came, / and they thought no more of war, / but only of hiding / and crawling, / and of death.
So good. So good. Masterful writing.

July 16, 2016

As a writer and a reader, I highly recommend The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy.

I re-read this book trying to further immerse myself in a particular style, tone, rhythm. I had forgotten most of it, so it was Christmas all over again! Roy won the 1997 Booker Prize with this, and has not written another novel as far as I know. I wish she would.

It is not a BIG book, but it has an epic quality. I suppose this is one way to describe what I am seeking in my own writing at the moment. As I read, part of me was split off, wondering about technicalities, or if I was carried away by the writing, I would spend spare time considering what I had written.

The God of Small Things is epic without being pompous or ponderous; it is poetic without obscurity; it is lush, sensual but light in the reading.

How does she do this?

Repetition is a dominant technique. I continually felt as though I were circling like an eagle in a thermal, turning again and again past the same events below but, as changing altitude varies perspectives, so the events altered: my view and understanding shifted constantly.

How did she accomplish this effect? Partly lies in the repetition of phrases such as:

It really began in the days when the Love Laws were made. The laws that lay down who should be loved, and how.                                                                                                        And how much.

These sentences grow in depth and import as they repeat through the novel. Their effect moves from curiosity to bleak understanding of their implicit tragedy.

Then there are memories. Mentioned out of context at first, they float, disconnected and enigmatic, obviously of importance but impenetrable as a slab of polished black marble. As the memories recur, like the sequences above, they grow in significance.

Roy also has a habit of capitalizing important words. As so many of the early memories are from Rahel’s childhood, these assume looming, Adult proportions which persist into adulthood:

Sentences are chopped up at need, emphasizing words, intensifying meanings, or threaded long with phrases and insertions, building.

Then there is the just plain exquisite use of words to evoke. Take, as an example, this series of quotations from Rahel’s childhood visit to Dr Verghese Verghese with a bead stuck up her nose:

From behind the doctor’s curtain, sinister voices murmured, interrupted by howls from savaged children. … The slow ceiling fan sliced the thick, frightened air into an unending spiral that spun slowly to the floor like the peeled skin of an endless potato. … [outside] The noisy, carefree world of Those with Nothing Up Their Noses. … Lenin [small friend in the waiting room also with a Foreign Object Lodged Up the Nose] dressed like a taxi – yellow shirt, black, stretchlon shorts – regained his mother’s nylon lap (and his packet of chiclets). He sat on sari flowers and from that position of unassailable strength surveyed the scene impassively. … The chiclets were his to hold before the doctor saw him, and to consume after. All was well with the world. Perhaps he was a little too young to know that Atmosphere in Waiting Room, plus Screams from Behind Curtain, ought logically to add up to Healthy Fear of Dr V.V. …

I want to keep copying, for the wicked delight of her prose continues. In my 1998 Flamingo edition, I’m on page 132.

Tragic and hilarious, but not in equal measures.


June 15, 2016

Epic and engrossing, despite the fact that I only picked it up to study Mitchener’s style and approach to his subject.

It is old-school, heavy going in many places. This is the opening line of the second paragraph:

Over its brooding surface immense winds swept back and forth, whipping the waters into towering waves that crashed down upon the world’s seacoasts, tearing away rocks and eroding the land.

Shades of Genesis.

In the first chapter, 17 pages, there is no direct speech, there are no characters apart from the unidentified narrator, and the plot events are geologic or climatic. The time spans ‘millions and millions of years’ but, despite that, it is intense.

Mitchener tells stories well. The verisimilitude of his characters, plot events and settings had me convinced they must have been drawn closely from the factual. His style might feel dated now, but it had me reading whenever I had a spare few minutes. So I disagree with some reviewers that some of the major characters are one-dimensional.

Mitchener used many techniques to build the believability of his characters and their situations: newspaper articles and correspondence passed down through the generations, the Harvard student’s thesis into the sex lives of his forebears aboard the tiny ship out to Hawaii, and mythologies and genealogies transcribed by an objectionable, arrogant minister and curated in mainland American universities, for instance.

At 1,130 pages, in this edition, it is a lengthy read for a relatively short, human history. ‘Unflinching’ is a word I would use to describe the gaze of the writer into this history. Reading reviews clarified that for me: Mitchener lived in Hawaii for some years with his non-Caucasian wife, suffering unrelenting racism. The book explains how Hawaii came to be the way it was when Mitchener wrote of it and, despite the intensity of his feelings, the portrayal is complex, shot through with swirling light and darkness.

All the same, there is subtle satire in the minister, outraged at the traditional incest in the royal family, having descendents who intermarry so closely that every family has a deranged woman (never a man!) roaming the vast mansions.

There is so much sadness in the colonization stories.

I suspect there always is.

May 28, 2016

I had an idea for an opening line for a new novel.

As I tried to follow it with other lines, I kept changing what I’d written, what I wrote as I wrote it – a constant revising of what I had put outside my head. As I’d done many times in the past, I queried the merits of being able to so easily alter a draft in process, and questioned whether I oughtn’t write with a biro on paper instead. It might limit this incessant reviewing and allow my mind to roam freer. But maybe I just need to learn to type properly.

Amidst the musings, it occurred to me that I could retrace the changes I’d made to a few lines as I went along. So I tapped back the Undo button repeatedly until I got back to the start, copying each version as I went. (Something I could not do with a paper version!)


Because I can, and because I thought it might be illuminating for someone who thinks that the words simply pop out in the right order for a writer. As though it is a conversation which is rich and intense and enthusiastic – the speakers not considering their words in paragraphs before they are spoken – rarely even weighing wording or words. It is not that way for this writer at least. This is how it is:

INSPIRATION LINES (what popped into my head)

This place – all this place – it remembers. It remembers where it came from. It remembers

PERSPIRATION LINES (what I wrote after I’d written the initial lines)

a- _______________

b- It remembers like the faint smell of a sweating person

c- It remembers like the faint smell of someone sweating

d- Like the faint smell of someone sweating

e- Like the faint smell of someone sweating as they work in the forest,

f- Like the faint smell of a worker sweating as they work in the forest,

g- Like the faint smell of a worker sweating in the forest,

h- Like the faint smell of a worker sweating in the forest, people and animals leave their trace

i- Like the faint smell of a worker sweating in the forest, people and animals leave a trace

j- Like the faint smell of a worker sweating in the forest, people leave a trace

k- Like the faint smell of a worker sweating in the forest, people leave a trace behind. Animals and birds too.

l- It’s the faint whiff of a worker sweating in the forest and the shallow, impermanent marking of the goanna’s tail across leaves. Nothing lasts unchanging, but this place remembers.

m- It’s the faint whiff of a worker sweating in the forest and the shallow marking of a goanna’s tail across leaves. Nothing remains unchanged, but this place remembers.

PUBLICATION LINES (or where it sits at the moment)

This place – all this place – it remembers. It remembers where it came from. It remembers what happened inside it and then what moved across it. And who. It’s the faint whiff of a worker sweating in the forest and the shallow, impermanent marking of the goanna’s tail across leaves. Nothing lasts unchanging, but this place remembers.

So there you are – another peek into my writing process. Some days, this is as good as it gets.

March 19, 2016

The Dragon Keeper

My daughter thinks little of this book and was giving away her copy to charity. I had enjoyed the Farseer Trilogy but I trust my daughter’s acumen. There was nothing else pressing to read, but there is little enough time to read. However, I read it as a writer: if it is not such a flash book, why? I read it to try to work out what didn’t work well.

Maybe the quality picked up; maybe I just hate leaving things unfinished; I am now reading the fourth in the sequence.

Fantasy is like off-planet thrillers and/or westerns. That is, the plot is critical. Despite the need for fantastic (sorry) settings, Plot is king. Whatever stands in the way of Plot has to go. There is much that slows the plotting in these books. There is so much introspection (internal telling) rather than revelation (showing through action). it drove me nuts early; now I skim it. There is a great deal of repetition; I want to take a pair of scissors to the pages. And maybe I just can’t believe the naivety of one of the main characters.

These are major faults, in my opinion.

A pity, because the setting is interesting, the characters are evocative and the twists in the plot are surprising.

I have learned much.

It feels like Hobb hasn’t murdered all her darlings.

March 19, 2016

The Thin Red Line by James Jones

There are many excellent reviews on Goodreads, from which much background to the author and the battles on Guadalcanal can be gleaned.

My take?

This is an ant’s-eye view of Armageddon. Jones was a veteran of WWII and his experiences show. The pervading mood is despair; where there isn’t, there is insanity. It is an anti-war book in the way that All Quiet on the Western Front is anti-war: the authors tell it like it was for the participants, and it was horrific.

There is nothing to suggest in today’s news that anything has changed forthose caught up in war.

PS  The book was first published in 1963, only eighteen years after WWII ended. I was five. I grew up in the shadows of that war without realising it: I thought it was ancient history. Now, I see the shadows.

March 19, 2016

A friend loaned me his copy of this book when he heard I was reading histories of this part of the world. Having read it, I’ll now be going out to buy my own copy, then chasing up the authors to sig nit and have a chat with them. The book was researched effectively, well written and the subject matter fascinating.

Parenthetically, I am glad I read Kate Weindorfer’s story before I picked up this book.

Ten men – ten chapters – linked but various encounters with the high country of Tasmania, especially in the north. The subtitles of the chapters, listed on the flyleaf sum it up: Travelling highland journalist, Career bushman, King of the Cradle, Bushman and highland guide, Hunter and Overland Track pioneer, Bushwalker and national park promoter, Cradle Mountain’s first ranger, Highland horseman and hut builder, Battle-scarred survivor, The last of the high country snarers. The first was born in 1851; the last in 1927. Their stories, arranged in order of their birth, describe the developing interaction between Europeans and this environment.

The diversity of their backgrounds contributes to the depth of the portrayal: Irishman, wealthy landowner, prospector, immigrant, journo, trapper/hunters, tourist guides and entrepeneurs, war veterans, alcoholics, and probable Aboriginal. They came from all levels of society but shared a love of this part of the world.

The style of interaction between people and this environment is one of the major themes explored. That much of the territory is now national park and a World Heritage Area is obviously to the fore in our awareness today. These personal narratives provide context for the more official developments of the park. The overall effect is a very personal, despite the often scholarly tone, account of the history, and insights which do not always sit comfortably with the current perspectives.

I was intrigued to find that the use of the area for wilderness tourism dates back over a century. Tracks were slowly developed, some from the routes established by the snarers, and huts built, for both the snarers and the sightseers. The tourism arose as an economic opportunity for the people who knew the area well and were equipped to supply and guide groups. Most of these men and their families had to work hard to sustain themselves, some barely surviving at times. Pragmatism seemed to be the order of the day in those early days. For instance, Weindorfer pushed hard for a vehicular track to carry visitors through the park from Cradle to Lake St Clair.

This book presents the history of this amazing part of the world from a frank, personal perspective. I really enjoyed it. Thanks, Simon and Nic.

February 23, 2016

Once in a while, a reader takes the time to pen their thoughts in some detail after having read a book. Happily for me, so far, these folk tend to be those who have enjoyed the experience. As a writer, I am especially grateful when readers explain themselves. Below is one such, reproduced with permission. Thank you, Madeline.

Dear John

I’m writing to tell you that I read your book and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

I don’t read fiction very often, my nose usually stuck conscientiously in self-help books. 

I can imagine the work that has gone into writing this novel. I found it to be amazing in its depth and construction. 

The Kate story is so enjoyable, what a great character. I didn’t think I was going to like her much initially, but I found I sympathised with her and admired her more and more.

I was so enthralled by the bracelet holding it all together.

I’m amazed at your insights, often understated making them all the more powerful and interesting.

Your book really had me involved.

My favourite story was Emeline and Dennis. 

And I enjoyed your cleverly conceived twist at the end, revealed through the letters between Millie and Jim. (So sad).

The gemology aspect was really cool.

I loved the way you let the reader come in and be witness to the stories and characters.

Beautiful treatment of your family history and wonderful writing.

Thank you for your good work.

Yours sincerely, Madeline

February 15, 2016

Winds roar and the bushfires blaze – it’s been going on for weeks now. The weather on the weekend was dry and intense, the sun hidden all day behind the smoke. The sky was white, the white of cumulus clouds, but closed in tight like one of those grey, misty days. It was hot, for here. At 6.30pm on Saturday, whilst picking up my fish and chips, I saw the sun for the first time. It was startling: lolly red, and without any eye-flinching brightness – a great flat lolly without the stick just hanging in the sky. Amazing. And the light reminded me of the almost-total eclipse when I was at Auburn in ’76 on prac.

February bushfire light from the front step

February bushfire light from the front step

I came home and started to fiddle with the words (on paper because I don’t have to think about forming the words and I can splatter them, draw arrows, cross out and keep it there at the same time). It commended itself to a haiku because it was such a sharp, singular experience and I love the challenge of putting meaning together with the slightest wordage. No more red suns, but the smoke, the light and the wind continue to vary.

In this post, I have set down the chronological word-steps leading to the haiku as it stands at this point in its development. I am not satisfied yet with it – usually I never am and no-one else sees them – so I don’t present it as an icon of the form! My purpose in revealing the contents of my discard pile is to show that writing is a process, nothing magical, and often slow – at which point they often smile and nod as if to say ‘Yeah, yeah, whatever, but you’ve got talent and I ain’t.’

(Because of the automatic double space on <Enter>, I have used </> to indicate a new line. There’s probably a way around it but, as with waiting until the poem is finished, if I wait until I learn that this will not see the light of day!

White sky bronzed [bronzey] light / Ancient wood smaoke / Afternoon sun hangs [bright] red

 Dry lightning storm  [a month ago] / Winds and gales for a month / The sun hangs red

Sky is white, dusty / at the far [closed-in] edges [horizons]

Blazes lightning struck / Dry wind spread through ancient woods – [Ancient forests turn skies white] / and the sun hangs red.

 [In white sky, red sun] / Ancient forests blaze [to death] / Roaring winds smoke  [the sky white] / and the sun hangs red. 

 Silence. / Bronzed light / tight horizon

White sky bronzed [bronzey] light / Ancient wood smoke / Afternoon sun hangs [bright] red

Bronzey morning light / High winds, ancient wood smoke white / Afternoon sun bright red

(… and now for the next draft which has arisen from writing the exegesis above:)

Ancient wood smoke white / Tight horizon, bronzey light – / High sun lolly red.

I’ll leave it there and keep watching the sky. Let’s hope that Hughie drops a bucket on the west of the state in the next weather change.