The Shelf: Q4 Indies

Or, why I am only going to read indie novels for the last quarter of the year.


I used to have a lot of bookshelves, paperbacks and hard-covers lined up two rows deep where space allowed.  That was in London.  I used to spend my lunchtimes browsing through Waterstones, scanning the fiction shelves for covers and spines which caught my eye.  Most of the time there was no conscious pattern to my search, it was just pure browsing.  And that’s how I made some of my best discoveries.

Then two things happened: the move, and the Kindle.

We moved back to Australia.  Books went into boxes, and boxes and bookshelves went into shipping containers, and everything eventually made its way into a character-filled Queenslander in Brisbane which had exactly zero fucking wall space against which to stand a bookcase.  Walls only served one of two purposes in the house, places for windows or places for doors.  So the books stayed in boxes, boxes went into the garage.

And then there was the Kindle.  Kindle didn’t care that there was no Waterstones to browse during my lunch breaks — I could find just about anything I wanted right there on the interwebz.  And if I didn’t know what I was looking for?  Amazon was more than happy to offer suggestions, big grinning digital pimp that he is.  Problem is, I like to pretend I’m immune to advertising, so I end up reading from my list of safe authors rather than take a risk.  I think a lot of that is down to the medium. An ebook has no texture, no weight.  You can’t take in a wall of books with just a lazy glance; you have to click, tap or swipe, dive down menu structures into sub-sub-sub-genre, only do discover you’ve landed in the top ten list of hard-boiled mystery/comedies set in Scotland with female detective leads and paranormal themes.

Now I’m living with bookshelves again.  The house we’re in has a full wall of built-in shelves, and my books can finally breathe. I found myself staring at that wall of paper the other day, picking out the novels I’d forgotten about, authors whose words I can remember reading with no prior knowledge of what I was getting into and thinking to myself, fucking yes.  I haven’t felt that for while, ever since Kindle came into my life.

So, I’ve made a decision: I am going to read books exclusively by indie authors for the remainder of the year, starting October first.  Why?  Because I want to find something which doesn’t have a marketing budget, something I found purely by looking.  I expect the search will be hard, but I’m hopeful of finding some books to fill a new shelf, an e-shelf.  (Did I think of calling it iShelf?  Yes I did, but my lawyers advised me against it.)

But before I start, maybe I have time to squeeze in a quick Christopher Moore …



C in A&E

C in A&E

I fainted a few weeks ago, but I’m not a fainter. Really. Okay, so there was that one other time in Amsterdam, but I had some very good reasons for losing my grip on consciousness on that occasion:

1. I’d just moved into a new house, and that was back in the days when moving involved carting a lot of your own gear around in a rented van until you fainted, so passing out was kind of expected;
2. N was pregnant;
3. I was sitting in the Bulldog Cafe with my head in a smoke cloud thicker than honey.

I actually went down twice in the Bulldog. I got straight back to my feet after the first time, then had a very pleasant dream from which I was roughly shaken by some very concerned Amsterdammers, who gave me sweets and sent me outside. I was more than a bit spooked by the episode, but my colleague — call him Frodo — thought it was hilarious. He told everyone he knew about it. As it happened, Frodo was somehow at the nexus of all my working associations in the city, and at every job I held there was someone else who knew Frodo; and soon after that link was established, they knew about the Bulldog. So here I am, now, telling everyone who’s interested about my second fainting episode, because if I don’t do it, I know it will come out through Frodo, somehow.

Here’s what happened:

I was sitting at work, merrily doing whatever it is I do in working hours, when N calls me.

‘Can you leave work now?’ she said. ‘You need to come to the hospital. C has cracked his head open.’

My heart, at that point, stopped. I don’t believe I’m exaggerating that, it actually stopped beating for a good three or four seconds.

‘Is it … is it serious?’ I asked.

N, apparently with no interest in fucking about with careful messaging, said simply, ‘Yes.’

So there it was. My son had cracked his head open, and some or all of his brains were protruding from a fist-sized rent in his skull. I grabbed my bag and hailed a cab off the street, and I held my breath for the twenty-two minute journey to the hospital as I imagined exposed grey matter and life support and steel plates. Then I passed out.

That’s the brief version. The slightly longer version involves me waiting as the ambulance rolls up, the rear doors opening, and the worried yet sheepish expression of my son peering out as he sits on a gurney with ten metres of gauze wrapped around his head. His hair is sticky with dried blood, his face is grey. A nurse uses a squeeze bottle to wash away some of the blood and locate the wound, so naturally I lean in close to assist. Why would I be worried by a little blood? I’d attended the births of both my children, neither of which was a dry experience. C is shaking, and very visibly distressed, and this is what I find to be the most upsetting aspect of the ordeal: his distress. I soon spot the source of all the blood, and it’s not as big as everyone thought it would be.

That’s when everything starts to go a bit wobbly. My head feels heavy, and the light in the emergency room seems to dim. Breathing becomes an effort.

I thought: No. Fucking. Way. I suspect a black-out might be coming, the memory of the Bulldog waving at me from somewhere far back in my mind, so I step away from C and try to get some air. I’m not feeling any better, so I clear some space at the end of the bed he’s sitting on and push myself up onto it.

The next thing I remember is being shaken awake from a dream I instantly forget, surrounded by frowning faces in paramedic uniforms. They make me stay where I am for a while. Someone brings me a juice-box.

It took a few moments for the realisation of what had happened to make it through to my brain. I had fainted. C thought it was entertaining — it certainly took a lot of attention away from his bandaged head, which didn’t even need stitches in the end, not even glue. So N’s “C has cracked his head open” was revised to “C bumped his head and opened his scalp a tiny bit and bled like a motherfucker”.

The medical term for fainting is syncope, which I think sounds a hell of a lot cooler than fainting. It is caused by global cerebral hypoperfusion, or low blood flow to the brain. I didn’t faint, I suffered an episode of syncope. It wasn’t the litres of blood streaming from my son’s head, it was that damned global cerebral hypoperfusion. I found this out after I hit the Googleverse, because I really wanted to know why it had happened. For anyone who’s experienced this, it’s some weird and scary shit. It’s not like you get really tired and nod off to sleep. It’s not a gradual decline into a light unconsciousness. It’s a sudden and complete transition from conscious to unconscious. If falling asleep is a slow descent from cruising altitude to landing, fainting is being teleported Star Trek style from 40,000 feet to sea-level in a tenth of a second. You’re thinking: “I really want to go outside for a minute, get some air, clear my head.” Your brain says: “Sit the fuck down. Now.”

I was also hoping, in my Googling, to reassure myself that syncope wasn’t a precursor to something fatal, that I wasn’t about to die horribly. Google, as it turns out, is not a very reassuring search engine. It might have been the blood, or the stress of C being in pain, or a tumour the size of a tennis ball just letting me know it was there. I’m really hoping it was the blood.

Thirteen Fingers

I started playing basketball a few weeks ago — though my definition of “playing basketball” is probably a little loose.  After the first game, a lot of people might contest the idea that I was playing at all, but the evidence supports me:

– I was on a basketball court

– I was wearing a basketball uniform

– A basketball was present

So yeah, point Fenton.  Let me have it.  Christ knows I need whatever points I can get after that first re-entry to the game.

A friend asked me if I wanted to come along and play with a team he’d just joined in a Thursday night competition.  He emphasised how bad they were, how terrible, which frankly is what sold me on the idea.  I’d played before — at one time I played a lot — but I was under no illusion as to just how badly out of touch I was likely to be; and on that score, at least, I did not disappoint myself.  He said they were terrible, I said I was terrible, we laughed … it sounded like just my kind of sporting competition.

So I went along with him the following Thursday night, and as soon as we arrived I understood with a slowly building horror that he’d been downplaying the general quality of playing ability in the competition a lot more than I’d been downplaying my ability.  Very fit and skilled men dashed up and down the court with excellent ball control, solid accuracy and high aggression.

‘These guys are grade two,’ he said.

We were playing in grade three.  Thank God, I thought, but also, one grade below these guys is NOT far enough.

I was handed a uniform to change into, which was big enough for me and one other.  That might have been handy if I were one half of a basketball-playing set of Siamese twins, but I am not.  I am a tall lanky guy who looks clinically unwell in basketball gear approximately nine sizes too large.

As bad as the uniform was?  Least of my problems.

One of the regular guys asked me if I‘d played before.  I think he might have recognised the look of terror on my face from the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan.  I said I had, sure, and started counting on my fingers the years since I’d last played in a semi-social competition back in Sydney.  I counted off one hand, then I moved onto the second … and then it happened:

I ran out of fingers.

I stopped counting on the middle toe of my right foot.  I would have needed thirteen fingers to keep count with just my hands.  I had not played a game of basketball for thirteen years.  I had not even picked up a ball in just as long.  My time in London had been completely basketball-free, and I was about to step into a game with only a three minute warm-up to prepare me.  I am going to die, I thought.  Also: Man, I am really old!

I tried to lie to myself that maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.  The body remembers things, you know?  Sense memory.  Muscle memory.  Instinct.  These were the myths I tried to fortify myself with, but when my time came to get on the court they did not help me.  Not.  One.  Bit.  The ball felt like it had been generously slathered in K-Y Jelly.  My lungs were trying to leapfrog my heart and climb their way up my throat and out of my mouth.  Supposedly simple actions like catching and passing with a modest degree of accuracy?  You might as well have asked me to produce a ball from my arse and tomahawk dunk it from the free-throw line.  And dribbling? Please.  Anyone who witnessed those few attempts at basketball 101 probably thought I was suffering from some kind of palsy, or having a stroke.  Maybe both.  And then there was positional play.  Holy shit, I felt like I’d been invited to take part in a flash mob dance, but without any idea of the song, or the routine, or a sense of rhythm … any of it.

I really could have done with those thirteen fingers.  Maybe a few more passes would have stuck.

About fifteen minutes into this display of basketball heresy, something happened to my body.  Specifically, something happened to my left calf.

(For those who know me well: yes, I’m as surprised as you are.  I have calves.  Who knew?  I’d always assumed my shins were held in place my the most rudimentary of tendons, but apparently there’s some muscle in there too.)

It felt like I’d been stabbed in the leg from the inside.  I immediately switched to a hobble to accommodate the sudden pain, which was subtly different from the dying-man shamble I’d been affecting up to that point.  I hadn’t done anything spectacular to incur the injury; it went pop, like that.  Out of nowhere.  It wasn’t until after the game that I recognised it for what it was: My own body, appalled by my performance, was trying to take me out of the game.  Honestly, it’s true.  A couple of days after the game I could still walk around, which was a much better outcome than the time I’d actually pulled the muscle as a kid, which required crutches and took me out of all sport for two or three months.  No, this was more like an act of sabotage, a warning.  Just stop it, my body was saying to me.  It’s for your own good.  It’s for everyone’s good.

The advice I received from my new team-mates during the time-outs and period breaks amounted to: be an obstacle.  I had height, at least … I should use that.

I thought my injury might have taken me out for what was left of the season, but by the middle of the next week it became clear that this wasn’t a sport-ending injury — it was my body being old and grumpy.  I’d think about playing, and my leg would tighten and zap me with a flash of pain to say, you sure about that?

I played a second game the other night, and I resolved before I started that I would do what I had the best chance of succeeding at: I would be an obstacle.  I would be the biggest, best obstacle I could be.  And for the most part, that’s what I did.  Every now and then I’d depart slightly from the script, take a shot or try and drive, and each time my body would hit me with a warning jolt.  You sure about that? it whispered to me.  Next time it might not be the calf.  Next time it might be the Achilles.  And sure enough, at the back of my heel a sharp heat flared.

People say you should listen to your body.  Okay, I’m listening now.  But why is my body mostly arsehole?