“When the doorbell rings at three in the morning, it’s never good news,” begins Stormbreaker, the first in Anthony Horowitz’s bestselling Alex Rider series.
I would definitely concur. The last time someone buzzed me at three in the morning it was my twenty-one-year-old sister-in-law asking to borrow a MacBook cable for someone’s twenty-first speech. Of course, the adventures that followed my own early-morning contact simply involved a bit of sleep-deprived conversation and then some more sleep. There was nothing at all about my uncle having been brutally murdered, his identity being revealed as an MI6 operative, or my being recruited as a young spy to monitor some dodgy wheelings and dealings relating to school computers.
But where life (and sleeping patterns) went quite promptly back to normal for me, the same is not true for Alex, for whom all the above applies. Soon enough, he’s narrowly escaping near-death situations, playing with Go-Go-Gadget devices, and kicking broody chaps out of aeroplanes. For their own good, of course. And then there’s the whole undercover assignment thing where Alex is sent to investigate self-made millionaire Darrius Sayle, whose “computers for all!” philanthropic program seems just a little bit dodgy.
Stormbreaker is a quick and zippy read, but it’s not without its problems. Alex suffers from the everyman-type characterisation issues that plague many heroes in similar series: he’s a fairly flat, bland character who’s really only painted into existence by those around him. He’s given little personality of his own; rather he’s the sum of his skills and gadgets. Where a character in another book might surprise you with an emotional outburst, Alex surprises you with Secret Karate Skills. Or his ability to drive a car. Or his knowledge of jellyfish.
The fact that he’s largely acting alone means also that he’s in charge of McGuyvering himself out of various near-death situations, and the set-up and resolution of these events does become a little samey-samey after the first couple of times. Because there’s no one around for Alex to really engage with, we see very little emotional response from him (ho hum, my uncle’s dead, chaps), and it’s hard to really empathise with him–or feel that he’s ever really in danger. So much of that tension, after all, arises from the way that other characters respond to dangerous situations.
Although there is a reasonably large cast of secondary characters slinking around in the background it’s hard to ignore the pall of stereotyping that’s been cast over them. We have brutal Russian assassins, cruel and humourless Germans, a squat and fat bad guy from Beirut, and two MI6 operatives who fall fairly blatantly along traditional gender lines–the inscrutable, stoic male and the maternal, concerned female (one of three, from memory, females in the whole book). It’s not hard to see that Horowitz is taking his cues from James Bond, but it wouldn’t hurt to keep abreast of social developments, surely.
However, even though I have my qualms about certain elements of the book (I haven’t even touched the plot here, but let’s just say, 14-year-old boy, MI6 and evil via school computers, shall we?), it is overall zingy, action-packed fun, and it would be remiss of me to tear apart the book for being pretty much what it professes to be from the get-go. It’s silly, it’s over the top, and it contains enough action and intrigue that I’m sure there are a bunch of kids out there secretly hoping for their door buzzer to ring in the middle of the night. (less)
I should begin this post with a disclaimer. As a lover of words, a notorious pedant, grammar nazi extraordinaire, and neologiser of the word "misapost...moreI should begin this post with a disclaimer. As a lover of words, a notorious pedant, grammar nazi extraordinaire, and neologiser of the word "misapostrophication" I have a vested interest in the subject matter of this book. I hold an honours degree in linguistics, have spent more than a few years in publishing (okay, just a few--I'm twenty-five, after all), have a thing for asyndetic coordination. On my good days I like to consider myself a descriptivist, merrily taking in the language usage of others without judgement or qualm (my mother's family's use of "come" as the past tense of the same; my boyfriend's maddening epenthetic habits; a certain author friend's inability to differentiate "worse" and "worst" and when writing). On the bad days I'll produce a red pen. Write emails. Smudge away errant apostrophes in menus. Read the rest of this review here(less)
Think present-day New York, presided over not by politicians and reality television stars, but by Cadre of archangels. Sounds lovely and fluffy and like an ad for Philadelphia cream cheese, doesn’t it? Wrong. These angels may be all delicate wings and inhumanly beautiful features, but they’re also a little morally canted. Thousands of years of immortality has that effect, after all. What’s the odd life here, the occasional bit of suffering there when you’re looking at a timeline that stretches out indefinitely?
But while most of the archangels manage to keep their ethical compass pointing in a vaguely cardinal direction, this is unfortunately not true of all of them. Power corrupts, after all, and power and immortality? For some, that way can lead to madness. Archangel Uram, who’s just embarked on a particularly debauched killing spree, epitomises this rather well (albeit grotesquely). Allowing this to continue is rather ill-advised indeed, so vamp-hunter Elena Deveraux is called on to the scene to, well, kick some angel butt. However, Elena finds herself not only pitting her will against Uram the Terrible, but also against that of the archangel Raphael, who despite his lofty Cadre position and significant age and wisdom, finds himself quite taken with young Elena…
While paranormal romance is decidedly not my preferred genre, Nalini Singh has been good to me thus far. I found her Psy-Changeling books, although problematic in some ways, well-done, with better than expected world-building, and some believable characterisation. I had then, reasonably high expectations for Angels’ Blood, the first in Singh’s new Guild Hunter series. There are times where these expectations were met quite resoundingly, and times where I felt a little more polish was required, but in all, Angels’ Blood is a solid, although not stand-out, read.
The world-building is largely what made the Psy-Changeling books for me, and once again Singh shows her strength in this area, building her alternate angel-ruled with surprising depth and assurance given that she’s working within a fairly minimal page extent. She neatly integrates a curious hierarchy of rather hellish angels and quite awful vampires into the fabric of our world, and give us a sense of the longevity of this situation, a fact that makes for some interesting ruminations on the readers’ behalf. If these angels have been ruling over the various continents of the world for thousands of years, what does that mean for humanity, our history, and our agency?
However, it’s not all neat and tidy, and I have to admit that the very nature of this omnipotent and vastly ancient angel Cadre raised a few questions for me. If Raphael, the ostensible leader of the feathered-winged crew, is as powerful and prescient as we’re led to believe, then how come this Uram chap has been given his head to wreak the mess he has? And how come all-powerful Raphael, or at least some of his angelic or vampiric cronies, can’t intervene? Why is it up to Elena, a vampire hunter–yes, vampire hunter, not angel hunter–to take down this dude? This isn’t to pass aspersions on Elena, who really does a good job of being angsty and fiery and dangerous and all that, but one has to admit that this does seem like a plot hole that needs a little bit of narrative putty to be truly believable.
Moreover, while Elena does her best to hunt down Uram, she finds herself stymied time and time again by Raphael, who would rather coat her in angel dust and make sultry remarks than allow her to earn her commission by stopping the whole mass murder thing that’s going on in the background. In fact, this is perhaps the most confounding thing in the whole book: we’re given to believe that there’s an urgent need for intervention, and that Elena’s mission is a matter of life and, erm, rather a lot of deaths, but all of this takes a backseat in this literary station wagon while Raphael and Elena get busy steaming up the windows. It’s not until perhaps the final third of the book that Elena drags herself out of her crumpled pre-marital bed to go and do her butt-kicking, and this makes the whole book feel more than a little uneven. Unfortunately, Elena’s butt-kicking never really eventuates, as despite the fact that she’s spent most of the book posturing and wise-cracking (although I think this may be largely to do with the fact that she feels rather vastly out of her depth), Raphael is the one who eventually nips in to save the day. This is a little frustrating both in terms of narrative cohesiveness, characterisation, and of course my feminist tendencies, and I really would have preferred to see Elena rescue her angel from the jaws of death rather than the other way around.
With that thought in mind, I can’t help but make a comment about the whole alpha male thing that runs rampant through this book (and all of Singh’s I’ve read so far). Regular readers of my reviews will know that I have issues with alpha male characters, and while Singh does an interesting job in her characterisation of Raphael, avoiding simply making him a human with wings, and rather giving his character the particular traits and outlook that would no doubt rise to the fore as a result of his power, age, and immortality, Raphael is, well, rather creepy. There are scenes where he all but brutalises Elena, and for the better part of the book he is simply a violent fiend intent on wielding his power–physical, emotional, and sexual–over a lesser being. This changes, however, towards the end, when he has an epiphany of sorts, and the two suddenly become soulmates. This element was probably the hardest for me to swallow, as the notion of an ageless archangel hooking up with a thirty-year-old vamp hunter seems a little weird. (And I thought the age gap between Buffy and Angel was a bit much!) While I can see the appeal of a quick roll in the sheets for these two, it’s hard to imagine that two people from such hugely divergent backgrounds could really be meant to be in such a way (unless perhaps Elena has a past life we’re as yet unaware of, or somesuch). One wonders whether Elena is perhaps a “right place, right time” person–Raphael is in a situation where a sense of humanity is suddenly demanded of him, and as such perhaps he sees falling in love with a mortal as appropriate recourse.
While Singh does a nice job of fleshing out the minor characters, giving them personalities strong enough that I’d welcome their appearance in future books, the Manhattan setting is a little weaker, and I have to admit that the setting feels a little urban-generic. This is particularly problematic at the beginning of the novel, as it takes a while to become anchored in the narrative (with all the flashbacks and quick references to other characters and past situations I had to check that I was indeed reading the first in the series and not the second). Singh’s prose could also do with a polish, as well the same issues I highlighted about the Psy-Changeling series crop up again: eyes flash, stomachs roil and wrench, lips are constantly bitten and touched and, er, hands fist (and I really wish that they wouldn’t!). Few sentences are longer than a few words, and. it. all. feels. a. little. staccato.
While all of the above sounds critical, however, don’t be mistaken in thinking that I didn’t enjoy this. Singh is a competent story teller, and creates a rich and nuanced world with female characters who invite empathy and cheering from the sidelines. Even when the major plotline is backgrounded, she still keeps things zipping along, and her dialogue is fun and zippy. Angels’ Blood is a snappy read, and gets the Guild Hunter series off to a strong start. I’ll be sure to read the next in the series (and yes, it’s in the pile by my bed, so I promise that I shall).(less)
In my perusals of Buenos Aires bookshops for English-language material I unearthed, along with all manner of questionable bodice rippers and deliciously un-PC adventure stories, a couple of gems that I suspect will stay with me for some time: Shirley Hazzard’s languidly striking The Bay of Noon (see my review), and Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone, a marvellous read that teeters oh-so-ambiguously on the wire between comedy and tragedy, and which boasts a rather pugilistic nature, no doubt packing a punch (or at least raising an eyebrow) upon its release in the 1960s.
Intelligent and educated, Rosamund Stacey has at her disposal all the benefits of a liberal middle-class upbringing: her parents, both academics, have railed against the sharply delineated social norms of British society in order to raise Rosamund and her sister as sophisticated egalitarians; nevermind than in doing so they must carefully turn a blind eye to their own privileged status. Rosamund, though happy enough to take advantage of the benefits brought by this upbringing, is uneasy when it comes to acknowledging it, and this disquiet conflict is evident in the close-lipped approach she takes whenever it comes to discussing her present or future circumstances. Rather than denying or confirming her privileged upbringing, Rosamund simply lets others make of her circumstances what they will–an evasive approach that has extraordinary consequences as Rosamund grows older.
Such evasiveness is notable not only in her taciturnity regarding her living situation–though a full-time student, Rosamund has the run of a large flat, and her unwillingness to discuss how this came to be leads her acquaintances to believe that she is far more well off than she is–but also in her romantic relationships. Rosamund has a habit of simply falling into relationships, whether platonic or otherwise, simply because it’s easier to allow them to progress than it is to end them. She is not, however, one to push things of her own accord: despite nominally being in two romantic relationships, she consummates neither, exhibiting an asexuality that’s fitting with her let-it-be mindset. However, this propensity towards letting things simply go the way they will eventually turns against her: after passively going along with the advances of yet another suitor, Rosamund finds herself pregnant.
While an out-of-wedlock pregnancy is not especially noteworthy today, The Millstone‘s context is such that Rosamund’s situation is rather more difficult. With access to legal abortion highly curtailed, Rosamund decides to keep the baby, an action that is at once a clear fit with her character and one that seems in conflict with it. Keeping the child, of course, is in line with her approach of what will be will be, but yet doing so will pit her against the institutions, both social and political, of the era, and has the potential to cause harm to those around her, something which she has assiduously avoided doing. But yet, channelling her parents’ liberal mindset, Rosamund blithely notes that her ability to continue her work and complete her doctorate should be in no way compromised by a baby, and simply goes about her merry way. There are two curiously divergent motivational currents running here: Rosamund’s simple desire to let things progress as they will and a latent desire to fly in the face of what’s expected of her. Rosamund is simultaneously furiously independent and strangely subservient, making for some fascinatingly conflicted reading.
But where the book really hits its stride is the later stages of Rosamund’s pregnancy and her child’s eventual birth, upon which Rosamund finds herself wrestling not only with her desire to remain independent and to avoid leaning on, or inconveniencing in any way, those around her, but with the sudden challenge to her liberal beliefs that her child presents: her world suddenly shrinks to one that involves only her and her child, precluding all others.
Beautifully and wryly written, The Millstone is a thought-provoking read that, although dated, contains a good deal that will resonate with today’s reader, and is certainly worth seeking out.(less)
My computer’s autofill has a habit of trying to update my address to Melbourne, Florida rather than Melbourne, Australia. From what little I know of the former, I’d say that there’s one key difference between the two: the weather. Today’s commute to work involved a battle against Antarctic winds, freezing sleet, and four wheel drives intent on splashing everyone and everything in their wake–such is the nature of the sadistic 4WD owner the world around. My umbrella turned inside out, tried to escape my clutches, then indulged in a bit of self-harm, snapping half of its spokes. The hood on my coat mocked me by proving too short and too shallow, and my shoes laughed in the face of their apparent waterproofing. Needless to say, I am quite damp, cold and frizzy right now. Sure, Florida has hurricanes, but they’re warm, right?
Wendy Wax’s Ocean Beach offers yet another data point in the comparison of weather conditions between Florida and my native Victoria: you can virtually feel the heat blistering off the pages of beachy read set in Miami, and as I read I found myself hoping that it would somehow vicariously imbue me with the Vitamin D in which I’m sadly lacking. If sunshine and bikinis are the essential elements of a summer read, then this one ticks all the boxes.
Following on from Ten Beach Road, the novel describes the continuing exploits of a tight-knit group of girlfriends who have turned to home renovation and “flipping” as a way of getting back on their collective feet after a series of unfortunate financial disasters. But the stakes are higher for this new renovation project: after the home-made footage from their first restoration endeavour turned them into YouTube sensations, they’ve been courted by a TV network to participate in a warts-and-all home makeover reality series.
But the potential financial boon of the TV show is tempered by the fact that the participants are less than happy about having their dirty laundry aired on national television. There’s young Kyra, a new mother to a child fathered, scandalously, by a married movie star, and who wants to keep her son safe from prying network eyes. Nicole, whose brother’s dodgy Ponzi scheme has bankrupted most of her friends and destroyed her match-making business, and who fears public scrutiny. Avery, who’s still smarting from the betrayal of her ex-husband and worries about being portrayed as a ditz. Deirdre, Avery’s estranged mother, who’s desperate to re-establish a relationship with their daughter. And then there’s Maddie, whose 25-year marriage is on the rocks, and whose husband is disgusted by the very idea of her appearing on television.
But their reticence about having their troubles beamed into lounge rooms around the country pales in comparison to the dire financial positions of those involved: the show represents fiscal make-or-break for the friends. Not to mention that they want to do right by Max, the sweet, recently widowed 90-year-old owner who wants to restore the building to its former glory in order to honour his beloved wife’s memory. The setting of the novel immediately appeals: the estate in question is a ramshackle Art Deco mansion on the Florida coast, and it’s brimming with all sorts of architectural arcana and delicious design (and yes, as anyone who attended my wedding might have gleaned, I am a bit of an Art Deco buff). Indeed, it’s largely the aesthetics of the setting and the obvious strength of the friendships and relationships between the main characters that carries the book, with the nostalgic Max playing a key role as the centrepoint for their interactions. Despite the characters’ diverse motivations and positions, it’s Max who is the uniting factor here, and we watch as the characters, both major and minor, set aside their differences in order to restore the home he once shared with his beloved wife Millie. Truly, it’s worth reading this for Max’s character alone.
Unfortunately, the novel derails a little under the weight of various “high stakes” plot lines that suddenly begin filtering into the narrative. Although the book is written in a tone that is well-suited to commercial women’s fiction, there are certain over-the-top moments that make it feel like a chick lit novel. Take, for example, the movie star who sneaks into the house dressed in turn as a female, an elderly man, and a gardener. Or the mystery surrounding Max’s long-missing son–a mystery that the main characters decide to solve, and do. Or the characters’ bizarre foray out into a hedonistic Hollywood star-filled party. And I can’t say that I feel that a gun-toting would-be killer is really necessary in an otherwise quiet book such as this. (Indeed, it’s never a good sign when you exclaim, “oh, come on!” when reading.) Ocean Beach is at its strongest when its focus is on the main characters, their relationships and their efforts to restore the Millicent, and unfortunately I found that the scenes that took place beyond this key setting–Nicole’s efforts to revive her business, and the characters’ occasional ventures out to a club or restaurant–typically felt extraneous and diluted the book’s overall impact.
Still, these quibbles aside, the appealing beach-side setting and relatable characters make this one an enjoyable, quick read, and I’d happily pick up Ten Beach Road should I come across it–and not in small part because I’m desperately jealous of that warm, sunny Floridian weather.(less)
Let me preface this review by saying that I’m iffy on vampires for the most part and I’m not generally much of an erotica reader, although I’ve read m...moreLet me preface this review by saying that I’m iffy on vampires for the most part and I’m not generally much of an erotica reader, although I’ve read my fair share of Kerrilyn Sparks and Nalini Singh. But having heard Gena Showalter’s name bandied about as one of the stars of the naughtier side of the romance genre, I thought I’d give this one a go. Unfortunately I can’t say I’ve been converted to the cause.
The cover is such that it was with misgivings that I picked up the book and started reading, and things didn’t improve much once within the covers. The story opens with a confused fairytale-esque vibe and continues in that tone until its awkwardly orchestrated happily ever after, and the plotting is essentially a mix of rape and torture scenes, sex scenes, and the occasional flight scene. And given the sloppy, repetitive prose, weak and broad-brush characterisation and fiendishly bad dialogue there’s not much else to redeem this one, I’m afraid.
In my experience, tins and fingers don't go well together. A few years back I found myself at the hospital after losing terribly in a battle against a tin of kidney beans. Kidney beans are good for iron levels, I hear. Bleeding all over the kitchen floor, not so much. Oh, the agony of my hand and its plaintive sobs of haemoglobin.
In tears, I called up my husband, who did his knight-in-a-shining-Ford-Laser thing and rushed home from work. Meanwhile I wrapped up my hand with paper towels galore and a veritable patchwork's quilt worth of hand towels. I had no idea which bit of my hand was cut, precisely, but I didn't relish the idea of peering through all that blood in order to find out.
Since it was late in the evening and the hospital is just down the road, we dashed off to emergency (which yes, does sound a touch melodramatic, but that's the only place they'll admit tin-mauled people clutching tea towels). And then we sat around for a long time listening to very, very ill people coughing up bits of lungs and hazing around in the depths of their ailments.
Finally, it was my turn. I went into the consultation room and offered up my tea-towel swathed hand. The doctor, very kindly, very gently, unwrapped it.
"Oh," she said. "So where is the wound, exactly?"
Once the blood had been cleared away, I wasn't exactly sure, either. Possibly on my little finger? That little bit of skin near the joint?
"I have overactive platelets," I said, helpfully.
The doctor, to her credit, did not laugh at what was an obvious case of hypochondria. Perhaps she was relieved that there was nothing at all wrong with me.
"How about we put a Bandaid on it, hmm?"
I'm only thankful that she didn't offer me one with a picture on it. I'd never have lived it down.
Anyway. If you think that's a ridiculous (if entirely true) story, it's nothing compared with Alex Shearer's Tins (known as Canned in the US, since apparently "tin" is a noun that baffles kids in that area of the world). Our protagonist is Fergal Bamfield, an overwhelmingly, abundantly mediocre kid whose eccentricity is explained away by his parents as his being "clever".
You can get away with plenty of silly or questionable behaviour (see above hospital story) if people decide to dub you "clever". (Although I do hope that whenever it's applied to me it's not always in inverted commas.) In Fergal's instance, one of these clearly divergent behaviours is collecting tins. But not just any old tins, oh no. Discounted tins. Those ones on the sale shelves in the supermarket that are bald of their labels and look as though they've been kicked in the guts with a baseball bat. For Fergal, each and every tin is an ugly little duckling in need of a home. An ugly little duckling that has the potential to be hacked open to reveal all manner of miraculous treasures. Such as duck pate, perhaps. Or pineapple.
Or a finger.
When Fergal opens such a tin, he's less concerned than he is baffled. A finger certainly is a curious thing to find inside a tin. And my, what of that earring found in that other tin? Oh, and that ear, found in a tin snapped up by his "clever" friend Charlotte for her own collection? (Surely you didn't think that tin collecting was so very esoteric that Fergal wouldn't be able to form a community around the endeavour, did you?)
After a bit of deep thought and the subsequent finding of a "please help me!" letter in a tin, the two decide that there's probably something slightly suspicious going on at a local cannery. The two use their sleuthing skills to determine the likely source of these peculiarly defective cans, and one night Fergal slips away to try to get to the bottom of the mystery. Only he doesn't return, and it's only when Charlotte receives a highly personalised letter in a can that she begins to realise what might have become of Fergal...
This is a rambunctiously ridiculous book, and if you have absolutely no issues with reading something of that sort you'll likely enjoy it. Shearer has a page-turning prose style that sees you reading relentlessly (Terminator-style, even) until you get to the final page, and the narrative grows and builds into an immensity of silliness by its end. It's the sort of thing you could imagine in an episode of Rocko's Modern Life (remember that? How old am I, guys? So old.) It requires a certain gleeful suspension of disbelief, particularly where all the fortuitous communication through tin cans is involved, but for the most part it works very well indeed.
My only qualm was the way in which the transition of the third part of the book (Fergal's disappearance) was handled. Here the drama and zaniness steps up dramatically, but the transition is terribly abrupt, with a mere scene marker delineating the gap between Fergal's wondering about the source of the cans and his sudden disappearance. This part of the book, however, forms the key plot twist and climax, and I suspect that it's here that readers will either find themselves enormously in love with the sheer mischief of this story, or will find themselves a bit off-side. I'm a bit on the fence, personally, and don't quite feel that a twist of these proportions was quite set up by the (relatively) mundane events of the prior two parts of the book.
That said, the back cover copy does warn that it may contain traces of nuts...to which my response would be: only traces? If you're after something fun and cheery (and a wee bit gruesome), give it a shot, but please take my anecdote, and this book, as a warning against the terrible dangers of the humble tin can.(less)
For someone whose background involves copious amounts of Jungian psychoanalysis, it's no surprise that Salley Vickers in her work so frequently touches on notions of the development of self, and on individual narrative journeys in order to reach a greater sense of consciousness and agency. While Vickers has in some of her work, such as the tremendously erudite The Other Side of You (see our review), done this by means of the presentation of a character whose main role is to act as a facilitator, other novels, such as her most recent, Dancing Backwards (see our review), have relied on more internally precipitative forces in order to do so. For Vickers, it seems as though such progressions can be afforded through the offerings of art, music, literature, and spiritual considerations, all of which have in common the fact that they require substantial intellectual and emotional engagement on behalf of a given individual. As such, Vickers's novels tend to be those of emotional and spiritual renaissance, in which an individual, or indeed several individuals, epiphanously unfurl into a degree of personal enlightenment, rather in the manner of a fern unrolling towards the touch of the sun. Miss Garnet's Angel, Vickers's accomplished debut, epitomises perfectly this particular authorial proclivity.
When her long time friend Harriet passes away without warning, the abstemious Miss Garnet finds herself facing a void whose substance or raison de etre she is unable, perhaps on some level willingly, to fathom. As a torrent of existential torment threatens (albeit done away with with pragmatic huff), Miss Garnet finds herself fleeing to Venice, where she takes up residence in a homely apartment whose amenities scarcely extend beyond a battered pan for coffee and which is decorated in the tragic remains of her landlady's glory box. But despite her efforts to the sort of anonymity she has so long enjoyed in London, Miss Garnet finds that her quiet, English ways serve only to make her conspicuous amongst the warm Venetian community and amidst the cultural richness of the famously romantic city. Miss Garnet, an individual whose worldview is cripplingly narrow and which relies upon vicariousness rather than personal experience, and who prefers to rely on the expounded theories and perceptions of others rather than engage with her own, finds that her newly public persona is a facilitating force when it comes to developing quaint and curious friendships, and to finding herself the subject of a series of curiously circumspect encounters. Despite her naturally retiring ways, Miss Garnet, or Julia (meaning "young"), as we come to know her, begins to find that her most deeply, intransigently held conceptions in relation to herself and her place in life are perhaps resting on rather shaky foundations. Through a multi-pronged plot that intertwines with the ancient biblical tale of Tobias and the Angel, Vickers traces Miss Garnet's slow but inevitable efforts towards personal realisation as she finds herself nested within a series of complex, ambiguous relationships and curious, inexplicable occurrences.
Miss Garnet's Angel sits beautifully within Vickers's oeuvre, and the more of her work I read the better I'm able to discern how her novels form a thematic (if not a narrative) series. Fortunately, given the fact that the continuity here is thematic, there's no issue with reading her work out of order, which is of course the path I've apparently taken to her work.
Vickers delights in working with those characters who are so often overlooked both within fiction and within society: the quiet, the shy, the introverted, and given this, her choice of Miss Garnet as a protagonist is unsurprising. However, what is surprising is that while many others will conflate introversion and introspection, Vickers sidesteps this trope, giving us a character who is not only cut off from the world, but from herself, too. Her frugality of self is almost total, and she struggles to engage with anything that might have meaning or that may pose a threat to the face that she has so carefully established. Curiously, her lack of identity is so absolute that when pressed, she names herself by her (former) occupation as a history teacher rather than as an historian, the latter being, at least to Miss Garnet, far more intertwined with one's sense of self. Indeed, Miss Garnet's sense of personal isolation is such that she even perceives of herself in the third person; it is some time until she becomes comfortable using her given (or perhaps "Christian", given the themes of the book, and Miss Garnet's self-professed agnosticism) name.
This inability to self-reflect or to challenge one's personal assumptions and conceptions of course extends through to Miss Garnet's necessarily narrow social life: despite having considered the late Harriet a close friend, it is really only in death that Harriet begins to exert any great influence on Miss Garnet's life. Miss Garnet, despite herself, travels with a giddily ostentatious hat that was once Harriet's, and this prop becomes a substitute for her friend, offering Miss Garnet both comfort and a safe and unchallenging means by which she might at last engage with her erstwhile friend. The notion of a post-mortem friendship is curious, and speaks to the degree to which a person or a relationship can be so completely created or moulded by the mind of another. To me, the relationship between Miss Garnet and Harriet is perhaps the strongest element of the book, and Miss Garnet's own realisations about the nature of the relationship--such as the magnanimity Harriet kept from her friend to avoid being seen as frivolous--are often deeply moving.
Miss Garnet's spiritual renaissance, of course, is also alluded to by the way in which her bigotry is slowly uncovered and dealt with: gender, class, and racial constructs come to the fore time and time again and are steadily dealt with as the narrative, and thus Miss Garnet, progresses. I do have some qualms about the way in which issues such as Miss Garnet's virginal, love-less past and her cautious, frugal nature are dealt with through this spiritual awakening, and do find it somewhat confronting that it is, largely, spirituality that is highlighted as the key transformative force for Miss Garnet. Still, Vickers does not require of her character a transmutation from lead to gold or the like: rather, for the most part Miss Garnet largely remains herself, but simply a more weathered, self-assessing version of the same.
Perhaps the element of Miss Garnet's Angel that worked least well for me was the counterpoint narrative, an account of the spiritual recovery of Tobit and Tobias that limns Miss Garnet's own journey. While I appreciate the conceit, I felt that this secondary narrative devolved into confusion at some points, and at others was simply too neat and coincidental; the result of which was that these chapters felt rather smug and knowing, and detracted from the quiet beauty of the rest of the narrative.
As a debut outing, Miss Garnet's Angel is beautifully accomplished, revealing the wit and perspicacity that is a hallmark of Vickers's fiction. Her depiction of Venice is outstanding, and her characters equally so, both of which together lends the book a sense of sincerity and groundedness that is needed given the pervasive themes of religion, spiritualism, and self-discovery. It's my feeling that the narrative would have benefited from a better integration (or excision) of the Tobit/Tobias secondary narrative, but I do appreciate Vickers's efforts in working with such a story.
On a superficial level, Robert Cormier's excellent I Am the Cheese (see my review) involves protagonist Adam's efforts to take a parcel to his father. But to summarise the book thus is deceptively simple: the narrative is complex and multi-layered, involving not just a physical journey, but a journey into the past, and one into Adam's significantly disturbed mind. It's a challenging novel, and one that epitomises the sort of terrifying paranoia so rife in Cormier's work. It's not a dystopian novel as such, but there is certainly a sense of it, with issues of power and trust at the forefront of the narrative, and the incessant questioning of the true motives of those in prominent, governing positions.
If I Could Fly, the latest offering from British author Jill Hucklesby is almost an answer to the call Cormier places with I Am the Cheese, and mirrors this modern classic in myriad ways. Like Adam, Calypso Summers is undertaking a journey of her own, but in reverse: in her case the physical journey involves running from something, while her mental journey entails the opposite. A similarly terrifying setting is evoked, too, but where Cormier does so thematically, Hucklesby does so more literally, setting her novel in a dystopian context where a swine flu-like virus is sweeping through the United Kingdom and Europe, inducing the same sort of societal paranoia evident in Cormier's Cold War setting. Just like Adam, Calypso is always under threat, with similar fears of being turned in by others.
The narrative approach is similar, too, with Calypso's story being one that hinges largely on her internal growth and discovery, or re-discovery, as the case may be: like Adam, she too is missing an essential component of her past, without which the meaning and purpose of her journey is severely diminished. But curiously, where Cormier's novel becomes darker with every page, Hucklesby's remains upbeat. Where Adam feels in some ways broken, with his disenchantment becoming increasingly palpable as the story progresses, Calypso is the eternal optimist. Both carry with them a stuffed toy, but their purposes are the opposite: Adam's is a reminder of his lost childhood, while Calypso's is a cheerful suggestion of what might still be despite her immensely challenging situation.
And indeed where Adam's interactions are characterised by a fear precipitated by his rather Pavlovian past experiences, Calypso's are infinitely hopeful despite having been through her own personal traumas. There is a dreamlike, ethereal sense to these encounters that is the opposite of those found in Cormier's book, which feel similarly ungrounded, but have a nightmarish quality instead. Where Adam becomes increasingly alienated, and cuts himself off from those who potentially pose a threat, withdrawing into himself (and how thoroughly is the case we realise only at the book's end), Calypso takes these threats and turns them into rich and psychically satisfying relationships. The lost and mad Dair becomes simultaneously a father figure and a dependant, becoming both protector and protected, while Andy, the "face at the window" (a notion that reminded me very much of Jean Ure's excellent novel of the same name), rather than being a spectre that haunts, becomes someone who supports and fulfils Calypso instead.
Both books, of course, involve a final twist, neither of which I wish to give away, but I must say that I feel that Cormier's works more successfully than Hucklesby's, which feels almost platitudinous. Cormier's is perhaps one of the most terrifying, perfect endings I've ever read, while for me, Hucklesby's, although in retrospect reasonably well telegraphed, weakens what was for me an otherwise pitch-perfect read (although it might be interesting to read this in tandem with Connie Willis's Passage). Both are heart-rending, but where Cormier's is somehow inexorable, Hucklesby's feels a touch forced (although one does see the parallels with the famous Greek myth).
There's so much more I could say about If I Could Fly, but given the above you've no doubt realised that this book has made rather an impression on me. Indeed, until the last two or so chapters, this was the most exquisitely written, stunningly executed book I've come across in many months, and I'm in awe of Hucklesby's skill as a writer. Her allusive approach towards setting and milieu, her wonderfully whimsical characterisation, her extraordinary way with words, and her wilful approach to narrative risk-taking--I could rave for hours. Not since Cassandra Golds's wonderful The Three Lives of Persimmon (see my review) have I wanted to buy a half dozen copies of a book and thrust it in the hands of anyone passing by. So, oh, how disappointed I was to read this ending, which turned something so heart-wrenchingly poignant and utterly enthralling into something slightly trite and saccharine. I think, given Hucklesby's willingness to tackle such complex issues with a sophisticated combination of levity and pragmatism, that I was expecting something just that little more challenging, and I'm afraid this just doesn't quite deliver in those last few pages. But, still, this is one that will remain with you, and I recommend that you devote a few hours of your life to it.(less)
Ever seen those stereotypical middle-aged Eastern European women on TV? The ones with the red scarves enveloping everything but the equally red tips of their noses? The ones hidden somewhere beneath a flurry of paisley and layering and scowls? The ones who can probably slug back a bottle of vodka without even the need for some zakuski to chase it back?
Well, Gobija Zaksauskas, butt-kicking exchange student-turned-assassin heroine of Joe Shreiber’s Au Revoir, Crazy European Chick doesn’t quite fit the mould. Except, perhaps, the vodka thing. Think Kiki Strike meets Uma Thurman’s character in Kill Bill with a bit of extra attitude and a Lithuanian accent thrown in, and you’re on the right track.
Of course, while it would help to have a bit of forewarning that you’re taking an undercover assassin to your senior prom, poor Perry Stormaire, wannabe musician and University of Columbia waitlistee, is completely clueless. For him, exchange student Gobi is all about potato dumplings, woollen hosiery and Coke bottle lenses so thick you start a fire with them: definitely pity date status. So when she suddenly whips off the disguise (along with most of her clothing), and sets off on a killing spree, Perry’s not quite sure what to do.
Except do everything in his power not to get blood on Daddy’s brand new Jaguar.
Au Revoir, Crazy European Chick is a gutsy (literally) night-time romp through New York City that’s full of greasy mafiosos being murdered in grisly ways, objectionable driving and parking practices, tomato sauce-esque blood splatters and plenty of snark, and from the minute that Gobi gets her assassin on it’s go-go-go.
Written in epistolary format as a series of interlinked college application essays, the book traces Perry’s first impressions of Gobi through to his eventual partner-in-crime status, exploring, amidst all the killing, maiming, and Jaguar-trashing, Perry’s growth from cowed Daddy’s boy into someone willing to take a stand for what he believes in–not to mention that he even gets to play guitar on stage during a shoot-out. That’s livin’ the dream, right there. (Admittedly, he never does stand up to Gobi, but, really, who’d dare?) It’s outrageously, unashamedly riotous and hilariously twee all at once: it’s sort of like swallowing an entire packet of Whiz Fizz all in one go.
What makes this book work is that it’s utterly ridiculous and utterly self-aware, and save for one slightly-too-serious moment where Gobi reveals the motivation behind her revenge spree, it gives not a whit for sense, realism, or the actual likelihood of being able to safely jump out of a window and into a waiting helicopter. It’ll take about an hour and a half out of your life–I read it walking to and from work–and it’s worth it. When you’re done, you’ll wish you were a little more creative when applying to university.(less)
This little snippet was told to my high school writing class by author Cate Kennedy some years ago, and it’s something that has continued to haunt me. Why does the world seem to get smaller rather than larger as we age? Why is growing up accompanied by a closing up of our minds and our imaginations? Why, despite my efforts to extend my mind through art and literature and music, do I see a box where my little brother sees a rocket ship or a tiger? Why is our time necessarily given over to activities and processes whose ends and purpose we can scarcely elucidate? Why do we concern ourselves with the so readily assessed concrete when we might instead spend our days engaging with the abstract, the unanswerable?
Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s astonishingly erudite and incisive novella The Little Prince is a plea to those of us who suffer from the degenerative disease of the imagination known as the adult condition to set aside the prescriptive boundaries of our realities and focus instead on those things that are truly real and meaningful despite the cultural narrative that says otherwise. The book whimsically begins with de Saint Exubery, himself the narrator, describing the dashing of his budding art career at the hands of adults who fail to see what he does:
I showed my masterpiece to the grown-ups, and asked them whether the drawing frightened them.
But they answered: “Frighten? Why should any one be frightened by a hat?”
My drawing was not a picture of a hat. It was a picture of a boa constrictor digesting an elephant. However, it is not until many years later that his potential as an artist is once again revived, and by this point de Saint-Exupery lacks, if you’ll pardon the pun, the exuberance of his childhood years. He has spent his life travelling the world and participating in the various routines social norms required of Important Adult Life, but these achievements mean little when he finds himself stranded in the vastness of the Sahara desert, a place that gives little weight to social status, economic position, or comport. The Sahara is, like de Saint Exubery was all those years ago, vast, open, endless, and given the lack of boundaries or inhibitive forces present–beyond, of course, the most base need to survive–it represents a landscape of potential renaissance and transformation.
And this is indeed the case. For into de Saint-Exupery’s world comes The Little Prince, a solemn, innocent child who has travelled from planet to planet seeking sense and meaning from those he has encounters. The Little Prince’s stories, allegorical tales satirising the futility of modern life, are interspersed with questions that, firmly and deliberately, have a foot in both existentialist and absurdist camps. Thus, while de Saint-Exupery seeks desperately to repair his plane or seek water to sate his thirst, The Little Prince assails him with commands to draw a picture of a sheep that he might use to tame the hungry boabab trees on his own world, asks to consider the nature of rose thorns, and regales him with tales of the fox with whom he has made friends. The apparent strangeness of this situation is contrasted with equally strange situations from our “real” world that are nevertheless perceived as normative: the merchant who has developed a pill designed to slake thirst indefinitely, thus removing the need for (and pleasure of) drinking; a chilling train station scenario that highlights the meaninglessness and lack of engagement associated with work; the careful tending and creation of reverent things but purely for the sake of ornament.
But in addition to its satirical condemnation of adulthood and the superficial machinations of modern life, The Little Prince is also a poignant examination of love in all its forms. It not only addresses filial and romantic love, but also the source, the manifestation, and the reciprocation of love, not to mention the poignant, richly motivated acts to which love can drive us. There are elements of the book that are truly heart-rending: The Little Prince’s struggles with an unrequited love–the object of which would typically be pooh-poohed in our world–and his eventual final act in the name of that love are hugely, deeply moving.
The Little Prince isn’t flawless. There are times when its titular character is simply a skilled orator professing arguable truths and perhaps engaging in sophistry. But it’s difficult not to be rallied by its call to live in a more meaningful, sincere way, and to find beauty and value in those things that are beyond fact, that offer more than superficial engagement.
So perhaps I, as an adult, will one day be able not just to pretend, but to truly believe, that my little brother’s cardboard box is not just that, but is infinitely expandable, transformative: perhaps it is a boabab tree, perhaps a sheep, perhaps a planet of its own. Until then, every time I feel lost within the grim absurdity of adulthood, I’ll take to heart de Saint-Exupery’s exhortation to look up at the sky and ponder whether somewhere, a sheep that I’ve never seen has eaten a rose. And I hope you do the same, too.(less)
Texas Hold Him is a slight, simple read, and it’s hard to argue that the premise is anything awe-inspiring. The speed with which Lottie throws away he...moreTexas Hold Him is a slight, simple read, and it’s hard to argue that the premise is anything awe-inspiring. The speed with which Lottie throws away her lady-like upbringing to go and work on a boat full of harlots and gamblers feels a little off, and the reader does wonder why she doesn’t go through more standard channels before resorting to playing poker as a way of saving her father. But once that initial disbelief is suspended, it’s all a good deal of fun: witty (and often crass) banter, untimely meetings and overheard conversations, and innuendo galore.
Given the spate of mediocre YA dystopian fiction hitting the shelves of late, it’s pleasing to read one that is as beautifully wrought as Caragh O’Brien’s debut Birthmarked. O’Brien’s novel, while admittedly flawed plot-wise, relying far too strongly on coincidence and circumstance, is thematically complex and challenging, and all of this is further complemented by largely spot-on characterisation and a world that is eminently believable.
Three hundred years from now, Lake Unsuperior is a world where the haves and the have-nots are explicitly divided by a Berlin-esque wall. Within the wall lives the Enclave, those genetically gifted individuals who live lives of relative leisure and abundance, while outside are those who eke out a simple, subsistence-level style of existence. But as with all such yin-and-yang societies, there is a sort of symbiosis going on here: those outside the wall pay to the Enclave a patently unusual tithe–their children. The tithe is essential to maintain appropriate levels of population within the wall, but is, of course, only extended to healthy children. Protagonist Gaia, a midwife by trade, is regularly privy to both the births of these children and to their subsequently being taken by the Enclave. It’s a fact of life that Gaia, who is socialised into believing that not only are such things normal, but they’re for the greater good, never questions the practice until her mother, herself a midwife, is kidnapped for her suspected crimes against the Enclave.
This becomes the catalyst for Gaia to begin questioning not only her role within society, but the ethical foundations of the Enclave as a whole, and the rest of the book follows Gaia’s efforts to enter the hallowed walls of the Enclave society, and her subsequent questioning of the way of live of these individuals–and of the Wharfton society in which she has grown up. And O’Brien does an admirable job of these. Awkwardly telegraphed plot coincidences and “just in time” rescues and escapes aside, just about every facet of this book is well done. O’Brien’s world distinctly recalls that of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, in which women essentially become little more than wombs valued for their reproductive ability, and where the epitome of their existence is the birth of a healthy child.
O’Brien challenges the reader to assess the value the life of the individual over the value of a wider society, but doesn’t let things lie at this broader level of conception. We’re told of how the lack of genetic diversity within the Enclave is leading to a high prevalence of haemophilia within the Tvaltar, itself a commentary on both the eugenics-style approach of this society, and also on the way it has turned its back on science and technology, this latter perhaps in response to the human-induced global warming that has led to the current situation. The regression of this supposedly progressive society is chilling: despite creating an illusion of pomp and splendour, we’re shown a world that is not only technologically and scientifically backwards, but which is also hopelessly parochial in terms of both its politics and social norms. The “protectorate” ruler, for example, could be characterised as either a dictator or an absolute monarch, as his powers seem endless and unmitigated; similarly, the justice system has devolved into a “lynch ‘em all” style hysteria, with prisoners either hanged without trial, or imprisoned indefinitely in order to serve the needs of the state. And, of course, individuals are kept in order by the prevalence of security cameras–the fact that these are one of the few pieces of technology to have survived the past few hundred years is eerily indicative of the power of the state and its efforts to exert power and cow its citizens into submission.
Likewise, the lack of dissemination of knowledge is worrisome: the remaining scientific and medical knowledge of the world is kept amongst only a scant few, and this specialisation touches on those same issues raised by HG Wells’s The Time Machine, which I reviewed last week. Likewise, it’s hard not to consider Jules Vernes’ notion of the pursuit of science to the exclusion of all else, which is a key theme in Journey of the Centre of the Earth (see my review).
Perhaps the key underpinning idea of this book is whether the ends can ever justify the means, and given this emphasis, Birthmarked fits in well with books such as The Chrysalids (see my review), as O’Brien ponders relentless what it is that makes us human, and what it is that makes one human better (or more human) than another. As in The Chrysalids, Birthmarked‘s society is arbitrary in its decisions about what is genetically or evolutionarily “correct” (indeed our main character is horribly scarred–a fact that makes her “unfit”, despite it having nothing to do with her genetics) and the result is chilling, particularly when applied to our own historical context or those scientific dilemmas regarding genetic manipulation or genetic selection that have been on the horizon for a while now.
One facet of this novel that I have to applaud is O’Brien’s deft avoidance of the “noble savage” trope. While Gaia initially romanticises her world outside the wall as a sort of bucolic idyll filled with rosy-cheeked women and rustic delights, her conceptions become far more incisive as her worldview is necessarily expanded courtesy of her travels within Tvaltar. But similarly her perceptions of the world within the wall change, too: rather than seeing people as a sort of faceless collective–much as the Protectorate seems to–she begins to see people for the individuals that they are. Admittedly, it is unusual to read a dystopian novel narrated by someone who is so disturbingly uninformed, but given the stories we hear about those living within communities where propaganda and misinformation is the word of the day, well, it’s believable–albeit disturbing. Some readers may find this confusion and ambivalence frustrating, but this, combined with the contrasting narrative of semi love-interest Leon, makes for a thought-provoking read throughout.
Just as a final aside, I have to admit that I’m rather disappointed to hear that this book is the first part of a trilogy (or however many books). I thought that Birthmarked ended in a manner that was superb: in the manner of all of the golden-age classics I’ve referenced in this review it was open-ended enough to evoke myriad questions from the reader, and I’m a bit saddened to hear that those ambiguities will be resolved in future volumes. With luck, though, O’Brien will prove me wrong.(less)
With A Murderous Glaze, veteran mystery writer Tim Myers has turned his hand (and gender, given that the books are written under the subtle pen name o...moreWith A Murderous Glaze, veteran mystery writer Tim Myers has turned his hand (and gender, given that the books are written under the subtle pen name of Melissa Glazer) to a new cozy mystery series featuring curmudgeonly pottery shop owner Carolyn Emerson. One of the things that I’ve enjoyed about the cozy mysteries that I’ve read of late has been the almost magical ability of any hobby, interest, or occupation to be turned into something revolving around dead bodies, blackmail, and groan-worthy puns, and given that I quite enjoyed an art-related cozy I read earlier this year, I had high hopes for A Murderous Glaze.
It seems to be a cozy mystery standard that the body should turn up fairly early on in the book, and A Murderous Glaze is no exception, as heroine Carolyn happens across the body on the very first page. Unfortunately, given the lack of context here, the whole situation is rather confusing and unanchored, giving the book a rather rocky start. These same problems are in evidence (pardon the pun) throughout the book.
The victim is Betty Wickline, although who she is and why she should turn up dead in Carolyn’s shop is never really made clear: it seems that Carolyn’s only previous interaction with the woman extended over only a few moments during which Carolyn somehow developed a sense of animosity towards her. Sheriff John Hodges, a rather unlikeable chap by nature, immediately casts Carolyn as the prime suspect, and given that the two both have strong and snappy personalities, they spend rather a large part of the book hurling insults and glares at each other. However, the murder is bad for business, which is something that needs to be remedied ASAP, so when Carolyn is done engaging in abrasive repartee with the sheriff, she sets off to interrogate various individuals from a pool of suspects so large that it deserves its own lifeguard. The book meanders quite a bit as a result, as scarcely any of the suspects have motive or reason to have committed the murder, and it takes until the last fifty pages or so for Carolyn to have the idea of establishing an alibi for each of her suspects. Once this is done, things wrap up faster than a frazzled parent on Christmas Eve: the murder is solved very abruptly in one page—the last page.
While I liked the idea of a snarky middle-aged heroine, the reality became somewhat frustrating after reading scene after scene in which Carolyn bites back at whomever has wronged her. In addition, while the small Vermont town where the book takes place is fairly well drawn (including lots of shops with the requisite punny names), the characterisation of the other players is also very broadbrush: there are some potentially interesting people sketched out in the book, but none of them ever really come to life, which has implications for the strength of both the narrative and the mystery.(less)
oung Billy Colman’s knowledge of the world is limited to the Ozarks, where his family make their home, subsisting on the land as best as they can. It is a challenging existence, although a rewarding one in many ways, and Billy sees himself as wanting for nothing–save for a pair of raccoon hunting dogs, which will allow him to make a more meaningful contribution to his family, and in so doing allow him to position himself as a masculine figure within his female-dominated family. But a pair of quality raccoon hunting dogs is costly, and is far more than Billy’s family can afford. After wheedling and pleading with all his might, Billy takes a different approach, and decides to earn the money for his dogs himself. It’s here that we see Billy begin his transformation into an adult, and here that we first see a glimpse of his stoic, selfless character. For two years Billy toils endlessly in the name of his dogs, hunting, trapping, and gathering produce to sell at his grandfather’s store. When at last he has enough to vindicate his efforts, he seeks out his grandfather’s help in contacting the owner.
From this point, Billy’s life changes dramatically, and what follows is a moving series of events. His grandfather supports him wholeheartedly in his efforts–one has to wonder whether the alleged price drop on his dogs is actually the case, or whether his grandfather may have had something to do with this–and encourages Billy to do whatever is needed to make the most of his dream. Billy ventures, for the first time, into town, engaging with the locals and their unfamiliar norms and expectations, and while he is treated pleasantly enough by some, he is tormented and mercilessly mocked by others for his “hillbilly” ways. His march through the town with his prize, an event he expected to be triumphant and brazen, is destroyed by the teasing and bullying of the townie youngsters, and we see a strange and tragic inversion of the cultured and the uncultured. Billy, despite being “uncouth”, is the morally superior, judging not and avoiding acting out against the other. However, his return to the familiar countryside of his home is less of a relief than might have been expected, as during the night he and his young pups are accosted by the terrifying spectre of a mountain lion. It’s a motif that will occur again later on in the book, and one that I suspect marks Billy’s stepping into adulthood and the challenge that this will bring.
For with his dogs does come Billy’s adolescence: he develops in a number of ways, growing sensitive, introspective, and independent, and that wheedling nature that we saw earlier on in the book vanishes altogether. Billy’s dogs become an extraordinarily important part of his identity to the extent that the three are almost parts of a whole: together they are more than the sum of their parts. Billy’s determination and drive see him excel as a hunter, and the love he feels for his dogs is palpable. But there is almost a dark drive here–Billy is determined to achieve far beyond what might be expected of him and his small dogs, and amidst the triumph of the underdog narrative, one wonders whether there’s a slightly self-destructive bent bubbling just below the surface. We see this when Billy’s desire to remain at the homestead until the end of his days conflicts with his parents’ desire to move into town to further their children’s education: there’s a sense that Billy, afraid of the wider world, is deliberately maintaining a sense of distance and isolation. Perhaps this is part of the reason that he begins to develop such a closeness with his grandfather and father–a closeness that has not heretofore manifested.
But there comes a point when his canine companions can no longer be his guiding light, as indeed they have been throughout the narrative. I won’t lie–the ending of this book is desperately cruel and heart-wrenching, but there’s a sense of necessity to it, a precipitative force that catapults Billy from adolescence into adulthood, and the accompanying responsibilities.
Where the Red Fern Grows is a simply but beautifully written novel, with a depth that is far greater than might be gleaned upon a superficial read. It’s a coming of age story, of course, but one that deals thoughtfully with notions of alienation, morality, otherness, responsibility, and fate, and I’m not surprised that it has become such a treasured modern American classic.(less)
My husband has a friend who appears to have internalised every word of The Game, and to rather nauseating effect. This guy owns not one, but several cream-coloured suits, wears brimmed hats inside, breaks out in French (and/or karate poses) whenever his girl-dar starts beeping, begins every sentence with “I”, and has very creatively reinterpreted the term monogamy. And for some utterly unfathomable reason, the lonely masochists of the fairer sex–and no few of his own–flock in his direction.
This guy is the embodiment of the question that since time immemorial baffled sociologists and laypeople alike: what is it about obnoxiousness, arrogance and self-obsession that is apparently so appealing to the tragic moths who fling themselves into this emotionally devoid flame, knowing, surely, that they’ll get burnt?
Roger Fox, the subtly named playboy in Robert Manni’s The Guys’ Guy’s Guide to Love, has all the answers, it seems, and when his friend Max Halliday seems to be suffering in the love stakes, takes the latter under his wing in order to school him in the ways of your overachieving Lothario. Under Roger’s tutelage, Max learns how to best cast his net into the world of online dating, where women flit in schools of romantic desperation; how to shortcut his way from introductions to the bedroom through the simple act of commenting on someone’s hair or handbag; and how to hone his pick-up skills so that, in a thumbing of the nose at John Nash’s game theory, he is able to pick first the best of the lot before moving on to the less-than-exemplary as his sex drive requires.
Max, although initially reticent about this dating-by-numbers approach to things, finds himself steadily drawn into the wanton and hedonistic ways of Roger–especially after being offered a position as a relationship columnist in a new magazine designed to help empower women. Nice guy Max decides to use his insider knowledge of Roger’s morally wayward ways to warn the magazine’s readership about the sharks cruising amongst those fish in the dating sea. His column, however, resonates with New York’s single women, and Max is suddenly thrust into a spotlight of adoration that tests his own moral mettle. Roger, meanwhile, is beginning to realise that there may be more to life than soulless one night stands and endless Tom Collins cocktails.
Set against a backdrop of the cut-throat advertising world and the Big Apple’s dating scene, The Guys’ Guy’s Guide to Love seeks to marry Mad Men with Sex and the City, with endless bad behaviour in both the business and dating worlds. Its characters are driven to conquer both boardrooms and bedrooms with equal fervour, and competitors and love interests are put to bed with calculating coldness that would make even Don Draper flinch. But the novel ultimately falls short of its mark with a plot that becomes convoluted due to the deeply interlinked nature of its subplots and characters, and characters that in their flamboyance consign themselves to cliche. The downward spirals of Max and Roger and their subsequent epiphanies quite often feel tedious, with Max especially failing to appeal. He’s a largely drab character who acts as a springboard for the shenanigans of the others, the sort of central pivot that links the other characters together, but is unmemorable himself. However, Max is somehow both unremarkable and awful: he laughs at Roger’s misogynistic jokes and is in his own way as much of a playboy as the friend whose behaviour he condemns, but without the levity that makes Roger bearable. And honestly, the happy ending that eventually befalls him frustrated me to no end. I loathe the idea of a woman in waiting in a modern novel, especially in one like this that attempts to paint women as all about agency and empowerment.
The novel also struggles under the weight of its own efforts to enlighten and proselytise, flitting from the witty repartee that is Manni’s strength to dense thickets of backstory that feel awkward and imposing rather than illuminating as they are presumably meant to be. The lengthy explanations of the various characters’ motivations and their reasons for pursuing particular paths feel gratuitous, and I think that the novel would be better for their excision.
Take this passage about Serena, for example:
“…she’d harboured a basic distrust of men, and as a result, had never married. Now she longed for an opportunity to find a loving partner who’d want her just as she was without making her change or do things his way. Maybe when the time was right, she’d want a child.”
Or this about Roger:
“Roger remained locked outside, lacking emotion or joy beyond the fleeting elation from [sex]…Somewhere, deep down, Roger was aware of his inability to be open to love, and he desperately wanted that to change. But for now, love was elusive–a way of forgetting.”
Or this about Max:
“…He loved sex, but in his heart, he was a serial monogamist. Falling in love with the right woman had always been his goal. Unlike Roger, Max viewed emotional intimacy as a prelude to sex. He had to feel an underlying connection with a woman….And despite his newfound celebrity and a parade of one-night stands, Max was lonely.”
These passages are lobbed in amongst the light-hearted banter like grenades of finger-wagging, and they undermine the sharp critique that Manni is aiming for. The same applies to Max’s column, the awkwardly titled “Guy’s Guy’s Guide to Love” for which the novel is named, each issue of which is reprinted in full in the text, but is honestly rather dull and preachy. With passages like these, the novel begins to feel almost like a self-help novel whose various “be the woman you want to be!” manifestos are divided by scene breaks in the form of sex scenes.
There’s potential here, but Max and Roger become so alike in the end that there’s no male character for whom we want to cheer, and the result is something the borders uneasily on the misogynistic. I felt that the novel would have benefited with a good bit of paring back so that Manni’s dialogue and obvious insider knowledge of the advertising industry could stand on their own–these elements are quite illuminating enough without the added layer of forced elucidation.
This one wasn’t quite my cup of tea, but it was interesting to see a chick lit style novel written from the male perspective, and I expect that others might enjoy this no-holds-barred take on love and romance in NYC.(less)
I’m a notorious late adopter. I got around to reading Harry Potter only when the fifth book came out. I started wearing skinny jeans several years int...moreI’m a notorious late adopter. I got around to reading Harry Potter only when the fifth book came out. I started wearing skinny jeans several years into the trend. I’m still on the first season of Mad Men. I hyphenate words long ago adopted into the vernacular as happy little compounds. I still haven’t used my Myki. And so, here I am, at last, reviewing Dead Until Dark, the first of Charlaine Harris’s best-selling vampire mystery series, of which there are eleven or so books, and several seasons’ worth of a television series.
Sookie Stackhouse is your typical fictional small-town waitress: sweet and charming, uneducated but razor-sharp, and with a tongue just as lacerating as a cat-o-nine tails. Of course, Sookie does have a secret or two that sets her apart from her fellow waitresses. Such as the fact that she can read minds, a skill, or as Sookie sees it, a disability, that makes it a little tough to keep her tongue in check sometimes. But still, for the most part, she gets on with the job. Except on occasions involving handsome vampires. And those who would like to see said handsome vampires bled dry for fun and profit. On such occasions our Sookie prefers to take the law into her own hands, and my, how such a small event can turn into something rather substantial. A torrid love affair between the living and the once-living. Stigma and suspicion. Fear of the unknown. And also murders. A whole lot of murders. Fortunately, Sookie’s no sook, and with her new vampire chap, happily sets off to fight crime in rural Louisiana–with sometimes disastrous, and sometimes surprisingly effective, results.
Dead Until Dark is vampire fiction for the cozy mystery set. Fun, flippant, and not too taxing. While Harris’s laconic, staccato style takes a while to warm to, her setting and characters are much easier with which to identify: both are simultaneously familiar and odd, offering a slightly canted perspective on day-to-day life. Sookie neatly fills the waitress stereotype, making her an instantly recognisable and sympathetic figure to the reader, and allowing her mind-reading (dis)ability to be more easily accepted. Similarly, the town of Bon Temps, is your small southern town with a slight twist: the fact that vampires and other creatures of the night roam its streets. The mix of the familiar and the slightly less so allows for easy suspension of disbelief, and Harris’s approach to the way in which vampires, who are nominally citizens and who are subject to the same rights and responsibilities as their living counterparts, is quite interesting, and can be taken as an (admittedly insubstantial) allegory of race relations in this area. It’s also nice to see something other than the middle class represented, although Harris’s use of the vampires to potentially represent the cruel and overwhelming force of the middle class–not to mention her rather conscience-free cast of police officers, all of whom seem less than concerned about the not-so-piffling numbers of young girls winding up dead–does feel a little squirm-inducing.
Sookie, too, has the potential to be an intriguing character, although in this, the first book, we’re not given the depth of character that I expect will begin to emerge later down the track. This can be one of the problems with a multi-book character arc: the type of plot, theme, and character development usually condensed into a single volume tends, like that last teaspoon of Vegemite in the jar, to be somewhat thinly spread in order to accommodate the breadth of the rest of the volume. Harris does, however, handle well Sookie’s mind-reading ability, and I was interested to see the ways in which this ability has so significantly affected so many of the domains of her life: her career, education, and romantic life, for example, have all been substantially guided or retarded by this ability, leading to Sookie’s dismissal of her skills as a “disability”. Of course, her perception of the same does begin to change as she finds herself embroiled in a murder investigation–a sphere in which mind reading can be quite a useful skill, and not to mention rather more portable than a lie detector device–and when she finds herself courting not one, but two, supernatural chaps. It’s interesting to see Sookie begin to see that her ability offers opportunities in addition to its limitations, and to watch her historically black and white approach to dealing with the world become a little less chiaroscuro and a little more grey. I did, however, find myself a little bemused by Sookie’s weird romantic ambivalence and constant about-facing when it came to her self-worth, and then felt more than a little frustrated by the “dark past” reason given as a precipitating factor for these particular feelings.
As a lover of cozies that traverse all manner of hobbies (scrapbooking mysteries!), professions (dry cleaning sleuths!), and settings (Ancient Mayan civilisation!) I rather enjoyed the mystery element of this book, and did take to kooky Sookie as a small-town detective. However, some of the other elements of the book didn’t quite work for me as a reader. The pacing of the novel is rather uneven, and has certain slow-burning elements that frustrated the instant-gratification-seeking Gen Y in me, and other elements that are over so quickly that a girl can’t help but wonder “is that it?” While establishing a pace that satisfies at both the series and single volume level is certainly a challenge, I felt that more could have been done here to even out the novel. Particular areas of frustration include the integration of the legal status of vampires, the first Sookie-to-the-resuce scene, the rather prolonged series of jokes regarding an undead Elvis, and the love triangle between Sookie and her two night-lovin’ suitors. Similarly, the romance angle here was something that I rather struggled with–admittedly this may be to do rather with my absolute loathing of manipulative, possessive alpha males. While I’m a romantic at heart, I’m also deeply cynical, and find it rather irritating to have characters proclaiming their undying (erm, or whatever the vampiric equivalent is–un-undying?) love for one another after a few fangtastic romps and some meaningful glances over filter coffee. This, perhaps, speaks to the difficulty of bridging two distinct genres: while I could imagine that paranormal romance fans would be pleading for greater emphasis on this element, I can similarly see mystery lovers wishing for it to be dialled back in order to focus on the gumshoe angle–and particularly so given Harris’s background as a mystery writer.
Dead Until Dark is fun, fluffy, and immensely readable, and I can see how it has managed to pique the interest of such a substantial audience. It’s sweet and charming, and doesn’t pretend to be anything more, which is refreshing. As the first in the series, it’s a book that promises good things to come, although admittedly if it were pitched as a standalone I’d be rather less impressed. Sookie’s no-nonsense approach to vampire varmints is enjoyable, and despite a few painfully cliched plot elements, such as Sookie’s unspoken-of past, an over-reliance on the familiar and archetypal, and some plotting and pacing issues, the book offers a solid few hundred pages of escapism.(less)
When I was in year eight I had an English teacher who would have us write essays in class, and would then commend students who could hand in a piece of work free of spelling mistakes. I will never forget the time he held up an error-free essay, then looked the student in the eye and said, "but it's not as though you took any risks, is it?"
Our teacher would have preferred our work to be peppered with mistakes so long as it meant that we were striving to use new and unfamiliar words, or to challenge ourselves stylistically.
As a reader I have a special place in my heart for ambitious books, books that try to do something a little different, even if that something different isn't pulled off with quite the flair it might be. Because I would much, much rather find myself journeying with a book that is striving to grasp at something but doesn't quite make it than a book that is generally solid but that has little other to commend it than its very plodding solidity.
And in what is becoming an endless march of indistinguishable YA, it is so wonderful to be able to pick up something like Dark Dude. It's not a perfect book by any means, but it's a passionate book, and an honest book, and a risky book. It's a book that attempts to take you to places, to make you consider your own place, and to give you a fleeting moment or two of sheer beauty.
Comparisons with Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude are in my mind inevitable, so I'll get that out of the way: yes, this is definitely redolent of the Lethem. In fact, it's so much so that it's almost a response in novel form. Like The Fortress of Solitude, Dark Dude gives us a protagonist who straddles cultures, living as an outsider in a world he will never quite be able to make his own; similarly both books use art as a lens through which race and culture can be examined.
But where Lethem takes us deep into the grim depths of New York, lifting us out only with a hint or two of magic, Hijuelos takes protagonist Rico Fuentes out of New York entirely, setting him down in amongst the bucolic fantasy of rural Wisconsin. Though it sounds like a cheap tree-change ploy, it's a surprisingly effective plot choice, allowing Hijuelos to explore the same issues of identity against a setting that is effectively the reverse of the book's gritty 60s Harlem setting.
A pale-skinned Cuban American whose Spanish is functional at best, Rico has always been insecure in his identity, and he is further distanced from his Harlem peers by his bookish interests--something that is perceived as a marker of white cultural identity. And yet within the insulated, isolated context of Wisconsin, where he should in theory be freed from the cultural expectations that he has struggled with his whole life in New York, he finds himself wrestling with similar questions. Though able to pass as white, Rico is still in many ways on the cultural borderline: his speech patterns and manner immediately give him away when dealing with the locals, and he finds himself applying the same coping mechanisms and cross-cultural balms in doing so.
Though there's a heavy-handedness at times to the way that Hijuelos draws parallels between Rico's lived experiences in and expectations of New York and Wisconsin, Rico's fumbling sense of wonder and search for understanding and growth mitigates this somewhat: while he may not be an analytical character, there's a quietness in the way that he navigates the social challenges thrown at him that offers a space for the reader to reflect on the universality of prejudice and the often unfathomably cruel, animal ways in which people can act. By stripping away the tough context of New York and transposing these incidents into sweet, all-American setting, Hijuelos shows us just how much our expectations of people, and in particular certain marginalised groups, are mediated by context.
The novel works even where it shouldn't largely because of Rico's voice: and this is one of the few YA books I've read recently where the "voice" element extends beyond a colloquial middle class snideness, where the narrative voice is actually wielded by a character who is worthy of telling a story, who actually has some capability of seeing the world with something other than skin-deep diarising cynism. I can't tell you how frustrated I am by the way that the definition of a successful narrative voice in YA appears to be anything that ticks all the boxes of endlessly casual, stylistically devoid, snark-riddled reportage. Trust me: readers can tell when "voice" is being used as a short-cut for characterisation, and where it's being used to deflect readers away from the fact that a book has nothing at all to say.
For a first person book to work, our narrator not only has to have something to say, but to have the ability to express it. And Hijuelos does this admirably. Rico is a lower-class, racially ambiguous, embattled kid, and let's face it, he's hardly going to spout Shakespeare at you. But what he does do is see moments of such beauty in our world, and see these with such surprise and wonder, that you can't help but smile.
Dark Dude isn't a perfect book, and to be honest, I'm almost glad that it isn't, because I'd hate this to be the novel equivalent of the error-free essay my teacher held up in my class all those years ago. It's flawed, yes, but it reaches for those heights, and even when it doesn't hit them, you're overjoyed that it's at least tried to.(less)
I've always had qualms about the "if you like X you'll like Y!" comparison trick that seems to be our Twitter-era shortcut for actually saying anything meaningful about a book. And with good reason, apparently: I've been burnt so many times now that I'm experiencing a sort of Pavlovian response to being told, with a marketer's certainty, that I'm going to love something. Particularly if that something is compared, by means of a peppy little design element on the front cover, with a recent blockbuster film. Often, these comparisons are a sort of critical effervescence: fizzy and alluring, but disappointingly empty. Sometimes, they're so far off base that they're not even playing baseball any more.
From the outset, Niki Valentine's Possessed is an insecure teen desperate for attention and validation. There's the "if you loved Black Swan you'll love this!" exhortation on the front cover. There's the bizarre intro explaining that the Valentine is, under another name, actually an award-winning, best-selling author. But neither of these succeed in their efforts of misdirection. Frankly, Possessed is a scrappy, mediocre work at best, and I'm a bit baffled by its very existence.
Set in a music academy in England, the novel follows musical prodigy Emma, a scholarship student from Manchester who's distinctly out of place amongst the moneyed, upper-class set. Fortunately, Emma immediately meets the charismatic twins Sophie and Matilde, who become her close friends. It doesn't take long, however, for Emma to realise that there's something strangely possessive about the twins' attitudes towards each other, with Sophie in particular becoming almost vicious when it seems that someone might intrude upon her relationship with Matilde. The dynamics between the trio are eerie and unbalanced, becoming more so when Matilde begins dating Henry, introducing further change into their already complex network.
There's also the external pressure of daily life at the academy, and shy Matilde seems to be buckling under the weight of it, with the crux of it occurring when she breaks down during a masterclass. Not long after, she's found dead, apparently having committed suicide. Emma is distraught at the loss of her friend, and between her grief and the demands of her coursework, she finds that her grip on reality seems to be slipping. The line between dream and memory becomes blurred for her, and she seems to be losing time as well. But throughout it all there's one constant: the possessive, immensely charismatic Sophie, who just might be at the root of it all.
Possessed seeks to bring us an unreliable narrator as well as an unreliable narrative, striving to have us wonder whether Emma's experiences are real or imagined, supernatural or explicable. But though the concept is compelling, the execution is lacking enough that if you were lining up for the guillotine you wouldn't need to be too worried about your head coming off.
The prose reads like a sledgehammer to the brain, with every sentence so short and choppy that you have to wonder whether, unbeknownst to the rest of us, there was at some point last year a recent urgent recall of every form of punctuation other than a full-stop. Take, for example: "She knew she might have imagined it but she felt like she'd seen a ghost. She didn't believe in that kind of thing but it was how it felt." Or this: "Emma stared at the space where Henry had been. It was for the best. She would have liked a boyfriend like Henry, but how could she with what was going on in her life?" Or this (spoiler alert--skip on to the next paragraph if you're sensitive to that sort of thing): "Emma was mostly happy and she didn't feel that someone else was in control of her now. She no longer believed that she had been possessed....She had been stressed and who wouldn't have been under the circumstances?"
The foreshadowing is not shaded so much as it is blocked in with the narrative equivalent of bolding and all-caps, and I'm slightly offended that the author thought it necessary to repeatedly, and I mean repeatedly (REPEATEDLY. REPEATEDLY. Get it? Are you sure? Because I have plenty of text colours and font options at my disposal here) highlight the behavioural distinction between the twins in order to set up an ambiguity of identity. Had I marked every occasion that Matilde's nail biting and Sophie's self-assuredness was mentioned my copy would have been more bristly than value pack of toothbrushes.
The hamfistedness of the writing infects the characterisation, too, and there's a sense of these characters being little more than chunks of ectoplasm drifting around on the bookish version of the Hollywood blue screen. Because of the utter lack of depth given to Emma or any of those around her, it's impossible to respond to her bizarre actions with anything more than a bewildered "what?" (thus I exclaimed many times while reading this book.) It's not that there's an ambiguity of reality going on here, it's that this book makes absolutely no sense on any level unless one is to assume that the entirety of the narration exists in Emma's head and this is all a retelling of Robert Cormier's I am the Cheese or something by Philip K Dick. Unfortunately I am quite certain that this is not the case.
Since it's still January, it's not too late to add another New Year's resolution to my current one of never reading comments on the internet. And that's to never, ever read a book that's compared with a current blockbuster film unless it's for schadenfreudian purposes.(less)
Wealthy American heiress Cora Cash, the protagonist of Daisy Goodwin’s debut My Last Duchess, is rather aptly, if not especially subtly, named. Her name, though, rather sets the tone for what is to follow: My Last Duchess makes no pretenses at being a subtle book. It is, rather like Cora herself, brash, bold, and unapologetic for being what it is. Which is a curious melding of serious historical fiction, a Mills and Boon title, and a page or two from New Weekly magazine. This book is a strange beast, particularly considering Goodwin’s wide-ranging literary credentials, but it’s quite a compelling one.
Cora lives a somewhat conflicted existence. She seems awash, afloat, a little lost amongst a tight schedule of costume changes and social commitments. While there’s no doubt that she revels in the attention and adoration she receives from her contemporaries, and that she submits rather happily to those aspects of her life that serve to propel her along the upwardly-mobile channels to which her mother, Ms Cash, has worked so doggedly to gain access, Cora seems to crave respite from her mother’s unwavering focus on appearance and reputation. The emancipatory prospects of the humble bicycle, for example, fill Cora with glee: her humble metal contraption represents a temporary escape from the demands of her mother and her much vaunted social status. But still, Cora is aware of the role that she plays, and of the responsibilities that come with this position.
While their wealth may be paralleled by none, the Cashes suffer from that terrible ailment of the nouveau riche: the absence of any sort of true social respectability. It is an unfortunate reality that America, land of opportunity though it might be, suffers from a painful shortage of aristocratic titles. And because of their rarity, Mrs Cash, much as she would an overlarge emerald brooch or a diamond-tipped hatpin, would rather like to get her hands upon one in order to pin it quite firmly to herself.
Central to her machinations is, of course, young Cora, an ambivalent woman who at times draws sustenance from the adulation of others whilst at times shrinking from it. While the concept of an aristocratic title certainly holds its appeal, Cora harbours an affection for her humble and unprepossessing friend Teddy, whose quiet charm and genuine nature are vastly at odds with the vulgar ostentation and social posturing that characterises life as a Cash. Despite her reservations, however, Cora soon finds herself en route to England, where a painful riding accident results in her becoming the ward, and quite quickly the bride, of Ivo, a destitute duke who is rather happy to bestow his title upon his new wife in exchange for access to her substantial dowry.
Cora, for her part, adores the duke, perhaps in part for the fresh start and freedom that he represents, and she happily attempts to demonstrate the extent of her affection via the means to which she is accustomed to doing so: money. Her efforts, however, are met with responses ranging from cool indifference to something more abject and cruel, and Cora soon realises the very real difficulties involved in reconciling their different cultures and backgrounds. Cora’s efforts to overcome the day-to-day realities of this chasm are in no way helped by the various other exigencies that present themselves: her relationship with Ivo, from its beginning somewhat precarious, crumbles beneath her efforts to right things, in part due to a larger, deeper secret he is keeping; and her efforts to ingratiate herself into English society life are thwarted by her bitter, disapproving mother-in-law and a poisonous friendship with a woman who calculatingly betrays her. Cora finds herself in a desperate situation where she must choose between the life she has been raised to live, and one that would cast her into scandal, but that very well may bring with it the emancipation she has always longed for.
My Last Duchess is certainly a page-turning read. An incident at the beginning of the book where Mrs Cash’s elaborate outfit, festooned with, believe it or not, lightbulbs, catches fire establishes the Cashes’ situation and illustrates quite clearly (and actually rather chillingly) the lengths to which they are willing to go in order to better themselves in the eyes of others. This, and a few other early scenes would seem to allude to something large and grand to come, but this unfortunately turns out not to be the case. Rather, the book largely retraces the lineage of period literature without offering anything particularly new—or even much in the way of the humour or incisiveness so characteristic of the classic novels contemporary to the time in which this book is set. Moreover, the juxtaposition of American wealth and progressiveness with the stunted aristocracy of England is hammered home time and time again, and begins to feel forced and needy.
It’s unfortunate, too, that both Cora and her duke are so difficult to empathise with; as a reader, I found myself rather more intrigued by the tales that aren’t told, or that are only told in part—those of Bertha and of Teddy—than I did by the newly minted married couple. Cora’s insular nature becomes rather frustrating after a while, as do her ceaseless efforts to solve any challenge put before her by throwing some cash at it. The duke on the other hand, is simply a frightful individual, and the passive-aggressiveness that accompanied his every appearance made me turn the pages a little faster if only to get away from him. I shan’t give away the book’s ending, but I will admit that its brevity, as well as the particular direction that it took, left me a little cold. Perhaps we are to expect a sequel?
My Last Duchess is a slight read, although at times it seems to profess to be something a little deeper. At its heart, it’s a melodrama filled with scandal, money, and a love of fashion that borders on sartorial porn—fashionistas will find themselves revelling in the extensive descriptions of period clothing (oh, the giant shoulder pads!). Goodwin’s efforts to deal with the notion of emancipation and freedom within the constraints and responsibilities of the late nineteenth century are admirable, and creates some food for thought, although the book itself falls slightly short of a satisfying meal. In all, though, My Last Duchess is a competent first novel that speaks of good things to come from its author, and while it won’t necessarily set your world alight (unless you’re poor Mrs. Cash, of course), it’s a pleasurable book to curl up with on a frosty night.(less)
Just yesterday my husband were in the suburb of Flemington, where I was living when we first started dating. We wandered down Racecourse Road, noting the various cafes and nooks we’d eaten at and our memories of those moments: vinegar-drenched fish in the tiny park behind the public library; spiced baked eggs in a cafe regularly shaken by the trains running past Newmarket station; the oily scents of the hidden local laksa joint; the muddled meats and curries of the starkly appointed local Sudanese cafe; the shiny potato noodles that swooned off a fork at my favourite Kensington cafe.
As our relationship progressed, we moved beyond cafes and restaurants to cooking together–cocoa-smothered truffles that stickied our fingers and huffed a fine chocolate dust around my kitchen; mounds of garden-scented tabouleh; the earthy cross-sections of root vegetable lasagnes. After that we turned our attentions to Footscray market and its endlessly surprising produce. We cracked open spiny durians in search of their musky custard innards, peeled the gritty eyeballs of longan, hacked at the scaly flesh of dragonfruit, gritted our teeth at the prices of mangosteens.
When I picked up Michelle Maisto’s The Gastronomy of Marriage, I found myself and my husband in its pages. Michelle, like me, comes from an Italian background, and is pescetarian, as I was at the time I met my husband; her husband Rich, like mine, is Chinese. Food is a part of our cultural identities, and as it is for Maisto and her partner, it’s been a source of discovery and understanding for both of us.
Maisto’s memoir is written with endless epicurean flourishes in a style so rich you can almost taste it on your tongue; her prose revels in the sensuousness of food and the rituals surrounding it. This slim volume is an examination of how intrinsically food itself, as well as the ceremony surrounding the preparation and serving of food, is linked to culture and identity, and how traditions regarding food are passed down through families in so many ways–food as celebration; food as medication; food as love. Her discussions with Rich over congee versus pastina as the perfect food for convalescence make me think of the many times my mother-in-law has arrived with a giant container of chicken broth and bags of various dried herbs–not to mention the time she forced my husband to choke down a plate of chicken tendons in order to help heal his recently snapped achilles. The giving of care packages is reminiscent of those from my own family: nary an occasion passes without my arriving home with preserved olives, home-made pepper sauces or an unfathomable panettone, something I loathe and invariably cast off to some other unsuspecting soul.
There’s also the creation of new traditions, with Maisto and Rich puzzling out variations on the Italian-Chinese tradition, fusing salads with noodly mains, incorporating shrimp paste into hearty slow-cooked meals, and re-imagining those beloved family desserts. My husband and I have done the same, mixing and melding flavours and styles, and forging our own gastronomic path, giving our loved ones home-made jams and spiced shortbread at Christmas or Chinese New Year, sending foodie treats along with our ang pao. Perhaps the most notable of these efforts was our wedding, where rather than having a formal sit-down affair, we had our relatives and friends back their favourite desserts for us, in doing so, we hoped, encouraging a sense of sharedness between our two families and cultures.
Still, for all the importance of food ideology in a relationship and its resulting domestic negotiations–who cooks? how many dishes should be used? where should things be stored?–towards the end of this memoir I did find myself becoming a little burnt out, if you’ll pardon the pun, on the incessant melding of food and love, and began to long for some sort of off-topic amuse bouche to distract my palate between the heady mains of each chapter. By the last fifty pages, I did wonder whether this book might have worked better as a series of essays, or perhaps as something dipped in and out of, like a ten course tasting menu, rather than devoured all at once, hawker-style. Still, this is a beautifully written volume whose sweet aftertaste lingers, and I’d recommend it to lovers of food as well as lovers still working out the menu of their relationship.(less)
When Peter Hansome dies in a car accident, a number of carefully concealed–or perhaps simply wilfully ignored–truths bubble to the surface. Bridget Hansome, Peter’s widow, is contacted shortly after by Frances Slater, Peter’s long-time mistress, who asks whether she might attend his funeral.
If the authorial pen for this narrative were being wielded by anyone else, this story would veer into flagrant tumult, but in the hands of acclaimed writer Salley Vickers things proceed rather differently from how one might expect. Bridget and Frances, rather than locking horns over who is the rightful possessor of Peter’s heart, embark instead on a mutual journey of self-discovery, delving quietly and inexorably into Peter’s past, which is a dark and problematic area about which each has her own suspicions, but has continued thus far quite happily without airing them to the world. The two develop an acquaintance that teeters between friendship and adversary, and it’s this unlikely relationship, along with that of the mysterious Zahin, a handsome Iranian boy whose relationship with Peter remains ambiguous until the end, that takes up much of the rest of the book.
I suspect that American readers might be put off almost immediately by this development, but that British readers or those from rather more conservative societies might well be sympathetic to each woman’s quiet acceptance of the other’s existence. Both women wish to maintain face by avoiding explicitly addressing the subject in public, but what’s perhaps most curious about this is that the status quo that has extended for the past seven years has been maintained. Peter, after all, made little secret about the fact that he took mistresses, and both Bridget and Frances were aware, to at least some degree, of the existence of the other.
This may seem horribly anti-feminist, but I’m not entirely sure that it is. As the book unfolds, the reader sees that while Peter sees himself as playing a major role in the lives of his wife and mistress, neither woman considers him in such a light. Both are independent and successful in their own right, and while they partake of his company, there is little sense of their giving themselves over to him. Peter fills a gap or sorts, but whether this gap is one that needs filling is questionable. Indeed, the complex relationship that the two women develop is less about wishing to keep Peter alive in some sense, but more about examining their own selves through the lens of the other–something that is possible largely because Bridget and Frances are so curiously different.
Peter, then, despite being to some degree the theme of the novel, is rather less of a character (although he does crop up, Hamlet-like, in ghostly form every now and then). While the reader is guided to look towards trilogies, triptychs, and triads throughout the novel–at the levels of character, symbol, and theme–I found personally that Bridget and Frances are rather more of a binary, and that while Peter is omnipresent, his role is certainly not that of a third party within their relationship. Peter, indeed, fades as the others move on with their lives, and additional binaries take over instead: Frances’s pregnancy, for example, linking her to her child, but curiously helping to break her bond with Peter; and Bridget’s relationship with unsubtly named and alarmingly well-read chimney sweep Stanley Godwit, which of course has a severing force. Of course, love triangles abound throughout the book almost to the point of absurdity, but in my mind rather than highlighting the famous strength of the three-sided bond, there’s a certain unevenness in these relationships: two parts of the three unfailingly dominate the third.
Vickers’s work famously draws on literary and artistic allusion, and Instances of the Number 3 is no different, although its approach is slightly less heavy-handed than those in works such as The Other Side of You, which uses a Caravaggio painting as an anchor point, and Miss Garnet’s Angel, which rather heavy-handedly integrates an historic, Biblical narrative into the main story. Poetry and performance are caught up in the novel (and indeed, are quoted at length, which is not an approach that quite works for me), and we are given myriad works against which to consider Peter’s ethical self, and indeed those of his surviving lovers. Dante gets a nod, and so does Shakespeare–and let’s not forget Yeats, whose When You Are Old gets more than a look-in. The issue of godly punishment and religious self-flagellation is also raised: Peter, a closet Catholic, after all, dies on his way to visit another lover, and it is his mistress, not his wife, who ends up carrying his child.
As always, Vickers provides enough food for thought to feed the metaphysical souls of an army, and while Instances of the Number 3 does occasionally overstep the mark in the coincidences and twists it throws up, for the most part it’s a fascinating, absorbing read–perhaps in part because of the author’s sober, uninvolved style, which allows these characters to indulge their flights of fancy without it coming across as such.
Sherlock Holmes, the smugly omniscient protagonist of the eponymous detective series, saw such popularity in his time that his creator, Sir Arthur Con...moreSherlock Holmes, the smugly omniscient protagonist of the eponymous detective series, saw such popularity in his time that his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, saw fit to do away with him. No doubt this authorial frustration was compounded when outraged fans howled (or given the likely manners of Doyle’s contemporaries, politely requested) that Holmes be resurrected, but Doyle did eventually comply, miraculously bringing Holmes back to life.
One can’t help but wonder what exactly the author’s response might be to the many efforts to extend Holmes’s life in subsequent years. It’s with even more curiosity that one ponders his reaction to the growing tendency towards Frankensteinian mashups whose blurbs go something along the lines of: Sherlock Holmes meets supernatural thingamajig, and they fight crime!
The late Fred Saberhagen’s The Further Adventure of Sherlock Holmes: Seance for a Vampire is, as its title might suggest, one of several such efforts to blend the logical with the fantastic. The novel in question is Saberhagen’s second outing with Holmes, and takes place in a slightly twisted milieu in which the reader is asked to leave suspend their disbelief at the door (alongside their no doubt grotty shoes), and happily look on as Saberhagen gives Holmes’s family tree a good ol’ shake. A good ol’ shake that has resulted in Holmes being related to none other than Count Dracula (who goes by the slightly more royal but slightly less numerate name of Prince Dracula in this book). There’s an allusion, too, to a few other members of Holmes’s family being of the blood-sucking sort, something that is perhaps pointed out explicitly in Saberhagen’s earlier volume, but that is only implied in this one.
In Seance for a Vampire, Holmes and Watson are called upon by Lord Ambrose Altamont to debunk what he believes to be the charlatanism of two clairvoyants, who claim to have seen the ghost of his recently deceased daughter. However, in a recreation of the séance, the daughter in question does indeed appear, although in a form rather more vampiric than ghostly. Holmes suddenly vanishes, and our generally logical Watson abandons his usual Scully-like scepticism to get in touch with Prince Dracula and determine what on earth is going on.
While it’s an entertaining premise, albeit perhaps not one for Holmes purists, Seance for a Vampire is not quite the rollicking work of mystery and suspense one might expect. As you’ve no doubt realised by now, rather a lot of the initial mystery is given away in the title of the book, and this lack of subtlety is unfortunately evident throughout the rest of the novel. The solution to the mystery is fore-fronted in the opening pages, resulting in the book rather less than suspenseful, and meaning that there is none of the gloriously requisite ah-ha! moment that one so looks forward to when reading a mystery novel. As such, the reader is merely along for the ride rather than solving a puzzle. In addition, the almost immediate disappearance of Holmes, and his subsequently negligible influence on the plot does make the reader wonder why he was there in the first place—given the tiny role Holmes plays, just about any sleuth could have been substituted for the role (Nancy Drew could work just as admirably, one suspects).
Saberhagen does, for the most part, manage to replicate that famous dry Watsonian tone, and it’s generally quite enjoyable to flip through the pages nodding knowingly here and there and appreciating the author’s admittedly odd take on the Holmes universe. That said, there are occasions where the prose does veer from the acceptably dry to something more along the lines of parched, requiring a bit of effort from the reader, and there are also instances where the tone doesn’t quite ring true. Moreover, the novel is written in dual perspectives, and alternates between that of Watson and that of Prince Dracula, and while this is generally entertaining, the voice of Dracula rarely adds much to the narrative, leading to the book at times feeling bloated.
While those looking for a substantial mystery on par with the canonical Holmes oeuvre may find themselves a little disappointed, Seance for a Vampire is generally a light, enjoyable read that will have readers fondly reminiscing about the ins and outs of the much-loved and well-trodden Holmes universe.
In any book for the younger set, it’s essential to get the parents out of the way as quickly as possible so that the kids can get to work doing whatev...moreIn any book for the younger set, it’s essential to get the parents out of the way as quickly as possible so that the kids can get to work doing whatever it is the author has in mind for them. And what better way to do so than with a gruesome murder? Well, it worked for the brothers Grimm, and it works for Neil Gaiman. After the parents are horrifically slaughtered, we’re left with a wee lad who, sweetly toddling off unharmed, finds himself in a graveyard, upon which point the resident spooks decide to take him under their vapourous wings and keep him safe from the nasties of the outside world.
This review originally appeared at www.readinasinglesitting.com I’m the type of reader who prizes style, theme, and characterisation over plot–a page b...moreThis review originally appeared at www.readinasinglesitting.com I’m the type of reader who prizes style, theme, and characterisation over plot–a page break is all that’s needed for me to be convinced that there’s some action going on. But there’s something to be said for those rollicking adventure stories of old: those where a hapless individual chases after a questionable end goal whose purpose is minimal at best. The type of narrative I’m talking about is that were each chapter might well begin with “And then…” And with an oeuvre that’s all about hair-raising, pulse-speeding adventures, the famous French fabulist Jules Verne fits perfectly into this breathless, zany genre.
Around the World in Eight Days is one of Verne’s most celebrated works, and has no doubt played more than a slight role in the sudden ubiquity of goggles, pocketwatches, cravats, and adventuredom beloved by the steampunk crew. Its plot is slight, its internal logic akin to my own, and its characterisation flimsier than a house built from crepe paper, but goodness, it’s a lot of fun. And when listened to in audiobook format in the gloomy early hours of the morning (yay for my 50 minute hike to the office at 7am daily), it’s all the better. Particularly when that morning walk involves trekking through Fawkner Park, where hot air balloons regularly land after their morning flights.
Phileas Fogg is the kind of man who would put an atomic clock to shame. Much like a production editor, he has every moment of his life regimented into strict segments. In fact, perhaps the only spontaneous thing he’s ever undertaken in his life is his sudden decision to attempt an around-the-world journey in 80 days–no more, and no less. But while the completion of the journey will net him a hefty sum indeed, it’s the strict time requirements of the journey that most interest Fogg. And, so, having mapped out in his mind the exact chronological requirements of the journey, he and his hapless assistant Passepartout set out on their omnicontinental journey. But while Fogg’s dogged punctuality sees things starting off on the right track, there’s necessarily a spanner or two thrown in the watch-works. First, Passepartout’s bumbling shenanigans, which see the pair get themselves into all manner of time-chewing mischief, and the fact that Fogg is being stalked by a Terminator-esque police officer who is adamant that Fogg is in fact a bank robber on the run. Having found myself stuck for several days in international airports, missing all manner of connecting flights, one can only imagine how easily things could be derailed in a time where correspondence via snail mail (pony mail?) was the order of the day.
Yes, it’s all rather ludicrous, and each chapter essential entails Fogg and Passepartout setting out on a leg of the journey, Passepartout screwing things up, and Fogg saving the day (and time) in the end. It’s kind of the narrative equivalent of There was an old lady who Swallowed a Fly. But really, there’s a great deal to like here. For my part, I’m rather impressed by Verne’s efforts to put together a worldwide itinerary in pre-Google days. There’s also the cold pragmatism of Fogg, who feels like a clockwork man himself–perhaps he’s a precursor to the Vulcan race? But Fogg, despite being intransigent in his goals, is surprisingly beneficent, being willing to help out just about anyone along the way so long as his his time constraints aren’t stymied.
But while the characters are so thin as to be see-through, there is some character growth. Fogg, who throws money at just about every obstacle that comes his way, does so in a way that indicates that money is no object: rather it is one’s intentions, beliefs, and passions that are paramount. But while extreme punctuality may not seem like an exceedingly admirable goal, rest assured that Fogg’s chilly heart does begin to warm in the name of lurve. Passepartout, too, while a shambling delinquent for the most part (I picture him rather as one of the Frenchmen in Monty Python and the Holy Grail–”your father smells of elderberries!”), is in fact a big-hearted chap who does what he can to see the goals of those he cares about realised. The contrast of rationalism and passion–indeed, the two men are both archetypes for their respective countries–is often hilarious, and Verne’s clever mix of poignancy and tongue-in-cheek mockery makes for a rather fun read indeed (and the fact that Verne’s characters can make it around the world in 79 days when the Melbourne Metro system takes similarly as long to get from one station to another makes for some relevant modern-day commentary…).(less)
“Mazeltov!” cried the new guy in the office when I returned from my honeymoon. When I thanked him, he added, “ah-ha! We can spot each other a mile away.”
Needless to say, he was a little saddened when I explained that I’m not Jewish.
But this odd little anecdote highlighted something for me that I’ve seen amongst many of my Jewish friends: an astonishing sense of family and community. And it’s this that Peter Lefcourt’s An American Family examines with unwavering insight and often brutal honesty, the latter which is fortunately diluted with a solid helping of humour.
Beginning in the 1960s and concluding in the present, the novel is a sweeping exploration of the lives of four generations of the New York-based Perl family, all of whom seem to long to break out from the thumbscrews of the family traditions and expectations, yet who continue to retreat beneath the shelter of its umbrella when things turn sour–and how they do. Like any family, there’s that ambivalent push and pull that’s involved with being an involuntary member of a community you don’t quite see eye to eye with, and in the case of the Perls, there’s also plenty of cultural baggage as well.
A recurring motif is the Thanksgiving holiday, which is used as the central point at which the characters unite to share, or not share, as is often the case, the changes occurring in their lives, and which mark an evolution of sorts of the family as a whole. There are certain notable thanksgivings that represent milestones that require the family to shift its frame of reference: the death of 80-year-old patriarch Meyer, for example, and eventually that of his son Nathan. The births that occur in proximity to these deaths also play a role in marking the gradual drift from one focal generation to another, and Lefcourt allows the narrative to progress accordingly, although the focus remains the five Perl siblings, all of whom live dramatically different lives, but all of them striving for acceptance with the family.
There’s cutthroat businessman Michael, who’s always looking for the next big thing, and is happy to stake his fortune on it; lawyer Jackie, whose career and sobriety are constantly up and down, but who remains the bail-out guy among his siblings; novelist and intrepid wanderer Stephen, whose sexuality remains unacknowledged by the conservative older generations of his family; Elaine, a teacher who fears that she has made the terrible mistake of “settling” in life; and Bobbie, the black sheep of the family, who escapes to California to free herself from the crippling expectations of her family. All are equally intriguing to read, not necessarily purely as individuals, but for the individuals they represent–that wider cultural imprint. Lefcourt describes his novel as a “cultural autobiography”, and it certainly has that larger-than-life, everyman tone to it. The honest simplicity of those older immigrant generations is frequently contrasted against the money-hungry, culturally-devoid attitudes of the subsequent generations in an ideological tug-of-war that, no matter how fallacious, will be familiar to anyone from an immigrant background.
Though the ending tugs a little too strongly on the heart strings, and the print edition I received was of poor quality–it’s an ugly edition, with too-small margins, an awful use of line breaks rather than returns to mark new paragraphs, and a shoddy proofreading job at best–overall this is a strong read. Lefcourt does an admirable job of making his characters both familiar and relatable, and there’s a sense here of the author’s intimacy with the stories being told.(less)
The Case of the Missing Books is the first in Ian Sansom’s new cozy mystery series bout put-upon would-be librarian Israel London. It’s a wry and witt...moreThe Case of the Missing Books is the first in Ian Sansom’s new cozy mystery series bout put-upon would-be librarian Israel London. It’s a wry and witty book with a very distinct fish-out-of-water theme that makes for some hilarious if very loosely plotted reading.
Israel London, a Jewish vegetarian who has never quite lived up to lofty academic and career goals he has set himself, accepts, at the behest of his girlfriend, who it seems would rather like him out of the picture, a position at a small library in rural Ireland. Israel is overjoyed at having a chance at last to make the most of his bibliophile leanings—his patchy career thus far has been somewhat less than remarkable—and he arrives in quite the enthusiastic state. Until he finds that the local library has been closed for financial reasons, and that he has been demoted to the role of a mobile library driver. And if this isn’t enough of a blow, the sudden absence of some 15,000 library books certainly sets poor Israel reeling.
Israel’s first port of call is to unearth the forlorn and geriatric library van, which he does with the help of laconic ex-pugilist Ted, the town’s former mobile librarian, or, as the position is commonly known, ‘community outreach officer’. The unlikely duo make the rounds, with poor Israel flailing and bumbling about as he jumps to all sorts of conclusions about the culprit behind the missing books, and commits faux pas after faux pas with his every effort to engage the townsfolk.
Readers who are after a strong mystery may be disappointed with The Case of the Missing Books, as despite Israel’s self-comparison with Poirot, he’s certainly no detective—and neither is there much of a case to be solved. Rather, the main focus of the book is on Israel’s awkward integration into his new home, and the way his expectations and assumptions are frequently and painfully overturned. The book is full of self-deprecating humour and awkward, farcical situations where Israel inevitably says or does entirely the wrong thing, resulting in all sorts of ridiculous and hilarious consequences. While it speaks perfectly to my sense of humour, which leans towards the absurd and punny, others may find themselves rather under-enamoured by the book’s slightly canted approach to the cozy mystery genre.(less)
It's like we're complementary colours...you know what those are, right? Colours that make each other disappear? So if you cross red with green—or blue with orange, or yellow with purple—you get a pale, pale colour, almost white...
Interestingly, though, if you put complementary colours next to each other, they make each other shine much more brightly.
I wonder what would happen if you and I met? Would we kill each other off, or make each other glow?
Madeleine Tully has been corresponding with a parking meter. Or perhaps via a parking meter, to be accurate. A gap has opened between our world and that of the Kingdom of Cello, a gap just large enough through which a letter can be posted; a gap in a parking meter. At least so the letter-writer tells Madeleine, who goes along with what she sees as her correspondent's imaginative feats despite her clear disbelief: “I feel that maybe you're planning to rip off Philip Pullman's Northern Lights,” she tells him.
Her correspondent is Elliot Baranski, a boy who lives in a world that is a curious regional mishmash where the seasons wander about at their whim, a day of summer chasing a day of winter rather in the manner of my native Melbourne. But unlike Melbourne, which is known for having a populace that's uniformly clad in black, Cello is all about colour. Just as the seasons sweep through Cello, so too do colours, which travel through almost like storms, each colour frequency affecting the people of Cello in a different way. Some colours are physically harmful, while others bring romantic notions or an obsessive need for achievement.
It's a concept that encourages all sorts of real-life parallels: the dangers of focused light such as those from lasers; the use of light-boxes in northern Europe to help combat the seasonal affective disorder brought about by the never-ending twilight of winter. Though Madeleine pooh-poohs the notion of her pen-pal living in such a world, believing it to be nothing more than a fantasy, her study of Isaac Newton and his scientific breakthroughs regarding light sees her applying Elliot's creative analogies to her own difficult situation; Elliot, on the other hand, applies Madeleine's research about Newton in a more literal manner—and both have fascinating results.
A Corner of White is a strange and wonderful book, and much of its beauty comes from the very same phenomenon that Madeleine muses over in her letter: it's not just Madeleine and Elliot who are complementary, but also their stories and their worlds.
Although it's Madeleine who lives in our magic-free world, her story often feels almost as fantastical as Elliot's. She lives with her mother, the two of them apparently having fled from her father, a tremendously wealthy, influential man for whom every door seems to open. But instead of the riches and wonders of their previous life, Madeleine and her mother are living virtually as paupers, making do in Cambridge in a tiny apartment, a stockpile of beans, and a delightful sense of whimsy. Their riches-to-rags tale feels fantastical, and it's rendered in a way that seems to recall Victorian children's literature: it's vivid and curious, and yet mysterious. We only know of Madeleine's past what she shares with her friends, and there seems to be far more to it than meets the eye.
Curiously, Madeleine seems to see the world in a peripheral manner, taking it in almost out of the corner of her eye, rather than looking headlong at it. She speaks of liking both Elliot and her friend Jack well enough, but of their perceived alter egos—what she believes to be the fantasy-world Elliot and Jack's history research subject Lord Byron—even more. She also mentions enjoying engaging with facts because they “take her sideways”, an approach her increasingly distant mother seems to take as well. Given all this, I suspect that there's more to both Madeleine's background and her mother's health problems than is revealed in this first volume of a planned trilogy.
Elliot, on the other hand, though living in a world that is parallel to ours, is strangely far more grounded than Madeleine. He's practical and pragmatic where Madeleine is dreamy and disconnected, and the contrast only strengthens the strange aspect of Cello. There's a languid humour to the world-building that only enhances the moments of darkness, and there's an uneasiness that slowly surfaces as we begin to learn more about the politics of the world.
For all these complements and contrasts, however, we're constantly reminded of a thread of similarity and sameness that runs through the two worlds, and of course, our two key characters. Isaac Newton, who was behind the discovery of white light and the way in which it can be broken down into a spectrum, figures in both Elliot's world and Madeleine's, this perhaps being a representation of the universality of science, rationality, and our innate desire to both create and reason. The spectrum of light, too, applies on so many levels: whereas in Elliot's world light is used as a sort of geological phenomenon, in Madeleine's, the spectrum colours occur as “auras”.
It applies as well to A Corner of White itself. If this book were a light colour, it would be white. At first glance it may seem simple, but when put beneath the prism of the keen reader, it exposes its true nature: a shimmering double rainbow of colours. It's utterly delightful, and I'm eagerly awaiting the sequel.(less)