I first happened across M.T. Anderson‘s work after hearing rave reviews of The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, which is a quite frankly marvello...moreI first happened across M.T. Anderson‘s work after hearing rave reviews of The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, which is a quite frankly marvellous young adult historical novel set in Colonial Boston during the time of the American Revolution. Listening to a podcast of Anderson’s erudite presentation at the State Library in Victoria, Australia further endeared his work to me, and I have since been on the lookout for the rest of his oeuvre. One book of which, I’m pleased to note, popped into my possession for the sum of a dollar. One can hardly complain. (Okay, the deal was 10 books for $10, so I have quite a bit of reading to report on in the coming weeks)
The book in question was Thirsty, Anderson’s debut novel, which appeared in 1997, almost a decade before the publication of the first of the two volumes of Octavian Nothing.
Thirsty is a teenage coming of age vampire novel, and superseded much of the urban fantasy and vampire stuff that’s filling the shelves today. This is a good thing, as even against the current context of all things fangy and sparkly, Thirsty still feels quite fresh in terms of its narrative and its approach to vampirism. The book itself has a bit of a dated feel, of course, and Anderson’s prose is nowhere near the level of his current work, but in general Thirsty is an interesting take on the vampire mythology.
The book is set in an alternate America where vampirism is commonplace, and accusations of vampirism and subsequent lynchings are eerily normal. Anderson opens Thirsty against the backdrop of one such show trial, and it’s quite creepy to watch the apparently morally upright crowd watch with bloodlust as a vampire is put to death. In fact, main character Chris munches on a takeaway snack from McDonald’s as the event goes down, and the contrast between his indifference and the violence of the scene is quite striking.
Anderson deliberately sets this up, of course, as it is here that we realise that something is not quite right with Chris, who has been plagued by an unusual hunger and physical discomfort over recent weeks. We find out soon enough that Chris is himself succumbing to vampirism, and it’s fascinating to watch Anderson’s treatment of his predicament. The focus here is not so much as Chris-as-vampire, but rather Chris-as-outsider, and the larger part of the novel, references to vampire overlords and shadowy henchmen aside, examines the way Chris deals with this new persona that has been thrust upon him by puberty. Chris struggles to maintain his relationships with his friends, given that his thoughts and interests lie elsewhere now, and as the narrative progresses, his alienation from them, and from his family, grows to a painful degree.
While there are some disappointing elements to this book–largely the vampire overlord subplot–the real beauty of Thirsty is in Anderson’s intriguing treatment of the standard coming of age drama through a lens of vampirism. The book is not entirely successful in what it sets out to achieve, but it’s a thoughtful and curious examination of alienation and loss.(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 learned how to slaughter the animals,” says Charlie Beal. “Learned to walk up to them so they trusted me and they weren’t afraid.”
The year is 1948, and the laconic, enigmatic Charlie has arrived in small-town Brownsburg, Virginia, carrying two bags. One is full of cash, and the other full of butcher’s knives. Taking a job with Will, the town’s butcher, Charlie proves himself a deft hand at his work, and slowly acquaints himself with the manners and norms of this deeply conservative, strictly segregated small town.
“The people here then, they believed in God and The Book…the faith of their fathers passed through them mother to son, son to daughter and son, until it peopled the towns they made,” recounts the book’s narrator, Will’s son Sam, looking back over the years to tell the story of Charlie’s arrival and the grim events that follow–and in which Sam himself was horribly swept up.
Brownsburg is a superficially picturesque town, but beneath its veneer of civility is something startlingly mercurial. In a context where it’s standard practice to turn a blind eye or to avoid rocking the boat, the existence of seething undercurrents of despair and loathing can only be expected. All that’s needed is an inciting event to set them bubbling to the surface. And Charlie Beal’s behaviour begins to depart from what’s appropriate and moral, peeling away little bit little to begin with, and then recklessly so.
It starts when Charlie admits that he’s not a church-goer–in large part because he has not found a church that focuses more on the positive aspects of spirituality rather than the fire and brimstone side of things. There’s a suggestion, of course, that there’s more to Charlie’s past than we ever learn as readers, and it seems that Charlie’s neighbours themselves have their qualms. It’s Will and his wife who insist that Charlie attend church if only to keep up appearances. Charlie, however, missteps by attending the local black church, which ignites gossip all around.
Charlie’s misdemeanours don’t end here, however. Upon meeting Sylvan Glass, the young, beautiful wife of the foul Boaty Glass, who has quite literally purchased her from her family, Charlie is smitten: “Everybody in town began to notice the change in him, the distance. What he did with his body began to show in his face.” It’s soon evident that Sylvan and Charlie are carrying on an affair, but the townsfolk’s habit of unseeing the truth, along with the general dislike levelled at Boaty results in an effective code of silence. Even though Charlie has set about buying up vast tracts of land in Sylvan’s name, something which can be easily checked by anyone who cares to look, no one says anything of it, and so Charlie continues to quietly rail against the town’s way of life, creating a disturbance that begins slowly but soon becomes difficult to ignore.
“It’s a sad thing to watch your best friend turn into somebody you don’t know any more. Or even want to know. Still, you’ve got to pretend. Make the best of it,” Will says early on in the book. He is speaking at the time of Boaty, but these same words can be just as aptly used to describe his relationship with Charlie. For Charlie grows ever-more self-destructive, and though we never learn what it is about his past that haunts him, there’s a suggestion of violence and brutality that increasingly haunts the pages.
Charlie may be “A better man than [Sylvan's] husband” but he is “nevertheless a man whose ownership of her consisted of giving her power over everything he had in this world, so that he had nothing, nothing at all except her.” This sort of dependency is something that Charlie loathes. ”He hated the way the dog looked at him with such pathetic faith…there’s something about helplessness that makes us despise the helpless,” we hear at one point, and we know that this deliberate ploy to give himself over to Sylvan is going to be his downfall: it’s as though he’s positioning himself beneath the guillotine. Charlie is like the dress that Sylvan loves, a dress that “only revealed itself after the initial effect had come and gone…as though the dress held a secret, and only told the secret when the time came.”
And yet, for all the lurking darkness and Charlie’s prophetic words about getting others to trust him utterly no matter the danger, the final act seems difficult to reconcile with what we know of him. It’s desperate and emotional and seems to go against the grain of the taciturn, if disturbed and amoral, man that we have come to know. In part it’s that the novel is told from the perspective of Will’s son looking back on these events, an approach that creates unnecessary distance, but it also seems as though there’s a need for a more explicit inciting act.
There’s a good deal to like here: Goolrick’s quiet, gentle prose serves up a good deal of darkness, and the elegant thematic echoes reverberate across the text in a way that means that much of the book works on several levels. However, the use of Sam as the narrator detracts from the book’s sense of veracity and immediacy, and some transitions, such as the beginning of Charlie and Sylvan’s affair, seem almost glossed over. The township’s fickle reaction to Charlie’s behaviour seems odd, too, and though their vacillation between acceptance and rejection of him is certainly rather disturbing food for thought, it feels engineered rather than real. In all, though, this is an intriguing and layered read whose themes will be sure to divide readers. (less)
The guide and I entered by that hidden path, to return to the clear world: and, not caring to rest, we climbed up, he first, and I second, until, thro...moreThe guide and I entered by that hidden path, to return to the clear world: and, not caring to rest, we climbed up, he first, and I second, until, through a round opening, I saw the beautiful things that the sky holds: and we issued out, from there, to see, again, the stars.
So says Dante in the final canto of the Inferno. And this is how Jeanne DuPrau’s The People of Sparks begins as well. Having emerged, blinking into the light after hundreds of years of living below the earth’s surface, the people of the City of Ember can only anticipate what awaits them. And they’re entirely without preconceptions, having spent their lives reading propaganda telling them that they are the “chosen” ones, and that nothing exists beyond their underground city. And, perhaps, indeed this was true for some years–Ember is, in effect, a colossal bomb shelter, a Noah’s Ark, where a select group of people were sent in the hopes that some of humanity might survive in the aftermath of a series of terrible wars.
Yesterday I looked at Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch, in which a reverse chronology storytelling approach is used as a device to mirror the confusion and disconnectedness felt by the characters. By beginning the story with its end, it seems that the intention is to create a sense of un-anticipation, of pointlessness, of inappropriate awareness of these strangers to whom we’re just being introduced.
It’s certainly not unheard of for authors to ask the structure of their novels to multitask. After all, the way in which a story is written is often just as important as the story itself. But toying with structure isn’t an easy task. Sometimes when something is so very complicated and intricate it’s difficult to know where to look, and it’s impossible to find a pattern or rhythm or meaning to it all until you step back a bit. When you do this, key motifs and designs make themselves apparent. But when you’re pressed in up close, you don’t have that context: all you see is chaos and disorder.
In The Ruins of Lace Katharina, a gifted lace-maker who spends her days in what are virtually sweatshop conditions, knows this all too well. Her long days of close work mean that, like the other girls around her, her eyesight is failing. Though her entire life is about lace, she works so closely with it that her knowledge of her work is utterly decontextualised. But as Katharina scarcely knows what she’s creating beyond the numbers of knots and stitches it involves, neither does she have any understanding of life beyond the walls of the convent where she works.
Just as Katharina only sees an isolated fragment of her world, so does the reader when working through this book. Told from seven different points of view, all of them first person–including one from the point of view of a dog–The Ruins of Lace is itself a piece of lacework viewed up close from various aspects of its pattern, and as a result it’s a blurry and disorienting read. Although these different points of view are linked together through their interactions with lace they never come together adequately, and the end result is unsatisfying.
We loop through the various points of view so quickly that we scarcely settle into one character’s situation when we switch again, and with everything being told in first person, regular trips back to the beginning of each chapter so that we can recall who’s who are an irritating necessity. This is only compounded by the fact that there’s no one person whose story this is. Really, it’s the story of lace itself. Although it’s fascinating to see how such an innocent and frivolous thing can cause so much pain and ruin, there’s something disappointing about reading a novel that’s more about an object than it is a person.
While the stories teased out within the larger structure are of course human, there’s no real protagonist. Because of this there’s no real sense of an individual journey we want to trace, and it’s hard to feel truly engaged with the book. This is particularly true towards the end of the book, where we’re quite forcibly reminded that this is the story of lace, and not the story of a particular character. For example, though we open with Katharina’s point of view, we don’t end with it, and though I understand the suggestion that Katharina is both invisible and expendable in the wider world of lace, there’s something jarring about this. It’s as though our lacemaker has lost their place in their pattern. There seems almost to be an awareness of this from the author to some degree given that the book is bookended with discussions about lace as an object and the historical importance of lace–the characters are secondary.
The choice of the multiplicity of first person points of views, although evoking the same-ness of a piece of lace, is questionable as well. A ubiquity of “I” characters so often results in a novel where the characters end up involved in a sort of book equivalent of a shouting match, and the result is a dull roar where no one stands out from the rest. And, personally, I find myself very grudgingly going along with multiple first person narrators–I feel as though I’m being clad, against my will, in all sorts of costume changes and personas.
The Ruins of Lace has an intriguing subject, and the historical context is certainly fascinating. However, the characters’ utter preoccupation with lace is mirrored in the book’s lace-like structure, and I couldn’t help but feel that the attempt to draw parallels between subject matter and structure undermined the actual story being told.(less)
13 Reasons Why opens with main character Clay receiving a box of cassette tapes. It seems innocuous enough, although it does bring to mind scenes from...more13 Reasons Why opens with main character Clay receiving a box of cassette tapes. It seems innocuous enough, although it does bring to mind scenes from German novel The Reader by XX, as well as the connotations associated with chain letters. However, Clay soon finds out that what is on the tapes is far from innocent.
The tapes have been sent through an as-yet anonymous chain of Clay’s classmates, having originated with Hannah Baker, a young girl and, as we find out, an almost-girlfriend of Clay’s, who has recently committed suicide. The tapes detail, over 13 sides, the people, and their actions, who have contributed to Hannah’s death.
It’s a chilling premise, and one that author Jay Asher says was inspired by a visit to a museum, where he was given an audio device that would tell the story of each of the exhibits. The result was, of course, a fragmented series of notes and stories that were nevertheless interrelated, and it is this mood that characterises 13 Reasons Why. In the book, Hannah has recorded a tape for each of the individuals she sees as culpable, but because they are narrated as though for that person’s ears only, the story is painfully fragmented and inchoate to begin with.
We watch as Clay feverishly plays through the tapes, desperately trying to figure out the role he has played in Hannah’s death. It’s almost frustrating to find out that Hannah holds him up in high regard, and as largely blame free. Similarly, Clay spends relatively little time reflecting on whether this is truly the case, and as he considers the instances where he could have stepped in, he puts any blame back on Hannah, thinking that he would have helped if he had known—an approach that is itself problematic.
13 Reasons Why is a challenging examination of agency and avoidance. Hannah picks out situations where others intervened or acted in ways that fundamentally affected her. Some feel far more significant than others, but the effect is one of a snowball, with the cumulative effect of these actions resulting in Hannah’s final cry for help, which goes unheeded. What is most challenging, though, as well as ultimately supremely frustrating, is that Hannah appears to be looking for a way out from the outset. She assigns the others agency, but at the same time sees herself as having no agency of her own, describing her death as the result of their actions, and therefore unavoidable. She puts herself in the hands of others, relying on them to see the signs that she is struggling, and then terrorising them with blame for her death when they do not. While I don’t want to imply that those Hannah accuses of atrocious behaviour are innocent, for in many cases they’re far from it, there are instances where she seems to be deliberately misreading a situation to enhance her own suffering, and these sections are difficult to read.
While undeniably a challenging and painful read, the book teeters on the precipice of melodrama, and unfortunately often stumbles, resulting in scenes that don’t quite ring true, particularly given that they’re meant to be the spoken diaries of a teenage girl. The book does, however, offer a thoughtful examination of the snowball effect of others’ behaviour, and how even the smallest action—or inaction—can have a profound effect on someone’s life, particularly when they have opened themselves to being influenced in such a way. It addresses issues of agency and vulnerability, of cruelly plotted revenge, and of risk avoidance achieved through passing on blame and fault to unwitting participants. It’s a gruelling read, and one that leaves a sour taste in your mouth, but certainly one that you’ll find yourself wanting to discuss and reflect upon once you’re done.(less)
If books are an escapist tool, then surely books about books are a tool of solidarity: here's an opportunity for the most tragic of individuals, those who read about life rather than actually living it, to see that vicariously lived life lived out in book form. Vicariously. Whichever publisher came up with the deliciously recursive idea of the book about books is either a most magnanimous sort, or one who is the cruel, but endlessly amused, opposite.
As someone who reads about as prolifically, if not quite as polemically, as Joe Queenan--at a rate of some two-hundredish books a year--you can bet that I found myself fairly eerily profiled in One for the Books, although in the form of the vituperative old grump I, although not quite there yet, quite believe I will become. Queenan shares the same ambivalence about the wider literary sphere and engages, as I invariably feel as though I do, in the life-long double-think experiment that is inevitably part of the life of the reader. And bloody hell, it's good fun.
This is not a bubble-bath book sudsing about in the nostalgia of the literary engagements of childhood, or of the oft-described vanilla scent of an ageing tome, or of the inimitable lure of the first edition. It's a drunken uncle at a wedding book: sometimes scabrous, sometimes embarrassing, sometimes insightful, and sometimes uncomfortable because of all the ways that it reminds you of yourself. Because readers are weird, weird people.
The life of the reader is desperately, inexplicably idiosyncratic, contradictory and bizarre, and in One for the Books Queenan works through not just his reading history, but also his own individual reading compulsions, aversions and habits, each one of which the reader will either nod along with or declaim as guff--because applicable or not to our own particular ways of reading, all of this stuff is familiar. Like most obsessive readers, Queenan has developed very careful ways of dealing in and with books, and those who have mired themselves in the world of literature and have no intention, ever, of coming back out again will find it both hilariously and painfully familiar.
"I read anywhere and everywhere, except in the bathroom, as I find this unspeakably vulgar and disrespectful to the person whose work one is reading, unless one is reading someone appalling," he informs us after an in-depth discussion about the situations and places in which reading is acceptable (all of them, including at work and during opera performances, and probably weddings). Reading etiquette is a niche toilette that, like which item of cutlery should be used when eating oysters, is only ever considered by those utterly embroiled in their literary habits--those of us who really have been itching to skive off during a heinously dull wedding reception during the Grease medley number and get back to a fictional, and thus ever more interesting, love story instead.
Ever the misanthrope, Queenan sees books as both insulation from the sorry souls who surround us, offering us a valid, and meaningful way of escape. And it's not just his reading material, but also his reading habits that differentiate him from the four-book-a-year bestseller-and-bookclub-title-only-please Jo(e) Average. There are deeply ingrained, ritualistic habits about his reading: the types of books that he might buy or borrow, his habit of writing in books, his polybibliophilia--fifteen books at a time is the norm for him--the curious experiments into reading and the careful qualitative assessments into one's reading life that only a prolific reader would bother to undertake. These include a thoughtful meditation on the effect of ugly book covers on the reading experience, the sense of achievement attained from whizzing through a (short) book a day, the inevitably painful outcome of choosing books at random from the library, and the occasional bit of bookish anarchy, such as rescuing unloved books from the library cull pile.
It's with scathing disdain that Queenan considers the reading habits of others--those very others, of course, are the ones to blame for good books winding up on the library cull pile in the first place--rejecting their efforts to lend him books, sadly lamenting the fact that it's impossible to discuss wonderful authors and books with people because no one seems to have read them, and pondering the way in which it's possible to share a life with someone despite being utterly divergent in terms of reading preferences. Things not to discuss at the dinner table: politics, religion, and books.
Mixed in with these musings on the how and why of reading are endless anecdotes about Queenan's own reading adventures, and those of others: and these are invaluable in balancing the gruff (although amusingly so) superciliousness and long-winded I'm-old-so-listen-to-me indulgence that pervades the text. Perhaps what resonates most, however, is Queenan's ever-present awareness of his own mortality, something he views not in terms of his remaining years, but rather in terms of his remaining books. His constant refrains about narrowing his reading list accordingly and his determination to, one day, finish Middlemarch, a longstanding contender on his list of books to read in his lifetime, are hauntingly moving. Imagine being a four-a-year reader and managing only some few hundred books in a lifetime--what a tragic waste of opportunity.
I've done the maths on my own bookish future, and assuming that I live to the Australian (female) average of 84, and reading at around 200 books a year, I still have a fairly hefty 11,400 books until I have to face my own Middlemarch. In the greater scheme of things, however, that's scarcely a drop in the ocean, and I can certainly say that I'm glad that One for the Books has been one of them, for it's made me reconsider what I read, have read, and want to read before I turn my sights on Eliot at long last. If you're a bookish type, you'll enjoy this. If you're an older bookish type and need to get to Middlemarch sooner rather than later, maybe opt for the tl;dr version extracted over here instead.(less)
Set in 1941, just after the Pearl Harbour attacks, M T Jefferson’s The Victory Dance Murder couples a small-town setting with life during wartime. Pro...moreSet in 1941, just after the Pearl Harbour attacks, M T Jefferson’s The Victory Dance Murder couples a small-town setting with life during wartime. Protagonist Kate Fallon has seen her beau off to the front lines, and is doing everything in her power to distract herself from the possibility that he may not return. But with most of the mensfolk shipped off to war, there’s plenty of slack to be picked up in Robinsville, Pennsylvania. There’s a Victory Rally and Dance to be organised, plenty of labour to be done…and a murder to solve.
If Kate didn’t have enough on her plate with her day job and Victory Rally responsibilities, she certainly does after being found to have been the last person to have spoken to Nancy Edinger before Nancy’s untimely death. A mystery novel aficionado, Kate knows that Nancy’s ex-boyfriend is the most likely culprit, but can’t shake the feeling that there’s more to the story than there would seem.
The Victory Dance Murder starts out strongly, with the setting and characters well fleshed-out and the plot kicking promptly into gear–we get our dead body quite promptly indeed, and Kate soon finds herself on the case, thanks in part to a personal obsession with mystery novels (how very recursive).
As we speak my mother-in-law is planning for the apocalypse. Or, at least, three days’ worth of the apocalypse, which she is expecting to coincide (perhaps fittingly enough) with her husband’s sixtieth birthday. Her laundry is a-glug with bottled water, her pantry stocked with starches galore, and she’s planning on hitting the supermarket the day before the end of the world to stock up on some fine cuts of meat to see her through. (The possible lack of power that may well occur along with the end of the world, and the fact that three days’ worth of food is probably insufficient has somehow escaped her, but nevermind. She’ll be an end-of-days gourmand in the meantime.)
So given all of this I could identify a little bit with Jo Morgan, the ultra-wimpy, odds-are-against-us protagonist of Kate Harrison’s The Self-Preservation Society, who spends the better part of her teens hiding tinned food and bandaids under her bed while keeping on top of the latest Cold War news, and pretty much continues in this deathly dull risk averse manner until bad luck strikes in the form of a hit-and-cycle incident. Or at least, I tried to identify with Jo, because to be honest, in the name of my own self-preservation, I was very close to setting this one down several times along the way.
The experience of reading The Self-Preservation Society is unfortunately a little akin to opening a dented tin of baked beans using a left-handed can opener, a skill that my mother-in-law is presently working on. It can be done, but it’s going to be a whole lot slower, messier, and involve a good deal more backtracking than you might expect.
My first indication of this was, well, the first chapter actually, after which I checked the blurb to see whether the book wasn’t the chick lit I thought I’d purchased but rather some strangely packaged YA. You see, our first introduction to Jo is during her high school years, and involves her doing a Henny Penny and freaking out about the end of the world in a science lab. And then with a turn of the page we’re fast-forwarded to the future, but bafflingly so–so bafflingly so that I had to reread the first few pages of the next chapter a total of four times to figure out who on earth was who, how old they were, and how they were related to each other. We hadn’t even reached Jo’s bicycle-induced brain trama and I was already having frontal lobe issues of my own.
After Jo lands in a coma thanks to her lycra-clad would-be assassin/saviour angel (her perspective varies as the book progresses), things do pick up a little, and not just because Jo finally begins to exhibit some sort of spine and, you know, live her life. The past-present switching, which is excruciatingly messy to begin with, slowly begins to come together as a plot device, and although it’s employed too often and with too great a reliance on coincidence throughout the book in order to maintain the temporal alternation, the later switches aren’t quite as jarring as the initial ones. The problem, however, becomes one of content rather than one of structure. The flashbacks are being used to show us (and Jo herself, really) just how Jo came to be the scaredy-cat individual she is today, and they do add depth to her character and to those of her family. But I just couldn’t buy the reasoning behind these triggers.
I think the issue is that there’s a disconnect between the oh-so-silly way that Jo’s omniphobia (yes, yes, made up word, but the chapters are all titled with bizarre phobia names, so I thought I might get in on the act) is depicted and the fairly serious nature of what triggered it all. It seems uncomfortable, almost, to be crowing away at her bubble-girl approach to life on the one hand, and then to be hurtled back in time to deal with illness, infidelity, and political issues. It feels a bit like an awkward silence should ensue, like during my father-in-law’s sherry-induced speech earlier this year in which he called his wife a singing monkey (NB, I’m not sure if my mother-in-law has left room for him in the apocalypse bunker).
Still, although I found this book had a bit of the Neverending Story about it in that it keeps on like a Duracell bunny (impressive for a book that comes in at 350 pages), there were some elements that I quite enjoyed. Frisky, Jo’s octogenarian partner-in-crime, offers plenty of fun and frivolity with the odd bit of poignancy (although what on earth was that scene with the hot coals? Really!), and his surly grandson adds a bit of intrigue to the mix as well, as did Jo’s doctor. At least, before he went about messing with doctor-patient conduct rules. Ahem. These help temper the boorish, obnoxious, get-off-the-page-will-you Dennis, Jo’s “cohabitee”, a man whose powers of readerly frustration know no bounds; as well as Jo’s best friend Lorraine, whose presence adds very little to the book beyond being a Very Obvious Representative of Bacchanal Abandon, ie, Your Opposite, Jo.
In all, this one was a disappointment for me, though I have to admit that from now on I’m going to take a page out of (pre-accident) Jo’s book and be very, very cautious when it comes to buying novels purely based on the fact that they were on sale for $1.95 from Booktopia. Especially if the end of the world is nigh and I only have a month’s worth of reading left before I’m stuck in a bunker with my mother-in-law. (less)
While I must admit to picking up Sarah Addison Allen's debut novel, Garden Spells, based on its stunning cover, I can honestly say that I'm glad I did...moreWhile I must admit to picking up Sarah Addison Allen's debut novel, Garden Spells, based on its stunning cover, I can honestly say that I'm glad I did. The book works surprisingly well for a first novel, and though I intended to savour it over a lazy evening, my relaxing cup of chamomile couldn't stop me from tearing through it.
Garden Spells is a quiet story of the often-unacknowledged magic that resides in all of us. It follows the story of Claire and Sydney Waverley, two sisters from a family known for its eccentricities. Claire Waverley is somewhat of an outcast in Bascom, North Carolina, where she makes a living baking and preparing meals for high teas and luncheons for the well-to-do in the area. However, Claire has a special gift that allows her to imbue her cooking with certain enchantments, and her delicacies have often unusual and curious effects. Claire’s quiet life, however, is soon sent into a tailspin when a handsome stranger moves in next door, and her estranged sister, Sydney, returns home with daughter Bay, having escaped her abusive husband. Together the Waverley sisters try to confront their unhappy pasts in order to create a new future for themselves and Bay.
Sarah Addison Allen has created a slight but gorgeous novel that will keep you up all night reading. The characters are well-drawn, and each character’s unique ‘gift’, which perfectly matches their personalities, will make you smile. Garden Spells is a charming book that suggests impressive things to come from Addison Allen.(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)
Midnight Magic is the sort of classic teen horsy story I loved as a child: it’s all about overcoming adversity through random acts...more2.5 stars (not bad)
Midnight Magic is the sort of classic teen horsy story I loved as a child: it’s all about overcoming adversity through random acts of chance and ending up with your heart’s desire. Mattie undergoes the character arc so typical of these books as well, transforming from whiny, ineffectual teen (and one with bad hair and love handles at that) into someone self-assured and independent (and with good hair and abs to die for). However, the extent of this transformation can be a challenge for the reader at the beginning: Mattie’s selfish demands and her lack of appreciation for her family and friends causes her to come across as rather unlikeable, and I found it hard to identify with her until later on in the book. Even then, her astonishing focus on appearance and material things was somewhat discomfiting, and her constant dismissal of her best friend Katie made me wince a little (was I like that as a teen? Gosh, I hope not!).
“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)
I'm always surprised to read that readers find it easier to get into the head of a first person narrator. For me, there's something about an essentially nameless character that is immensely disorienting and distancing. Second person is even worse, bringing with it the weird double-think that it does, and unnamed thirds are a lesson in nominative postponement, with a reader skimming forward through the text in search of a name so that they might settle properly into the text.
Pronouns in general disorient me, all of those unanchored “you” and “I” references that are crying out for anaphoric ties, but that so often don't come through with the goods. Sometimes there's a reason for the chaos, an author pointing out in Foucauldian style that a person without a name is someone who walks the fringes, unable to participate properly in the world. Sometimes it's more that an author is lost in their own vagueness, that they're still seeking to grasp and draw out their characters and their world from an inchoate cloud of theme and setting.
I suspect that both of these apply to some extent to Sarah Brill's Glory, a slim, challenging title released this year from Melbourne's Spinifex Press. In Glory, a young girl is in hospital recovering from an attempted suicide, or perhaps a desperate cry for help: she has irrevocably cleansed herself by drinking bleach after an incident whose details are only dimly alluded to. The girl is a “she” throughout the entire novel, save for when she is mentioned by other characters, when she becomes “Anne”, and so is fleetingly named and humanised. Her family, too, are a faceless blend of pronouns, mere circles and triangles on the genetic tree rather than actual people.
It's only those beyond her family that are given names, but curiously, it doesn't take much to earn one. A colleague, a boy at school, a guy met at a party, a girl introduced at hospital. Our protagonist is clearly desperate to find a point of connection with someone—anyone, it seems, so long as they're not a part of her family. Perhaps tellingly, while she doesn't name them, they don't name her either. There's potentially a huge degree of complexity in the family relationships set up here, with each family member reacting to our protagonist character's increasing withdrawal from her family life, and mainstream life in general, in a different way. Everyone is at cross-purposes, and the results are quite devastating. Even though the book ends on a hopeful note, it's very much a bittersweet one, one that is arguably less about growth than it is about resignation, and there's a sense that the character's journey is set to begin after the book's last pages.
I'm in two minds about Glory, because I can see why it's written the way that it is. It's a book that deals with alienation, self-loathing, and a range of issues including disordered eating, drug use, and insinuated rape/sexual assault. The dreamlike, distant writing style offers a buffer for both the reader and the protagonist, and because it's so unfettered by realism it positions itself as a universal story, one that any reader can identify with in some way. The experiences and uncertainties of the main character are left vague, and there's a sense that those of the reader can be substituted, that they're almost encouraged to be.
And yet at the same time, the distance between reader and narrative is so great that the reader is not only cushioned from its impact, but almost removed entirely from it. The book becomes less an everywoman story and more a no-woman story, with its removedness making it almost unrelatable. It's a book that I suspect almost needs to be read with a group, with the “she” becoming an “us”, and with readers being able to negotiate a meaning and narrative of all that unfolds above and beyond what's actually there in the text: it's less a traditional novel than it is an open conversation with a reader, and I suspect that the onus to create meaning from it more on the reader than it is the writer.
It's difficult, certainly, to have a satisfying conversation with someone who specialises in ambiguity and evasiveness, but then I expect that that's exactly the point that the author is making about Anne and her parents. Glory is a book that imparts its themes through the very construction of its narrative, and though it's not entirely successful, it's certainly a memorable and challenging read.(less)
“In my opinion you aren’t a total waste of time,” says the town’s visiting Bard to eleven-year-old Jack. “Don’t let that go to your head, boy. You could easily be a partial waste of time. How’d you like to be my apprentice?”
There’s nothing like a glowing appraisal from one’s teacher to set one on the path to self-study and personal development, is there?
But back-handed praise is enough for Jack, who longs for something more from his mundane, bucolic lifestyle as a farmer’s son. He’s not alone in this, either. The others in his life give the impression of being more capable than their presently quiet lives would lead us to believe. Jack’s mother is a practitioner of simple hearth magic, while his six-year-old sister Lucy is quite insistent that she’s of royal blood. For all his moaning and grumbling, too, Jack’s father also longs for something more of his life, although this is something that Jack only begins to see as he studies under the Bard:
“He’d never appreciated Giles Crookleg’s complaining meant no more than the mutterings of crows in a tree. It was a habit crows fell into when things weren’t going their way. Father, too, grumbled by way of easing the disappointment in his life. What mattered was how Father went on in spite of his unhappiness, to create this beautiful place.”
This little epiphany is one of the first suggestions we get of the growth that Jack is about to undergo, and let’s just say that there’s a tremendous amount ahead. And not just for Jack, but for those around him. For Jack’s quiet Saxon life is about to be interrupted by the invading Vikings (or Northmen, as they’re known in the book). Jack and his sister are kidnapped and whisked away by the Northman Olaf to be sold as slaves. But Jack and Lucy are passed in at auction. Lucky them. Olaf decides to take Jack on as his personal mini-bard, and hands Lucy over as a gift to King Ivar and his cranky half-troll wife Frith. Unfortunately, Jack’s efforts to woo his new captor go slightly awry when his spoken word poem strips the hair from Frith, leaving her quite the chrome dome.
She is unimpressed. Lives are threatened. Bargains are made.
And so off they all head on an adventure to restore her lovely locks and thus ensure the continued existence of bratty Lucy. An adventure that involves trolls, giant spiders, Yggdrasil, and plenty of self-discovery. Not to mention a fairly captivating mix of darkness and levity. Take the discussion over the impending quest to Jotunheim:
“It is perilous beyond belief to pass into Jotunheim,” said King Ivar. “I know. I’ve been there.” “And I as well,” said Olaf.
I love that a place that’s apparently impossible to return from alive has survivors galore reporting of its purgatorial nature. And who can resist a bunch of Vikings who exhort Jack to “just say no to pillaging”? But at the same time, the whimsy leads to the text feeling a little uneven. The Sea of Trolls seems to waver between being YA and MG at times, and the humour’s in large part to blame. Lines like Frith’s ”I wanted a fine ogre or goblin, but no. Mother insisted I marry a puny human” sit strangely and anachronistically against Farmer’s thoughtful examination of the intersection of different cultures, belief systems, and the complexity of human nature.
The book is set in 793 CE, a historically fairly unpleasant time for the English, being the beginning of more than a hundred years of Viking raids. This period is neatly alluded to by Jack’s smaller-scale contact with various groups and their ways of life. For example, Jack, himself from a religiously diverse background, finds himself arguing the value of life with monks from the Christian tradition: “Hark at him! The child presumes to lecture his elders. Listen, boy. Long life is but a chance to commit more sins. The longer you live, the more Satan whispers in your ear. Your soul grows so heavy, it gets dragged down to Hell. It’s better to die young, preferably right after baptism, and be taken into Heaven.” Similarly, he finds himself struggling to understand the desire of the Vikings to die in battle so that they might enter Valhalla. “Why does everyone want to die?” he asks. “What’s so bad about being alive?”
Another notable snippet is this one:
“When Odin wanted the lore that would make him leader of the gods, he had to pay for it with suffering. he was stabbed with a spear and hanged for nine days and nights on the tree Yggdrasil.” “That’s just plain stupid,” Jack said. “Your god was nailed to a cross. It’s the same thing.” “No, it’s not.”
Quotes like these abound; Farmer manages to fit plenty of thematic rumination and mythological references into what is a pretty rollicking adventure. Better scholars of this period than I am will pick out resonances from Beowulf as well as from the historical record; although one element I found interesting was that the “Jack and Jill” nursery rhyme apparently arose from this era.
In addition to the spiritual and historical side of things, there’s plenty more into which the reader can delve, including what appears to be a pre-Stockholm case of Stockholm Syndrome–Jack’s relationship with his captor Olaf becomes almost loving. Take this: ”For the first time he understood what drove these violent men. Their lives were short, but every moment burned with intensity. These men knew they were doomed…it was brave and crazy and supremely stupid. But it was noble, too.” And also this: ”Lesser men. That meant he, Jack, was greater. The giant didn’t think of him as a slave…they were equals.”
And yet. You knew that there was a yet, didn’t you? Somehow I didn’t quite connect with the book, as much as I dearly wanted to. It’s a book that I felt like I should have loved, and which offers so many reasons to love it, but I never felt truly engaged by it. Jack and I were grudging travel buddies, and I was disappointed by the fact that the book’s female characters were largely, well, unbearable. The exception was Thorgill, who I would have loved to have seen as the book’s protagonist, given that she’s the one that undergoes the most growth. The writing, too, never quite felt there for me, either, and I felt as though the book’s target audience was never clearly defined.
Still, I’m glad that I took the time to acquaint myself with Nancy Farmer’s work, and given the generally strong elements of this book suspect that I’ll be picking up some more of her work at another point. (less)
Though Daisy Appleby is surely the world record holder for Most Times Deceased and Revived...moreThis review originally appeared at Read in a Single Sitting.
Though Daisy Appleby is surely the world record holder for Most Times Deceased and Revived, she’s not going to end up in the Guinness Book of World Records anytime soon. Why? Because Daisy wasn’t brought back by something as mundane as CPR or a defibrillator machine. She was brought back by a top-secret drug that’s still in its preliminary testing stages. The kind of drug that has the possibility to utterly change not just the finality of death, but the way people live their lives. After all, if you knew that you could be brought back to life with not even the merest of side-effects, wouldn’t you do things differently?
But though Daisy may be a little blithe when it comes to things like bringing her Epipen to school or balancing precariously atop a section of cliff-top railing, for the most part Daisy wants nothing more than to be normal. Being a part of a top-secret testing regimen means that each time something happens that may compromise the anonymity of the project, Daisy and her “parents”, two programme operatives, have to move elsewhere, assuming new identities each time. It’s a life that could be likened to being a part of a military family, or perhaps someone in a witness protection programme.
Having been revived from her fifth death and accordingly shunted off to a new home in Omaha, Daisy is determined to live a normal life not overshadowed by thoughts of death or the rigorous testing required by the programme. For the first time in her life, Daisy begins to reach out to others, and she finds herself not only with a best friend with whom she has everything in common, but with a maybe-boyfriend as well. But when it turns out that Daisy’s new best friend is suffering from terminal cancer, she finds herself facing a tremendous ethical battle. How is it fair that Daisy has access to the Revive drug whenever it’s needed, and yet others such as her best friend are not able to access it at all? And why are such trials being undertaken clandestinely, out of the view of the public? What does this mean for the future of the drug and the public’s ability to access it should they need it? Or is death something that is universal unless one has the money and means to make a choice otherwise?
Revived is beautifully and movingly written, and Patrick’s strong characterisation allows her to explore not only these questions, but also related themes, such as the cultural taboo of death and sickness–Audrey, for example, is shunned by her peers, while Daisy, who appears physically healthy, is accepted by them–and the human response to the loss of a loved one–something that Daisy has not before experienced first-hand, but rather has (at times selfishly) been the cause of.
But yet, despite a strong set-up, Revived doesn’t quite hang together. There are parts where things seem to happen too easily: those Daisy tells about the Revived program are immediately receptive to the idea, rather than treating it with a degree of scepticism, for example. And the ease with which she is able to access top-secret programme files doesn’t feel realistic. I also found the pacing in the latter half of the book an issue: the book seems to shift gear half-way through, changing from a quiet, almost literary pace to one a good deal faster, with a sudden dash to Texas culminating in an action film-esque ending that involves a sniper and a scene involving a bees’ nest that, given how the book opens, is just far too neat to be believable.
Still, these issues aside, Patrick has a knack for coming up with intelligent high-concept ideas, and the writing chops to make something of them. I suspect that with a few more novels under her belt she’ll be very good indeed.(less)
Jess Hill and Peyton Brentwood are at war. Although they were once the very best of friends, things have changed, and now the two spend their days fig...moreJess Hill and Peyton Brentwood are at war. Although they were once the very best of friends, things have changed, and now the two spend their days figuring out how to make the other the laughing stock of the school with prank after prank. But a good prank begets an even better prank, and over the years, things have begun to escalate, with the whole school waiting to see what the duo will come up with next. However, Jess and Peyton are now in their final year of school, which means that the consequences of getting caught are high stakes–Peyton’s dreams of Harvard could easily end up circling the drain, and Jess could well end up flunking out and expelled.
Told in a dual perspective format, Getting Caught offers both sides of the Jess/Peyton situation and gradually reveals how the two ceased being best buddies and turned into foes instead. At its heart, the novel is about miscommunication and the risk of making assumptions about another person’s position and motivations, and the authors aren’t shy in making sure this point gets across. Jess is the emo bad girl type, while Peyton has straight As and a membership in every club at school. It’s easy to make assumptions about their backgrounds even from this, and the authors note this by reversing the presumed backgrounds of each of the girls–it’s Jess’s family who’s better off than Peyton’s, for example.
Although I read January First late last year, it’s probably apt that it’s my first review for this new year. The book’s title is one of semantic multiplicity: it represents not only one family’s efforts to put their troubled daughter January (Jani)’s needs first, but also the sheer atypicality of January and her needs, as well as the many new beginnings and resolutions they experience along the way. But to be honest, a more apt title given the book’s perspective would be Michael First. But I’ll get to that in a minute.
From birth January Schofield has been developmentally unusual. Requiring almost incessant stimulation, she’s never slept regular hours, and needs to be engaged by her parents to the point of exhaustion in order to wear down what is seen initially as a sort of emotional and intellectual hyperactivity. When Jani’s IQ is found to be off the charts, her parents think that they’re on the way to understanding just why Jani is so different from other children. But her parents Susan and Michael have differing parenting approaches: where Susan encourages Jani to engage with her peers with a view to her “fitting in”, Michael encourages what he sees as Jani’s whims and eccentricities, which he sees as the product of her brilliance.
The heartbreaking denial that subsequently pervades the narrative is evident from the book’s early pages, where Michael plays along with January’s make-believe games far beyond what might be expected, positioning himself as an appointed protector, someone whose responsibility it is to shield January from a world that will never understand her gifts. January might be brilliant, but there’s something neuro-atypical about her behaviour that borders on disturbing. And with the birth of newborn Bodhi, things only get worse. January’s manic tendencies turn increasingly violent, and the subject of these violent outbursts is almost always Bodhi. Struggling to cope with January’s behaviour while caring for a newborn, Susan and Michael begin reaching out to mental healthcare professionals. They endure a marathon trek through America’s underwhelming healthcare system, being shunted back and forth from institution to institution, all the while attempting to stretch their health insurance to cover costs–and trying to deal with January’s increasingly erratic, dangerous behaviour.
January First is utterly compelling, and if ever there’s a memoir suited for “single sitting” status, this is it. And yet at the same time it’s frustrating on a number of levels: the more distance I’ve allowed to pass between reading the book and reviewing it, the more dissatisfied I’ve grown with it. And it’s not just the sometimes mind-boggling parenting style on display here: that’s not for me to judge. I think in large part it’s that this doesn’t read at all like a memoir, but rather like a novel–although given its bland writing style, one that’s highly reliant on premise. It follows the kind of narrative arc a fiction reader would anticipate, and the way in which the chapters are broken up, particularly towards the end, are almost chillingly redolent of a horror novel. There’s an unshakable sense of this book’s being less than honest, of it being a sort of memoir-style sleight of hand. Much of this is due to the way in which Schofield has positioned himself as a narrator: he’s afforded himself a sort of martyr/hero status where it’s his undying love for January against the world. As a result, his wife, his son, his father, and anyone else appearing in the narrative is portrayed either negatively or in a seriously diminished way, and I found this weird de-emphasis unsettling.
Throughout the book, Schofield speaks of how he wants January to be different, special, a genius who will be remembered by generations to come, and the way that the narrative (for it really is a narrative) plays out, I couldn’t help but feel a creeping feeling that perhaps a good deal of all of his actions–and his writing about them in this book, his blog, and so on–are his way of guiding January in this direction. There’s a scene towards the end of the book in which Schofield undertakes what I’ll euphemistically deem a “cry for help”, after which he abruptly does an about-face, casting himself in a redemptive light. There’s something about the way in which this is written that smacks of artifice, of a story being less remembered than reworked for the glory of posterity, and given this and the angle of the rest of the book, I just felt uncomfortably as though the whole thing was a bit exploitative.
January First is undoubtedly a page-turner, but it’s disquieting as much for its subject as it is for the way (and perhaps the why) in which it’s written. It’s a book you read despite Schofield’s narration, because although the topic is a fascinating one, his narcissistic tendencies and insistence that only he has the answers to helping his daughter–and indeed is the only one who cares enough to do so–may leave you feeling oddly uncomfortable.(less)
What would you do if your estranged, Hawaiian shirt-wearing, Powerball jackpot-winning father, the man who told you that you’d never see a c...more3.5 stars.
What would you do if your estranged, Hawaiian shirt-wearing, Powerball jackpot-winning father, the man who told you that you’d never see a cent of his $350 million dollars, the man who dumped your mother in front of a crowd of hundreds by tossing her a $20 million cheque and telling her to bugger off, suddenly invited you to dinner after four years of radio silence?
And not just any dinner. A dinner in Sweden. A dinner in Sweden where you’d have to convince a high-up diplomat that you were a NASA rocket scientist.
If you were Brandon, a thirty-ish no one with a severe allergy to coriander, with a fiance who spends her every waking moment matching tablecloths to serviettes and organising seating charts, with future in-laws straight out of the Triads (and one with Seinfeld-esqu man-hands no less), with a job pretending to sell ad space for a minor television network whose star show is the ultra-classy Honey Buns (marketed using a picture of said buns), and with a best friend whose most meaningful conversations revolved around toddler toilet training…well, you’d probably go for it.
When walking home from dinner one night, my husband and I were hounded by a group of drunk youths who bellowed at my husband to go back to where he came from. This was only two years ago. I also remember as a teen in the late nineties being accosted by a drunk man while waiting for my train. He shouted at me, calling me a bloody wog.
Australia is a country of migrants, an ethnic melting pot of all sorts of backgrounds and cultures and languages and lifestyles. We’re also a country famous for our racism, and despite how often the phrase “tolerance”, a loaded term in itself, is bandied about, there’s a seething undercurrent of paranoia and suspicion that’s scarcely covered by a blanket of civility. It’s telling that in both the situations mentioned above alcohol was involved–alcohol is, after all, a truth serum.
Diane Armstrong’s fourth novel Empire Day takes us back to 1940s Bondi, a time rife with racial and cultural conflict. Large number of migrants have arrived from Europe, bringing with them unfamiliar customs and languages that rankle the locals, who fear their way of life being set awash amongst a wave of foreignness. With the memory of WWII still fresh, fear and suspicion are palpable, and these “New Australians” bring with them an unknown factor that immediately sets the locals on edge. Without knowing who they are and what they’re saying, they argue, how are we supposed to know whether they’re with us or against us?
Armstrong narrows her focus to the residents of Wattle Street, who fall into the groups of the white Australians, or their new migrant neighbours. Within these groups, of course, is a diversity of experiences rather than the homogeneity they may seem to comprise at face value. The white Australians represent different classes and religions, and these come into play as a way of signalling the divisions that have long marked this country. The migrant groups, too, are separated by language, religion, and war-time experience–and when Armstrong extends her focus beyond the street, we can see a further division between those migrants who have experienced the war in Europe, and those who experienced it within an Australian context.
The migrant experience is one that’s necessarily complex, and for every individual there’s an individual story. Armstrong creates a careful, thoughtful picture of these experiences from both the perspectives of those new to the country and those who aren’t. The book is rife with miscommunications, misunderstandings, and differences of approach and belief, but there are also those who seek a common ground, or who choose to reach out even when there is no evidence of that common ground. The novel is many-threaded, with the plethora of point of view characters used to provide both the depth and breadth needed to navigate these stories in a balanced manner, and although some characters do become lost in the dense fabric of the book, Armstrong largely manages to keep things intertwined enough that it’s easy to keep on track.
Probably the key plot-line is that of journalist cadet Ted, whose role on a local rag affords him the opportunity to be able to explore the migrant context, and the discrimination levelled towards migrants, in a meaningful way, and whose stilted love affair with a young Latvian girl highlights the cultural negotiation involved in bridging two very different life experiences. There’s also Sala, whose wartime experiences and resulting Stockholm syndrome continue to haunt her, and who is also wrestling with how to begin her studies in this new country. There’s the taciturn, reclusive Mr Emil, who lives in a sort of self-imposed exile from a guilty conscience over his war-time choices; and there’s Hania’s mother, whose own forced decision-making during this time continues to torment her. And there’s single mother and bartender Kath, and the angry and seemingly vindictive spinster Ms McNulty, both of whom have been outcast in their own way throughout their lives.
It’s a lot to keep track of, but these various narratives are cleverly interwound–sometimes, admittedly, too much so. Armstrong manages to make sympathetic all of these characters, no matter how diverse their backgrounds and personalities. Yes, there’s an amount of romanticism here, and as the book progresses some of the subplots take on a soap operaesque tone, but character is king, and this is something at which Armstrong excels.
Perhaps what is most keenly felt here is the fact that everyone within this book–and in Australia–is an outcast in some way, and that those dividing lines can be drawn so arbitrarily. Whether it’s due to language, culture, red colour, religion, occupation or disability, it’s easy for a society to become one where everyone is maligned for their differences–but the flip side of the coin could be just as easily embraced instead.
Although I felt that Empire Day ended a little too abruptly and tidily given its breadth of scope and the time put into building its characters and setting, it’s a rich, enjoyable read filled with relatable characters and insights into post-WWII Australia, and one I’d recommend. (less)
Little White Lies is Bernadette Strachan’s fourth novel, and while it’s presented as fluffy and whimsical, it’s a novel that actually has quite a lot...moreLittle White Lies is Bernadette Strachan’s fourth novel, and while it’s presented as fluffy and whimsical, it’s a novel that actually has quite a lot to offer. Strachan’s strengths are in witty repartee and in creating characters with whom it’s very difficult not to empathise, and she certainly makes the most of them throughout the novel.
When Billie receives a letter from Great Auntie Babs asking that she temporarily take over her small-town wedding shop whilst Babs gallivants off to Australia to meet an internet beau, she’s torn between taking up an opportunity for a new start, and her utter loathing of weddings. Billie is a recently jilted bride with a rather cynical attitude towards love and marriage, and on the face of it, she’s not the most likely candidate for the role. However, desperate to escape the 9-5 grind in a job that’s about as appealing as walking down the aisle again, and rather liking the idea of getting away from her lunatic family of would-be actors, Billie heads down for a year of small-town bliss.
It should be a rude awakening: the wedding dress shop is a dingy affair full of taffeta nightmares, her shop assistant is an airy hippie with a penchant for rescuing rodents (not the least of which being her misogynistic boyfriend Jake), and her new home is a beach hut sans all the mod cons—even a bucket-style makeshift toilet. Billie, though, under the spell of a seachange, finds herself warming to her new and simple lifestyle, and despite her disparaging approach towards all things romantic, she manages to transform the wedding dress shop into something rather more representative of the demands of the big day than it had been previously. A range of fascinating (and mostly utterly mad) characters flit in and out of her life, and Billie finds herself making all sorts of new and important friendships: notable characters include crazed fudge-maker Zelda, snarky children’s book author Sam, and sweet old Annie, who despite being a widower of many years, has been putting aside money for a wedding dress—just in case.
Of course, any good chicklit novel has to be choc-full of conflict and disaster, and Little White Lies certainly does not shy from this. Poor Billie finds herself designated mediator in all sorts of strange social situations including brides so vicious they have stepped up from Bridezilla and into the world of Bridenstein or BridenHyde, a potential murder with bonus cannibalism subplot, a tryst with a fireman nicknamed (with good reason) Treacle, and a staff member whose crass and vulgar manner—not to mention her money-filching ways—are enough to scare away the most tenacious of would-be brides. Interestingly, through all of this, Billie keeps up a tentative email dialogue with her ex-fiance, and while this does seem a little odd at first, it’s a neat thread that both helps tie the past and the present—and ultimately the future.
While Little White Lies does run on a little, and some of the plot points (such as the human-flavoured fudge), and the epilogue, feel extraneous, overall Strachan has created a delightful novel with characters that really shine. It’s incredibly over to the top, of course, with some of the characters being little more than hilarious caricatures, but it’s all part of the fun of the novel. Whether you’re a cynic looking to be converted, or you’re a sucker for romance and friendship like me, you could certainly do worse than to pick up Little White Lies.(less)
Lara Morgan’s Genesis, the first in her dystopian YA trilogy The Rosie Black Chronicles, was a blistering read. Its sequel certainly continues in a si...moreLara Morgan’s Genesis, the first in her dystopian YA trilogy The Rosie Black Chronicles, was a blistering read. Its sequel certainly continues in a similar vein, albeit with even more grit and integrity. Morgan writes of a future where climate change has rendered vast tracts of the world uninhabitable, and where the haves and the have-nots are divided almost in a way reminiscent of Soylent Green/Make Room! Make Room! (and the food’s not much better, although admittedly a bit more vegetarian-friendly). It’s a class system so entrenched that it’s closer to a caste system than anything, and things aren’t made much better by the oppressive government, which recalls all of those feared entities of golden age dystopian literature.
But we don’t just get our Orwells and Zamyatins here: there’s plenty of cyberpunk-inspired goodness lurking at the corners of this gritty novel, and every now and then you find yourself bumping into a Philip K Dick or William Gibson trope. It’s angsty, it’s tough, and it’s worthy of Tank Girl. Truly, it’s a welcome departure from so much of the stuff that has a dystopian label slapped on it these days: there’s a wonderful awareness of the roots of the genre and all the issues and features that have been touched upon over the years. This isn’t simply an alternative reality with some completely unfathomable and indefensible “what if…just because” twist added to it; it’s organic and vivid, and you can imagine it growing out of the context of today.
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)
EL Konigsburg’s Silent to the Bone is the third book I’ve read recently involving a character who has withdrawn from the spoken world. I’m fascinated by the idea of voicelessness, particularly as a form of protest: it’s a world apart from a mere failure to speak up. A deliberate, defiant silence is a removal of oneself from the social mainstream, a renouncing of the communication norms that are so essential to getting by. Unlike a failure to speak up, something that encourages the individual in question to be passed over, their grievances unaddressed, it encourages others to rally and take action.
In Silent to the Bone, our voiceless character is Branwell Zamborska, a teen whose voice vanishes midway through an emergency telephone call to the authorities. Branwell’s infant sister now lies in a hospital with injuries consistent with being shaken. Branwell himself is in a juvenile detention centre, both physically locked up, and bound in his own silence. But although the origins of his silence are ambiguous and possibly multifaceted–there are shades of PTSD and certainly, as we learn later, of acute shame here–his voicelessness appears to be one of protest, and we see that there is more to circumstances surrounding little Nikki’s injuries than might be imagined.
What follows is framed as a whodunnit, with Branwell’s best friend Connor setting out to solve the mystery of what truly happened that night by means of interviewing those involved and attempting to draw commentary out of Branwell using an elaborate system of flash cards and facial cues–namely blinks. Much like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime (which dates three years after the publication of this book) the solution to the mystery, however, is evident within the first page of the book. The mystery is a framework, not the key narrative. What’s really being explored here is the nature of the relationships between the main characters, as well as the many ways in which silence, both protest-based silence and a fear or shame of speaking out, affect these relationships.
Branwell has long been silenced by those around him, although not necessarily in an explicit, punitive way. He appears to fall somewhere on the Autistic spectrum, and his difficulty in dealing with nuance and unspoken suggestion affects the way that he communicates with others. When his baby sister Nikki is born, Branwell’s father asks his opinion of her, and Branwell responds: “half sister”. It’s a response that might appear callous and uncaring, but it’s also correct, which is something Branwell cares very much about. We also see how Branwell is silenced by his grandparents, who try to keep him away from the family during the time of Nikki’s birth, and by the babysitter Vivian, whose behaviour shames Branwell, a teen struggling with his newfound sexual nature, into a deeper silence again.
But Branwell is desperate to find ways to communicate and to be understood. His relationship with Connor is one that revolves around communication–and often structured, formalised language games. The two have a game called “SIAS” or “Summarise in a Sentence” where they try to sum up scenarios or events elegantly and with brevity; they create their own catch phrases and buzzwords, such as “blue peter”, a signal meaning “ready to begin”. And when Branwell is being held in detention, he and Connor begin to communicate through a system of blinks and cue cards. This last is incredibly tedious and time-consuming, and their determined, continued use of it speaks both to the friends’ close bond and Branwell’s true desire to communicate.
Silence and communication are constantly explored throughout the book, and this post would be thousands of words long if I were to document all of the instances. There’s Connor’s decision to remain silent around “the Ancestors”, Branwell’s incredibly rude and prejudiced grandparents: “there was an awful lot unsaid when you were around the Ancestors,” he thinks. We also see Connor’s awkwardness when around Vivian, Nikki’s babysitter, a young woman who as an adult is “beyond” Connor’s communicative realm. Missed telephone calls, faxes, and other methods of one-way or non-reciprocal communication all abound.
Perhaps most movingly there’s Margaret, Connor’s half-sister and Branwell’s erstwhile babysitter. Margaret is used to show the complexities of communication and how it’s not always a two-way, equal affair: although she’s integral in acting as a sort of go-between in helping to solve the mystery and to communicate on an adult level with Vivian and the other adults in the book, she has her own communicative challenges. Her rocky relationship with her father, for example, is the result of a breakdown in communication, and it’s when this channel begins to open up towards the end of the book that we see a possibility for reconciliation.
Silent to the Bone is a wonderful book, and it’s one that shouldn’t be dismissed as simply a “whodunnit”–if you deem it so you’ve surely missed what the book, through a careful language of symbolism much like Branwell’s, is trying to convey. It’s a meditation on communication, relationships, and the astonishing power of our voices…and the choices we make in using them.(less)
This is a tough letter to write, and I’m sorry not to be doing this in person, except, you know, you’re a book, so I thought this might be a nicer let down than just saying this to your cover. Maybe.
I’ve been wanting to say this since a few pages in, but you seem like a nice book, and I thought that maybe, if I hung in there long enough, things might change and perhaps I’d feel that spark. Not everything can be love at first sight, after all. I really did my best to fall in love with you, and I know this is going to hurt, but I’m afraid I just don’t feel that way.
It’s not you, it’s me.
I know you don’t want to hear about my reading past, but I’ve been around a lot of books. A lot of books. I won’t get specific, but let’s throw out a number of three digits or so. A year. (But don’t worry: I don’t share my books around much. And if I do they come back clean.) And I know I shouldn’t be comparing you with all those other books, but honestly, it’s hard. Because some of those books–just wow. Sorry. That was harsh. I’ll try not to do that again.
If you’ll just give me a moment to explain. You see, you’re the third school shooting book I’ve read this year–not that there’s anything wrong with that–and I suppose I’m looking for something else. I want to experience other plots and other types of writing, you know? Spread my literary wings a little. I’m young, and there are a lot of books out there.
I know that you can’t help the school shooting thing, and that’s fine. I wouldn’t break it off with you over something as minor as a premise. It’s not like you can help a premise, and you’ve got to work with what you’ve got. Make the best of it. But that’s not the only problem. See, you’re also a book with an alternating first person point of view, and you have that possible-romance-plus-suspense element happening, not to mention that present tense thing that books seem to love these days, and I’m just, well, I’m just a little tired of it all.
And–man, I feel like I should stop, but we’ve come this far, so what’s another paragraph or two? Don’t get mad, because remember, this is totally not your fault, and you can’t help who you are, but you’re also one of a half a dozen or so books I’ve read in the last few months where the viewpoint girl is a shy type, one who has a weird name and struggles with her voice, and where the viewpoint guy is a messed-up guy whose dad’s the local mayor. There are a lot of mayor’s sons in books at the moment. No offence or anything.
Oh, and then there’s your voice. See, while I’m sure it’ll be music to some other reader’s ears, I’m a little over that colloquial, writing-a-book-like-you’re-on-the-phone kind of thing that’s so hot right now (see, I can totally fake it myself), and to be honest, I’m not really sure that this voice stuff is enough to set a book apart from all the other books any more.
Maybe I have commitment issues, what with this whole new-book-every-day habit of mine, but I just don’t quite–oh, how do I say this?–I just don’t quite feel that you quite stand out from the crowd. Yeah, it’s a big crowd, but I’ve already apologised for that. Maybe you’re better suited to a reader who likes to take it slow, who doesn’t toss you aside for the next one in the pile the second we’re done with, well, you know.
Now I feel like a jerk.
But look, we had some good times, didn’t we? Emery’s heart condition–I liked that. And that teacher doing what she could to keep her class safe? That was some good characterisation right there. And tension, sure, there was tension, and, that conclusion! Not bad, even though it’s spoiled a bit by the Kirkus review on the back of the book–sorry, someone had to say it.
I’m rambling here, but I guess what I want to say is that you’re a nice book with a classy cover and some deep thoughts and a sense of humour under all of that serious stuff. I’m just not quite the reader for you. But there are plenty of readers in the bookshop, you know? (less)
At a crime writing convention I went to last year, there was a good deal of discussion on one panel about why it is that the victims in crime novels a...moreAt a crime writing convention I went to last year, there was a good deal of discussion on one panel about why it is that the victims in crime novels are almost always women. Needless to say, it was a heated debate, and a good many reasons were offered. Among these were the fact that it’s easier to elicit an emotional reaction when a female is involved–particularly when that reaction needs to be elicited in the opening pages before the story begins and main characters are introduced. But there’s a good deal more to it than that, and although I’m not going to get into a messy discussion about raunch, sadism and misogyny, well, there’s a reason that I don’t typically read crime novels. (I should also note that I prevaricated over which cover of this book to use in my review. I eventually opted for the cover from the version I read, although frankly I find it quite appalling.)
From Year 9 through to Year 12 I attended the Mac.Robertson Girls’ High School, a small, austere looking place known amongst lovers of architecture and design for being one of the first Bauhaus buildings in Melbourne. Its students, on the other hand, had rather less reverence for it, nicknaming it the “toilet block” and bemoaning the fact that it looked nothing like its grand brother school Melbourne High.
We weren’t the only ones slightly wary about spending our days in this grim little venue. According to Jill Robertson’s delicious little volume MacRobertsonland, the school’s opening was met with complaints about the public thinking its students went to school at a chocolate factory.
Mac.Rob, you see, was named for the flamboyant entrepreneur Macpherson Robertson, a man who built an extraordinary business empire on the sticky but appealing foundations of glucose and cocoa. If you’ve ever eaten a Cherry Ripe, a Freddo Frog, or a block of Old Gold, you’ve played your part in helping to extend the legacy of this astonishingly driven fellow, a man whose wealth and reach was so impressive that he all but owned the suburb of Fitzroy, and was once the proud owner of the largest motorcar collection in the world. But today the influence of Robertson seems negligible: his memory persists only across such strangely disparate things such as my school, the large fountain at the Domain Interchange, the Fairfield cricket club, and a chunk of land in Antartica. What, if anything, do these things have to do with a man who made his fortune through chocolate, and why is a man who wielded such influence only so faintly remembered today?
This beautifully designed, highly readable volume sets to work retracing Macpherson Robertson’s life in order to find out exactly this, and the curiosities it digs up in its biographical exhumation are nothing short of fascinating–I admit to reading a good half of this book aloud to my poor long-suffering husband, so entranced was I by the colourful figure Jill Robertson paints of her subject.
If this book were a type of confectionery, it would be one part rags to riches, one part Richard Branson, and one part Willy Wonker. Macpherson Robertson was extraordinary in his work ethic, desire to innovate, and his ability to assess the market, and it honestly seems quite reasonable that he went from selling boiled animal lollies made in the family bathtub to a successful businessman employing some several thousand employees in the space of a few decades.
The author paints a picture of a man always ahead of the game, and whose interests were as diverse as they were deep. Not content with business offshoots that included fairy floss, chewing gum and, bizarrely, cycling clubs, Macpherson Robertson also dabbled in aviation, logistics, and packaging on the side, along with whatever else took his fancy. He’d pick something up, turn it into a profitable endeavour, then sell it off when it showed signs of encroaching on his primary love: confectionery.
Perhaps it’s this multiplicity of interests, as well as the endless conflicts posed by his family, that has watered down his legacy into a few sad chocolate bars and architectural feats: Robertson wanted to be everywhere, to be everything, and in doing so spread himself so thin that there was little left to cling to.
Like all of Arcade’s books, MacRobertsonland is a gorgeous little volume. Printed across a veritable rainbow of paper, it’s brimming with pullout quotes, photographs and full-colour reproductions of advertisements for MacRobertson’s confectionery, and it’s the sort of thing you can’t figure out whether to dip in and out of, or devour all in one go.
Fortunately, unlike a block of chocolate, you can opt for the latter without any regrets. Highly recommended.(less)
Agatha Christie is a writer for whom many readers will have a soft spot. Along with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, she’s perhaps one of the best known myster...moreAgatha Christie is a writer for whom many readers will have a soft spot. Along with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, she’s perhaps one of the best known mystery writes of our time (or, if you’re a young munchkin like me, perhaps slightly before our time). Christie was an extremely prolific author whose work spanned novels, short stories, and plays, and while she was best known for her extensive work in the mystery genre, she also wrote a number of romance novels under the name Mary Westmacott. Christie is credited as the best-selling author of all time, and, having just sped through the fabulous Peril at End House, I’m not surprised by this at all.
One of Christie’s most beloved creations is detective Hercule Poirot, who appears in several dozen of her novels. Peril at End House is the seventh of the Poirot novels, and it’s a witty and intriguing read. The novel begins with Poirot and his sidekick (and the novel’s narrator) Hastings arriving for a holiday on the Cornish Riviera. Of course, as with any novel, a holiday cannot simply be an enjoyable and lovely experience, and Poirot almost immediately comes across young Nick Buckley, who begins to describe her soi-disant ‘accidental brushes with death’. Poirot, of course, believes that there is a potential killer at large, and he sets out a complicated series of efforts to both protect Nick and identify her would-be killer.
This book has more twists than a moebius strip, and will keep you guessing right up until the last page. I admit that I did the old head-slap when the killer was eventually revealed, as I’d been merrily following along, completely in the dark, up until that point. Christie mixes a good deal of humour and wit with her clever plots, and it’s difficult not to get caught up in the enjoyable tete-a-tete of Hastings and Poirot as they try to sort out exactly what’s going on. The pacing is spot-on, pulling the reader along at a quick pace that never lapses into the breathless ‘and then, and then’ frenzy of current thrillers. A very enjoyable read that makes me glad I have another two unread Christies sitting on my shelf.
Laura Powell’s recently released Burn Mark is a book that seems to tick all the right boxes. The premise is solid and intriguing, the world-building is rich and believable, and the characters realistic.
And yet I found it disappointingly bland. Perhaps it’s that my paranormal palate has been overwhelmed over the past few years. Perhaps I’m just a grumpy old contrarian. But somehow, I simply couldn’t muster up any enthusiasm for this one. The writing slouches along, placid and lazy and dully matter-of-fact, the characters undergo exactly the type and degree of change expected from the outset, and the plot is a commuter train making its way from one end of the line to the other exactly as detailed by the conductor.
Our setting is an alternative London where witchcraft is very much alive, and so too is the Inquisition, its purpose being to identity, monitor, police and punish witchkind. Our two key players are Lucas Stearne, son of the Chief Prosecutor of the Inquisition, and who learns that not only is he a witch, but an immensely powerful one; and Glory Starling Wilde, a tough-girl witch from a mafia-esque coven. The two, as you might imagine, find themselves working together, and in doing so discover a shocking series of betrayals and lies.
It’s a case of narrative predestination, and it’s proof that–for this reader at least–a tightly honed, carefully layered plot can undermine a story. Everything slots in so tidily together that it’s like an epic jigsaw puzzle. Unfortunately, one person’s tidy plotting is another person’s narrative restrictiveness, and the latter was the case for me. When everything is so neatly foreshadowed and the characters’ roles are so tidily telegraphed it’s easy for a narrative to feel as though it can’t possibly go any other way.
I was chatting with a romance author the other day about maintaining interest and suspense when the end of a novel is known to the reader, and she noted how it’s a delicate balance to push the boundaries while still working within a given formula. This one, I couldn’t help but feel, never quite pushed those boundaries. It relies on the depth of its world-building–which is admittedly impressive–to carry it, and I couldn’t help but feel that the rest of the novel wasn’t quite there. It’s a novel that’s competent enough, but whose purpose I can’t quite fathom. I had a similar reaction to Julianna Baggott’s Pure, which though beautifully written and thoughtfully explicated feels more like an exercise in setting than anything, and I wonder whether it’s a result of authors brainstorming dystopian-esque “what if” scenarios.
I think a lot of my qualms here have to do with scope and also with narrative insularity. During my recent reading of Mary Hooper’s Newes from The Dead, I found myself objecting to a certain plot point at the end that felt as though it had come out of nowhere. And yet, this event actually occurred in real life. But it’s not, as one might think, a case of fact being stranger than fiction. Rather, it’s to do with the scope of the story and what readers have been conditioned to expect from a book. The plot point in the Hooper would probably have been perfectly acceptable had the book’s scope been expanded to offer some reason or motivation for its occurrence. But real life–upon which the book is based–doesn’t allow for that. Real life is all about messy boundaries and unknowns. Things do have reasons and motivations. We just don’t see them, because they’re beyond the scope of our experience or knowledge.
My initial misgivings over the Hooper made me consider just how much readers are conditioned to accept logic and narrative containedness in their reading. In today’s fiction (the final extent, obviously, varying depending on genre and target audience) it seems that everything has to be telegraphed, because everything that happens in a book has to able to be saliently determined from prior information–we need to be presented with all of the facts. In few books outside the mystery genre have I found this more clearly than in Burn Mark. My copy, in fact, is bristling with post-it notes highlighting references to items or information that will clearly come into play at a later point in the book.
Curiously, the result of this for me was a book that left me feeling underwhelmed. Not because it wasn’t competent–it’s a solid enough book, after all–but because I felt as though I was never being tested as a reader. I never felt unsafe, or curious, or lost, or challenged. I felt rather as though I was a tourist on a bus being told what was what and what I should photograph. And I think the perfect tidiness of this book is what resulted in this being a less than memorable read for me.(less)