The last book I read in 2016 was easily one of the best. I had read a short review of this trilogy in the Review section of the Weekend Australian (thThe last book I read in 2016 was easily one of the best. I had read a short review of this trilogy in the Review section of the Weekend Australian (the Review section is much less right-wing than the newspaper itself, perhaps because it's mighty difficult to marry conservative values with the confronting and questioning nature of art and literature) some months earlier, ordered this, the first, book, and then forgot all about it. While looking for something to take with me on a beach holiday after Christmas (we went to Byron Bay), I thought this might do the trick - and I was right. I suffer from terrible travel sickness on domestic flights (something to do with the lower altitude, air pressure and the inner ear??), and even though I had my ear plugs, music and was taking a tonne of Travel Calm, I still felt incredibly nauseous, breaking out in a cold sweat and feeling close to vomiting. Usually, I can't read a thing, nothing can take my mind off how awful I'm feeling and how much concentration it takes not to throw up (I'm not always successful). And yet, Ancillary Justice was up to the challenge - and won. What a fantastic book! It absolutely deserves the praise it received in the review I read, not to mention all three major Science Fiction awards: the Hugo, the Arthur C Clarke and the Nebula (2014).
It will be hard, though, to explain the set-up of this story, because it is beautifully original without being too complicated or esoteric (I'm currently having that problem with another book, Briohny Doyle's The Island Will Sink). The Radch empire is centuries old and extends across a vast reach of galaxy. Their massive starships are artificial intelligences that not only run, manage, control and monitor absolutely everything on board (there is zero privacy), but also serve as soldiers through their thousands of ancillaries. An ancillary was a human but is no more - their brains are empty things. After being kept in storage in the holds until needed, they are connected to the ship and the ship's consciousness is thus split into all these different bodies, alongside and within the ship itself. Think of it like a computer tracking through thousands of cameras, able to think different things at the same time. On the ship, the ancillaries are like servants, and they are divided into different levels to match the many floors of the ship. On colonised planets, they are soldiers, spies and servants.
Breq is an ancillary soldier on a mission, a mission of revenge. As a starship, the Justice of Toren, she was blown up. This one ancillary was given last-minute orders and escaped in a pod. Her quest is one which no sane human would attempt, for Breq is going after the ruler of the empire, Anaander Mianaai, who also uses ancillaries to the point that there is no 'original' Anaander Mianaai anymore. Not only that, but Justice of Toren, before being destroyed, had discovered a truth that no one else realises: there isn't just one Anaander Mianaai anymore, one consciousness embodied in many ancillaries, there are two - and they are at war with each other/itself. This split, Breq has worked out, began when Anaander Mianaai ordered a whole planet destroyed as punishment for an attempted assassination: her conscience split over the decision.
As awful as the demise of a whole planet is, it has also given Breq the form of her quest: while the incredible guns used in the attempt were seized - guns that evade detection - one slipped through. It is in pursuit of this one special gun that Breq now finds herself on an ice-bound planet.
There is so much to love and enjoy here, not least of all Breq's first-person voice. As an artificial intelligence, as the remainder of the Justice of Toren, she is clearly not human, but she is understandable, sympathetic and vastly interesting. She can be quite deadly at times, able to make quick calculations and deductions, and very strong - much stronger than she appears. This is another aspect of the world that is interesting: in the Radch culture, they do not distinguish between men and women, and use the female pronoun for everyone. The actual, biological gender of the people Breq meets is irrelevant to her, not important. But we learn that the ancillary who calls herself Breq is gendered female; others, we never know for sure. The Radch are not particularly evil, intimidating, cruel or vicious. They are, however, superior-minded, and like many worlds, have a very clear idea of what it is to be civilised, and who is to be considered 'civilised'.
Alongside the exciting space-adventure story lie these thought-provoking ideas, and such is Leckie's skill at character and world-building, this complex story is rendered entirely clear without being simplified. It was beautifully layered, the backstory - Breq's story - parcelled out at just the right time, with just the right amount of new information revealed, and by returning to past scenes and events now and again, our understanding is solidified and expanded upon. A wonderful, wonderful story cleverly told - this is going on the Favourites list!
The Circle is a perfectly timed book and will be timely for quite some time, ha ha. The question of our right to privacy has long been debated and isThe Circle is a perfectly timed book and will be timely for quite some time, ha ha. The question of our right to privacy has long been debated and is not altogether a given - even less so since 9-11. The right to privacy has taken on a new dimension since the world wide web took off and social media became 'the thing'. While social media can be empowering and has been used to a means to redress a power imbalance (think of those who film police beating someone up, or the Arab Spring), it can also have the reverse effect. Pair this up with the amazing power of the internet - or rather, specific software programs and companies - to track our usage, our spending, our habits etc. in order to 'better' or more 'efficiently' target us with 'tailored' products, and it can seem like the whole world is watching you. (There is the interesting case, in the United States, of the teenage girl who started receiving advertising for baby products; her father, outraged, complained, but it turns out she was pregnant and didn't even know it - but the companies did. They knew she was pregnant before she did because of the things she was buying, which apparently, women who are pregnant tend to buy. Such is the vast volume of data at their disposal that their algorithms are able to work that kind of thing out.)
When Mae Holland gets a job at The Circle (modelled on Google), she feels giddy and in awe. Sure, it's in a call centre division, answering customer service emails, but in a company like the Circle, people notice when you prove yourself, and Mae is determined to prove herself. At first, though, it seems that her values and ideals are at odds with the Circle's: they want total transparency in people's lives, while she still goes out in a kayak for peace and solitude and, horror of all horrors, doesn't post about it on social media. Mae mends her ways and becomes a staunch supporter of everything the Circle does and says. But in a company that has eyes and ears everywhere, who is the strange, enigmatic man who slips in and about, undetected? The name he told her doesn't show in the system, and Mae soon doubts that he works there at all, but it's not long before she realises that he may be planning something. So when he asks for her help, Mae is faced with a momentous decision.
As someone who is not on her mobile phone constantly, or who uses her social media accounts with any frequency (I visit maybe once a week, and post even less), and as a teacher who is constantly in competition with the distraction of mobile phones (or rather, their internet connectivity) at a period in our civilisation in which the boundaries between work/study and social time seem ever more blurred by users, I found the Circle and its creed disturbing, even frightening, but all too real. The Circle represents the kind of oppression - through the denial of a right to privacy - that the people not only buy into, but enforce. In effect, people police themselves, a kind of brainwashing. It all comes down to the power of language, and the power of public relations (the other name for PR is 'propaganda').
Mae is something of a frustrating heroine because she's not very bright. She's easily impressed, and other people's arguments - in particular, the people who run the Circle - completely blindside her. Mae represents the vast blob of humanity in this: she is the everyman, a simple, ordinary person with modest ambitions and modest intelligence. It doesn't make for easy reading, in the sense that she makes you, the reader, feel more superior - and I'm not someone who is all that keen on feeling that way.
In true literary dystopian fashion, this has an ending that you probably won't like, but it is the right ending for the story. While the understanding of dystopian fiction, as a genre, has been skewed by the slew of Young Adult adventure novels - in which the dystopia serves as setting and premise, but which aren't, really, dystopian stories in and of themselves (more like coming-of-age stories for young teens with a message of hope and freedom through collaboration, resilience, perseverance and rebellion against an oppressive regime) - really, the dystopian genre is concerned with a satiric representation of authority and socio-political commentary. They're not meant to be thrillers or romances or coming of age stories or exciting adventures. They're meant to be dark, troubling thought experiments that emphasise flaws in our political structure, social values and to show us where we might end up should we follow a certain path. Here, Eggers has taken on Google's vast reach, the influence of social media and the troubling infringements on privacy through laws that are passed with little fanfare, all in the name of protecting us and freedom - an irony that is best served through the satirical nature of dystopic work - and his ending is apt. As such, I value this novel for its ideas and the disturbingly realistic depiction of twenty-first century westerners, even though it is at times slow and Mae herself is rather too realistic for comfort. But that's the point, surely: you shouldn't get too comfortable, reading a dystopian novel.
Maria Lewis's debut novel is a smoothly-paced, exciting and refreshing urban fantasy with more emphasis on a coming-of-age journey than the usual crimMaria Lewis's debut novel is a smoothly-paced, exciting and refreshing urban fantasy with more emphasis on a coming-of-age journey than the usual crime-mystery sleuthing prevalent in the genre. The story introduces blue-haired, fun-loving, smart-mouthed Tommi Grayson, born in Scotland after her pregnant mother left her native New Zealand in a hurry. Eight months after her mother's accidental death, Tommi is finally ready to head off to her mother's homeland to try and find her father - not to meet him, just to see. After all, her mother had once confessed that her pregnancy was the product of a rape, so she hardly wanted to sit down to a cup of tea with the man.
Armed with a possible name, Tommi's search leads her to a large house on a quiet street at the end of town, where she learns a lot more about her father and his family than she ever wished for - and about herself.
The strength of this story is without a doubt Tommi herself, who narrates with humour, intelligence, compassion and strength. Due to her werewolf heritage, she has a temper and so was directed into martial arts, and her post-New Zealand training builds on that. But the other key character whom you can't help but love is Lorcan, the ex-Praetorian Guard turned Custodian for the Trieze, the 'rulers', if you will, of this new paranormal world Tommi finds herself well and truly caught up in. Lorcan reminded me of Joscelin from the Phèdre series by Jacqueline Carey - a bit of a romantic dream, to be honest, but such a good one! If you're not familiar with the series, think beautiful, noble (and rather sweet) man who is also a fierce and highly skilled warrior and, to top it off, devoted and protective but not domineering (that's it, right there, the romantic dream!). Lorcan is in that vein, and Tommi's relationship with him builds slowly and believably, adding that extra layer of tension that keeps you invested.
That isn't to say, though, that this is a romance, only that it is romantic with guts - the ideal kind for an Urban Fantasy. Speaking of, I was so relieved that Who's Afraid? didn't follow the usual pattern of Urban Fantasy novels: that of the mystery, detective kind. While dead bodies do turn up, it's always clear who is behind it, and Tommi is on no quest beyond mastering her werewolf self and training before the next full moon. Tension and suspense is maintained because you know something's going to happen, and it's also maintained by showing Tommi's normal days - normalcy always raises the stakes.
While the plot has its formulaic moments, especially in regards to the showdown climax with her insane young relative, Steven, it also surprises. Lewis takes the time to develop Tommi's character, to let you experience what 'normal' looked like for her, to meet her friends and come to love them too, so that your emotional investment is well and truly secured. And with Tommi narrating, I flew through my reading of this, easily glued to the page, and made a nice pile of soggy tissues at the end (really, Lewis holds no punches). Things have been set up for a clean sequel with a fresh new story, and Tommi is the kind of character you want to accompany for the long haul.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book....more
Charlotte Wood's fifth novel is a disturbing yet beautiful and thought-provoking exploration into the misogyny lurking beneath Australia's good-natureCharlotte Wood's fifth novel is a disturbing yet beautiful and thought-provoking exploration into the misogyny lurking beneath Australia's good-natured, laid-back, egalitarian image. It is inspired, in part, by the Hay Institution for Girls, "an offshoot of Parramatta Girls Home that was reserved for the 10 worst offenders in the state in the 1960s and '70s. They were drugged and put on a train to the decommissioned men's prison in south-western NSW, where they were forced to march, look at the floor, never talk to each other, and endure rape and other violence." (Susan Wyndham, SMH) It is also inspired, or influenced, by the reaction to sex scandals over the years - far from being seen as victims, or equally responsible, the women in these scandals are vilified and denigrated - and hated.
In such ways do incredible true stories and a confronting dystopian fiction come together. In Wood's alternate present day setting, ten girls are drugged and taken to a remote sheep station, long abandoned and falling into ruin, in outback Australia (the state isn't clear but it would be either Victoria or NSW, most likely). They wake groggy and fearful, without their clothes or possessions, wearing old-fashioned clothes to which a leash can be attached and locked. Their heads are shaved, they're served small portions of the least nutritious food you can think of - Kraft-style Mac and Cheese, two-minute noodles, no fruit or veg - and bullied and beaten by the two men hired to guard them. Boncer and Teddy - and a young woman of dubious background herself, Nancy, who dresses up as a nurse with paper costume pieces and plastic toy stethoscope - are their guards. Surrounded by a high electrified fence, they are all locked in, trapped, but for the ten young women their lesson is to learn what they are, not who; and for the men, it is to teach them this.
This nightmare situation (as a female reader, I couldn't help but feel vulnerable, even threatened) is vividly rendered in Wood's delicate, descriptive prose and made all the more frightening by the idea, lurking beneath the surreal every-day existence depicted, that this plan wasn't even thought through all that well; or that, if it was carefully planned, it was planned by a truly cruel, evil fuck who has no regard for human life, health or sanity. It is the not-knowing, the ambiguity, the lack of information and facts that add to the tension and terror for the reader. Trying to imagine adults sitting down and planning this, justifying it, and then seeing it through makes my brain want to shut down. And yet, as evidenced by the real-life inspiration from the Hay Institution for Girls, it is entirely possible, today as well. It comes down to attitudes, to ideological mind-sets, to what a collective group of people believe is true and right. That's how we justify all manner of things, from bombing foreign towns to imprisoning Aboriginal peoples for minor infractions. Wood's ultimate triumph, in terms of ideas, is to remind us mutable our ideologies really are, and how, for as much as we like to think we are advanced, civilised, better than before, we actually have an awful long way to go. The reason, the ultimate reason why The Natural Way of Things is so disturbing and terrifying, is that there is a part of me that gets it, that understands that there is only a thin membrane of love, compassion and strength keeping women safe in this and many other Western countries.
I hear accounts of people claiming that feminism is no longer needed, isn't necessary, isn't important - that plenty of women not only don't consider themselves feminists, but have come to believe some strange version of reality in which feminism is a negative thing, a repressive or virulent, angry and hateful thing. What could be more successful to the largely-unconscious patriarchal agenda than this re-writing of feminism? Whoever owns the definition of a word, owns the word, and sadly, these days, women no longer own their own word. "Women are their own worst enemy" is a common enough saying - I say it myself - and I believe it is often, sadly, true. We constantly sabotage our own efforts at being - not just taken seriously, but treated equally.
This is captured in rather pessimistic ways by Wood's characters, from the two main female narrators - Verla, in first-person present-tense, and Yolanda, in third-person past tense - to the other eight girls unjustly imprisoned with them. Verla was involved in an affair with a politician and still, naively, believes that Andrew will come and rescue her, that she's different from the others, whom she judges almost as harshly as everyone else has done. Yolanda is the most clued-in, but she is also the only one who wasn't tricked into signing her rights away. She knew something was up, and she fought. They overwhelmed her and drugged her anyway, and she knows no one is coming for them because even her beloved brother was in on it. The other young women, all involved in various different kinds of scandals for which they took all the hate, represent different kinds of women, but none of them are particularly flattering. Barbs, the swimmer, is a big girl who suffers such a violent beating on their first day for speaking out that her jaw is permanently crooked, is obviously the butch one. Three of the girls become obsessed with their body hair, tweezing them out of each other's bodies, trying to maintain a look that they have long been trained to want. Hetty, "the cardinal's girl" (and doesn't that just make you cringe?) is depicted as small-minded and somewhat malicious. The list goes on, none of it flattering.
Yet such is the way Woods has crafted this novel that you come away with a clearer understanding: we're all flawed, none of us are perfect, we all make mistakes, and while you might not want someone like Hetty as a friend, or even value her as you would Verla, does she deserve this? Hopefully, the answer for all readers is a resounding NO! And as much as I'd like to think, "Oh this could never happen", a part of me doesn't really believe that.
I read this - in a day - just as the Briggs scandal broke, and the cricket player Chris Gayle got in trouble for his comments to a female sports reporter. An Age article brought attention to how the woman at the receiving end of Briggs' unwanted attention was being turned into the scapegoat rather than the victim, while following the Gayle story showed how quickly most of the country went from "His comments to a professional journalist were a swift means of reducing her from a serious journalist to an object for the male gaze" to "this is a complete over-reaction, lighten up, his comments were meant innocently, the political correctness police are going too far". That reporter understands her male-dominated world and distanced herself from it all, saving her job and her reputation, while the public servant in the Briggs' case was close to experiencing complete demolition because she made a complaint. It's telling. There is also the on-going discussions of the high rate of domestic violence in Australia, which is a huge problem and caused by, among other things, this over-arching lack of respect for women.
But none of this would be as memorable and hard-hitting if it weren't for Wood's writing. While I thought her control wasn't consistent and I found the use of present tense annoying and pointless for Verla's narration, overall it is beautifully and poetically written. Something incredible is done to violence when written in such simple yet beautiful language as this:
One big girl, fair-skinned with fleshy cheeks and wide, swimmer's shoulders, said irritably, 'What? We can't hear you,' and then closed her eyes against the sun, hands on her hips, murmuring something beneath her breath. So she didn't see the man's swift, balletic leap - impossibly pretty and light across the gravel - and a leather-covered baton in his hand coming whack over the side of her jaw. They all cried out with her as she fell, shrieking in pain. Some of their arms came out to try to catch her. They cowered. More than one began crying as they hurried then, into a line. [p.24]
The contrast of Boncer's 'swift, balletic leap - impossibly pretty' with the violent beating of Barb increases the shock value, the sense of wrongness and the realisation of powerlessness. Violence against women (such as domestic violence) has long proved an effective tool in the hands of misogynistic men.
At other times, especially after the power goes out (except for the electric fence) and they run out of food, and begin going crazy in their own separate ways, Wood's prose captures a primordial truth as well as day-to-day reality:
Yolanda hugged the squishy mint-green and baby-pink packages to her chest, squatting in the grief and shame of how reduced she was by such ordinary things. It was why they were here, she understood now. For the hatred of what came out of you, what you contained. What you were capable of. She understood because she shared it, this dull fear and hatred of her body. It had bloomed inside her all her life, purged but regrowing, unstoppable, every month: this dark weed and the understanding that she was meat, was born to make meat. [p.122]
It is a theme I've been interested in for some time now, this idea of shame and women's bodies, of the successful rewriting and control of women's bodies by, really, the Catholic Church and then, really, everyone. I'm very much of the mind that women need to reclaim their bodies, their right to their bodies but also how they value them and their needs and desires. I'm resistant to Yolanda's view, but I can understand it. And in many cultures around the world, past and present, women are controlled through the social traditions dictating behaviour and menstruation. As if, by teaching girls and women to see themselves in this low way, they remove the power that females rightfully possess, out of the age-old fear of woman's ability to create life. And as is often the way in literature, where this discourse of womanhood and power appear, so too does a representation of the landscape, the natural world:
When she wakes, her face printed with grass blades, she finds her way to a hillside of scrub. She walks in it like a dream, climbing the slope in the noisy silence. Silty leaves cling to the soles of her feet. There is the patter of wet droplets falling from the gently moving leaves far above. High squeaks and tin musical turnings of tiny birds. Sometimes a hard rapid whirr, a sprung diving board, and a large dove explodes from a vine and vanishes. A motorised insect drones by her ear. She looks upwards, upwards, and sees long shreds of bark, or abandoned human skins, hanging in the branches. The bush breathes her in. It inhales her. She is mesmerised by pairs of seed pods nestled at the base of a grass tree: hot orange, bevelled, testicular. [p.135]
A dichotomy of human-made vs. nature is a common-enough theme, but here rendered all the more turbulent and visceral by the circumstances, the very premise of the story. Even the title, The Natural Way of Things, speaks of this idea. It can refer to our determination to claim, possess and control - through language more than anything else - the natural world, which is also representative of womanhood (Mother Earth etc.), and also to a primordial, primitive and thus 'natural' way of life, an absence of so-called civilisation - relevant to Yolanda's increasing strangeness as she becomes one with the land, and Verla's ultimate decision. It speaks to the sadness I was left with at the end, which presents a kind of either/or scenario: either you live in the 'civilised' world and let it dictate who and what you are, or you shun it entirely, abandon it and become 'primitive'. Again, this is how we often grasp the world, and attempt to tame it: through words, and the positive or negative connotations of words. The ambiguous ending, with its taint of further horror balanced by a thin brush of hope, makes it clear who has really won in this world, which is really our world in disguise.
Make sure, when you start this book, that you have nothing planned for the day, because you'll want to read it all the way through in one sitting - and should. This is a book I will enjoy re-reading, and pondering anew. It has so far been nominated and longlisted for a couple of awards, and I hope to see it appear on more lists this year. It is a deserving book, working on multiple levels and one of those lovely rare treasures that can be interpreted and experienced in different ways by different readers, making it rich and unique. Comparisons have been made (in the blurb) to The Handmaid's Tale and Lord of the Flies, but 'comparison' is the wrong word for it: it is more that The Natural Way of Things has joined an on-going exploration into human behaviour, the powerful dominance of ideologies and their effect on both individuals and culture, and violence....more
The best speculative fiction - if not, by its very nature, all speculative fiction - explores issues of social justice and ethics, often along the linThe best speculative fiction - if not, by its very nature, all speculative fiction - explores issues of social justice and ethics, often along the lines of discrimination, prejudice and, beyond that, cloning, robotics - all things that ultimately lead to that unanswerable question: what does it mean to be human?
In 2012, a young medical student was travelling on a bus with a male friend in Delhi, India, when the five men and one teenaged boy on board beat her friend and dragged her to the back of the bus, to endure forty-five minutes of rape and assault. She died. The incident isn't isolated, but it's very blatant cruelty sparked protests and women-driven calls for change all across India. India may have a more obvious patriarchal ideology than Western countries like Australia, but when the bus driver in this particular case said in an interview that women are to blame for being raped, well that's not an Indian attitude at all. You here people - not only men, sadly - say the same thing in Western countries. Around the same time, a young Melbourne woman was raped and killed while walking home. We have a long way to go yet, in gender equality and respecting women.
Out of tragedy often comes something good, though, and one such example is Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean, an anthology of shorts stories, graphic novel shorts, and one script written in collaboration between Australian and Indian women writers and illustrators. The title, according to the editors,
"suggested impossibilities, dreams, ambitions and a connection to something larger than humanity alone. ... This collection of stories embraces the idea of not just eating pie but of taking big, hungry mouthfuls of life and embracing the world. It's about the desire to have and do impossible things, especially things that girls aren't meant to do. We asked our contributors to re-imagine the world, to mess with the boundaries of the possible and the probable. ... Ultimately, this is a book about connections - between Australia and India, between men and women, between the past, the present, the future and the planet that we all share. If we had to name one thing we learnt in the process of making this anthology, it's the fact that when you eat the sky and drink the ocean, you are part of the earth: everything's connected." (Introduction, pages vii-ix)
Some of the contributors will be familiar to you; for me, an Aussie, the fact that my favourite author - Isobelle Carmody - was a contributor meant that I had to move this right to the top of my to-read list (I started reading it as soon as I got it, and actually finished it three days later - quite a feat for me at present!). Other names I recognised included Justine Larbalestier (I loved Liar) and Margo Lanagan (ditto for Tender Morsels). But I was blown away by so many of these authors and illustrators, unknown to me; I was truly inspired.
The anthology starts off strongly with the graphic short story, "Swallow the Moon", written by Kate Constable and illustrated by Priya Kuriyan. It is an uplifting, mystical sort of story, a story of hope and renewal around a deep core of tragedy. Set in a post-apocalyptic future, everything we know - all our 'stuff' - is gone; all that remains is the rubbish that drifts onto the beaches. The story was articulately told and beautifully illustrated.
It is from this story that the stunning cover illustration comes, too. It sets the tone and expectations for the rest of the anthology, which shows an impressive diversity of ideas and imagination, all linked by this common thread of a girl's place - and often, a boy's too - in society. Some of the other stories that stood out to me include "Memory Lace" by Payal Dhar - I am so a product of my society that I didn't see the 'twist' in that story! - "Anarkali" by Annie Zaidi and Mandy Orr, a graphic short story about a farming girl who is entombed alive for falling in love with the prince. She discovers she has the strength to escape, if she becomes one with her surroundings. In "Cast Out" by Samhita Arni, the familiar trope of exile into certain death for girls who exhibit sorcery - simply because it is not allowed - is given a strong, encouraging and hopeful ending when Karthini discovers a world in which she can be herself. In fact, that idea of finding your place, accepting yourself and being accepted by others, recurs in a number of these stories.
Several flip the gender imbalance on its head, like "The Runners" by Isobelle Carmody and Prabha Mallya, which also explores the idea of what it means to be human. As in some of the other stories, the central message is that how we perceive ourselves affects how we are perceived by others, and vice versa. If you are seen as human (meaning you are treated as one), you will be human.
Larbalestier's short story, "Little Red Suit" is a post-apocalyptic retelling of "Little Red Riding Hood"; it's not the only story to play around with well-known storylines and tropes. Environmentalism is also a running theme throughout this anthology, and it ties in well with the editors' comment about being connected to the planet. It made me think, what would this anthology look like if, keeping the same purpose and ideas and focus on girls, it was written by male authors? Because sometimes I wonder at that gender gap, that difference in perception that seems so hard to shift. What insights would we get? How do they see us, really?
Two of the stories - "Weft" and "Mirror Perfect" - deal with our contemporary society's obsession with appearance, and what we are willing to sacrifice for it. "Cooking Time", which I loved, questioned the point of survival for the sake of it, if there's nothing to enjoy. "Back-stage Pass", by Nicki Greenberg, is a short graphic story about Ophelia, and why she threw herself into the water, and the power of self that we gain when we take control of how we're 'written': how others perceive us, and the direction our lives take.
Each story offers something different to the conversation, in different styles and from different perspectives and genres. Some I loved, a couple I didn't quite click with, but overall, they showed how diverse we all are, women and men, girls and boys. We all have something worthwhile to offer the world. We can find safety and harmony and joy in working together and loving each other. And, ultimately, change is possible. ...more
I only learnt of this book this year, and I’m so glad I did! Set on a juggernaut called Worldshaker, in an alternate present in which the reign of QueI only learnt of this book this year, and I’m so glad I did! Set on a juggernaut called Worldshaker, in an alternate present in which the reign of Queen Victoria continues indefinitely, alongside the Victorian mentality. Col is the son of one of the elite families on the mobile city; his grandfather is the Supreme Commander and he is next in line. Everything in his neat, ordered world is right and good. But then one night a Filthy escapes from Below and hides in his cabin, a girl called Riff. The Filthies are barely human, he’s been taught, but this one challenges his understanding. His only other exposure to them are through the Menials, silent, tongueless and lobotomised servants ‘rescued’ from Below to serve the upper classes. Col’s encounter with Riff is the beginning of something new, dark and terrifying, as everything he believed in begins to fray.
This is a wonderful adventure story containing familiar elements and tropes but still a unique, standalone novel. While you will have a greater and more cynical understanding of the workings of this world than Col does, his path to understanding is rendered so vivid and nail-bitingly tense that it won’t matter. While it utilises the Victorian steampunk tradition, the story acts as an indictment on how we still treat others, even today, not only through class systems but through words and names alone.
At the back of the book are some great maps of the juggernaut, which I wish I’d known about sooner than I did, as they’re very helpful!...more
The first book in the Maze Runner series begins with the main character and narrator, Thomas, waking up in a metal cage as it rises up out of the grouThe first book in the Maze Runner series begins with the main character and narrator, Thomas, waking up in a metal cage as it rises up out of the ground and into a glade. He’s greeted by a large group of boys, all fairly young, who have been trapped here for a few years, surrounded by a maze of towering stone walls that shift in the night, patrolled by fearsome creatures they call Grievers. While each boy has a duty and a job to perform, a select few ‘run’ the maze every day, mapping it, trying to find the way out. Thomas soon proves himself as a runner, and joins them. Time, though, is against them when the routine is disrupted by the arrival of another new kid – a girl.
Despite Thomas’s quickly annoying narrative voice, I did find the premise and early chapters quite promising – this is the kind of story I’m drawn to, but I find all too often that a clever or interesting idea can quickly fizzle out. Such is the case with The Maze Runner, which soon felt like all the other American YA spec fic out there. The answers you get at the end are a bit eye-rollingly predictable and anticlimactic. That said, I did watch the movie after finishing the book, and the book is better. There’s just more in it, more substance and character development, which the film was sorely lacking....more
The word 'circus' has many uses in today's English: aside from the regular, traditional circus, featuring clowns and elephants, there is also the (argThe word 'circus' has many uses in today's English: aside from the regular, traditional circus, featuring clowns and elephants, there is also the (arguably) metaphorical circus of the media, or politics. Coupled with the concept of a circus as a performance for the sake of entertainment, is entangled the concept of a feeding frenzy, a loud, seemingly chaotic ambush of a multitude of gazes. The freak shows of the 19th century may have officially ended, but our rapt attention to 'reality TV' shows - featuring people at their worst as well as their best - is testament to our ongoing love, obsession and fascination with the strange, the flawed, the bizarre or simply anyone who makes us feel better about ourselves. Paddy O'Reilly's latest book, The Wonders, does a superb job of shining a light on the blurred lines between what is normal and what is not, as well as our own rabid interest in creating the 'Other' as a way to position and understand who we are, collectively and individually.
I absolutely loved O'Reilly's previous novel, The Fine Colour of Rust; while The Wonders is written with the same light touch, and there are some moments of humour, these are two very different books. The Wonders is a more serious, more issues-based examination of society and its foibles, as well as our insecurities, fears and obsessive natures.
The story centres around Leon, whose heart began to give out when he was twenty-six; a year after his first (of many) heart attacks, he's given a new heart, but his body begins to reject the transplant. Living with his mother again while he waits to die, at the bottom of the heart transplant list because it would be his second transplant, Leon is contacted by a surgeon offering a possible chance at life - a highly illegal, unauthorised chance. The doctor, Susan Nowinski, and her husband, Howard, an engineer, have a radical plan to install a mechanical heart in Leon's chest. An excruciating procedure over the course of a year is followed by a recovery in isolation, until a local GP spills the beans after a routine check-up. Leon is contacted by many in the media (the expression 'media circus' comes to mind early on in the book, in the sense of a noisy, persistent menagerie), offering him money in exchange for his story, or from scientists and doctors wanting to study him, but it is a call from an American woman that draws him down to Melbourne to hear a more unique offer.
Rhona is a wealthy entrepreneur behind many successful shows, and her new idea is a winner - if she convince Leon to sign up for it. Not a conventional circus, to be sure, but it would require him to be on display, to be looked at. Rhona already has two others in the show: Kathryn Damon, an Irish woman "whose gene therapy for Huntington's had cured the Huntington's but left her covered in wool" [p.15]; and Christos Petridis, a performance artist from Greece who had special implants put into his back that enable him to bear - and flex - metal wings. After a few months of training and working out at Rhona's large home, called Overington, which is also home to rescued and ex-circus animals, they are introduced to the world as 'the Wonders', appearing at private dinners for exorbitant prices.
But fame always comes at a cost, not least for these three who are so different. They are both highly visible figures, and hidden, secluded ones, enveloped in a façade of disguise and illusion. Yet, that, too, is an illusion. Just as they cannot take off the very identities which have made their names - Lady Lamb, Seraphiel (which later changed to the more simple Angel), and Clockwork Man (later, Valentino) - neither can they be protected from the craziness in humanity that responds to difference.
Where The Wonders really delivers is on the themes and issues at its heart. The novel is deceptively light and easy to read: much like what we see on TV, on the surface at least it doesn't require effort to 'watch' what unfolds. But unlike with TV, O'Reilly constantly (and gently) encourages us to think, and question, and wonder. The wondrousness of life, the sparkling beauty of an individual and an appreciation of our differences is present, but juxtaposed against an encroaching darkness, a manic edge of fear, insecurity, greed and fetishistic obsessiveness. There are a few places where humanity's complex nature is explored overtly, such as when a group of disabled people - veterans, victims, unfortunates - ambush the Wonders after a show and declare their anger at what they see as shameless exploitation, calling the Wonders 'whores in a peep show' [p.136] and not contributing to society in a meaningful way. Kathryn, never one to back down or keep her own thoughts quiet, responds just as aggressively, but being faced with 'real' disability makes Leon feel empathetic.
Rhona tugged at Leon's sleeve and pulled him further into the passage. The gesture made Leon think about how no one would dare touch the empty sleeve or the hard gnarly stub of the man who waited below. If the man was not married, he probably felt the same loneliness Leon had been experiencing since he was implanted with his brass heart. It was more than sexual frustration. It was a deep ache of physical loneliness. A hunger. Wanting to be gripped by the wrist when a friend was making a point, or to have a hand pressed against his back as he was guided through a doorway. Leon was nervous of being touched and yet he craved it. And he knew from experience how disfigurement caused such discomfit and, at the same time, such fascination in most people that they were afraid to touch you even though it was the one thing they longed to do. [pp.136-7]
[caption id="attachment_20618" align="alignleft" width="193"] I love the North American cover! (The Wonders is due out in February 2015.)[/caption]Lingering at the periphery of such scenes - encouraged by the circus parallels - is the constant question of what is real and what is fake, what is illusion, disguise, and what is the 'real deal'. Christos, a self-absorbed artiste, changed his body for art - willingly, and with intent. Leon allowed others to experiment on his body on the slim chance of a second life. Kathryn, though, has become a true freak through no fault of her own, and has a truly horrible pre-Wonders past: her husband took advantage of her, taking demeaning photos of her, subjecting her to scrutiny in an attempt to make money, and even now that they're divorced, continues to harass her and Rhona, demanding a share of her income from the Wonders. What they each show, individually, and together, collectively, is just how complex humans are, how complex our lives are: the more we try to define, categorise and label in an attempt to understand and, ultimately, judge, the more difficult it becomes to do just that without distorting perception.
The characters are tangible, memorable and interesting, helping to propel the story forward. There is only minimal foreshadowing, and some backtracking into Leon's ground-breaking surgery, to break up the chronological flow. It is a coming-of-age story for Leon, who must grow as a person, let fame get to his head and then become grounded once more, but he must also learn how to let himself feel. For the man without a beating heart (it really would be freaky, not having a pulse!), Leon realises he can still feel, but more than that: that it is necessary to let others know that you feel, especially if they're to accept you as human.
While the idea of what it means to be human - or who is human - is at the heart of The Wonders and is brilliantly handled, I found that the style and structure of the novel itself was where I was slightly, ever-so-slightly, disappointed. Perhaps it is testament to O'Reilly's ability in crafting generous, fascinating and believable characters, but I felt cheated at the story's narrative style: it skims along the surface, dipping down into a scene and then coasting along the surface again, covering weeks and months in the space of a breath. It was partly because of this that I felt confused and not very convinced by Leon's relationship with Minh (and perhaps because of the context in which she's introduced into the story, I was suspicious of her too, which didn't help). I never really got to know Kathryn and Christos to an extent that would have satisfied - they remained displays, figures made up of their personas, people you couldn't touch. Maybe that's the point, and maybe it's a point too far, if it is.
Quite likely it will improve for me with further readings; I've learned from previous experience that those novels written in a deceptively simple way hold onto their secrets and their wonders - pun intended - for longer than those written in fancier language. Despite the unevenness of my initial reading experience, this is a subtle, layered tale, combining classic circus stories of showmanship, subterfuge and illusion (I couldn't help but be reminded of Angela Carter's excellent, and mind-bending, Nights at the Circus), as well as family, loyalty and generosity of spirit, with a perceptive social commentary on 21st-century attitudes, obsessions and prejudice. I heartily recommend The Wonders, which is a book that will satisfy in many ways, even if it didn't quite satisfy me, personally, in all of them. ...more
This was a nice, quick read, quite engrossing and interesting. The format reminds me of some other story - a book or a film - but I can't think what aThis was a nice, quick read, quite engrossing and interesting. The format reminds me of some other story - a book or a film - but I can't think what and it's really bugging me. I don't mean that it's derivative, only that I think it might be inspired by an older tale, if only I could what it is! Oh wait, am I thinking of the film Brazil maybe? Dreams within dreams? I feel like I'm getting warmer.
The characters are a bunch of misfits, except perhaps for the main character and John. The mystery, then, was why they were there and what their connection was. The story follows a pattern that you think is going to get repetitive and boring but isn't because the "real" world, the dream space (the white room) gets incorporated into the scenarios. Though the characters are surprisingly slow at realising this.
It moves swiftly and keeps the momentum up, but to do so Celine had to sacrifice some much-needed character development. The characters are fairly thin sketches, a bit stereotypical, though they hint at greater depths. This is the first book in a series and while I'm not sure where the story goes from here (same characters??), it makes for fun, interesting reading.
Read in May 2014. My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via Netgalley. ...more
The third and final full-length novel in the Shatter Me series (which includes two e-novellas) decides firmly, once and for all, whether Mafi wanted tThe third and final full-length novel in the Shatter Me series (which includes two e-novellas) decides firmly, once and for all, whether Mafi wanted to write a science fiction/speculative fiction story, or a romance. The answer? Romance, in a sci-fi world. More than that, it's a coming-of-age story for its young protagonist-narrator, Juliette. Everything she's been through culminates in a triumphant ending in Ignite Me, and I can't say I'm at all disappointed.
Trouble is, how do you review the third and final book in a trilogy (or the fifth part in a series, whichever way you look at it) without giving away what came before? How do you review it in such a way that you are actually reviewing the final book while also, possibly, encouraging new readers to start from the beginning? That is, essentially, what I'd like to do here, but the truth is I read this in March - over three months ago - and it's not all that fresh in my head anymore.
For as much as I love a good romance - like, really really love - and for as much as Mafi delivers on that front, I am still disappointed by the thinly-sketched out world-building. This is a place of climatic catastrophe in our near future, a place that suffered a vacuum of power into which stepped a totalitarian regime (the Reestablishment) seeking to completely oppress the working people (which is almost everyone who isn't a soldier in the regime - and they, too, come from those families and are supporting them even while the repress them). Of course, the limited world-building comes from Juliette's limited worldview: not only is she ignorant of this world, as are we, but unlike us, she's not particularly curious about it. And that spells problems for the very ending, and the new step Juliette takes - which I won't spell out because it's a spoiler.
I've said it before and I'll say it again, though with less heat than before: There's no reason why a Young Adult title can't be intelligent, sophisticated, meaningful, and above all, well fleshed out. There's smarts here, and some really powerful imagery and insights, but as with so many other YA speculative fiction books, the world-building is thin on the ground. And that's a huge shame. I'm not asking for pages of exposition, endless descriptions of boring details. Just a few well-placed details, a timely explanation here and there where appropriate, would go far. There are hints, but they often get derailed because of how Juliette internalises everything and makes it personal.
"You think you've had it hard," [Adam's] saying to me. "Living in psych wards and being thrown in jail - you think that was difficult. But what you don't realise is that you've always had a roof over your head, and food delivered to you on a regular basis." His hands are clenching, unclenching. "And that's more than most people will ever have. You have no idea what it's really like to live out here - no idea what it's like to starve and watch your family die in front of you. You have no idea," he says to me, "what it means to truly suffer. Sometimes I think you live in some fantasy land where everyone survives on optimism - but it doesn't work that way out here. In this world you're either alive, about to die, or dead. There's no romance in it. No illusion. So don't try to pretend you have any idea what it means to be alive today. Right now. Because you don't."
Words, I think, are such unpredictable creatures.
No gun, no sword, no army or king will ever be more powerful than a sentence. Swords may cut and kill, but words will stab and stay, burying themselves in our bones to become corpses we carry into the future, all the time digging and failing to rip their skeletons from our flesh. [pp.120-1]
I love these powerful insights, I do; they're raw and honest and powerful and poetic. But I also need context for the characters' very existence. For the plot to make sense. And in a story like this, context is in world-building. Hints are fine. Using my imagination to fill in the gaps is great. But you need limits first, a border, an outline. Shatter Me has always been a bit sketchy on that front; or maybe that's because I'm an adult reader and not the intended audience. I'm slightly terrified of re-reading, as an adult, a science fiction-romance novel I read over and over again as a teenager, and finding I have the same complaints - because I didn't have them when I was younger, that's for sure. So how much of this is a real criticism and how much of it is a jaded adult griping, I can never really know for sure.
What undoubtedly saves this book, and the series, is Mafi's determined, unapologetic focus on the troubled relationship between Juliette and Warner, that seemingly psychotic, amoral, evil young man with the angelic face and hot body. The perfect villain-slash-hero. A complete fantasy, and yet Mafi succeeds in bringing the humanity out of Warner and rendering him believable. Ignite Me is really about Juliette moving past her earlier impression of Warner and learning about the person within, and coming to terms with her own feelings for him. Forgiving him, and herself. Letting go of her own black-and-white worldview to see the grey that's all around her. What we get is a rather tragic unearthing of Warner that just makes him all the more loveable.
This is Warner's room. And Warner, to me, is no longer something to be afraid of.
These past few months have transformed him in my eyes, and these past two days have been full of revelations that I'm still recovering from. I can't deny that he seems different to me now.
I feel like I understand him in a way I never did before.
He's like a terrified, tortured animal. A creature who spent his whole life being beaten, abused, and caged away. He was forced into a life he never asked for, and was never given an opportunity to choose anything else. And though he's been given all the tools to kill a person, he's too emotionally tortured to be able to use those skills against his own father - the very man who taught him to be a murderer. Because somehow, in some strange, inexplicable way, he still wants his father to love him.
And I understand that.
I really, really do. [pp.186-7]
Other readers have noted this, and I have to agree with them, that it's not necessary to demonise one character (in this case, Adam) in order to make another (in this case, Warner), seem like a better love interest. That said, people change, grow, go through crap and get moody - in general, Juliette isn't the only one figuring stuff out and acting like a cow at times. But while Juliette is discovering the "grey" in Warner, she seems to be cementing Adam in a narrow, black-and-white world, which just goes to show that she's still got a long way to go, in terms of growing up and growing wiser. As self-indulgent as she is, she seems incapable of truly thinking and caring about someone other than herself, at the rate of more than one person at a time. Then again, she is an adolescent. It's a hard, rocky road to self-realisation.
The climax, when it finally comes, seems rushed and brief compared to the long, drawn-out set-up that takes up the bulk of the novel. Yet I didn't mind it. I think I preferred it to a long, drawn-out climax. Climaxes should be brief - they should be climactic. But I did find the resolution at the very end to be a bit ... truncated. It works, and yet I wanted more. On the other hand, had I got more, it might have seemed unnecessary, indulgent, and taken away from the oomph of the ending. Thing is, overturning the entrenched, abusive dystopian power in place - the goal of such stories as this - is only the beginning. Rebuilding is a whole other story, and I would love to read that. The ending is the birth of a whole new world; a world that has a long way to go and will suffer greatly along the way; a world peopled by X-Men like characters (love it!). I don't know what Mafi is planning on writing next, but I don't feel ready to say goodbye to these characters or this world. Juliette doesn't need us anymore, it would be time for a new protagonist to step forward, into this equally-dangerous and unknown new world. I would love to be there for that journey....more