Book review: Love, Lies and Linguine by Hilary Spiers

(cover image courtesy Allen & Unwin)

 

There is something inordinately comforting about rejoining the company of book characters you have grown to know and love.

If an author is doing their job properly, and Hilary Spiers mostly certainly is, it is akin to meeting up again with old friends, people you wish you could have spent more time with as you turn the last page and they disappear from your life as swiftly as they appeared 400 pages earlier.

Love, Lies and Linguine provides readers just such a reunion, a chance to rejoin the widowed sisters from the small fictional UK village of Pellington who in their first literary outing, Hester and Harriet, opened their hitherto sealed-up life at their small cottage, The Laurels, to an eclectic extended family that came to encompass their teenage nephew Ben, a Belarussian refugee brother and sister duo, Artem and Daria, and Daria’s baby son, Milo.

It was an unexpected shaking of the established order, and one neither sister saw coming but which fussy, sometimes cantankerous devoted cook Hester, and freespirited, liberal Harriet, embraced with gusto and enthusiasm since they are, at the end of the day, kindhearted souls who want the best for those around them (and in Hester’s case, compliance with some immutable behavioural expectations).

“Harriet, deep in her Kindle, does not reply. Either she is lost in her thriller or she wants Hester to believe that she is. Hester, who has long and vociferously resisted the lure of an e-reader, now throws covetous glances at the slim device, only too conscious of the weight of the paperbacks clogging her case. Too thrifty (‘mean’, says Harriet) to pay for excess baggage, she had jettisoned fourtops, a spare pair of shows and three pairs of knickers to accommodate the books.” (P. 1)

Their generosity of spirit gives figurative birth to an expansive family, which includes the learned, well-spoken homeless man about town, Finbar, one which expands even further in Love, Lies and Linguine, as love and a whole of secrets come to roost in the lives of this wonderful polyglot family.

This time around though rather than everyone being in the same place, Hester & Harriet are away in Italy for a holiday that ends up becomes a whole more stressful and complicated than either bargained for, while Daria, Ben and Artem are back in Pellington coping with extraordinarily messy private lives.

It may sound a tad soap opera-ish but only in the most benign and sweet of ways, and thanks to Spiers ability to create such vivid, rich characters who inhabit a believable universe, enhanced with rose tinted glasses though it may be, you know that any travails they experience will eventually be sorted out thanks to the strength of the bonds between them.

 

 

 

High-edged drama and action it is not, but then that is not the point, I suspect.

Rather, thanks to a delightful lilting style that immerse you like a warm hug, you get quandaries and problems, in this case some real doozies, all of which you know in your heart won’t cause unending schisms or be the death of anyone or the big messy loving made-up family we have come to know.

It would be easy to dismiss this as uneventful or undemanding writing but in truth, it’s robust and truthful in its own way, an acknowledgement that there is drama to be found in the most domestic of situations, a realm where, let’s face it, we most of spend the majority of our time.

It’s escapist certainly but who hasn’t longed for a family where all the irritations, thoughtlessness and poor decisions eventually resolve themselves back into the comforting embrace of home and hearth: maybe you have that, maybe you don’t, but the lure of Love, Lies and Linguine is that whatever trials arrive, and however much relationships are tested, normalcy will be restored and life will return to that lovely place of contentment and belonging.

The only downside to this slice of English drama-lite is that the main characters are split between Hester and Harriet in Italy, with the others dealing with, initially at least, far less compelling issues at home.

“Harriet looks across at Hester, rejoices to see the excitement in her eyes, the hunger for some hard physical work to fill her days, a shared task to bind them close once more, and surrenders. Maybe it would be cathartic — even fun, once they get started — to clear out all the rubbish (really dispose of it, not just move it somewhere else), streamline their lives and start a new chapter.” (P. 432)

It’s fine that the two sisters get the more meatier issues to deal with since they are, after all, the heart and soul of what you want to hope will be a long and enduring series, but it does mean that as the chapters alternate between Italy and the UK, you long to return to Hester and Harriet, the secondary characters not quite delivering the goods.

But then things shift a gear back in England and suddenly each chapter keeps and holds your interest; even so, the fact that everyone isn’t together until later, and then only briefly, means that some of the warm, all-together-now bonhomie of the first book is dissipated somewhat.

It’s only small drawback though for a book that delightfully reminds us that no matter how far we roam, or how badly we misjudge a situation, or however many secrets we keep to our detriment, that the bonds of friendship and family can always cover a multitude of sins.

Love, Lies and Linguine is a delightful return to the lives of Hester & Harriet and their motley accidental brood, and one can only hope that Spiers grants us another winsomely-written, emotionally-rich opportunity to spend time with these delightful souls once again.

Book review: Mosquitoland by David Arnold

(image courtesy Penguin Random House)

 

When we’re growing up, time and and distance can seem like the greatest of tyrannies.

Neither seems particularly predisposed to granting us any favours, and any sense that they might eventually give us perspective or understanding can feel as fanciful as the idea that there are problems in life far bigger than our nascent, limited appreciation.

In David Arnold’s remarkable book, Mosquitoland, which is ostensibly a Young Adult novel but is really a book anyone could benefit from reading since emotional growth doesn’t stop at arbitrary genre borders, time and distance move from being the bullies of teenagerhood to allies in a search for a deeper, more pronounced understanding of life.

Of course, when she sets out from her greatly-unwelcome new home in Mississippi where she lives under protest with her dad and stepmom Kathy, to find her mum Eve in Cleveland, Ohio (her hometown and source of many happy memories), Mim aka Mary Iris Malone, is thinking in terms quite so existentially grand.

“Once done, I stare at myself in the fluorescent light and finally feel like the girl I am. The girl who gets called to the principal’s office but hops a bus to Cleveland instead. The girl who survived a catastrophic accident. The girl who took matters into her own hands, figuratively, literally, fucking finally … I feel more Mim than ever before.” (P. 71)

All she wants to do is get to mum, who she believes in is dire trouble, and be there for her in a way that her mother often was for her when they were would enjoy what Mim calls “Young Fun”, or in other words, abandoning yourself to watching your favourite movie or listening to an Elvis album all the way through, without a care in the world.

All that happened before the big split, one precipitated Mim believes by her father’s dalliance with a Denny’s waitress, a flirtation which became an affair which became a marriage-ending relationship.

It’s actually not that simple and in keeping with anyone who’s 16 and trying to figure the hell out of life, nowhere as straightforward or understandable but Mim is convinced she has it all figured out and will get to Cleveland and life will once again make sense.

That’s not to say Mim isn’t self-aware; in many ways, as her letters to the mysterious Isabel that sprinkle the book make clear – Isabel’s identity is only made clear near the end of the book – she gets a lot of things about life that many other adults spend a life missing.

But clever and EQ-rich though she is, Mim is still young and on her road trip to Cleveland, part of which takes places on a series of Greyhound buses, the rest in a pickup truck named Phil that buys with money stolen from Kathy’s secret stash with new friends Beck and Walt, she discovers that there’s quite a bit about life that she’s hasn’t quite understood or fully appreciated.

 

 

What is remarkable about Mosquitoland, a pejorative terms for Mississippi and the suffocating feel of her new home state and life, is the way in which Arnold deftly and sensitively portrays Mim’s epiphany-laden awakening.

Sure, she’s clever, witty and possessed of devastating oneliners and humourously-barbed quips, but she’s also lonely, walled-off and alone, a young woman who has yet to appreciate how important it is to connect deeply and without compromise to those around you who love you the most.

Even more importantly, she comes to learn that it’s often the people you least suspect of richly rewarding your life, the ones you might otherwise have ignored, who often end up being pivotal and utterly essential to your wellbeing.

Mim’s near 1000 mile long road to Damascus aka Cleveland epiphany is told with wit, some tension, near-misses and new or revived connections, with every step she takes making sense on some level.

“Around us, the congregation of fans cheer, laugh, point, each of them gleefully oblivious to all but the fireworks. Beck and I are with them, but now with them. It reminds me of Thanksgivings growing up, sitting at the “kids’ table”. The grown-ups are right there, talking about important matters at work, upgrades around the house, goings-on in the neighbourhood. What they don’t realize is that none of that matters. But the kids knows it. God, do they ever. (P. 218)

Primarily the idea that life is never fully knowable and that we often think we have a handle on something, only to find we don’t have the faintest idea what’s going on or what we should do (or that sometimes we do; we just don’t know it yet).

That might seem scary but the way Arnold tells it, alternately laugh out funny and soberingly close to the bone, it’s actually liberating, if like Mim you’re open to the fact that there’s still a lot you don’t know (or that unencumbered by the blinkers of adulthood that there are somethings you understand perfectly well).

Granted Mim is only 16 so it makes sense that she has a lot of learning to do about the mysterious ways in which life twists and turns, but the truths in this cleverly-written, funny, insightful book are universal and lifelong, and something we can all pretty much learn from.

If there’s one thing you walk away from Mosquitoland appreciating, apart from the fact that Mim is a smart, astute young lady who’s going to be just fine all her issues aside, it’s that we often fail to fully grasp the full import of situations and may not always respond in the best way to them.

But hopefully, that doesn’t really matter since even wrong turns or rash ones have a funny way of working out if we’re open to that, and while life won’t suddenly end up perfectly formed and emotionally-satisfying in every way, it may end up being a whole lot better than you first gave it credit for.

 

Tom Hardy reads a bedtime story, and yes, You Must Bring a Hat

(image courtesy Simon and Schuster Australia)

 

One of things I always loved as a child was having my mum or dad read me a bedtime story.

It was a wonderful way to end the day – lots of one-on-one time with my parents, another delightful story in which I could lose myself (and the origin no doubt of my lifelong love of reading) and best of all, a chilled conclusion to my usual frenetic days (I have always been, and will always be, an Energiser Bunny extrovert).

Alas, getting someone to read you a story, particularly by someone as fetching as Tom Hardy, as you snuggle beside the doona (duvet), can be a tad problematic and let’s be honest just plan weird.

Thank goodness we have CBeeBies, a BBC network that caters to the under six crowd and which features at the end of its programming day, a bedtime story by some very well-known people such as David Tennant, James McAvoy, Sir Patrick Stewart and yes Tom Hardy.

Frankly I could have picked from a slew of these amazingly well-modulated storytellers, but there was something about Tom Hardy, dog resting on lap, and a world away from his current haunting Taboo persona, that warms the heart and soothes the bedtime story-deficient adult soul.

The book he’s reading You Must Bring a Hat by Simon Phillip with illustrations by Kate Hindley is a joy in and of itself but read by Tom Hardy? An absolute delight that you will thoroughly enjoy.

 

Book review: Who’s Afraid Too? by Maria Lewis

(image courtesy Hachette Australia)

 

*SOME MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD*

In general, sequels do not get much loving, be they movies, TV shows or books.

It makes sense – the novelty has gone and been there, done that and gone the whole T-shirt factory, the very idea of the world has lost its initial surprise and the plot invariably riffs on permutations of what came before.

There are exceptions of course and one of them is Maria Lewis’s Who’s Afraid Too? which takes a rather trope-heavy titling device and wears it proudly, all while running rings around the idea, claws extended naturally, that sequels are mere reiterations of a previously well-told tale.

In the follow-up to Who’s Afraid?, which introduced us to kickass heroine Tommi Grayson, a take-no-prisoners Dundee, Scotland art curator who finds much to her shock and surprise (more of the former to be honest) that she is a werewolf, the stakes are, as you might expect, raised considerably, her skills improve exponentially and she learns that the supernatural world around her, one she never knew existed, is far more diverse, riven with dissension and frightening/thrilling that first meets the eye.

Admittedly her ride into the supernatural of which she is indisputably a part thanks to her familial membership of the Ihi clan, a Maori wolf pack to whom she had a rather bruising, near-deadly introduction – let’s just say Christmas cards will not be forthcoming – was sudden and brutal, both out of necessity and simply because once the werewolf change hits you, there’s no going back.

Being a modern, self-possessed woman who can invariably take care of herself, and to whom misogyny and testosterone-fuelled condescension are mortal enemies to be challenged at every turn, Tommi adapts to a survival-of-the-fittest world with élan.

But as human being with friends, many of whom are placed in mortal peril, career aspirations and a need to belong and matter to people, she finds the wrench from normal life to a lupine one as traumatic and disorienting as you might expect.

Who’s Afraid Too? finds her growing more accustomed to her new surroundings, both existential and geographical – she has relocated to Berlin where she becomes part of a no-pack clan of strays who have dissented from the autocratic nature of most werewolf packs – but haunted by past events, and confronted by current horrors as an ancient evil long since though dispatched rises again and poses a real risk to the human and the more supernaturally-inclined residents of the German capital.

 

 

The joy of the growing Who’s Afraid? universe (and book series; five titles are written and slated for release) is the exemplary way in which Lewis manages full-on action, both sexual and violent and balance them with authentic human existential crises.

After all, who among us wouldn’t be simultaneously excited but frightened if we out we had this awesome untapped side to ourselves that though thrilling, utterly challenged everything we thought we knew about ourselves.

This dichotomy is explored with sensitivity and restraint by Lewis who renders Tommi as a fully-formed human being who accepts who she now is (and really always was, just not with her knowledge) but struggles with what it is costing her and those she loves.

And who wonders if it possible to have it all – love and relationships, a home and a routine all while battling titanic forces of evil and adjusting to a supernatural realm in which politicking and pettiness are just as prevalent as in the human universe.

It makes for a gloriously grounded, fast-paced read in which Tommi goes forth, pop culture witticisms in hand – the book is welcomingly packed with them with numerous references to books, movies and music that will gladded any pop culture-loving nerds heart – to slay and fight for truth and justice, all while being transparently, heart-achingly vulnerable and real.

Who’s Afraid Too?, in common with its predecessor, gives us that most rare of beasts (in this case, literally), a hero who is both tough, strong and capable, but also all too aware of her humanity and emotional limitations, taking what could have otherwise been a cardboard cutout hero and granting her pleasing three-dimensional humanity.

This means that much of the action, which is artfully counterbalanced with thoughtful introspection and fully-formed character interactions, doesn’t feel empty and hollow but rich with meaning, purpose and emotionally resonance.

That is the hallmark of this enthralling, fascinating new series of books – its willingness to be both blisteringly out-there supernatural and groundedly human, and to tell an utterly energising, compelling tale into the bargain (it’s the very definition of a page-turner; I dare you to read it slowly or multiple sittings).

Who’s Afraid Too? is written in a punchy, fun but expansive and engaging style, one that recognises that becoming something greater than yourself is both thrilling and grievously disconcerting, a ride that once begun cannot be stopped, and which if this book is any indication and I suspect it is, is only going to get more exciting and rewarding as it goes on.

Book review: Caliban’s War (The Expanse #2) by James S. A. Corey

(image via The Expanse Wikia)

 

There’s an admirable Utopian tendency among some science fiction to advance the idea that once humanity takes to the stars that all its problems will be solved, that we will join together in a spirit of selfless sacrifice and devotion to noble ideals, not only among ourselves but with many of the alien species we encounter.

It’s an appealing idea, the idea that the future holds not just technological advances but the entire betterment of humanity.

Alas, if history is any guide, and it is usually instructively accurate, while we may wish for the better angels of our nature to take ascendancy, the reality is that the faults and foibles of people down through the ages will continue to play out as always, whether they’re on Earth or one of the planets of our solar system and beyond.

That’s not to say there won’t be progress but humanity’s basic propensity to squabble and fight over pretty much everything will remain undiminished; it’s this central idea that forms the core of The Expanse series from James S. A. Corey, the nom de plume of two collaborators Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.

In the sprawling world they have created, humanity has taken to the stars with gusto, terraforming Mars which is now home to 4 billion people and a fearsome military power in its own right, and staking claims on Uranus, Neptune, Jupiter and Saturns and all their attendant moons.

It is on one these moons, Ganymede, the biggest moon orbiting Jupiter, and the breadbasket of the Outer Planets which are engaged in an increasingly fractious and oft-violent battle for independence from Earth, that the second instalment in the series, Caliban’s War (named after one of the main antagonists in Shakespeare’s The Tempest), that follows Leviathan Wakes, begins its breakneck ride.

Attacked by an altogether new human hybrid form of the aggressive, mutative alien lifeform known as the protomolecule – sent eons ago by an unknown alien race, this militant black sinuous life was supposed to seed Earth with extraterrestrial biology, a plan which foundered when its vehicle got caught in Saturn’s pull – Ganymede is a casualty of a dangerous arms between Earth and Mars particularly, with the Outer Planets Alliance (OPA) watching on and taking advantage where it can.

Into this brewing mix of intrasolar rivalry comes William Holden and the crew of the Rocinante – Naomi, Amos and Axel – who are once again caught up in the violent machinations of humanity’s drive to compete and grab all the spoils, a tendency that expansion into the stars hasn’t diminished one iota.

 

James S. A. Corey – the pen name of co-writers Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck (image courtesy Google Play)

 

And so unspools, with ever-escalating fury and tension, another gripping tale of battles for power, influence and sheer survival, all underpinned by shady backroom machinations and underhanded dealings that reek to high heaven no matter where in the galaxy they are taking place.

Once again James S. A. Corey spins a deliciously dense and appropriately expansive narrative that is bigger than a galactic Ben Hur but which retains an engrossing sense of intimacy and emotional impact by dint of focusing on the many people affected by these realpolitik plays.

People like Praxidike Meng, a botanist on Ganymede, who finds his world turned upside down when his home is destroyed and his daughter is kidnapped by nefarious people unknown; by focusing on Meng’s struggle to find his daughter, with the help of Holden and crew, in as fine form as always, and a number of surprising other players, Caliban’s War, though epic in intent and execution, retains an intimate and deeply appealing sense of emotional authenticity.

This is how all good cinematic soap opera should be written.

Large, immense and compelling, with stakes so high that the fate of humanity literally hangs in a black goo balance, Caliban’s War succeeds in setting a stupendously large stage for events to follow while remaining a gripping story in its own right.

It does this by remembering that while humanity now comes equipped with solar system-crossing starships and the ability to change and transform worlds at will, it is still very much a creature of its failings, and no amount of Epstein Drives (think a warp drive) and colonies on distant solar moons can change that.

It’s not a hopeless cause, and the good guys stand a pretty good chance of winning all things considered but at the heart of it is humanity’s long-lasting ability to undo itself in spectacular fashion just when the world is at its fingertips.

It also highlights the inability of people to draw together in any kind of cohesive, unified way even in the face of grave threats from terrifyingly powerful alien lifeforms who aren’t encumbered by morality or amorality, or any kind of emotional drag.

In many ways that’s a good thing for storytelling as fine as this, which reads like an epic sci-fi blockbuster, pushing us along at breakneck speed, but which never forgets that at the heart of all good stories are the small, intimate tales of people simply trying to fashion a meaningful life for themselves.

It’s impressive in every way and marks The Expanse, which has just released the sixth volume in its series, Babylon’s Ashes, and is not heading towards a second series on syfy, as a stellar sci-fi series that understands that no matter how glorious the future may be, that humanity won’t necessarily rise to meet the challenge.

Which for anyone who values incredibly well-written gripping power plays across an impossibly big galactic background, perfectly counterbalanced by small intimate stories of innate humanity, is a very good thing indeed.

Book review: Night Without Stars by Peter F Hamilton

(image courtesy Pan Macmillan Australia)

 

One of the delights of diving deeply into a Peter F Hamilton novel – and dive deeply you will with many of his expansive efforts reaching the 700-plus page mark with ease – is being reminded once again that pretty much anything is possible.

In a world riven by global warming, war, ethnic divide, rampant extreme nationalism and environmental degradation, it’s all too easy to become pessimistic, believing that the apocalypse is nigh and there is no meaningful way forward.

But Hamilton, in common with the likes of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, dares to believe that humanity, possessed of endless curiosity and the ability to do something meaningful with it, is better than this and can rise above the dark shackles of current peril.

Whether that in fact happens is another matter entirely but in Hamilton’s Commonwealth, which spans a vast gamut of rich, industrialised and verdantly agrarian communities across the great reaches of the galaxy, humanity has fended off the very worst angels of its nature and with a few dramatic hiccups, for what is a good dramatic narrative without one, come out the other end smelling largely of roses.

In Night Without Stars, which continues the story begun in The Abyss Beyond Dreams, however they are seen as the enemy, a threat to the grand authoritarian rule of the relatively new revolution on Bienvenido, a plant spun out of The Void, an artificial alien construct where time and many other physical properties had been distorted by an overlord alien race. ( See The Void Trilogy)

The irony is that the good citizens of Bienvenido, who now reside in an inky black galaxy devoid of stars where The Void casts off all its unwanted inhabitants, down to every last man, woman and child, are the descendants of the Brandt colony ships which crashlanded on the planet 3000 years ago.

But thanks to some accidental Commonwealth meddling in the planet, courtesy of one of the founders of the Commonwealth, Nigel Sheldon – he like pretty much all citizens of the humanity galactic community experience almost endless lifespans thanks to DNA-resequencing which keeps them eternally young – the Commonwealth is persona non grata, at least with the ruling elites.

Hideous though they are, they are no match for The Fallers, an avaricious alien race that colonises a planet by absorbing and mimicking its indigenous sentient beings and flora & fauna until only they remain.

They are the real threat to Bienvenido but in a mirror of our current world where the real threats are subsumed to made-up issues and superficial scaremongering, they are not taken anywhere near as seriously as they should be, and as a result the multi-millenia civilisation is in danger of being lost.

 

 

As with many of Hamilton’s novels, which expertly blend optimism with real world politicking and deep cultural insight, Night Without Stars is in part an allegory of our current predicament here on good old planet Earth.

A totalitarian government, which practises a form of state capitalism such as that enacted by China, is more concerned with perpetuating its rule than readying Bienvenido for the threats it faces.

Yes the Faller threat is taken seriously with rocket missions to destroy the organic spaceships which orbit the planet a high priority, as is the destruction of any Faller life on the surface, but nowhere near as seriously as preserving the status quo which benefits the few but proves a major disservice to the many.

There are those opposing the inevitable Faller Apocalypse, where humanity will be wiped from Bienvenido but they are fighting a losing battle until one of the Commonwealth’s most famous citizens, and no saying who would be a massive spoiler, arrives to shake things up a bit, or as it turns out a lot.

As with all of Hamilton’s intelligently-written and fast-paced novels, there is an appealing balance between expansive, wide-ranging storytelling and intimate character moments, with neither told at the expense of the other.

It’s that ability to be both epic and intimate, page-turnable yet deeply, winningly clever, that makes Hamilton such a giant of the sci-fi genre.

He creates worlds where anything is possible but where it can also be derailed by people with minds or visions too small to seize the true import of the potential at their fingertips.

In other words just like our present day. However, the key difference is that the optimism is never misplaced – humanity, even when it’s millions of light years apart as is the case with Bienvenido and the Commonwealth, always comes through, fulfilling the promise that Hamilton invests it with.

It’s not glib or cheesy optimism that ignores the realities of a cold and cruel galaxy, but grounded and well thought-through, granting his books an immense intellectual, emotional and dramatic richness that draws you in utterly and completely.

In fact, so absorbed will you be by Night Without Stars and its weighty predecessors that setting aside days at a time is the only way to truly do them justice. Trust me, it’s worth your while if only to be reassured by one of the most gifted writers out there that optimism is not the pursuit of fools and morons but rather of the dreamers and the unbounded, both of whom our world is very much in need of in the current day.

 

The Boy on the Bridge: M. R. Carey’s sequel to The Girl With All the Gifts

(image via Sci-Fi Now)

 

SNAPSHOT
“Once upon a time, in a land blighted by terror, there was a very clever boy.
The people thought the boy could save them, so they opened their gates and sent him out into the world.
To where the monsters lived.” (source: Sci-Fi Now)

You could be forgiven for thinking that the apocalyptic zombie genre has been done to un-death.

And in the hands of lesser creative talents that’s most likely true.

But when you’re talking M. R. Carey, a British writer of comic books.screenplays and novels, who has shown an extraordinary ability to invest well worn scenarios with renewed freshness and vitality, there’s a lot of life left in tales of the shambling undead.

So much in fact that the author, who has already graced us with superlative storytelling in The Girl With All the Gifts and Fellside, has returned to the world he created in that first book to tell another extraordinary story, The Boy on the Bridge, about humanity dealing with the most unimaginable of horrors.

What is impressive about Carey’s vividly-engrossing writing, apart from its sheer poetic brilliance, is the way he finds extraordinary ways to illuminate small raw and yes even beautiful moments of humanity in a world where that has long ceased to be a viable commodity.

His central thesis seems to be that who we are as people may grow and change but that the innate humanity of our species endures, even if it takes a radically different form.

 

The Boy on the Bridge appears to very much follow in that vein if the excerpt previewed on IO9 is any indication:

The bucks have all been passed and the arguments thrashed out until they don’t even bleed any more. Finally, after a hundred false starts, the Rosalind Franklin begins her northward journey – from Beacon on the south coast of England all the way to the wilds of the Scottish Highlands. There aren’t many who think she’ll make it that far, but they wave her off with bands and garlands all the same. They cheer the bare possibility.

Rosie is an awesome thing to behold, a land leviathan, but she’s not by any means the biggest thing that ever rolled. In the years before the Breakdown, the most luxurious motor homes, the class A diesel-pushers, were a good sixteen or seventeen metres long. Rosie is smaller than that: she has to be because her armour plating is extremely thick and there’s a limit to the weight her treads will carry. In order to accommodate a crew of twelve, certain luxuries have had to be sacrificed. There’s a single shower and a single latrine, with a rota that’s rigorously maintained. The only private space is in the bunks, which are tiered three-high like a Tokyo coffin hotel.

The going is slow, a pilgrimage through a world that turned its back on humankind the best part of a decade ago. Dr Fournier, in an inspirational speech, likens the crew to the wise men in the Bible who followed a star. Nobody else in the crew finds the analogy plausible or appealing. There are twelve of them, for one thing – more like the apostles than the wise men, if they were in the Jesus business in the first place, and they are not in any sense following a star. They’re following the trail blazed a year before by another team in an armoured vehicle exactly like their own – a trail planned out by a panel of fractious experts, through every terrain that mainland Britain has to offer. Fields and meadows, woodland and hills, the peat bogs of Norfolk and the Yorkshire moors.

You can read the full excerpt at IO9 and the book itself when it releases 2 May from Hachette.

Book review: Orphans of the Carnival by Carol Birch

(image courtesy Allen & Unwin Australia)

 

Humanity is, in many ways, an army of conformist clones.

Look the right way, talk the right way, act the right the way and acceptance as a fully-fledged member of the human race will be conferred upon you, no questions asked.

But dare to look even a skerrick different from the norm, whether by an accident of birth or design and you will find yourself looked upon, even in this occasionally enlightened age, with suspicion, bewilderment, or outright scorn.

It’s a reality many of us don’t have to deal with but in Orphans of the Carnival by C Birch, this place of societal rejection, this realm of the Other, is a constant state of being for people like mid-19th-century Mexican Indian Julia Pastrana, a woman of immense singing and dancing talent, and possessor of a vibrant joie de vivre, who happens to be covered from head to toe in thick hair (it is not fur as she is at pains to point out) and resemble, in many peoples’ minds, an ape of some kind.

“When they’d gone, she tore off the veil and tossed it onto the bed. She was dazed. Three weeks and she’d be on a real stage in a theatre. What have I done? She got under the net and lay down on the narrow bed with her hands over her face, moaning softly. I should have gone back to the mountains, she thought.” (P.14)

In some ways Julia, a real woman who lived and died as a object of cruel circus-like curiosity, was fortunate in that she was born into an age where the odd, the strange and the downright freaky were accorded at least some element of respect. Perhaps respect is too strong a word for it; people were morbidly fascinated by anyone who looked different to the norm, and paid good money to see dwarves, “pinheads”, people missing limbs etc as travelling shows and circuses.

It was not in any way shape or form a kind of acceptance, with these shows often greeted with taunting epithets and accusations of being the devil’s handiwork or an act, bizarrely, of moral indecency. (A pregnant Julia finds her run of musical comedy shows curtailed in Leipzig, Germany when doctors in the town express the opinion that simply gazing upon her could corrupt an unborn child’s physical appearance or moral behaviour in the womb.)

But, in the right hands, and Julia is fortunate that she is taken in by people who treat her decently, even if she is at best, even to the theatre impresario, Theodore Lent, who marries her, nothing more than a mealticket, or better yet, a path to riches and glory; as a performer who travels from provincial Mexico through the United States and Europe, meeting royalty and a legion of curious onlookers along the way, Julia is afforded at least some modicum of possibility for a reasonable life.

And yet as Birch makes achingly clear in her luminously poetic prose, which glistens on the page with a loveliness that will have you glorying once again in the beauty of the written word, Julia might have many things – friendship from the limited few who see her as she truly is (a person, not an oddity), money and the chance to make something of herself, but time and again, she fails to gain what she wants most which is true acceptance.

She is forever the Other, a deviance from the norm, an outlier on the very narrow corridor of acceptability that defines what is right and what is not and no amount of parlour tricks, singing and dancing, or charming appearances at a slew of society balls where she is too often the star paid entertainment rather than an anonymous attendee, ever comes close to changing that.

 

 

And yet as Birch makes achingly clear in her luminously poetic prose, which glistens on the page with a loveliness that will have you glorying once again in the beauty of the written word, Julia might have many things – friendship from the limited few who see her as she truly is (a person, not an oddity), money and the chance to make something of herself, but time and again, she fails to gain what she wants most which is true acceptance.

She is forever the Other, a deviance from the norm, an outlier on the very narrow corridor of acceptability that defines what is right and what is not and no amount of parlour tricks, singing and dancing, or charming appearances at a slew of society balls where she is too often the star paid entertainment rather than an anonymous attendee, ever comes close to changing that.

Birch beautifully and wrenchingly portrays Julia’s weird limbo existence where she experiences everything from outright revulsion (even from her own husband who both loves and reviles her) to condescending curiosity to those rare moments of unqualified, unconditional love and friendship from the likes of A-list actress Friedrike and Hermann Otto, who make her the toast of Vienna and grant a rare degree of, sadly fleeting, normalcy.

Hers is not a happy world although Julia does her utmost to make it most, forming friendships with servants when it is not, once again, the done thing, glorying in the beauty of fallen snow or Russian pastries and singing and dancing with a naturalness and charm that confirm she is every bit as human as anyone else, and perhaps more so, given how she rarely gives in to the petty jealousies and opprobrium that the more acceptable members of society engage in with an all-too-willing propensity.

“‘Theo’ she said later in their room, ‘You knew I was going to perform. You brought my guitar.’
‘Of course I did, dear.’
‘How much did they pay us?’ she asked.
He laughed.
‘Theo! It’s not funny. You should tell me these things.’
‘Come on, Julia, you know you’re not interested in all that.’
‘I thought this was a social visit,’ she said. ‘But I find I’m the paid entertainment as usual.'” (P. 263)

Julia’s story, which takes up much of the novel’s length, is given a modern corollary, one which is cleverly and movingly linked to the events of the nineteenth century, in Rose, a woman who invests broken dolls and toys with humanity, filling her rented flat overseen by her sleazy married landlord and sometime lover Laurie, with all the discards she finds on her wanderings around her blighted neighbourhood.

She too is treated with disdain and revulsion even by her those who begin short-lived relationships with her; only well-meaning fellow renter Adam, who too cannot surmount Rose’s understandable barriers of protective isolation and emotional walling off, treats her as a real person worthy of love and respect.

While Rose’s story doesn’t resonate as vividly as Julia’s and their placing in the same book doesn’t always have the desired effect of showing up the continued inability of humanity to accept and love the different and the unusual, having these two women share their tales of Otherness is powerful and deeply emotionally-resonant.

Anyone who has ever felt themselves on the outer, consigned to the margins of society and acceptability, whether in whole or in part, will find much to identify with in Birch’s exquisitely well-written book which does not thrust the polemic rattle in our face so much as allow the powerful story of Others like Julia and Rose to illustrate how twisted and perverse otherwise decent people can be.

Society has come far in many respects but as Orphans of the Carnival makes clear, until we can unreservedly accept people like Julia as inalienably human, which of course she very much is, often more so than her self-righteous detractors, there is still quite a way to go.

 

Bookstore and libraries are wonderful! This film montage celebrates all the reasons why

(image via YouTube)
(image via YouTube)

 

If you are a booklover like me, it’s highly likely you have spent a great deal of time in bookstores this festive season choosing amazing, thrilling, enticing, fun, sad, thoughtful books as presents for those you love.

Of course I don’t need a particular season as an excuse to inhabit a bookstore or library for hours on end but Christmas is a wonderful time to treat your loved ones to the gift of literature and why not use it to justify all that time spent between the shelves to those who don’t quite understand the lure of these temples to books?

Yes hard to believe but those people actually exist; I suspect though that this wonderful montage video, put together by Luis Azevedo of Beyond the Frame, which draws from a multitude of films that use libraries or bookstores as their setting , either whole or in part, may help to persuade them.

As Laughing Squid says quite perfectly, this “absolutely wonderful film montage that demonstrates the infinite joy,intrigue, wonder and knowledge that can be found amongst the many pages housed in bookstores and libraries.”

It’s a joy to watch and don’t be surprised once it finishes that you’re seized by a sudden urge to head out and luxuriate in your favourite bookstore or library and perhaps head them with a new literary world to explore.

 

Book review: Sirius by Jonathan Crown

(image courtesy Simon and Schuster)
(image courtesy Simon and Schuster)

 

Writing a tragi-comic novel centred on a dog of Lassie-like abilities, that is onw who is deeply loveable, prodigious and fantastical, may seem like a highly perilous undertaking.

After all, how do you make one of the darkest periods in human history when fascist tyranny became horrifically commonplace and many millions of people were put to death simply because they didn’t fit a twisted, evil idea of normal?

By focusing, as Jonathan Crown carefully does by focusing on what eponymous dog of the novel, Sirius, represents.

He is everything that the Nazis are not, and which his family, the Lilliencrons, a Jewish family forced to flee their homeland after the terrible events of Kristallnacht and the escalating state-sponsored pogroms that followed, are – loyal, nurturing, loving, a haven of unconditional love and belonging.

The sole survivor of a litter of “Jewish” puppies who are put to death, along with their owners because they don’t fit the Aryan ideal, Sirius aka Levi aka Hercules aka Hansi, depending on his owner at the time (he lives a storied life), undertakes an amazing journey throughout the book, seeing life in a Germany enslaved to a hateful tyranny, an America of Hollywood, glitz and glamour and then a return to a homeland devastated by war and the actions of a madman.

“To me, Sirius seems like a human who has turned into a dog. Just look at the expression on his face.”
Sirius lets them look deep into his eyes.
“It’s like he understands every word we’re saying,” says Gloria. “Maybe he can even speak, but just doesn’t want to.”
Clark takes his wife in his arms and kisses her.
“You still believe in miracles,” he laughs. (P. 77)

Through Sirius’s eyes, we see a Germany that becomes ever darker and less tolerant who anyone who deviates from the “norm”, an ideal so unrealistic and restricted that it even catches vaunted scientists like Carl Lilliencron and his glamorous wife Rahel in its unforgiving net.

Together with their children Georg and Else, they are among the lucky ones, people who are able to escape Germany while they can, in their case with the support of the Hollywood Jewish diaspora which at the time included people like Billy Wilder, Peter Lorre, Otto Preminger, Marlene Dietrich and Fritz Lang.

They are, of course, among the relative few members of Germany’s then burgeoning Jewish population who did manage to escape, carried to a new homeland on the strength of artistic talent and vitally-important connections.

 

 

By focusing on one intact Jewish family that managed to do what so many others could not and escape Hitler’s ever-tightening noose, Crown – his name comes from the one the Lilliencrons adopt while in America, a symbol of an unexpected life and the limitless possibilities it often, though not always, offers – isn’t attempting to turn something diabolically evil into a Rin Tin Tin romp through history.

Rather, poetically using the perspective of Sirius, who is wise, intelligent and insightful in a way many of his human companions are not, he exposes with beautifully-articulated parodic intent how grimly foolish and deluded Hitler and his minions were.

In so doing he uplifts the power of love, imagination and the celebration of the connections that give life meaning, purpose and an exquisitely rich sense of belonging, reminding us that the way to oppose tyranny is to live lives that exemplify the very opposite of the hateful bigotry being exposed.

Thankfully, this message isn’t conveyed in some facile form; with a direct familial link to the events of the time, Crown is all too aware that opposition to such cruelly autocratic regimes does not come without great cost, with many people paying the ultimate price for not belonging to the new order, or for daring to stand up to it using whatever means they had at their disposal.

“He was always fleeing something,” says Carl sadly.
“Perhaps this time he really managed it.”
“Don’t say that!” protests Rahel, bursting into tears again.
Secretly, even she fears that they will never see Sirius again. Where could he be? Long gone across the mountains? Somewhere on the ocean? Or on land, together with other dogs. Happy. The most important thing is that he’s happy. (P. 153)

But with Sirius as his eyes, ears and mouthpiece, a dog who understands what is happening around him and who is able to actually do something about it – at one point he ends up as a spy in Hitler’s HQ and is taught by a circle, one of many in Germany, that oppose Hitler’s rule, to convey the information he is privy to – we see what happened to those who escaped, those left behind, and those who never made it anywhere but to the nightmarish confines of concentration camps.

There are some minor narrative missteps, of course with the scenes where Sirius, now known as Hansi, ends up as Hitler’s personal pooch, but by and large, Crown succeeds in delivering up a novel where evil is unveiled for the murderous, unthinking beast it is, indiscriminate consumer of all around it, but for the most part, Crown’s writing is a joy.

He manages to invest an historical period so dark many people shy from it, with whimsy, hope, love and optimism, a reminder that the human spirit which is capable of great evil and brutality, is also capable of soaring nobility, caring and a self-sacrificial pursuit of what is right and true.

In these harrowing times we live in when far too many people are forgetting the lessons of the past, thus dooming them potentially to repeat them (we can only hope not), Sirius is a salutary, even heartwarming, lesson of the battle waged down through the ages between the better and lesser angels of our nature, and how it is possible to preference one over the other, and elevate humanity rather than damn it with consequences that all of us will suffer from in ways too awful to contemplate.

 

(image courtesy Presses de la Cité)
(image courtesy Presses de la Cité)