Book review: The Toymakers by Robert Dinsdale

(cover image courtesy Penguin Australia)

 

Who hasn’t, at one time or another, wished for a little more magic in their lives?

In Robert Dinsdale’s The Toymakers, there is fantastically magical realism in abundance but you end up questioning much of the time, even in a book as beautiful as this often but not always is, whether it has really done any of the characters, particularly young Cathy Wray, any real good.

Cathy, pregnant at 15 and the shame of her family, decides to run away in 1906 to London rather than face losing her child to a nameless adoption; ending up, via an ad at the wonder and childlike fabulousness of the Emporium, an expansive toy shop like no other run by Papa Jack and his sons Kaspar and Emil, she comes to find herself intricately webbed into a new family who despite their best efforts are not as magical as their creations.

It’s their toys, their amazing, defying-reality toys, that bring the crowds back every year at the first frost of winter every year – patchwork animals that seem to come alive of their own accord, paper trees that are more real, it seems, that their botanical cousins, and soldiers, beautifully-painted, realistic soldiers that fuel the playtime imagination of many a devoted young boy.

“The Emporium opens with the first frost of winter. It is the same every year. Across the city, when children wake to see ferns of white stretched across their windows, or walk to school to hear ice crackling underfoot, the whispers begin: the Emporium is open! Christmas is coming, and the goose is getting fat …” (P. 1)

It’s a place of endless wonder and magicality, the sort of toy shop, described in breathlessly imaginative detail by Dinsdale, that many of us would’ve given our right arm to visit and buy from when we were young.

And yet for all the escapist brilliance of the Emporium, which explodes alive in your imagination thanks to Dinsdale’s seemingly endless ability to conjure one miraculously impossible toy after another into existence, not everything is as magical in the lives of the Godmans, the creators far more troubled than their Toy Story-autonomous toys.

While Papa Jack, who nurses considerable life scars of his own, remains largely in his workshop eyrie high in the Emporium which, much like the TARDIS, is much larger on the inside, exuberant, talkative Kaspar, who possesses his father’s gift for turning the ordinary into the magically extraordinary, and dour, taciturn, thoughtful Emil, once close as brothers, are locked in a Long War for dominance, both on the toy soldierly field of battle, but for the mantle of heir to their father’s amazing creation, itself an antidote to the bleak cruelness of life outside the safe confines of Iron Duke Mews.

There is no doubt they love each other, but beneath all that familial care, borne of a childhood where they only had each other on which to depend, sits a rivalry that over the course of the book, which covers the period 1906 to 1953 and beyond, breaks down in ways shocking and almost absurd.

Suffice to say that Cathy, who finds a place to call home when none seemed to beckon, is largely happy with her choice, although as the languorous narrative, in which the reality of family relationship intrudes more often than not, unspools, she realises there are secrets aplenty and troubling motivations that no amount of extravagant displays and near-sentient playthings can mask.

 

Robert Dinsdale (image courtesy Penguin Australia)

 

That all makes The Toymakers seem ominously doom-filled, but the truth of the matter is that it is more a battle between reality and magical reality that fuels its pages more than anything else.

Life is, if nothing else, an endless back-and-forth between what we wish for and what we get, and even when we aim for the stars and manage to get somewhere near to those lofty celestial reaches, existence is never quite as wondrous as we envisage.

That’s not say there’s plenty of wonder in this mostly gorgeously-engrossing book for there is, and in inner child-thrilling abundance, but the stark fact of the matter is that life, in the most tenaciously stark and discomforting of ways, will find a way, and we make some accommodation for that or we perish.

Of course, as we know all too well, making that accommodation even if we want to, can be hellishly difficult, and when World War One and financial realities intrude, each of our characters finds that the bucolically world of otherness they have sought, and largely succeeded in creating can’t fix everything, despite their best, reality-distorting efforts.

“Emil had taken his notebook to bed, as had been his practice ever since he was a boy, but the marks he made tonight were scrappy and inconsequential. He drew the face of a soldier, supposed to be as regal as the Imperial Kapitan, but instead the image looked bedraggled, worn, like a body whose soul had been spent. Like Kaspar, Emil caught himself thinking – and promptly scoured the image clean away. He had not yet told their father about the scene Kaspar had made in the glade of the Long War this evening; he wondered if he ever should.” (P. 290)

At 468 pages, The Toymakers doesn’t always live up to its initial promise, with the final act, arriving well after you’ve concluded, erroneously as it turns out, that the narrative has run its full course.

You know it hasn’t since, of course, there’s still a reasonably healthy clutch of unread pages still caught up in the grip of your right hand but there is a sense of finality towards the end when Cathy and her daughter Martha find themselves well beyond the Emporium, many years down the track, and you assume magic has lost to the cold, dead but not entirely unwelcoming, hand of reality.

The truth is The Toymakers never surrenders the magical possibilities of life to the mundanity of survival and familial discord, always believing and demonstrating that with enough love and hope, and Cathy for one holds fast to these two qualities well beyond when she should have given up and just surrendered to what feels like the inevitable, her optimism-laced tenacity described, as so much is in this book, by the deliciously-poetic prose of Dinsdale.

One of the rich rewards of this book, which grants the heart and the imagination equal parts excitement and wonder, is the writing which is rich, plump with emotion and descriptive beauty, and an innate understanding of what it’s like to be feet-of-mud human while desperately, always wanting to reach for the stars.

It often leaves us caught awkwardly and frustratingly somewhere in the compromised middle, but as The Toymakers makes clear in its wholly satisfying end, that manages to be both dark and uplifting, perhaps all that effort is worth it and the magic will triumph when we least expect it.

Book review: The Last Black Unicorn by Tiffany Haddish

(cover image courtesy Simon and Schuster)

 

There is a tendency to see comedians are endlessly, blissfully happy people, full to the brim with bonhomie and good cheer, their minds, and souls, a captivating whirl of good thoughts, humourous observations and pithy, funny oneliners.

But as Robin Williams proved all too devastatingly, that is often far from the truth; they are, after all, as human as the rest of us, using humour as a weapon against the dark arts of life, a way of keeping the monsters at bay.

As more than comedian has admitted, behind all those side-splittingly funny jokes and infectiously enthusiastic smiles, sits a broken soul looking for some kind of redemption.

That may seem a little too dramatic, and likely is – after all writers are people looking to make life ore exciting than it actually is – but as Tiffany Haddish admits in her bestselling memoir, The Last Black Unicorn, there is a great deal of truth in that observation.

“I didn’t start out with the intention of writing all about this painful stuff. I just wanted to write a funny book.
I don’t normally like getting all deep into painful shit. I like to skip across the ocean of emotion. I feel like that’s better.
But once I started working on this book, I got into all this shit. If something comes up, I’m going to talk about it. I’m going to tell you about it, and if it hurts, that’s too bad. I’m going to be like, “Yo, that shit hurt, but let me tell you though.”
That’s who I am.
I feel like, honestly, that’s the only reason I’m alive. Because I’m willing to talk about my stuff.” (P. 275)

But like many perceptions about people, particularly those in public life, it’s not the full story.

While Haddish doesn’t address this failing of celebrity, and our flawed interaction with it directly, she does set about disabusing us of the motion that her life has been one unending parade of happiness and bliss.

The thing is, scathingly honest as it resultingly is, the comedian who came to public prominence with the 2017 film, Girls Trip, it’s not some pity part, some sad, bleating acknowledgement that “I might be famous and successful but I know pain and I know sadness y’all.”

What it is, and necessarily confrontingly so at times, is a recounting of life that has had more than its fair share of setbacks, and broken moments, such that you wonder how Haddish has emerged even remotely intact on the other side.

She doesn’t attempt to gloss over this either, portraying herself as some inspiring survivor who witnessed the darkest parts of the human experience and is still walking, talking, breathing and alive.

As that quote illustrates all too well, she is neither an ambulant festival of woes nor a gutsy survivor with a winner’s trophy held aloft; she simply someone who went through a whole lot of shit, and yes that word is accurate for much of her memoir which is punctuated with the basest of peoples’ thoughts and actions, and came through because she wasn’t done with life yet.

 

 

The thing is, as you read this book, which is way more serious than funny – though there is a glint of gutsy good humour and amusing self-aware self-deprecation in most chapters – you come to appreciate just how close she came to not making it through.

That success was not guaranteed, that her declaration in her teenage years that she would make it big as a comedian was fraught with all kinds of impossibilities, stark realities and obstacles, and the real sense that everything could, and at times did, fall apart quite spectacularly.

Haddish recounts how she made it through the foster system, the result of her mother sustaining life-changing brain trauma in a near-fatal car accident when her five children were quite young – Haddish is the oldest of her siblings, the products of two separate relationships, neither successful or emotionally-nurturing – through an abusive, controlling marriage, and through the misogyny of the stand-up comedy scene, by sheer force of will but also luck at times, but mostly because she was willing to address and talk about “that shit”, because she refused to sweep all that stuff under the carpet, and see life as an opportunity to win, not to lose, despite everything.

“I know life is no laughing matter, but having experiences can be. They can be the best learning lessons—just fuckups but still lessons. That’s how I think of my life, all my wins are lessons, and all my failures are lessons that will one day become wins. I decided to write this book in the hope that someone will read it and feel like, ‘If she can do it, I know I can!” (Introduction)

It’s this willingness to not be defeated by life, when she could so easily have been, that percolates through every last word in The Last Black Unicorn (the title comes both from a physical reality of her youth but also the overcoming mindset it engendered).

Haddish is refreshingly neither a victim nor a nauseating victor; simply someone who made it through the hellfires of life, bearing scars and emotional loss, but not down, and as she at pains to point out with her irrepressible wit and chutzpah, most definitely not out.

And for all those gritty, in-your-face memories, there is a lot of good too, as there always if you care to look for it; Haddish doesn’t pretend she didn’t have good moments too the better to burnish her tales of life gone scarringly wrong.

But she’s also honest enough, and it’s her honesty that endears you to her, her willingness to call a spade a spade and dig something new rather than whack someone over the head with it (though she does that too, of course) that makes you love her for more than her very funny observations of this messy, sometimes horrible thing called life.

Even more than this, it’s her willingness to admit to her mistakes, to be honest about her poor decisions and her emotional brokenness and stuntedness than makes The Last Black Unicorn inspiring in the most grounded and real of ways.

It’s not some clarion call to best life at its own nasty game; simply the tale of one person, one now very successful, very visible and very funny person, who went through a whole of shit and came out the other side, able to tell the tale, which as it turns out, is the very thing that saved her.

 

Kindness is for everyone: The important life lessons of Cranky Bear Wakes Up (review)

(image courtesy Glas Daggre)

 

It’s a rare and delightful thing as an adult to be taken back to those carefree wonderful times as a child when you would read a book and be totally and completely immersed in the world created within.

Those were rare and special times when the simplicity and beauty of a book’s premise, the likability and sweetness of its characters and the meaningfulness of its message beguiled you to such an extent that you wished you could stay within that bubble forever.

That’s exactly how I felt reading Cranky Bear Wakes Up by brothers Shawn (words) and Todd StJean (pictures), a delightful story-sketchbook that engagingly, and rather poetically, tells the tale of a bear who wakes up one day, not very gracefully mind you, and finds himself in all kinds of trouble that extend far beyond his need to quell the rumbles in his stomach.

In search of a meal to break his hibernation fast, Bear steps out of his cosy cave, more than a little reluctantly I imagine because he is at heart an introvert, first meets Fish then Bee and then Robin, all of whom manage to dissuade Bear from adding them to his menu and seem eager to get back to their own problems.

“In the Springtime, when the snows melt and the sun and the rain cooperate to bring out the leaves of the plants, and the rivers run fast and the insects buzz—this was the time, too, for Bear to emerge from his long winter nap. Not an unfriendly bear, not at all. In fact, he had a good nature, once you got to know him.” (P. 5)

It’s only when Bear finds himself pursued by hunters, with only very old Snail for company, that these once dismissive creatures of the forest, too busy to show the bear any kindness – to be fair he was contemplating eating them but in his defense, he didn’t – help him get to safety.

Told with a delightfully rhythmic flourish and a sense of magical realism that imbues the story with the kind of pace that draws you on and on eager to see how Bear will escape the tenacious hunters, the book gives you that rare chance to linger longer in this world of Bear with pages devoted to an invitation to “draw Cranky bear and his friends in more adventures of their own!”

If I was any kind of artist, I would be more than happy to take Bear, Snail and their friends on all kinds of extra adventures into the unknown; as a writer first and foremost though, I am more than to let Todd’s enchanting images take centre stage.

 

(image courtesy Glas Daggre)

 

The illustrations are an absolute delight.

Through Todd’s immersively beautiful drawings, we get to properly meet Bear, Fish, Snail, Robin and Bee and to get a real sense of the world they inhabit in all its glory.

It doesn’t matter that the pictures aren’t coloured; there’s a beguiling simplicity to each and every drawing that portrays the story more memorably than even than coloured-in drawings would.

Together with Shawn’s transportive prose, which possesses the kind of playful but heartfelt cadence that only the best stories are privy to, Cranky Bear Wakes Up is fully capable of summoning you back to those childhood idylls where it was just you, a book and the world it conjured up.

Even though there is real tension and angst threading through the story – hunters are, after all, hot on Bear’s tail (quite literally, in fact!) and his escape, even with the help of his newly-roused to action friends is by no means assured – there is a magic to the book, thanks primarily to the rich, instant vivacity of the characters, sparkling dialogue and drawings which complement key scenes in a way that doesn’t stymie but enhances and augments the kinds of flights of imagination that all good books should take you on.

“‘I never knew how important friends were before, Snail. I guess everyone has problems too big for them, sometimes.'” (P. 17)

There is a lesson to be learned certainly, but it’s not heavy-handed by any measure, organically woven into a story that never loses focus or drive, teaching us that while our problems are real and not easily dismissable – one aside; the way each of the creature Bear meets project their issues onto him is funny and telling all at once – that we are stronger together than apart, and indeed, our very survival depends on not being insular or selfish but lending a helping hand to others, no matter the circumstance.

It’s a very of-the-moment message for an age where kindness, despite entreaties from the likes of Ellen and Oprah and a host of smaller but no less important voices, is constantly cast aside in favour of selfishly attending to our own concerns (ironic in the era of social media where we are supposedly closer and more able to care for each other than ever) to greater or lesser extents.

Above all though, Cranky Bear Wakes Up is just pure delight – rich, warm, heartfelt but muscular storytelling, characters you will adore and care about and beautiful artworks that complements the text perfectly.

Want to return to the carefree, halcyon days of childhood, even just for a little while? Cranky Bear Wakes Up is your ticket to that sweetly magical but deeply meaningful place and trust me, you’ll be glad you chose to go on this particular journey.

 

(image courtesy Glas Daggre)

Book review: The Gods of Love by Nicola Mostyn

(cover image courtesy Hachette Australia)

 

Ah humanity, you are a contrary and wondrously messed-up beast.

Ream upon ream is written is written by adventure-hungry mortals seeking a life far bigger and more exciting than the one already possessed, film upon film lifts supposed nothings out of the banal trappings of the everyday only to have them come alive with the thrilling newness and revelatory nature of it all.

And yet when it happens in real life, with “real life” being the imagined, very funny driven world of The Gods of Love by Nicola Mostyn, we’re suddenly none-too-keen on shaking things up and seeing the resulting pieces land.

Well, Frida McKenzie isn’t.

A highly-successful divorce lawyer, love cynic and ambitious young woman who at the age of 29 has much of what she already desired in her hands, and the rest just a little out of reach, ready to be handed to her if her meeting with dominant worldwide technology NeoStar takes her into its fold, she wants a glamorous, exciting and fulfilling life.

Just not, as it turns out, one decreed by the events of fate, who it turns out, are a little more expansive than even the rich tableau of possibilities she has envisaged.

When a young earnest man called Dan storms, reasonably politely, but firmly, into her office one day, telling she is the Chosen One and he is the latest Oracle of Delphi come to guide her to the salvation of the world with his visions and know-how, she is, understandably less than impressed.

“‘Dan, I’m Dan,’ he says and gives me a disarming smile. ‘I know it’s rude of me to barge in like this, but I’ve been searching for you for a long time, Frida. A very long time. And I need to tell you something.'” (P. 6)

You can well understand why.

As Dan’s story progresses, both on that fateful day in the office, and later in the wreckage of a life she no longer recognises, Frida is told she is the latest descendant of the God of Love Eros, imprisoned on Olympus by the closing of the portal between the realm of the gods and our own by his younger, and incredibly bitter brother Anteros, once the God of Love Returned and now just the God of Anti-Love.

More than a little put out at not receiving the rapturous honours handed to his big brother, and determined to be known and adored, Anteros has spent millennia amongst mortals, scheming and plotting to find the arrow fired by Hades into the heart of Persephone before he spirited her off to a life of imprisoned “love” in the black-clad depths of Hades.

An act attributed to Eros, who gets the credit even for Anteros’s dark acts, the arrow in question has immense power which the spurned younger brother plans to, you guessed it, do unspeakably bad things to a world which he, and other gods in his cohort, view with undisguised scorn.

 

Nicole Mostyn (image courtesy Creative Tourist)

 

That’s the scenario into which Dan unceremoniously plonks a highly-sceptical, then alarmed then angry Frida who reacts much like any of us would – less with enthralment at the idea that the gods, the Underworld and the stories of Greek mythology are true, all amazingly true, and more with fury that her tidy successful life has been upended by the machinations of celestial beings she barely even believes in.

The story itself is an absolute hoot to read, a page-turning rush to get the arrow, keep the arrow and spoil Anteros’s plans – spoiler alert: It’s a great deal more complicated than that – filled with engaging characters, some very witty lines and a deliciously postmodern take on the gods of ancient myth and worship.

What makes it really zing along are two key things.

One, Mostyn doesn’t turn Frida into an instant hero; nor even after events have run their course into someone interested in remaining a hero.

She is deliciously, wonderfully down-to-earth, a hero who rises to the course most definitely, but who never loses herself or what she has always valued in the process; there’s even a scene where she and Dan are trying to find where the arrow might be, holed up in his tiny apartment in a dubiously-appointed part of town with only pizza, wine and frustration for company, where she all but decries the standard hero trajectory.

“‘I can assure you that I’m one hundred per cent normal human.’ My head is now throbbing painfully. ‘Listen,’ I say, ‘I can just about accept all this magical shit is real. I mean, okay, it’s a bit of a shocker, but hey, fine, whatever. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio”, and all that. But I can assure you that all of this has NOTHING to do with me. Come on! I’m the descendant of a god?’ I Laugh. ‘ I suck at this. I’ve already been kidnapped twice today and it’s not even six o’clock. Surely they must see that I’m just a normal, innocent human being? I mean, I cannot understand, even for a moment, why they’d think that I …'” (P. 71)

All of which that when Frida does get serious about saving the day, and there are twists and turns aplenty when this happens, she doesn’t do it as overwhelmingly perfectly or all-conqueringly as Marvel and countless YA dystopian novels would have you believe is standard is when a human being finds their life is anything but ordinary,

It adds a deeply-accessible quality to Frida that makes her eminently likeable and thereby grants The Gods of Love, a delightfully flawed humanity that you will recognise and identify in an instant, and imbuing the page-turning plot with the very kind of realness that the gods are trying to stamp out with their evil, reckless plotting.

The other enriching ingredient in this highly-readable and immensely-enjoyable stew is Mostyn’s willingness to talk at length about love and happiness and inner peace in a plot that barely pauses for breath.

A philosophical treatise it is not, nor does Mostyn intend for it to be; The Gods of Love is an entertaining rip-roaring read and unapologetically so.

But running through it is an oft-melancholy musing about the nature of mortality and conjectured-immortality, about the way we crave soul, acceptance and belonging and yet fumble when it falls, initially happily, into our grasp.

It brings a richness and resonance to a novel filled with great humour, sparkling imagination and high adventure, a brilliantly fun read that, along with changing everything you though you knew about the gods and history, cautions you, in the most immersively-clever of ways, to be careful what you wish for.

You will possibly get it, but just like Frida (OK well, not exactly but you get my drift), it may not look like anything like you imagined.

 

Book review: The Everlasting Sunday by Robert Lukins

(cover image courtesy UQP)

 

We live in an often cruel and unforgiving world.

Thankfully in the midst of all the Darwinian madness and the transgressions of fallible humanity, both our own and those of our fellow human beings, there are kind and generous people who understand that what might be needed is less caustic censure and unforgiving discipline and a little more love and understanding.

It may sound woefully naive and insipid but in Robert Lukin’s brilliantly good debut novel The Everlasting Sunday, a title which eludes to the endless, breathlessly good possibilities that day holds in store, there’s a real muscularity and truthfulness to the idea that all people, including “troubled boys” who have transgressed a multitude of boundaries, is the chance to discover life’s promise on their own terms.

To Radford, our eyes and ears on the bold and somewhat quirkily shambolic social experiment that is the Manor, a home for troubled youth out in the wilds of the English countryside, that’s not exactly the first impression he gets off the director Teddy, other staff like Lillian and Manny, and his fellow “inmates”, none of whom seem to be on any kind of set plan or well-scripted path to anywhere in particular.

“Almost a week has turned over: each day had brought not a sense of understanding but an understanding not to search for sense. When he [Radford] asked how things operated in the Manor – timetables, lessons, chores, responsibilities – he would be met with reluctant, ponderous answers or more often none at all. No rules, only customs. A conscious vagueness inhabited the place whereby time was a thing to be occupied: an enemy’s pillbox on a battlefield.” (P. 41)

At first, the Manor, all decaying innards and rundown shabby chic, seems like an idiosyncratic, highly-civilised Lord of the Flies sprung to life, where the boys roam in groups, learning is haphazard and erratically earnest, fights occasionally break out and diversions come in many forms, including drunken trips to a nearby cemetery where a random person is picked each time to be eulogised in a comical fashion that says more about boys like Radford and his troubled but gregarious friend West than it does about the anonymous objects of their temporary attention.

While no one openly discusses what brought them to this place – it is unofficially but universally agreed that you only divulge that secret if you’re so inclined – with most of the boys (in reality late teens and slightly up) choosing to keep their sins well under wraps.

The director of the facility Teddy is never inclined to push anyone anyway – for him the Manor is all bucolic learning, ad hoc discoveries of murmurations of starlings or the uncovering of historical trees – a place where, as he explains to Radford many years later, his charges could experience “a brief truce … [a] little peace, that you might carry with you.”

In reflecting on that time in the early ’60s where the Manor was alive with peaceful possibility, goodnatured intent and even so, some of the worst of humanity (despite its director’s best efforts), Teddy hoped for much but feels, as he confesses to an older, wiser Radford, that he has “failed”.

 

(image courtesy UQP)

 

Radford, blessed with hindsight, disagrees with his now-good friend.

He points out that he has a circle of good friends, and presumably a sustaining career, one birthed at the Manor when Manny, a handyman and general errand runner, taught him the ins-and-outs of electrical work, an interest Radford didn’t know he harboured nor an aptitude he knew he possessed until it was awoken him.

Wiser and more self-aware than people like West and Foster, whose destructive bond only comes to full fruition late in the book, Radford, though drawn into the largely benignly chaotic machinations of the Manor to a large degree, remains a studious observer, a young man who benefits from Teddy’s unorthodox approach even as others, too troubled by their own demons fail to do so.

It is through Radford and his willingness to ask questions and consider life, even in a passing way, that stands him apart from West, a young man who comes as breezy and a bon vivant but is secretly torn apart by familial events beyond his control or ability to deal with.

“They went closer until everything above and before them was only stick and bird. The sound was incredible. Radford found himself beginning to laugh in the union of nerves and appreciation. He kept turning back to Teddy for permission, like a toddler approaching a beach’s waterline. Teddy swung his stick on wards.” (P. 168)

The magic of The Everlasting Sunday is that Lukins, writing in a blissfully poetic fashion that reads beautifully but never feels pretentious or artfully staged, invests his laidback prose, and unhurried narrative with some pretty powerful truths about human nature, the benefits of love and kindness if you’re open to them (if not, they glide off like water off the proverbial) and the way one person can come alive in the same environment that leaves another untouched and unyielding.

While there is sometimes an emotional distancing to proceeding and it’s hard to feel fully connected to all the characters, there are moments, particularly during interactions between Radford and West, and Radford and Teddy that you feel the exquisite ache of pain and possibility and come to understand, in real and visceral ways, how easily a person can tip one way or the other.

That Radford will emerge out the other side benefiting from Teddy and Manny and Lillian’s guiding hands is clear, but even so, the journey he undertakes in that one season in the Manor is fraught and it’s not always certain that our protagonist will find his way through as successfully as events seem to indicate.

That he does, and that others don’t, mirrors life itself where despite the guiding hand and love of caring if erratic souls like Teddy, not everyone has a happy ending.

The strength of The Everlasting Sunday and Lukins approach to his unexpectedly captivating material – at first the novel seems too low key to be too powerful but appearances can, and are, deceiving – is that for all its quirks and wonderfully unusual moments, its Boys Own scenes of camaraderie and enmity, is that it perfectly articulates, and celebrates, the fact that bleak and unforgiving as life can be, that great possibility awaits for those willing and able to make the most of it.

 

Book review: The Summer of Impossible Things by Rowan Coleman

(cover image courtesy Penguin Books)

 

Life isn’t very good with second chances.

We wish it was, and many is the time we reflect back on an incident, big or small, innocuous or catastrophic and wish we could have said something different, done something unexpected, or frankly, not gone through the whole thing.

But life and time are not that kind, and all those quick rejoinders and wiser decisions die a quick death on the fire of impossible things with no way to go back and relive those precious regretted times.

What if though, wonders Rowan Coleman in The Summer of Impossible Things, if you could go back and make a profound difference to just not one part of your life but the entirety of your existence and those you love most?

What would you do? Would you be brave enough to do anything at all or would you recoil from all that rich and potent possibility, shrug your shoulders and simply accept the permanence of your current reality?

Or would you, much like the protagonist Luna who slowly but surely realises what a gift she  has been given, do something desperately, amazingly and life-changingly brave with it.

“‘But how are you?’ she asks finally. ‘I mean really.
I hesitate; if I were to answer that question accurately I’d say full of rage and grief, terrified and lost, unsure and unable to find a sure-footed place to stand. But I don’t. Our beloved mother died from an overdose, and, even after a lifetime of a family that revolved around her depression, we didn’t see it coming in time to save her, and I can’t forgive myself for that. And more than that, there’s a stranger inside me, a stranger who is me, a crucial part of me I don’t have any reference for, and that unnerves me.” (PP. 13-14)

No prizes for guessing what Luna, who loses her mother to suicide, a horrifically targic event that is followed by a deeply-unpalatable revelation, chooses to do.

The Summer of Impossible Things is after all a 400 and change page novel, so she’s hardly going to make a snap decision and be done with it.

The beauty of Coleman’s emotionally insightful writing, which does verge a little on the melodramatically-intense at times but which mostly rings true, is that she sustains Luna’s gradual acceptance from astonishment and disbelief at her ability to travel back in time to 1977 Bay Ridge in Brooklyn to the events which set her once-vibrant mother on a tragic path to indecision at what it could all mean to a firm resolve that this magical ability is a gift and cannot be squandered.

The magical realism at the heart of the narrative is woven naturally into the events of the novel which mostly concern a trip by Luna and younger sister Pia back to their mother’s native New York to sort out her estate in the event of her untimely death.

Their father Henry, an Englishman who wooed their mother when he was in Bay Ridge documenting the filming of Saturday Night Fever, has stayed back in the UK, leaving the two young women to sort through a welter of unsettling, caustic emotions, all of which are heightened by being back in their mother’s old neighbourhood and meeting a slew of people who knew her very well, when she was in unabashedly upbeat early twentysomething prime.

 

Rowan Coleman (photo courtesy Penguin Books)

 

Were it not for Luna’s suddenly unexpected ability to travel back in time 40 years earlier, a talent which doesn’t announce itself but simply appears one night leaving Luna doubting her own sanity or long-term good health, her story and that of her sister would be like any other – insurmountable grief, overpowering regret and the grinding sense that life cannot be redeemed or changed and they are stuck with its cold and unflinching hand.

But Luna’s gift, which comes hand-in-hand with some exhaustingly difficult questions, changes this well-worn dynamic, for Luna at least, with the very real possibility, though with no guarantee of success that events can be changed, and life, for once at least, can be made to recount its immutable toll.

As soon Luna gets to know her mother Marissa as a real person and not simply as a parent, and is drawn ever deeper, in fits and starts into the circle of her friends, which includes sweet and sensitive writer-wannabe Michael, she comes to appreciate that she has been a rare and unmissable opportunity to wrestle with life and come out a winner.

The price, as you can imagine, could be profound, possibly as high as that of her own life, a price she finds herself willing to pay, emboldened by the kind of bravery that only love, real, selfless love can generate.

“‘It happened again.’ Wearily, every one of my limbs stiff and sore, I take a seat beside her, resting the package beside me on the step. It has aged thirty years in the last three minutes. The paper is faded and foxed, the string that ties it thin and unravelling.
‘It happened so quickly, right there, right in the hall outside Michelle’s office. It was quicker this time, more violent. I feel like the more I do it, the less of me there is to make the transition, so the faster it is, the easier it is in a way. But every time it happens, it hurts me. And I wasn’t ready. I didn’t have enough control over it, over me.'” (P. 269)

Now, if at this point in proceedings, you’re thinking this sounds all a bit overwrought and ludicrously fantastical, Coleman balances her storytelling beautifully between real, intense, confronting emotions and the sweet promise of life renewed and changed in the most amazing of ways, leaving The Summer of Impossible Things as that rare literary creature that manages to be achingly authentic and excitingly possible and reality-defying all at once.

It beautifully executes that do-over fantasy we have all had, and does it with real insight and understanding, making it clear that fantastical though the possibilities and their consequences might be, they are rooted in painful, all-too-real emotions that assail everyone at one time or another.

So while you are inextricably drawn into Luna’s unreal experiences, and root her on as she stands between two times, two worlds, each with their own realities good and bad, you never lose sight of what’s at stake, of how damaged everything is and how impossible it is that it could ever be repaired.

The Summer of Impossible Things is in many ways a fantasy, and even its brilliant ending plays into that too, but Coleman succeeds in ways big and small with anchoring her off-the-wall premise in the truest, richest and most real of human experiences in such a way that not only will you relate to Luna’s impossible tale but you will wish it were somehow possible to conjure the same miracle for yourself.

 

(cover image courtesy Penguin Books)

Book review: The Impossible Fortress by Jason Rekulak

(cover image courtesy Allen & Unwin)

 

Ah, the endlessly expansive possibilities of youth!

There are a lot of things in our younger years that might make us cringe – the lack of knowledge about life, stunted self-awareness, naive belief in the goodness of others – but there’s one thing that we likely still have a fondness for, possibly tinged with regret, and it’s the unfettered belief that there were no limits on what we could do.

It was a giddy feeling, one not tarnished by sage understanding of realty or the time-wrecked weight of disillusion, and it’s captured in beguilingly perfect detail by Jason Rekulak is his 1987-set debut novel, The Impossible Fortress.

So beautifully does Rekulak evoke the idea that anything is possible, that it’s hard not to be swept up by a revival of the idea that life, messy, contradictory, weighed down by routine, can take you anywhere and be anything.

“I would lie to Mary. Not after all the help she’d given me. Not after our sunset walk on the roof, and not after the way she’d touched my hand in the blackout. I knew that something extraordinary was happening and I didn’t have a name for it yet, but I wasn’t going to let Alf or Clark screw it up.” (P. 135)

That’s certainly the spirit that fuels 14-year-old friends Billy, a computer programmer wanna-be with real talent, his friend Alf, who has chutzpah to burn, and yes resembles everyone’s favourite 1987 sitcom alien, and Clark, a drop-dead handsome guy with a deformed hand which means his social looks don’t match up to his movie idol good looks.

But being teenage boys, impelled by the heady early days of puberty, they decide to put all this boundary-less ambition to use by trying to secure a copy of the latest Playboy issue, featuring the aspiring pin-up of the day, Wheel of Fortune‘s Vanna White.

But here’s the snag, a gigantic, dream-stopping snag – the boys are too young to buy a copy, and when they do try to convince an older guy to help them out by buying, he absconds with their money and leaves them right where they started.

Only with way less money and even less opportunities to claim their much-longed for prize.

The only solution? Well, in the minds of three teenage boys anyway? (Alf in particular.) Stage a daring heist worthy of Mission Impossible and take copies, paid of course (of course!) from Zelinsky’s, the local stationery/magazine store in their small New Jersey town.

 

(image via Simon & Schuster)

 

Problem solved right?

Well, naturally, nothing is ever that simple, and as this utterly charming, alternately funny and earnest book goes on, you can’t help but fall in love with the way, Billy in particular but also Alf and Clark, won’t let anything get in their way.

Billy however is different to his friends in that his initial zest for obtaining a copy of the venerated Vanna White issue soon gives to something altogether more pure when he meets the daughter of the own of Zelinsky’s, Mary, who is as avid a gaming programmer as Billy – keep in mind too this is the late ’80s when the electronic games industry is in its infancy and the sky’s the digital limit – and nothing like any girl the young aspiring gaming programmer has ever met before.

The plan to get the code to the store, break-in – in their mind, since they’re paying for the magazines, they’re not really breaking the law; odd logic but remember, they are proto-adults, with the embryonic good judgement that implies – and live happily porn ever after, comes a-cropper when Billy realises he likes Mary and wants to be her friend, and work on a new game that could get the attention of a big-name software developer, far more than he wants to see Vanna White’s naked body in its speculated glory.

“That morning was the last time I was ever fully candid with my mother about anything. I talked for a good hour. I told her everything. It was hard to tell the truth, but every detail seemed to revive her, even the embarrassing ones. Especially the embarrassing ones.” (P. 206)

The Impossible Fortress is a delightful read in every respect.

You love everyone in the book, but especially Billy with his kind heart, his earnest ambition and his passion, almost instantly thanks to Rekulak’s gift for capturing the truth of his characters with immediacy and depth, glory in the ’80s nostalgia which, because the kids are living, feels fresh and vibrant, and be enjoyed by the renewed sense of hope rekindled.

That perhaps is the book’s greatest gift, apart from compellingly immersive writing that draws you completely and quickly and never wavers, falters or blessedly lets you go – it’s tapping into and articulation of the kind of passion many of us once had, but which, while not lost exactly, has ended trapped under layers of banal, necessary, sometimes stultifying adulthood.

Through the good and bad, the well-judged and the most certainly not, and a thousand heartfelt emotions – The Impossible Fortress is suffused with adorable, exuberant emotions that remind how good, and scary, it is to be on the enticing cusp of adulthood – Rekulak channels, celebrates and brings to the fore the kind of limitless expectations that make being young such an exciting thing.

The book is warm, bright, alive and giddily possible, an onrushing mix of reality and possibility that leave you happy to have spent time with Billy, his family and friends, and perhaps reminded of the thrill and excitement of entertaining the “what ifs” rather than consigning them to the has-been bin.

Billy, despite everything he’s up against refuses to live there (and he’s got a number of reasons why he should’ve given up now), so why should you? The Impossible Fortress is a wonderfully joyful tap on the shoulder to grab those dreams, tap into some some carpe diem youthfulness and see where it takes you.

Like our young protagonist, you might be surprised by just how far you’ll go.

 

(image via Simon & Schuster)

Graphic novel review: Lint Boy by Aileen Leijten

(image courtesy Houghton Mifflin)

 

There is a quiet peace and an air of bucolic contentment that comes from knowing you belong to someone and belong somewhere that is your own.

Contrast that sense of intimate belonging with the loss of it and the person that helped make it so and you have the essence of Aileen Leijten’s quirkily heartwarming tale Lint Boy, a graphic novel composed of both a deep, abiding heart and some of the most delightful art you’re likely see anywhere.

At its heart, and Lint Boy has it in entirely non-mawkish spades, this beautiful book is a testament to the power of friendship and love, but also to how these unbreakable bonds fuel a willingness to do the kind of amazing, envelope-breaking things that can topple the status quo.

In this case, the overlordship of a terrified house by a bitter, cruel old lady called Mrs PinchnSqueeze who decades earlier was a still very curl girl called Tortura, who delighted in the most sociopathic of ways in destroying other kids’ beloved toys and playthings.

Decades later, she’s still at, with the seventh iteration of her pet pugs named Snort by her side – unwillingly; she is horribly cruel to them too – and a host of toys including the butchered beauty of a doll named Pinhead (her lustrous locks replaced by you-know-what) hanging in cages from the roof, close enough that she can bang them together whenever the urge strikes her in a terrifying “game” called Rattle-and-Battle.

Into this macabre chamber of hanging horrors, comes Lint Boy in search of his very special friend Lint Bear, their home in the clothes dryer where they were worn foregone in the name of saving the one you love.

In one sense, the story of Lint Boy is not overly complex but that is the beauty of it – it takes an admirably simple tale of fighting to save the one you care about more than anything, and fashions a redemptive narrative where the odds stacked against you and the tyranny of the evil that besets you are no march for a tenacity born of love.

 

(image courtesy Houghton Mifflin)

 

Possessed of gorgeous washed-out colours and minimalist dialogue which pays tribute to the Belgian-born, LA-resident artist’s superlative ability to capture an idea in a taut, skillyfully-worded sentence or phrase, Lint Boy is reminiscent of books like The Velveteen Rabbit which sings a similar story of the power of love to transform things that do not look transformable.

With a history of animating for the likes of Hanna-Barbera and Disney Imagineering, it is clear that Leitjen has a great eye for judging just how much detail to put on a page, and the precise amount of emotional resonance that will capture the moment, and the heart, without inducing nausea.

Lint Boy is pitch-perfect in almost every day.

It celebrates love, belonging, bravery and waking from inertia borne of long imprisonment – Lint Boy awakens the other cage dwellers to the possibility of seizing back from their lives from Tortura grown up who keeps them caged because she’s convinced they’re alive; which they are but none will give her the satisfaction of confirming her Toy Story-is-right thesis – with quiet verve, never pretending the task ahead will be easy but always erring on the side of the idea that its fulfilment is entirely possible, and yes, necessary.

Reading Lint Boy takes you back to those heady, anything-is-possible days of childhood when you earnestly believe, even in my case in the face of incessant bullying and cruelty from others, that anything is possible.

It’s a much-needed, astonishingly beautifully-illustrated shot in the arm to jaded adulthood, an artfully-joyful reminder that life can be tough and arbitrary and just plain nasty at times but that it is entirely dealable with if you have love on your side.

Again, the love Leitjen celebrates is not mawkish Hollywood-lite stuff; rather she upholds and lauds the kind of love that pushes you beyond comfort levels, way outside the place you call home, to accomplish things you might have previously thought are quite beyond you.

They’re not, of course, not when you really love someone or something or even an idea, and this joy of a book is an immersive, thoroughly idiosyncratic reminder that you can overcome the villains in your life, that it may be tough and you and those you surround yourself with may doubt themselves on a multitude of levels, but that persisting through to the end is worth every last moment of terror and loss and pain.

 

(image courtesy Houghton Mifflin)

 

Joy of joys there is a trailer and it is, like the book itself, simply beautiful to behold …

 

Book review: The Feed by Nick Clark Windo

(cover image courtesy Hachette Australia)

 

The Feed, Nick Clark Windo’s brilliantly-chilling debut novel, is predicated on a simply though wholly terrifying idea – what if all knowledge, every last skerrick of understanding and know-how, every warm-and-fuzzy memory and emotional connection suddenly ceased to exist?

What then? What would we do? How would we survive? And perhaps most importantly of all in this Oprah-Tony Robbins hyper-self-actualised age, who would we become?

It’s a thought-provoking idea, one we can still entertain an answer to in our relatively-unconnected world, but in The Feed‘s non-specific but highly-advanced future where humanity is hardwired via connections in their brain to everyone else, and knowledge is a resource we access, not something we possess within ourselves, it is quite simply a matter of life-and-death when what can only be described as the internet on steroids suddenly ceases to exist, taking civilisation down with it.

Right now, of course, many of us, even those of passionately addicted to Twitter and the like, would possibly welcome a little down time from the omnipresent lure of social media – although the panic and outrage when these platforms do go down might suggest otherwise – but for the people of The Feed, people like English couple Tom and Kate, it’s far from an academic proposition when the interconnectivity of the human race no longer exists.

“I close my eyes and my memories of the Feed’s phantom images score the darkness like neon and starlight, an internal global cityscape where everyone lives close by. So beautiful. So inevitable. So comfortable … The world is quiet … I have no idea what the menu is and we can’t get the waiter’s attention. It’s like we don’t exist. We’re here, cocooned in slow-moving silence as everyone around us communicates, eats and laughs, and it’s like—” (P. 4)

Tom is a man passionately committed to “going slow”, the idea that you unplug from the Feed, where every last moment of human interaction takes place, and have conversations in the real world, a place where books are no longer printed, classes are no longer attended and no one talks out loud.

Aside from Tom, who has his own familial reasons for resistance and Kate, a rebel in some form too though one increasingly subsumed into the very apparatus she claims to stand apart from, a position that forms the very basis of her activities on the Feed, no one else wants to be part from all the knowledge, all those emotions, all those memories … until there is no choice it is all gone, and bereft of everything they have come to depend on, humanity descends into near-barbaric wildness, or just as deadly, flails around, stripped of the ability without omnipresent manuals and guides and the likes, to save themselves.

The descent into anarchy is swift, sure and certain and without Kate’s aunt’s farm as a refuge, which they share with some other people like resistors Jane and Graham, all of whom fight hard to glean whatever knowledge they can from the fading glimmers and shimmers of the Feed echoes, and their daughter Bea to live for, it’s highly likely they too would join the dead or drugged-up scions of humanity stumbling through a world stripped back to the very basics of being.

 

Nick Clark Windo (image courtesy Caskie Mushens)

 

What gives The Feed a wholly distinctive voice in the crowded field of apocalyptic literature is the way Windo focuses on the way identity is often shaped by what we know and how that affects the way we interact with others.

With memories often lost to the same Feed-less void into which the near sum total of humanity culture and learning has tumbled without warning, people are adrift, often unsure of who they full are anymore with uncomfortable holes punched in their recollections of life before the collapse with partners, friends and family (those that survived anyway; the death toll, as you might imagine, is considerable).

This focus on identity is brought into even sharper relief with a recurring threat looming in the former of nocturnal takeovers of people’s consciousness by forces unknown and unseen who replace the former occupant of the body with personalities that appear, on the surface at least, to be homicidally-inclined.

These takeovers, which force people to sleep in shifts to keep watch on their companions for signs of being “taken”, not only brought about the downfall of civilisation and the Feed which supported it, but create a culture of fear and paranoia post-collapse which hamper the vital business of staying alive.

“But she knows he abandoned her. She knows he separated them. She knows that’s not how he should behave. Is it really him? Her finger tightens around the trigger, but the man wrenches the rifle away and brings it up to bear, elbowing her aside. The gun recoils and he squints back through the scope and fire three more rounds, each shot compacting Kate’s ears.” (P. 133)

The genius of Windo’s writing is that while he vividly gives a sense of what apocalyptic Britain is like, his focus is primarily on how the end of the world, and the loss of almost everything that made it, affects the people left alive, especially in light of the fact that who they are could be overwritten at any moment without them knowing.

The explanation for this all-too-real identity theft is enormously clever and suitably sobering and nuanced, eschewing the usual melodramatic overtones you might expect for a layered, emotionally-resonant outcome where the perpetrators are not cardboard cutout villains.

Or in some cases, villains at all.

If you like apocalyptic fiction that goes beyond the schlock value of death, destruction and endless decline, and actually says something meaningful and thoughtful about what it means to be human when everything that once underpinned that humanity is gone, and when there is an ever-present threat that your very sense of self could taken from you, you will be utterly beguiled by The Feed, a novel that takes the time to explore very real, pertinent issues in the midst of an engrossing narrative that will have you turning pages faster than the Feed once fed a now ferociously-marooned humanity.

 

(image courtesy The Invisible Mentor)

Life magically renewed: Mary Poppins Returns and Christopher Robin (trailers)

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

 

There’s something utterly delightful about films that not only take to wonderful fantastical places but which remember that, sooner or later, we will have to return to the far more ordinary surrounds of everyday life.

It’s that beguiling way of the day-to-day and the whimsically magical that has made Mary Poppins by P. L. Travers, and Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne, and their respective films such an escapist delight – yes, we’re taken on an otherworldly redemptive journey but lessons learned there make sense back where we first started.

It’s a potent, soul-salving combination that will be warmly welcomed once again when both Mary Poppins and Winnie the Pooh, or more correctly Christopher Robin make an appearance on the big screen once again.


MARY POPPINS RETURNS

 

SNAPSHOT
Set in 1930s London, Jane and Michael Banks are now grown-up, with Michael still living in the house on Cherry Tree Lane. He lives there with his three children, Annabel, John, and George, and the housekeeper named Ellen. After Michael suffers a personal loss, Mary Poppins comes back to the Banks family with street lamplighter Jack, and eccentric cousin Topsy. (official synopsis via Laughing Squid)

54 years after the first Mary Poppins film was released to near-universal acclaim – the author of the idiosyncratically life-changing protagonist was reportedly not thrilled by the fun and animation of the film – everyone’s favourite English nanny, played by Emily Blunt, is back, descending from the stormy skies once again to fix the lives of the Banks family once again.

Granted, we only have a teaser trailer to go on, but it does convey a sense of loss and sadness, but also hopeful wonder, all in a very short space of time which augurs well for the Rob Marshall-directed sequel.

Mary Poppins Returns releases 25 December in USA and 1 January 2019 in Australia.

 

CHRISTOPER ROBIN

 

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

 

SNAPSHOT
In the heartwarming live action adventure “Disney’s Christopher Robin,” the young boy who loved embarking on adventures in the Hundred Acre Wood with a band of spirited and lovable stuffed animals, has grown up and lost his way. Now it is up to his childhood friends to venture into our world and help Christopher Robin remember the loving and playful boy who is still inside. (official synopsis courtesy Disney via Spoiler TV)

If you can’t imagine Christopher Robin, who spent many a magical day in the Hundred Acre Wood with Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, Eeyore, Piglet and co., ever feeling washed-out and disillusioned as an adult, then it might be worth thinking back to your own (hopefully) idyllic childhood.

Remember how lovely that felt? How wonderful, limitless and free, and how adulthood, no matter its great charms, often doesn’t?

Even the most happy of us will admit things were simpler and lovelier then in some ways – Christopher Robin, Disney’s new live action Winnie the Pooh article asks whether it’s possible to recapture that.

It’s appealing to think you can but we have to wait a good few months yet to see what that kind of childhood bliss recaptured looks like.

Christopher Robin premieres 3 August in USA, 17 August in UK and 20 September in Australia.