Book review: Jean Harley Was Here by Heather Taylor Johnson

(image courtesy UQP)

 

It’s often not until someone dies that you truly come to understand how deeply connected they were to a whole host of people, all of whom deal with the grief of their loss in their own unique ways.

It happened to me last year when my dad died from a longstanding illness – even as I type those words, in common with anyone who has lost someone close to them, I can’t believe he’s actually dead and I’d give anything for him to be alive outside me as well as inside me (read the book and that will make sense) and as I read Heather Taylor Johnson’s extraordinarily insightful, poignantly well-written book, Jean Harley Was Here, everything I felt when he died came rushing back to me.

That may sound like a bad thing but when you’re in the afterwash of grief, which never really leaves you, just diminishes in daily intensity (somewhat), having someone articulate grief and loss so beautifully and profoundly is actually quite therapeutic.

It gives you the sense that here is someone who understands, who gets it, but even more than that, is able to articulate what that feels like in a way that is immediately accessible and meaningful, and in many ways, groundedly poetic.

“Instead, he [Stan] listened for noise, heard a muffled voice in his son’s room. As he stood in the doorway, he watched his mother read to Orion and tried to remember her reading to him as a boy. He couldn’t. He couldn’t remember so he closed his eyes and imagined it was Jean reading – Jean with her singsong words, shifting from high to low tones as she told stories to their son. Later, Orion would tell he story to Stan that he, his father. who had taught him the riffs of his guitar but it was his mother, Jean, who had taught him rhythm. (P. 19)

Of course, in the case of Jean Harley Was Here, the person most affected by her death is someone who is almost too young at the time of her untimely passing to fully understand what he has lost.

Young Orion, only four when his American-born mother Jean is killed after being knocked from her bike by a thoughtlessly-opened car door into the path of a van in the wrong place at the wrong time, has memories of her playing the animal game with him, and some other snippets here and there, but by and large his memories exist in the letters sent to him by his mother’s friends, and by his Aussie dad Stan, who does his best to keep the memory of the love of his life alive for their son.

As the book opens up and the people close to her have their stories told in flashback, during the period when Jean is lying in hospital in a coma, and in the days, months and years after her death, you come to appreciate how deeply interconnected we all are, and how that comes to matter a great deal to those left behind, especially someone like Orion who  largely only has the memories of other to hold on to.

Taylor Johnson does a magnificent of weaving the stories of Stan, Orion, Jean’s best friends Neddy and Viv, and the man in the van, Charley, together in ways that make you appreciate once again how profoundly we are all intertwined, even if we are not immediately aware of it.

 

(Artwork courtesy UQP)

 

It’s the discovery of these emotional entanglements, some of which survive the death of the person in question, and some of which do not, that helps give a sense of proportion to how great a loss their death is.

I mean, we all know that their death is a massive, incalculable loss – that is, of course, never in dispute and we are reminder every single day in ways large and small – but sometimes it all feels amorphous and sad, too big and abstract and overwhelming to even begin grappling with.

You could argue that maybe we don’t need to struggle with quantifying how much of a loss someone is since something like grief exists and affects you ceaselessly, irregardless of the size of it (for those doing the grieving it feels enormous anyway) but somehow we need to, are driven to, striving in some way to make the immeasurable, the unfathomable into something we can possibly see all around and understand.

It may be a fool’s errand and ultimately impossible to fulfill, but as Jean Harley Was Here, illustrates with the power of shared stories and experience, we have to do in some way, hoping we can move on in life and properly honour the person in everything we do.

“He (Charley) was confused. He didn’t know how he was supposed to feel so he just let sadness wash over him. It was so sad that he only had his mum on the inside because he wanted her on the outside too, and it was so sad that Charley didn’t have his mum on the outside either, and not only that but he didn’t even have a dad.” (P. 238)

Ultimately, a person’s death isn’t knowable or able to be fully processed, and pretty much everyone in the book knows it, including most touchingly and eloquently Charley himself who struggles to comprehend how he can live with what he has done, even if it was a tragic accident, but that doesn’t stop them trying.

There is one chapter towards the end of the book when three unlikely people, all affected in tremendously life altering ways by Jean’s death end up in a pub, first awkwardly, then united by shared grief and loss and then by a temporary friendship which doesn’t survive the night but which means the world to them while it exists in their bubble of connectedness and remembrance.

It beautifully demonstrates how a person’s death ripples from those in the immediate family – Stan and Orion must live with Jean’s loss every single day, an inescapable fact of living – right through their network of friends and acquaintances, eventually touching the most unlikely of people.

Because of that great, inescapable truth and the way those connections help you deal with someone’s death (and yet not, all at the same time), Jean Harley Was Here, is a vitally important book and a wonderful, immensely affecting read that will have you crying, smiling and reminded once again of how the death of someone you love is a shared grief and the only way to properly understand and deal with it, and to remember their indelible presence in your life, is in those networks of interconnectedness that, life willing, persist long after the tragic moment of loss.

Book review: The Tourist by Robert Dickinson

(image courtesy Hachette Australia)

 

The great Arthur C Clarke once sagely remarked, in what has become known as one of his three laws, that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.

In Robert Dickinson’s The Tourist, that threshold has long since been transgressed with the people of 24th century earth routinely back and forwards in time as easily and commonly as we pop down the shops for some milk.

Any sense that technology is even remotely magical has long since faded, although the clients who travel back to early 21st century UK, which is where we meet Spens aka “Tunnel Boy” who works as a tour guide or rep for one of the time travel companies, remain excited and fearful in equal measure by what awaits them.

While the exact timeframe is never specified, allusions to anti-time travel groups – who operate with the same morality and fact-free ferocity as the far right anti-immigrant groups of our timeline – current technology and cultural realities suggest that the events of this fascinating novel take place not far from the present day.

What draws the people of the 24th century to our place and time is a desire to see what pre-Near Extinction Event earth looks like – the NEE, as its commonly referred to takes place sometime in the latest 21st century – and to sample its food, culture, and even to stand outside and look at  blue skies or to feel the rain on their face.

“People have travelled and not returned before, but they were either on official business or scholars like Brink and Nakamura, who knew the risks and travelled knowing they might not come back. Or they’re extemps, supposedly alienated from their own era, who want to live in a simpler, more natural society.” (P. 35)

Most people choose to stay within the confines of their tours, assured by the companies bringing them to our exotically different present that all events are known and accounted for (one of the big pluses of time travel), but a number choose to “go native”, going so far as to move here, living and working and trying to fitting as much as people from three centuries hence can.

The thing is they are incredibly obvious thanks to their extreme height, dress, culture mores and speech and while most people are happy to have them there, given the great economic benefits they bring, there is an increasing fear of the Other, stoked by far right groups and even the government itself, a situation stoked for reasons that are never fully or adequately articulated, by a coterie of shadowy figures from the future.

Spens, as happens with many innocents abroad, finds himself drawn into murky goings-on beyond his experience, in which tourists, extemps and a range of figures with uncertain allegiances and agendas are doing battle, proof if ever we needed it that humanity’s capacity for self-destructive behaviour is able to survive pretty much anything including an NEE.

 

(image courtesy Redhook Books)

 

One thing that is made clear in Dickinson’s fast-paced novel is that future humanity is ruled in a fairly autocratic fashion, organised into rigid castes with fairly Orwellian names as Safety, Happiness and Awareness, where technology is advanced but resources, social behaviour and political expression are strictly regulated.

It explains the attraction of our chaotic, messy century, a magnet for time tourists even if most of them are too afraid to go much beyond the strict itineraries assigned for them; unfortunately, Dickinson leaves much of the future veiled in a shadows, leaving us to guess about the motivations of the people involved.

It does mean that it becomes increasingly hard to care too much about the people involved in this thrilling temporal conspiracy caper such as Spens, fellow reps Edda and Li (who adores being away from home), and Spens’ childhood friends, brothers Reimann and Cantor who, while they’re caught up in a series of events so brilliantly built-up and executed, for most of the book at least, that The Tourist is a genuine page-turner, fail to have much of their character or background revealed.

They are teased out as characters just enough for us to have some investment in the events that fill the books but the story of which they’re apart, which rips along at a furiously-involving pace for the first 3/4 of the book or so only to fizzle out to a wholly unsatisfying end, you’re left wondering what the hell just happened and why.

“His back is turned to you. You realise this is a chance to shoot him. You also realise it’s one you won’t take. Or can’t. His coat might be heavy enough to stop a pin; even a shot to the back of the head night not be effective. You keep your hand at your side. Killing him wasn’t inn your instructions.” (P. 197)

Normally, this wouldn’t be an issue especially if you’re comfortable with artfully oblique endings that are more suggestion than actuality; but The Tourist, while immensely engaging, well-paced and utterly engaging for much of its length, eventually forgoes any kind of satisfying finally in favour of placing all its eggs in a Lost-like basket.

It’s a failing of many mystery books, which build their puzzles in ever more enigmatic, intriguing layers until such time as they present us with a dazzling finish, one that justifies the investment of all the tricky twists and turns of the plot, or collapses in on itself, limping to a middling end.

That’s not to say that The Tourist isn’t worth your time or an unruly, unreadable schmozzle; in fact, it is beautifully written for the most part, a book that enthralls with its central conceit and ideas, and whose characters, though limited in expression, command enough interest to keep you immersed into the fast moving story.

It simply never fully pays off its early promise, leaving you wondering what might have been if we’d been given a little more of an idea why many of the narrative strands were there at all, what was motivating many of the characters to act as they do, and why the past matters so much to the people of the future, beyond being a fun, unspoiled place, from their point of view, to visit.

By all means take a trip with The Tourist which will make you wonder what life would be like if you had the ability to move around the past at relative will, but be aware that like many trips we take, that it may not end as satisfactorily as you might hope.

Weekend pop art: Joey Spiotto’s pop culture Little Golden Books

(c) Joey Spiotto

 

My love for Little Golden Books knows no bounds.

A key part of my childhood, they are the stuff of joy and nostalgia, a reassuring touchstone that there are some great and wonderful things in this world that are inherently simple and uncomplicated, and intensely rewarding.

The only thing better than Little Golden Books is when someone like Joey Spiotto, a talented artist who I’ve featured to my inestimable joy on the blog before, takes this eminently elegant idea and furnishes it with brilliantly imaginative pop culture flourishes.

The best part is, if you’re in L.A. now until Saturday 22 April, you can see his work, Storytime 3, up close and enchantingly personal at Gallery1988 (East) and you can even prints of them if you like via the gallery’s website.

Childhood and pop culture mixed together? Sounds a perfect exhibition to me!

(source: Laughing Squid)

 

(c) Joey Spiotto

 

(c) Joey Spiotto

 

(c) Joey Spiotto

 

(c) Joey Spiotto

 

Where can you see it? Right here!

 

(c) Joey Spiotto

Book review: Wonderful Feels Like This by Sara Lövestam

(image courtesy Allen & Unwin)

 

The need to belong is a powerful imperative for all of us.

It’s why we form ourselves into religious congregations, clubs, sporting teams and a thousand other permutations of togetherness, surrounding ourselves with likeminded souls who affirm who we are (or gently challenge it) while giving us a a place in the world to call our own.

But what if you can’t find your tribe, or as happened to me and many other social outliers who never quite mastered the suffocatingly orthodox rules of belonging (or weren’t allowed to by their peer group) growing up? Or worse still, found themselves through no fault of their own, in direct and sometimes violent disagreement with the arbiters of what belonging means?

Steffi Herrera, the protagonist of Wonderful Feels Like This,  knows exactly what that feels like, the outcast to end all outcasts at her school in the town of Björke, in the Värmland region of Sweden, right on the Norwegian border, a place than is more like a combat zone than a place of learning for her, and one in which she is regularly called “whore” and “slut”, and compared to fecal matter by classmate Karro and her best friend, the compliant Sanja.

You are who you want to be, Alar told her yesterday evening on the phone. Changing into, and out of, Steffi thinks. It’s not that hard to make herself into Hepcat [her online nom de plume]. She just has to let her fingers fly and be the future hope of Sweden when it comes to playing her bass. Alvar had told her: You reach a breaking point when you are tired of having to be the person your surroundings want you to be.” (P. 128)

Her one refuge, apart from her dysfunctionally loving family, is her music, with Steffi finding solace in the music of Swedish jazz greats such as Povel Ramel and Alice Babs, and a slew of newer talents, music she brings to life in her bedroom thanks to her bass guitar and prodigious musical talent.

She intends to apply for a music school in Stockholm, the promised land for anyone with a gram of musical talent and aspirations, but until then, she is stuck where she is, not really belonging there but unable to find somewhere else to go to, at least not straight away.

Grinning and bearing it when she isn’t lost playing others’ music or composing her songs, 15 year old Steffi has pretty much concluded she is a tribe of one when she hears one of Povel Ramel’s pouring out of the window of a retirement home one day and goes inside to find jazz great (she’s unaware of who he is at the time) 89 year old Alvar “Big Boy Svensson, lost in the glories of jazz.

A friendship quickly forms, born of mutual admiration and the unspoken need for someone who not only understands how important music is, but understands it isn’t a dalliance but a defining attribute, if not the defining attribute, of what makes them a person.

 

(image courtesy Pan Macmillan)

 

As their friendship grows and develops, what becomes readily apparent is how much they need each other – Steffi who needs someone who understands that her strangeness is all that strange really, and Alvar, decades separated from his jazz glory days in World War Two and immediately after, who relishes having someone to tell his stories to, stories that chart his arrival in Stockholm, his pursuit of jazz-loving Anita, and his rise and rise in the music scene that comes to so heavily define him.

As they talk, and life moves on for Steffi in ways big and small, the greatest life lesson Alvar imparts to his unlikely new friend is an understanding that you can never allow others to dictate who you are or the kind of life you will lead.

Easier said than done of course, but as Steffi grapples with the emotional damage inflicted on her by Karro’s constantly cruel taunting through the filter of Alvar’s invaluable life experience, she begins to understand that life is never simple or easily understood as she first assumed, and that the people who poisoned her sense of safety and scuttled any chance she had of belonging, are themselves at war with a great many personal demons.

“Only one month remains in the semester. Steffi will never take her Fender to school. Every day when she comes home, she goes into her room and puts the strap of her new Fender around her neck and plays the old songs … [those of] all the other new bassists, the ones Simon in Stockholm calls the new funk movement.” (P. 230)

It’s a sage lesson for any 15 year old to learn, but it begins to slowly transform how Steffi looks at life, how she approaches it and how it will, eventually, play out.

The joy of Wonderful Feels Like This, which is every bit as fey and yet not as its title might suggest, is that embodies that particular Scandinavian ability to hold light and dark, the good and the bad of life in perfect tension.

If you’re paying attention to life, and not everyone is as self-aware as Steffi (it’s a trait common to social outliers like her, and countless bullied souls like her who are constantly watching life from the outside in), you come to appreciate that life is lived in this tension, and that no matter how black and white the bullies of the world would like to make life, it will never be that simple.

But it will be, and can be, joyous and fulfilling, something that Steffi comes to appreciate through her rewardingly lovely friendship with Alvar which defines the book in heartwarming and robustly substantial ways.

Wonderful Feels Like This is all about not belonging and then belonging, its every page celebrating what it means to find your tribe, how deliciously liberating that can be, and how important it is to never deviate from who you are and what you want, no matter how much people around you, who are more lost than you know, tried to dissuade you.

Life is, after all, notes Alvar, a very short journey and you owe it to yourself to make the most of it, come what may, and never ever apologise for the person who you are or the extraordinary things you will do.

 

 

 

Take a listen to the whole playlist.

Is she really Unqualified? You’d better ask Anna Faris

(image via EW (c) Harper Collins)

 

When first you hear about Anna Faris’s forthcoming book being called Unqualified, you think “How can that be right? She is quite likely, astrophysicists and medical specialists aside, one of the most qualified people to write a book about, well, almost anything.

Except for, you know, astrophysics or medical specialties. (Although who knows maybe they are secret hobbies of the gifted comedian and we are not giving her her full due.)

When you dig deeper though, you find out that the title is derived from a podcast she launched two years ago, Anna Faris is Unqualified,  where she interviews people like Lauren Graham (Gilmore Girls, Parenthood) and Aubrey Plaza (Community, Legion) and dispenses wise advice to eager listeners.

Now her advice-giving has leapt from the virtual world to the printed world with her book which releases 24 October and contains a wealth of insights into her life and the varied experiences it has brought her:

“… the actress will share stories about her rise from awkward teen in the suburbs of Washington to that of a Hollywood darling landing lead roles in big screen hits like Scary Movie, Just Friends, and The House Bunny. The Mom star will also include advice inspired by her podcast, as well as highlights from her own relationship failures and successes, including her marriage to Chris Pratt, who is also writing the book’s foreword.” (EW.com)

It will, naturally, be very funny into the bargain and absolutely worth adding to your late year To Be Read pile.

In the meantime, off to the podcast with you and while you’re listening have a quick read of the excerpt from the introductory chapter of the book, featured exclusively on EW.com.

 

Book review: Universal Harvester by John Darnielle

(image courtesy Scribe)

 

Life, pretty much any way you stretch it, is disconcerting.

Few of us actually admit to such a thing since to do so would be to admit that the bricks-and-mortar sanity of the everyday, the bills, the commute and the meals that anchor us to comfortingly set routines, is not the sum total of existence.

Admitting that there’s more to life below the surface would be to admit that there are things way beyond our control, appealing in some sort of upsetting the banality of the day-to-day, but largely, a problem if we want to feel comfortable, secure and okay about being alive.

John Darnielle’s second novel, Universal Harvester (it follows 2014’s Wolf in White Van) seditiously slides in around these supposedly strong, high barriers, taking us into a world with the reassuring markers of late ’90s modernity – the video rental store, the incipient world wide web, the first cell/mobile phones – that has far more lurking just out of sight that anyone is entirely relaxed with.

The setting, a series of small towns in rural Iowa (Ames, Nevada and Collins) where life moves to certain rhythms and people draw strength from that, belies the darkness that may be scooting about in the shadows of ordinary objects, in this case VHS cassettes of movies such as movies like She’s All That and Targets, which customers are returning to Video Hut in Nevada with comments that things are not quite right.

“The VHS copy of Targets in the racks at Video Hut features two scenes not present in the original print. The first of these brief, and profoundly empty: it’s a stationary view of a chair that sits in the corner of an outbuilding somewhere, maybe a barn or toolshed. Without any external cues it’s hard to say.” (P. 21)

And so they aren’t; spliced into these films are grainy black and white interludes that seem to show people being held captive or rushing to escape, scenes so unsettling in their divorce from far more prosaic surrounds that people aren’t sure how to process them.

In essence, they fundamentally breach the safety of the many assumptions we make to get through the day; so instead of a quiet night in of pizza, beer and an uncomplicated Hollywood blockbuster, people are getting films corrupted by the unwelcome presence of persons unknown trapped in some sort of freakish Twilight Zone-ish world where the comfortable known seems a million miles away.

Jeremy, an older teenager who works at Video Hut, owned by the eminently curious Sarah Jane, wants nothing to do with it, having been forced to glimpse behind the inconsequential everyday when his mother died in a car accident six years earlier, and eager to avoid witnessing anything remotely of that magnitude anytime soon, if ever again.

Sarah Jane however and a customer Stephanie are altogether far more curious, embarking on an investigation of the tapes, and their creator, that ends up playing out wholly different ways for each of them.

 

(image courtesy Scribe)

 

While the blurb on the back of the book speaks almost completely in terms of seismically destructive truth that ins unleashed by the proliferating existence of these tapes which in the end not even he can ignore, the book plays out wholly differently, and not always completely successfully.

Universal Harvester is before anything else, beautifully and luminously well-written, possessed of a lyrical, musical sensibility that immerses you in a gloriously poetic play of words that summons, time, place and emotions in a series of richly-described, emotionally resonant scenes.

This is writing to luxuriate in, the outcome of Darnielle’s impressive talent which is as much musically-oriented (he is a member of The Mountain Goats) as it is written-word oriented, an ability to coalesce thought and deed into passages that move the narrative forward while glorying in the beauty of language itself.

One great benefit of this beautiful style of writing is the way he almost instantly summons profoundly meaningful relationships into life in a few paragraphs.

Which means, for example, that Jeremy and his Steve, who have settled into a post mother-less and wife-less existence that revolves around a genuine concern for each other’s wellbeing wrapped up in the innocuous rhythm and safety of routine; it’s not exciting or challenging but that’s not the point, and Darnielle gives voice to the stillborn nature of their new life while also conveying how close father and son are in a way that gives their life meaning, even if it sometimes devoid of colour or challenge.

So too the story of the Sample family who come to play a fairly significant role in the novel’s mysterious, and broken-up, jumpily non-linear narrative.

“If you work with or around children, you often hear a lot about how resilient they are. It’s true; I’ve met children who’ve been through things that would drive most adults to the brink. They look and act, most of the time, like any other children. In this sense — that they don’t succumb to despair, that they don’t demand a space for their pain — it’s very true that children are resilient.” (p. 132)

The characters leap off the page in their own quiet, Iowan way, fully-formed and knowing but complete too with the flaws and regrets that come to define humanity every bit as much as the day to day sameness of things.

Where all this glorious use of language and rich character building falls down, not completely but enough that it’s unsettling, is the way the narrative is constantly lost or obfuscated, unspooled so carefully and yet offhandedly, skewed by a unnamed narrator whose memory of events is jumbled, messy and adrift in the past, present and future all at once, arriving at a point by routes so circuitous, though delightfully described, that you sometimes lose track of the story Darnielle is trying to tell.

The final quarter of the book does rescue this somewhat, granting the book some form of closure and meaning that is there throughout the book but often obscured in such a way that you can lose track of where it is you and the characters and where you and they might be going.

It’s not fatal necessarily, and you have to admire Darnielle for being willing to play around with a linear A-to-B narrative – an approach that makes perfect sense given the theme of the novel which is the unknown and unusual than lurks under the cloak of the banal and the known – but it doesn’t work as well as he likely envisaged and does mean the book fails to grab you quite as comprehensively or with as much of an emotional punch, as it might otherwise have done.

Universal Harvester is in the main though a thoroughly clever, intelligent and heartfelt book that dares you to put aside comfort and routine, even as it acknowledges their importance, and to step into a wider, far more uncertain world where what we thought we knew is not quite as sure or set in stone as we thought.

 

It’s true, animated Mariah! All I Want For Christmas is You (teaser trailer)

(cover image courtesy Penguin Random House)

 

SNAPSHOT
According to the official press release, All I Want for Christmas Is You will center around a young Mariah (voiced by Breanna Yde), who wants a puppy named Princess for Christmas. But before Princess can be hers, she has to pet-sit Jack, described as “a scraggly rascal of a dog; in fact, the worst dog in the county!” (synopsis via Mashable)

All I Want For Christmas is … my two front teeth?

C’mon you can do way better than that!

How about an animated film based on the book All I Want For Christmas is You which is in turn based on the insanely successful modern Christmas classic, which launched itself into collective music consciousness, thereafter forever to remain, in the long ago heady days of 1994.

So compulsively listenable and so delightfully, compellingly Christmasy is the song that it makes sense that it’s been turned into a book and a film and who knows what other wonders down the track.

For now, we have Mariah Carey introducing the movie in its Christmas glory and you’ll be able to see what wanting your true love for Christmas looks like when All I Want for Christmas Is You doesn’t have an exact release date yet, it’s expected to premiere in all its festive glory on Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD and On Demand just in time for Christmas this year.

 

Book review: Hold Back the Stars by Katie Khan

(image courtesy Penguin Random House Australia)

 

If you have ever fallen in love, you will be all too aware of how all-consumingly wonderful it can be, how it overwhelms you in the best possible way, reshaping your reality so profoundly that it becomes well-nigh impossible to remember a time when the object of your fierce and undying passion wasn’t an intrinsic part of your life.

It is glorious in ways far too numerous to mention, fuelling an industry dedicated to celebrating its many virtues and celebrated moments.

But what no one often talks about all that often is the cost of falling or being in love.

Why? Well it’s not as uplifting as starring dreamily into your beloved’s eyes, all perfectly right with the world but if we’re honest with each other, it’s when love is truly tested, when the romantic pedal hits the metal that we appreciate how deeply substantial all these warm and fuzzy moments can be (assuming they’re the real thing of course; ersatz love disappears like wispy morning fog when placed under pressure).

“‘That’s right,’ says Carys. ‘You’ve always saved me, Mx. A real white knight.’ The dusk of stars surrounds them as they fall, suspended like puppets on the string of space. ‘But this is more serious than my roast potaoes.’
‘At least you’re a little calmer,’ he says, ‘ and using the air more wisely.’
‘Allright,’ she says, ‘you can can stop patronizing me. I’m back. I’m here. I’m breathing.’ She looks around at the darkness, then back to the blue readout on their air supply. ‘What the hell are we going to do?’
‘Don’t worry,’ says Max. ‘I have a plan.'” (p. 23)

In Hold Back the Stars, Katie Khan places love under what could be considered diabolically harsh pressure, realising in the process a deeply heartfelt, wholly original story of romantic love in its most real, most grounded and yet most uplifting form.

Set hundreds of years in the future, the book tells the story of Carys and Max, two people living in Europia, a utopian community made up largely of old Europe and some other inductees such as Australia (proving our participation in Eurovision is well and truly justified!) where the individual is king or queen, beholding to no one, in theory, at least, but themselves.

The reality of course is not quite is not quite as idyllic but still given the harsh reality outside the borders of Europia where the former United States and the Middle East are smoking radioactive ruins, and many other countries are in ruinous states, it’s far better than its grim alternatives.

Max, born to one of the utopian community’s founding families, with all the unyielding, almost harsh expectations that implies, is an idealist, a young man who believes in Rotation, a process that send people in staggered groups to a completely new locale to begin their lives anew and grow and develop, even if he is happy not necessarily pursuing a high-flying career (at least not at first.)

Carys, by contrast, who meets Max when she walks into the supermarket where he works to buy goose fat of all things – his family run all the supermarkets and cafes in Europia – is a gentle sceptic, raised outside the Voivodeship at its known until she was 18 and thus far more free spirited and willing to bend the rules than Max.

 

(image courtesy official Katie Khan site)

 

At first, their love affair, which contravenes a statute that says you should only couple up at 35 and the only with expressed permission from the powers that be, goes like a great many before it.

They meet, pull back, lunge forward draw close, pull back until they realise that they are far better with each other than apart and that their lives make no sense without the other person in it.

It’s a tale as hold as time and sweet and touching though it is – Khan manages to beautifully demonstrate the depth and passion of their love without once sounding cloying or like a cheap Valentine’s Day card – it is not so remarkable as to merit much mention; after all, people fall in love all the time.

What truly truly sets the story of these memorable characters apart, who come alive so completely and effortlessly at the beginning of the book that you feel like you have known, and more importantly, liked them all your life, is the way Khan takes their earthbound relationship and places in a vacuum-sealed crucible in space where the two have just 90 minutes to get back to their crippled ship or find help before they run out of air.

“‘You know it would be quicker and more painless,” she says, ‘if we took our helmets off now. Stopped breathing and ended it, our choice.’
Max looks at her in horror. ‘Don’t talk like that – you sound like me.’
‘It’s true, though.’
‘Stop it. Come on. You don’t talk like that. Use our air wisely, with more positive words.’
She looks at him expectantly. ‘We’re talking, then.’
‘There’s no better way to spend the last minutes of your life,’ he says, ‘than talking to the best person you’ve ever met.’ (P. 162)

Interspersing the chapters where Max and Carys work to save themselves, their strategising for survival mixed in with entirely authentic conversations about their past, present and all-too-limited future, are flashbacks that tell the story of the ups and downs of their quiet, but life-changing relationship., the two strands woven together near-perfectly to give you a complete sense of who these people, why they matter to each other and why their current predicament is so manifestly unfair.

You fall in love with these characters almost immediately, understanding that theirs is no fleeting fancy, no giddy fling of the heart, but the real thing, tested by trials heavenly and earthbound, which will live on, regardless of whether they survive their current harrowing ordeal.

The masterstroke of this Hold Back the Stars is that it keeps you guessing right up until the end; this is a love story that while reasonably straightforward on the surface, is made of sterner, more glorious stuff deep down, one that stares peril and hardship in the eye and dares it to try and prevail.

Khan does a brilliant job in this wholly original, compelling tale, that is as emotionally as they come, of giving us love as it should be – real, true, messy, grounded, uplifting and hard but always, always, the stuff of which lives should be made.

This is no light, fripperous story with no import, easily discarded; if you have a beating heart it will profoundly affect you as you come to appreciate anew how wonderful real love is and how, even in the most dire of circumstances, that it matters far more than pretty anything else in life.

Shakespeare is invoked throughout the book, principally Romeo and Juliet, and Hamlet, but what really sets Hold Back the Stars apart, is the way Khan depicts, with prose light and accessible yet deeply true and meaningful, love in the trenches where all the Valentine’s Day sentiments won’t save you and the only thing you can depend on is the devotion of the person to whom you have willingly and without regret, turned over your life, come what may.

 

Life after un-death is harder than you think: The Burning World book trailer

(cover image courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

 

SNAPSHOT
R is recovering from death. He’s learning how to read, how to speak, maybe even how to love. He can almost imagine a future with Julie, this girl who restarted his heart – building a new world from the ashes of the old one. And then helicopters appear on the horizon. A mysterious army is coming to restore order, to bring back the good old days of stability and control and the strong eating the weak. These grinning strangers are more than they seem. The plague has many hosts, and some are far more terrifying than the Dead.

With their home in the grip of madmen, R and Julie plunge into the wastelands of America in search of answers. But there are some answers R doesn’t want to find. A past life, an old shadow, crawling up from the basement. In this long-anticipated new chapter of the Warm Bodies series, Isaac Marion expands the scope of a powerfully simple story: a dead man’s search for life in all its bloody rawness. (synopsis courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

Unless you have been cringing in fear under a rock or hiding behind a very large pillow, it’s been almost impossible the fact that zombies, in all their shuffling (or freakishly fast – thank you World War Z for the nightmares!) undead glory, have taken over pop culture.

They’re everywhere accompanied by a narrative that usually speaks of the irreversible fall of civilisation, triggered by some great arrogantly-unrecognised flaw in humanity, a hubris moment that attracted a cataclysmically downward correction.

But what if there was a postscript to all this mayhem and death, one that didn’t involve a hardscrabble, Darwinian Lord of the Flies survival of the fittest (or the angriest) but rather one in which the undead came back to life? What would happen then?

It’s an intriguing concept and one that author Isaac Marion explored quite movingly and with great insight in Warm Bodies, later made into a film, in which R, who lives with a great many other zombies at the airport, finds himself coming back to warmblooded consciousness in the company of a human Julie.

Breaking from the usual dead is dead is dead trope that understandably dominates zombie pop culture efforts, Warm Bodies imagined a world in which the usual assumptions must be overturned and prejudices, no matter how well entrenched, must be challenged, which happens by the end of the story to some extent at least.

 

But of course the world is never that cut and dried, not even an apocalyptic one where if everything the usually order has been even more comprehensively turned on its head, and so the tale begged to be continued.

Enter The Burning World which neatly carries on the idea that death is kind of easy; it’s living, or in R’s case, coming back to being alive, that is really taxing.

The book, which is available now, comes with an extraordinarily well-made trailer which makes great use of Marion’s music skills – he is a musician as well as a writer – as well as his directorial talent (he co-directed with Micah Knapp), and sets the mood brilliantly for what is, by all accounts, a gripping read.

(source: Hypable)

Book review: All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai

(image courtesy Penguin Random House Australia)

 

For a concept that has only been successfully realised in fiction (as far as we know; anyone noticed any weird temporal shifts in their timeline lately?), there’s a great deal about time travel that is assumed to be true.

For instance, it’s easy enough to ricochet back and forth usually but you can always guarantee that something will go terribly wrong and only be resolved with seconds to spare, or that you should never ever tamper with the timeline or interact with the past in any way lest the present you knew and loved (or barely tolerated whatever the case may be) end up resembling a dystopian nightmare or a Stepford Wives abomination, notable only for the fact that you have erased yourself from existence.

Or perhaps you’re caught in a time loop or temporal paradox from which there is no escape, or you created another few splinters in the multiverse; however, the tale plays out, whether it’s H. G. Wells’ Time Machine or the Back to the Future trilogy, time travel comes with some well-loved, well-used tropes that everyone pretty much accepts as narrative gospel.

Everyone except Elam Mastai whose first novel, All Our Wrong Todays, plays merry with the idea of time travel in ways that will surprise and delight anyone who has grown weary of the lack of originality in such stories.

“Just because we could holiday on the moon or teleport to a shopping mall or watch a fetus gestate in a celebrity’s uterus or regenerate body parts from a plasmic soup or any of the countless things that sound like science fiction to you but were documentary to me, it doesn’t mean we had everything figured out. We were still just people. Messy, messed-up people who didn’t know how to act when one of our lives came undone.” (P.33)

That’s not to say there aren’t nods to the golden oldies of chronological back-and-forthing – timelines are ruined and consequences felt that kill billions and distort reality in some pretty fundamental ways; these are offset however by an emotional core in the storytelling which doesn’t treat time travel as some lighthearted romp through fate but a deadly earnest exercise in playing God.

In other words, All Our Wrong Todays, is not so much about the astonishing act of travelling through time, and the adventurous Boys’ Own vibe that usually goes hand in hand with it, but about the unforeseen consequences of playing havoc with the established temporal order.

Underpinning this gripping, heartfelt and often wryly funny story is a deep appreciation for the fact that technology never grants us favours without wanting something of real sacrificial substance in return.

Indeed, a central theme throughout is that when you are contemplating releasing a technological marvel on an unsuspecting world, that you can’t simply look at the benefits it might bring, laudable though they might be, but you also have to look at the “accident” that invariably follows  any breakthrough; that is the negative fallout.

 

(image courtesy Penguin Random House)

 

In the world that Tom Barren hails from, one powered by a limitless source of engine drawn from the Earth’s orbital movements, humanity has arrived in 2016 with advanced architecture, medical marvels, flying cars and peace in abundance; in fact, everything that the charmingly retro 1950s visions of the future promised would be ours, unchallenged, for the taking.

In our timeline, they remain pipe dreams, an unrealised idyll that sustains hope of a world free of crime, poverty and loss, but in Tom Barren’s world they have been brought to fruition in ways that seem fantastical to us but which to the merry citizens of his reality are commonplace and routinely accepted.

That is until Tom decides to travel back in time, unleashing all manner of chronological complications, one of which, and there are many, none easily resolved through convenient narrative sleights of hand , is landing him in our bruisingly imperfect world.

He is quick to dismiss this flawed timeline as barbaric and backward but begins to realise after meeting alternate versions of his family and the far-off object of his lust and affection, that maybe there is something to a less than perfect world after all.

“So. Maybe now you’re thinking – okay, why isn’t this story over? … Despite an edgy sense of loyalty to my timeline and compassion for humanity as a species being stranded on this sad, broken planet, my life is much better.

“Except that it’s not my life.” (P. 202)

Of course, what makes All Our Wrong Todays so addictive is that it doesn’t glibly decide one reality is good and another is bad, with Mastai weaving real complexity and insight into his romping tale, along with a great deal of emotional upheavel which never assumes for one moment that time travel mishaps are smoothly fixed with zero consequences, something most tales of this kind would have you believe.

Rather as Tom grapples with how to fix his time travelling mistakes, his task is complicated immeasurably by guilt, unexpected relationships and love, a great deal of time to think and an innovative approach to the idea that we exist in multiple dimensions at once.

His then is a time travel tale with a considerable difference, one in which very real people endure very real, painful consequences, raising in turn pointy, searing questions about whether technology is the unquestioned utopia we have always assumed it to be.

Far more pressing for Mastai is the idea that rather being the harbinger of all good things that technology carries with it the very real possibility of dooming us as much as it advances us, of taking every bit as much as it gives.

He is not down on technology necessarily but rather cautions us to be discerning and to remember that people don’t stop being people, with all the inherent pluses and minuses that entails, just because they lie in shiny buildings and zip around in flying cars doesn’t cancel out the messy complications of life.

And life is complicated, messy and hard to figure out no matter which timeline you inhabit, and All Our Wrong Todays spins this truism into a gripping, seat-of-the-pants story rife with heart emotion, intelligent questioning of a great many assumptions and a willingness to upend everything we thought we knew about the bright, shiny world of tomorrow.