Book review: The Trouble with Henry and Zoe by Andy Jones

(cover art courtesy Simon & Schuster Australia)

 

If you were to look around the world right now, and to be fair, at any time through history, you would be well justified in concluding that humanity, for the greater part, does not have an expectationally-idealistic bone in its body.

From war to famine, disease to relational destructiveness and sadly far beyond, we have long demonstrated a remarkable ability to conceptualise and go straight for the bottom and stay there, taking as many others with us as we can.

And yet, as Andy Jones’ robustly delightful novel The Trouble with Henry and Zoe amply and engagingly demonstrates, our natural inclination is to aim and wish for the very best of things given half a chance.

We emerge from the womb expecting the best, not aiming to perpetrate the worst – for proof just ask an average bunch of kindergartners what life will be like and it’s highly unlikely you’ll emerge with even a vaguely-tainted scenario between them – and so we’re all a little surprised when life doesn’t deliver up fairytale castles, princes or princesses riding in on chargers and more happily ever afters than we know what to do with.

“And that is the problem – he can’t be trusted with himself. He cannot be relied upon to intelligently sift his emotions and find the truth beneath the layers of thought and doubt and indecision. Henry loved April, right up until he didn’t. And then back the other way, changing his mind like a kid in a comic shop.” (P. 53)

What we often end up with, as Henry, who skips out on his fiancee at well beyond the eleventh hour, their wedding just hours away, and Zoe, who endures the kind of traumatic event no one should have to go through, discover is a half-baked version of what we expected life to deliver up.

After all, as Henry’s firebrand hairdresser mum Sheila observes in one of the more emotionally-charged scenes in the book, “life is complicated son.”

That it is, and as Henry flees his small home village, where his dad Clive “Big Boots” Smith is the publican, for a hastily-cobbled together new life in London, split between his profession of dentistry and his hairdressing skills, picked up during the parents’ cold war for their son’s heart and soul as he grew up, he comes to appreciate just how complicated life can be.

All those assumptions, forged during a hitherto uneventful life – that he would become a successful dentist, practice locally, marry his childhood sweetheart April and live happily ever after, cliché cliché cliché amen – come crashing down upon him when he finally listens to his heart and casts aside everyone’s expectations, including his own, and strikes out into the thoroughly unexplored territory of the unexpected.

 

Alan Jones courtesy Simon & Schuster Australia)

 

Zoe is also adrift in her jumbled-up existential hell but not one of her own making; well, not for the most part anyway.

Changing from law, a profession which made each and evert waking moment a perpetual and exquisitely awful slice of misery, to children’s book publishing (immeasurably better), her world is rocked by a loss so unexpected and sudden that all the plans and idealistic aspirations in the world could not have prepared her for it.

She is left reeling, although also secretly relieved that her imagined future hasn’t played out, wondering where on earth she heads next and how she gets there when nothing in her life has prepared her for this.

Once again, expectations zero, real life 143.

But Andy Jones, who has crafted a novel full of captivatingly real protagonists who slip and fall and come up again just as we all do, full of hope, humour, drama and a realness that engages from the get-go, does not deliver up the expected twists-and-turns, nor even exactly the ending you might expect.

“And we were going to cover so many miles; exploring the green spaces and hidden parts of our city, maybe even ride to Brighton. So much for ‘going to’; we took the bikes out that first weekend and maybe two or three times since, but we never got to Brighton, we didn’t even get out of South London. We even bought a backpack that doubled as a picnic hamper, but we never used it.” (P. 259)

When Henry and Zoe meet and realise there is something between them that each has longed for but never quite conjured up, it’s tempting to sit back and expect them to fall head over heels in love, dive headlong into all those romantic notions all of us possess to some extent or another, and serve up the tropes and clichés we love so much though rarely get to live out as much as we want to.

He comes deliciously close, just like life, but doesn’t quite take you there, giving us a tale that is so engagingly, richly real, that, just like life itself, it subverts expectations while still producing something wonderfully fulfilling and thoroughly expectations confounding.

Again, just like the real thing.

The Trouble with Henry and Zoe dances with poetic good intent and the artful but accessibly expressed realisation that life never quite matches what we envisage, and how that can be both good and bad, sublime and upsetting, joyous and despairing.

The book is so perfectly well-written, with fully-formed, intensely lovable characters and realistic scenes, with just a hint of delicious melodrama (which let’s face it, life also has in spades if we’re paying attention), that echo the truisms of life, that you will find yourself, flying through the book, eager to spend time with Henry and Zoe, alone and together, and wondering where Jones’ well thought-out and appealingly delivered tale of life gone bad and good and somehow also somewhere inbetween, will take you.

It’s the kind of book that will have you sighing with recognition, laughing and crying at the veracity of it all, and realising once again, just in case you’d forgotten, that life can confound and delight us with equal measure, but that it will never be any less than utterly surprising and more than a little complicated into the bargain.

Best put away those childish expectations; you won’t be needing them.

Rip’d from the pages of my childhood: The Rescuers by Margery Sharp

 

There are a great many books I remember fondly from my childhood – the rest of the Rip’d from the Pages of My Childhood series is testament to that – but there is one series in particular that I adore to this day because I fell in love with a character and the impossibly romantic world she inhabited.

Miss Bianca, of Margery Sharp’s The Rescuers – the first book, simply titled The Rescuers came out in 1959, followed by eight others with Bernard into Battle (1978) finishing things off – is an ineffably lovely white mouse, an aristocratic lady of distinction who belongs to the ambassador’s son and lives in a porcelain pagoda in the embassy’s classroom where she writes poetry and eats cream cheese.

Her ivory tower life stands in stark contrast to Bernard, a brave, resourceful mouse who lives in the embassy’s pantry – think working class to Miss Bianca’s more upmarket digs – but thanks to a call from the Prisoners’ Aid Society, a mousian group dedicated to keeping prisoners company and brightening their lives, she and Bernard find themselves on a thoroughly unexpected journey to liberate a beleaguered Norwegian poet from the Black Castle.

“‘Miss Bianca!’ he called softly…’Don’t be afraid, Miss Bianca!…I’m not burglars, I am Bernard from the Pantry with a most important message.’
He waited again. One of the golden bells, as though a moth had flown past, tinkled faintly. Then again there was a rustling, and at last Miss Bianca came out.”

The first book in particular, and those that follow, were full of swashbuckling daring and adventure as the ultimate rodent odd couple not only found resources deep within themselves but discovered they rather liked each other’s company as well.

If you were to judge The Rescuers on the basis of that expansive narrative alone, it would carry a romantic cachet of epic proportions; but Margery Sharp, an English writer of rare wit and cleverness, goes further, giving us two utterly beguiling characters, but most especially of course, the delightful Miss Bianca, who not only rise to the occasion but go way out of their comfort zone to help others, growing in immeasurable ways in the process.

As a young boy growing up in rural northern New South Wales, Australia, the idea of a world as exotic as that inhabited by Miss Bianca was impossibly alluring; it became even more so with Sharp describing it in the loveliest, most wonderful ways possible, so lushly and perfectly that I honestly felt as I was along for the ride on Miss Bianca and Bernard’s adventures.

 

 

The books themselves were rather slight in length, but as Mari Ness points out in Spy Mice: Margery Sharp’s The Rescuers, they were jam-packed with all kinds of engaging goings-on that captured the imagination of a young boy who expected life could be every bit as big and exciting as Sharp made it out to be:

“For such a short book, it’s very crowded with both incident and realistic depictions of long, slow tedious periods of waiting for something to happen, or being unsure of what to do next. Miss Bianca often tidies up, which serves both as distraction and a stress reduction technique. Sometimes she makes flowers out of sugar, bits of paper, or cheese, both to pass the time and keep up everyone’s spirits. Nils and Bernard explore the Black Castle when they can, although the presence of a dangerous cat does put a bit of a damper on this. There’s also happier moments—rides on carts filled with plenty of crumbs for mice to nibble on, watching the river, an exciting boat ride, a touch—just a touch—of light flirtation and growing love between the elegant Miss Bianca and working-class Bernard …”

It was that heady mix of bravery and derring-do and sweetly intimate character moments that made the entire The Rescuers series such rewarding reading.
If the object of any book is to take us to places far beyond our own with characters we love being with, and I did and do love Miss Bianca and Bernard, then The Rescuers succeeded brilliantly.

So entranced was I with the tales of small mice charging into situations where the odds were most definitely stacked against them – as the writer of Books that Changed My Life: The Rescuers by Margery Sharp beautifully explains, this was an insightful introduction for children to the world of adults, as foreign a place as any when you are small and vulnerable, just like mice – that I hung onto every word that Sharp wrote about these extraordinary rodents.

In fact, so enamoured of Sharp’s creations was I that I spent valuable pocket money – my family weren’t rich (nor were we necessarily poor either) so I wasn’t exactly flush with funds – buying six of the nine books at the Dymocks bookstore in Lismore.

Whereas many of the books I read were sourced from the local community library, which was really well stocked for a town of 5000 people, occupying space in the recreation hall of the community centre, or were given as presents, The Rescuers were accorded the rare privilege of being bought.

It spoke to how highly I valued these marvellous books, rich with emotional resonance, delicious romanticism and exotic otherness (not to mention the sweet love between Miss Bianca and Bernard), that I bought as many of these books as I could, with every one of them, 40 years later, almost as pristine as the day they were bought.

 

 

What has stayed with me all these years later is how much I fell in love with the world these characters promised could be mine.

I had grown up with inquisitive, adventurous parents who had a decade on and off working in Bangladesh in the ‘60s until political upheaval sent them back to Sydney, who always encouraged me to dream big, look far and see where life could take me.

It was all the impetus this city-boy-in-a-country-boy’s body needed, and while I didn’t exactly end up rescuing Norwegian poets trapped in a bleak castles – though if they’d been cute and prone to quoting sensuous iambic pentameter to me I would surely have it a go, especially if Miss Bianca and Bernard were along to help me – I did leave my small country town, travel alone to Sydney to live, go to the USA and Canada solo on multiple trips and take all kinds of chances that I might not otherwise have taken.

While I can’t sheet the responsibility for all of that willingness to jump into yawning void of the unknown to Margery Sharp’s and her plucky creations, they must have had an influence.

They taught me that no matter where you’ve come from or what you think your circumstances will allow you to do, that it’s possible to go forth and do all kinds of things you might have once thought beyond you.

It’s inspiring stuff and explains why I, possessed of inexhaustible curiosity and unwilling to live a small “l” life, was so impelled to follow their example many years later when the books, locked away temporarily for safekeeping, sallied forth to see if, like Miss Bianca and Bernard, what might happen if I dared to take a chance.

I haven’t looked back since.

 

Book review: The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer

(cover art courtesy Harper Collins Australia)

 

 

Life is a complicated thing.

Anyone who has reached adulthood with life, limbs and psyche relatively intact will attest to the fact that for all its capacity for magical delight and soul-consuming wonder, life also comes with some fairly onerous demands.

It’s a hard enough ask for anyone to get through unscathed but throw in mental illness and the lingering, corrosive effects of grief, and you have a recipe for a fraught existence that slides from the darkness to light and back again with frightening rapidity. (That’s assuming, of course, that the light ever makes its presence felt in the first place.)

Matthew Homes, the schizophrenic protagonist of Nathan Filer’s deeply moving novel, The Shock of the Fall, knows all too well what it is like to carry the burden of grief in crushing tandem with the debilitating burdens of mental illness.

“That [wrestling with his dad and Simon] is what we used to do when Simon was alive, but now Simon wasn’t alive, i never got up before my dad. At quarter to seven he would still come into my room to find me lying awake, unsure of how to begin. That must have been hard for him.” (P. 37)

In a novel that bends chronological order to slightly disorienting effect at first, until you realise this is how Matthew’s mind works, leaping from one moment to the other in no particular order, we bear witness to how the death of Matthew’s older brother Simon, a person with Down Syndrome, when the siblings were 9 and 13 respectively, massively impacted the way he sees life, even before his debilitating diagnosis.

As you duck and weave through Matthew’s recollection of that horrible moment, one he blames himself entirely for, although save for one catastrophically-bad decision one rainy night, it was an accident rather the product of deliberate intent, and then the way it informs the young man he grows into, you ache for the toll that the combined weight of mental illness and grief takes on him.

But not just Matthew, who struggles to operate in a world where he hears and sees Simon everywhere from the candle flames of his birthday cake to rushing water and the underside of his bed, but his family who want to love and be there for him, and are in many important ways, and yet are hobbled by the same grief that besets Matthew.

The Shock of the Fall beautifully and heartrendingly explores how grief stops the clock in so many ways, with what came before it bearing little to no resemblance to what follows.

Its effects linger far after the actual event and you could well argue, and it’s borne out in the beautifully well-thought out and wholly-affecting narrative, that it never really reaches a conclusion.

 

 

The truly lovely part of The Shock of the Fall, which gracefully mixes insightfully poetic language with raw, confronting honesty, is that Matthew finds some resolution and peace, much as his family does, coming to grips, as much as anyone can, with the assailing power of grief to send a life permanently off-kilter.

The refreshing thing is that his happy ending of sorts, the exact nature of which I won’t reveal, is that it is not the kind dreamed up by Hollywood, big on melodrama and short on affecting authentic emotion, but rather deeply real, acknowledging that even when we are given some kind of closure, it is not neatly and perfectly sewn up, all signs of the scars erased.

Rather, and given the nature of his illness which Matthew admits is always with him and will never ever leave him alone since it is inextricably bound up with him, the sense of an ending he receives is as much as a beginning and a continuation as it is any sort of imperfect to long and drawn out grief and loss.

“But beside the light switch, he had written something. I was never meant to read it. I know this because he would paint over it when he came back to do the second coat. And he had no way of knowing that I’d be brought home on this one day to collect my post. I ran my fingers across the words, written lightly in ballpoint pen. What he’d written was:

“We’ll beat this thing mon ami. We’ll beat this thing together.” (PP. 210-211)

But is that not the nature of life for everyone? Matthew certainly has a more intensely complicated experience of its vicissitudes than anyone else in the book, but the truth remains the same for everyone, a salutary lesson in the universal even handedness of grief and life’s contrary nature.

The Shock of the Fall explores these truths and others through a multitude of devices to get us into the mind of Matthew, one of the most visually striking being the changes in font and text size from one section of the book to the other.

It neatly illustrates how Matthew’s mind works, and that even though he’s often aware it’s his illness talking, he feels powerless to counteract it, and when it delivers him up Simon, “alive” and kicking as if he never left – his departures from reality are all Simon-centric and suffused with regret and deep sadness – really doesn’t want to, even if he could.

The shifts in time also bring home the fact that the tragic events of a decade ago – Matthew goes from 9 to 19 over the course of the book’s brilliantly well-articulated, time-jumbled narrative – are never far from home, as real now as they were all that time ago, coterminous with everything happening in the present.

As moving and deeply affecting a book as you’re likely to find – it is damn near impossible not to weep when Matthew gets closer to the source of his grief and pain, reliving the events of Simon’s death – The Shock of the Fall has delightful warmth and humour, emotional honesty and a devastatingly beautiful insightfulness that understands and touchingly explores how life never follows an easy or well-laid out path and that for all of us, whether we have mental illness or not, it is a journey with no easily-reached or lived-in destination.

Aliens in the backyard: Juvenile Mulder and Scully search for truth in new X-Files picture book

(image via Paste Magazine (c) Kim Smith / Quirk Books)

 

Throughout its extensive run (1993-2002; 2016-) the evocative rallying cry for The X-Files has been “The Truth is Out There”.

It hinted at mysteries untold, vast, dark conspiracies and an endlessly unnerving sense that we are not being told the truth about the world around us.

But where exactly was, or is, the truth?

 

(image via Paste Magazine (c) Kim Smith / Quirk Books)

 

(image via Paste Magazine (c) Kim Smith / Quirk Books)

 

According to an adorable new book, The X-Files: Earth Children Are Weird, that features kiddy versions of Mulder and Scully and eye-catchingly cute illustrations by Kim Smith, it’s right there in your backyard.

Well, maybe not your backyard per se but one where two young kids decide to camp out one out and find out that things are a little more scary than they bargained for.

Better get used to it guys – there’s way worse coming up!

For now though, grab a torch, this wonderful book, which you’ll want big kid or no, and set out to find the truth wherever it may be!

 

(image via Paste Magazine (c) Kim Smith / Quirk Books)

 

The X-Files: Earth Children Are Weird is available now. 

 

Book review: Calling Major Tom by David M. Barnett

(image courtesy Hachette Australia)

 

We live in a complicated, unforgiving world.

You only have to take even momentary stock of current events to realise that there is a great deal wrong with the world we live in and never enough help to be found for those who need it.

That’s why David M. Barnett’s Calling Major Tom is such an unmitigated joy and a necessary tonic for these troubled times.

Even as the book details many of the ills that afflict society from dementia to the death of the middle class, bullying to people co-opted into the ranks of carers far too early in life, it also offers hope that holding onto some semblance of hope is not as much of a fool’s errand as you might suppose.

Granted much of the relief handed to grandmother Gladys, and grandchildren Ellie and James verges on the fantastical and the far-too-convenient but then if you can’t have happily-ever-afters in a novel then where can you have them?

“All happy families are alike, but all bug-f**k stupid dysfunctional families are bug-f**k stupid dysfunctional in their own way, thinks Ellie as she sits on the benches outside the bank, sheltering from the desultory, spotting rain beneath some spindly trees, on the lookout for happy families. She imagines she’s a sniper … Every time she spots a happy family … Ellie’s Sniper Rifle of Truth hits them with her magic bullet.” (P. 32)

The thing is, Calling Major Tom is a feel-good novel that retains the power to uplift and inspire precisely because it is so grounded, nuanced and anchored to reality (admittedly with some winningly-articulated quirks).

Both the titular protagonist Thomas, a heavily-disillusioned 47-year-old man who has let bitterness and disappointment eat away at his soul and corrode any desire to be connected to the human race in any form that he seizes an opportunity to be the first man on Mars with unseemly alacrity, and Gladys, Ellie and James, are not exactly leading what you’d call charmed lives.

Ellie and James’ dad Darren, a good man still mourning the loss of his wife Julie four years earlier at the hands of a drunk driver, has ended up in prison, caught when he agreed to be the driver for a gang of a men he barely knew and the job, as they so often do, went wrong.

His absence has left 15-year-old Ellie as the primary breadwinner for the family, juggling three part-time jobs, school and the care of James and her Nan who, at 71, is finding herself ever more lost to the initial ravages of dementia.

The years when she should be going to parties – she goes to one with nascent boyfriend Delil at one point when everything has simply become too much but it’s not quite the escapist nirvana she envisaged  – and chatting to friends on social media have been ceded to caring for her family and keeping a roof over their head and food in their bellies.

She doesn’t resent it and yet she does, caught between wanting to be a typical teenager and all too painfully aware that’s not even an option.

 

David M. Barnett (image courtesy Hachette Australia)

 

By a quirky miracle of happenstance – Calling Major Tom is quirky as hell without once feeling like it’s not firmly rooted in the realities of life – Thomas aka Major Tom by dint of his Bowie-fandom and the natural inclination of people to refer to an astronaut named Tom by his unwanted “Space Oddity” moniker, ends up talking to Gladys, Ellie and James on the phone in the last few weeks before his spacecraft, Ares-1 goes sailing out of range.

What begins as a wrong number when Thomas calls his ex-wife Janet’s last known address soon evolves, despite everyone’s expectations, into a relationship with the power to transform everyone’s lives.

As his contact with the Ormerod family increases and his affection for them grows, in complete contravention of his well-established “Bah humbug I hate everyone!” mentality, Thomas finds himself reliving a host of different memories, awash in the negative life experiences that triggered his withdrawal from the human race in the first place.

The more he comes to know Gladys, Ellie and James, and the more he realises he can do something to make their precariously-balanced lives better, the more he reassesses his own life, coming to appreciate, as he hurtles towards Mars never to return to Earth, that perhaps he didn’t handle his life as well as he might have and that being connected to other people and mattering to them, isn’t that bad after all.

“He still doesn’t know why he called what he thought was her [Janet’s] number, the one that got him through to Gladys Ormerod. He’d said his goodbyes. He’d made his peace. He thinks about it for a while, and decides that what he wanted to tell her was that she was wrong, he did know how to be happy, and this was it: leaving Earth, leaving them all behind, that was what made him happy.

“And now he realises that he is glad he never made the call, glad he got through to the Ormerods rather than her. Because otherwise, how would he know? How would he know that he was wrong? That suddenly, and crushingly, he wishes with all his heart that he’d never left at all.” (P. 252)

He certainly reassures Ellie and James particularly, both of whom are, for a multitude of reasons, thoroughly disillusioned and exhausted by life’s vicissitudes at far too young an age, that good things can still happen.

Time and again the family find themselves close to escaping the ravenous jaws of cruel fate only to find everything falling apart at the eleventh hour. But as Tom awakens once again to life’s possibilities, and makes a host of wonderful things happen for the beleaguered family, everyone begins to believe that maybe, just maybe, life may not be the one-way street to nowhere that it was beginning to uncomfortably resemble.

While Calling Major Tom verges slightly on kids’ movie twee at times, with everything a little bit too good to be true from overly-forgiving policemen to PR people willing to stare down their unsympathetic boss to the point of insubordination, any inclination to roll your eyes in disbelief is quickly stymied by the sheer delightfully heartwarming nature of it all.

Barnett has gifted his story with complex, rich characters and real world problems that don’t give an inch for any form of narrative contrivance, and so, when things finally turn around for everyone, including Tom, you can’t help but join in celebration with them.

Calling Major Tom is an unashamedly feel good festival of the human spirit, but much of its resonance comes from the fact that it tells it like it is every bit as much as it weaves the magic wand of possibilities, giving this tale of life redeemed believable substance and depth, and imbuing its happy ever after ending with the sense that it just might be possible in our often cruel and unforgiving world after all.

 

(image courtesy Hachette Australia)

Book review: Get Well Soon by Marie-Sabine Roger

(cover image courtesy Penguin Random House Australia)

 

Reading a book after watching the movie or TV show is always an interesting exercise (the same applies, but in different ways, to the reverse).

Not necessarily because one will be good and one will be bad, but purely because it is always fascinating to see how two creative minds, operating in entirely different mediums, interpret and articulate the same story.

Get Well Soon (Bon Rétablissement) by Marie-Sabine Roger, translated by Frank Wynne, is one of those rare books read after watching the film, and far from diminishing it, the book comes out even richer and more fulsome with a post-movie viewing.

Not, I suspect, that it would have suffered from it standing on its own two literary feet, a masterfully emotionally-resonant in anyone’s language.

“Thinking is a morbid preoccupation that I prefer to avoid in most cases. Especially given that, since in here there’s no escape mechanism, I contemplate my navel, my thoughts frantically spinning like a crazed hamster in its wheel. Me, me, my life, my achievements.” (P. 17)

A slender book that runs to just under 220 pages – the story is perfectly told and just the right length but the world Rogers created is so beguilingly well-wrought that you want to remain in for much longer – Get Well Soon is told, almost exclusively for a final few pages, from the perspective of a 67 year-old patient, Jean-Pierre who ends up in a hospital after an accident on a bridge catapults him into the Seine in Paris at 5am.

Pulled inert from the dark waters by a rent boy who stays with his unexpected charge until the paramedics arrive, widower Jean-Pierre, a grumpy malcontent who has no friends beyond his garrulous, bon vivant childhood pal Serge, with whom he has been reunited thanks to a social media site, is none too pleased to wake up in a hospital room, trussed up like a Christmas turkey.

Possessed of a dry wit, and the kind of self-awareness that means he knows he can be insufferable and so modulates his grumpiness around people he needs like brightly-effervescent head nurse Myriam, Jean-Pierre, despite himself, begins to form bonds with the policeman investigating his case, Maxime (who becomes like a son to the unwilling patient), the rent boy Camille (who is far more complex a person than Jean-Pierre’s prejudices allow for at first) and Maëva, a 14 year-old girl who’s presence in the hospital is a mystery until well into the book.

 

(image via Normandy Tinchebray)
The book has been adapted into a warm and entertaining 2014 film, known in English-speaking countries as Get Well Soon(image via Normandy Tinchebray)

 

In many ways, it’s a fairly-straight forward oft-told tale that you might be tempted to consign to the Pollyanna/Anna of Green Gables school of delightfully redemptive storytelling.

While there are certainly elements of these kinds of stories in Roger’s wittily heartwarming tale, the book is far too amusingly caustic to be treated as too much of a warm and fuzzy story.

Jean-Pierre, for all his many failings and foibles, is actually a decent guy, something he admits to almost immediately in the book even as he recounts the many ways he was not an ideal son, husband or friend, and its this innate decency, filtered through a doesn’t suffer fools gladly and says so mentality, that ultimately makes him so damn likable.

Everything from the state of hospital food to the complete lack of privacy as a patient to the stultifying boredom of lying near flat on your back for weeks at a time, is addressed by Jean-Pierre in a humourously-incisive manner.

“‘OK I won’t say anymore. In any case, we’ve got his details on file, if there are any problems it won’t be hard to track him down. I just hope you’re not in for a nasty surprise.’
‘Let me tell you something: if you spend your life trying to avoid ‘nasty surprises’, you miss out on the good ones too.’
He smiles.” (P. 195)

So too are his internal monologues about the people he comes to know; sure he’s a mite critical of them at times but he is also willing to admit when they have grown on him, and it’s his growth as a character, or more correctly, his willingness to access those parts of his character he often ignores that form much of the emotional core of this vibrantly alive book.

Jean-Pierre is, in many ways, an everyman, someone who has reached a point in his life where the possibility of change is beyond him, and change he most certainly does, but who is acutely aware he has frittered away much of his life with poor decisions and even poorer relationship maintenance.

Sitting in the hospital bed for as he does, waiting for various doctors and other health professionals to poke, prod and advise him, he has plenty of time to ruminate on what went wrong and if it’s possible to fix anything at this point in his life.

The author avoids any cheesy road-to-Damascus moments – it would never have rung true with Jean-Pierre’s brutally self-critical approach – choosing instead to give the curmudgeonly patient a slow thawing of many of the strategies and assumptions he has employed to get him through life.

It’s this groundedness, couched in some of the funniest, most self-aware and moving observations you’ll read anymore that make Get Well Soon such a delight to read and make you wish you could spend just a little bit longer in the world of Jean-Pierre whose life may not be so blighted as he seems to think it is.

Book review: The Town by Shaun Prescott

(cover art courtesy English Books)

 

In so many crucial ways, people are defined by where they live.

It’s not necessarily a conscious thing, although there’s strong evidence that many people gravitate to a particular place such as hippies in northern New South Wales and deliberately let it inform who they are, but it is integral to their character, beliefs, worldview and a host of other things.

So what happens, argues Shaun Prescott’s The Town, when the place where you live begins disappearing around you? It may have been in decline for quite some time but when that process accelerates, and with the addition of some magical reality actually starts to blink from existence in a shimmering maelstrom of nothingness, how does it affect who you are?

Do you still belong there? Do you belong nowhere? Can you go somewhere else entirely, or will you, as the unnamed protagonist and his friend Ciara discover, be stuck in a geographical and mindset limbo forevermore?

“The town was just there and that was that. It was a bunch of people living in houses who all just got by. I should just get by, she said.” (P. 130)

Informed by Prescott’s keen understanding of the all-consuming vagaries of country life, The Town examines how people who are from nowhere else at all, and never have been – even the new arrivals like our nameless protagonist can’t remember where they come from – handle the disappearance of the only home they have ever known.

Using the device of a book-wthin-a-book – the protagonist is writing a book on “the disappearing towns in the Central West region of News South Wales” which eventually grinds to a halt when he realises the towns that would have featured have all but gone, making research and feedback from locals problematic to non-existent – The Town takes an unflinching look at small town rural life.

Everything from the annual town disco, where long-running feuds find violent, physical form to the main street-eviscerating domination of the two shopping plazas with their preponderance of big name brand stores that have no geographical allegiance of identity, the book seamlessly explores how identity is shaped by location.

There is no sentimentality to this exploration; in fact, everyone from the acerbic town publican Jenny to the bus driver Tom who drives around town on an endless route to nowhere really with no passengers to Ciara’s radio show with no listeners and no real point, seems passionately disinterested in where the town came from (save for defending the bigness of the 1930s drought), where it is going and whether they care much about it at all.

 

Shaun Prescott (image courtesy The Lifted Brow)

 

Unfortunately, replete though The Town is with some really compelling ideas and some delicious quirkiness, as a reader you may be left with much the same ambivalence.

Lacking chapters, a standard narrative or sense of momentum – save for the final 30-40 pages when matters come to a head – and any sense of emotional connection with the characters, it is a struggle to really care too much about what happens to the town or its inhabitants.

Granted, there is a deep Kafka-esque existential crisis threading its way through the whole book which accounts for the weariness of the soul vibe that suffuses the book from start, but this turns what could have been a very clever, engaging book with some very clever writing – the observational writing beautifully highlights the absurdities of country, and later, city life – into one long slog.

There’s no real lightness, no humour, no sense of anything other than unremitting existential gloom; everyone is disengaged, disenchanted, angry, ambivalent or sad; that’s great for distilling how a place can warp the soul, the central thesis of the book, but not so great if you want to feel even remotely connected to the characters in any kind of meaningful way.

“It took most of the night to walk to Ciara’s parents’ home. The holes had eaten large swathes of terrain. Whole intersections were impossible to traverse, and the roads in the old part of town could not be navigated at all. We crept through sleeping properties, some houses now skeletal, our torches aimed down at the grass in case of holes.” (P. 193)

In the end The Town, full to bursting with great ideas, observational weirdness and moments of quite poetic writing, becomes bogged under the weight of its own existential musings.

One long stream of consciousness, peppered with some quirky characters who, apart from Ciara, and man child Rick and Tom to a less extent, never quite get any traction, the book is become a turgid marathon that comes close to engaging on occasion but never quite seals the deal.

It’s by no means an awful read, but it never really fires, rambling on and on with prose so inwardly dense and naval-gazing that any observations about time and place and how it shapes our identities, are almost lost.

Almost; there’s enough cleverness and insightfulness to get you to the end of the book.

Alas, too often it feels like you’re hanging in out of sheer stubbornness, rather than any great love for the story or the characters who leave you feeling almost as weighed down and heavyhearted as the town itself.

Get going! It’s time for Asterix and the Chariot Race

(artwork (c) Hachette)

 

Growing up, I was exposed, whether by design or accident – I suspect a mix of both – to a wide range of reading material from right across the globe.

The inclination to read this widely came from both my parents but particuarly my dad, borne of a belief that cut across from travel to food and beyond that you should explore fully and widely and take in everything life had to offer.

So it was that I ended up reading Tintin, Agaton Sax, the Moomins and of course, Asterix, along with the usual English-centric books like Enid Blyton, Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew and so on.

My favourite, I think because it was so clever and just plain silly in equal measure was Asterix, originally written by René Goscinny and illustrated by Albert Uderzo, which told the story of an rebellious village in Gaul (now France) that refused to bow down and be nice pliable Roman citizens.

Emboldened by a fighting spirit and a potion that gave them superhuman strength, Asterix, best pal Obelix and co. fought their way out and back into their indomitable village more times than I can count, always successfully, always hilariously and with a witty eye on history, geopolitics and a damn good pun.

 

(artwork (c) Hachette)

 

Unlike many other properties which finish when their creators pass away (or retire, Uderzo is still alive at age 90), Asterix has continued on, with its new team since 2013, writer Jean-Yves Ferri and illustrator Didier Conrad, working under the watchful eye of co-creator Uderzo and Gosciny’s daughter Anne, which is how, to my great delight, there is a new title due for release, Asterix and the Chariot Race, due for release on 19 October.

As the synopsis gleefully details, it appears that the heartland of the Roman Empire may have its own recalcitrant citizens, people right up the same alley as our eponymous hero:

“The year is 50 BC. Italy is entirely under Rome’s control, well, not entirely… Though Caesar dreams of a united Italy, the peninsula is made up of various fiercely independent regions.

“Yes – it turns out the inhabitants of Ancient Italy are not all Romans, much to Obelix’s dismay. The Italians want to keep their independence and take a dim view of Julius Caesar and his legions’ plans for total domination – and life isn’t easy for the garrisons of Roman legionaries charged with keeping an eye on them all!”

It’s book #37 in the long-running series – the first book, Asterix the Gaul, was published in 1961 – and the third by the new team and as Bleeding Cool, it’s set to be a smash hit, proof that Asterix is still as popular as ever.

“Welcome to the best-selling comic book of 2017, and it’s not out for months yet. The upcoming new Asterix comic book, Asterix And The Chariot Race, has just set its first print run of five million. That’s two million for the French, two million for the Germans, and one million for everybody else.

“With just its first printing, which sells out fast and goes to a second, lickety split, it is expected to be the biggest selling book of all in France and Germany and the UK in 2017, and certainly the best-selling comic in the world. And is likely to double that, if not more, with subsequent printings.”

Which is good because my inner Asterix-loving child is just as much in love with the mischievious Gaul and his friends as ever and can’t wait to read the new book!

Bring on October and please let there be enough copies left for Australia …

 

(artwork (c) Hachette)

Sit back, listen and enjoy: John Green reads the first chapter of Turtles All the Way Down

(cover art courtesy Dutton Books for Younger Readers via EW)

 

Sporting a catchy, intriguing title that goes to the heart of an age-old scientific debate which, to be fair, science has pretty much won, John Green’s first new book in six years, Turtles All the Way Down, is due in just 7 weeks.

That’s pretty exciting in and of itself if you’re anxious, and how could you not be, to hear about protagonist 16 Year-old Aza Holme’s life with obsessive compulsive disorder, a condition that the author has admitted he also shares, and her search for a missing billionaire.

Even more exciting is the release of a video on the YouTube channel, VlogBrothers, that Green operates with his brother Hank, where he reads the entire first chapter of the book.

Yup, the entire first chapter.

Of course it means you have almost two months before the first words of chapter two are yours but it’s a lovely entree to the new novel which sounds like it will be every bit as engaging and thoughtful as his previous bestselling work.

Turtles All the Way Down releases 22 October.

 

Book review: To Become a Whale by Ben Hobson

(cover art courtesy Allen & Unwin)

 

Masculinity, like so many societal constructs, perpetually teeters on the edge of a thousand shaky assumptions.

We may think we know what it is, and what it is not, but the truth is, it’s a hazily grouped together set of ideas that when put to the test, often come up wanting.

Just how wanting is impressively and movingly explored in Ben Hobson’s masterfully-executed, deeply-affecting debut novel To Become a Whale, which explores what it means to be a man, or at least the concept of it, from various perspectives but most significantly, from the viewpoint of 13-year-old Sam Keogh.

Still mourning the untimely death of his mother when he is whisked off to the whaling station in Tangalooma on Moreton Island in its dying days of production in 1961 (it closes the following year) by his grieving, emotionally-remote, often-absent father, Sam is a young man in freefall.

Nurtured as a kind, sensitive, emotionally self-aware soul by his endlessly-attentive mother, he is shocked to encounter a world where people mask their true feelings, speak of traumatic life events with a gruff sentence or two, and where work is the be-all and end-all of someone’s worth.

“The boy sat back. He had no immediate emotional response to what his father had said, which aroused a faint curiosity regarding the state of his soul. If what his father had said was true, she should damn well bloody care, but there in the pit of him was nothing at all. Did it all mean nothing now? In light of her passing were all things now mute?” (P. 15)

You could argue it’s all part of growing up but given the speed and ferocity of Sam’s immersion into the unreconstructed world of early-’60s manhood, where emotions are a liability and self-awareness near-to-none-existent, or at least, it’s public expression, you can well understand why he struggles mightily to make sense of it all.

Under any circumstances, this would be an ordeal by existential fire, but in the mire of grief and its world-shaking hellishness where everything you value and love is shaken to the core, it’s a well-nigh impossible experience to process.

Regardless of where Sam’s dad Walter is coming from, and it’s a world largely made up of emotional repression, being “manly” (whatever the hell that is) and doing a good solid day’s work (and it turns out some genuine vulnerability, rarely expressed), it’s not somewhere Sam is comfortable being, and as he witnesses more and more of the hardcore masculinity around him, he vows again and again to remain true to who he is and who his mother, his only fully-present carer growing up, raised him to be.

 

Ben Hobson (image courtesy official Ben Hobson Twitter account)

 

That’s easier said than done, of course, since he is, after all, a 13-year-old boy, caught between these vows and his desperate need for love and approval from his emotionally-contrary father (and the wider group of men around him), who can be affectionate and understanding one minute and brutishly dismissive, and caustically angry another.

Still processing what it means to be alive, let alone a man, Sam is buffeted by competing demands and positions, embodied in Phil, his father’s kind-of friend and fellow whaling station worker, who is at once real and honest, speaking of and demonstrating his love of music and dissatisfaction with his current job and yet complicit in upholding a version of masculinity that is aloof, actions-oriented and rough-and-tumble in a way Sam simply can’t relate to.

Hobson manages, with a deftness and thoughtfulness that will have you nodding in recognition page after page, to examine with an emotionally-accessible profundity the complexity of masculinity, particularly as it relates to the fraught world of father-son relations, especially those being tested in the crucible of pain and loss.

“He struggled back to shore, pumping his arms, the fear a cold wrench in his sternum. Soon he was on the beach again, shivering, hugging himself, crying. He walked home slowly, torch in hand, telling his mother that he was sorry he had tried to be cruel when she’d raised him to be kind.” (P. 283)

It’s his ability to balance this examination of a state of humanity that, like pretty much everything about being a person, has no real, firm, set answer – it’s all things to everyone essentially – while still telling the harrowingly real story of Sam and his unwilling immersion into a terrifying new world that grants To Become a Whale so much of its exquisitely-expressed emotional resonance.

As a gay man who grew up being virulently teased for not meeting what were presented as comprehensively-agreed upon notions of masculinity, and who felt himself buffeted at every turn by a world he didn’t understand nor really wanted to be a part of, I connected deeply with Sam’s beautifully-wrought character.

His turmoil, his need for longing and yet equally powerful desire to stay true to himself and his mother’s notion’s of humanity, struck a deep chord, especially as it is given powerful, impressively-articulate voice by Hobson.

To Become a Whale is that rare beast – a novel with some raw, artfully-expressed notions on masculinity, a debate that continues to this day – Hobson’s writing is sublime, beautiful and real all at once, as much poetic as it is insightful – and the immensely-personal, moving story of one young man’s struggle to define what it means for him in the midst of a tumultuous, and you suspect, defining period in his life.