Book review: The Colour of Bee Larkham’s Murder by Sarah J. Harris

(cover image courtesy Harper Collins Publishers Australia)

 

Jasper Wishart is a remarkable 13-year-old boy.

A child on the autism spectrum, he also has synaesthesia, a condition which joins one or more senses together, meaning that where we might just hear someone speaking, someone like Jasper both hears them and sees what they are seeing in various colours (or might taste it).

He also has prosopagnosia, a neurological disorder which renders someone like Jasper unable to recognise peoples’s faces; it doesn’t matter how familiar you are to him or how many times he’s seen you, he can’t remember what you look like and must rely on telltale giveaways such the colour of glasses or a regularly watch or item of clothing (and if these change then he’s back to square one, a fact that is used effectively by the author in this novel).

It’s an extraordinary mix and one that makes Jasper, the protagonist in The Colour of Bee Larkham’s Murder by Sarah J, Harris a wholly-captivating, utterly-unique young man who provides a perspective on the world many of us would have little to no familiarity with.

“Bee Larkham’s murder was ice blue crystals with glittery edges and jagged, silver icicles.
That’s what I told the first officer we met at the police station, before Dad could stop me. I wanted to confess and get it over and done with. But he can’t have understood what I said what I said or he forgot to pass on the message to his colleague who’s interviewing me now.” (P. 1)

While some might see this as some sort of affliction, Jasper loves that he can see the world this way; it’s all he’s ever known, and while he knows that his synaesthesia and prosopagnosia make him different to most other people, and disadvantages him in certain situations, he wouldn’t trade his gifts as he sees them for anything.

It does however make life challenging for Jasper’s father Ed, a former British marine who, due to his many postings in combat zones, doesn’t have the rapport with Jasper that his “cobalt blue” mother, who dies four years previously from cancer (and whose cardigan is a reassuring safety talisman for Jasper when he’s traumatised) once did.

It means that the now single father he has his hands full with a son who is both enabled and incapacitated by his conditions, and who relates events that take place in his wife in the most literal, direct way possible.

This causes problems of course at school where other kids don’t tolerate Jasper’s inability to know who they are until thy speak them (and even then, this mode of recognition can be muddied if a cold or an emotional state changes the tenor, and thus colour, of their voice) and becomes almost overwhelmingly problematic when the new neighbour in the street, Bee Larkham, who’s moved into her mother’s old home,  causes all kinds of neighbourhood before finally disappearing and possibly ending up murdered.

The thing is, Jasper, who’s one of the only people who saw Bee on the Friday in question (an Indigo Blue day) isn’t unable to relate events like his father, who works hard to protect him from the fallout of this horrific event or neighbours like Ollie Watkins (home to clean out his mum’s house) and long-time resident David Gilbert who abhors the parakeets which Jasper loves with an obsessive regard and which he paints with endless fascination (syneasthesia means his paintings are highly abstract, a sense of the object, creaure or event rendered in colours either vivid or subdued, or a mix of both).

 

Sarah J. Harris (image courtesy official Sarah J. Harris Twitter account)

 

All of which makes the events of The Colour of Bee Larkham’s Murder a fascinatingly-different, engrossing murder mystery that pivots just as much, if not more, on who Jasper is and what’s going on in his life than finding out who killed her (if anyone; for much of the novel, despite Jasper being adamant she’s dead, no one knows exactly where she is).

Harris writes beautifully with real insight and understanding – like any author worth their salt, she has researched and consulted widely to give the most accurate portrayal of someone with synaesthesia and prosopagnosia, albeit, as she admits, with some poetic license thrown in for good storytelling measure – gifting us with a picture of a young man grappling with grief, self-worth and a sometimes subsuming sensory overload that makes life almost impossibly difficult to traverse.

This difficulty becomes even more pronounced when Jasper is plunged into the midst of the missing person/murder investigation, an extraordinarily-stressful event that creates fissures in the already-troubled relationship with his father – Ed clearly loves him but is stymied by his lack of understanding or connection much of the time – and which complicates his life as he finds people don’t always mean what they say, an issue when you navigate based on the surety of what people are saying to you (and the colours they create, the consistency of which is a navigable aid for Jasper, especially when he’s treading on uncertain ground).

“I don’t need a paintbrush. I’m painting the colours in my head while Leo talks to the detectives.
The day of Bee Larkham’s murder should have been a breathtaking indigo because it was a Friday, but all I coudld see was sky blue. The colour of Bee Larkham’s voice.” (p. 304)

Harris has written a novel unlike any I’ve read in quite some time.

The Colour of Bee Larkham’s Murder manages to be both quirky and offbeat and deeply, affectingly emotionally-resonant, and incredibly beautifully illuminating as you discover how everyday words and figures of speech and emotional states come with their own colour designations.

Not every person with synaesthesia sees words in the same way as Jasper himself admits; his mother also had the condition and saw things differently to him but their bond was strong because she was the one person who really understood him and to whom he never had to explain himself (although this is always a challenge with Jasper articulating how he sees the world in the colours it presents, something few other people without the condition can appreciate).

It’s this bond that creates one of the great emotional anchor points of The Colour of Bee Larkham’s Murder as Jasper struggles to not explain the events of Bee Larkham’s disappearance and murder to his father and the police, but to find his ways through the terrain of life without his mother as champion and guide.

There are times, thanks to the richness of Harris’s writing that you want to hold Jasper close and reassure him that everything will be all right; but then you realise you can’t be sure of that as the narrative keeps you guessing right until the final dramatic and emotionally-affecting chapters.

This is a remarkable novel, one that is quirky and unusual and yet deeply human and real all at once, that doesn’t pull its emotional punches on any level and doesn’t attempt to sugar coat Jasper’s experiences nor those of Bee, Ollie, Ed and many others, all of whom are painted in vividly-arresting fullness such that you are engrossed not simply by the storyline but these utterly-compelling characters.

The Colour of Bee Larkham’s Murder reminds us at every turn that there are many colours in life’s spectrum and we can’t ever assume we see all of them, and we would be wise always pay attention to people like Jasper who can provide a whole new, illuminating perspective on this many-hued thing we call life.

 

(cover image courtesy Simon and Schuster)

Novella review: Manifest Recall by Alan Baxter

(cover image courtesy Grey Matter Press)

 

There is something brilliantly seductive about a story that grabs you right from the get-go, that immediately and successfully plunges you into a world far removed from your own, making it feel like it’s somewhere with which you’ve always been familiar (and yet not), populated by people who are fully-formed and instantly relatable even if their lives bear zero resemblance to your own.

That prodigious storytelling feat is even more impressive if the story occupies a genre that holds little to no fascination to you.

Manifest Recall is not normally the sort of story I’d read; not because it isn’t extremely well-written – author Alan Baxter is a master of his craft, as talented with narrative shifts and vividly-realised characters as he is with dazzling, affecting word play – but because crime-based stories, especially those with a high body count, usually tilt their attention almost wholly towards gory action and graphic violence, eschewing meaningful storylines and character interaction in the process.

But Manifest Recall, which opens with mob hitman Eli Carver in a car he barely remembers buying, speeding along a road he doesn’t remember turning onto with a young woman sobbing next to him in next-to-no-clothing, puts paid quickly to any fears that this is story replete with only death and murder and little to no heart or soul.

“Where the hell am I?
I feel as though I’ve just been switched on, like a light in an old house, flooding a room with illumination for the first time in years. Or ever. A flicker of a story comes to me. Lethe. One of five rivers in the underworld of Hades, the river of unmindfulness. The shades of the dead were required to drink its waters in order to forget their earthly life. Maybe I’ve died and drunk a gutful of Lethe and this is some strange hell.” (P. 8)

What becomes almost immediately apparent, testament to the grips-like-super-glue way Baxter establishes and develops his headily-amnesiac premise, is that something is wrong, very wrong; Eli can’t remember how he got where he is or why, with memories coming back to him as shattered, disconnected remnants that defy his ability to sort them into any kind of coherent, meaningful pattern.

We are plunged mercilessly into the panicked maelstrom of Eli’s very small world which is missing great big pieces, the recalling of which is hindered, as is any substantial forward momentum, by the fugues Eli keeps tumbling into for hours or days at a time.

His psyche is clearly fleeing from something horrifically traumatic but what, and why is he seeing the faces of people he has dispatched in the name of his grubby, amoral employer Vernon Sykes, whose young wife, Carly, is the woman in the car, equal parts terrified and angrily confident.

It’s a deliciously unsettling, gothic tumble into the chasms that exists in all of us, those dark, unreachable places that only come to the surface when life has been so badly bruised and beaten to a bloody pulp (much like Eli’s many victims) that the only reasonable response is to flee, figuratively and literally from the cold, harsh reality stalking us like some kind of deranged hunter.

 

Alan Baxter (image courtesy official Alan Baxter Twitter account)

 

What marks this slowly and yet-not-so-slowly unfurling reveal of Eli and his rather misbegotten life, which has just been shaved of its few redeeming features, is how much humanity Baxter has poured into what is at times, quite literally, a graphically-explosive story.

People die and vengeance is taken, and there are scenes where the blood flows scarily abundantly in a tale that is dark, in-your-face and what-the-hell-ish all at once, but Manifest Recall is at heart the story of one man grappling with the elusive ghosts of his own identity, with the oft-times fatal decisions he has made throughout his young life (he is only in his late twenties) and whether there is any way to escape the crushingly dead hand of consequence.

Suffused with the suggestion that there may be something supernatural at work in the banally flawed affairs of man, Manifest Recall is powerful and yet quiet, bombastically violent and yet intimately introspective, a journey through one man’s scarred psyche that is writ large against the backdrop of a world long ago gone irredeemably bad.

“I need to not lose it here. Not let the blanking thing happen and not let these circling memories eat me alive. I’m more than a little scared, I feel like a child. Something throbs in my gut at that thought and I bit it down.” (P. 40)

The innate humanity of the story is what elevates Baxter’s engrossing story above so many other crime thrillers.

At every turn, no matter where we are in the bloody chain of events that soak Manifest Recall in a vivid shade of bloody red, we are privy to the sense that Eli, for all his sins, real and imagined, is an inherently good, principled man who long ago lost his way and is trying, in the most hellish of circumstances, to find his way back.

As anyone who has ever sunk to rock bottom, or skirted scarily near to it knows, the adage that “the only way is up” is simply not always true; technically yes, up is the opposing direction but as Eli discovers again and again, simply aiming for it is no guarantee you’ll get there.

But Eli aims anyway, providing us with an engrossingly immersive story that acknowledges the brokenness of humanity and the flawed world we inhabit, but amazingly manages to envisage there may be a way to redeem the lost and the bloodied, the twisted and the furious.

Of course, we’re left guessing, as we should be in any thriller worth its salt, to the last possible minute to see if any kind of redemption is on the cards, giving Manifest Recall, an existential treatise in gothically frantic clothing, an air of tension that bites savagely and with punchy brio right up to the final heart-pumpingly full-on scenes.

This is life with guns, bullets and man’s inhumanity to man soaked through it like litre upon litre of misspent blood, but it is still life, and it is a credit to Baxter’s powerfully-arresting writing that this very relatability shines through even in a story so far removed from our everyday reality.

 

(back cover image courtesy Grey Matter Press)

Book review: Afternoons with Harvey Beam by Carrie Cox

(cover image courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

 

Grief, though intimately personal, can often feel like a very public weapon of mass disruption.

As the searing loss of saying goodbye to someone, or not in some cases with the grief more for what’s lost than whom, ripples out in an every-widening wave, families, friendship groups and communities can find themselves rent asunder, to greater or lesser degrees.

There is something bizarrely liberating about grief; in its messy, chaotic aftermath, people seem to feel free to say or feel all those things that have long been hidden, whether out of fear, a sense of misguided propriety or a weariness at the horror of revisiting traumatic events long past.

That’s pretty much how Harvey Beam, high-profile Sydney radio talkback host, half-competent dad and divorced man, finds it when he goes back to his hometown of Shorton in Carrie Cox’s beautifully-realised debut novel Afternoons with Harvey Beam to see his cancer-stricken dad one last time before he dies.

Of course, nothing plays out quite as nicely as that summation of grief’s mob rule-like effect would have to believe; in fact, while the disruption is most acutely there, and everyone is painfully aware of its status quo-trashing potential, no one really has the energy to fully give into the impulse to let it all hang out.

Not, it must be said, that they’re not tempted.

“And Harvey is taken aback by this. Because as long as he can remember, no-one has ever ventured an appraisal of Harvey’s relationship with his father that found Lionel lacking in any way. The conclusion has always been that Lionel simply is what he is, a man with his mind on other eons, and that perhaps expectations are patently too high or unfair.” (P. 77)

After all, the Beams are hardly Hallmark’s Family of the Week.

Split apart quite some years back when Lionel, newly-enamoured of tertiary-studying and the history of which he was so fond, gave everything to his studious pursuits and precious little to his long-suffering wife Lynn or his four children, Bryan, Harvey, Penny and Naomi, before abandoning everyone but Bryan (who was picked by Lionel to live with him in a weird familial Hunger Games that left Harvey devastated) and leaving home.

In the succeeding years, the relationship between Penny and Naomi, both still resident in Shorton and married with kids, has developed into a feud that only abates briefly during Lionel’s tense funeral and wake, Harvey has absented himself to faraway Sydney where his ex-wife Suze and teenage daughters Cate and Jayne live, and Bryan has taken up the mantle of his father’s successor in temperament, career and academic pursuit (though it is hinted this may be a result of some sort of Stockholm Syndrome as much as devotion).

Lynn is living with Naomi to help her with the kids, but that’s as close as this family gets, with only Harvey and Penny enjoying any real kind of closeness.

So there’s a lot of stuff brewing just below the surface, the reality and knowledge of which fills Harvey with sickening dread as his plane touches down at Shorton airport, with the only bright spot being a spark that seems to have been lit between Shorton’s famous prodigal son and a locum nurse named Grace.

 

Carrie Cox (image courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

 

The impressive thing about Cox’s writing, which is endlessly clever and luminously descriptive, is how she restrains herself from simply letting Afternoons with Harvey Beam descend into some sort of slapstick, vitriolic black comedy, which in lesser hands it could so easily have been.

In this case, less is most definitely more, and as we experience events from Harvey’s jaded perspective – the refreshing thing is he’s not some disillusioned, unredeemable cynic that becomes insufferable to spend time with; he is simply a fallible likeable human being whose life has not exactly played out as planned … Et tu, Brute? – we come to see just how much has gone wrong in the Beam family and explore whether it is really worth upending the familial apple cart to sort it all out.

As the wait for Lionel’s inevitable death grinds on, and Harvey, who was abused constantly by his father in a way none of the other siblings were, grapples with whether he is even sad his father is passing, we come to appreciate in ways large and small, resigned and liberating, that there are some things, many things possibly, that simply can’t be fixed.

Sure, you could have it all out in a blisteringly incendiary back-and-forth between family members, but really, realise Harvey in one of the many incremental moments of clarity that punctuate his time in Shorton pre and post Lionel’s death, would that gain?

“He glances toward the back of the church (no sign of Grace) and then turns his attention to the priest, a man in his early seventies at best, shiny face sprouting from a swathe of heavy cloth and sashes. He is looking out over the congregation, an ambitious term for this lot, Harvey thinks, and unmistakably the man looks disappointed. Surely he must see, on days like this, a collection of disconnected people for whom religion is just scaffolding for major life events, nothing more.” (P. 186)

Would it erase all the hurt and estrangement? Would it suddenly make Lionel like his son? None of that would come to pass, and so instead we see Harvey, who finds unexpected connections where there were none before with likes of his brother-in-law Matt and his daughter Cate, come to some sort of imperfect peace about the fact that life, especially in the emotional battleground that is many families, is, as Naomi is wont to say, what it is.

Harvey and his sister Penny hate the phrase, but in the end, there is a truth to it that Harvey has to admit to; for all the pain and loss a person may cause, and Lionel was responsible for more than his fair share, no amount of grief-fuelled slinging can fix that.

That’s not to say there can’t be moments of absolution, clarity and explanation and certainly they come via Lynn, Matt and Penny most notably, nor that you shouldn’t seek to heal old wounds, but as Cox sagely notes again and again in a gloriously well-nuanced tale, sometimes that’s not possible and you simply have to make your peace with it.

Ringing with exquisitely-rendered phrases that sing and startle with their originality and insight, Afternoons with Harvey Beam fairly brims with a gently-expressed but no less penetrating for that understanding of family dynamics that may help many people to come to grips with the less than ideal circumstances of their own lives.

We’d all like that magical moment of closure at the time of someone’s passing, particularly someone with whom relations were less than ideal and possibly downright nasty, but we may not always get, and Afternoons with Harvey Beam beautifully explores with compassion, honesty and good humour (and deliciosuly good writing; did I mention that?) what happens in the netherlands of grief when you realise the hoped-for happily-ever-after will never come your way.

Book review: Empire of Silence (The Sun Eater: Book One) by Christopher Ruocchio

(cover art courtesy Hachette Australia)

 

Lord Hadrian Marlowe is, by his own admission, his own worst enemy.

A patrician son of the cruelly authoritarian ruler of the planet Delos, Sir Alistair Marlowe, who does not share his class’s love of crowd-pleasing bloodsports, oppression of the poor or dismissive attitude of anything below their imagined station, Hadrian is a man of noble gestures and good intent; unfortunately, much of his execution leaves a great deal to be desired, borne of arrogance, impulsiveness and an unhelpful rush of anger.

In the often-fraught, highly-regulated world he inhabits, speaking or acting of turn is not conducive to advancement or even staying alive in many cases, with the Sollan Empire of which Delos is a small though lucrative part (thanks to its uranium deposits) a curious mixture of Roman Empire military, medieval religious dogma (the Chantry, as it’s called, is the real power behind the literal throne) and advanced technology which is restricted in its use to the highest of classes.

All this extravagant, richly-detailed worldbuilding informs the debut novel of Christopher Ruocchio, Empire of Silence, which, set thousands of years into the future, imagines a universe where humanity has spread through the stars like wildfire, partly driven by ambition but also by necessity with the Earth, an icon of worship for the Chantry who preach a gospel of manifest destiny, an uninhabitable relic.

With Hadrian our eyes and ears into an empire which is light years removed from our own, both past and future, we venture into the slowly-unfolding labyrinthine Machiavellian intrigue where power and influence can be lost in an ill-uttered word or rash act (and reversed just as quickly should you be so favoured).

“Now I had the other problem to consider, and it was by far the more complicated one. In a sense I had less right of travel than the meanest plebeian. Any common dock worker or urban farm technician not planetbound by blood might earn passage offworld, or else enlist in the Legions—there was a war on after all. But I … I was scrutinized, guarded, protected. At least when I wasn’t getting myself pummelled nearly to death by a bike gang in the streets of Meidua. And yet that particular episode did inspire in me a measure of confidence. I had slipped away from my watchful sentinels once, hadn’t I?
I could do it again.” (P. 85)

All of which is a problem for Hadrian, who is the assumed heir to the Delian throne, a young man condemned by genetic manipulation – patricians are not born so much as decanted from a laboratory chamber – and position to occupy a world almost entirely not to his liking.

While his younger brother Crispin lusts after the glory and violence of the Colosso (coliseum) and is as unthinkingly cruel as his father, Hadrian prefers more academic and artisistic pursuits including the study of languages such as that of the Empire’s most implacable foe, with which it has been at war for hundreds of years, the Cielcin (they have been deemed as “demons” by the Chantry who, like all theocracies, stymie knowledge and questioning in favour of unbreachable “truths”).

Alas, what you want as a noble counts for nought and Hadrian faces a future boxed by suffocating rules and regulations, beliefs and edicts, all of which rests somewhere back in humanity’s ancient past, proof that you can all the technology and advancement but without any real change in the intractable bigotry and fear of human nature.

It is only when a series of events, yes largely of Hardrian’s own creation, come crashing one into the other, the man born to rule finds himself on a wholly different, lifechanging journey that changes him trajectory forever. (The fascinating aspect to Empire of Silence is that we know, bu virtue of the fact that Hadrian is writing from his prison cell in the future, that many of his present hopes and dreams will come to nothing; rather than sucking the emotional-resonance and tension out of the storyline, it actually amplifies it.)

 

Christopher Ruocchio (image courtesy official Christopher Ruocchio Twitter account)

 

Empire of Silence is a wholly impressive, utterly unique epic of storytelling.

By bringing together many of the tropes of science fiction and fantasy, Ruocchio creates an engrossingly dense and immersive tale like no other, one which provides scathing commentary – though this is well-woven into the narrative so you don’t end up with a ranty polemic but rather a clever exploration of the issues – on the way humanity has an endless ability, Hadrian well and truly among them, to shoot itself in the collective foot.

Of course, no one will admit this is happening, with dissent and censorship, dogma and writ so deeply-entrenched that the Empire, all 40,000 worlds and counting, is as sclerotic and rootbound as any empire before it, a captive of limited thought and perspective that has no place for the likes of Hadrian, and certainly the ideas of free-thinking, knowledge-embracing Valka, a xenobiologist from the human-populated, non-Empire Tavrosi Demarchy, who dismisses the supposedly advanced peoples of the imperial system in which she lives and operates, as “barbarians”.

With the war with Cielcin, tall, willowy pale white humanoid beings, growing ever closer to the heart of the Empire, and the root clearly setting from within, it is only people like Hadrian that can avert what looks like an inevitable course.

Alas, he is up against two trenchant enemies – the established order and his own failings which continually damn and elevate him in equal measure, usually the former more than the latter.

“I had some theories, but none I was prepared to share. ‘I am a prisoner here, Valka. Why is that so hard to explain? I can no more leave here than the Umandh. Why do you think I worked so hard to stay in the coliseum? I didn’t want … any of this. I didn’t ask to be here. I didn’t ask for Gilliam to have it out for me. I didn’t ask for you—‘ I broke off before I said something truly foolish and looked away.” (P. 414)

Both Hadrian and the Empire he inhabits are brilliant creations, multi-faceted, richly-wrought and fascinating, propelling a slow-moving storyline that never once feels like it’s anything less than enthralling.

Clearly Ruocchio is possessed of a great love of learning himself with his densely-written novel, brimming with fascinating observations of language, the use of power, archaeology, family, fate, religion and social mores, among many, many others, a feat of knowledge as much as storytelling.

His fastidious attention to detail means that Empire of Silence is one of those rare epic books that is both narratively-engrossing and stunningly packed with so many rich insights and observations that you have to slow down your reading speed to make sure you don’t miss a thing.

It is also possessed of a welcome queer sensibility with many of the characters in the novel including Hadrian’s mother Lillian, and his patron at one time, Count Balian Mataro, firmly and unapologetically not straight; no big deal is made of their sexuality (bar pointing to the Empire’s sexual diversity, an oddity given how repressive it is in many other respects)  which is as it should be, they are simply in the relationships they are in and that, rather pleasingly, is that.

Do not mistake a slowly-unfurling story for not much taking place; Ruocchio packs each and every scene full of a thousand thoughts, feelings and insights, and action aplenty, such you will have to stop to savour them all, but never once do you feel mudbound or becalmed, with a story that, as the first in a series, stands on its own epic feet while opening the door to untold, no doubt, richly-expressed adventures to come.

 

(image courtesy Penguin Random House)

Book review: Elefant by Martin Suter

(cover image courtesy Harper Collins Publishers Australia)

 

Using a glowing pink miniature elephant as the vehicle through which to address the moral and ethical complexities of genetic research may not at first seem to be the most obvious idea in the storytelling book.

But Elefant, a tale of one such quite unnatural, lovable oddity, the people who come to love him and those who only see dollar signs and the chance for self-aggrandisement, makes this quirkily oddball conceit and work well.

Key of course is the fact that the elephant in question, all of 30 cm high and name Barisha or Sabu or both depending on when you come to know him, is so damn sweet and yet undeniably animalistically elephantine – Suter is at pains to stress that for all its artificial origins, he is still a product of nature at his core – that everyone from a circus trainer named Kaung to a homeless man named Schoch and a vet named Valerie all go out their way to protect him.

And a lot of protecting needs to be done with one Mr Roux, founder of Genesca, and his Chinese partners, determined that they will have Barisha/Sabu in their possession or die trying.

“Schoch had admitted to himself long ago that he was an alcoholic. But he was a disciplined alcoholic, he kept telling himself. He had his alcoholism under control. He could stop whenever he wanted, as he proved several times already. Stopped and, because he’d managed it, started again. He’d stop for good when there was a compelling reason to do so.
Was a pink elephant a compelling reason?” (P. 39)

It’s a typical titanic battle of public good vs. corporate evil with some cartoonish flourishes that somehow manage to co-exist happily alongside the book’s more serious elements.

Part of that success comes down to the fact that Suter takes the time to establish his characters, spending quite a few chapters letting us get to know Schoch, Kaung, and his boss Pellegrini, Schoch and Valerie and a host of greater and lesser characters all of whom have a part to play in this gently-told but compelling little story.

For the most part, save for a final act climax which less blockbustery and overwrought that a slight escalation in pace, Suter eschews over the top melodrama narrative amping up in favour of letting the story amble amiably along.

Because we know these people so well, even the bad guys like Roux and Tseng, who are less evil as corporately intent, we’re happy to go along with a moseying style of storytelling, especially because the reasons people would give up everything for a glow-in-the-dark pink elephant has less to do with high-and-mighty principles, though they definitely have them, and more to do with issues in their own lives.

It’s this innate, beautifully-told humanity that anchors this somewhat fantastical story that merges genetic research and cutting-edge 21st century science with the basic need we all have to be known, loved and belong.

 

 

That is, of course, what every great piece of storytelling should have – an emphasis on characters over plot, the appealingly grounded and human over the emptily fantastical.

Suter is well aware of this from the start, gifting us with characters who aren’t good or evil necessarily, though some are possessed of more dubious motivations than others, but whose actions certainly indicate their worth or otherwise in our affections.

By personalising what can feel like an impenetrably complex issue, largely because it is, the author has given us a way into the vexed conundrum that is genetic research.

Like so many other pressing technological issues, there is both good and bad to be gained by advances in genetic knowhow.

Alas where there is the end of cancer or other chronic and terminal diseases, there is rampant abuse such as creating new life, or really twisting the old exisiting one, which in the case of Elefant comes down to ushering pink elephants into existence for the amusement of the indolent rich and materialistically-inclined.

Suddenly life is not so much a miracle and a wonder, though you’d be hard-pressed not to view Barisha/Sabu in those terms, as another monetised, tradeable commodity, part of modern society’s seemingly endless quest to hang a dollar sign on everything.

“After dinner they’d made tea and repaired to the drawing room. Sabu had stayed in the kitchen, but they’d left the doors open in case she wanted to join them. Some days she was more attached to them than others.” (P. 286)

By taking us down to such a micro, very human level, genetic research feels like something we can grappled with, at least in part.

I say, “in part” because this is no scientifically-dense treatise on the issue; rather at a look at how a somewhat removed concept for many people can play out in the day-to-day world we all inhabit.

Elefant is isn’t a perfect novel and it can sometimes feel like narrative heft and momentum is lost to one too many characters or side diversions, or musings on some quirk or oddity; but largely Suter’s deceptively-simple tale works because it personalises technology and makes relatable, real and something that might impact us.

Granted, it’s highly unlikely we will ever come across a glowing pink miniature elephant, and it’s unlikely we’ll face have to duck and weave about from those from those who want it for their own nefarious ends, but you read this heartwarming, gently-told and delightfully human novel, you come to understand how our world is changing and how even in the midst of all that chaotic transition, that it’s important to hold onto what makes us human lest everything simply becomes a part of an amoral bottom line, and we lose who we are in the process.

The City in the Middle of the Night: Charlie Jane Anders’ new futuristic tale

(Cover design by Jamie Stafford-Hill; courtesy Tor)

 

SNAPSHOT
January is a dying planet—divided between a permanently frozen darkness on one side, and blazing endless sunshine on the other. Humanity clings to life, spread across two archaic cities built in the sliver of habitable dusk. And living inside the cities, one flush with anarchy and the other buckling under the stricture of the ruling body, is increasingly just as dangerous as the uninhabitable wastelands outside.

Sophie, a student and reluctant revolutionary, is supposed to be dead, after being exiled into the night. Saved only by forming an unusual bond with the enigmatic beasts who roam the ice, Sophie vows to stay hidden from the world, hoping she can heal. But fate has other plans—and Sophie’s ensuing odyssey and the ragtag family she finds will change the entire world. (synopsis via Tor.com)

Charlie Jane Anders first novel, All in the Birds in the Sky, is one of those books that I dived into and almost immediately loved, engrossed by a thrilling narrative, exquisitely well-wrought characters and an accessible intelligence to proceedings that added so much to its endlessly-engaging story.

 

Charlie Jane Anders (image courtesy official Charlie Jane Anders Twitter account)

 

I can tell you already beyond a shadow of a doubt that I’m going to love her next book too because not only has her publisher Tor unveiled a dazzlingly-captivating cover but they’ve also given us an excerpt to whet our appetite:

“Bianca walks toward me, under too much sky. The white-hot twilight makes a halo out of loose strands of her fine black hair. She looks down and fidgets, as though she’s trying to settle an argument with herself, but then she looks up and sees me and a smile starts in her eyes, then spreads to her mouth. This moment of recognition, the alchemy of being seen, feels so vivid, that everything else is an afterimage. By the time she reaches the Boulevard, where I’m standing, Bianca is laughing at some joke, that she’s about to share with me.

As the two of us walk back towards campus, a brace of dark quince leaves, hung on doorways in some recent celebration, waft past our feet. Their nine dried stems scuttle like tiny legs.” (Read the full excerpt.)

See doesn’t that make you want to read it already?

I can’t wait to finish it all in one sitting but alas wait I shall have to until 12 February 2019 when the book lands in bookshops, online and in my eager hands.

Book review: The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

(cover image courtesy Bloomsbury Publishing)

 

As a lifelong avid reader, there have been several key moments in my reading journey when things have taken a quantum leap up to a whole other level.

One of those times was around 11 or 12 when I was no longer as challenged by children’s novels as I had once been, and I was looking for something new, something meatier and more challenging to sink my reading teeth into.

My dad came to the rescue, offering up his collection of Agatha Christie novels and I devoured all 66 in quick succession, glorying in the immersively dense and complex, and yet wholly accessible, air of mystery and suspense that each of the books possessed in spades.

Until I came across Stu Turton‘s masterful debut novel, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, I had yet to find anyone else who delivered up quite the same level of engrossingly accessible complexity that Christie brought to her work.

The delight of Turton’s exquisitely well-written, wholly original and wildly imaginative book is that it embodies the same sense of challenge that comes with Christie’s novels, that involving sense that you are the detective as much as the protagonist, in full possession of all the facts and racing to the same conclusion, hopefully at the same time.

“I don’t know our destination, but Evelyn believes we can intercept Madeline on her way back from the hunt. Secretly, I suspect she’s simply looking for an excuse to prolong her absence from the house. Not that any subterfuge is necessary. The last hour in Evelyn’s company is the first time since waking that I’ve felt myself a whole person, rather than the remnants of one. Out here, in the wind and rain, with a friend by my side, I’m happier than I’ve been all day.” P.53)

Of course, if you’re like me, and are less about an orderly, forensic lining up and careful analysis of the facts than allowing yourself to fall in to the sheer experience of sensationally well-plotted and fantastically-detailed sleuthing, you will likely fail miserably at uncovering the perpetrator with a Scooby Doo gang like flourish (to be fair, it’s more of a Poirot or Marple grand reveal but Scooby has the edge in pleasingly-melodramatic theatrics.)

But that’s okay; the reality is that whether you are thrilled by the presentation of tantalising clues and various perspectives or fancy yourself as the detective du jour, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is a brilliantly rewarding read on just about every conceivable level.

Propelled, so Turton says, by an array of Post-It notes dancing across his wall on which he collected the main twists and turns of this time-travelling, genre-mixing, consciousness-swapping novel. The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle leads us on a dance so fiendishly complex, so character-rich and word-beautiful – trust me, you will stop more often than not simply to gasp with pleasure at Turton’s blissfully-good, dazzlingly-clever expression of the English language – that you will fly through the book at breakneck pace and then wish you had the time, and I’m sure I’ll find it, to turn around and read it all over again.

 

 

Among the plethora of laudatory things you can say about this wholly impressive novel is the fact that it is richly-filled with people, some good, many others not so, who are struggling with the innate complexity and contrariness of the human condition, elevated or damned, depending on your perspective, by occupying the rarefied echelons of British society.

All these people are either guests, hosts or staff at at the remote, decrepit English manor known as Blackheath, at which the fractious family, the Hardcastles are holding a grand weekend party, curiously enough on the anniversary of the death of their son Thomas Hardcastle  who was murdered as a child.

Every single one of these mostly blighted people , is fully-wrought, marvellously entertaining and superbly detailed, such that you never once feel as if the novel is populated by cardboard cutout, trope-heavy characters.

Every single one of the main characters, from our narrative protagonist, whose identity is shrouded in mystery at first and builds page-by-mesmerising-page, to the mysterious is-she-good-or-is-she-bad Anna, and Miss Evelyn Hardcastle herself who is caught up in a Groundhog Day-esque cycle of endless daily murder (the same day repeats over and over), and an array of fascinating people besides, bristle and entrance with a palpable, fallible humanity that add so many more layers to an already deeply-substantial storyline.

The protagonist himself, who wrestles with a warts-and-all journey through the very best and worst of impulses, always trying to rise to a higher level lest his whole ordeal feel likes it’s for nought, is remarkable, taking us on not simply a connect-the-dots exercise though that happens, and how (again much gasping with excitement will be done, I warn you now) but an existential struggle that never feels overwrought but very groundedly human.

“Grace keeps watch by the door as Cunningham and I slip into Bell’s bedroom, nostalgia painting everything in cheerful colours. After wrestling with the domineering natures of my other hosts, my attitude towards Bell has softened considerably. Unlike Derby, Ravencourt or Rashton, Sebastian Bell was a blank canvas, a man in retreat, even from himself. I poured into him, filling the empty space so completely I didn’t even realise he was the wrong shape.” (P. 378)

That’s quite an accomplishment given how astoundingly out there the premise is in many ways.

Turton’s gift is that he is able to fully explore and make the most of his rich melange of murder mystery, time travel and Quantum Leap-style changing of perspectives, without once losing sight of the humanity that makes it so damn compelling.

As he layers insight upon insight, observation atop observation, deduction next to deduction, all of which is thrillingly fun rather than mindbloggling exhausting – though to be fair there are a lot of ducks and red herrings and tantalising clues to keep in a row; how well you do that is entirely up to you – he never loses sight, and as a result, neither do we, that these are real people, many behaving abominably, some not, grappling with a host of complicating factors and issues.

It never feels like a coldly impersonal job of deep-dive sleuthing, more concerned with reaching the “A-ha!’ finish line than telling a very human story; rather at every turn, even at its most Agatha Christie-ish (and trust me, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle while suggestive of the justly-revered great mystery author, is not derivative in any way, shape or form, a beguilingly original creation all its own), the humanity is front and centre, and the story (and we the lucky readers) is all the richer for it.

If you miss the thrills of oldtime murder mysteries, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle will certainly give you a sleuthing challenge of stellar proportions; more than that, though, it will take you into the very depths of the human soul, with epically dazzling wordsmithing to match, that have you thinking, pondering and luxuriating in Sliding Doors what-ifs long after your time in the rain-soaked environs of Blackheath is over (well until you read it again … and again and …).

 

Book review: Whisper by Lynette Noni

(cover art courtesy Pantera Press)

 

You have to admire any author who plunges into the well-travelled waters of genre literature, particularly when it concerns mutants, often held aloft as humanity’s possible evolutionary future and the subject of many a graphic novel or film series.

But Australian author Lynette Noni, who is best known for The Medoran Chronicles, has not only taken this challenge but bested it in Whisper, successfully imbuing this particular wing of genre lit with a fresh perspective and vitality similar to that bestowed by M. R. Carey on the world of the zombie apocalypse with The Girl with All the Gifts and The Boy on the Bridge.

Of course, the genius in her approach is that you’re not even aware at first that she’s waded into these murky waters at all.

Our protagonist, Jane Doe aka Chip, is presented as s a mysterious figure trapped in an underground complex where her heavily-circumscribed day consists of visits to a personal trainer, Enzo, who is the Good Cop of the equation, a psychologist, Dr Manning, who is the Ineffectual Cop and Dr Vanik, a Mengele-like madman who performs all kinds of disorienting experiments of her brain.

He is most certainly the Bad Cop of the piece, but while we are present to the repetitiveness of Jane’s uniformly and suffocating bland and yet painful days, and come to understand how she feels about her life, such as it is, through some fearsomely well-written inner monologues, we emerge none the wiser for a while exactly why Jane is where she is and what all these people, good, bad and indifferent want with her and what they hope to achieve.

“I suddenly realize I need to get out of here. These people are too normal. They’re too real. They’re too … colorful. I’m used to bland. U’m used to whitewashed. I’m used to pillowcase uniforms, regulated meals and unchanging schedules. I don ‘t know what to do with fluffy beds, warm clothes, steaming soup, reflective mirrors, chocolate chips,  and laughing angels. That’s not my life — not anymore. And it never will be again.” (P. 63)

When Jane’s true nature emerges, and it’s done in spectacular way in the midst of an ordinary day-to-day situation, it sets in train a cavalcade of well-executed revelations that give not just a fresh slant on mutantkind but an Australian flavour to a preciously almost wholly-American narrative.

For Jane and all the other residents of Lengard as the facility is known are based in Sydney, hidden away deep under the city’s premier shopping strip, Pitt Street Mall, close enough to the normal people of the world to join them above ground in carefully-supervised excursions but a million miles from them in both their innate physical humanity and lifestyle.

Rather than placing them out in the far reaches of the desert-like Outback, which is always the go-to location if you want to give a people or place an added mystery or intrigue, Noni has plonked them fairly and squarely under the heart of Australia’s biggest city, illustrating in the process that they are us and yet no us all at the same time.

Initially though as we try to understand where Jane is – because she has no idea, neither do we for the longest time – we are in the dark along with her, aware there is a great deal unknown but unaware of what it is and whether it presents a threat or a promise.

 

(image courtesy Lynette Noni Twitter account)

 

That Noni sustains this aura of uncertainty, and sustains it grippingly well, for as long as she does is testament to how supremely well she establishes Jane as a character from the get-go.

Without her singularly focused and strong inner narrative, through which we get a handle, or the suggestion of what might be going on at least, on her tightly-drawn world, Whisper would not succeed anywhere near as it does.

That’s not say other elements of the world don’t work well – everything from the storyline to the many revelations to the other characters such as Landon Ward who proves pivotal to her coming to grips with who is and much more besides are beautifully well done (save for the lengthy slabs of exposition in the middle and end sections which, while fascinating and eagerly-devoured, do slow down proceedings down a little) – but it’s Jane who is the star of the show, a mightily strong older teenager who might often be cowed but is never truly beaten.

While you sometimes get the sense she is maybe a little inert in the face of the many blindingly revelatory things that come to bear on her, she is for the most part able to rise to the challenge, not just externally but internally, her inner self bolstered and nurtured by the 2 1/2 years she spends walled-off within herself, unable to speak for reasons that are revealed as the novel progresses.

“The ground is dissolving under my feet. Surely I must be sinking into an alternate dimension. One where silent girls are befriended by armored knights and bouncing children and swallowed up in dreams so real they bleed life into the very walls, turning the blandness of whites, grays and beiges into rainbows so dazzling that the air itself comes alive with their colors.” (P. 87)

To delve too deep into the many revelations would be to walk straight into spoiler alert land, but suffice to say that Jane’s journey, the revelation of her real identity, gifts and destiny are artfully and satisfyingly-handled, delivering on the promise of the opening chapters.

Melodrama creeps in a little here and there, but by and large, Whisper is a compelling tale well-told that never falters or staggers drunkenly under the ever-growing weight of its mythology, but gathers strength chapter-to-chapter, reinventing the genre it occupies with an imaginative flair and emotional resonance that takes an almost otherworldly concept and makes it accessibly, wondrously human.

That is, of course, the secret to really good genre writing; while it’s fun to throw in a host of supernatural bells and whistles, to delve into realms far beyond the ordinary, suburban everyday, the story of any of these denizens of genre lit is that of us all.

They may have amazing abilities, extraordinary insights and be engaged in titanic battles hidden from the eyes of mere mortals, but they are still undeniably, fallibly human, and Whisper is such a captivating, immersive read because it remembers this, giving us a protagonist in Jane who is compelling, sympathetic and real, even as she finds, like we do, that she is part of a world far greater and more expansively-thrilling and dangerous than our own.

 

(photo courtesy Pantera Press)

 

Book review: I’ll Have What She’s Having by Erin Carlson

(cover image courtesy Hachette Australia)

 

Romantic comedies are one of those cinematic genres that the cool people of the world love to rain hate and scorn down upon.

Possessed, you must assume, of love lives so magnificently perfect and satisfying that Cupid himself looks on with rose-ripped envy, they look disdainfully at films which polish the possibility of love to a shimmer rose-tinted glow and take us away from the idea that romance, like so much else in our imperfect world, is a little frayed and worn around the edges.

Those of us with our un-cool feet firmly upon the ground however, know that the types of films made by the late, great Nora Ephron, who is profiled with admiration and unflinching honesty by Erin Carlson in I’ll Have What She’s Having (a nod to that scene in When Harry Met Sally), are as much about love and life as it is as we would very much like it to be.

In Ephron’s superlatively lustrous trio of rom-coms – When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, all starring “America’s sweetheart” Meg Ryan) – love is certainly given the kind of flawless patina that makes you want to move to a rom-com and never move out again.

And honestly that’s the idea – take us into an alternate world of romance, loveliness and hope such that we forget for a little while that love, even in the best relationships, isn’t perfectly expressed and leaves a little bit to be desired.

“By 1993, Nora, partnering with Delia on Sleepless in Seattle, would undergo a decidedly unintentional rebrand as a specialist in the lost art of fairy-tale romance. Meg Ryan seemed an ideal mother figure and Tom Hanks the perfect father; together they embodied the kind of joie de vivre that Henry and Phoebe might have prolonged had darker realities not intervened.” (P. 13)

But as Carlson explains in prose every bit as deliciously light and yet substantially rich and knowing as Ephron’s own, while the films did accomplish that reassuring act of romantic escapism again and again, they were also borne from some pointedly unromantic elements in the creator’s own life.

Her family life had been less than ideal,  with an emotionally distant mother who kept her distance from Nora and her three siblings including frequent collaborator Delia, her first two marriages ultimately loveless disappointments (her third to Nicholas Pileggi was the one that stuck) and stricken by a chronic illness that finally killed her far too early, Ephron was not living some sort of untouched by mortality existence.

Carlson beautifully describes the flaws in Ephron’s own life and character while at the same time celebrating all the immensely good things she brought to close friends and family, her inspired ability to bring whole new cinematic universes to life, and the way she took all kinds of things and gave them a unique slant and lustre.

She was one of a kind but she wasn’t perfect, and the delightful thing about I’ll Have What She’s Having is that Carlson weaves together the Ephron’s imperfections with the sterling qualities that made her such a beloved figure and explains how all these elements came together in a captivating whole to create the rom-coms now rightly regarded as classics of their genre and of movies generally.

 

 

Each film is given its moment in the spotlight with Carlson dextrously describing the lows and highs of moviemaking with everything from personality conflicts on set, discrimination against women writers and directors and the thankless task of shepherding ego-brittle actors towards the finish line to blissful onscreen chemistry such as that between Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, the close friendships that built up such as those between Hanks and Ephron who traded scripts and gave feedback to the euphoric sense when you know a film is coming together.

It’s a warts and all depiction that doesn’t reek of sensationalism or tawdry gossip, or even gleeful meanness but rather the grim reality of getting films, even ones as wonderful as those in Ephron’s oeuvre made.

This willingness to tell it like it is on just about every aspect of Ephron’s life and the way she made her movies grants I’ll Have What She’s Having the kind of accessibility and refreshing honesty that many other books on the inside of Hollywood or show business lack.

Just like life, which is messy mix of the good and bad, the triumphant and the defeatist, the path to rom-com glory that Ephron, who was in many ways as unromantic and tell it like it is as you could get (she did appreciate the irony of becoming the rom-com queen) trod was strewn with all kinds of disappointments, missteps and flaws; and yet, also like life that didn’t stop wonderfully compelling things from emerging from the fray.

“In Hollywood, if something works, the instinct is to make more of it and right away. That summer, Gary called Nora two to three times per week with a sequel idea, but she wasn’t hooked. Assuming Sam and Annie lived happily ever after, would their blissful—uneventful—relationship sustain audience attention over an hour and a half? Dounbtful. Now if they broke up, even temporarily, that would be drama. But a breakup would negate the movie’s uplifting kicker: Once you find The One, your troubles melt away. Depicting the couple as anything less than perfect would feel like a betrayal to their fans.” (P. 199-200)

Impeccably well-researched and a love letter to Ephron and her work, both cinematic and written without being the least slavishly deferential, I’ll Have What She’s Having is a perfect guide to these films, to Ephron’s cut-the-crap life and the way she took so many things that might have defeated less-sturdy souls and created something magnificent and wondrous with them.

The mix of memoir and storytelling, for there is most assuredly a narrative woven in there gives the book a readability that has you turning page after page with gleeful anticipation.

It’s not an exhaustive analysis of filmmaking nor of Ephron’s place in it, and I’ll Have What She’s Having doesn’t really live up the book’s tagline “How Nora Ephron’s three iconic films saved the romantic comedy” but it’s still a wholly satisfying read, give us a glimpse behind the curtain and helping us to appreciate why Ephron’s films were, if not the saviour of rom-coms, at the very least a considerable helping hand to keeping them alive and kicking that reminded us that love can be wonderful and delightful and fun even in the midst of this crushingly exhausting thing we call life.

 

Book review: The Unlikely Heroics of Sam Holloway by Rhys Thomas

(cover image courtesy Hachette Australia)

 

It is tempting to think of a whimsically-inclined title such as The Unlikely Heroics of Sam Holloway as a jaunty, appealingly-idiosyncratic journey through the highs and lows of life with a young Englishman whose unorthodox approach to life and decidedly non-mainstream experiences lead to a glowingly-happy end at which much lessons are learned, hope is restored, and the worst of the world is soundly beaten by its very best.

While that is, in part, what happens, and author Rhy Thomas does a fine job of satirising the genre of superhero-dom, among many other things, as he does so, Sam Holloway is leading anything but a charmed existence.

Deeply, and he feels irrevocably-scarred, by an Event – yes the capital letter is most certainly warranted as you soon discover – Sam is a dedicated worker at an English-domiciled Japanese electronics wholesaler by day, where is watched over with almost fatherly concern and pride by Mr Okamatsu, and where his spartan desk is seen as a mark of undeclared OCD by coworkers such as Linda, who bears the brunt of Sam’s many unconscious ticks.

By night, however, Sam is an entirely different, far less self-effacing creation, one of his own hand, who dons a mask, specially-ordered vest and other gear such as smoke bombs, and heads into the dark of his quaint English town to right wrongs, to make the world feel safer again as only as mysterious, self-sacrificing superhero can.

“It had been a feeling of despair mixed with elation. The costume was amazing and awful; it was insane. There in the spring evening something was badly wrong with the grand plan that had been his life. How ridiculous it was, and yet the elation – the feeling of being cocooned in another person – was intoxicating and, more than this, it was easy. It felt easy. Since donning the mask he had finally achieved an inner peace. Insane or not, it was what he needed to do.” (P. 31)

But who is Sam really making the world safer for? The various people he encounters who understandably see him as some sort of oddity, although a great many such as the Vicar and a young teenager with anger issues see him as a kindly force, or himself?

For Sam, horrified by life and unable to fully participate in its great many delights, properly and to their full extent, feels distinctly unsafe.

So unsafe, in fact, that while he goes out to the pub or to all-night gaming events with his lifelong friends Tango and Blotchy, and takes holidays where he drives into the countryside and stops at favourite cafe for refreshments, he is not really alive.

No matter what he does, grief, an enervating, horrifically-warping kind of grief is constantly taking away from everything he does and experiences, making his life far less fulfilling than it should be, especially after he meets the red-haired delight that is librarian Sarah, and adding a particular urgency to his nocturnal activities that lends them as a heightened poignancy, even with Thomas’s dryly funny film-noir-esque prose.

 

(cover art courtesy NetGalley)

 

For all the whimsy and charm that The Unlikely Heroics of Sam Holloway possesses, and it has them in pleasing, awkward abundance, it is, at its heart, a book of about the way grief seizes us, often out of the blue, and doesn’t let us go.

Or more to the point, we grow so used to its presence, to its cold, dead hand, to its many unceasing demands, that we don’t want to let it go, or more accurately, are unable to let it go.

Having eschewed counselling following the Event, Sam is, at times literally thanks to misjudgement while out and about as the Phantasm, the walking wounded, a man who never talked about what happened and how deeply it affected him until he begins to unburden himself to Sarah who has herself been scarred by the unexpected misfortunes of life.

As Thomas thoughtfully and with great sensitivity and understanding takes us further into the messed-up terrain of Sam’s initially-perceived quirky existence, we come to understand that he is a creature of his grief, rather than someone who has endured it, come out to the other side (well, as much as grief ever allows you do that; let’s be honest, there is no real end) and has rejoined the human race, albeit with a wholly-changed perspective.

“It was dusk and it was time to go. But he didn’t take the box to the car. Instead, he found himself in the deserted swimming pool again, the cats watching him from the overgrown bushes and unruly trees. The sky was a fire red, a dry wind whipped his face. He opened the box and removed his parents’ wedding album. He flicked through the pages, not thinking much, pausing on one image of his mum and dad standing on the steps of the church with confetti drifting. He was in the photo too. In her belly. You couldn’t see any evidence of any unborn Sam, but he was in there.” P. 215)

If you have gone through the darkness and lostness of grief, you will ache for Sam’s alienation from humanity and life, feel for his inability to surmount it fully even as Sarah’s presence impels him to do so in a way only true love can, and yes there is a sweet love story that saves them both simultaneously, and yet be utterly charmed and move by the way Thomas charts his reemergence, after a somewhat overly-melodramatic denouement, into the fullness of life.

Sam, or rather Samson, is given exquisitely full presence by Thomas who not only gives us rare and precious insight into someone injured by grief, and at a loss to know how to deal with it because his superhero shenanigans, which are in reality a desperate cry for help, but also a young man who knows there’s more out there for him if he can just reach it.

Appealingly balancing whimsy and darkness, euphoria with unutterable sadness, Thomas shows us a life balanced on a knife-edge, full of so much possibility but with little to no idea of how to realise it.

One thing is for sure – you will come to love Sam, identify with his dilemmas and internal struggles with empathetic profundity  if grief has even but grazed past you (but more so if it has claimed something precious from you) and hope against hope as The Unlikely Heroics of Sam Holloway follows a wholly unusual and yet startlingly all-too-real journey from wholeness into grief (via flashback) and then, in messy fits and starts that make great relatable sense, back out in again.

It may have a quirky title, but this is not some fey trip through the delightfully contrary environs of human existence; rather The Unlikely Heroics of Sam Holloway is a grounded, affectingly-true excursion into the very worst life can throw at us, even in the midst of the blandness and uniformity of suburbia, and ultimately the very best, a rewarding transformational journey that stays close to the idea that getting to the destination is worth every moment (and is indeed desperately necessary) but is far more circuitous than any of us might expect, and pockmarked with a great many, decidedly non-whimsical steps along the way.