Weekend pop art: People, books and the seamless matching of the two

(image via Instagram (c) librairie_mollat)

 

The Librairie Mollat is an independent bookstore in Bordeaux, France that has had a great deal of fun, so notes Laughing Squid, matching customers and books together in fantastically creative ways.

So seamless and imaginative are their efforts that it looks as if book and customer belong perfectly together, a pairing that has always been and always will be.

These images are not their first ride on the person-and-publication matching carousel – they have tried it once before with equally successful results.

It’s just another way that independent bookstores, not on the rise after so many years in retreat, are making themselves both relevant and noticeable, a welcome trend if you believe, like I do, that bookstores are the true heart of every community.

 

 

 

 

 

Book review: The Hoarder by Jess Kidd

(cover image courtesy Allen Unwin Australia)

 

One of the first things that strikes you within a few words of diving into the wonders of The Hoarder is how exquisitely well Jess Kidd writes.

She is that rare talent who can spin the most lusciously poetic of phrases and yet never once lose the kind of grounded emotional evocation that is at the heart of any good story.

Even as you gasp in admiration at the sheer beauty of her writing, you come to know the characters in the book deeply and well, proving that it is possible to be dazzlingly good wordsmith and not rob your novel of the sort of accessibility necessary for readers to truly identify with your work.

Take opening paragraph from the novel which in no time flat, and with words that practically sing and dance off the page, introduce us to the mysterious Cathal Flood whose hermitic lifestyle in the grand old, rubbish-clogged home of Bridlemere is central to the grandly lyrical narrative of The Hoarder:

“He has a curious way of moving through his rubbish. He leans into it, skimming down the corridors like a fearless biker on a hairpin bend. He gallops and vaults through the valleys and hills, canters and bobs through the outcrops and gorges of his improbably hoardings. Now and then he stops to climb over an obstacle, folding his long legs like picnic chairs. And all the while his chin juts up and out and his body hangs beneath it, as if his grizzled jaw is wired to an invisible puppeteer.” (P. 1)

In contrast, the latest in a long line of caregivers, Maud Drennan, who succeeds where many others fail in forging a connection with the irascible old Irishman (it helps that she too hails from the Emerald Isle), is not quite as lithe or graceful, despite being half her client’s age:

“I don’t move like that. I wade, tripping over boxes and piles of mildewing curtains, getting caught in cables, hooked on hat stands and assaulted by rutting ironing boards. I flounder over records, books, stained blankets, greasy collections of plastic bags, garden forks, antique mangles, a woman’s patent leather shoe and unopened blender that also grates and peels. And cats, cats, cats.” (p. 1)

Both characters leap, fully-formed, into our reader’s minds eyes in a paragraph each, testament to how elegantly and economically Kidd writes without once sacrificing an iota of the languorous mystery that suffuses this magnificent piece of work from start to finish.

Both Cathal and Maud, different though they may be in their own ways, have an innate likability about them, and even though there is much about her client that unsettles her with accusations of murder, kidnapping and all manner of questionable activities possibly associated with him, she persists in her latest assignment, spurred on by her landlady Renata, a deliciously theatrical transgender woman with a salacious love of a good mystery, real or imagined.

Together, along with a man who identifies as Cathal’s previous caregiver Sam Hebden, who may or may be who he says he is, they attempt to get to the bottom of whether the grouchy old hoarder, who is at desperately poisonous odds with his son Gabriel, really did kill his wife Mary, abduct a girl called Maggie Dunne from a children’s home in Dorset and whether all the supernatural goings-on in the home, which deliver Maud all kinds of clues for her quest, point to Cathal or someone else entirely.

 

Jess Kidd (image courtesy jesskid.com)

 

This engaging mystery of many interlinking, decades-old layers provides the narrative momentum for The Hoarder, in which Maud encounters the confoundingly supernatural, the diabolically all-too-human and the darkly familial, all in the service of a story that is much more than a gothic whodunnit.

In fact, for all the mysteriousness of Cathal, the unfathomable darkness of his son and the grandly twisted home in which much of the story takes place, the real heart of The Hoarder is the burgeoning, oft-grudging relationship between Maud and Cathal who is far softer and more eager for human connection than he first appears.

While he tries his usual spiteful bluster and nastiness with Maud, she is largely unfazed – I say largely because there are times when the sheer weirdness of Cathal and his almost-possessed home threaten to overwhelm Maud’s gutsy willingness to hang in there – and sticks at her cleaning up of his hoarded junk pile and her caring for a man who seems to care not if he’s loved or not but who, like many hurt and angry people, wants the very thing he claims to despise.

“What we really need is some kind of celestial truth drug, a bolt of revelatory lightning strong enough to unearth Bridlemere’s secrets. I imagine the house hurling all manner of clues at us: train timetables, diaries, a full range of murder weapons. Ghosts would drift out from every corner, grave-eyed and rubbing their cold little hands, ready to give sworn statements. Every last one of the family’s skeletons would be accounted for: out they would come, with their bones numbered, chattering their teeth and pointing their bony fingers.” (P. 206)

Theirs is a relationship of people more similar than they care to admit, with Maud nursing recollections of the disappearance some three decades earlier of her sister Deidre at an isolated beach, a loss that she has clearly not quite gotten over and which perhaps, powers her willingness to get the bottom of Cathal’s messy life of lost loves, family members and semblance of a normal life.

Beyond the heartwarming humanity of The Hoarder, which speaks to the innate humanity and need for meaningful connection in all of us, there is a delightful urban magicality at work with Maud accompanied by a number of ghostly saints, all of whom have their own rather forthright opinions on how she should proceed, both in her unexpectedly close friendship with Cathal, and the wider mystery of her life.

It’s never fully explained if the saints are real, or mere figments of her subconscious or if the poltergeist-generated scenes that punctuate the storyline are as tangible as the wall of National Geographics that separates Cathal’s private quarters from the rest of the house, but in the end it really matter since the heart of the book is how closely Maud and Cathal grow and how that plays a huge part in the way the final events of the book play out.

Suffice to say that Kidd balances the magical and the everyday with aplomb, mixing together the supernatural and the mundane with dizzyingly breathtaking style, her words richly otherworldly and gorgeously entrancing at every turn.

The Hoarder is a beautiful book, possessed of the kind of humanity in the friendship between Cathal and Maud (and also Maud and Renata) that is sorely lacking in the lives of many of the other people in the book, all of whom, for one reason or another have chosen life options far darker and more self-serving than the two appealing protagonists.

It is impossible to walk away from this book without the poetry of it all happily subsuming you, proof if ever you needed it that life can be both magical and grounded, uplifting and grim all at once, and that for all the darker places and twisted urges that something quite wonderful can emerge, even if only for a moment.

 

Alternate US title for the novel (image courtesy jesskidd.com)

 

Book review: Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal

(cover image courtesy Harper Collins) 

One of life’s great delights is having your expectations of something completely and utterly challenged and subverted, in the best possible way.

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal is such the latest example of assumptions being made, in this case based on the cheekily playful title, and then summarily tossed aside as the true character of this impressively-insightful book makes its presence felt.

While the title might suggest a whimsical, lighthearted novel that bubbles along with fey, rom-com level sensibilities, what you in fact end up with is a cleverly told tale, with some delicious melodrama thrown in for good measure, that takes a serious look at the way conservatism of any kind can warp and twist the lives of a community for the worse.

In the case of Nikki, a thoroughly modern Punjabi-British woman who works in a pub and has moved out to live on her own in direct contravention of her mother’s wishes, it has some profound effects on her life when a simple job to teach widows at the temple in Southall, London ends up being a liberationist movements, one with a decidedly sexual edge to it, that changes not just her life but the lives of the many widows who come into her orbit.

“Nikki stopped and looked around. She was surrounded by women with their heads covered – women hurrying after their toddlers, women giving each other sideways glances, women hunched over their walking frames. Each one had a story. She could see herself addressing a room full of these Punjabi women … Fiery-eyed and indignant, they would pen their stories for the whole world to read.” (PP. 19-20)

At first, it’s a meeting of wholly different worlds.

While Nikki is Punjabi, she’s as far from a traditional woman of the community as you can get, affectionately scornful of her her more conservative sister Mindi’s attempts to set up an arranged marriage for herself; whereas the women who turn up at her class are well schooled in the traditions of a world in which a whole host of demands are never spoken but nonetheless acknowledged with resignation and always acceded to, lest the scorn of others come raining down upon them.

Nikki is dismissive of these concerns at first, and the widows uncertain what to do with a woman who is technically part of their community but who doesn’t subscribe to many of its tenets.

But as the classes progress and morph with a surprising agility brought on by women who find their voices at last from English conversation tutoring to the sharing and writing of exotic stories, it becomes apparent that they have much more in common that either party would have expected.

Once again, assumptions are confounded, and everyone is all the better for it.

But not, it should be added, in some sort of fairytale fashion; in fact, while there are some lovely elements to this story and the relationships ring rich, true and warm (even the antagonistic ones are richly-realised), Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows is a far graver undertaking than its title may suggest.

 

Balli Kaur Jaswal (image courtesy Gransnet)

 

As Nikki and the widows comes to know each better, and the creation of the stories loosen up all sorts of pent-up desires, a wave of freedom spills over with some dangerous implications as well as beguiling possibilities into the wider Punjabi community where not everyone is really to embrace truth and honesty, and sexuality for that matter.

What starts as women who had longed for so much more from their relationships finding expression in tales ripe with sexual fantasy and emotional connection, steadily becomes a movement that promises real change for these women and the wider conservative society in which they must tread on cultural eggshells or face censure and opprobrium from the likes of male extremists like the Brothers.

It’s not quite that dramatic of course with the classes developing at first in fits and starts, but once it gains momentum and Nikki’s students, who become her friends, such as Sheena, Arvinder, Preetam, and even the class convenor Kulwinder, who is mourning the loss of her daughter to a marriage gone wrong that ended in her death, find their voice, there’s no stop what they women are capable of and what they set out to achieve.

Rather than being some sort of twee British tale of the locked-away and oppressed giddily finding their way and the rest of the world parting to make for them, becomes far more grounded and substantial, a reflection of what can happen when the chains are loosened, strictures are relaxed, and life is allowed to find its own way, free from oppressive expectations.

“Through the narrow slit between the curtains, Kulwinder could only see the entryway and the staircase. The vision in the window had been a trick – the sun emerging  and disappearing with uncertainty, not quite knowing its rightful position in this time between seasons. A sensation of relief fanned across Kulwinder’s body like a fever was breaking. She kissed her fingertips and then pressed them to the window.
It was finally time to let Maya go.” (P. 363)

What is especially pleasing with Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows is that the women awaken themselves to the possibilities around them, taking firm grip of a wheel too long denied them.

Nikki is a catalyst of sorts but its more her presence than incites this erotic revolution, a much-delayed articulation of long buried desires than has as much an effect on the teacher as it does the students.

There is a beautiful rhythm and flow to this book, which weaves in elements of romance, repression, freedom, conservatism challenged, and even a murder mystery of sorts to a wholly satisfying result.

The characters are vivacious and alive and while there are some are melodramatically elements and many loose ends are neatly tied up, you don’t begrudge a moment of the happiness that comes from these women finally discovering what a truly-lived life looks like.

Grounded in the reality of a community that is brought to life with all its pluses and minuses, Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows is a substantial gem that deftly balances loss and the possibility of gains with aplomb, a joyous journey with darker elements that opens a window on what can happen when the door of oppression is opened a little and the light and all it reveals is allowed to steal in.

Book review: Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon

(cover image courtesy HarperCollins Publishers Australia)

 

Time brings both blessings and curses for mortal creatures such as ourselves.

While the ticking of the clock brings a host of wonderful friendships, precious family moments and memories and experiences we often treasure for a lifetime, it can also bring a sizable amount of loss, regret and grief.

Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon (The Trouble With Goats and Sheep) takes a deep dive into this mix of the good and the bad, the blessings and the curses, as we spend time with 84-year-old Florence Claybourne, who has fallen in her retirement unit at Cherry Tree Home for the Elderly – while it has old people in abundance, it’s curious free of cherry trees – and is waiting for someone, anyone, to come and find her lying on the floor.

As she imagines a series of scenarios where everyone from Handy Simon, the home’s quiet, taciturn handyman who thinks more deeply than he lets on, to Cheryl the hairdresser with a painful loss to her name or Miss Ambrose, the buttoned-down administrator who expected more from life than it’s delivered finds her, and with kind assurances, spirits her off to the hospital, we relive a number of key events in the ex-factory worker’s life, both recent and far distant.

“There is a special kind of silence when you live alone. It hangs around, waiting for you to find it. You try to cover it up with all sorts of other noises, but it’s always there, at the end of everything else, expecting you.” (P. 28)

Florence, it seems, has had a life marred by more good than bad, but the bad part of the equation weighs upon her, at least when she can remember what it is that’s troubling her.

Most of the time, her memories are swirling just out of reach – Cannon does a beautiful job of capturing what it is like to not have given up on yourself or life but to find increasingly that it may have, through your failing mind and body, given up on you – and it’s up to Florence’s best friend Elsie, who she’s known since school days, to pry the information out of her.

Theirs is an especially close bond, one that has helped Florence navigate all kinds of traumatic life events and which continues to sustain her in her latter years when she is more forgetful than she’s comfortable admitting to, and when an old face from the past, a man she thought long gone from her life, reappears in the most sudden and mysterious of circumstances.

What elevates Three Things About Elsie is not just the sympathetic and insightful way it addresses the multitudinous challenges of getting older – at one point one of the characters says that, appearances aside, they feel just like they did in their early twenties and feel betrayed that their body won’t keep up with their still-youthful mind – but the way in which is examines what it’s like to have the past and the present often merge together in a messy, confusing jumble.

 

(cover image courtesy Simon and Schuster)

 

For all its grim honesty about passing burden of passing time, and the substantial price that must be paid for all those memories and life experiences only to have them slip from your grasp when you most need them to sustain you,  Three Things About Elsie is a charming novel full of hope, promise, friendship and the heady possibility of change.

Not so much for Florence, Elsie, fellow resident Jack and the troubling Gerald Price aka Ronnie Butler, although it becomes apparent that life isn’t quite done with them yet, but for the people who keep the wheels of Cherry Tree turning such as Simon, Cheryl (who’s sweetly keen on the oblivious handyman) and Miss Ambrose, each of whom has so much ahead of them if they can just figure out what to do with it.

This mix of possible present for the younger characters and past regret for people like Florence informs much of the sparkling life of the novel, which is part existential whodunnit as Gerald’s presence brings back, slowly, a slew of long-buried memories to Florence’s consciousness, part rumination on the way human connections transform us for better and worse, and how even lives that seem diminutive on life’s stage can often have a powerful on others.

“I could see Elsie smiling at us.
‘You can’t define yourself by a single moment,’ Jack held my hand very tightly. I could feel him shaking. ‘That moment doesn’t make you who you are.’
‘Then what does?’ I said.
‘Oh, Florence. Everything else,’ he said. ‘Everything else.'” (P. 410)

There’s a lot packed into Three Things About Elsie, which draws its title from the, naturally enough, three main things Florence either values about her best friend, or which have bound them tightly together over the years:

  1. The first thing is she’s my best friend.
  2. The second is that she always knows what to say to make me feel better.
  3. The third thing … well, that’s the heart and soul of the book.

It’s the third aspect of Florence and Elsie’s close, lifelong friendship, which is more complex than first appearances might suggest, that provides the narrative impetus for the book which is split between Florence imagining how she will be rescued, and a slowly-building revelation of how her past and present have collided in her less than stellar. but not wholly without promise, present.

Three Things About Elsie is sweet and charming in many ways but thanks to insightful eyes, a clearly empathetic heart and a deeply-accessible understanding of the human condition, Cannon invests this sublimely-rewarding book with a muscularity that other books set in the twilight of peoples’ lives (there is even a very pithy observant comment about the use of the word “twilight” too) simply don’t possess.

Matched with a poetic soul and an ability to articulate what we’re all thinking or observing  but never manage to fully express to our satisfaction – the dissection of the way people always thank others with chocolate is one example of Cannon’s talent in this regard – this amply-rewarding novel on the human condition at all stages of life is a rare joy, rich and sociable yet also darkly resonant and all too honest about the contrary realities of being alive.

 

Purrr-fectly literate! The gloriously-good pairing of cats and bookshops

It could be because I love cats and I can’t think of anything better than curling up for hours with a good book – providing of course, at my age, my physio is standing by to un-curl me at a moment’s notice – but somehow cats and bookshops seem the most perfect of marriages.

After all, what could be better than wandering around your favourite kind of store – spoiler alert: it’s a bookshop – with a cuddly feline wandering past you or behind you or snoozing atop a pile of books in front of you.

Could there be anything, caramel-topped cheesecakes aside, more wonderful?

Honestly I’d say not and as you watch these delightful stories of cat who have made themselves very much at home in their respective bookshops, and changed the lives of the people who work and shop there for the better, you’ll understand how true it is that every good bookshop needs an even better cat.

You’re welcome.

 

 

 

 

 

Colony: “End of the Road” (S3, E5 review)

The hospitality of the Resistance, always a bit doubtful, had noticeably slipped of late (image via Spoiler TV (c) USA Network)

 

  • SPOILERS AHEAD … AND SOME INVOLUNTARY CAMP REDECORATING …

It’s tempting to think of people fighting back against tyranny and evil as universally idealistic and possessed of good and noble intentions.

In a Disney Resistance – yes you may picture Sleeping Beauty and Snow White with guns, a cache of grenades and do-or-die attitude – that would be the case with everyone united against a common enemy (they may even a jaunty song of embattled opposition to tyranny).

However, reality doesn’t always accommodate those kinds of movie-of-the-week ideals, embracing more of a scarred, broken mentality that many of us are comfortable with, the resistors coming to resemble those who must be resisted in ways no one imagined.

Take the leader of the Seattle Resistance, Andrew MacGregor (Graham McTavish) who has gone from freedom fighter with a blog in the pre-Arrival days, when the Hosts were nothing but conspiracy theorist 0s and 1s buzzing around his computer, to mindlessly-cruel tyrant, broken by the Vichy collaborators of humanity to the point where he sees spies and double agents, all curiously looking just like the Bowmans under every bed.

His quest for the truth is long gone alas, replaced by a driving need to bolster his own rightness, his tattered credibility, a drive so complete and all-consuming that it makes him willing to torture children in the service of the greater good.

His greater good, of course.

He’d never admit to that though; in his frayed and twisted kind, he remains a man of nobility of purpose, the eager blogger committed to exposing the fact that aliens are on their way, and far from being ETs eager to phone home, M&Ms in hand, the gutsy lone voice tried his hardest to awaken humanity to the gravest threat they’ve ever faced.

Well, until he decides that evil and terrible things must be done in the name of goodness and truth such as playing with the minds of Charlie (Jacob Buster) and Gracie (Isabella Crovetti-Cramp), punching Bram (Alex Neustaedter) in the face when he steals the igniter caps that will unleash the bombs intended to destroy Seattle (taking millions of innocent lives with them) and tying up Will (Josh Holloway) and Katie (Sarah Wayne Callies) until they crack under the combined weight of his bad cap and Vincent’s (Waleed Zuaiter) good cop questioning.

 

Dear Leader was glowingly animated until he powered down and someone had to wind him up again (image via Spoiler TV (c) USA Network)

 

Counterbalancing MacGregor’s addled, cruel whatever-it-takes leadership but barely, Vincent is a man who wants to do the right thing.

I mean really wants to do the right thing.

He’s a good guy, stymied by fear that he will do precisely the wrong thing, a prevarication of intent that sees him trying to extract the truth from Will and Katie – sadly that is all they tell, though neither Vincent nor Macgregor will believe them for wholly different reasons – and in a move that dooms the camp and almost all who reside in it, calling the Occupation at the gentle, reasonable-sounding urging of Alan Snyder (Peter Jacobson), thinking he is doing so in a way that both hides the resistance camp’s location and brings the firepower necessary to stop MacGregor.

Vincent’s is a heart of idealistic tenor, one that beating with the urge to do the right thing for the actual greater good; alas, it is used by Snyder to bring down hellfire and damnation upon everyone, including the Bowmans who barely manage to escape, sadly watching Charlie get shot in the back and die mere metres from safety.

It’s the big death of the episode and indeed the show, one of a thousand damning, desperately awful cuts that together add up to another chapter in humanity’s quest to destroy itself.

Not that anyone has set out to do that; the collaborators holed up in Switzerland think they are advancing humanity to some great new galactic stage, themselves along with it because why die for a great cause right, and the resistors striking at the heart of an enslaving force, all have fallen into the same trap possibly – aiding or fighting, as the case may be, the wrong side, history bearing down with frightening intensity.

In other words, each group thinks they are on the right side of history, a deliciously grey area that Colony exploits effectively episode-after-episode where no one is completely good or bad, even if it is suggested, and any in their right non-collaborative state of mind would have to think this, that fighting back against an authoritarian occupational force is always the right thing to do.

 

Resistance decorating had never been cutting-edge but the recent trend to extremely shabby chic, how with extra grey hats trashing, was going to get them into Apocalypse Vogue any time soon (image via Spoiler TV (c) USA Network)

 

Colony plays though in the murky grey areas of rampant self-interest where everyone lies and dies, quite literally in this instance, at the hand of their own dogged self-justification.

Whether your Snyder, who is transparently out for whatever he can grab for himself – though his reaction to seeing Charlie’s grey dead body would suggest he is entirely immune to some basic humanity – or MacGregor, your ability to prosecute your case rests entirely on how well you can rationalise it to yourself or to everyone around you.

Much as the idealists in us would love to think a person’s position rests on well-established norms of morality, ethics or inherent truthfulness, the reality is that they have only a passing acquaintance with those norms, muddied and sullied by all kinds of self-interested realpolitik.

The genius of Colony, which is uniformly excellent week-to-week, is that it manages to explore the great grey chasms between idealism and on-the-ground reality while still telling a rip-roaringly good story.

You might think that an episode almost solely composed of interrogations, agonised deliberation and moral relativism, whether clad in righteous hues or purely utilitarian power-driven ones, might make for slow viewing but “The End of the Road” is gripping, immersive stuff, a cautionary tale about losing sight of the ideals of your cause to the extent that the differences between you and your enemy almost cease to exist in any kind of meaningful way.

We might think that good and evil, pro and anti are clearly defined in any given situation but as Vincent particularly demonstrates in this episode, this is a fallacy with reality far more messy and contrary and downright complicated than anyone would like to believe.

  • Next up on Colony in “The Emerald City” … 

 

Book review: Autonomous by Annalee Newitz

(cover image courtesy Orbit Books)

 

Unfettered modern capitalism, whatever your view of it, and for most people, billionaires and power brokers aside, it’s not a favourable one, is having quite the heyday of late.

Governments regularly spruik its multitudinous benefits, throwing around words like “efficiency” and “market-driven” like their confetti at a neverending, privately-funded market-driven parade.

So robust is the adherence by most modern governments to the hallowed, almost religious tenets of Thatcherite free-market capitalism, that little by little, everything has come to have a value.

Everything from free time to the work of housewives to the natural enviroment and various other lifegiving intangibles have come to be given values, as if the only validation of inherent worth is an assigned dollar amount.

In Annalee Newitz’s startlingly-accomplished and mesmerisingly-intelligent debut novel, Autonomous, this dynamic has reached its zenith, or nadir depending on your philosophical position, with everything in a radically-corporatised mid-twenty second century world having a value of some kind.

Taking that position to its ultimate endpoint, life itself now has a value based almost solely on a person’s value to society – it’s not such a far-fetched idea; see what China has in mind for its citizens – with slavery, or rather voluntary indenturing now back in vogue among the world’s capitalist elite.

“Jack hadn’t had to kill anyone for a long time. Usually, in a tight situation, she wasn’t in the middle of the ocean. She could run away instead of having to fight. She ran a hand through the salt-stiffened tufts of her hair, wanting to vomit or cry or give up again in the face of the hopeless, endless pharma deprivation death machine.” (P. 17)

Propelled by the idea that the various economic blocs of the world have had to invest significantly in technological advancement and must get due recompense – countries have long ceased to exist with entities like the Free Trade Zone (old USA/Canada/Mexico) and the Asian Union bestriding the map like a monetarily-driven colossus – the indenturing of robots for a minimum of ten years has spurred a rather warped idea that humans, usually poor ones of course, can choose to be indentured too.

It’s a glossy, PR-friendly way of describing slavery that seems to grant autonomy where there really is none, and it ignores the fact that the poor have little to no rights, the middle class, such as they are, have to be able to afford franchises which give them the right to live and work in a city, a state or farther afield depending on how deep their pockets are, to get ahead, and everything, and I mean everything, is standardised, corporatised and valued according to strict economic rationale.

It’s a mark of how well-written Autonomous is that this world-building feels incredibly real, well-informed and scrupulously-detailed, an unsettling outworking of dynamics that are already very much in play today.

There is nothing on the surface dystopian about the future – Newitz objectively presents it as a world in which people, well most people, accept that everything has a price, and they must work around it – with the populace at large making the best of things and treating the most outlandish of things as normal, much as they have always done.

That’s not to say everyone likes it; in fact many people don’t, with two of the main characters Jack and Threezed – he’s named after the last two digits of his numerical designation as a slave, sorry voluntarily indentured person – each fighting in their own way to grab back some control and restore some humanity to a worldwide system manifestly lacking in it on the whole.

 

Annalee Newitz (photo courtesy Publishers Weekly)

 

It is easy to think it’s a losing battle with the likes of Eliasz and Paladin, human and robot agents of the International Property Office (IPO) of the African Federation – which remains as economically discriminated then as it is now with the Western nations continuing their dominance of the sunny side of the economic street – enforcing capitalist imperatives rather than old-fashioned notions of right or wrong.

There is a justice of sorts but it’s as cold, hard and unyielding as a balance sheet so when a productivity drug created by one of the big pharma, Zaxy, turns out to have some deadly addictive side effects, meaning that Jack, an idealistic scientist-turned-drug pirate determined to Robin Hood the balance in favour by reverse-engineering drugs and making them cheaply available, has been peddling death-inducing drugs, the IPO comes down hard and brutally in their pursuit of the criminal.

It’s not the deaths that bother them so much as the violation of corporate rights, and their idea of justice delivered involves far more death, torture and abrogation of every human right imaginable than our current judicial system would ever begin to contemplate sanctioning.

While Autonomous is far from being some ranty, empty-headed polemic, it does, indirectly at least via some judicious showing not telling, make a clear case for humanity over economics, illustrating how society is hollowed out by an adherence to money over all over things.

Humans, as always, are endlessly adaptable, and make the best of it as previously noted, but the old need for love, connection, value and freedom remain, with the itching need to have some choice in how your life plays out never quite going away.

“Jack remembered the next twenty-four hours as a series of violent, black-and-white still photographs, like the slides archivists pasted into old movies where footage had been lost.” (P. 204)

Autonomous then is a book for everyone who subscribes to the idea that you should never simply accept a state of being as immutable and unchangeable; in fact the dedication lives out this creed – “For all the robots who question their programming” and it is powerful and seductive, as it should be.

This doesn’t automatically presage a happy ending of course, and you could well argue that any triumph at the conclusion of the grippingly tense storyline is ameliorated by the preservation, despite the best efforts of Jack, Threezed and a number of other idealists of the status quo, but the ideas that percolate through the book, and are expressed with deliciously poetic prose that is as beautiful as the ideals that drive the narrative, reign supreme, provoking much rumination for any one who can’t accept that we rise and fall based on how much money we have in our possession.

What makes Autonomous so brilliant, apart from its superlative writing, rich and vibrant characterisation and taut, engaging narrative, is that its many, many ideas are so cleverly woven into the fabric of the book.

Want to get someone to cease being a sheep and think again about the rules and regimes that govern their life? hand them Newitz’s immensely-enjoyable, evocatively-delivered debut which proves you can have your full-speed ahead plot and pause to think things through too.

Maybe if more of us listen to its expertly and well-delivered message, the future described in Autonomous, one in which corporations rule and humanity is lost among shareholdings and patents, may just be avoidable, a heartening result for any of us who give a damn about what it really means to be human.

Book review: Caraval by Stephanie Garber

(cover image courtesy Hachette Australia)

 

Just like life itself, Caraval is equal parts enchanting magic, and devious darkness, a journey into the very heart of humanity wrapped in a thousand colours of the rainbow.

Colour features strongly indeed in Stephanie Garber’s debut novel, which pivots on the idea that magic abounds around us if we look for it, and most particularly, if you are invited by a Machiavellian magician with extraordinary powers named Legend who holds a near-week long game called Caraval to which a select group of people from around the various empires and continents – this is very much a colonial-era setting with the hierarchies and attitudes that entails – to compete for a grand and rare prize.

It’s an event to which Scarlett Dragna, the daughter of a two-bit island governor with delusions of grandeur, and graphic cruelty to match, has long aspired to go with Caraval opening with a series of letters she has written over the years to the enigmatic, mysterious Legend begging to participate in the wonder and hedonism of a carnival that is equal parts Survivor meets The Amazing Race.

Enraptured by the bewitching escapism and the gilded sorcery, Scarlett has more reason than most to want the one wish prize (think a one-shot genie) that comes with winning the latest incarnation of Legend’s festival of lavish spectacle and gutter humanity – the setting is stunning; the people increasingly not – with the pressing need to escape her violently abusive father, with her younger sister in tow, growing more urgent by the day.

“‘Welcome, welcome to Caraval! The grandest show on land or by sea. Inside you’ll experience more wonders than most people see in a lifetime. You can sip magic from a cup and buy dreams in a bottle … So while we want you to get swept away, be careful of being swept too far away. Dreams that come true can be beautiful, but they can also turn into nightmares when people won’t wake up.'” (P. 75)

But when an invitation actually arrives for Scarlett and her more fiery, impetuous sister to go to Legend’s maquis extravaganza, the elder sister demurs, made low and small by years of abuse, her desire for escape and a new life, dwarfed by the simple crushing need to stay “safe”.

Through events that won’t be detailed here, she and her sister and a man who takes them to the island in his boat – adding to the ever-pervasive air of mystery, he just happens along when they need a ride and have a third ticket to the game – end up in the technicolour wonder and magic of a game which takes places only at night, with the day a wasteland of nothingness and loss.

One of the joys of this book is its extravagant use of colourfully-evocative language to describe the otherworldly, damn near paranormal delights of a world fundamentally removed from real life, one which comes with dazzling, sensory-overloading sights but which has, as you might expect, a rather dark underbelly.

That underbelly, seething with deception, death, loss, subterfuge and cruel cunning, is nowhere to be seen at first when passages like this one envelop you with gloriously-suffocating imagery that bursts alive in your mind as you read it:

“The canals were circular, like a long apple peel spread out around curving lantern-lit streets, full of pubs piping russet smoke, bakeries shaped like cupcakes and shops wrapped in colours like birthday presents> Cerulean blue. Apricot orange. Saffron yellow. Primrose pink.” (PP 137-138)

 

 

But, of course, deliriously delicious as all this language is, and it is cinematically transportive in the loveliest of ways, it is primarily used to build up the escapist nature of Caraval so that the narrative, in which Scarlett must find her sister while surmounting all kinds of near-devilish odds and obstacles, can tear down its diversionary magicality.

This is, as you might suspect a place of fairy floss, candy-coated artifice that hides the very rottenness of a corrupted soul – long-traded rumours tell of Legend essentially making a deal with the devil to gain his powers, an exchange that gifted him immense wealth, influence and power but which has left him cut off from his humanity, which is increasingly frayed and lost in the detritus of the lives he both builds and ruins with his carnival of competitively-lost souls.

Garber somehow manages to (mostly) hold the magic and raw nastiness of people like Legend and Dragna, who comes hunting for his daughter in Caraval to her understandable horror, in a tense balanace that has the novel feeling so much like life that you begin to feel as your own existence might be great staged event, its exact nature escaping you, just as it does Scarlett.

“Scarlett’s legs were boneless, thin skin wrapped around useless muscles. Her lungs ached with the pressure of unshed tears. Even her gown looked tired and dead. The black fabric had dulled to gray, as if it no longer had the strength to hold colour. She didn’t remember ripping the lace, but the hem of her bizarre mourning-nightdress hung in tatters around her calves. She didn’t know if its magic had stopped working or if it just reflected how exhausted and unraveled she felt.” (P. 250)

It doesn’t completely work with Scarlett making some rather questionable decisions in the service of the plot, and the finale as cruel to her in some ways as her life leading up to it – her acceptance of what is done to her in the service of the game leaves a little to be desired even if it is the product of someone who has the weary acceptance of the long-manipulated, but for the most part, Caraval is a brilliantly-realised, escapist tale that may be about illusion and artfully-curated imagination come to life, but which is, at its heart about abuse, and its harrowing effect on a person’s life.

Scarlett’s journey through the book is that of someone coming alive, belatedly realising, once free from her father’s brutally pernicious influence, that she can expect more from life than simply getting by, that her world can be as expansive and endlessly, colourfully beguiling as Caraval itself, if she’ll just let it.

In the end, any flaws aside, Caraval is a studied journey through not one but two hearts of darkness, a fabrication that seems magnificent and wondrous, and on the surface often is, with Garber’s extravagant descriptions well and truly doing it justice, but which, like humanity itself, can be as bitingly-nightmarish as it is whimsically fairytale-ish and magical.

Possessed of a steel spine and a balanced willingness to hold the dark and the light, the redemptive and the damning like some existential lady justice holding her scales aloft, and decorated in the many, vibrantly-hued colours of the rainbow, Caraval is a richly-written, immersive read that is as fey as it is substantial, an escape from the everyday that helps you realise that the power to change your life, whatever shape it takes, comes not from without, no matter how prettily-attired and promising it might be, but from within, which is where the real magic lies.

 

(image courtesy Stephanie Garber)

Reading in public places: Why I love libraries #LIW2018

Libraries were, and are, magical places for me where everything felt possible (image via Shutterstock)

 

SNAPSHOT
Library and Information Week, held from 21-27 May 2018 with the theme “Find yourself in a Library” aims to raise the profile of libraries and information service professionals in Australia. It gives libraries and information services the opportunity to showcase their resources, facilities, events, contacts and services through different programs and events to the community. (ALIA)

Childhood was not a wholly magical time for me.

Oh, I had loving parents and a warm, supportive family, and all my material needs taken care of, but that, alas, was not the end of the story.

I was one of those people who, for reasons known only to my tormentors, which to greater or lesser degrees was a near-universal selection of my male peer group, was bullied from pillar to post, my birthday party invitations ignored, play dates scorned and any sense of inclusion put the torch before the ashes were stomped into the ground and then stomped on some more.

One of my great escapes from all that torment, school holidays and weekends aside, were books – they gave me, as they have given so many people, an escape from a less than perfect reality – and as the son of a Baptist minister and a part-time pharmacist who were not poor but not exactly flush with cash, the place to get them was my local council-funded library.

Now most small town libraries while good, aren’t always supplied with a wide and luxuriant assortment of titles, but somehow Alstonville Public Library, set up in the middle of a non-purpose built large hall in the community centre and sitting in a town of not quite 5000 people, had an endless assortment of wonderful, brilliant, enticing books.

I honestly cannot recall ever reaching the library, which was staffed by lovely people who loved books like I did and were only too happy to encourage my voracious love of reading – between this library and my school ones, I averaged well in excess of 100 books a year; yep, being friendless and bullying affords you lots of reading time – and not finding something to read.

True, birthdays and Christmas and pocket money afforded me books of my own to keep (I have the vast majority to this day), but the bulk of the books I discovered with delight and rapturous expectation (Yes I am an extrovert!) came from the library and gave me the chance to read far more titles and experience far more literary adventures than I could have otherwise afforded.

 

 

One of my most favourite finds, and honestly I still don’t understand how a small library on the far north coast of NSW came to have such a Scandinavian focus, were the Agaton Sax books by Nils-Olof Franzén which centred on a pleasantly-plump Swedish detective and newspaper proprietor who, with the help of his dachshund Tikkie and his Aunt Matilda tracked all kinds of criminals such as Octopus Scott and Julius Mosca.

I never saw the books in stores but thanks to my precious, wonderful library, all 10 English-translated volumes were mine, temporarily anyway, and I delighted in Franzén’s deliciously clever, offbeat prose, his inventive characters and his love of the mischievously absurd.

So greatly did these books impact me, and so much a part of my childhood were they, along with hundreds and hundreds of other books, that to this day I associate going to the library with them.

But the truth is, the library, this beautifully-run temple to books and learning that I adored wandering around in for as long as mum or dad would wait for me, granted me rare and privileged access to a host of amazing, escapist books which I would have otherwise missed out on.

I like to think that my gift for writing – I am a blogger, creative writer and content writer as an adult – was given a huge hurry-along in its skill level and expansiveness by the sheer variety of books my library exposed me to, and which I devoured in a volume that would have exhausted my budget long before I was ever sated (which, to this day, has never happened; there is always so much more to read!.

So thank you libraries of my youth and my present for opening doors, plunging me into marvels worlds and taking me on endlessly-immersive adventures, and for giving me the gifts of words, knowledge and a love of writing that continues to satisfy in ways I cannot even describe or imagine to this day.

Book review: The Lido by Libby Page

(cover artwork courtesy Hachette Australia)

 

We live in a world of constant change.

That’ll hardly be a newsflash to anyone who’s paying even the smallest bit of attention to the fast-moving pace of the modern world, but if you compare it to the relative slow unfolding of history, where major innovations took decades to take effect, the way things change in the second decade of the twenty-first century is almost whiplash-inducingly rapid.

Not everyone minds this of course; tech companies and building developers live and die on the basis on scarily-fast turnarounds, their bread-and-butter riding on the old giving way to the new with dizzying speed, but as Libby Page’s enchantingly heartfelt debut novel, The Lido (an outdoor pool in England, from the Italian for “beach”) not everyone else is similarly enamoured.

Or at least, not about every last facet of those changes.

“And on the edge of the park closest to her [Rosemary] balcony a low redbrick building wraps its arms around a perfect blue rectangle of water. The pool is striped with ropes that split the lanes and she can see the towels dotted on the decking. Swimmers float in the water like petals. It is a place she knows well. It is the lido, her lido.” (P. 6)

86-year-old Rosemary is one of those rare elderly people who is open to the new and the innovative – she has accepted after a long and happy life that you simply can’t expect where you live, and she has lived in Brixton, London all her life, to always stay the same.

It’s not realistic and Rosemary knows it; of course two things always made equanimously subscribing to this accepting philosophy considerably easier – the near-lifelong devotion of her recently-deceased husband George, and her precious Lido, where she has swim almost every morning of her life, even during the Blitz of World War Two when was one of the rare children not evacuated to the English countryside.

Happily, George and the Lido usually came hand-in-hand, and even after his death, which after 60 plus years of marriage near tore her world in two, she continued to find solace and sanctuary in the calm, blue, early-morning waters of her neighbourhood pool.

Alas progress beckons, and with the local council citing a dire financial state and touting the saving benefits of selling the pool to local developer Paradise Living for conversion into tennis courts, Rosemary faces losing not only an important part of her daily routine but an important link back to her youth, and most critically, one of the last shared connections to George.

Accepting of Brixton’s constant evolution she may be – although the closure of the local library where she worked for decades with her close friend Hope still rankles – with friends among the new and changing landscape of modern Brixton such as bookseller couple Frank and Jermaine, and street greengrocer Ellis and his son Jake, but there are the limits, and the imminent closure of the Lido is most definitely one of them.

(cover artwork courtesy Simon and Schuster)

 

Enter buttoned-down, repressed journalist Kate, a junior journalist at The Brixton Chronicle, who exists on a diet of solitude and ready-made meals and is prone to panic attacks at the worst possible times (actually is there ever a good time for them?).

She has lived in London for a few years, first studying for her masters in journalism, and then working at the local newspaper, but she has no real friends, has a close but not actively-in-contact relationship with her sister Erin, and feels lost and alone, watching the world go by but unable to partake in any of it.

The proposed closure of the lido conspires to brings her and Rosemary together, and what begins as a simple assignment to document the people who love the pool and its pretty much certain end soon turns into a friendship that spurs a concerted push to save an icon that doesn’t just mean the world to Rosemary but which revolutionises Kate’s life in innumerable ways, bringing her friends, a new love and the kind of connections and kinship she had long sought but never found.

“She [Kate] thinks about how much of the past few years she has spent feeling afraid. The Panic has ruled her life for so long. before she found the lido she felt as though she was balanced on the tip of a diving board, terrified by the height below her. But finally she is not afraid any more. She is ready to jump.” P. 315)

In some senses there is nothing new and remarkable in The Lido.

It fits a trend of late of heartwarming tales of the socially awkward and the societally dispossessed – think Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman for one – who might new purpose, connection, life and hope in the most unlikeliest and life-changing of circumstances.

But in the midst of this familiarity exists a delightfully charming story of what happens when two people who should have nothing at all in common come to find not simply shared purpose but real friendship that comes to mean the world to both of them.

Written in a sweetly-observant third person style that feels a little oddly clunky at first but comes to feel cosy, welcoming and poetically-insightful, The Lido is above all a celebration of connection and closeness, a reaffirmation of the fact that no person is an island, cliche though it may be, and that all we need each other.

More than that though it acknowledges that though change is inevitable and reinvigorating much of the time, it should be wholesale or indiscriminate and that having the old and the new existing side-by-side is not only good for society as a whole but good for the soul.

Certainly you will finish this gorgeously uplifting book with a smile on your face, a song in your heart and an itching need to not simply get back into the pool, but to reconnect, really reconnect, with the important people in your life as you remember how much you need them and the things that make you indisputably you.