Reviewing The Amber Amulet by Craig Silvey

November 3, 2013 § 1 Comment

The Masked Avenger patrols the metropolis by night, upholding justice and ensuring the restful sleep of the citizens under his watch. Joined by his trusty side-kick, Richie the Powerbeagle, the Masked Avenger protects the people of Franklin Street by drawing on a multitude of powers so potent that even he cannot fully comprehend their extent.

Never mind the fact that he’s 12-years-old.

The Masked Avenger can make things happen.

No danger is too great, no injustice too small, but the Masked Avenger may have met his match in the most mystifying opponent of them all, unhappiness, which seeps through the walls of the house at the end of the street.

The simplistic view of the world, that everything can be neatly put in the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ pile, is recognisably child-like. As we grow older, we come to see the grey, often to the extent that it’s all we see. Everything is complex and no decision is easy. In seeing all that we have seen, we complicate, over analyse and confuse, and then something or someone will come along to remind us that it doesn’t always have to be that way. Sometimes things really are just that simple.

“Mild-mannered boy-genius” Liam McKenzie serves as that catalyst, the hero of our story, the Masked Avenger whose greatest power proves, ironically, to be, not his impressive understanding of geo-alchemy or his aptitude for conjuring lightning, but his ability to unmask the convoluted and expose a situation for what it really is.

Craig Silvey’s writing is beautifully stripped back and funny; striking the perfect balance of humouring Liam and his antics without patronising them. In Liam, he captures the naivety and wonder that’s simultaneously so familiar and so alien. Reading, we can’t help but celebrate and admire Liam’s capacity to see things as more than what they are, to take an idea and run with it. He sees the possibility in the everyday mundane, something we all once did – but have since, in the drama and strain of growing up – forgotten how to do. Thankfully, author Craig Silvey remembers.

It feels real and entirely plausible that this only child would monologue his own crime-fighting escapades. Of course, his bedroom would be his secret lair and his dog, his partner-in-crime. And not once, does Liam drop the pretence. Under pressure, one would understand his giving up the ruse, but he never falters. Liam is made of tougher stuff.

The Amber Amulet is a truly endearing novella, punctuated perfectly by Sonia Martinez’s scrapbook-like illustrations and I for one, cannot wait to see what Silvey, a superhero in his own right, pulls out of the bag next.

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Thoughts on A Room with a View by E.M. Forster

August 8, 2013 § 2 Comments

There are certain books that seem to come at exactly the right time. I don’t know if it’s because I’m at a weird in-between phase at the moment, but recently so many of the books I’ve read have resonated with me and none more so than E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View.

Life is easy to chronicle, but bewildering to practice.

jacket image for A Room with a View by E. M. Forster - large version

Our heroine, Lucy is travelling Italy with her older, simpering cousin Charlotte as chaperone. In a comical opening — that no matter how I try can’t be separated in my mind from the Fawlty Towers sketch — we learn that the cousins were not given rooms with views in the Bertolini Pension in Florence despite being promised them. Going against decorum, the outspoken Mr Emerson, overhearing their conversation at dinner, insists the women swap rooms with him and his son, George.

Lucy is changed in Italy, and challenged; things happen that lead her to question the judgements of her class. But then she returns home to England only to agree to marry someone who represents all she seemed to overcome abroad.

Life, so far as she troubled to conceive it, was a circle of rich, pleasant people, with identical interests and identical foes. In this circle, one thought, married, and died. Outside it were poverty and vulgarity for ever trying to enter, just as the London fog tries to enter the pine-woods pouring through the gaps in the northern hills. But, in Italy, where any one who chooses may warm himself in equality, as in the sun, this conception of life vanished. Her senses expanded; she felt that there was no one whom she might not get to like, that social barriers were irremovable, doubtless, but not particularly high. You jump over them just as you jump into a peasant’s olive-yard in the Apennines, and he is glad to see you.

Lucy doesn’t know herself, which is part of what makes her so relatable despite the century that separates her from the modern day reader. She is in constant battle with herself as she desperately tries to correlate what she’s feeling with society’s expectations of women in her position. Expectations that she simultaneously takes comfort in and rejects as new, frightening thoughts beyond her learning strike her.

This solitude oppressed her; she was accustomed to have her thoughts confirmed by others or, at all events, contradicted; it was too dreadful not to know whether she was thinking right or wrong.

A Room with a View is inherently funny, and insightful. E. M. Forster has an impeccable knack for providing just enough detail to paint a vivid setting. Italy feels real – the bustle, the heat, the stonework, the history and the passion. Oh, and we mustn’t forget the violets.

In the appendix, A View without a Room, E. M. Forster himself describes the novel as his “most optimistic work”, and optimistic it is, but without being flippant or denying truth. In fact, A Room with a View is so masterfully rich with lessons that all of them can’t hope to be gleaned from one reading, at least that’s the reason I’ll be giving when I dip into this one again.

P.S. Now I am itching to visit Florence.

P.P.S. And I have decided to name my future house Windy Corner regardless of whether it’s sitting on a corner or gets a lot of wind. And yes, before you ask, I will have a tennis court.

Reviewing Grow Up by Ben Brooks

May 4, 2013 § Leave a comment

I resent and refute the claim that Grow Up by Ben Brooks is ‘a revelatory portrait of the pills, thrills and bellyaches of growing up today.’ At the very most, this novel is an indulgent portrayal of a select group of bored, middle-class soon-to-be school leavers, who seem and act far younger than  their 17 years. It’s true that Grow Up does provide moments of genuine humour amidst the depravity and debauchery, and although they’re few and far between, moments of pathos too.

I am being confronted with real human emotions. I should do something. I want to do something. ‘Does anything help?’ I say.

‘People,’ she says. ‘When there are people here.’

‘Okay. Then text me when you feel like that, please.’

‘Thanks, Jasper.’

‘We just had a serious talk.’

Tenaya laughs.

Jasper is our narrator, and though he insists he’s seventeen years-old, I have my doubts. He frequents sex chat rooms, messing with the minds of the poor Thai women working them for the sake of his own amusement. He’s convinced his stepfather, Keith murdered his first wife and so makes plans to excavate the woman’s grave to prove it.

I am excited about seeing justice done and also about getting to hold a dead body. A real dead human body. A human that Keith killed, maybe with his bare hands or with a kitchen knife or a sawn-off shotgun or poison. There will maybe be a crater in Margaret Clamwell’s skull where he hit her with a lamp or his trombone and she will maybe have fractured legs from where he broke them so she couldn’t run. The police will find out all of these things in the post mortem but I will find them out first.

Jasper also sets abandoned sheds on fire. He’s a vandal, who believes himself a future Booker Prize winner, and spends his time nutting out the details of a graphic rape scene he believes his manuscript needs. Or he’s getting high with his drop-kick friends. Basically, the guy’s a sociopath, which makes relating to him and empathising with him difficult from a reader’s perspective.

To add insult to injury, nothing really happens in Grow Up. It suffers from a significant lack of story. There’s a party, a school trip, another party, and not a lot else. Well, unless you count the sex and drugs. There is hardly any character development, with Jasper seemingly learning little from his actions. Similarly, his friends are merely supporting characters with no real substance of their own, except for maybe Jasper’s best friend, Tenaya. Unfortunately, the resolution of her arc is the most frustrating of all.

 

The characters are generally detestable and what is even more infuriating is that not one of them has enough sense to address the shortcomings they recognise in themselves. Jasper somewhat redeems himself when he begins to feel concern for the people he unashamedly manipulates, hurts and uses, but then brushes those feelings of guilt aside, never to acknowledge them again.

I failed to relate to a single character and while their experiences are worlds away from my own, I had little interest in their selfish, violent and aimless adventures.

Needless to say, I didn’t get Grow Up. I just don’t understand it, what it’s trying to show, do or explore. Reading it felt like watching reality TV: junky and shallow (and not always in the good way). Brooks, who was only nineteen years-old himself when the novel was published, places great emphasis on capturing a particular way of living unique to a British subculture, and in turn, puts little energy into exploring his characters’ motivations on the page. There are hints of a deeper story here and Grow Up could have been an insightful commentary and interrogation of the way these kids are living, but it’s not. The failure to delve deeper is what hinders Grow Up as a novel and comment on today’s youth, and is ultimately what will prevent it from finding a place amongst the coming of age classics.

 

 

 

Reviewing Digital Vertigo by Andrew Keen

March 15, 2013 § Leave a comment

Andrew Keen is worried about the future of humanity, and social media’s to blame. I, too, occasionally like to blame social media for all of humanity’s ills, but then I also blame gaming culture, excessive media consumption, helicopter parenting, and too much sugar. In his latest book Digital Vertigo, Andrew Keen takes a closer look at the biggest social upheaval since the industrial revolution and what it means for the future of human connections.

Inspired by “the most visible corpse of the nineteenth century – the body of the utilitarian philosopher, social reformer and prison architect Jeremy Bentham, a cadaver that has been living in public since his death in June 1832”, Keen argues that the online social revolution has put many of us on display as well. The uprising of social media platforms and the cultural changes they have brought about are thus not as innovative as Silicon Valley would have us think. After all, Jeremy Bentham’s Inspection-House, a concept he dreamt up in the 19th Century, was also built on the idea that complete transparency leads to a better connected society.

Tracing the progression of social media from anomaly to mainstream addiction, Keen questions “whether digital man [will] be more socially connected than his industrial ancestor.” Of course, he surmises, this depends on how one measures the value of a connection.

Keen makes plain from the outset that he is not necessarily in favour of social media (just check out Digital Vertigo’s secondary title). However, while I’m inclined to agree with many of Keen’s hesitations about social media and its effects on our connections with each other, I feel that he doesn’t necessarily present these as well as he could.

Hitchcock’s film Vertigo serves as the anchor to which Keen keeps returning, but the parallels he draws between the film and the social media revolution don’t quite stick. And that’s the problem with Digital Vertigo overall: it is so bogged down in facts, figures and wishy-washy connections that Keen’s underlying argument is diluted. When you spend most of the reading experience trying desperately to work out how you made the leap from Hitchcock’s 1958 psychological thriller to the The Crystal Palace and Summer of Love then something’s not quite right.

Keen’s observations are the most interesting when they get philosophical, when he questions how putting ourselves on display in this fashion correlates with the human experience. What is happening online does not encapsulate the human experience as he sees it.

We are, I realised, becoming schizophrenic– simultaneously detached from the world and yet jarringly ubiquitous.

Despite the extensive research Keen has done, or perhaps because of it, Digital Vertigo suffers from a surplus of elements. There is too much going on, too many threads to weave together and not enough signposting of ideas. Consequently, Keen’s closing statement, though understandable in the context of his overarching argument, is quite shocking. It definitely left me a little muddled.

Reviewing By the Book by Romana Koval

January 20, 2013 § Leave a comment

It’s strange how our reading shapes the people we become. All those tomes read on a lazy Sunday afternoon or pages flipped into the wee hours of the morning have influenced our perceptions and views of the world. Some books come along at exactly the right time and seem as though they’ve been written especially for us and others impart wisdoms that don’t strike a chord in that moment, but we suspect are worth storing away for a later date.

9781922079060_large_cover

By the Book is “Romana Koval’s love letter to reading”. Looking back at her experiences through the periscope of pages she’s read, Koval explores the role reading has played in her life and the paths it’s pulled her down. For one of Australia’s most well-known literary broadcasters much has changed since the long afternoons spent stretched across the floor of the Camberwell Mobile Library, but one thing stays the same: Koval’s love for the written word.

In her memoir, Koval reveals that reading is more than an escapist pursuit to her. It is the basis of her understanding of her mother and the key to a great many worlds she had never dreamt of. The books that Koval holds so dear provide insight into the person she is: an inquisitive and deep-thinking adventurer.

I found the most compelling part of Koval’s book to be her ability to draw parallels between the events in her life and the stories she’s read; each story revealing retrospective insights about the people most close to her and the decisions she’s made. Unfortunately, in the latter half of the book, Koval places less emphasis on making connections between her reading and experience in favour of exploring some of her favourite stories in greater detail, which are predominantly tales of exploration and survival.

While reading By the Book you cannot help but reflect on your own most treasured reads, questioning the extent of their influence on your perception of the world. And that is the delightful nature of Koval’s memoir. Not only does she openly and honestly reveal intimate details of her own life, but her observations about reading prompt the reader to question their own relationship with the written word. Any lover of books will appreciate Ramona Koval’s By the Book: A Reader’s Guide to Life. Just keep a pen handy for all the books you’ll want to add to your own reading list.

Reviewing Save Me the Waltz by Zelda Fitzgerald

January 10, 2013 § Leave a comment

Zelda Fitzgerald’s first and only novel, Save Me the Waltz, is as fascinating for the circumstances surrounding its writing as it is for the writing itself. Largely autobiographical, Save Me the Waltz is inspired by Zelda’s own life, particularly her infamous marriage to the author F. Scott Fitzgerald, arguably most famous for writing The Great Gatsby.

Zelda wrote Save me the Waltz in an astonishing six weeks at John Hopkins Hospital where she spent time after a mental breakdown. According to the F. Scott Fitzgerald biographer, Henry Dan Piper, the act of writing her novel was, for Zelda, “a desperate and moving attempt to give order to her confused memories”. Based on the novel’s preface written by Professor Harry T. Moore in 1966 the general perception of Save Me the Waltz seems to be that of a less accomplished version of her husband’s novel, Tender is the Night, which was published two years after. As someone who hasn’t read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s final novel, I cannot cast judgement on that one way or the other but I do believe that Save Me the Waltz surpasses the label of “literary curio” that it has been unfairly landed with.

Alabama Beggs is a beautiful, free-spirited young woman growing up in the deep South where, according to her, there’s “nothing to do but drink and make love.” The youngest of three daughters, Alabama endeavours to take what she wants when she can and so marries David Knight, a young soldier stationed nearby. The couple leave for the glamour of New York, living off the money David makes from his paintings. Mixing in high society, the pair soon become famous and journey to the Continent where the first cracks in their seemingly perfect marriage begin to appear. No longer content with her lack of personal accomplishments, Alabama turns to ballet, working at becoming a dancer harder than she’s worked at anything in her life.

Zelda Fitzgerald

There is a lot to admire in Alabama Beggs, especially early in the novel. Witty and self-assured, her dialogue is a pleasure to read:

‘Little lady, do you think you could live on five thousand a year?’ he asked benevolently. ‘To start with,’ he added, on second thought.

‘I could, but I don’t want to.’

‘Then why did you kiss me?’

‘I had never kissed a man with a moustache before.’

‘That’s hardly a reason-‘

‘No. But it’s as good a reason as many would have to offer for going into convents.’

Unfortunately, her youthful confidence leaves her all too quickly once David comes on the scene. David is not a detestable character; his affection for his daughter is sweet, and his manner, generally charming. His devotion to his work is admirable, but proves also hypocritical when Alabama begins to pursue her own creative interests. Despite them both pursuing the arts, Alabama’s dancing is never considered as equally important as David’s painting. The exploration of these double standards, which, no doubt are telling of the time the book was written, is amongst its most compelling qualities. That, along with its power to transport the reader so effectively with its vivid descriptions to another time and way of living – a time of champagne, summers on the Riviera and parties that last for days – make it a captivating read.

Despite Save Me the Waltz being published in 1932, it does feel contemporary. Marriage and relationships still present their own challenges: resentment, anger, helplessness and the struggle to assert oneself independently of one’s partner. These are human trials and Zelda’s presentation of them reads as honest and genuine.

Unfortunately, her prose occasionally dilutes the impact:

 ‘Most people hew the battlements of life from compromise, erecting their impregnable keeps from judicious submissions, fabricating their philosophical drawbridges from emotional retractions and scalding marauders in the boiling oil of sour grapes.’

Thankfully, flowery sentences such as the above become less frequent as the novel progresses, replaced with more succinct and easy to process metaphors and similes. Unfortunately, these become quite heavy-handed, especially nearing the end of the book, occasionally distracting from an otherwise engrossing story.

Save Me the Waltz is not without its faults. Zelda’s prose occasionally reads as a desperate attempt to prove her literary prowess and worth as a creative human being. Flourish is favoured over comprehensibility, but given the feelings she expresses through Alabama regarding the success of her husband, Zelda’s deep-seated desire to assert herself is understandable. Piper suggests that Save Me the Waltz was published partly because Zelda’s physicians believed it would be good for her shattered ego. The patronising attitudes that surrounded both Zelda and Alabama regarding their capacity to create meaningful art is shocking and yet, believable and disheartening.

Rather than be crippled by these views, Zelda wrote a novel in six short weeks. A novel that’s still fascinating readers 80 years on. I’d say that indicates something a bit more substantial than a “literary curio”.

 

Reviewing Why We Broke Up by David Handler and Maira Kalman

January 4, 2013 § 4 Comments

 I’m telling you why we broke up, Ed. I’m writing it in this letter, the whole truth of why it happened. And the truth is that I goddamn loved you so much.

Talk surrounding Why We Broke Up isn’t really about the strength of its story. The story is old and somewhat tired – boy meets girl, things go swimmingly for a stretch and then they don’t. But what Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket) does with this old formula, along with the voice he adopts to tell it, gives this particular tale of teenage heartbreak some merit.

Why We Broke Up is Min’s farewell letter to her recently ex-boyfriend Ed. The precise circumstances that led to their split aren’t clear from the outset, but Min seems to be harbouring a lot of anger. Accompanied by a box full of items she collected during their brief relationship, Min’s letter details why the ill-fated pair did – you guessed it – break up. Through Min, Handler creates a vivid glimpse of the dramatics of high school, deftly capturing the intimacy, excitement and confusion of first love.

In her letter, Min explains the significance of each item that she’s dumping on Ed’s doorstep: the two bottle caps from the night she met him, the ticket stub from their first date, a note, an empty match box, a protractor, a toy truck etc. Each item (illustrated by Maira Kalman) represents a memory and the reader is privy to all of them. Interspersed amongst her recollections, Min, an aspiring director, calls on the imagery and plots of old films (all made up by Handler for the purpose of the novel) to better express her feelings.

Handler does well to get into the head of a teenage girl, creating a realistic character in Min. Unfortunately, her and Ed’s relationship that lasts “from October 5 until November 12” seems too brief to justify a 300-page letter to an ex explaining why you broke up, especially when you both know why.

Min’s letter reads almost like a diary entry as she attempts to put the pieces together; it’s not about Ed or what he did or didn’t do, but about the signs Min missed that she can only appreciate in retrospect. That said, the fact that Min made the decision to not only write this letter to Ed, but to actually give it to him seems very juvenile.

Min is about 16-years-old, has had a boyfriend before, but falls head over heels in love with Ed within a few short days. Then after they split, she spends the next month – the same amount of time as what was spent together – mulling over her broken heart, finally deciding that the perfect way to end that chapter of her life is to write a long, long, long letter explaining just how miserable, angry and hurt she is and drop it at his door.

Dude, let it go! Don’t give him ammo! Don’t let him think you’re a sad sap who’s been moping around the house ever since the split, periodically pulling collected objects from a box to sob over as you question where it all went wrong. Doing that is fine, just don’t tell him all about it. Have some self-respect!

It’s true, I haven’t been 16 in some time. Maybe I’ve grown out of the melodrama. I just found the premise bizarre given that Min inadvertently tells us time and time again that she is clever – and she is! She’s funny, insightful, poetic, creative, so why on earth does she think this letter is a good idea?

And that was my major problem with Why We Broke Up. Not the clichéd storyline, the running sentences or even the short length of time that Ed and Min spent together, but that it took the form of a letter to the ex and a box of junk. It’s a bit of a Catch-22 that, because the thing that differentiates Why We Broke Up from the rest of the teen romance books out there is also that which renders it nearly unbearable.

Or maybe it just hits too close to home?

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