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Friday, September 30, 2016

'Mad About the Boy' by Helen Fielding and 'Bridget Jones's Baby'


From the BLURB:

Is it morally wrong to have a blow-dry when one of your children has head lice?

 Is technology now the fifth element? Or is that wood?

Is sleeping with someone after 2 dates and 6 weeks of texting the same as getting married after 2 meetings and 6 months of letter writing in Jane Austen's day?

Pondering these, and other modern dilemmas, Bridget Jones stumbles through the challenges of single-motherhood, tweeting, texting and redisovering her sexuality in what SOME people rudely and outdatedly call 'middle age'.

*** I’m going to err on the side of fair-warning, and say there may be spoilers for the movie ‘Bridget Jones’s Baby’ in this review of ‘Mad About the Boy’ ***

‘Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy’ was the 2013 bestselling third novel in British author Helen Fielding’s classic series which began back in 1996 with ‘Bridget Jones's Diary’, and had a 1999 sequel called ‘The Edge of Reason.’

So, this is going to be a bit of a different joint-review of both a book and film, because there’s a bit of explanation required with how these stories fit together, and why it took me so long to read the third book but actually seeing the new film (which is more like the fourth installment in this series) made me leap back into Bridget’s life …

First of all – I was 12 when second book ‘‘The Edge of Reason’ came out, and I was about 14 when I first read ‘Bridget Jones's Diary’. Similarly, I was 11 when the television series ‘Sex and the City’ first aired, and I likewise started sporadically watching that show at about 14 too. Which basically means I was a 14-year-old girl completely enamored and charmed by a singleton existence and desperately wanted to live in either New York or London to get the full experience. This, I think, is totally normal. I adored the ‘Bridget Jones’ series, and can vividly remember belly-laughing while reading the books (there’s a particularly vivid running-joke in ‘Edge of Reason’ of Bridget thinking she’s been sent a lovely new lipstick, which turns out to be a bullet/death-threat that … when I type it out here, sounds slightly horrifying but was genuinely *hilarious!*) At about 13/14 I also saw the 1995 BBC version of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ with Colin Firth for the first time and decided he was an absolute dreamboat (to the point that I completely rocked up for the Amanda Bynes 2003 classic ‘What a Girl Wants’ entirely for him. Naturally.) Again – all normal. And this probably explains quite a bit of my general outlook on single life (so long as you have good friends, life’s a party!) and appreciation for the romance genre generally. But what this all really leads me to is … I have a very, very fond heart for Ms Jones, and Mr Darcy – and butting against convention for women’s roles in society.

So when ‘Mad About the Boy’ came out in 2013, and there was ample pop-culture coverage and forewarning about the fact that the third installment had Bridget as a widower with Mark Darcy being killed and leaving her behind with their two children … I stayed away. I could not do it. I could not pick up a book knowing Bridget was going through that, and that she had leaped so far ahead from coupled to widowed from the last time I’d seen her.

But when it was announced that a new Bridget Jones film was coming out this year, still featuring Colin Firth in his iconic role, and it was called ‘Bridget Jones's Baby’ in a complete departure from the trajectory of the book series… well, I had to see that for myself.

And I loved the film. I saw it with my Mum, and we cackled throughout. It was genuinely lovely and funny, and the fact that Colin Firth can keep surprising me with his depths (he’s so sad and dear in this film, truly) and I have missed Renée Zellweger like crazy these last few years … it was just great. Even better is that the ‘Bridget Jones’ movie trilogy becomes the first (in HISTORY!) to have all-female directors, and I found there was still so much depth to this character and what she had to say about women’s conventional roles in society … All round, this film left me chuffed.

But perhaps more importantly is that this film encouraged me to go back and give ‘Mad About the Boy’ a try… which means I’ve read/seen Bridget Jones’s life story in order, since writer Helen Fielding admitted they made this film to fill in the gaps bought up by ‘Mad About the Boy’ which leaps into Bridget’s life without Mark, and doesn’t go into how they finally got together and started a family. That being said – ‘Bridget Jones’s Baby: The Diaries’ book is coming out in October for those who’d really prefer a novelization of Bridget’s timeline.

‘Mad About the Boy’ is set five years after Mark’s death, and 14 years after the events of the second novel. Bridget has two children – Billy and Mabel, aged 7 and 5. She’s got the motto “keep buggering on” and is really trying to not let grief swamp her, as it did in the early days of Mark’s tragic death. The novel is of course in the diary-entry style we’ve come to expect from Bridget, but with a bit of timeline leap-around’s as we go from seeing Bridget start to get serious with a younger man/toy-boy (30-year-old Roxster) and then we go back further to see how she got herself into a place where she could start to think about moving on, romantically.

And ‘Mad About the Boy’ is the usual fare of Bridget’s cunning commentary on modern-day curiosities; everything from technology to school pick-up fashions. There is quite a sense of ‘the shoe being on the other foot’, with Bridget grappling with getting older and having a healthy sense of envy for the younger set (of which, she was one – once);

Call me old-fashioned, but I did read in Glamour that one’s shorts should always be longer than one’s vagina.

There’s also still a good smattering of contempt for ‘smug married couples’ as Bridget is in her widow’s weeds with everyone trying to pair her off with the last-man-standing (divorcees in their 60s, before all the 40-year-old women snap them up, apparently). Bridget taking Roxster as her lover completely flies in the face of this, and makes for some fantastic Bridget Jones Gets her Groove Back scenes.

There’s also an interesting side character in the children’s PE Teacher, Mr Wallaker … a sour sort who keeps catching Bridget in her most humiliating, terrible-at-motherhood moments. This Mr Wallaker (described as a Daniel Craig-lookalike in a *hint* to casting directors) is simply divine;

'THEY ARE CHILDREN!’ Mr Wallaker roared. ‘They are not corporate products! What they need to acquire is not a constant massaging of the ego, but confidence, fun, affection, love, a sense of self-worth. They need to understand, now, that there will always – always – be someone greater and lesser than themselves, and that their self-worth lies in their contentment with who they are, what they are doing and their increasing competence in doing it.'

I think seeing Colin Firth in ‘Bridget Jones’s Baby’ completely armored me to go into ‘Mad About the Boy’. There was a nice sense of closure already, before I even started reading … to be reminded of the magic in Mark and Bridget that somehow made it okay to go into this book where his absence certainly made me cry, but also had me rooting for more happiness in Bridget’s life.

Helen Fielding has lost none of the charm and hilarity that so endeared her to me as a 14-year-old, and had me holding Bridget Jones up as a worthy pop-culture idol. It was good – really, really lovely and good – to be back in Bridget’s mind and this world she’s created for herself, and is working hard at rebuilding. I completely recommend seeing ‘Bridget Jones’s Baby’ and reading ‘Mad About the Boy’ (and in that order actually makes a lot of sense!) and I’m totally going to be here for the ‘Bridget Jones’s Baby’ book when it comes out … no more delayed gratification and three years between installments, not when Fielding and Jones are still this damn good.

5/5  



Thursday, September 22, 2016

'Magic Binds' Kate Daniels #9 by Ilona Andrews

Received via NetGalley

From the BLURB:

Mercenary Kate Daniels knows all too well that magic in post-Shift Atlanta is a dangerous business. But nothing she’s faced could have prepared her for this...

Kate and the former Beast Lord Curran Lennart are finally making their relationship official. But there are some steep obstacles standing in the way of their walk to the altar...

Kate’s father, Roland, has kidnapped the demigod Saiman and is slowly bleeding him dry in his never-ending bid for power. A Witch Oracle has predicted that if Kate marries the man she loves, Atlanta will burn and she will lose him forever. And the only person Kate can ask for help is long dead.

The odds are impossible. The future is grim. But Kate Daniels has never been one to play by the rules...

‘Magic Binds’ is the ninth book in Ilona Andrews’ epic urban fantasy ‘Kate Daniels’ series.

Next year we’ll be getting the final installment in this series that started way back in 2007 – giving us a very well-rounded ten books in ten years. As such, you can expect that a lot of ‘Magic Binds’ is build-up for what’s to come, tightening that suspense coil and preparing readers for a big finale finish.

There is a lot happening in this book – which of course follows on from the events of ‘Magic Shifts’ with Kate having “taken” the city of Atlanta to keep it out of her father’s clutches. When we meet up with her again, she’s also planning her wedding to Curran, while anticipating a deadly magic battle against her ancient, megalomaniac father who is currently squatting on the outskirts of her land…

There are a lot of important tangents in ‘Magic Binds’ – quite a few quests and pieces of the plot puzzle fit together making a suspenseful whole. But it does feel like we’re getting maybe three or four mini-novellas squeezed into this ninth book … always leading back to the over-arching “Big Bad” of Kate’s father Roland, and a countdown clock to tragedy. If I can relate this installment to anything, I’d point to Ron, Harry and Hermione searching for horcruxes in ‘Deathly Hallows’ before the battle at Hogwarts.

I really, thoroughly enjoyed this ninth book – not least because all the secondary characters I love are coming out to play and gear up for the battle. Raphael and Andrea, Ascanio, Derek, and Julie (who I always, always, always want more of – and desperately wanted a scene with them as a trio!), Jim and Dali, Roman, Christoher and Barabas. And of course, as always in a ‘Kate Daniels’ book – Curran, Curran, Curran. He and Kate are one of the rare examples of a “will they or won’t they?” who existed for so many books with delicious tension and snarky commentary, surviving and thriving after getting together. There are new facets to their relationship that keep deepening and surprising me as a reader, and they just keep pleasing me no end.

But what I really loved in this book was the relationship Kate has to the villain, Roland – her father. I can only really think of Leigh Bardugo from recent times, who likewise gave me a villain to actually – oddly? – root for. Someone who you hope has a sliver of decency, but also whose villainy is so much fun to read that you almost want them to keep carrying on …

“She isn’t alive, Blossom. She is a wild force, a tempest without ego. One can only speculate what damage she would cause if unleashed.” 
Aha. Of course, you buried her away from everything she loves because she is too dangerous. 
We resumed our strolling along the walls, slowly circling the tower. 
“How go the preparations for the wedding?” 
“Very well. How goes the world domination?” 
“It has its moments.”

In this book, Roland does some pretty vile things – we (and Kate) see the true extent of his evil … and yet it sits alongside snappy scenes of dialogue between the two, and weird daddy-daughter bonding. Roland as a villain is up there with Glory for me, from ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ season five. Just that great, almost camaraderie (?) between villain and hero that raises all the stakes and makes for pure delight to read.

I adored ‘Magic Binds’ – and while I’m going to be sad when this series is over (…while also forever hopeful of a Julie/Derek spin-off! PLEASE - FOR. THE. LOVE. OF. GOD!) I am also ridiculously excited to read the end now – so close, I can practically taste it.

5/5



Saturday, September 10, 2016

'Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil' by Melina Marchetta


From the BLURB:

Melina Marchetta's gripping new novel Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil is a cracking fusion of suspense and heart-rending drama.

Chief Inspector Bish Ortley of the London Met, divorced and still grieving the death of his son, has been drowning his anger in Scotch. Something has to give, and he’s no sooner suspended from the force than a busload of British students is subject to a deadly bomb attack across the Channel. Bish’s daughter is one of those on board.

Also on the bus is Violette LeBrac. Raised in Australia, Violette has a troubled background. Thirteen years ago her grandfather bombed a London supermarket, killing dozens of people. Her mother, Noor, is serving a life sentence in connection with the incident. But before Violette’s part in the French tragedy can be established she disappears.

Bish, who was involved in Noor LeBrac’s arrest, is now compelled to question everything that happened back then. And the more he delves into the lives of the family he helped put away, the more he realises that truth wears many colours.


‘Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil’ is the new novel from Australian author Melina Marchetta.

This latest book is another about-turn for beloved Marchetta, who burst onto the publishing scene with award-winning young adult book ‘Looking for Alibrandi’ in 1992, followed by more YA fare in ‘Saving Francesca’ and Printz-winning ‘On the Jellicoe Road’ (which also has a companion early-reader in ‘The Gorgon in the Gully’). In 2010 she came out with a sort-of sequel to ‘Saving Francesca’ with ‘The Piper’s Son’, which was long-listed for the Miles Franklin award … she then broke away from YA and contemporary tales with critically-acclaimed high-fantasy series ‘Lumatere Chronicles’ spanning three books. And now with ‘Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil,’ Marchetta is breaking new ground yet again – with an adult crime/mystery-thriller, which I think proves her to be Australia’s most versatile author writing today.  

I’ve now re-read this book three times in three months (as I was kindly given an advance copy) – and I’m continually surprised by how much I love it, and new facets I come to admire and uncover in the story. For anyone who is mildly concerned that they won’t get as much enjoyment out of a Melina novel that’s not in the usual genre or readership for her, let me assure you there’s absolutely nothing to worry about – and also, there’s no such thing as “usual” when talking about Melina Marchetta anymore. And that’s a good thing.

For one thing – Marchetta has always written mysteries. From Josie Alibrandi’s parentage, to the truth of Taylor Markham’s abandonment by her mother and how she came to catch a train with Jonah Griggs when they were 14-years-old, even Lumatere Chronicles’ cryptic “there's a babe in my belly that whispers the valley,” and the curse that was lifted … it’s true that most every story ever told has a mystery somewhere at its centre, and Marchetta’s novels have been no different over time. It’s just that in ‘Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil’ she’s really immersing the novel in mystery-thriller as the pivot-point.

But Marchetta’s books – whether contemporary, high fantasy, or now crime-thriller –her books will have family at the centre, always and forever. ‘Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil’ is at once about Chief Inspector Bish Ortley, suspended from the London Met and investigating a bomb attack that came very close to killing his own daughter … but there’s more to the story of Bish; his broken marriage and ex-wife who’s about to give birth to another man’s child, and his daughter – Bee – who has been drifting away from all of them since a terrible accident years ago, and his mother Saffron who has only just come into her own as a grandmother when she was never the maternal sort with Bish growing up. The Ortley’s are one side of this coin, on the other are the LeBrac and Sarraf’s – whom Bish believes to be a deadly crime family paying their dues and serving apt life-sentences for a terrorist act carried out just over a decade ago. But as he starts digging he finds a family full of tragedy and love, history and mystery that needs unravelling – with roots in Alexandria and the Algerian War, who were once a British immigrant success story, condemned in a trial-by-media …

Five dead. More injured. Some badly. It's what happened when you were the son of Louise Sarraf: you became obsessed with victims and numbers and how many people were affected. One dead man meant kids and a wife and parents and brothers and sisters and in-laws and nieces and nephews. Injured kids meant the same. A mother. Father. Two sets of grandparents. Approximately seven aunts and uncles and at least fourteen cousins. Not to mention friends ... Jamal had become a mathematician after his father blew up their lives. The figured tallied based on twenty-three fatalities fucked with his head every time. 

And for those upset that Marchetta has broken away from her YA roots … not quite, either. For one thing – I don’t think Melina is physically capable of not writing about teenagers and young people. And that’s because she clearly has such deep respect for them, and interest in them. When family is always at the heart of her stories, she pays dividends to the important role that younger generation’s play within this dynamic – and that’s never truer than in ‘Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil’ which is inverting the whole “sins of the father” question, by giving real agency (and the entire pivot-point of the mystery) around young people whose family was torn apart, and who have lived in the fallout of their absence ever since. I don’t want to give too much away about the roles that teenagers plays in this book, except to say that it feels somewhat revolutionary for Melina Marchetta to be bringing them into the mystery-thriller genre as agents of change in the plot, instead of – as is usually the case – purely victims of abuse and neglect. As someone who reads a lot of crime and mystery novels, I can tell you this is not always the case … and actually what Marchetta has done is extraordinarily rare and, quite frankly, brilliant.

Later, restless and desperate not to have a drink, Bish scoured the news online. The Guardian, Al Jazeera, the New York Times. The Australian media hadn't made up their mind how they felt yet. At the moment they were identifying Violette as "the British-born French-Arab LeBrac, who went by the name Zidane, which belonged to her Algerian grandmother." Bish couldn't think of how many more hyphens and details they could use to distance themselves from the world's least favourite teenager. What country did Violette LeBrac Zidane belong to? On Twitter, #princec2 was the most eloquent: "She's Australian, you fuckers." 

The other thing I really want to say about Marchetta bringing her voice to this genre is in the character of Bashir “Bish” Ortley. Male leads in mystery-thrillers are nothing new, and quite frankly I’m a bit over them … I tend to gravitate more towards books in this genre with female leads (Dr. Sara Linton in Karin Slaughter’s books, Rev. Clare Fergusson in Julia Spencer-Fleming’s etc). And there was a part of me, when I started reading ‘Tell the Truth’ that was worried Bish would be more of the same that this genre tends to produce – old, grizzled, alcoholic, over-the-hill cop with a heart of gold and inexplicable sway over the opposite sex … but again, this is Marchetta we’re talking about. I came away from this novel with a real appreciation for how much the women steer the story – and Bish. From Noor LeBrac and Violette Zidane to Bish’s mother Saffron, his daughter Bee, wife Rachel, a whip-smart solicitor called Layla Barat ... Bish may be the character we follow for most of the story (with a few chapters from others’) and he may be Chief Inspector Ortley doing all the gum-shoeing on this case, but he’s very much being led by the women. Because they’re smart. And fierce. They know what they want – and they go after it. Bish is really just along for the ride and at their mercy, because the women always rule in a Melina Marchetta novel. Always. And Bish is the better for it by book's end, and I came to completely admire him. 

There’s just something about this novel that has stuck with me, and I can’t shake this feeling of deep gratitude – for another brilliant story from this writer who means so much to me – but also for this story that got me thinking so deeply about issues that are impacting the world today … So much is touched on here; refugees and asylum seekers, trial by media, the dubious justice of anti-terror laws and torture, Islamophobia, vigilantism and social-media, the creep of political power-plays, and so much more. Something about this book and Marchetta’s writing in this genre reminds me of ‘The Secret in Their Eyes’ by Eduardo Sacheri (which has been adapted into two films, but I prefer the 2009 Argentine/Spanish version) – in that layering of the personal and criminal, suspense in the crime itself as well as the hair-trigger personalities of the players involved … Marchetta feels utterly at home in this genre, like she’s been writing in it all her life (which she has, to a degree) and I can only hope this isn’t the last we’ll see of Bish Ortley and co. There are certainly seeds and threads planted in this book – particularly around the lawless treatment of asylum seekers who are stuck in limbo, and preyed upon for it – that feels like fertile and important ground for more mystery-thriller tales. Displacement, home, identity, and family – nobody writes about this better than Marchetta for me, and her bringing these themes to this genre is acknowledging something truly profound.

There’s so much I loved in this book – not least was the way it fits for me, like a puzzle piece within Marchetta’s other stories … there are lines here connecting them all for me, so I can see exactly how writing all those others bought Marchetta to this book, at this point in time. I loved that Violette Zidane feels like she’d get along like a house on fire with Josie Alibrandi, Francesca Spinelli and especially Taylor Markham. Charlie Crombie was a little shit, but then again I thought Jonah Griggs was too – at first. I loved Layla and Jamal as fiercely as I loved Georgie and Sam from ‘Piper’s Son,’ as much as Trevanion and Beatriss from the ‘Lumatere Chronicles’ – because the good ones don’t come easy. I loved reading the family history of the LeBrac and Sarraf’s, as much as I adored when Froi once told the complicated history of his family to Arjuro, which he concluded by saying; “I'd live it again just to have crossed all of your paths.” But most of all I think I loved how ‘Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil’ can be seen as sitting alongside ‘The Piper's Son’ – examining a very different angle of a terror tragedy. And while it wasn’t the same London tragedy that took Joe away from them, part of me hopes the Mackee’s would be the sort to forgive and make peace with a family who ended up suffering just as much …

 5/5

Tell The Truth, Shame The Devil out in the US on October 11

Monday, September 5, 2016

Interview with Laura Elizabeth Woollett, author of 'The Love of a Bad Man'


Q: Tell me about how you got published (agent or slush pile)?

Neither, actually. I have an American agent who tried selling it over there in early 2015, but the general response was, “great idea, but we’re not doing short stories right now,” and, “tell us when she has a novel.” I ended up going to the US mid-2015 to research my next novel. A couple of months after my return, I did a reading for a Melbourne Writers Festival event and Marika Webb-Pullman, a commissioning editor from Scribe, happened to be in the audience. The next morning, she emailed me asking to see what I was working on, and I had a two-book deal within a month. 


Q: How long did it take you to write ‘The Love of a Bad Man’ - from first idea to final manuscript? 

In 2012, I finished my degree and my first novel, The Wood of Suicides. After that, I had a bit of a fallow period, writing-wise, but was reading more nonfiction, looking for ideas. I think I was committed to the idea of the collection by early 2013 and I wrote a few of the stories that year. In 2014, I got a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship and completed a big chunk of the book over ten weeks. By the end of 2014, I had a final manuscript. So about two years, all up.

 

Q: Where do story ideas generally start for you? Do you first think of the character, theme, ending? Or is it just a free-fall?

I honestly don’t have that many ideas. There are themes that I find myself coming back to (girlhood, sex, power) again and again, and my stories tend to be ways of exploring these, with shifts in character, setting, and perspective. Sometimes a random image or detail will spark something in me, but it’s rare that it leads to a whole story. With this collection, I was very dependent on research to supplement my imagination, and I think this is how I work best: research-heavy fiction. I envy those writers who are idea-machines, capable of spinning totally original stories from the tiniest inspiration. I personally need a lot of groundwork.


Q: Are you a ‘plotter’ or a ‘pantser’ - that is, do you meticulously plot your novel before writing, or do you ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ and let the story evolve naturally?

Plotter all the way – as you probably guessed from my previous response. My Myers-Briggs type is INTJ, aka ‘the Mastermind’. I like to mastermind things, to think them through meticulously before I put them to paper. For this reason, I love research, and always hated those 10-minute creative writing exercises at uni (mostly I’d just draw flowers or fashion girls instead of writing anything).


Q: How did you go about choosing these particular women to focus on - and were you already familiar with all their stories, or once you had the concept for the collection did you have to go digging through the history books for a cast of characters? 

There were some that I encountered in my teens. I remember reading about the kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart in DOLLY, of all places, when I was 13 or 14. Others I heard of in my early twenties and filed away with the intention of reading up on, though not necessarily writing about. And others I actively sought out, once I realised I had a collection on my hands. There were several cases I read up on but didn’t end up including. Twelve stories seemed like a good amount to explore the theme multifariously, without it being overkill.  



Q: Even though you are writing fictional accounts of these women's lives, you have some meticulous details in here - particularly around historical context. What kind of research did you do, not only for accurate details but to also get into the head-space of some really unsavoury characters? 

I read a lot of true crime and biographies, to start with. The facts that I connected with most tended to be mundane things, rather than gory details; stuff like what these characters wore, ate, watched, read, smoked, etc. Picturing the dailiness of their lives helped me see them as real people, with habits and preferences, and made it easier to get under their skin. In terms of ‘darker’ impulses, that involved more introspection. I don’t think there’s anything particularly mysterious about the feelings that motivate bad behaviour; the invisible lines between feeling and action are where the mystery lies, for me. So often it was a matter of taking a feeling I’ve had and following that thread.  


Q: What was your favourite bit of trivia you discovered while researching? 

Ian Brady gave Myra Hindley a record to commemorate each murder they committed together. The first record was ‘Theme from The Legion’s Last Patrol’ by Ken Thorne and His Orchestra. The rest were pop songs, and all about breakups or being stood up: ‘24 Hours From Tulsa’ by Gene Pitney, ‘It’s Over’ by Roy Orbison, ‘Girl Don’t Come’ by Sandie Shaw, and Joan Baez’s ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’. No happy love songs.



Q: Do any of the real women in the collection know that you've written about them? A few are still alive, after all (Veronica Compton, Caril Ann Fugate)

I didn’t try to contact any of them. It was easier for me not to, and seemed like the safest, least intrusive option. Of the women still alive, many have taken pains to live anonymously. Others are still serving time. I did track down one of them online, though decided against getting in touch. Ultimately, I’m a fiction writer, not a journalist, and didn’t feel like such contact was necessary to the composition of these stories.  


Q: What's the hardest part of short-story writing for you? 

Ideas!


Q: What are you working on right now, and when can we expect it to his bookshelves?

I’m working on a (long!) novel called Beautiful Revolutionary. It’s about a young couple who join Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple in late ’60s California, and follows them all the way to the Jonestown massacre of 1978. It actually began with research for this book, and about one woman in particular, Carolyn Moore Layton, who was Jones’ mistress and most trusted aide. I didn’t end up including a story about her – partly because her character didn’t lend itself well to first-person narration, partly because I felt I needed a whole novel to get her character right – though she does cameo in ‘Marceline’. It’ll hit bookshelves sometime in 2018, which is also the 40th anniversary of the Jonestown massacre.


Q: Favourite author(s) and book(s) of all time?

Lolita. The Bell Jar. The Virgin Suicides. The Secret History. And the Ass Saw the Angel. Bonjour Tristesse. The Beach. Joyce Carol Oates. Marguerite Duras. Elena Ferrante. Gillian Flynn. Stephanie Dickinson.  

Q: What are you reading, loving and recommending right now?

I’ve just finished Carthage by Joyce Carol Oates. It’s my first JCO of the year and one of the most recent books (2014) from her super-massive backlist. A Goodreads reviewer described it as “an arthouse redux of Gone Girl”, and there are some similarities, though this is much more bizarre and existential. I saw a lot of myself in the protagonist, Cressida Mayfield – which is a little scary because she’s an incredibly high-strung, antisocial, self-sabotaging character!

I’ve also been reading White Girls by Hilton Als, a writer for The New Yorker. It’s an exploration of Als’ identification, as a gay African-American man, with ‘white girls’ of culture. More broadly, it’s an exploration of gender, race, class, and art. His writing is both intimate and critical, with long, fancy sentences that I love.

Haven’t started yet, but dying to read The Turner House by Angela Flourney. She’s a debut author from the US and a guest of Melbourne Writers Festival this year. It’s a family saga set in Detroit, and the snippets I’ve read on Amazon have been fantastic.    


Q: Do you have any advice for budding young writers?

I think it’s important to know your strengths and weaknesses, and to find a style that suits them, without being fatalistic about it. For instance, I always thought I was terrible at dialogue, then suddenly I wasn’t. Read writers whose strengths you share and see how they do it. Read writers whose strengths you don’t share for the same reason. Know that, no matter where you’re starting from, you can only get better and better.


'The Love of a Bad Man' by Laura Elizabeth Woollett

Received from the Publisher 

From the BLURB:

A schoolgirl catches the eye of the future leader of Nazi Germany. An aspiring playwright writes to a convicted serial killer, seeking inspiration. A pair of childhood sweethearts reunite to commit rape and murder. A devoted Mormon wife follows her husband into the wilderness after he declares himself a prophet.

The twelve stories in The Love of a Bad Man imagine the lives of real women, all of whom were the lovers, wives, or mistresses of various ‘bad’ men in history. Beautifully observed, fascinating, and at times horrifying, the stories interrogate power, the nature of obsession, and the lengths some women will go to for the men they love.

‘The Love of a Bad Man’ is a short story collection by young Australian author, Laura Elizabeth Woollett.

I have been dying to read this book, ever since I met Laura Elizabeth Woollett at the launch of ‘Betanarratives’, where we both had short stories in the ‘Body Language’ edition. Laura gave me a very brief run-down of her short story collection that was coming out with Scribe, describing it very succinctly as; "lovers, wives, or mistresses of various 'bad' men in history,” and I was so on-board. I’d been keeping my eyes and ears peeled ever since, and now that I’ve read the collection I’m not the least bit surprised that this tantalising theme completely holds-up under the weight of Woollett’s considerable talent.

There are twelve stories in all, focused on real women throughout history, but telling their fictionalised stories. Some of these women I was already familiar with (Hitler’s mistress Eva Braun, Blanche the sister-in-law to Bonnie and Clyde and Charles Manson’s California girls) but others were a welcome revelation and unusual little history lesson. The likes of Martha Beck (one half of "The Lonely Hearts Killers") and 13-year-old Caril Ann for her fateful relationship with a murderous greaser were all new to me. Even the stories of women I was familiar with had secret compartments to be unlocked in the telling, no matter that their lives have been reimagined by Laura. There were still sprinklings of truth; like discovering that Hitler probably had a sexual relationship with his niece, Geli Raubal, before she killed herself and he found young Eva Braun for example. I guarantee that these stories will set you off on a most macabre Internet search to satisfy the curiosity they invoke (there is also a very handy appendix that I cut away to after finishing individual stories, to stop me from putting the book down and interrupting my read with a Google search!).

I actually want to talk about ‘Suicide Squad’ in relation to ‘The Love of a Bad Man’ – which, I know, is totally out of left-field … but is it?

When I finished reading Woollett’s work, I went that weekend and saw ‘Suicide Squad’ in cinemas. There’s been a lot of talk around the movie’s particular disservice to fan-favourite character Harley Quinn, namely in making an even bigger mess of her already problematic and abusive relationship with The Joker. Read about that bizarre coupledom that goes to hell in a hand-basket in the movie here, here, here and here if you are so inclined. But I basically agree with everyone (even actress Margot Robbie) in just not getting that relationship, especially not the way it’s been portrayed in ‘Suicide Squad’ … But I actually want to talk about how Woollett’s entire collection can be seen through the pop-culture prism of Harley Quinn (who is a feminist icon for some fans, which I also don’t really get?)

Woollett is exploring various women who, – much like Harley Quinn – are seeking and accepting the love of bad men. The difference is that Woollett works damn hard to get to the ‘root of the root and the bud of the bud’ of this thing called love, and what she brings up are startling realisations. Sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes understandable but all of them are unique in trying to understand how these women tick. And she is very much interested in the women over the men in this collection. In most of the stories, the men are as unknowable to the reader as they are to their loves and lovers – which is often much appreciated (I don’t particularly want to work hard at understanding Hitler’s thinking, quite frankly). Woollett is embodying and writing to the flip of that ‘Behind every great man there's a great woman’ shtick, and instead saying that cliché works for bad men and women too.

‘You should go home while you can, baby,’ he tells me at a camp outside Waco. ‘I’ll put you on a bus right now. You’ll be back with your folks by nightfall.’  
I think of my poor old pa, deaf in one ear, and the little Okie church where he preaches to other farmers. But there’s no leaving Buck, no matter how much he tries to baby me, no matter how much bickering, dirt, and tears. This is the life we’ve been given, and if anything makes us better than animals, it’s each other. 
—‘Blanche’

The history-buff in me loved how Woollett also picks apart threads of time to provide context for these women and their crimes. It's another testament to how finely researched these women were, that Woollett really does look for their tender truths amongst the rubble of history;

According to my sister Ilse, there’s a Jew in Vienna who spends all his time listening to bored women talking. They lie down on a couch with their backs to him, plucking at their blouse buttons and going on about all sorts of things: their dreams, their memories, their childhoods.  
‘Why?’ I ask Ilse. 

‘For enlightenment,’ she says. ‘Of course, you wouldn’t know anything about that.’
—‘Eva’

… But if I’m being really honest, I just loved this collection for the gore-factor too. I think this is pretty close to a historical horror short story collection, and there’s something deliciously gothic and gory/gorgeous in picking at these wounds and wickedness;

On the night of Charlie’s frying, I watch the clock. I watch the minutes click by as they strap his arms to the chair and fix the metal bowl over his head. I look out at the darkened prison yard, my forehead cold against the window grating. The minute hand ticks one after midnight. I close my eyes and smell the smoke of him on the night air.
—‘Martha’

I adored this collection! ‘The Love of a Bad Man’ is definitely a favourite book of 2016 for me, and I’m keen to read whatever else Laura Elizabeth Woollett’s writes next.

5/5

Monday, August 29, 2016

'Words in Deep Blue' by Cath Crowley

Received from the Publisher

From the BLURB:  
Second-hand bookshops are full of mysteries  
This is a love story. 
It's the story of Howling Books, where readers write letters to strangers, to lovers, to poets, to words. 
It's the story of Henry Jones and Rachel Sweetie. They were best friends once, before Rachel moved to the sea. 
Now, she's back, working at the bookstore, grieving for her brother Cal. She's looking for the future in the books people love, and the words that they leave behind.  
Sometimes you need the poets


‘Words in Deep Blue’ is the new contemporary young adult book from Australian favourite, Cath Crowley.

Crowley’s ‘Words in Deep Blue’ is her first new book since 2010’s extraordinary ‘Graffiti Moon’ – and it was worth the wait. It’s a book about books – about loving, reading, and imprinting on books – with the story pivoting around a second-hand bookshop called Howling Books, where a long-lost friend returns to escape grief, and where a family unit and all its individual members have love lives that are well and truly in the in the tumults. It’s mostly the story of Rachel and Henry – once best friends, until Henry fell for a girl called Amy, and Rachel confessed her love only to move away. It’s a story about the Letter Library that resides in Howling Books, where people are encouraged to write in the margins, underline, and use books as conversations to be had with other readers. It’s a book about finding the right book at the right time.

But before I get into just how much I loved this particular book, I want to tell you all about this 2015 article I read in The New Yorker that stays with me. It was by Adam Gopnik, and titled ‘When a Bookstore Closes, an Argument Ends.’ I have a favourite line from that article, and it’s something I kept thinking about while reading ‘Words in Deep Blue’ (indeed; I got so caught up in this story and its wisdom, and especially the characters – that I wanted nothing more than to print out a copy of Gopnik’s article and leave it for Henry or his father Michael, folded into a book in their Letter Library). Here is that line of Gopik’s that I love;

At a minor level, once a bookstore is gone we lose the particular opportunities for adjacency it offers, determined by something other than an algorithm. It is rarely the book you came to seek, but the book next to that book, which changes your mind and heart.

The pivotal setting of ‘Words in Deep Blue’ being Howling Books – a second-hand bookshop – is nothing short of genius. On one level, a book about books is just catnip for readers, and young adult readers especially. And Cath Crowley gets very meta in this book, where she frequently title-drops and author-drops the names of works and writers she loves dearly. Be prepared to read this book with a notepad and pen beside you, so you can quickly jot down the books mentioned that you’ll definitely want to check out later. From John Green’s ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ to Kirsty Eagar’s ‘Summer Skin’, ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’, Karen Russell, Kelly Link, Neil Gaiman, and the short stories of Jorge Luis Borges – this is Crowley revealing quite personal parts of herself, I feel, in the books she loves and has loved. Readers will feel a spark of joy and closeness to the author when they read one of the characters espousing dearly about a book they likewise adore, just as I did with this remembered exchange between father and son;

He and I have had hundreds of conversations about the characters in books. The last one we had was about Vernon God Little, a book by D.B.C. Pierre. I’d love it enough to read twice. 
‘What did you love?’ Dad had asked. 
‘Vernon,’ I’d said, naming the main character. ‘And the way it’s critiquing America. But mainly it’s the language. It’s like he’s left the words out in the sun to buckle a while, and they don’t sound like you’d expect.’

I also loved that this is a book about imprinting on books – which means highlighting, scribbling in the margins, and dog-earing – all the things some bibliophiles get horrified over the very notion! But I am an avowed dog-earer, under-liner, margin-scribbler and I’m glad the characters in ‘Words in Deep Blue’ are too. I’m of the firm belief that creases and scribbles in a book are like laugh-lines on a face – signs of love.

This is also a book about loving the places where books can be found and talked about – flesh and bone books, with spines and smells and heft. Though its setting is a second-hand bookshop, the way these characters talk about finding books and connecting with people over stories is in itself a love letter to all bookshops, and libraries, friends who loan their copies, street libraries and any place else that good books and the people who recommend them can be found;

‘I read an article that said second-hand books will be relics eventually,’ I tell him, still trying to make excuses for how things went tonight. 
'Do you know what the word relic actually means, the dictionary definition?’ he asks, offering me the prawn crackers. 
I take one and tell him I don’t know. 
‘It means sacred,’ he says, breaking his cracker in half. ‘As in “the bones of saints.”’

What’s kind of ironic and meta in this book about loving books though, is that all those authors and stories Crowley’s characters mention? Just as many people would list Crowley’s own works amongst the greats that have changed and upheaved them.

‘Words in Deep Blue’ is also a love-story … or, a few love stories really. Rachel and Henry take centre-stage for much of the book, as their history of unrequited love and friends-to-more unfolds amidst grief, jealousy and heartbreak, to eventually evolve into acceptance, forgiveness and revelation. There’s also Henry’s sister, George, who has a secret letter-writing admirer and a boy from school who wants to break through her tough exterior and become friends. Then there’s Henry’s parents whose great love story is in its final throes, and Henry and Rachel’s mutual friend Lola whose great love is music and the band she’s been dreaming about for years.

Anyone who has ever read any of Cath Crowley’s books knows that her characters are exquisite, and those in ‘Words in Deep Blue’ are no exception. I remember a long time ago (2013, to be exactly exaggerated) and Cath Crowley wrote in her blog about what I can only assume now was writing this very book. She said;

‘I keep hoping that one day I’ll find a shortcut, a door that takes me from one novel into the next. Takes me straight from Ed and Lucy’s kiss, through a small gap in the air, onto the street where Giselle and Charlie are waiting. Or even better, couldn’t I just walk a little way down the road, and have them existing on different streets in the same world?’
 
I know Crowley was writing about the frustration of finding story, but as one of her readers and biggest fans I wish for it too, on a fundamentally non-fictional level. I think the best way to describe how much I love Cath Crowley’s books is to say how much I want the characters to be real people that I could go visit. I’d love nothing more than to go from watching one of Gracie’s soccer matches, to hearing Charlie Duskin sing and seeking out new Shadow street-art – and now visiting Howling Books to tell Henry that my absolute favourite poem is Anna Akhmatova’s ‘You Will Hear Thunder’, so I could lend him my Everyman's Library Pocket Poets book of hers.

I loved these characters. I loved Henry and Rachel’s enduring friendship amidst complication. I loved meeting Cal in letters. I adored George’s bite;

‘What are you reading?’ he asks this afternoon. 
‘Kafka’s Metamorphosis,’ George says, without looking up. 
‘And what’s it about?’ 
‘Guy turns into a giant bug and eventually dies.’ 
‘Not exactly life-affirming,’ Martin observes. 
‘Life isn’t exactly life-affirming,’ George says.

And my Gosh, did I love reading new words from Cath Crowley. She has a way with language that’s poetically blunt when necessary, or can be languidly lush and is just utterly genius – and there’s just as much to admire in her words as the great wordsmiths her characters esteem.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged according to George, that shit days generally get more shit. Shit nights roll into shit morning that roll into shit afternoons and back into shit starless midnights. Shitness, my sister says, has a momentum that good luck just doesn’t have. I’m an optimist but tonight I’m coming around to her way of thinking.

I loved ‘Words in Deep Blue’. I waited six years for it, but I fell in love after the first page, and by the last it was a new favourite.

5/5