Halloween is too an American thing

Jack O'Lanterns
So every year Halloween kicks off a round of hand-wringing cultural-identity paranoia in This Dumb Country – Australia I mean, obviously – where people decide they’re going to do the whole costumes-and-candy thing (Halloween is always about “candy”, not “lollies”), then a second group of people predictably starts carping that Halloween mustn’t be celebrated in This Dumb Country because it’s an American thing, and then the first group even-more-predictably fires back that actually Halloween has been around for centuries and actually it’s an ancient pagan or Celtic or whatever thing or whatever and actually it’s not American at all.

Yes, it’s true Halloween was not invented by Americans, and nor were yearly customs that soon became annual traditions like trick-or-treating or dressing in spooky costumes. However. Claiming that Halloween as it’s celebrated today is “not an American thing” is a bit like claiming Christmas is not a Christian thing because pagans (or Celts, or whatever) were throwing winter festivals way before Jesus ever rolled up. Whatever Halloween used to be, it’s been swallowed up by a cultural tradition popularised by America which is profoundly American.

This is not in itself a bad thing! If you’re an Australian and you want to celebrate Halloween, go right ahead. Costumes and candy are fun! But please be prepared to admit that you’re borrowing the modern phenomenon of Halloween from American TV shows and movies and pop culture. You just are.

(Also, please be prepared to admit a lot of Australians still don’t care much for Halloween, so if you’re out collecting candies, take the hint and bypass the undecorated houses.)


Book review: The Magicians, Lev Grossman

The Magicians

The Magicians is sinister and dangerous and adult, high-stakes and smart and sharp, a fantasy novel about fantasy novels and for those of us who read them, and an exploration what happens when your wildest childhood fantasies are realised in adulthood. (Spoiler alert: it’s never as good as you hoped.) It’s a remarkable book.

Quentin Coldwater is a Brooklyn teenager who grew up obsessed with Fillory and Further – a Narnia-ish series of books written in the ’30s, about a family of English children who escape World War I by nipping out to a parallel world populated by evil witch villains and friendly animal companions. Now preparing for college, Quentin is unenthusiastic about his future despite being a young genius who could do anything he wants.

What Quentin really wants – what a lot of us want, actually – is for the world to be a bigger, more fantastic place than it is. Unlike us readers, though, he’s not constrained by the limitations of reality: his wish comes true when he’s invited to take the entrance examination at Brakebills, an elite college of magic in upstate New York. Unfortunately he’s not accepted, and that’s where the novel ends. Just kidding! He gets in.

Quentin’s education at Brakebills is incredible – its highlight comes when Quentin and his whole class are transfigured into geese and fly all the way to Antarctica for one freezing, rigorous semester. Nevertheless, he’s unsatisfied – the magic world is ultimately as mundane and difficult and disappointing as the real world. The only place he might still discover happiness is in Fillory, which may not be as fictional as he thought. Unfortunately he never gets to Fillory, and the that’s where the novel ends. Just kidding! He finds it.

If you ever dreamed of visiting a fantasy land from a much-loved book, you must must must read The Magicians. It explicitly references a tonne of fantasy novels, especially the Harry Potter series – the simplest way to describe it is “Harry Potter for adults”, or maybe “The Secret History set at Hogwarts”. The magic is mixed in with sex and alcohol and maddening social politics, and a dark streak of danger: in Harry Potter you always kind of knew Harry and Ron and Hermione were shielded from death, but there’s no similar sense here. It’s telling there’s no Dumbledore or Aslan or Gandalf stand-in – Quentin’s teachers are an unsure and wary of magic’s power as he is.

The pace of The Magicians is bloated and messy but its episodic nature suits Grossman’s story (it’s both easy and impossible to see how it might be adapted into a TV series). It’s never obvious where Quentin’s adventures will take him, though in hindsight it all seems inevitable. But it’s often hard to get a fix on the characters – oftentimes Grossman will describe some supporting character as being a certain way, and it’s the first time you got that sense from the character.

I dreamed about this book. The moment I finished it I picked up the recently released sequel, The Magician King. It’s dumb and hackneyed to review a book about magic and call it “enchanting”, but The Magicians really is enchanting.


Book review: Blood Song, Rhiannon Hart

Blood Song

Dear Rhiannon Hart: thank you for writing a brooding romantic interest who isn’t also a complete jerk. Too many young adult books have young women inexplicably falling for young men who are either monster-creeps or borderline-abusive psychos – Blood Song‘s hero Rodden has wit and smarts to match his tall dark handsomeness.

And ditto its heroine, Zeraphina: she’s a princess (not in the entitled spoiled way; in the literal lives-in-a-castle way) and a skilled archer and followed everywhere by her loyal animal companions. And yet she’s not annoyingly perfect, as so many of these heroines are. Sometimes she’s a stubborn, stupid brat – which isn’t necessarily a bad quality in a narrator, not when it’s balanced with her wit and smarts.

In addition to those archery skills and animal friends, Zeraphina has a secret: a mysterious, unquenchable, painful craving for human blood. She begins to uncover clues about her condition when her sister is married off to the prince of a country that borders Lharmell – a cruel land ruled by even crueller beasties which hunt humans for their blood.

Blood Song is an unpretentious, competently crafted fantasy that mixes familiar elements into an entertaining story. If I knew a young reader with a burgeoning fantasy obsession, I’d definitely recommend it.


Book review: Exit Through the Wound, North Morgan

Exit Through the WoundExit Through the Wound is about nothing, and I don’t mean that in the same sense that Keeping up with the Kardashians is about nothing ((Like I once watched three minutes of that show and was later diagnosed with bruising on my brain.)). More like it’s about nothing in the same way Seinfeld was: something happens, and maybe it briefly seems important or meaningful, but ultimately the stakes are super-low compared against the scale of the entire world – and that’s the point.

But Seinfeld focused on the amusing quibbles of nihilism, and ignored its dark and depressing side. Exit Through the Wound is consumed by the dark and depressing. It’s a blackly, laugh-out-loud funny book, one of my favourites of the year, I think, but parts of it made me want to stand on the edge of a building and go completely limp in the hope that I’d fall to my death without having to go to the actual effort of jumping off. (This is a very appropriate suicidal response to this book.)

Our hero is Maine Hudson, which is not his real name. Maine was raised in Greece but abandoned his home country and culture for the bleak streets of London,where a business consultancy pays him to email his co-workers and reorganise his desk. On weekends – and most weeknights – he consumes heavy quantities of pharmaceuticals.

Maine is not a likeable character, at least not in the I’d-want-to-spend-much-time-around-him way (which is fine, because if he were real he probably wouldn’t care to hang around himself either): he’s entitled, surly, morose. But jeez, you feel for this guy. His grim resignation to the unfairness of life – not in the sense that it’s unfair people suffer and die, but more how unfair that it’s all so mundane and pointless and godless – is palpable.

If that’s not a feeling you relate to, then: 1) You’re blessed or ignorant or both, and 2) Wound is probably not a book you’ll enjoy much.

The novel unfolds in 40 short chapters – almost like a string of short stories, really, in which Maine blankly endures his existence. Being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness or dumped by the love or your life is equally important, or minor, as having a stranger yell at you on the tube.  Like Seinfeld, Maine is obsessed by apparent trivialities, “apparent” because these unimportant moment fill the bulk of our lives, and his observations of society’s absurd characters – office gossips, creepy gym-goers, vapid acquantainces – are sharp and hilarious. (If you too have been forced to attend corporate-style training courses alongside suspiciously enthusiastic personality voids, you will laugh.) The story spans roughly a year, and the first chapter in the book is the last chronologically – so you know from the start Maine won’t ride into the sunset after discovering true happiness. There is no such thing, maybe.

If you’ve followed North Morgan’s blog London Preppy for a while you’ll recognise Wound‘s style (and, like me, you’ll probably hope  that for the sake of Morgan’s physical and mental health the adventures of his fictional alter egos aren’t too autobiographical). And maybe Morgan started out as a blogger who gained a following posting shirtless photos of himself – let’s none of us embarrass ourselves pretending that’s not why we started reading him – but he’s evolved into a powerful writer, one who gets that miserable sense of “So what?” that pervades adulthood, but also the strange detached amusement it can arouse. I am not a heavily sedated, depressive business consultant living in London, but some parts of Maine’s story felt true:

Going to the gym is part of my daily, obsessive routine that creates this wonderful sense of consistency, a consistency that I need to have because I’m so weak that I can’t deal with change. This is unfortunately offset by the parallel feeling that I’m trapped in a recurring nightmare, a lifestyle I never chose and can’t escape.



Book review: Moon Over Soho, Ben Aaronovitch

Moon Over SohoBest thing about reading the second instalment in a series: the origin-story stuff in part one is over and done. Not that origin stories aren’t a fun time, but there’s a formula to setting up characters and plots and tone, and once a series is freed from that formula it can start to shine.

Moon Over Soho, the follow-up to Rivers of London, offers a pretty good indicator that Ben Aaronovitch’s wizard-police-in-London series – I think we’re calling it the Peter Grant series? Which isn’t that catchy  – is starting to shine.

So the story picks up pretty much where Rivers left off: budding policeman/wizard Peter Grant has closed his first supernatural case, and continues his magical education under the tutelage of his Stephen Fry-ish inspector, Nightgale.

Working out of the Folly, the nickname for the posh old building that is the headquarters of London’s magical police, the twosome discover a new mystery: the city’s jazz musicians are dying, the life force sucked right out of them, sparking theories there’s a “jazz vampire” afoot. It’s all as messy and ridiculous and fun as it sounds.

That sense of fun is down to Peter, who’s a fresh, likeable hero: Aaronovitch has created a leading man who doesn’t take his unlikely adventures too seriously, is streetsmart but not wisecracky, capable without being annoyingly perfect, and who actually gets to have some actual sex this time around. (Seriously, this series is ripe for a magicked-up, oversexed True Blood-ish television adaptation. Get on with that, British TV bosses!)

The history of London is woven into the plot of Moon Over Soho more smoothly than in Rivers of London, as Peter dashes around the city meeting new characters, reacquainting himself with old ones, probing the tragic history of English wizardry, and stumbling on to the fringes of a cabal of evil wizards. It’s this kind of world-building that leaves me double-keen to see what magic Aaronovitch will work in the forthcoming third instalment, London Under Ground.


Book review: The Tiger’s Wife, Tea Obreht

The Tiger's Wife, Tea ObrehtYou know, sometimes literary fiction can be brilliant and tedious all at once: there’s only so many lyrically wrought metaphors you can admire per page before they start dragging down the story.

Luckily! This is not a problem in Tea Obreht’s debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife, which strikes the right balance between beautiful writing and compelling plotting that exposes an unfamiliar (to me, anyway) aspect of history in a fresh and unexpected way.

Said plot centres on Natalia, a twentysomething doctor who grew up during the wars that plagued the former Yugoslavia. As she sets out across the new border on a mission to vaccinate orphans, she learns her beloved grandfather has died in a tiny village far from his home. So what was he doing there?

As Natalia attempts to find out, she reflects on her memories of her grandfather, probing the events of his life that shaped his taciturn-yet-warm personality. Two of his relationships were especially key: one with a deaf-mute woman from the isolated village who grew up in, dubbed “the tiger’s wife” after a real tiger inexplicably appeared in the surrounding forests; the other with “the deathless man”, a seemingly immortal traveller who Natalia’s grandfather met many times.

What a story, huh?

There’s a fairytale quality to Wife, and not only because of its folksy touches. Obreht’s story is deliberately vague: the country it’s set in is never named, and Natalia herself is barely even a character – so much so that I had to go back to the blurb to confirm her name. This isn’t a bad thing. Natalia is defined by the other, stronger characters: her grandfather, the tiger’s wife, and the deathless man, of course, but also by her strong-willed friend Zora, the superstitious gypsies they encounter while performing their vaccinations, and the other inhabitants of her grandfather’s village. Like a real fairytale, the precise details are almost irrelevant. It’s the sense they arouse that stays with you.

Meanwhile, Obreht was born in 1985, making her just 25 when this book was published, and is by all accounts a lovely person. Awful!

Disclaimer: My copy of The Tiger’s Wife was given to me for free. But I would’ve given it a good review even if I’d paid for it! (Or would I…?) (Yeah, I would.)