The Silkworm, J.K. Rowling: Book review

Robert Galbraith, The Silkworm coverJ.K. Rowling is a great fan of the densely plotted, complicated novel that doesn’t seem like a densely plotted, complicated novel. The Harry Potter books are deceptively simple but go analyse Goblet of Fire or Order of the Phoenix and pay attention to the amount of plot turns and exposition and red herrings slipped into each chapter – details vital to making the conclusions work.

Rowling (or Robert Galbraith, if we’re still pretending he wrote these books) brings that same deceptive simplicity to her (or his) Cormoran Strike books. There’s no magic or fantasy here, but there are all the tropes of the classic murder-mystery.

The Silkworm is anchored by a troubled but ultimately good-hearted detective: wounded war veteran-turned-PI Strike, who’s assisted by his faithful secretary Robin. There’s the twisted and mysterious murder: reclusive author Owen Quine is gruesomely murdered after writing a sensational book that spills dirty secrets on pretty much everyone in London’s publishing industry. And then there’s the cast of intriguing suspects, with mysterious backstories and motives to be exposed.

Note that “faithful secretary” is an absurdly reductive description for Robin; it’s like calling Hermione Granger a “faithful friend”. She’s one of the few women who comes off well in this book – others are remarked upon with disdainful judgement that I’m not sure is part of Cormoran’s character or Rowling’s worldview. Either way, it’s clear in this universe that there’s the right kind of woman to be (Robin) and the wrong kind of woman to be (basically every other female character).

Not that it spoils the mystery. What does come close to spoiling it is the conclusion: No spoilers, but basically Strike deduces who Quine’s murderer is about three-quarters of the way through – and the rest of the book is devoted to cunning schemes tracking down evidence to prove the killer’s guilty, with his or her identity artfully hidden from the reader.

It’s frustrating, and it feels like a cheat, a violation of the genre’s rules. The detective in murder-mysteries is allowed to keep his suspicions from the reader – Agatha Christie did this basically all the time with Poirot, which is why he could sometimes seem so insufferable – but the reader needs access to all the information, all the clues, so that there’s a sense we could have solved the crime if only we possessed the detective’s genius and insight. That sense is missing in The Silkworm.

Previously: The Cuckoo’s Calling, J.K. Rowling

 

Two Boys Kissing, David Levithan: Book review

Two Boys Kissing coverWhen I was about 14 or 15 – this was in 1998 – my English teacher took me aside and gave me a copy of Dance on My Grave to read. That teacher was openly gay (as openly as you can be as a teacher in a regional Australian high school in the ’90s, anyway), the novel is about gay characters, and I would turn out be gay. Pretty obvious why that teacher lent me the book: “Hey kid – you are this. Learn to accept it.”

But I refused to read it. A couple of days later I handed the book back to the teacher, insisting it interested me zero. This is called denial! I didn’t want to learn to accept anything. I probably knew – though had never consciously admitted to myself – that I was gay. But I really didn’t want to be.

Looking back, in the late ’90s it felt like homosexuality was on its way to acceptance, but a long way off being accepted. The same-sex marriage debate was a thing crazies speculated about, not seriously discussed. Pop-culture offered a smattering of gay characters – asexual sidekicks, mostly, or one-offs*. Being gay was the stuff of Special Episodes or Problem Novels. Gay people were a thing you knew about but didn’t look at directly. Being out in high school was unimaginable**.

(*Will and Grace didn’t premiere and Jack didn’t enter Dawson’s Creek till a year or so after my English teacher gave me that book. I guess Jack was a pretty Big Deal for teenagers my age, even though he barely pecked at other boys and Kerr Smith was pretty outspoken about how gross he found the whole thing.)

(**Adult Me is frequently amused that almost all of Teenage Me’s male friends turned out to be big ol’ raging homos. If only we’d been out to each other instead of dancing around it!)

Which is why David Levithan’s excellent book Two Boys Kissing, published in 2013, is so remarkable. He writes about teen life where being gay isn’t a problem by default. It doesn’t mark you as special. It’s just… a thing. (One character is even a transgender boy, which Teenage Me would find especially remarkable. Transgender teens were not even on pop culture’s radar when I was a Youth.)

Not that gay teenagers now exist in a utopian bubble of acceptance and tolerance. They don’t, and Two Boys Kissing acknowledges the floods of homophobic ugliness that will never entirely recede, and that coming out will never be effortless. Almost all its young characters struggle with different facets of their homosexuality. But the world they exist in is a very different place from the one 15 or 20 years ago, and that’s terrific.

(OH GOD HAS IT REALLY BEEN THAT LONG SINCE I WAS A TEENAGER OH GOD)

Two Boys Kissing balances several characters. Peter and Neil have been together a year (so in teenage terms they are an old married couple), but Neil isn’t out out to his parents yet. Blue-haired Ryan and pink-haired Avery (the aforementioned transgender boy) meet at a “gay prom” and start that delightful-but-awkward dance of determining what’s next. Self-loathing Cooper is disgusted and ashamed of his homosexuality – because his only experience with that world is through sleazy one-dimensional sex apps. And Tariq stands strong after a recent gay-bashing.

These boys orbit around Harry and Craig, a former couple-turned-best friends (with all the baggage that kind of relationship comes with) attempting to break the world record for longest kiss. That’s a gruelling 32 hours, an event broadcast to the entire world, and whether or not they’ll pull it off is terrifically suspenseful.

(Levithan was inspired by the real-life story of Matty Daley and Bobby Canciello, two college boys who set the world record for longest kiss in 2010 when they locked lips for 33 hours. Although Guinness says their record has since been broken by a heterosexual couple in Thailand.)

Levithan’s writing is honest and beautiful, though he does toss in a pinch of that literary-ish tweeness which is a hallmark of “realistic” YA fiction. Tariq is obsessed with the poet Walt Whitman and leads friends in a recital of Whitman’s work, while in another scene Neil and Peter spell out love messages in book titles. Obviously, yes, some teenagers really actually do stuff like this, but – to me, anyway – these kind of grandiose moments always seem contrived and sugary when they’re flattened on to a page.

The boldest, most memorable part of Two Boys Kissing is that it’s told from the point-of-view of the ghostly chorus of gay men who died amid the AIDS crisis of the ’80s and ’90s. It’s a striking, odd narrative structure. “Odd” because it sometimes keeps the living characters at arm’s length. But mostly because it filters the experience of being gay through such tragedy – like at any moment Two Boys Kissing might just become a tale of victims or the “descendants” of victims.

But it never does. Levithan – who in the acknowledgements explains  he came of age in the narrow window after the first AIDS crisis but before the advent of the internet – makes his ghosts vivid and important. By telling Two Boys Kissing from their perspective, he isn’t saying  gay people now need to define themselves by AIDS. But he is saying we need to remember it, and its cost.

Which makes Two Boys Kissing seem like kind of a downer. It’s not. The end of this book optimistic, powerfully hopeful, and filled with so much pride. I wish someone could have lent it to me when I was a kid, and that I could have put aside my teenage denial and cynicism and read it. I wish every gay teenager in the world could read and accept this book. I wish everyone, period, could read it and love it as much as I did.

Previously: Will Grayson, Will Grayson, John Green and David Levithan: Book review

 

Gaysia, Benjamin Law: book review

Gaysia, Benjamin LawPop culture has offered endless navel-gazing into what it is like to be a white gay man in Western countries. But what is it like to be an Asian gay man in Asian countries? It’s a mystery!

At least until you read Benjamin Law’s fine travelogue Gaysia. (Or unless you are an Asian gay man in Asia, in which case: just read this book anyway, OK.) An Australian child of Chinese migrants, Law ventures into Asia to learn how life for homos there is different (or the same) from life in his homeland, with each chapter exploring a different country or region.

Some chapters, while intriguing, are more or less what you’d expect: Law meets ladyboys in Thailand and explores sex tourism in Bali. Others reveal unexpected facets of Asia’s gays: Particularly interesting is the chapter in Japan, where Law explores how gay celebrities are “permitted” to be out and proud – as long as they’re men, sexless, and content with being entertainment for straight people.

Two chapters are particularly bleak. In Myanmar, Law explores the devastation wrought by HIV and AIDS. Even those who know how to get treatment – and that’s a short list – are unlikely to get it. It’s a terrible portrait of what happens when you mix poverty and oppression in one terrible soup.

The India chapter is bleak for a different reason. Law is positive about the country, which he visited after it overturned the section of its penal code outlawing homosexuality (laws dating back to the 1861, introduced during British rule). But in December 2013, India’s Supreme Court over-overturned that decision, so homosexual acts are illegal again. It’s a depressing, disappointing reminder that progress is not always permanent. Most of the anti-gay people Law interviews in India (and in Malaysia, too) are mostly motivated by their religious beliefs – unsurprisingly, and frustratingly.

Law doesn’t dive into the historical complexities of the countries he visits, but nor does he make out like he’s trying to paint a full picture of his destinations. Some of these places he visits, after all, have more than a billion people in them. Instead he meets people, talks to them, sketches a lasting impression of what life is like.

He’s also the world’s nicest travel companion. I relate to his buttoned-down brand of innocence – particularly when he politely-but-deftly deflects old leches in Bali then dares to (gasp!) go skinny-dipping. What could be termed his conservatism puts a compelling and often powerful spin on Gaysia: Law is a true observer without casting judgement, writing about his subjects with affection and respect.

 

Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy, Helen Fielding: Book review

Bridget Jones: Mad About the BoyHow comforting that, after all these years, Bridget Jones is still an idiot.

Now in her early fifties, she’s grappling with raising two very sweet but very boisterous children (an early scene in which the kids are making horrific messes from both ends of their body could be marketed as an alternative form of contraception), and learning the complexities of social media. (Am smugly pleased to point out that, as far as I’m aware, she never gains more Twitter followers than me.)

And she’s single. Again! Her one-true-love Mark Darcy is (horreur!) dead, killed by a landmine on a valiant mission to South Sudan. Which conveniently frees Bridget up for wacky and embarrassing hijinks (almost all of them self-inflicted) as she starts dating again – but which more conveniently adds much-needed depth to the book, as grief and sadness for Mark wash unexpectedly in and out of her everyday life.

Several reviews of this book deem it not v gd – some so harsh you’d think it was a horrifically unnecessary sequel in line with Sex and the City 2. Maybe those reviews softened me up, lowered my expectations – but Mad About the Boy is not a bad book. It’s a Bridget Jones book! It’s exactly what you expect from a Bridget Jones book! It’s hardly groundbreaking (for example: the older-woman-dating-younger-men thing is more well-worn than a serial dater’s most comfortable pair of Spanx) but it’s light and frothy and fun. I read Bridget Jones’s exploits because she is a charming idiot, and in Mad About the Boy she is a very charming idiot.

 

The New York Trilogy, Paul Auster: Book review

The New York TrilogyI don’t remember how I first found out about Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy – it just sort of stumbled onto my reading list. Which is appropriate, because this is one of the most mysterious and baffling books I ever read.

There’s no easy way to describe the Trilogy, which is sort-of-but-not-really a spoof of detective novels overlaid with a navel-gazing exploration of identity and what fiction is and how it intersects with reality. Sort of. But not really. The first instalment, City of Glass, follows a writer who assumes the identity of a private detective named Paul Auster (yeah) and becomes obsessed with tracking a creepy client’s even creepier father. Book two, Ghosts, is about another private eye, Blue, who also becomes obsessed with a case – watching a man called Black. And part three, The Locked Room, is about a writer who unwittingly takes over the life of a friend.

Reading the trilogy is kind of like watching Lost – for all that TV drama’s (many, many) flaws, at its best it summoned up a sense of foreboding mystery, that something dark and deep and important lurked below its surface. The Trilogy evokes that same feeling of ominous, “What the fuck is going here?” wonder. As everyone in the world knows, Lost failed (terribly, horribly failed) at tying it all up into something at the end. But The New York Trilogy succeeds, and it probably succeeds because it doesn’t attempt to boil everything down into a straight-forward explanation*. (“They’re all in the afterlife!”) It just presents a conclusion that is as oblique and utterly batshit as everything that came before it. You either buy it or you don’t; I bought it.

*In fairness to Lost, though, the Trilogy doesn’t have reams of characters who each need their own semblance of a farewell – which probably makes its opaque ending more palatable.

 

Advent and Anarchy, James Treadwell: Book review

Advent, James TreadwellIf old magics returned to the world, civilisation would collapse. That’s the premise of James Treadwell’s Advent trilogy, a bleak and gripping take on what happens after a centuries-old mage is resurrected in a remote part of Cornwall.

(No wonder the witches and wizards in Harry Potter worked so hard to keep magic secret from us Muggles.)

Troubled teenager Gavin has been haunted since childhood by a spectre he calls “Miss Grey”, who no one else can see. He’s one of the few people who can perceive the remnant shreds of magic left in the world – so of course everyone believes he’s crazy. At the start of Advent, the first book in the series, his parents finally tire of his antics and ship him off to stay with his eccentric aunt at Pendurra, a crumbling Cornish mansion.

Gavin arrives at his new home just as things start to go south. His aunt, Gwen, has disappeared. Hellish beasts stalk the estate. A dark plot is unfolding. Treadwell’s story is slow and dense, but he builds the tension and dread into a spectacular climax as magic is unleashed back into this corner of England.

Anarchy, James TreadwellInstalment two, Anarchy, begins several months after the events of Advent, as the reawakened magic starts to take hold of a world that can’t yet understand what the hell is happening. This book is even slower and denser than its predecessor – and weaker. Much of the story revolves around new characters – including Goose, a Canadian mountie, and Gavin’s mother, who desperately tries to reunite with her son as magic rips Britain apart – whose connection to Advent emerges at an often frustrating pace. Anarchy eventually ties most of its threads together, but the ending is so obscurely written that it isn’t entirely clear or satisfying.

That said: When Anarchy achieves full momentum, it’s unnerving and unpredictable. Treadwell’s series makes a convincing argument that society – its laws and its systems – only works because everyone believes it works. When that faith is knocked away, the whole illusion falls apart. If fantasy does ever become reality, we’re all screwed.

 

The Long Earth and The Long War, Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter: Book review

The Long Earth, Terry Pratchett and Stephen BaxterOne day, humanity makes a stunning discovery: There are parallel universes neighbouring ours, stacked next to each other, stretching out to infinity, each one holding an Earth that is more or less identical to ours. Humans can step out of this world and into the next almost at will. Overnight, society is transformed by this new “Long Earth”.

The Long Earth and its sequel The Long War are structured entirely on that premise – and what a premise it is. It’s simple, with the kind of deceptive simplicity that cracks your skull open and makes your imagination blaze. Authors Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter’s imaginations are incandescent: Both books in this series are bursting with digressions and musings and speculation about the big and small effects that the Long Earth would have on humanity.

The premise is so huge, so ambitious, that it’s almost a struggle to build anything as closed as a plot around it. Long Earth is structured around Joshua Valiente, a natural “stepper” – unlike almost every other person, he doesn’t need a special device to hop from one Earth to the next – who has explored more of the Long Earth than most. He’s recruited on an expedition to explore the vast extent of the Long Earth by an eccentric supercomputer known as Lobsang, and the pair turns up some of the Long Earth’s mysteries as they traverse it in an airship*.

(*Remember the golden rule: Pretty much anything with airships in it is, by default, cool.)

The Long War, Terry Pratchett and Stephen BaxterIn Long War, which picks up several years after Long Earth, the weakness in the story become even clearer. The characters are mostly a benign lot (if you’ve read a lot of Pratchett’s stuff many of them will feel familiar to you) and none of their individual stories are especially interesting or surprising. Various threads follow the tensions between humans and other intelligent species residing in the Long Earth, a Chinese expedition into far-flung worlds, and Lobsang’s continued meddling. But there’s never a sense that everything won’t work out OK, and eventually, everything does.

But it’s testament to the strength of that remarkable central idea that the series is never boring. Pratchett and Baxter wander off on side quests exploring the social and economic effects of infinite Earths, which are often so intriguing it’s sometimes it’s disappointing to be gently steered back to the main plot.

 

Summerland, Michael Chabon: Book review

SummerlandIt’s been a while since I read anything by Michael Chabon, so I’d almost forgot Michael Chabon is stupendous. And Summerland has been perched unread on my bookshelf literally for years and I never picked it up till now, because I am merely stupid. How good is this book? It’s so good it actually convinced me to care about baseball. Baseball!

Summerland centres on 11-year-old Ethan Feld, the worst kid in his Little League team. He lives on Clam Island, off Washington, with his dad, an aviation engineer who’s designing a consumer airship. (Sidenote: Basically anything with airships in it is at least a bit awesome, just by default, and the rule holds true for this book.) Ethan’s baseball games are played on a part of the island where it literally never rains in summer – nicknamed “Summerland”.

The reason Summerland is so eternally sunny is because it’s (more or less) the gateway to a fantasyland also known as Summerland, one of the four worlds that comprise the universe – there’s Summerland, a corresponding winter world, our humdrum reality, and a sealed-off fourth world that’s something like heaven. Ethan learns this when he’s called upon to save the worlds, and the cosmic Tree that binds them, from Coyote – basically every trickster god rolled up into one. Accompanied by his baseball teammates, (the awesome) Jennifer T. Rideout and (the odd) Thor Wignutt, Ethan starts out on a trek across Summerland to halt Coyote’s scheme, encountering fairies, sasquatches, giants and were-animals, and playing a ton of baseball. Fantasy creatures are really into baseball. Apparently.

I say “more or less” up there because Chabon’s mythology here is messy and sprawling and hard to follow – I never quite got a grasp on how his four fantasy worlds tie into each other, exactly. But even when his ideas are muddled, his sentences are clear and crisp and his metaphors are frequently delightful. (Though even the best turns of phrase in Summerland can’t rival his all-time best simile: In The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, he writes of rough voices that sound like “onions rolling in a bucket,” which oooooh tingles.) Maybe that’s why the film John Carter, which Chabon penned, was such a flop – because imagination works works best on the page, when it’s moulded by his superb words. Take away the words and you’re just left with muddle.

Summerland is such a through-and-through American book it makes me want to use the word “quintessential” to describe it. Its Americana is boiled up with slices of “traditional” folklore into some strange, complicated, charming stew that’s ostensibly a young adult or even a children’s novel. But I’m curious to know what a kid of Ethan’s age would make of this book. I looked forward to reading it every time I pulled it out of my bag and cracked it open.

 

 

Divergent, Veronica Roth: Book review

Divergent, Veronica RothAfter she turns 16, Tris Prior undergoes the same rite of passage as every teenager in post-apocalyptic Chicago. Her futuristic society is split into five factions: Abnegation, for those who value selflessness above all other things; Dauntless, for fearlessness; Erudite, knowledge; Candor, honesty; and Amity, love. She must take a test that determines which faction she’ll be in the rest of her life.

But Tris’s test result doesn’t tell her she belongs in Abnegation, which she was born into, or in Dauntless, which she secretly longs to join. Instead, she shows equal aptitude for Abnegation, Dauntless and Erudity – which makes her (dun dun dun) divergent. Tris is warned that the authorities hate the divergent and told to keep her test result a secret from everyone. And then she goes against her family’s wishes and joins the Dauntless faction.

After leaving her loved ones behind, Tris is pushed through rigorous and brutal Dauntless training. She starts to fall for her suitably aloof and brooding instructor Four (yes, like the number). And she gradually stumbles into a plot to overthrow society that she will inevitably become a central part of because she’s divergent.

So what, you might be asking, is so special about being divergent? If the factions are artificially created and you can essentially choose whichever one you want to be a part of, what does it even mean to be divergent? Why are the divergent (spoiler alert) immune to the mind-control serums that can turn everyone else into zombies? Well, those are good questions. But author Veronica Roth’s mythology is so complicated and muddled that the answers are never clear – the divergent are special because… they just are. The factions are a neat idea, but attempting to really understand Roth’s world is like trying to pick up a whole puddle with your fingers.

(I’m sure Roth, if given the chance, could give long, detailed and probably pretty interesting solutions to the plot holes Divergent raises. And there’s two books after this one in the series, so maybe there’s more answers there. But as it stands, this book, read as a standalone, makes no sense to me at a fundamental level.)

I got interested in Divergent the book because of this trailer:

I like Shailene Woodley! I love Kate Winslet! The guy who played Pamuk in Downton Abbey is crazy handsome! From the look of it, the screenwriter has done some hard work clarifying the story. Hopefully in the film adaptation there’ll be a more solid build-up to Winslet’s character, Erudite leader Jeanine, declaring war on the other factions; on the page Jeanine is a flat, pretty boring villain.

Those faults aside, Divergent isn’t too bad, I guess (you may quote that strong endorsement on future editions of the book, publishers). Tris is an appealing protagonist, even though she does a bit too much of that YA heroine thing where she moans about how ugly and useless she is while being pursued by half the male characters and outdoing her peers at every challenge. And the plot is engaging and unexpected – I was especially surprised by how violent the final chapters are. But none of it is enough to convince me to read the second instalment Insurgent and the soon-to-be-released Allegiant. I’ll just skim through the Wikipedia plot summaries instead.

 

The Cuckoo’s Calling, J.K. Rowling: Book review

The Cuckoo's CallingReally I guess that title should be “The Cuckoo’s Calling, by Robert Galbraith”, except we all know how that whole attempted pseudonym thing work out, so I’ll just stick with “J.K. Rowling”.

There’s been talk of Rowling penning a crime novel for years, since even before she wrote those little-known books about that magic kid whose name escapes me. It turns out she’s as deft at detectives as she is at wizards and witches: Rowling’s prose is rarely that remarkable, but her stories are always captivating, hard to step away from.

Cuckoo’s Calling starts with the suicide of supermodel Lula Landry, who leaps from the balcony of her London penthouse on a snowy, silent night. The rabid British press feasts on her death for a while, till she’s swept aside into the heap of forgotten celebrity carcasses. That’s when Lula’s adopted brother John approaches private detective Cormoran Strike, convinced Lula was murdered. Strike starts poking around in the case, and – what do you know – finds that the circumstances of Lula’s death are darker and more complicated than they seem.

I don’t know how Rowling does it, but she’s terrific at constructing fictional worlds that are believable and organic. Her mythologies never feel forced. Strike’s London is as alive as Hogwarts, rich with secrets and shadows and intriguing characters – especially Lula, who’s vividly realised even though she never speaks and dies on pretty much the first page, but especially Strike, a wounded war veteran struggling to hold his personal and professional lives together. He’s such a big, striking (no pun intended) character I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s been knocking around in Rowling’s head for almost as long as Harry Potter has.

Like all good detective fiction, Rowling throws out scores of seemingly innocent details. If you’ve played the crime game before you know most of them are red herrings, but a tantalising few are clues to the identity of Lula’s killer/s. The conclusion is satisfying and melodramatic and expertly tied up, but it’s still disappointing to come to the end and have the mystery all laid out for you – because it means your time spent mulling over those clues is over.

Previously: The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling