Despite the title stolen from Conan Doyle, there are no brilliant detectives or glamorous, worldly courtesans in this account of the 1930 murder of a young Melbourne woman. The murder remains unsolved; A Scandal in Bohemia is more interested in the life of the victim, Mollie Dean, and her afterlife as an Australian literary muse.
In an attempt to pivot the blog away from being just Star Trek stuff, I’m aiming for a minimum of one post a week on what I’ve been reading. But to ease us into the change … what I read yesterday was the Star Trek: Discovery Annual 2018.
Honestly, although it’s been a trashfire for the world at large, and also for many of my friends, 2017 was … okay for me. Not outstanding, but fine. And one thing which has helped has been escapism through media.
Edit: My arm has been twisted — twisted, I say! — into signing up for the AWW 2014 Challenge! I promise to do better than last year.
I’ve signed up to read at least four books by Australian women and review at least three. I guess this ties neatly into my vague plan of reading all the non-fiction nominated for the Stella Prize!
Queen Kat, Carmel and St Jude Get A Life
I didn’t read much YA as a teen. Once I realised my dad’s Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov books were aimed at adult audiences, I figured that reading anything aimed at a younger age group would be a regression. Had the young adult market been flooded with fantasy and SF as it is today, it might be been a different story.
Nevertheless, there were exceptions. Maureen McCarthy’s Queen Kat, Carmel and St Jude Get A Life was one of them. It was published in 1995, when I was thirteen, and I fell instantly in love with its characters and situations.
It’s hard to describe Queen Kat without making it sound cliched. Three girls, all from the same country town — but from different schools — wind up sharing a house in Fitzroy as they take their first steps in the adult world. Carmel is shy and fat. Jude is a bolshy political activist. Katerina is spoilt, rich and beautiful.
It is full of cliches. Carmel develops self-confidence. Katerina gets in over her head in the drug scene. But they’re executed so well, it’s easy to forget we’ve seen these stories before.
And in between Carmel and Katerina’s stories is Jude, the one that defies cliche. Jude’s father was a Chilean revolutionary, and she discovers that the man who ordered his execution is living a happy, comfortable life in Melbourne. Jude’s story is heavy stuff, covering the torture of her parents and the US-sanctioned human rights violations in South America in the ’70s. Pretty harrowing stuff for a book that was marketed to young teen girls.
Not that the other two protagonists have it much easier. Carmel’s chapters vividly encapsulate her self-loathing and body-hatred. Her family, cash-strapped farmers, are vividly drawn, from her mother — a sharp woman who can’t stop herself from striking at Carmel’s vulnerable points — to her charismatic and charming oldest brother. They feel like real people.
Katerina’s story runs the risk of feeling like an after school special. Wealthy and beautiful, she falls in with a dangerous crowd who flatter and exploit her. Katerina winds up posing for a semi-consensual softcore photoshoot that ends with her rape. Later she attends a rave which is raided by the police, and is caught with a large quantity of pills.
It all sounds very melodramatic, and it’s without doubt the plot that stretches credibility furthest. (I can totally buy that she dabbles in modelling, but the front cover of Australian Vogue?) But it’s well-executed, not least because hints are dropped throughout the book that something is very wrong in Katerina-land.
Now, I’m quite finicky about POV in my reading material, and I strongly dislike multiple first person narrators. (Even though I’ve written it myself in fic — but that’s okay, because fan fiction is amateur!) So I was rather surprised to realise that this, one of my very favourite novels, has not only three first person narrators — a third of each book is devoted to one of the girls — but it opens with three passages written in third person.
I need to reconsider everything I’ve ever thought about POV, because this totally worked. The third person narratives introduced the girls and their backgrounds without letting us get too close — and then we’re immersed in each characters’ head for a significant chunk of the story.
The other thing that I loved: the setting. Now, I first read this many, many years before I moved to Melbourne, but I strongly suspect it shaped my whole idea of the place. I mean, it’s a book about a bunch of wine-drinking young women living in Melbourne’s inner north, and now I am a wine-drinking young woman living in Melbourne’s north. Thanks, book!
Having said that, it all feels much richer now that I know Melbourne. I’ve walked and cycled down Canning Street, where the girls live. I’ve caught the trams they catch.
At the same time, though, a lot of their Melbourne is gone. The department stores where Carmel tries on clothes she can’t afford have closed. The Chilean cafes in Collingwood and Fitzroy serve Tex Mex now. These girls were the first wave of a gentrification that has dramatically changed the inner north.
In fact, the book is so very much a product of the mid-90s that I’m curious to see how the 1999 TV adaptation works. Jude’s family history means you can’t place the story anywhere but in the mid-90s. The DVD is no longer available in stores, but there is a copy waiting for me at my library as we speak. STAY TUNED.
(I’ve noticed lately that, by the time my monthly book round-up arrives, sometimes I’ve forgotten everything I was going to say about a particular title. This is not necessarily a loss to the world, but I figured, time and energy permitting, I could probably stand to do some individual reactions.)
If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she’d most likely be a sight more careful with them.
There’s been a certain buzz around Jo Baker’s Longbourn for a few months. The manuscript was the subject of an international bidding war, and the film rights were sold before the book was even released. I followed all this with great interest, as I’ve been toying for the last few years about retelling Pride & Prejudice from the servants’ point of view, and obviously I was OUTRAGED (for a whole five minutes) that someone else had had the idea, researched and written it while I was still vaguely wondering if early 19th century servants were generally literate.
By the time of release, the only thing holding me back from buying and reading it was money, ie, there’s an electricity bill due soon, and the ebook is $16 in Australia. Cue a 50% off code for Kobo (sept50, if you’re wondering, valid with most publishers until the end of September), finally it was in my hot little hands. Or at least my hot little reader.
The best fan fiction, in my opinion, comes from a place of love and affection for the source material, and Baker clearly has that in spades. Even when the servants’ perspective casts an unflattering light on beloved characters, it’s eminently fair. And many of those characters who aren’t especially beloved — Mr Collins, for example — get a sympathetic moment.
(I derive a very small level of amusement, however, from describing Longbourn as fan fiction, as it has apparently been elevated above the usual romantically-oriented — ie, feminine and foolish — type of Austen-related novel. Longbourn is, like, proper literature? It’s got war scenes and swearing, that’s how you know it’s not just some girly book. Man, why do I read mainstream reviews?)
As a derivative work, Baker takes the Bennet family and turns them into flesh and blood. Literally, as Sarah, the heroine, cleans their menstrual cloths. It’s a truth generally unacknowledged that Lizzy Bennet would have had body hair, sweaty underclothes, all the bits and pieces which, even today, we prefer to shave away and not talk about.
And as an original novel about Sarah confronting the limitations of a servant’s role and striving to find her own path, Longbourn is compelling and really enjoyable. I read it in a day because I couldn’t stop. Sarah’s domestic background inform her perceptions in a vivid and fascinating way, and her hunger to learn and see more — without looking down on those who don’t share her ambitions — is enjoyable.
However. You knew there’d be a however, right?
There comes a point where Baker’s story clashes with Austen’s. In fandom terms, she’s got her canon confused, and the result is that the entire Bingley family is mischaracterised.
Mr Bingley, right? He’s new money. His father made a fortune in trade, and since they’re described as “a respectable family from the north of England”, it has generally been taken that the Bingley fortune came from fabric. But Austen doesn’t say precisely how the money was made, only that it was through trade, ie, mercantile operations.
Baker suggests that Bingley Sr was the hands-on owner of a sugar plantation somewhere in the Bahamas, a slave-owner who (it is hinted) fathered Ptolemy Bingley, the charming mixed race Netherfield servant who catches Sarah’s eye.
This … does not work for me. It doesn’t fit what we know about the Bingleys and their source of wealth, not to mention that it’s rather incongruous to suppose that a man may own a plantation, yet still regard himself as a resident of England, and yet didn’t bother to buy property in his home country.
The Darcys, with their much older fortune, make more sense as plantation and slave-owners, although Darcy Sr is so closely associated with Pemberly that it’s hard to imagine him leaving for years at a time. If the Darcys have plantations in the Americas, and I don’t see why they wouldn’t, they would be overseen by stewards and agents, not the family itself.
This was just a minor frustration — especially since I wasn’t sure if it was a deliberate change to the book, or Baker’s misunderstanding — except that I was also increasingly unhappy about the author’s treatment of Ptolemy. He starts out as a charismatic presence, being friendly to Sarah and tantalising her with his knowledge of exotic, faraway places (like London). He has a wry sense of humour and an appealing cynicism when it comes to his employers, and is generally a well-constructed character.
But then … nothing. Ptolemy is just a vehicle for Sarah to learn more about the world, and then he disappears, returning now and then to share some piece of information that will advance Sarah’s goals. His ambitions are unrealised, his presence diminished, and ultimately he becomes a token.
I couldn’t help but contrast Ptolemy’s treatment with that of James, the male protagonist/Sarah’s other love interest. Much is made of the fact that James is an abolitionist (someone in Sleepy Hollow fandom this week described abolitionism as the historical equivalent of “I’m not a racist, but…“). Late in the novel, following a long, draining, bloodthirsty sequence covering the experiences of British soldiers in Europe, James comes to the realisation that being a volunteer soldier in the army is exactly like slavery.
The problem with ereaders is that it’s really hard to throw a book when it annoys you. I mean, you can, but instead of a satisfying bang, you just get bits of plastic flying everywhere. I assume. I did not actually throw my book, I just facepalmed a bit.
Now, I had really liked James up to this point, and the refreshing way his attitude to the ~love triangle~ was to go, “Well, if Sarah loves Ptolemy, I’ll be sad, I guess, but it’s her decision, and it won’t kill me.” Yes! More of that sort of common sense in my fiction, please! Less of the spurious comparisons to slavery!
With all this, the revelation that Wickham is an actualfax child sex predator was almost by the by. (But I don’t agree with that characterisation, either. Underage heiresses aren’t exactly equivalent to pre-pubescent maids.)
Now, I really enjoyed Longbourn. I cried at the end, and they were tears of “I love this book and the end is so good and I am a happy reader!” But what has stayed with me since I read it is the mishandling of the race/slavery issues. I think it’s valuable and important to look at the social issues that form the context of Austen’s novels, but this was badly done.
And I wonder, aside from Mansfield Park, and I do love the revisionist adaptation of 1999, which of Austen’s novels have space for a slavery narrative? Three centuries from now, will people look back at contemporary novels and wonder why none of the characters think about the sweatshops that made their clothes and electronics? I don’t fault Baker for trying, and I don’t for a second believe she intended for a tokenistic exploration of slavery and racism, but that was the result, and it left a bad taste in my mouth.
But first! A digression!
Hashtag: AWW2013 – The Australian Women Writers 2013 Challenge is an attempt to support the work of Australia’s female authors, and to redress the gender imbalance in reviewing.
I originally wasn’t going to do it, because I figured I was flat-out just reading an acceptable number of Australian authors of any gender in 2013. Last year, 19 out of 140 books were written by Australians, a piddling 13.57%. Shameful.
But my good friend Mel at Subversive Reader has been pursuing the challenge with great dedication, so I got curious and started reading the hash tag. And then I started reading the reviews. And then I thought, what the hell, this project has given me lots of ideas for what to read next — I might as well throw my hat in the ring.
(Yes, and if Mel jumped off a cliff often enough, I might start thinking there was something in that, too.)
Time constraints mean that I don’t review many individual books any more, but I’m going to make more of an effort. Therefore, I present two Sydney-based crime novels by Australian women!
Okay, I’m cheating here. I read The Old School in November 2012, while I was travelling in America. I had grabbed a paperback to read while planes were taking off and landing, figuring that if I didn’t like it, I could leave it behind for some passenger or flight attendant who might enjoy it more.
Not only did I like The Old School, but it’s still on my mind three months later. It had a vivid sense of time and place, and a really fantastic heroine in Detective Nhu “Ned” Kelly.
Time and place: Sydney, 1992. Bill Clinton is in the White House. The High Court has just overturned the legal fiction of terra nullius with the Mabo ruling, establishing precedent for Aborigianal land rights.
The heroine: Ned is the daughter of an Irish-Australian and a Vietnamese woman he met while serving in the war. Her parents were murdered when she was young, and she and her sister were raised by their eccentric paternal aunt, who doesn’t make a secret of the fact she wishes her nieces were just a little more, you know, white. As an adult, Ned is career-minded, ambitious and somewhat resentful of senior officers’ expectation that she be their token minority (a role that falls by the wayside when she reveals she speaks no Vietnamese). (So good was the portrayal of the pressures and micro-aggressions Ned faces that I was really shocked to learn that the author is in fact white.)
This is the status quo when the bodies of two women are discovered in the foundation of a building that Ned’s father constructed in the late ’70s. One was an Aboriginal activist whose inability to swallow bullshit and play nice with the patriarchy earned her a lot of enemies. The other was a Vietnamese refugee who may have had links with the Viet Cong.
Probably the weakest link in the novel is that Ned wasn’t transferred to other duties right away, but it does make sense that she would want to prove herself, and that her mentor would give her the chance.
Despite that, it’s a fantastic, intricate mystery that covers espionage and war crimes in Vietnam, police abuse of Aborigines in Sydney, and the way past sins can still damage families. And the culture, the awkward fumbling steps towards inclusivity that in my family we called political correctness, is portrayed vividly. Late in the book, events take place with Paul Keating’s famous Redfern speech as the backdrop, assimilating all the themes beautifully. I was really excited to learn that there’s going to be a second book about Ned.
It was Mel who put me onto Howell with her review of the third novel in the series, Cold Justice. I used to be able to read series out of order, but somehow I just can’t do it any more … but luckily (from every perspective except that of my bank account) Amazon has the first book in the series in Kindle format for $5.32. And having finished it, I’m now sternly telling myself that buying book 2 for $12.88 is stupid, when I can get the next two books from the library. I just have to brave the heat … and the wrath of Terry Deary. Yeah, that’ll keep me up at night. (Here, have a rebuttal as a palate cleanser.)
Anyway, I totally am going to brave the heat as soon as I’ve finished my lunch, so obviously I enjoyed Frantic. Like The Old School, it’s a police procedural set in Sydney with predominantly female protagonists. After that, they diverge.
For one thing, Frantic occupies a Sydney which is much whiter and more middle class than The Old School. The detective, Ella Marconi, is presumably of Italian descent, but everyone else appears to be of Anglo-Saxon background. It’s almost jarring, especially as Frantic was written and set in 2007.
Additionally, it has two heroines. The narrative is divided between Ella Marconi, a police detective whose inability to play politics stands between her and promotion, and Sophie Phillips, a paramedic. Sophie is a competent, clever person, unable to understand why her husband, a police officer, has become uncommunicative, even hostile. In the space of a few days, a series of bank robberies are linked to the police, husband is shot and her ten-month-old son is kidnapped.
Splitting the narrative gives us Sophie’s highly emotional, increasingly irrational response, and also Ella’s more distant perspective. I came out feeling like I didn’t know Ella as well as I knew Sophie, but I understand the series features a different set of paramedics in each book, but Ella is a constant. I’m hoping this means that Ella’s character will unfold over time.
I like the conceit of involving paramedics in the story, because it meant even the routine moments of Sophie’s life and job were fraught with tension. Howell is a former paramedic herself, and while I can’t judge as to accuracy, it certainly felt realistic. (At the same time, I think Howell was right to avoid anything was clichéd as a crime-fighting ambo.) We got to see crime scenes from several perspectives, while the two women’s different and sometimes conflicting agendas meant we got to have fun with unreliable narrators.
I have to confess that, even though it was a fantastic, pacy read, Frantic is not as layered or thoughtful as The Old School. But if you enjoy a solid procedural, and I do, it’s an entertaining way to spend a few train journeys.
(I’m kinda hesitant to call my book posts “reviews”. That suggests a level of detachment and professionalism that I can’t really guarantee. Sometimes I just want to feelsplode all over the internet. Hence “response”.)
I have no qualms at all in admitting that my creative writing background is in fan fiction. Been writing fic since I was 12, been participating in the community since I was 16. It’s a useful way to learn valuable skills (with the general exception of worldbuilding, unfortunately). Not only is the internet chockers with guides to How To Write Fic But Good, but if you break the rules, people will tell you about it. Nicely, most of the time.
Most of fan fiction’s rules can be broken, and at least someone out there will find the result entertaining. The exception, in my experience, is this:
Never, ever, ever put author’s notes in the middle of the story.
That’s a common rookie mistake, and except in parodies of bad fic, I’ve never seen it executed well. It’s the kind of thing that has me backspacing right out of a story. (In this age of downloading longer fics in epub or Kindle format, it’s jarring enough to hit the otherwise acceptable end-or-beginning-of-chapter-notes.)
Until I read Losers in Space, I had never seen the mid-story author’s note appear in published fiction. And I’ve still never seen it executed well.
Losers in Space is a YA science fiction novel set in the 22nd century, when famine, war and social divisions (and, apparently, any culture that’s not American) has been replaced by a system where work is optional, the UN provides everyone with a comfortable upper middle class income, and a tiny minority have the opportunity to become “eenies” — people whose talent or fame entitles them to much greater wealth and privilege.
The catch is, it’s not hereditary. On reaching adulthood, the children of eenies have to demonstrate that they’re entitled to enjoy the lifestyle of their parents: through talent, through academic achievement, or by becoming really, really famous.
As the book opens, a group of wannabes — picture the Hilton sisters, a few lesser British royals and maybe some washed up K-pop stars — set out to become famous by stowing away on a ship to Mars. Sure, they’ll be in trouble when they’re caught, but they’ll be sooooooo famous.
The problem is, one of them is a sociopath.
Sounds pretty great, right?
In the foreword author Barnes makes a big deal out of this being hard SF. But he doesn’t want lots of exposition-heavy dialogue or infodumps, so he’s going to explain the sciencey stuff and some of the social background via … author’s notes shoved into the story. They’re labelled as “notes for the interested”, and he claims it’s possible to skip them if you’re not interested.
I don’t have a science brain, so yes, I skipped over the impenetrably mathematical or scientific notes. Problem is, there was also a lot of significant worldbuilding stuff in the notes. And the characters still had a lot of conversations revolving entirely around technobabble, while much of the social context was limited to the notes.
I honestly can’t believe an editor let this happen! I wanted to get out my red pen and start correcting it, or maybe cut up the book and rearrange it so it worked better. It was just straight up bad. I feel like the worldbuilding should have been incorporated into the story, and most of the science notes could have been removed completely. Maybe posted on the author’s website for interested readers. It got so that I resented every page I had to flick past.
I was also unconvinced by a lot of aspects of the worldbuilding, which was fairly heavy on the cliche. It was interesting, but not necessarily plausible.
What kept me reading were the plot and the characters, which were equal parts interesting and frustrating. Needless to say, the stowaway plan goes terribly wrong, and the teens have to fend for themselves, discovering new reserves of intelligence and competence, whilst also dealing with the sociopath in their midst.
I honestly can’t put my finger on what it was about the plot that bugged me, on account of how it was continually being interrupted by author’s notes. The pacing occasionally lagged, but mostly I think the problem was that the characters never completely gelled for me.
For example, at the very beginning, as we’re introduced to our characters, the narrator gives a quick summary of their personalities: morose social climber, whiny self-pitier, desperately socially awkward, creepy pervert, sociopath, etc. But many of these traits are quickly forgotten. A couple of characters have really pleasing arcs as they evolve from the unlikable people they were into productive members of society, but most of them, as soon as they begin to interact with the heroine, show hardly any sign of their introductory traits. They seem to be completely different people. And while the heroine marvels several times that she never appreciated her peers before, the turnaround is unconvincing.
I also had a lot of trouble with the hero, because I couldn’t quite shake the first impression of him as a creepy pervert who essentially makes fanvids from pornography and always has a camera on the girls.
Meanwhile, the villain is supposed to be a charming sociopath, except at no point is he actually charming. I’ve had some dealings with sociopaths in my life, and generally they sneak up on you. I mean, one of the key aspects of sociopathy is the ability to pass for a normal person, leaving trails of people in your wake wondering if they’re the ones who are crazy. Derlock (…I KNOW) doesn’t do that. He’s just straight up evil.
It’s a compelling kind of straight up evil, though, and part of the reason I kept reading was to see him get his comeuppance. SPOILERS: (highlight to reveal, and I apologise if this doesn’t work for you!) He doesn’t. He gets away with everything until the epilogue, in which it’s briefly mentioned that the heroine had him killed.
One curious thing about this book is that it has a bunch of reviews on GoodReads praising it for breaking out of the YA dystopian SF mould. It’s true that Losers in Space is a bit different from the recent run of YA SF, but … not dystopian? This is a world where a crime is the intellectual property of the criminal, meaning that a rapist or murderer will be exonerated if he can demonstrate sufficient media interest in his “work”. There’s a scene where the girls explain this law to the boys, who have never heard of it. The girls, on the other hand, had a special class about it, because it puts them all at risk.
Suffice to say, a lot of the “thank heavens it’s not dystopian” reviews are coming from blokes.
It’s details like that — a literal rape culture — that kept me reading, because I was continually seeing the seeds of a much better book between the lines. Genetically engineered animal with human intelligence? GREAT! He’s a pink elephant named Fwuffy with a phonetically-rendered speech impediment? UM.
So, yes, it’s all a bit mixed. ON THE OTHER HAND, I couldn’t put it down (except when I hit an author’s note), and I’ve just had 1200 words worth of thoughts about it.
- This future is not white. One character is described as a “pink-headed Caucasian throwback”, from which we can assume that he’s the only white kid in the group. The heroine was genetically engineered for very dark skin.
- Nevertheless, of the nine people depicted on the cover, four are white, and the central girl, presumably the heroine, has light brown skin.
- Hey, I like to keep track of these things.
- Very few of the characters have mothers in their lives. This seems to be a future where fathers get custody. The heroine’s mother essentially abandoned her for reasons which aren’t fully explained. But remember, not a dystopia.
- The heroine’s father is an actor who has made his name as a leading man. Most of his movies seem to be remakes of early to mid 20th century films, which are quoted several times. It’s a nifty trick for creating a body of pop culture that’s familiar to the audience, or so I thought when I Arthur C. Clarke did it in 2010. I was also eleven at the time.