Queen Kat, Carmel and St Jude, redux

After I made the other day’s post, I hopped on a tram to the library and picked up the DVD, then scurried home to watch it.

The most important thing first:  Carmel’s brother Vince drives the exact same bright yellow ute used by Tara’s dad in Dance Academy.  God bless Our ABC.

Yellow ute 1999
Yellow ute, 2010
Yellow ute, 2010

I’m not saying that my next step is to watch every single ABC series with rural scenes, but I’m a little bit tempted.

My friend the yellow ute aside, I’m quite mixed about the mini-series, and am mostly inclined to come down on the side of “nice try, but this was not a good adaptation”.  But since the book and series are both divided into three — with an epilogue, or fourth episode in the TV format — I’ll break it down.

CarmelAdaptation-wise, Carmel’s story is the best — but then, it was also the easiest to adapt, which is probably why it spills out over all the other episodes as well.  Alicia Gardiner is perfect, and it’s a joy to watch Carmel’s confidence grow.  At first I thought her voice was all wrong for Carmel, who is described as having a really deep voice, but as Carmel became braver, her voice deepened as well.

Her family, too, were great.  Ben Mendelsohn plays Vince, and while he’s way too young and skinny to remotely look like the mental image I had, he has a quiet strength that’s ideal for the part.  Carol Burns as Nance McCaffrey somehow sounded exactly like the character in my head.

I was, however, disappointed with the casting of Carmel’s boyfriend Anton, who is supposed to be tall and skinny, attractive in an off-centre sort of way.  In the role is Justin Smith, a short guy with no chin.  I was also let down by the writing — although Anton betrays Carmel in the book, he basically comes across as a strong, reliable guy who, having failed once, will never do it again.  TV!Anton is more like a petulant brat.

vlcsnap-2014-03-01-12h55m39s189Jude’s episode was a mixed bag.  She’s portrayed as suffering from PTSD from her experiences in Chile as a child, which make perfect sense, and is really well-portrayed.  But once again, we have a disappointing love interest — Eduardo has gone from being a brooding, young factory worker to a married older man, and Jude just goes to pieces over their relationship in a way that doesn’t reflect well on her.  In theory I like the idea that she realises that, while she’s great at helping others, she has a blind spot where her own life is concerned — but this Jude never really comes to that realisation.

Incidentally, while I thought the actress was fine as Cynthia — although not at all how I pictured her — I kept being distracted by her strong resemblance to Pauline Hanson.


I bet that actress had a great time in the ’90s.


Kat’s episode was where I went, “Right, nope, this is not good.”  Her story is completely soft-pedalled — her drug use is dramatically toned down, Jordan make a pass instead of raping her, and Jules, the book’s only gay character*, is replaced by a douchey boyfriend.  Oh, and instead of having her nude pictures published by a tabloid, her dad just finds them in her car.

I can’t quite believe I’m regretting the removal of a rape plot, but Kat’s experiences were really important to me growing up.  Through Kat, I learned about impaired consent and victim-blaming.  And it was important, too, that she really experiences injustice — from everything she goes through herself, to witnessing the homophobia of the Victorian police — because you end the book with a strong feeling that Kat is going to become a fighter for the oppressed as much as Jude, just in the legal arena.  (I expect she will also spend a lot of time representing Jude for petty protest-related crimes.)

Kat’s story is so weakened, she ultimately comes across now as a spoilt child, and very much responsible for her situation.

Finally, instead of an epilogue, we have a whole fourth episode.  That makes sense!  You need to wrap things up, and it’s not like they can go, “Yeah, we’re just gonna end it in 30 minutes.”

Only, the final episode is incredibly bloated, and I spent much of it wanting to smack Carmel for abandoning her character development.  (And maybe I wasn’t paying attention, but this other guy started having scenes with her?  And I thought, oh, that must be one of her brothers.  Then they started making out.  I WAS QUITE CONFUSED.)

On the other hand, this episode had four shearing montages, which is just about the most Australian thing ever put on television.

One final letdown: like so many Australian dramas of this era — and now — this was cheap.  Sure, there are lovely, sweeping helicopter shots of the countryside, but Anton’s window isn’t stained glass, and the gay rave Kat attends in the book becomes a cheap, nasty looking nightclub.  (To which she drives.  Who drives to a nightclub?!)  The cheapness meant that a lot of the iconic scenes of the book were watered down,or removed all together.  And that’s a real shame.

*  Only openly gay character, I should say.  I am firmly convinced that if there was a sequel, it would be called Jude Realises She Was Bisexual All Along And Also She Is Vegan Now, Would You Like To Sign This Petition For Amnesty?

Queen Kat, Carmel and St Jude and Liz Get A Life

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.

This was the cover of the first edition. Can you imagine anything more perfectly ’90s?

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.

The current edition, the one I own, has a shot from the TV adaptation on the cover. I appreciate that Carmel actually looks like a fat girl here.

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.

Sadly, the mini-series is no longer in print, or whatever you call it when DVDs are available.

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.

Birds, though!

I hope it’s not a spoiler to say that No Award has some bird-related guest posts coming up.  I’m in favour of guest posts in general, but I do have to take a moment to express my feelings about birds.

They are horrible.


I didn’t always hate birds — I used to be quite indifferent — but I was swooped by one too many magpies as a teen, and now I flinch if I hear wings flapping behind me.  It isn’t easy, walking home from school after a bird has flown off with a chunk of your scalp.  Not to mention some hair which it no doubt used to line its nest and signal to other birds that it was a great nestmaker.  I begrudge every hair that magpie took.

Many years ago, when I worked in a book store, our back room was invaded by a pigeon.  It perched high atop the shelves and stared down at us, daring us to come and get it.  “Just try it,”  it seemed to say, “and I’ll shit on some new releases.”  It had beady little eyes that burned with hatred for humanity and books.  We eventually chased it out with a broom, but I’ve been strongly anti-bird ever since.

My mother has a pet budgie named Charlie.  Charlie seems harmless enough, but Mum bought her thinking she was a boy budgie. Then Charlie began laying eggs.  An innocent mistake on the part of a pet store owner?  Or a nefarious budgerigar conspiracy to expand its population?  Well, the joke’s on Charlie, since Mum only bought the one bird.

Mum lets Charlie out of her cage to walk around the kitchen table.  “Pock, pock, pock,” go her talons as she marches over my laptop, examining the keyboard like it was composing an essay on birds rights activism.

Birds are basically miniature dinosaurs — the exception being, of course, that miniature dinosaurs are ADORABLE, and also don’t exist anymore.  Except in the form of birds.  And birds remember.  “Liz,” you say, “they’re not that bright.  There is no way birds have a genetic memory of their lives as dinosaurs.  And avian reincarnation is theologically dubious on a number of grounds.”  Sure.  That’s just what they want you to think.

How do I know there’s a vast bird conspiracy?  Because we live in an age when you can put a bird on something and just call it art.  Portlandia was a warning, people!  One that we didn’t hear, because we were distracted by twee bird prints and plush owls and flying ducks!

Chickens will eat each other if you give them a chance.  They also eat their own eggs.  THAT IS NOT COOL BEHAVIOUR.  Frankly it’s a little troubling, and I think chickens should seek counselling for their cannibalist urges, though obviously not from this guy.  In the meantime, buy organic chicken and free range eggs, and under no circumstances trust a chicken.

I speak with some authority about birds, because once a bird tried to use me as a mule in its attempt to escape a pet store.  There I was, innocently admiring some kittens, when I felt something move … and when I looked down, there was a budgie attached to my skirt.  Attempting to blend in, so I’d carry it away from the pet store and into Ikea.

Don’t worry, though.  I single-handedly prevented the avian invasion of Sweden by yelping and jumping, and then making high-pitched squeaking noises until a shop assistant took the bird away.

Some particularly evil birds

An emu gazes at the camera. Its eyes are empty, its gaze hollow.
Seconds after this picture was taken, the photographer was murdered in cold blood by the emu. I expect.

Bird apologists will tell you that emus are just inquisitive birds whose habit of pecking at anything they find interesting is easily mistaken for aggression.  THAT IS A LIE.  And even if it was true, what do emus even need to be curious about?!  Are they the intelligence-gathering vanguard of an invasion?

Simplistic pixel art depicting a bird.
Even pixellated birds are evil.

Okay, yes, Flappy Bird went from “explosive meme” to “old meme” in, like, three days.  This monstrous game was basically unwinnable, and if anyone tells you otherwise, they are a sneaky bird appeaser.  Now it’s come out that some of the knock-offs contain malware.  So that’s great.  Please hold while I delete some stuff from my phone…

The main birds of Angry Birds. They look contemplative. I don't know why.
Some of these birds don’t even look angry!

While we’re on the subject of birds that make people want to throw their smartphones…

Look, Angry Birds, I get it.  Pigs have stolen your eggs, and that makes you mad.  But then, you avian hypocrites, you send your hens off with explosive eggs!  To save your children, you must kill them!  You are well over the moral event horizon, birds.  Not to mention that it’s totally problematic how the hens are the weakest of you.  Let’s talk about the unexamined misogyny inherent in Angry Birds.  Let’s think about your bird privilege.  I’m calling you out on Tumblr as we speak, that’s how strongly I feel about this.

I’m not racist.  I don’t hate all birds.  Why, some of my best friends are birds!  Like that time my BFF jumped up on the futon and pretended to be a bird.  Although that was horrible.  She made her hands into talons and had the wild-eyed look of a person who would stop at nothing to get a reaction.  It was remarkably like that episode of The Carrie Diaries where Freema Agyeman’s character mixes ecstasy and LSD and hallucinates that she’s a bird, only it happened eight years earlier and my BFF isn’t Freema Agyeman.

Freema Agyeman, looking divine yet somehow evil, wearing feathers - it's a high fashion Hallowe'en costume.
But here’s a picture of Freema from that episode anyway.

Anyway, the point was, I don’t hate all birdkind.

Here are some birds which aren’t terrible

Big Bird! Looking happy and waving.
I especially enjoy it when he roller skates.

Look, I’m not a monster. How could anyone hate Big Bird?

Although I do find it troubling that he’s basically a giant four year old running around Sesame Street without a guardian.

I’m in favour of Muppet birds generally, as a matter of fact, because all the evil of birds is concentrated in Sam the Eagle, and he’s really not around that much.  However, I do think Bert needs a better hobby than pigeons.  Paperclips are where it’s at, Bert!

Mo Willems' The Pigeon waves at the reader.

The Pigeon is actually my very favourite bird ever.  I wouldn’t let him drive the bus, but I’d probably share my hot dog with him.

Two galahs, pink birds with grey wings, gaze at the camera. They look pretty mellow.
Look at these guys! How can you hate them?!

Galahs just crack me up.  I see them hanging around, all puffed up, like they’re some kind of credible bird, and they have no idea they’re basically the same colour as Barbie’s Dreamhouse.  No one takes you seriously, galahs.  But I like you, I guess.

IN CONCLUSION, birds are mostly evil, but some are okay.  If a bird has infiltrated your home in the guise of a pet, I recommend approaching it with caution, treating it with affection, but maintaining CONSTANT VIGILANCE so you’ll be ready when it turns against you.

Rewatching Star Trek: Voyager – “Caretaker”

Back in the summer of 1995, my Christmas present (we only ever got one or two) was a VHS copy of Star Trek: Voyager‘s first episodes.  I was thirteen years old, and frankly still not coping with the cancellation of The Next Generation, or the second season revamp of seaQuest DSV.  (I don’t think anyone coped with the second season revamp of seaQuest DSV.  These days I just try to pretend it never happened.)

Watching “Caretaker” didn’t exactly change my life in an instant, but a week later (New Year’s Eve!) my parents split up, and for a couple of years, my preferred form of escapism was Voyager.  (Other escape routes:  Anne McCaffrey novels, the school musical.)

Voyager was also my route into fandom proper, as I went from merely writing fic to posting it.  It was also my introduction to second wave feminism, followed quickly by my new hobby of hating second wave feminists.  (“She has big breasts and is therefore a tool of the patriarchy” is not, actually, a good feminist argument, by the way.  STILL BITTER.  AND BUSTY.  BITTER AND BUSTY.)

So it’s Christmas evening, 2013, and I’ve drunk rather a lot of sangria and eaten a fair amount of roast lamb.  I have a plate full of leftovers, I have a VPN, I have Netflix, what can I do but watch “Caretaker”?

Awkward fact: “Caretaker” isn’t actually that good.  Like, Star Trek pilots tend to be clunky and heavy on the exposition — the best one is still “The Cage”, which wasn’t even allowed to air at the time — but “Caretaker” — well, no, it’s not nearly as bad as “Encounter at Farpoint”, but it’s also a lot less ambitious.  “Farpoint” introduced Q, set up the regulars and told us a little more about the history of the Trek universe, with the anarchy of the 21st century that ensued from the Eugenics Wars and World War 3.  It’s not what you’d call well-executed, but it was forging new ground, and it took risks.

“Emissary” took even greater risks, with the awkward side effect of alienating its audience.  (By which I mean my family.)  I mean, here was this upstart Sisko holding a grudge against Picard for events that were quite beyond Picard’s control!  Why, didn’t he know how much angst (a whole episode!) Picard had had about his assimilation?

Deep Space 9 might be the objectively better Trek, but my parents never quite got over their initial dislike for the series, and DS9 was just something we put up with until real, proper, ship-based Trek came back.  (My parents also rejected Babylon 5 on the basis of its admittedly unwatchable pilot, and to this day don’t believe me when I say it got better.  Between you and me, I think they’re bigoted against space stations.)

And so, Voyager.

It’s strange to watch “Caretaker” again as an adult, because I watched it so many times as a teen that I’ve imprinted on certain points.  And I couldn’t quite shake that tiny Liz in my head who was trying desperately to impose her own interpretation on it.

Like, as an adult, I hate Tom Paris.  He uses this tone when he speaks to Janeway in New Zealand, that’s all, “I don’t really respect you, but I have to make a show of it, so I’m going to toe the line.”  Sarcastic, that’s what he is.  And that’s probably fitting for Paris in that moment, but in a contemporary setting, it would seem like he was disrespecting Janeway because she’s a woman.  NOT A GREAT SCENE FOR INTRODUCING THE FIRST REGULAR FEMALE CAPTAIN, is what I’m saying.

And then Paris just grates more and more and more.  Like, his next scene, he’s right up in Lieutenant Stadi’s personal space.  Dude, she’s flying the shuttle.  Let her do her job.

Basically, by the time he was rescuing Chakotay — a scene with TWO “Isn’t there some Indian custom” lines — I was seriously wishing I was watching some other character.

Now, Star Trek always has this douchebag “ladies man” character.  The prototype is Kirk, but he at least had ’60s sexism as an excuse, and didn’t make my skin crawl.  Riker and Paris, both explicitly written to fill that role, give me the screaming heebie jeebies.  (So does Jack Harkness, come to think of it, and so does Chris Pine’s Kirk.)

The exception, of course, is Deep Space 9 — Bashir totally wants to be the suave ladies man, but he’s not, and thankfully he gives up very quickly.  Otherwise, the closest DS9 comes is Garak, and he doesn’t exactly have an eye for the ladies, if you know what I mean.

Well done, DS9, we’re all very impressed with you, but you’re not the Trek I’m talking about today.  No, I’m here with Voyager, wondering why the closest thing we have to a POV character is … hey, look, the only flesh and blood white guy in the cast.

(Okay, so Neelix is a white guy under the latex, and I’m pretty sure Robert Picardo is not a real hologram.  But Neelix rarely gets the White Hero Guy treatment — and it usually backfires wildly when he does — and the Doctor fits a different set of tropes.  Although I expect I’ll have feelings, later in my rewatch, about why he was designed to look like a white dude and not, say, Beverly Crusher.)

(Imagine Gates McFadden and her criminally underused comedic talents as the Doctor.  IMAGINE IT.  Hey, thirteen-year-old self, why didn’t you come up with that?)

There’s nearly 600 words about how Tom Paris is awful.  And I haven’t even mentioned how all the Starfleet officers who don’t think he’s great wind up dead!  Instead, let’s talk about something great.  Like Harry Kim’s floppy hair.

Screencap of Garrett Wang as Harry Kim. His hair is flopping over his face. It's adorable.
Look at that floppy fringe!

Seriously, 13 year old Liz, why weren’t we all over that?  We LOVED floppy haired boys!

(Funny story: there was this girl in high school who … well, the only reason she wasn’t a goth was because she thought goths were try-hards.  She hated everything.  For our graduation, she said she was going to get her dad’s shotgun and shoot everyone.  No one thought to alert a teacher, or any kind of authority, because … well, it didn’t occur to us, actually.  And we all knew she was bluffing.  Anyway, her one weakness was clean cut, floppy haired boys.)

Harry, as a POV character, is a much better option than Paris.  He’s fresh out of the Academy!  He’s super smart, and brave (sooooo dreamy!), but has a bit of snark when he’s pushed.  Note to self: build time machine, go back, rewrite Voyager script.

Harry is also great when he’s interacting with B’Elanna, and I would totally ship them if I didn’t know it was pointless.  Roxanne Dawson had been acting since the ’80s, but this was Garrett Wang’s first job, so it’s impressive that he’s so assured.

SPEAKING OF, when I was younger, I kiiiiiind of maybe didn’t pay much attention to characters who weren’t Janeway or Chakotay.  So it’s nice to come back, and be unexpectedly blown away by how amazing Roxanne Dawson and Jennifer Lien are as B’Elanna and Kes.  Especially since they both get some really terrible, clunky lines, because it’s a well-known fact that writers of Star Trek have all knowledge of actual human dialogue wiped from their minds.

They also have some excellent footwear.  Hey, the ’90s are back!  I’m all about grey ankle boots!

Now, I have loved Neelix since day one, but it wasn’t until now that I realise why:  he is basically Fozzie Bear.  In all of his scenes with Tuvok, you could close your eyes and think you’re listening to Fozzie.  It’s GLORIOUS.  And I am totally into Tuvok and Neelix as the Kermit and Fozzie of Voyager.

The command trio: Janeway in centre, Chakotay at her right, Tuvok at her left. It's a serious business publicity photo.
Remember when these three were going to be the ensemble leads? Yeah. I bet Robert Beltran and Tim Russ remember, too.

Aw man, that five minutes they let Kate Mulgrew’s own hair out to play!  And then they decided there “wasn’t enough of it”, so out came the wig. Wigs.  Things I didn’t notice in VHS:  Janeway’s bun actually changes style and even colour at various points through the episode.  Sometimes, The Hair is reddish, and in a curly sort of bun, and sometimes it’s brown and in a plainer bun.

Kate Mulgrew said that all the fussing around her hair was really to mask discomfort with having a woman in charge.  And you can kind of tell there were some, uhhhh, issues around that.  She’s powerful but nurturing!  Commanding but tender!  She talks to people’s families!  She likes dogs!  We can have a female lead, it all says, but we have to really make sure she’s safe.

Yeahhhhhhh.  It kind of works, because it’s not like Starfleet gives out captaincies to complete lunatics, but for me, Janeway becomes more interesting when that normality starts cracking.

Janeway and Chakotay share a fraught look on the bridge. They totally look like they want to make out.

My number one regret for Voyager is that the Starfleet/Maquis division vanished so quickly.  And not just because I really dig B’Elanna’s civilian boots.

B'Elanna heaves herself off a biobed, revealing her red leather thigh-high boots.
This is a bad cap, but they’re like, red leather thigh-highs with detail in the front and stitching down the back? Freedom fighter chic!

Fashion aside, I have a lot of sympathy for the Maquis, as we’re meant to, and it’s a real waste to have them all assimilate so easily.  Except, you know, for the actual Cardassian spy.  Imagine if, say, Janeway had not BLOWN TUVOK’S COVER RIGHT THEN AND THERE, and let him stay undercover, overseeing the ongoing assimilation of the Maquis into the crew.  (When she outs him as an agent, she still thinks they’re going to get back home asap.  STARFLEET MIGHT WANT TO, IDK, SEND TUVOK BACK AT SOME STAGE.  JEEZ!)

On the other hand, “have a cool idea, fail to execute it to its full potential” is basically the whole story of Voyager’s writing.  Except for Seven of Nine’s arc, because … well, lots of reasons, many of which don’t reflect well on the producers and writers involved.

Janeway and Chakotay staring intently at each other. Personal space is not happening right now.

Books read in October 2013

YES, I’M LATE.  Look, September was a big month, and October … well.

Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape Jenna Miscavige Hill Contemporary issues
 Apollo’s Angels: A history of ballet Jennifer Homans History
 Peter the Great: His life and world Robert K. Massie History

Beyond Belief obviously continues the Scientology thing of last month.  It was quite interesting, because Miscavige Hill is the niece of Scientology’s leader, which put her in a good position to meet lots of people, but also meant there was a lot of pressure on her and her family.

Apollo’s Angels was an interesting read, being quite a detailed and thorough history of ballet.  It fell apart in the final chapters, where the author essentially decides that ballet died with Balanchine, and there are no good dancers these days because they’re all too “flat screen”.  You kids, off my lawn, etc.

But up until that point, I really enjoyed it.  I was increasingly curious as to how the author could pronounce so authoritatively on the quality of a ballet or performance that was not recorded in any way at all, but hey, grain of salt, right?

The chapter on the origins of Russian ballet led me to Peter the Great, which I … well, the parts I read, I really loved.  But large chunks of the book were taken up with detailed battle scenes, and I can’t get my head around that sort of thing.  So there was skimming.  But the bits I read, I really enjoyed, especially how Peter the Great was … well, quite good at being a Tsar, but also good at lots of other things.  While also being prone to tantrums, torture, snap executions.  You know.

One omission that I found frustrating, though, was women.  I know the book is called Peter the Great, but the lives of Russian women changed drastically in just a generation — and there’s nothing about how they felt or experienced these changes.  (I hit up the bookstores and libraries, but it looks like, as far as English-language popular histories are concerned, Russian women were invented with the Bolshevik Revolution.)  I’m hoping that Massie’s book on Catherine the Great covers this area a bit, but I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.

Tsaritsa Sophia Alekseyevna of Russia – would-be usurper, all-around cranky lady

I posted this to my Tumblr a few days ago, thinking a couple of my followers would appreciate it.  When I went to bed last night, it had 30 notes, which is well above the average for anything I post.

When I woke up at 3am, it had 380 notes.  (Look, the little notifications kept lighting up my phone’s screen, of course I was going to peek!)  Right now, it’s 583.

I always meant to post it here eventually, just for the sake of archiving, but also to correct the typo now spreading like a virus through the world.  In terms of wacky history adventures, it’s probably the spiritual cousin of this post.

Sophia, holding the regalia of the Tsar.  This made the actual Tsar (one of them) a bit cross.
Sophia, holding the regalia of the Tsar. This made the actual Tsar (one of them) a bit cross.

Every now and then — okay, it usually involves a Wikipedia binge — I come across a portrait of some historical figure that’s just so arresting that I have to stop and gape. (I have been resisting the urge to make a whole separate Tumblr for it.)

This cranky lady is the Tsaritsa Sophia Alekseyevna of Russia (1657 – 1704). She was the daughter of Tsar Alexis I, and served as regent of Russia for seven years.

The mere fact that we know her name and have her portrait is unusual, because in Sophia’s time, the Tsar’s daughters were kept secluded from, well, everyone. They were of such high rank that it was unthinkable for them to marry a mere Russian aristocrat, but it was equally impossible for them to marry outside the Russian Orthodox faith. So they spent their lives in the palace, and were heavily veiled and guarded when they went out in public. Most weren’t educated, although in this era, the majority of Russian aristocrats were illiterate, so that wasn’t just ye olde sexism.

Sophia rebelled against these restrictions from a young age. She demanded to be given the same classical education as her brother, Feodor. Their father, who seems to have been pretty reasonable for a guy with the title of “autocrat”, agreed. Thus Sophia was one of the most highly educated people in Russia, and probably one of the most educated women in Europe.

When Sophia was 19, her father died at the early age of 46. He left three male heirs: Feodor and Ivan, both of whom were disabled, and, by his second wife, Peter, who was not. History remembers Peter as “Peter the Great”, so, spoilers, Feodor and Ivan aren’t long for this world.

In fact, the book I’m reading (Peter the Great by Robert K Massie) tends to bang on about how Feodor was so very disabled he was a really ineffectual Tsar, only to turn around and then list Feodor’s achievements. Considering that he was frequently bedridden (he was partially paralysed and had some kind of spinal and leg dysfunction), he was quite a reformer.

Of course, it helped that he had Sophia by his side, working with him. Some historians credit Sophia with all of Feodor’s achievements, but this seems unlikely.

(Historical intersectionality problem: do we erase women, or the disabled? HOW ABOUT BOTH?)

Feodor ruled for six years before he died. His death presented Sophia, and Russia, with a problem. Technically, 16 year old Ivan should have been next in the succession, but he was blind and possibly had some kind of intellectual impairment, plus a speech impairment. He was also not all that keen on being Tsar.

On the other hand, there was Peter. Who wasn’t yet Great, but he was clever, charismatic and … oh, ten years old? Oh dear.

Some political wrangling took place, and the result was two Tsars. Prince Caspian’s uncle may have laughed at the idea of siblings sharing one throne, but there was precedent.

Now, Peter’s mother — herself an educated woman, though not as brilliant as Sophia — was named regent, and this meant that her family had a lot of power. I’m not saying the Russian court was totally powered by nepotism, but … no, it was totally powered by nepotism.

This wasn’t great for Sophia, because she didn’t get on all that well with Peter’s mother or her family, and there was talk of putting Sophia in a convent.

So she did what any woman would do in her situation: she engineered (probably) a bloody rebellion, including traumatising the young Peter by having his relatives butchered in front of him. Then she had herself made regent.

I’m not saying I approve, but it’s impressive, is all.

And Sophia was a pretty good regent. She surrounded herself with able advisors, and gave Peter the space to basically do as he pleased growing up. (What Peter pleased was turning his friends into a small army. He was basically Miles Vorkosigan, except Peter’s “small army” was at least double the size of the Dendarii mercenaries.) Sophia oversaw military clashes with China that caused land disputes still going on today. (Hey, I count it as a victory. I like historical continuity!)

But this couldn’t last. Firstly, Sophia’s government oversaw some epic military stuff-ups. But secondly, Peter was growing up, and there would come a point where there was no need for a regent. Sophia made a desperate attempt to have herself declared tsarina, but this failed.

She was eventually arrested, and spent the rest of her life (fifteen years) in a convent. At one point there was a rebellion in her name — she may or may not have been involved — and the bodies of the rebels were hung outside her window. (Russian history: not for the faint-hearted!) That’s what’s depicted in this picture below, which probably accounts for why she’s looking so pissed off.

She’s so mad, you guys. SO MAD.

IN CONCLUSION, history is great. Especially Russian history, which I have basically only discovered this week? Stay tuned; further amazing portraits may follow.

Books read in September 2013

Why does WordPress hate freedom, and by freedom I mean consistent paragraph breaks?  FIVE TIMES I have tried to edit this post and get consistent paragraphing!  FIVE!  And it hasn’t worked.  I’m all out of sacrificial goats, so please accept my apologies for the weirdness of the formatting.

The Fabric of Sin Phil Rickman Supernatural
To Dream of the Dead Phil Rickman Supernatural
The Secrets of Pain Phil Rickman Supernatural
Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol Iain Gately History
Three Dog Night Elsebeth Egholm Crime
Going Clear: Hollywood, Scientology and the Prison of Belief Lawrence Wright Contemporary issues
The Digger’s Rest Hotel Geoffrey McGeachin Crime Australian
Longbourn Jo Baker Historical
Blackwattle Creek Geoffrey McGeachin Crime Australian
Night Games: Sex, Power and Sport Anna Krien Contemporary issues
The Ghost Bride Yangsze Choo YA
A Death in the Lucky Holiday Hotel: Murder, Money and an Epic Power Struggle in China Pin Ho, Wenguang Huang Chinese politics



Thirteen.  That’s thirteen books I read last month, and none of them were graphic novels or re-reads of old and familiar stories.  There’s quantity and quality.  Except that now I have to remember what I was going to say about them.

  • It’s a sad reflection on the state of popular histories in general that I got really excited when Iain Gately’s Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol devoted an entire chapter to Australia and the Rum Rebellion.  And then split a chapter between China and Japan.  And, um, mentioned Africa.Okay, what I’m saying is that if you’re setting out to write a history of [something] in a Euro-American context, you should say so upfront and not go around calling it something silly like “a global history”.  That way, people won’t be pathetically grateful when you remember there are other parts of the world.Vague observations on the state of popular non-fiction aside, this was a light, breezy read that actually didn’t contain much that I didn’t already know, but it seemed generally accurate and sensible.
  • Exciting news!  I’m now doing the odd bit of guest reviewing for the new Australian crime fiction blog, Reading Kills!  You can find my thoughts on Three Dog Night here, and my review of Safe as Houses will follow.
  • After Three Dog Night, I started reading Mao’s Great Famine by Frank Dikötter, on account of how I enjoy Chinese history and it was ridiculously cheap on the Kobo store.  But it’s a really hard slog, not just because of the subject matter (grim), but because the author occasionally lets his right wing flag fly and makes dubious claims about how great life was under the Kuomintang.  Uh, sure, dude, whatever.So I’ve been alternating that with other books, and let me tell you, going from a history of Mao’s China to Scientology is … not that much of a headspin, actually.  In fact, according to Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear: Hollywood, Scientology and the Prison of Belief, L. Ron Hubbard based part of Scientology’s practices on Chinese brainwashing techniques (the Church of Scientology denies this claim), not to mention the deliberate creation of a cult of personality (the Church of Scientology denies this claim), and the fact that totalitarian systems are all basically alike.

    Going Clear was a good read, but I did have to keep putting it down to text my BFF, who read it before me, going, “BUT SERIOUSLY!”  Of course, any book that heavily relies on disaffected former members of a group is going to have a heavily negative bias, but unless you’re a big fan of self-help systems that drive people to suicide (the Church of Scientology denies this claim), it’s hard to put a positive spin in Scientology.

  • The Digger’s Rest Hotel and Blackwattle Creek by Geoffrey McGeachin are Australian crime novels centred around Charlie Berlin, an ex-RAAF pilot suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder following the Second World War.  The first novel is set in 1947; the second a decade later, when Charlie is married with a family.Both were good reads — I particularly enjoyed the first — and Charlie is a likeable character, although it’s all a bit White Guy Discovers Racism Is Bad.  (It’s saved from being entirely obnoxious by the fact that, while Charlie comes to regard Aborigines and Asians as actual people, he still has a lot of unexamined prejudices.)

    The second book gets into the more preposterous end of Cold War conspiracy theories, which sat rather uncomfortably against the background of 1950s suburbia, but it was quite entertaining.

  • I discussed Longbourn in more detail here.
  • Night Games by Anna Krien examines rape culture in AFL.  Suffice to say, it made me a bit mad.  Not just because of the nature of the issue (although that was a big part of it), but the book is centred around a rape trial, and I wasn’t completely comfortable with the way she covered it.What happened was, after the night of the (tie-breaker) grand final between Collingwood and St Kilda (coincidentally the only year I paid attention to the AFL), two Collingwood players and a guy from a small local team were accused of raping a young woman.Due to what I can only call legal shenanigans, the two Collingwood players were never charged, so this young, unknown bloke was left holding the ball, as it were.The court decided that the events that took place before this third alleged rape could not be mentioned or used as evidence in any way, which basically created a big blank spot in the evening, and created enough doubt that the jury basically had to find the young footballer not guilty.Krien follows the trial closely, and is scrupulous about reporting the accused’s family’s vicious victim-blaming and general unpleasantness.  But the victim didn’t respond to any of Krien’s overtures, plus her evidence was heard in a closed court.  So her voice is, essentially, silent.  And in what purports to be a feminist examination of a rape trial, that’s a pretty big omission.  (I’m not saying that the victim wasn’t perfectly within her rights to decline to speak to Krien, but I think it was a bad idea to persist with the trial as the centrepiece of the book in that case.)

    She does, however, highlight a particular peeve I have with the Victorian legal system.  In this state, a “genuine belief in consent” is enough to escape a conviction for rape.  This has led to delightful circumstances like, “She was unconscious, but she grunted when I undressed her, so she was totally into it, Your Honour.”  I transcribe criminal court proceedings.  I DO A LOT OF ANGRY!TYPING!

  • I talked about The Ghost Bride at some length at No Award.
  • Finally, A Death in the Lucky Holiday Hotel starts with the murder of British businessman David Heywood in China, and the ensuing investigation, cover-up, attempted defection, political headrolling and trials, and puts it all in the context of contemporary Chinese Communist Party politics.Suffice to say, there’s a lot going on here, and it felt rather like three books compressed into one.  If I was the type of person who gave books star ratings, I’d give this … hmm, maybe two and a half, three stars?  The ground it covers is really interesting, from the events themselves to the current and upcoming generations of Communist Party leaders, to the limits of freedom of speech in China and the use of social media to extend them, to the scapegoating of women when a leader falls, to … well, you get my drift.So it was an informative but busy book, not helped by the structure of the chapters:  we’d be told about a person doing something, then we’d be told who that person was and how they fit into the bigger picture, and then I had to go back and reread the beginning of the chapter so I could put their actions into context.  And then I started looking people up, and realised that certain trials were still ongoing, two months after the book was published.

Because Chinese politics and Scientology are apparently BFFs, I’m now reading a Scientology biography.  Stay tuned for next month!

Book reaction: Longbourn by Jo Baker

(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.)

For some reason, the edition I bought for my Kobo has a much less attractive cover.

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. 

Books read in August 2013

The Road to Hell Gillian Galbraith Crime
The Wine of Angels Phil Rickman Supernatural
Midwinter of the Spirit Phil Rickman Supernatural
A Crown of Lights Phil Rickman Supernatural
The Cure of Souls Phil Rickman Supernatural
The Lamp of the Wicked Phil Rickman Supernatural
The Prayer of the Night Shepherd Phil Rickman Supernatural
The Smile of a Ghost Phil Rickman Supernatural
The Deep: Here be Dragons Tom Taylor Graphic novel
The Deep: The Vanishing Island Tom Taylor Graphic novel
Mass Effect: Redemption Mac Walters and John Jackson Miller Graphic novel
The Remains of an Altar Phil Rickman Supernatural

Needless to say, this was a prolific month, though not one marked by variety.

Basically, I got hooked on Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins series, which deals with a female Anglican priest who balances life as a single mother with her parish duties and her second job as the diocesan exorcist, plus the more worldly matters that come her way. In short, she fights crime and ghosts.

It’s not great literature, But the series is full of entertaining ghost stories and straight-up crime. The subtext can be more misogynistic than I’d like, but I found the characters and situations compelling enough to overcome my issues.

Otherwise, I read The Deep by Tom Taylor, which is a charming and fun family comic which I will discuss in more detail at No Award. I also read one of the official Mass Effect graphic novels, which was mildly enjoyable, but the rather sexist portrayal of female characters came as a shock after the deep.

Luckily, or not, September will have more variety and also some famine which is always nice.

Books read in July 2013

Don’t look at me like that!  Yes, we’re halfway to September now, but I’ve been busy visiting my family and having a cold.

Books what I have read:

Methland: The death and life of an American small town Nick Reding Sociology
A Trifle Dead Livia Day Crime Australian, AWW
The Silence of the Lambs Thomas Harris Thriller
The Reece Malcolm List Amy Spaulding YA
Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Search (Vol 2) Gene Luen Yang Graphic novel
The Cuckoo’s Calling Robert Galbraith Crime
Blood in the Water Gillian Galbraith Crime
Where the Shadow Falls Gillian Galbraith Crime
Broken Homes Ben Aaronovitch Fantasy
Dying of the Light Gillian Galbraith Crime
No Sorrow To Die Gillian Galbraith Crime

Is it really only a month and a half ago that I read Methland?  Talk about your depressing yet compelling reads.  If you enjoy social history coupled with true crime, it’s brilliant.  But depressing.  Turns out, if you cut workers’ wages by two-thirds and take away their benefits, morale really falls.  Who knew?

A Trifle Dead is a debut crime novel by Livia Day, a pseudonym adopted by Tansy Rayner Roberts.  Whom I LOVE, so I really wanted to love A Trifle Dead, but I … couldn’t.

It’s basically a cosy mystery (small, domestic setting, lower stakes) set in Hobart, in which … I don’t want to say “hipsters fight crime”, but “middle class twenty-somethings who work in creative industries and are really pop culture savvy fight crime”.

Like I said, I wanted to like it, but it was strangely like reading a book about my own circle of friends, except that everyone is white, cis and middle class, everyone has a really cool, satisfying job (as my Tasmanian flatmate commented on Twitter, you don’t get this many people supporting themselves through blogging in Melbourne, let alone Hobart), and all the important people are straight.  The mystery itself was mildly interesting, though predictable, but I found the characters way too irritating to care.

The Reece Malcolm List is an inconsequential yet charming YA novel about a girl who goes to live with her mother, who she is meeting for the first time.

The heroine is likeable, which is a pretty impressive feat in a character who is basically showered with everything she ever wanted from the minute she sets foot in LA.  And she’s an incredibly talented singer.  And she’s pretty.  All this works because, well, not having any experience in motherhood, Reece Malcolm is buying her daughter’s love, and the heroine (you can tell I’ve forgotten her name, right?) works very, very hard at music and everything else.  And when she stuffs up, she’s called out on it.

Mostly, though, I loved the character of Reece Malcolm, who is only sixteen years older than her daughter, and who is a successful, antisocial novelist.  She’s an interesting character, and it was really enjoyable, seeing her through her daughter’s eyes.

I would have eventually read The Cuckoo’s Calling, J K Rowling’s pseudonymous crime novel, even if she hadn’t been outed as the author.  I started out looking for, you know, tell-tale signs of Rowling’s authorship, but quickly got sucked into the plot:  a model has killed herself, but her brother thinks she was murdered, and hires private detective Cormorant Strike to find out.

Some reviewers have tried to shoehorn the novel into a cosy or hardboiled genres, but really, this owes a lot to Dorothy L Sayers and the classic crime novellists of the 1930s.  Strike might seem like an odd analogue to Lord Peter Wimsey, but both are damaged war veterans (Wimsey had shell shock; Strike lost a leg in Afghanistan) and both come from powerful and well-known families (Wimsey was the younger son of a duke; Strike is the illegitimate son of a rock legend).  It’s not remotely a straight updating of an old genre, but the roots are strong.

I liked The Cuckoo’s Calling in its own right, though.  JKR obviously did a lot of research, not only into investigative procedures, but the psychology and experiences of black people in England and children of colour adopted by white families.  The plot was a tiny bit predictable, but I was only a page or so ahead of the detectives — just predictable enough to be satisfying, in other words.

Searching for Robert Galbraith in the library catalogue, I found Gillian Galbraith, an author of Scottish police procedurals.  I didn’t much care for the characters, but the first few were well-plotted.  By the fifth book, not even the plots were satisfying, so I don’t think I’ll be reading more.

Now, I don’t want to be that fan, but Ben Aaronovitch’s Broken Homes ended on something of a cliffhanger, and I want more NOW.  Yesterday, in fact.

But I guess I can wait, because this book was full of interesting stuff about architecture and council flat design that I wouldn’t mind learning more about.  Well-played, Aaronovitch.  Well-played.