Book review: The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson

I don’t read a lot of young adult fiction, but enjoy it almost without fail when I do. The Art of Being Normal is a story about a couple of teenagers on the outer. David is on the cusp of puberty and hasn’t told his parents that he is transgender – they just think he’s gay.

Leo is the new kid at school. He’s from the wrong side of the tracks and there are rumours he was kicked out of his previous school for doing something terrible. Most of the kids avoid him as they think he’s dangerous. David decides to try and befriend him. Leo doesn’t want (nor think he needs) friends and just wants to be left alone. His councillor talks to him about anger management and thinks he would benefit from making friends.

Participating?’ I ask, screwing up my face. ‘Participating in what?

Jenny sighs again. ‘In life, Leo. I want you to start participating in life.’

Author Lisa Williams was inspired to write the story after working in the national health service in England in a department focussed on helping teenagers who are questioning their gender identity. I would be interested to know the perspective of someone with lived experience, but for me it was a refreshing read. Diversity of representation is an important progression in fiction – stories like this did not have exist in mainstream fiction until quite recently. We all want to be ‘seen’ and being reflected in fiction contributes to that sense.

For someone so convinced that life isn’t fair, she plays an awful lot of bingo.

Told in first person, The Art of Being Normal is a funny and moving story about class, coming of age, and coming out in all its multi-colours. Told with plenty of surprising plot twists, the story is beautifully and sensitively written and had me laughing out loud in places. A great book for young people who don’t fit the mould and anyone who wants to engender a greater understanding and empathy for difference and diversity.

Grand Dames of Crime: Dorothy L Sayers

One of the greats of British crime fiction Dorothy L Sayers (13 June 1893 – 17 December 1957) wrote numerous crime fiction novels including eleven featuring the character Lord Peter Wimsey. The character Harriet Vane, a Wimsey love interest, also appeared in four of them and shone a light on Sayers strong views on equality. 

Facts are like cows. If you look them in the face long enough, they generally run away.

Her work also touches on other issues of the day including generational and class divides, the effects of war, Depression-era loansharking, financial scandals of the late 1920’s, fear of Fascism, the Chinese civil war and more. The themes provided background to ingenious mystery puzzles and full characters conveyed with humour, grace and flair.

Time and trouble will tame an advanced young woman, but an advanced old woman is uncontrollable by any earthly force.

Sayers worked in advertising for a period and was responsible for among other things the Guiness advertising campaign featuring zoo animals, some of which still make an appearance. She was also responsible for Colman’s Mustard 1920 guerrilla marketing campaign The Mustard Club.

Writing poetry and advertising copy didn’t earn enough, and the need to make a living is what motivated her to start writing crime fiction. The character Lord Peter Wimsey gave her an opportunity to spend money she didn’t have herself. She published Whose Body? at age 30 and never looked back, becoming a member and president of the Detection Club alongside writers such as Agatha Christie. Sayers strong principles of fair play were codified in the oaths required of prospective members of the Detection Club.

Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them, using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on, nor making use of, Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo-Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence or the Act of God?

Do you promise to observe a seemly moderation in the use of Gangs, Conspiracies, Death-Rays, Ghosts, Hypnotism, Trap-Doors, Chinamen, Super-Criminals and Lunatics; and utterly and forever forswear Mysterious Poisons unknown to Science?

Sayers crime novels were published between 1923 and 1937 along with dozens of short stories. During the same period she edited the three volumes of Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery and Horror (1928, 1931, 1934), its sequel Tale of Detection (1936), and reviewed more than 350 detective novels for the Sunday Times.

Some people’s blameless lives are to blame for a good deal.

In the late 1930s Sayers stopped writing crime fiction, although some unpublished works were released after her death. The cessation was partly due to the war and feeling there was enough death and violence in the world without putting it in books. In addition, now she had the financial resources to follow her passion for poetry and religion. She translated Danete’s Inferno, The Divine Comedy, Hell, Purgatory and was working on Paradise when she died in 1957. She also produced a raft of religious literature and radio plays.

Four of Sayers crime novels appeared in the UK Crime Writers Association 1990 list of the Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time and five in the Mystery Writers of America’s 1995 list of 100 novels.

How fleeting are all human passions compared with the massive continuity of ducks.

Limited Bibliography

Crime-Mystery Books

Whose Body? (1923)

Clouds of Witness (1926)

Unnatural Death (1926)

The Unpleasantness of the Bellona Club (1928)

The Documents in the Case (1930)

Strong Poison (1930)

The Five Red Herrings (1931)

Have his Carcase (1932)

Murder must Advertise (1933)

The Nine Tailors (1934)

Gaudy Night (1935)

Busman’s Honeymoon (1937)

Short Story Collections

Lord Peter Views the Body (1928)

Hangman’s Holiday (1933)

In the Teeth of the Evidence (1939)

Lord Peter (1972)

Striding Folly (1972)

With the Members of the Detection Club

The Floating Admiral (1931)

Ask a Policeman (1933)

Double Death (1939)

The Scoop (1983)

No Flowers by Request (1984)

How fleeting are all human passions compared with the massive continuity of ducks.

Theatre review: Because the Night @Malthouse Theatre

Theatre set showing office desk with light on a diamond motif carpet. There is a trussed up Zebra replica in one corner.

I saw a great promenade theatre show in New York in 2015. Sleep No More was a silent riff on Macbeth performed inside the McKittrick Hotel. The massive space over five floors was transformed into theatrically designed rooms through which the audience wandered interacting with the set and observing the actors perform.

Writing on a wall beneath a replica shot gun:
She was trapped under a fallen tree
Looking up into the shadows of the branch
She said she saw the future
In the movement of the leaves
Hamlet and Ophelia 
sacrificing their daughter
Old King Hamlet
Hacked to death by his wife
Royal Princess
Murdering for the throne
Ophelia's dear father
Slain by Hamlet's knife
Crowns and blades
blood and arms
circling
for eternity
As the forest splinters to dust

Slow to emerge from Melbourne lockdown IV, other than a couple of dinner parties I have mostly stayed home. The temptation of an immersive theatre performance motivated my first foray out into the wilds with the general public and it was definitely worth it. After all what is a Melbourne Winter for if not beanies, dinner parties and theatre?

Because the Night runs from March to September 2021 so grab some tickets and get out and support the arts. You will not be disappointed. The entire Malthouse Theatre space has been transformed into a labyrinth of interconnected spaces for the adventure.

Text on theatre wall:

The trees were screaming
the people fleeing
the king
flung and flayed

I fear that if my daughter 
learns
the true ordeal of the forest 
and speaks it aloud at school
she will be beaten

The audience gets divided into three, each group led into a dark foyer and instructed to wear identical dark robes and Donnie Darko masks that transform the crowd into macabre giant black rabbits. We were also intersected to remain silent.

A room with a dining table set for a dinner party with fairy lights.  There is a very large replica pig standing in the middle of the table amongst the crockery

My adventure in Elsinore, a 1980s logging town, started in the Palace bedroom (others were taken to the Royal Office or the Gymnasium) where Gertrude lay prostrate on her bed mourning the kings death. The ancient forest was restless for blood…

This is choose your own adventure theatre. You can stalk one actor, go in search of different scenes or focus on exploring the space during the 1.5 run time. You are invisible to the actors so don’t worry you won’t suddenly find yourself being dragged into the action.

Three theatre goers dressed in dark cloaks and wearing black Donnie Darko masks

I started out following Gertrude, then got sidetracked by other dramatic scenes, following the loudest voices. After a while I broke off from the crowd and went in search of hidden rooms (of which there were many) and props that provided insight into the story – discarded notebooks and writing scrawled on walls. I simply soaked up the sensory experience until joining the actors again for the final dramatic scene. And pigs, there are lots of pigs.

The script is loosely based on the story of Hamlet with a bit of gender bending and it helps to have the general gist of Shakespeare’s play before you start. The show is designed in such a way that you won’t see the entire performance in one visit, though of course there is nothing to stop you from going more than once

Postscript: lucky I went because we’re back in lockdown again…

Book review: Digging Up Dirt by Pamela Hart

Thought I’d lighten things up a bit this week with a cozy mystery. Cozies are an easy read that can be gobbled up without any uncomfortable feelings, whilst still offering satisfying twists and turns. Digging Up Dirt also includes a splash of simmering romance.

Nothing like the builder digging up bones to halt the work on your renovation. TV researcher Poppy McGowan needs to find out if the bones are human or animal so she can get on with finishing her house. When archaeologist, Dr Julieanne Weaver, whom Poppy doesn’t like, interferes and slaps a heritage order over the property because she thinks the bones a significant Poppy is really annoyed. But then Julieanne is found murdered onsite, face down in the excavation dressed in heels and an evening frock, and things get really complicated.

Pamela Hart is a prolific author who has written more than 35 books and successfully crosses the genre divide. She is best known for her historical fiction (The Soldiers Wife, The War Bride, A Letter from Italy and The Desert Nurse).

Hart has also penned speculative fiction (Ember and Ash)and children’s books under the name Pamela Freeman as well as being an accomplished scriptwriter for ABC kids. I’ve done a few of the online courses she has written for the Australian Writers Centre as well, which have all been of good quality. She’s no slouch!

Digging Up Dirt is Hart’s first mystery novel and it’s a fun Australian read (or listen to the audio book). 

Book review: Hinton Hollow Death Trip by Will Carver

The devil made me do it.

Fear is my greatest tool. It can be used to make a person do almost anything. You can take education, information, motivation and throw it all away, fear is the only thing you require. It is a slow and deadly poison. And it is effective.

Detective Sergeant Pace flees London to return to his hometown of Hinton Hollow for some respite after the trauma of his previous case. Pace’s shadow follows him, enveloping the idyllic small town in darkness and creating disarray in the community. Hinton Hollow Death Trip is the third Carver novel featuring Pace (see Good Samaritans and Nothing Important Happened Today) but could also be read as a stand alone.

The story is a noirish pulp meditation on what can happen when we abandon our values and give into our darkest parts, unleashing the monster within driven by our disappointments, bitterness, resentment and jealousies.

This is how evil works. I just have to get you started. What you do with that feeling is entirely down to you.

The unique twist in this tale is the narrator. Evil. Evil takes great pleasure insinuating itself into the cracks of people’s goodness, prodding at their insecurities and encouraging them to indulge the more selfish, destructive and violent elements of their nature. The message here is that we all have this capacity for destruction in us, but we make choices in response to experiences that determine whether we indulge our malevolent sides or keep turning toward the good in ourselves and others. Evil encourages the characters of Hinton Hollow to indulge their blackness and cheat, steal and kill.

Where everything happened for a reason. A leap of faith. Detective Sergeant Pace is no good. Detective Sergeant Pace is a footnote. Detective Sergeant Pace is a small story. 

In keeping with Will Carvers style, Hinton Hollow Death Trip, its cast and their behaviour leave the reader feeling queezy, despite the macabre content being tempered with equally dark humour. The characters are outrageous but believable and the narrative has a way of making the reader reflect on their own dark corners. 

This is not a story for the squeamish so if you can’t stomach a bit of graphic violence, stick with the cosies. It seems the writing of the story was also uncomfortable for Carver. Apparently the manuscript landed in the bin twice before Carver felt it was good enough to call complete. 

Some people are more comfortable in the dark. Some seek it out. Some thrive there…

Book review: Exit by Belinda Bauer

I used to love old British cop shows like The Bill, Inspector Morse and Taggart. British crime shows are memorable for slow-moving mystery plots and complex characters. Belinda Bauer’s crime novels are similar.

Despite sounding like a juxtaposition, Bauer’s most recent novel, Exit, is a hilarious crime thriller.

Amanda was at his shoulder now. ‘What is it?’ she said, but Felix couldn’t speak because all the words he’d ever known seemed to be whirling around inside his skull like bingo balls.
The ones he needed finally dropped slowly from his numb lips.
‘We killed the wrong man.’

Seventy-five year old widower Felix Pink is a member of the Exiteers, a secret group that supports the right to die by baring witness to the suicide of terminally ill patients then disposing of any evidence to ensure their deaths appear natural. Everything goes horribly wrong when Felix and new young Exiteer, Amanda, accidentally help the wrong patient to die.

The second voice in the story is PC Calvin Bridge, a small town policeman, and in his own eyes a failed detective. Calvin has no confidence in his own abilities. He also hoards a shameful secret past.

Even now, if she spotted Calvin from any distance, Shirley made a point fo glowering at him. And if she were with somebody else, she’d turn to them and say something, and then that person would glower at him too, which made him feel like a bad person – which he knew he wasn’t – so if he ever spotted Shirley before she spotted him, he always just hid.

A comedy of errors unfolds as Felix tries to find out whether he is guilty of murder or something more sinister is afoot, and Calvin finds himself doing the detective work he’s been avoiding.

According to British author Bauer, crime novels are about how the stories of our lives can be suddenly changed by the misdeeds of others. Life is a river and crime the rocks – it is when our lives hit a rock that we find out if we are life’s swimmers or sinkers. Bauer’s novels focus on survival and recovery after a calamity.

Baur has a knack for crafting original, oddball characters that endear the reader to them. Exit is a delightful, hilarious and farcical look at life and death, the invisibility of ageing, friendship, morality and loyalty.

Exit is Bauer’s ninth crime novel. I have written about the author before. See my review of The Shut Eye here

Book review: Nothing Important Happened Today by Will Carver

Creepy. Lets face it Will Carver knows how to write a creepy, mesmerising, noirish thriller – remember Good Samaritans?

London Detective Sergeant Pace returns in Nothing Important Happened Today, a story about a cult in which perfect strangers commit group suicide by jumping off bridges after receiving a white envelope containing the words ‘Nothing important happened today’. This message tells the receiver they have been chosen to become part of the People of Choice and off they trot calmly to meet their maker.

At its heart Nothing Important Happened Today is a story about human psychology, vulnerability and the power of suggestion. Carver splashes the narrative with reflections on the damaging effects of social media, how it provides a mechanism to airbrush our lives and foster an insatiable need for validation that can be really damaging to one’s self confidence. It makes you pause and take stock of the madness of the online environment and its mirage of connection.

We are so connected that we have become disconnected. We can’t have a thought, we have to have an opinion. Freedom of speech has gone too fucking far when we feel the need to share everything. When we filter the image of ourselves but feel no need to filter what we say out loud, hidden behind a new status and picture of ourselves when we were twenty pounds lighter.

There is something mildly detached about Carver’s writing style in this novel, written in the third person and collective first person, that fits neatly with the mindset of a cult leader. It shows the chilling lengths some people will go to get others to do their bidding. The cult leader in Nothing Important Happened Today sends person after person to their death to satisfy their own need for power and a twisted idea of their sense of importance in the world. Each victim is simply seen as a number by an anonymous person operating with the aim of making themselves the best cult leader ever, measured by the number of casualties they can motivate to initiate their own demise.

The fictional story is interspersed with facts about real life cults, how they came about and what drove their leaders. This addition helps lead the reader to ponder whether the actual story, which hovers on the edge of believably, is real or fiction, it’s a mind bending narrative.

Carver is clever at crafting a tale to make the hair on your neck stand up and leave you feeling a little discombobulated and disorientated. He causes you to pause and reflect on reality, illusion and what holds real value and meaning in life.

What it means to be human…

(There needs to be an error code that means “I received your request but decided to ignore you.”)

Ok, so I confess I binged listened to the entire Murderbot Diaries series by Martha Wells last week – all five after last weeks review of All Systems Red. I could probably just stop there. Declaring that fact is review enough, but stopping would leave a lot of white space in this blog post…

So the plan wasn’t a clusterfuck, it was just circling the clusterfuck target zone, getting ready to come in for a landing.

At their heart, the Murderbot Diaries are about a machine coming to understand what it means to be human. Murderbot is a construct, part-human part-robot, designed to be owned, used and discarded by humans. The novellas are simple stories with complex themes and characterisation. I could draw parallels to issues of slavery, racism, gender and sexuality, as well as the role of artificial intelligence.

As a heartless killing machine, I was a terrible failure.

The Murderbot Diaries are also bubbling over with brilliant one liners delivered from the SecUnits point of view. I have included some of my favourites scattered through this post.

I hate caring about stuff. But apparently once you start, you can’t just stop.

The series reminds me of studying transhumanism and the likes of Turing, Huxley, Putnam and Searle in philosophy at university. Philosophers who made us grapple with the idea that we could create a being that is equal to human, even replace humans, using artificial intelligence.

Yes, talk to Murderbot about its feelings. The idea was so painful I dropped to 97 percent efficiency. I’d rather climb back into Hostile One’s mouth.

Could a convergence of human and machine consciousness result in a superior being? AI that could think and therefore by definition reduce humans to nothing more than machines. It was mind bending stuff but I fell squarely in the camp of AI being a tool for humans, not being capable of replacing us.

It was very dramatic, like something out of a historical adventure serial. Also correct in every aspect except for all the facts, like something out of a historical adventure serial.

As a decision making tool AI and the use of data have myriad benefits, including the capacity to remove human biases from decision making in some circumstances. But in many respects I believe the essence of our humanity is our fallibility. That we can become overcome and driven by our fears and anxieties, anger, sadness or elation is a unique characteristic of organic sentient beings. Perhaps even more important is our capacity for creativity. Our emotional worlds and imaginations are at the essence of being human, characteristics I do not believe can be replicated by AI.

Disinformation, which is the same as lying but for some reason has a different name, is the top tactic in corporate negotiation/warfare.

That central question in the Murderbot Diaries of what it means to be human is something that all of us actual humans must grapple with throughout life – either consciously or unconsciously. We do this every time we make judgements and decisions because those acts determine the kind of person we want to be, in relation to both ourselves and others.

They were all annoying and deeply inadequate humans, but I didn’t want to kill them. Okay, maybe a little.

Murderbot expresses an irresistible blend of deep love for its humans and angry, pessimistic, exhausted cynicism because he believes the world is a terrible place and humans are hopeless. Part-robot, part-organic beings such as Murderbot were built after all to have superior performance and prevent stupid humans from making stupid decisions and getting themselves killed. Yet Murderbot is driven by a passionate sentimental commitment to do the right thing by them. No wonder he’d rather zone out binging on his favourite show Sanctuary Moon than engage with the world.

I hate having emotions about reality; I’d much rather have them about Sanctuary Moon.

Book Review: All Systems Red by Martha Wells

Whenever I visit my GP we talk about books and writing. She once filled an entire appointment telling me about the crime fiction novel she was writing about a GP who murders people. Lucky I’m a crime writer as well or I might have been reticent to accept any more scripts from her. On my last visit she got very animated about Martha Wells’s The Murderbot Diaries so I borrowed the first one to find out what her excitement was about.

All Systems Red is a 2017 science fiction novella and the first in The Murderbot Diaries series. For a simple story, it packs a powerful punch – I listened to the audiobook in one sitting whilst gardening, giggling to myself as I pulled weeds. The premise is simple: Two groups of scientists on an alien plant; something terrible happens to one lot and the others have to work out what, before the terrible thing happens to them as well. So what’s so good about it? …Murderbot…

I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module, but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company satellites. It had been well over 35,000 hours or so since then, with still not much murdering, but probably, I don’t know, a little under 35,000 hours of movies, serials, books, plays and music consumed. As a heartless killing machine, I was a terrible failure.

Murderbot is a part organic-part robot SecUnit – a security guard of unspecified gender for hire to protect explorers of the universe. Murderbot is a little bit different to the other SecUnits because they have disabled their governing programming unit, giving them agency. The sulky Murderbot keeps this secret, along with their addiction to binge-watching soap operas. They just want to be left alone.

Murderbot is a kind of coming out story because this SecUnit feels like they need to hide an essential part of themselves from everyone else – those who are more powerful than Murderbot and wouldn’t understand.

Wells has given Murderbot, who is essentially a killing machine, extraordinary vulnerability as they struggle with their fears about their robot and human parts. They are trying to work out how to be comfortable in their own skin, and their efforts to hide this from those around them are touchingly hilarious.

The best part? There are five more books in the series.

Book review: Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko

Kerry Salter’s girlfriend is in jail and her pop is dying, so she leaves Brisbane and her arrest warrants behind and heads south on a stolen Harley to her hometown of Durrongo – a place she’s been avoiding.

Thing is, you run now, after last night, and it’ll haunt you forever. You can go as far away as you like, but the past always comes along for the ride.

Too Much Lip is Goorie author Melissa Lucashenko’s seventh novel. Shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award and the Stella Prize and winner of the 2019 Miles Franklin Award, it is a dark, funny story about family, home, country, intergenerational trauma, evil property developers, talking animals, life and death.

Kerry knew from long experience that there was no winning an argument with her mother. To Pretty Mary she was and always would be the Great Abandoner. Shame enough to turn out a dyke, but her far greater sin was the empty hole she’d left behind her in the family. Even in the terrible dark shadow cast by Donna’s disappearance, Kerry had still up and left to live among whitefellas and city people. Sharper than a serpent’s tooth, blah blah de-fucken-blah.

Bundjalung language words are peppered through a narrative that exposes the impacts of the history of colonisation and dispossession on Australian Aboriginal people. Lucashenko’s voice in the novel is unique and effectively echoes the voices of Australian aboriginal people I have known. I have never read a novel like it – which primarily tells me that there are far too few Indigenous voices in literature.

Kerry looked around the deserted road.

‘Yugam baugal jang! Buiyala galli! Yugam yan moogle Goorie Brisbanyu? You could help instead of sitting up there like a mug liar from the city.

Kerry looked around again. The waark hopped up and down in rage.

Then the second crow chimed in, dripping scorn.

It’s no good to ya, fang face. Can’t talk lingo! Can’t even find its way home! Turned right at the Cal River when it shoulda kept going straight. It’s as moggle as you look.’

On being awarded the Miles Franklin some critics claimed Too Much Lip to be undeserving as Lucashenko’s voice was not ‘literary’. My reading of that criticism is that those critics are pompous, entitled gits – probably in need of empathy training – and most likely educated in posh private schools with little experience of diversity and no understanding or appreciation of its value.

For a moment Kerry thought her mother was talking about killing the old man. Putting him down gently. Her second thought, hard on the heels of the first, was: just as well Ken’s drug of choice isn’t morphine. If the hospital had prescribed malt whisky to ease Pop’s last days they would have been in trouble.

The Salter family are gritty representations of people living in poverty and battling with day-to-day existence in all its joys, sorrows, and frustrations. Their education is primarily in their own culture, and in survival – not academia and privilege. They are flawed, funny survivours who love and hurt the people they care about, and go through life trying to make the best of it.

Into the river that was about to be stolen away again, as it always had been since Captain James Nunne Esq. first rode up with his troopers, one two three, crying I’ll have that, and that, oh, and that too, while I’m at it.

Too Much Lip is a political novel, which perhaps makes it confronting and challenging for some white Australians to read, but we all should read it because within its pages there is opportunity for greater understanding, and that might help lift our humanity above our turned-up wanker noses.

I’ll definitely be adding more of Lucashenko’s work to my reading list.