“[Teaching] that might have been the best thing in her life. And reading. Escaping from self.”
Amy Witting’s novel, Maria’s War, a story of displacement, acceptance and secrets is set in Leicester Gardens, a Sydney “retirement village,” which is part of a larger complex. There are villas for the better-off and more independent seniors; there’s also a nursing home for the ill, and a hospital block. Retired teacher, Erica Bromley moves into Leicester Gardens after the death of her only friend. Erica, or Brom, as she is known to her former students, does not find the transition to life in Leicester Gardens easy. Erica selected Leicester Gardens mostly due to the “advertised attraction” of bush walks. But she is told by the manager that she cannot walk alone and must be accompanied by another resident. Meals are communal, unless requested otherwise, and the residents have firmly developed relationships, cliques and rules of engagement. Maria, a long term-resident, seems to be Erica’s most promising companion, yet Erica is all too aware that she must not favour Maria’s company too much or she risks the hostility of some of the other, already prickly, residents.
The book is called Maria’s War, and the book opens with Maria being interviewed by Neil, a young man hired by Maria’s family to write her history. Neil has a romantic interest in Maria’s granddaughter, which is not reciprocated, and when Neil works that out, he finds himself becoming impatient with Maria’s story.
So what is Maria’s story? During WWII, Maria, a Lithuanian catholic, was separated from her husband. He was press-ganged into the Wehrmacht while she, displaced with her baby daughter, survived the war after many hardships. Maria recounts some of her history to Neil, and keeps other parts of it secret. Neil senses that he is receiving the expurgated version, and can tell when Maria hits a memory she can’t or won’t discuss. Many of Maria’s actions and decisions were made under harsh circumstance, and now, in the telling, her hardships seem shadowed by the moral implications she must live with. From a distance one can never fully recreate the atmosphere, the pressures, the tensions and the fears that led to one decision over another.
It seems like memory is a live thing, unpredictable. I had not really expected that.
For this reader, the novel excelled at the petty jabs of residents towards each other for perceived grievances or rule-jumpers. If one resident receives a letter or postcard, the others expect news of the outside world to be shared. Communal life in the dining room is banal and predictable. Conversations must be on certain topics and not run off the rails, and Erica finds that she must conform, yet with Maria, she is more her true self. Unfortunately most of the residents remain 2 dimensional shady forms like pieces on a chess board.
It’s as if there are two novels here: Maria’s War and Erica’s life and integration in the retirement village. A BIG coincidence brings these 2 stories together but it is a clumsy device. Maria’s War is not up to the standards of I is for Isobel, Isobel on the way to the Corner Shop, or AChange in the Lighting. The latter is my favourite.
Sally Hepworth’s domestic suspense novel, The Younger Wife, begins with the wedding of Melbourne-based heart surgeon, Stephen Aston, a man in his 60s and Heather, a 30-something interior designer. It’s a big wedding, with Stephen’s two daughters, Tully and Rachel in attendance. The groom is old enough to be the bride’s father … well it’s an old story. But wait … there’s something really odd about this wedding. Stephen’s ex-wife, Pamela, is also a guest. Stephen insists that even though Pamela and he are divorced, she should attend as she’s still family. Pamela, by the way, is living in a care home with dementia. Backstory: Heather was hired for home renovations by Stephen and Pamela when they were still married. Shortly after Stephen met Heather, he put Pamela in a care home. A month after moving Pamela into the care home, he filed for divorce and announced his upcoming marriage to Heather. Alarm bells were going off in my head with this information. And I’m not the only one. Most of the guests feel uneasy about Pamela’s presence, and this unease is proved warranted when something goes horribly wrong. …
The novel segues to a restaurant dinner organized by Stephen. He invites his daughters Tully and Rachel and, there he introduces Heather as his fiancée. Tully and Heather are floored. They are still adjusting to the relocation of their mother to a nursing home, and they had no idea their dad was even dating. Tully’s first reaction to Heather is to assume she’s going to “destroy their lives.” Rachel plays a cooler hand, but both young women struggle to adjust to the news.
Under different circumstances, Rachel might have felt pleasure at this meeting. For example, if her father had started dating someone after mum died. A nice widow named Beryl, perhaps
The story moves from Stephen’s announcement up to the wedding. While both Rachel and Tully try to adjust to the news that they are shortly to have a young stepmum, both young women face other challenges in their lives. Rachel, who runs a bakery business from her home, discovers mysterious contents in her mother’s hot water bottle. Tully, who lives in one of the most prestigious neighborhoods in Melbourne, faces an uncertain future. Both sisters have ‘issues;’ Rachel, who doesn’t date, has never dated, tends to eat her feelings, and Tully has picked up a nasty little habit since she was 11. Rachel, unsettled by the news of the wedding combined with the contents of the water bottle, tries to ask her mother some questions, but it’s a roll of the dice when it comes to whether or not Pamela will recognize her children. As events roll on, Rachel and Tully begin to question every thing they know about their parents.
All the characters have secrets, and all of those secrets will be uncovered by the time the book ends. The story unfolds through the voices of an (initially) unnamed woman, Heather, Tully and Rachel.The Younger Wife is a page turner. I liked the relationship between the very different sisters. Yet while this story is highly readable, I had some issues with a couple of things. 1) Tully’s husband, Sonny, makes a MAJOR mistake (no spoilers) but Tully basically shrugs and that’s that. Of course, underneath Tully’s acceptance and nonchalance, it’s NOT ok, and this is evident by her later stressed out, self-destructive behaviour. Sonny is appalled by his wife’s behaviour, and Tully waits for the lightening to fall. But wait…. Sonny isn’t called to account for his actions.
2) Another issue I had was with the character of Heather. The choices she makes after one particular incident pushed credulity over the edge. Can’t say more than that without spoilers. One’s past makes one more vulnerable in certain situations and to certain relationships, I get that, and I agree,BUT when the evidence is irrefutable … c’mon. What sort of idiot accepts PILLS after YOU KNOW what the truth is? Heather’s behaviour makes her … well either NOT a credible character or not the sharpest tool in the toolbox (yes even taking her past into consideration.) Still, in spite of these flaws, I liked the way the author showed that the ideal family is sometimes rotten to the core. It takes being inside that family to know the truth.
I’ve read and enjoyed Liane Moriarty’s Apples Never Fall and Big Little Lies so on to Nine Perfect Strangers which the Gerts, who gauge my tastes with great success, said I would enjoy. Nine Perfect Strangers was made into a TV series and I enjoyed that while noting that some things didn’t quite work. It’s always great fun to read the book and compare the series, or vice versa.
Nine Perfect Strangers is set at the Tranquillum House health resort which is about a 6 hour drive north of Sydney. Nine people, as the title suggests, book a 10 day retreat, and they all have their reasons for needing a very expensive “boutique health and wellness resort.” The director of Tranquillum House Maria Dmitrichenko, or Masha offersan “exclusive Ten-Day Mind and Body Total Transformation Retreat,” with the promise that “in ten days, you will not be the person you are now,” and that they “will leave Tranquillumhouse feeling happier, healthier, lighter, freer.” Here are the 9 guests:
Frances, a twice-divorced, overweight, successful writer of tacky romance novels. She was recently bilked by an internet dating scammer and her career is in freefall.
Napoleon Marconi, his wife Heather and their daughter Zoe. Zoe’s twin brother committed suicide 3 years previously and while the 3 Marconis are bonded by tragedy, they each harbour secret guilt about Zach’s death.
Carmel, an insecure mother of 4, with body image issues, whose husband left her for a much younger woman.
Ben and Jessica, a young couple who won the lottery and have been drifting apart ever since.
Lars, a gay divorce lawyer whose partner wants a child.
Tony, a former professional football player who is now divorced and eating and drinking his way to an early grave.
Staff-wise, there’s Masha, a former corporate executive who runs the show, and Yao and Delilah, her two assistants.
Nine Perfect Strangers is an entertaining, funny, light, slightly bloated read with a few nods to the complications of the human condition. The guests (and staff) are all damaged in various ways by life experiences, and they need to heal. Ben and Jessica were high school sweethearts and winning the lottery has ruined their marriage. Jessica sees her life in Instagram posts and is on a never-ending quest to surgically improve her body. Problem is “the more Jessica changed her face and body, the less secure she became.” Ben can hardly stand to look at the ‘new’ Jessica, and the love of his life is now his Lamborghini.
Sometimes when she spoke normally, when she was just being herself, he could forget the frozen forehead, the blowfish lips, the puffy cheeks, the camel eyelashes (“eyelash extensions”), the fake hair (“hair extensions”), and the fake boobs, and there, for just a moment , was his sweet Jessica, the Jessica he’d known since high school.
The ‘trips’ were boring to read, and the characters are mere types, and not fully fleshed. The character of Frances stole the book and the series (IMO), and the series added some sex and a thriller subplot–both of which were mercifully absent from the book. I particularly loved the deprivations of Masha’s programme and how some guests tried smuggling in contraband and expected to be pampered for all the money they spent and not … well… you have to read the book. But possibly the most entertaining section (in the book) involves Masha’s meltdown. She’s a lot more fun in the book than in the series.
Masha said, “Do you know, there was a great man. His name was Steve Jobs.”
Lars who has been expecting her to say the Dalai Lama, snickered.
“I always admired him greatly,” said Masha.
“Not sure why you took all our iphones away then,” muttered Tony.
“Do you know what Steve Jobs said? He said that taking LSD was one of the most important, profound experiences of his life.”
“Oh well then” said Lars, greatly amused. “If Steve Jobs said we should all take LSD, then we really should!”
“That’s the secret of a happy marriage: step away from the rage.”
Liane Moriarty’s engaging novel, Apples Never Fall is a tale of marriage, family dynamics, and buried resentments. The story unfolds through 2 timelines: 69 year-old Joyce Delaney is missing. She sent a garbled text to her 4 children saying she was going ‘off grid,’ but that’s very unlike Joyce. Stan, Joyce’s husband for 50 years isn’t the one to report his wife missing, and that seems strange, but then they weren’t on the best of terms. The second timeline goes back to some months earlier when a young, distressed girl comes knocking at the Delaney home, looking for help, late at night. The chapters then go back and forth in time.
Stan and Joyce were tennis champions who owned their own tennis school, complete with cafe. Joyce, a veritable dynamo, raised 4 children while still playing tennis and running the school. Now Stan and Joyce are newly retired, and Joyce is adjusting to domestic life with Stan. Their busy, active life used to be full of obligations, constant diversions and interruptions. But now Stan sits in the recliner, nursing his knees, watching TV and munching crackers while Joy constantly listens, via headphones, to podcasts. She also accompanies a widowed neighbour to a creative writing course on how to write your memoirs. Joyce hasn’t written hers yet (and is only in the class for the neighbour’s sake) but in spite of her lack of intent, Joyce already has a title “Regret […] A Regretful Life by Joy Delaney.”
All the Delaney children were/are excellent tennis players, but none of them became champions. Each one bears the burden of a childhood spent training, winning and losing matches along the way.
When he was a kid, all he’d wanted to do was to beat his older brother in anything and everything. It was the point of his entire existence. Winning his first match against Logan had felt like a cocaine high except just like cocaine, it also made him feel sick. He always remembered with resentment and mystification how nausea had tainted the edge of his win, how he’d gone to have a shower to cool off and thought he was fine, but then he lost his temper with a tennis kid who had wandered through the back door of their house. He hated it so much when kids thought their kitchen was a clubhouse facility. It was almost like he’d felt guilty for beating his brother, as if being two years older gave Logan a lifelong right to win against Troy.
In adulthood, all 4 children have tangled issues with relationships. Amy, the eldest, a “free spirit,” can’t keep a job, or maintain a relationship. She’s spent a lifetime in therapy with no end in sight. Her younger sister, Brooke, who is “too driven,” is separated from her husband. A physical therapist with her own struggling PT clinic, Brooke gave up tennis due to blinding, painful migraines. Troy, freshly divorced, now an extremely successful trader, sabotaged his marriage and now regrets it. Logan’s longtime girlfriend just dumped him. Logan, a professor, has decided he’s going to give up dating and that way he won’t lose again. Each of Delaney children are shaped by competitive tennis.
“So been on the court lately?” Troy gave Logan a speculative look.It had been years since they’d played each other. Logan gave an irritated exhalation as if Troy had asked this same question multiple times before which he was pretty sure he had not.
“No, not for a while now.”
“Why not?” asked Troy genuinely interested.“Not even with mum and dad?“
“No time,” Logan fiddled with his left wrist as if to indicate an invisible watch.
“No time?” repeated Troy, “what a crock of shit. You’ve got time to burn.” Logan shrugged. Then he said suddenly as if he couldn’t help himself. “I don’t get how you play socially.” He saidsocially like the word smelled.
“I enjoy it,” said Troy truthfully. He had friends he played with on a semi-regular basis both in Sydney and New York. They were all former competitive players like him. He won maybe 70% of the time.
“Keeps me fit. It doesn’t matter anymore.”
“You’re saying you don’t care if you win or lose?”
Now that Stan and Joyce are on their own, it’s dull. Life has changed in retirement; “Last year they had sold their business, and it felt like everything ended, juttered to a stop.” But late one night, there’s a knock at the door and a young girl, Savannah, claims she’s escaping an abusive relationship and just happened to arrive, by cab, at their home. Naturally Stan is suspicious, but Joyce cannot turn the girl away, and that decision is partly to spite Stan. Savannah stays, cooking marvelous meals. What was supposed to be a temporary measure turns permanent. ….
The detective investigating Joyce’s disappearance questions each of the children and, the husband of course. Stan’s reactions aren’t right, and the detective senses that Stanley knows more than he’s saying. Then there are the kids …. who find themselves taking sides in this situation. The investigation brings the siblings together with each one slipping into old familiar roles as they “regressed,” into old rivalry.
This well paced novel examines the Delaney family dynamics and the powerful resentments that lurk under the surface of a long-term marriage. The Delaney children have complicated feelings–jealousy, resentment, and anger–towards their parents when it comes to Harry Hadad, their father’s star pupil. The children all have a love/hate relationship with tennis–admiring the game but resenting the other players who took their dad’s attention–and that isn’t helped by the fact that Stan took the side of his most promising protégé who cheated in a match against Troy. Family politics are complicated at the best of times but add competitive tennis and the tennis students, sometimes gifted children, who suck up the parents’ time. Outsiders probably envied the Delaney children, and while they were certainly lucky in many ways, they all paid a price when it came to tennis. There’s the underlying knowledge that the Delaney children never met their father’s expectations, and then there are Stan’s mysterious disappearances. …
The characters are all well done, and these 4 may be siblings but they all have different approaches to life: Troy throws money at problems, lives an incredibly lavish lifestyle, and can’t understand why his siblings don’t envy him. Logan has a problem committing to the woman he loves, and sets his sights comfortably low. Amy can’t settle down and Brooke is tightly wound, seemingly perfect but always stressed out. The siblings’ competitive relationships with each other play a role in the tale too as the search for Joyce continues.
Sometimes Logan saw something in a woman that Troy didn’t seestraight away. When they were in their late teens, they both dated girls called Tracy, and Troy developed a secret, shameful crush on Logan’s Tracy. She was the superior Tracy. The worst part was Troy had met Logan’s Tracy first, so he could have made a move, but he didn’t see her appeal until Logan saw it.
This was an excellent read, with an overly long-drawn out ending the only negative. I listened to the audio book version which was read by Caroline Lee. Caroline Lee is Australian and it was easy for me to imagine that I was listening to Joyce.
Big Little Lies was made into a series, as was Nine Perfect Strangers. Apples Never Fall would be perfect for a TV series.
Last year, Max Barry’s novel Providence made my best-of-year list. Providence, a science fiction novel, follows a ship’s crew as it heads into the Violet Zone, deep space, as the battleship, on a search and destroy mission, hunts for Salamanders, a hostile race locked into a war in space with humans. Providence tackles big questions such as AI vs. human intelligence–both come with flaws. It’s been over a year since I read Providence and I still think about the book almost daily. Roll onto 2021, and it’s The 22 Murders of Madison May. When I first saw the name of Barry’s latest, the title seemed to have a playfulness to it–and I thought about that. ‘Murder’ isn’t playful at all, so the playful aspect comes from the name Madison May. The name is a bit stripper-ish, a bit actress-y.
The 22 Murders of Madison May is also science-fiction, a parallel universe novel. When the story opens, Madison May, a sweet, young real estate agent is about to show a home, a “dump.” Since she’s meeting the buyer, a man named Clay, alone, she takes his photo for “security.” Clay seems more interested in Madison than the house, and she begins to get bad vibes. There are horrible bite wounds on his arms, all in various stages of healing. He locks the doors, takes Madison’s phone and asks her to come into the bedroom to talk. Madison, who is a naturally perky person, decides that the best course of action is to humour Clay, at least until she can run, and after all, her office has Clay’s photo and all his information so “it would be crazy for Clay to do anything.”
Once in the bedroom, Clay tells Madison that he’s traveled from another world just to see her.
“All this …” He gestured to … the room, the curtains? No, no: the world of course. “It’s a drop in the ocean. There are more worlds. More than you can count. They look the same but they’re not, not if you pay attention. And you’re in all of them. Everywhere I go, you’re doing different things. Every time I leave, it’s to find you again.”
That day, reporter Felicity Staples is asked to cover a murder. That’s not her usual beat, but since Levi, the paper’s crime reporter is out, Felicity goes to the crime scene. Real estate agent, Madison May is the murder victim, and outside of the taped crime scene a man and a woman stand watching. The crime scene is bloody, and “the drywall had been carved open with thick slashes. There were five angled prongs crossing a circle.” What do the marks mean?
Felicity discovers that the “insignia” carved into the wall is the same insignia on a cap worn by man who was outside of the crime scene when Felicity arrives, but the police don’t seem interested in her tip. A little amateur detective work on logos leads her to The Soft Horizon Juice Company. From this point, things don’t add up: there’s a man, named Hugo, who should be in Sing Sing for murdering his wife, walking the streets of Manhattan. Just what is The Soft Horizon Juice Company and how is it connected to Madison’s murder? After being shoved off of a subway platform, Felicity returns home but there’s something off…. . She’s still a reporter, her boyfriend is still tried-and-true Gavin, but there’s something not quite right:
She felt off-balance. There was somethingwrong and she couldn’t figure out what.
Felicity inadvertently becomes mixed up in the hunt for a serial killer, but unlike most serial killers, Clay travels to parallel universes to kill the same woman. Over and over again.
So that’s enough of the plot. Max Barry’s entertaining novel is mind-blowing for those of us who love or believe in parallel universe theory. This could be a grim read, but the author seeds this with light touches. Felicity’s boyfriend is slightly different in each universe; sometimes better, sometimes not. As Felicity steps into and adjusts to, her subsequent new lives, parallel universe travel brings up some moral questions.
“There’s no time travel. You’re in a physically different place. It shares an ancestor with where you’re from, but at some point it split. Since then, it evolved independently.”
“You’re saying there are two worlds? A real one and a … a secret–?”
“Many worlds. Detaching and refolding all the time. Nothing makes one more real than the other.”
“Parallel dimensions?” she said, groping for a concept. “Is that what you’re saying?”
Jock Serong’s historical novel The Burning Island is narrated by Eliza Grayling, a 19th century Australian woman who has left the prospects of marriage behind. But in spite of not being married (and no children), she’s weighed down by responsibility to her drunken, blind father Joshua, a hermit who lives with rage and a burning desire for revenge. One day, at the marketplace, Eliza realises she’s being followed by Srinivas a man who’s looking for her father. Srinivas makes a proposal to Joshua: he will outfit a ship for a voyage to recover or discover the truth about the Howrah, a ship that disappeared along with its crew and passengers. It seems a strange task for an elderly, blind, drunk infirm man, but Srinivas has a bitter tale to tell. He suspects that the Howrah has been captured and sunk by Figge, a sinister figure in the Sydney Cove shipwreck. Joshua, as a “young lieutenant working as an aide to Governor Hunter” investigated the shipwreck and came to believe that Figge was responsible for the deaths of many of the survivors. Figge escaped before he could be brought to trial but since then Figge “was a tumour” in Joshua’s soul.
Srinivas, another survivor from the Sydney Cove shipwreck, claims that Figge has dogged him relentlessly over the years and, further, that every bad thing that has occurred in his life has somehow been orchestrated by Figge–a man who lurks near in the background and yet never shows himself. Srinivas argues that Joshua will be able to sniff out the truth about the missing ship and also be able to identify Figge if necessary.
Of course there so much wrong with this plan, but Joshua who is already in self-destructive mode fueled by a single minded drive for revenge agrees to go, and Eliza choses to accompany him on the trip.
The Burning Island is a rip-roaring adventure tale, but it’s not non-stop action. A great deal of the book’s focus is on the sea voyage and Serong’s evocative writing brings the wonder of the voyage to life. As expected, animals do not fare well in this tale and some sections were hard to read. As with many historical novels, there are some anachronisms, and Eliza’s character is somewhat unconvincing. There’s a captain who dresses in women’s clothes and I found this ridiculous, although it is explained later, and there’s a sleazy doctor on board the ship who seems a blend of Svengali and vivisectionist. The Great Reveal is screamingly obvious but then one of the book’s subthemes in blindness–literal and figurative. Finally, the sufferings of the aborigines under the guise of the steamroller of progress in well integrated into the tale.
Preservation concerns the Sydney Cove shipwreck and Joshua Grayling.
“You don’t want a world of absent gods. You want meaning and purpose.”
It’s rare for me to follow an author’s career, but I make an exception with Max Barry. There are two reasons for this:
his books are excellent
he’s evolved as a writer (more of that later)
Barry’s first novel was Syrup (1999), the tale of a young man who dreams up a new soft drink–only to find that his friend, Sneaky Pete, has trademarked the formula.
Then came the brilliantly imaginative Jennifer Government (2003)–sci-fi territory here. The novel is set in a dystopian future with the world ruled by corporations.
Company (2006) followed next. In some ways, this was a return of Syrup–lots of humour and lots more corporate malfeasance–and one of the funniest books I’ve ever read.
Machine Man (2011)–again a trip into the misty, harsh future. This is the story of a mechanical engineer who loses a leg in a work-related accident. One thing leads to another, and soon the engineer replaces all of this body parts with more efficient prostheses.
Lexicon(2013) delves into data collection and the annihilation of privacy with trained ‘persuaders’ who can ‘unlock’ the brain of any identified personality type.
And now Providence. I had this feeling that Barry was moving towards full-blown science fiction novel, and this is it. Makes my Best-of-Year list.
I’m going to say: think Alien on steroids. The novel begins with a team of four people preparing to head out into space in a three-mile long Providence battleship: their four-year long mission is to encounter and destroy an alien race called Salamanders. As the newly formed crew prep for the mission–which is a huge social media event–the team members watch footage of the hair raising encounter between humans and aliens that started the war. …
You knew what you’d be watching today but you weren’t prepared for it to feel like this, like it’s wrong to be here. And wrong not only because you know what’s going to happen, and not even because there are four people who need your help and you can’t give it, but wrong like you’re intruding. They’re about the experience the worst moment of their lives, and you’ve come to watch it.
It’s an incredible beginning to an incredible book. The plot concerns the journey into space of the battleship and its hunt for Salamanders, and while there’s a lot of down time between alien encounters, the heart-pounding, nail-biting tension never lets up. We know that this ship is headed into something big and gradually it becomes apparent that not all the crew members are privy to certain information.
In some ways the crew members may appear to be cliches, but it all makes sense as the plot continues. Captain Jackson survived a notorious Salamander attack and was broken by the experience. Unable to adjust to civilian life, she’s hostile to AI and much more willing to put her faith in decisions made by humans. Then there’s Life Officer, Talia Beanfield, the most popular member of the crew with 311 million people “following the clips, and quips of Life Officer Talia Beanfield as transmitted from her Providence-class battleship in an undisclosed but, trust me, incredibly dangerous part of space.”
Anders, the Weapons Officer who appears to be a brainless jock, is a man whose transgressive behavior would seem to have negated his position on the crew, and this raises the question as to why AI selected him for the mission. Finally there’s the Intel specialist, civilian, Gilly who is perfectly comfortable with AI, and yet he’s still ambushed by the ship’s abilities. When it comes to destinations and encounters, the ship makes the decisions, and after one hard skip, they are in the fighting zone. Two years into the mission, with kills mounting, the ship takes another hard skip into the Violet Zone “an area devoid of beacons and relays.” There will be no contact with earth. It’s a “long time to go dark.“
The realities and stresses of living on a space ship become evident over time. Life Officer Beanfield, who is privy to intelligence withheld from Gilly and Anders, is perhaps the best equipped emotionally to deal with the various emergencies and disasters that arise. Her intense training at Camp Zero, designed to motivate and manipulate the other crew members, involved playing various scenarios and role playing situations
They’d told her back at Camp Zero: You will be the most important person on the ship and no one will know it. It was true. It was so true.
Anders, the most volatile and unpredictable crew member, “couldn’t be left to his own devices. All his devices had built-in self-destructs.” Bored and frustrated by confinement and lack of relevance, seeking revenge for his brothers killed in the war, Anders goes into complete meltdown, wants to grab the guns and revert to destruction the only way he knows how. His actions have devastating consequences for the mission.
Gilly spends hours working on his theory that the aliens are learning from each encounter with the humans, only to realize that the ship’s AI system is way ahead of him. Gilly, who continues to hold firm to the idea that AI is superior to human intelligence, realizes that the ship will defend itself in unimagined ways. At one point in the novel, Beanfield and Gilly debate about the ship as an alternate life form. The Ship said “hello” when the crew boarded, and Gilly insists it’s a pre-programmed message, but as the mission continues, it becomes clear that the ship’s abilities are beyond human comprehension and therefore unpredictable.
Providence on one level is a story of man vs alien, but there’s a lot more at play here. The book examines the reliability and fallacies of both AI and human intelligence, while showing a war in which social media grants the crew members celebrity status which is pumped by edited transmissions back to home. It’s part reality TV for those at home and almost like a video game for those who think they operate the ship. Providence illustrates the place of human ingenuity in the world of AI; humans and AI share a fragile partnership.
One of the most marvelous things about this book is the way the crew members–all damaged in various ways–somehow manage to find what they are looking for, a sort of redemption. But as the old saying goes: be careful what you wish for. This is both a gripping and a haunting read.
Absolutely brilliant. Providenceis a spectacular, absorbing, relevant achievement.
I watched season 1 of Big Little Lies, and while it was entertaining, there were a couple of things that bothered me. How could someone in Jane’s income bracket afford to live in affluent Monterey? And I couldn’t see Rich-Mos like Renata and Celeste making friends with Jane, so I decided to see how the book handled these troublesome details. The book, it turns out, is set in Australia.
But for those one or two people who don’t know what I’m talking about, I’ll start at the beginning. Big Little Lies (the book) is set in the coastal town of Pirriwee, and begins with some horrible event. At first it’s not clear what has happened but we are given clues through the narrative and also through a series of interviews with the police. It’s then we learn that a murder has occurred on Trivia Night–an annual fundraiser which takes place at the school. Murder at an elementary school fundraiser? It boggles the mind. (Well there was that cheerleading thing in Texas….). Then the book goes back in time to six months before Trivia Night and moves forward.
The main gist of the story is the arrival in Pirriwee of Jane, a young single mother who has moved to this Australian coastal town with her 5 year old son Ziggy. On Orientation Day she meets Madeleine, the driven, outgoing alpha mother who’s married to Ed and has three children: 14-year-old Abigail (from a failed first marriage to Nathan). Fred and Chloe are her children with Ed.
All the trouble starts when Amabella, daughter of the wealthy Renata Klein says someone choked her, and then in front of the entire class, when prompted by the teacher, she points at Ziggy as the culprit. When school begins, Amabella is continually bullied, unobserved by the teachers, and one parent organizes a petition to boot Ziggy from the school. Opposing factions coalesce on the for/against side.
While the furor surrounding Ziggy is ostensibly the main thrust here, it’s a segue into the lives and culture of the parents. Certain children are popular. “Walking into school with Chloe was like walking arriving with a golden ticket,” and those sort of status relationships continue into adulthood; Renata for example has Harper for a groupie. Main characters are Jane, Madeline, Renata, Celeste (a woman who seems to have it all), and if we drop back a bit there’s Bonnie, Nathan’s new wife. As the plot unfolds, it’s clear that Jane isn’t ‘just’ a single mother–her child Ziggy is the result of an unsavory encounter Jane had with a stranger–an encounter which has permanently damaged her.
The novel tackles the subject of female friendship and competitiveness. Renata and Madeline, who are complete opposites, are natural antagonists. You have to laugh at the mothers who organise a support group for “parents of gifted children.” And of course, the group rubs those who don’t belong the wrong way.
Madeline imagined them all sitting in a circle, wringing their hands while their eyes shone with secret pride.
For those who’ve seen the series (I’ve seen series 1 & 2) there are some differences in the storylines. The book-version of Madeline is not as well off as she’s portrayed in the TV version, and her screen story is much more developed than in the book. I can see why Madeline’s screen story is developed as she’s a fantastic, witty, tart-mouthed character. Jane’s encounter with the father of Ziggy is also quite different. I’m not sure why the series version was altered from the book version–possibly because the book’s version of events is rather more complex.
Anyway, this was an entertaining read and my favorite sections concerned Madeline’s observations of Nathan and his new wife. It’s particularly galling for Madeline to see her ex Nathan and his second wife and their child at Pirriwee school. He walked out on Madeline when Abigail was a baby and provided no support. Now he appears to be a nauseatingly “upgraded version,” of a husband and father, going to Yoga, volunteering for the homeless. To Madeline, Bonnie who is into “yoga and chakras” and who probably gave “organic blow jobs,” doesn’t seem like a real person:
Even though she’d known Bonnie for years now, even though they’d had a hundred civil conversations, she still didn’t seem like a real person . She felt like a caricature to Madeline. It was impossible to imagine her doing anything normal. Was she ever grumpy? Did she ever yell? Fall about laughing? Eat too much? Drink too much? Call out for someone to bring her toilet paper? Lose her car keys? Was she ever just a human being? Did she ever stop talking in that creepy, singsong yoga teacher voice?
While this may seem like a ‘beach read’ (and it is highly readable, btw) there are a lot of truisms here. Bullying, dominance, status, parenting and control are all examined here, and author Liane Moriarty knows how to weave suspense. When the book opens, it seems entirely possible that the violence on Trivia Night exploded between some of the mothers, and the tension between Renata’s supporters and Madeline’s supporters could certainly, plausibly, reach the level of violence, but for those of us who’ve seen the series, we know the violence has another root cause.
“You Australians are mysterious people, no one would guess that this is a place where people can also suffer. It is the constant sunshine, it hides everything but itself.”
The Women in Black in Madeleine St John’s wonderful, tightly written novel are a handful of women who work in Sydney’s Goode’s Department Store. The novel is set in the 50s; the women who work at Goode’s are required to wear black dresses, and these are still the days of “frocks,” “model gowns,” spinsters, and WWII refugees floating up as flotsam and jetsam in Sydney’s society.
The novel begins in November with two of the main characters: employees Mrs Patty Williams and Miss Fay Baines. Christmas is on the horizon and a young girl named Leslie Miles, who changes to her name to Lisa for her application to Goode’s, is employed for the busy Christmas and New Year’s seasons. Leslie/Lisa is a shy introverted, intelligent girl who has just taken her exit exams at school and who longs to go to university. The final main character is the glamorous Magda, “a Continental” from Slovenia, who takes Lisa under her wing, pays her attention, and introduces her to a wider, exotic world.
Both Patty Williams and Fay Baines have their private miseries and disappointments. Patty is married to Frank: a “bastard of the standard-issue variety, neither cruel nor violent, merely insensitive and inarticulate.” Patty wants a child but that isn’t likely to happen as Frank is more interested in a night at the pub and a pint with his mates than sex with his wife.
Fay Baines is 28 and after a few unsatisfactory relationships with men, she’s come to a dead end in her life. She goes out at night with her friend Myra but Fay keeps meeting the same sort of men who want a good time and are not interested in marriage or a relationship.
Somehow the sight of Fay was not one that inspired thoughts about marriage, and this was grievous, for Fay wished for nothing else: which was natural, everything considered. Meanwhile men were forever getting the wrong idea
Then one night, Fay has an epiphany:
The fact was that Fay had had a dislocating experience on Saturday night: she had been at a party given by one of Myra’s cronies in a flat at Potts Point and she had suddenly, for no reason, become aware just before midnight that she was wasting her time: that she had in a sense met every one of the men there before, at every other party she had ever attended, and that she was tired of the whole futile merry-go-round: and what was worse than this, much, much worse, was that there was no other merry-go-round she could step onto
Over just a few weeks, amazing things happen in the lives of Patty, Fay and Lisa. Lisa, who comes from a narrow yet loving home, longs to be a poet, and is reading Anna Karenina. The book passes to Fay and she discovers that there’s more to life than parties and men who insist in groping her.
Women in Black explores the lives of a handful of women as they move to the next phases of their lives. Magda, her husband Stefan and his friend, Rudi, live in a parallel universe to their Australian acquaintances, and some of the book’s best scenes take place between these immigrants who, as they learn to adapt, have a great deal of ambition, and enthusiasm, combined with the outsiders’ view of Australian society:
“Give me you opinion of the cake, anyway,” said Rudi to Lisa. “I must say that in Melbourne, where I have been living so miserably, there are at least many better cakeshops than here”
“In Melbourne, they have more need of cake,” said Stefan, “having more or less nothing else.”
While the lives of Fay, Patty and Lisa are about to change, there’s the underlying idea that Lisa’s way forward is a change for Australian women in general. Lisa’s mother, another wonderful character, loves and supports her daughter, but the two females are subject to Mr. Miles who has yet to be convinced that it’s ‘worth’ spending the money to send a girl to university. The sea change for women is seen through the remark made by the “mysterious” Miss Jacobs, another employee of Goode’s.
A clever girl is the most wonderful thing in all creation you know: you must never forget that. People expect men to be clever. They expect girls to be stupid or silly. , which very few girls really are, but most girls oblige them by acting like it. So you just go away and be as clever as ever you can: put their noses out of joint for them. It’s the best thing you could possibly do, you and all the clever girls in this city and the world.
Honour& Other People’s Children from Australian author Helen Garner presents two novellas about break ups. Of the two stories, I much preferred Honour. Other People’s Children seemed to lack the focus of Honour, and while on the surface it sounded interesting (relationships between people in a shared house) the story lacked a sharp focus, and I couldn’t quite grasp a sense of the characters.
Honour, on the other hand, is an good, albeit painful read. Kathleen and Frank are married, and have a child, Flo, together. They are amicably separated for years when one day, Frank abruptly asks for a divorce. He tells Kathleen that “it won’t be any different between us. Just on paper.” For her part, Kathleen asks “what’s put this into your head?” It’s not really a ‘what’ as much as a ‘who,’ and Frank rather weakly admits that it’s his girlfriend Jenny’s idea which rather sneakily puts this decision between the two women in Frank’s life while he shrugs off responsibility.
Frank’s decision to ask for a divorce … no, it’s Jenny’s idea right and Frank is just going with the flow, puts new tensions into the relationships between Kathleen, Frank and Jenny. This soon becomes apparent when Kathleen goes to Jenny’s home to pick up Flo and runs into Jenny. This is a first meeting.
They did not perceive their striking similarity; they both made emphatic gestures and grimaces in speech, stressed certain words ironically, cast their eyes aside in mid-sentence as if a sustained gaze might burn the listener. Around each of them quivered an aura of terrific restraint. If they both let go at once, they might blow each other out of the room.
Trouble follows when Flo announces that she wants to live with Frank and Jenny. There’s one wonderful scene when Kathleen and Frank, with Jenny as the awkward third party, take a trip down memory lane with shared reminiscences. What follows is purely territorial with Frank and Kathleen excluding Jenny. I don’t know Jenny put up with it, but then payback comes later.
Divorce… I always laugh when people tell me they are going through an amicable divorce. They just haven’t got to the bad bit yet. But perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps I’ve just NEVER seen an amicable divorce. Perhaps they exist between reasonable people, and here in Honour, we see how these two women, forget Frank because he’s largely clueless, or at least pretends to be clueless, carve out their territory. Honour seems very real. Long term separated spouses are shaken up when a third person enters the equation and wants more. All the characters have to reconfigure their roles and some of the moves are petty, some are poignant and all are sad.
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