Hello and Welcome

My name is Gabriella and I’m a librarian, writer and voracious reader of anything I can get my hands on (which fits in nicely with the first two). I routinely read over twenty books each week, and often get asked why I don’t review more of them. Of course, many of those books are unmemorable, but every so often one stays in my mind. Some, I absolutely loved, some I hated (Chauvinists touting their rules of conquest shall not be named)  some I hated because I had loved the writer’s previous work and sat there thinking ‘what the hell happened?!?!?’, and others I didn’t like much to begin with but the more I thought about them, the more insightful I found them to be. ALL of those books I felt deserved more than a few lines on Facebook, so here I am. Welcome to the Black Swan Book Corner. Kick back, grab a tea (or coffee, if you’re that way inclined… blasphemer) and I hope you find something that intrigues you enough to read the book!

The Troy Games Quadrilogy – Sara Douglass

Such potential from a home-grown author. Sara Douglass’s Troy Games quadrilogy is a fascinating concept – a small group of men and women, dating at least as far back as Ancient Greece, reborn multiple times in the bodies of some of the most powerful men (and women) of their age in an attempt to start and finish something called the ‘Troy Game’. Douglass weaves historical figures like Brutus, William the Conqueror and Charles II into a three thousand page narrative that reads as if it was written in one sitting, the foreshadowing and consistencies so seamless it’s hard to believe it’s not one big book.

But, oh, the misogyny. I wouldn’t have believed a woman capable of such misogyny had I not plugged through all three thousand pages, namely hoping to find out if Cornelia and Coel, in one incarnation or another, end up together. (Spoiler alert if that’s you’re only reason for plugging away: they don’t.)

The Game captures an evil that in the first book is embodied as Asterion, the minotaur. The game mistress, his half-sister Ariadne, betrays him for her lover Theseus, who then betrays her when he decides he has no further use for her. Now, betraying the witch/goddess who gave you the power to defeat your enemies seems kinda dumb, but who am I to question the logic of ancient kings? Ariadne places a curse on Theseus that winds its way through most of the Ancient world. Theseus takes no responsibility for that, of course.

1100 BC, of thereabouts. Brutus, Trojan leader and all-around brute, takes Cornelia for his wife and is surprise and resentful that Cornelia doesn’t much like being taken by force. The combination of Brutus’s distrust of his new wife, his inclination to listen to advisors who have a vested interest in ousting Cornelia and Cornelia’s niave, spoilt nature means neither of them are able to build the relationship that they could have. This allows Genvissa, the descendant of Ariadne and inheritor of the position of gamesmistress, to use dark magic to worm her way into Brutus’s soul. With Brutus as her Kingman, she plans on rebuilding a new game. This is bad news, folks.

Genvissa is threatened by the power Cornelia wields, although Cornelia herself doesn’t realise it til well into the second book, and does all she can to turn Brutus against his wife through visions and his own lust. Book One ends tragically for everyone involved, although I felt the most sympathy for Cornelia, whose main crime seemed to be her ignorance and a little entitlement. Given what Brutus and Genvissa did to her, by comparison that’s no crime at all.

In Book Two, they’re reborn towards the end of the first millennia – Brutus as William the Conqueror, his merciless ambition and cruelty somewhat tempered by his love for Matilda (William’s real wife). Cordelia is Caela, wife of King Harold (not his real wife). Genvissa is reborn as a woman nicknamed Swan for her great beauty, wife to a nobleman whose name I forget but who is Coel reborn. This nobleman is also Caela’s brother, making her Swan’s sister-in-law and causing much glee for Swan/Genvissa in knowing that Cornelia and Coel, the lovers who just wanted to be left in peace, are reborn as siblings.

Swan is a cruel, malicious woman still determined to start the game and enjoy the glory of being its mistress as the side of William. William’s ambition is already tempered by his love for Matilda, a force so powerful that apparently she joins the orbit of people being reborn, as Henrietta to his Charles in the seventeenth-century. But I get ahead of myself.

Here is where the misogyny really starts to show. Brutus/William gets to find redemption through love and good deeds, but Swan is as nasty as ever, possibly nastier, since she’s been stewing about her demise at Cornelia’s hands for the past thousand years.

As Caela becomes aware of who she was, she also becomes aware of the power she wields through her various bloodlines. Brutus/William comes to make amends to her, acknowledging their past life marriage could have been easier had their communicated better with one another, and that his desire for power made her vulnerable to Genvissa’s violence and cruelty, only to discover that Caela now wields a power far greater than his. He is furious to discover this, and comes across as a man who only wants to make it right with a woman he hurt so long as he still has power over that woman… which is really no amends at all.

Asterion is more than Swan’s match in cruelty, seeking to destroy the hearts and minds of Genvissa/Swan and Cornelia/Caela for as much his own amusement as his actual desire to bring about his own rule. Swan is brought low by brutal abuse, and she and Caela end the book both implanted with Asterion’s subucus by the end of the book.

Book three. Swan is reborn in seventeenth century England as Jane Orr, Asterian her brother Weyland. Weyland put Jane into service as a prostitute as a young age, and by the time the book opens, she is badly scarred from syphilis and of use only as a maid. She and Cornelia/Caela, now Noah, are still impregnanted by the subuccus, and Asterion/Weyland using the imps to control the women, enjoying the pain it causes them.

But Weyland gets his redemption, as he and Noah gradually come to understand each other better, and his tragic backstory is used to frame his atrocious behaviour. Note that Genvissa doesn’t get such a redemptive arc, but the raping, murdering, subbucus-implanting men do.

And this is the main issue I have with the series. It is brilliantly written, weaving real people and events into speculative fantasy seamlessly, as seamlessly as the way four books were written as if they were one three thousand page tome. I actually liked the redemptive arcs that were given to Asterion and Brutus throughout their various reincarnations, but I hated the graphic brutality that was meshed out to Cornelia and Swan/Jane, and the fact Genvissa and her reincarnations never got her own redemptive arc. The moral seems to be: brutal men have their reasons for being brutal; brutal women are just bitches.

(All of which I still may have forgiven if Cornelia and Coel had been given their happily ever after. I’m going to be salty about that for a while.)

There is a lot to recommend about this series, which I’ve outlined. But the misogyny is hard to stomach, and I wouldn’t have bothered reading all four books had I known how it ended.

Read it (at least the first book) and make up your own mind.

Well Behaved Women – Emily Paull

I worked briefly with Perth writer Emily Paull at the end of 2017, and wish I’d spent more time with her, because her debut novel, Well Behaved Women, is an insightful, if often heartbreaking, look at a collection of women who have lost pieces of themselves, both literally and metaphorically, in the quest to appease the patriarchy. It is a series of vignettes, telling the stories of women such as:

  •  Katerina, record-breaking free diver and all-around aquatic legend who disappears under her son’s watch one day. It could have been suicide, it could have been an accident caused by recklessness that was in turn caused by a desire to escape, it could have truly been an unfortunate but not uncommon demise in a dangerous sport.
  • Nicole, a promising young actress who is terrorised by her drama coach Polly, a woman who takes it upon herself to instruct the actresses under her tutelage, sometimes brutally, in how cruel an industry it is for women.
  • Grace, a woman caught up in an affair with her sixty-something professor, old enough to consent, too young to have a clue how she’s being manipulated by a man with more experience than she has years on the planet.
  • Jenny, a woman who was groomed in her early thirties to be the kind of woman her late-thirties future husband wanted in a wife. She loses herself to his self-centred ambition and then loses him when he decides she’s not longer trophy enough for him. And he reneges on a key part of the divorce settlement – agreed in spirit, but of course not on paper – which to me felt like the greatest injury of all.
  • Peggy, a dental hygienist working on a novel, only to discover that another (female) writer at her publishing house came up with a very similar concept – verbatim enough to be considered plagiarism in spirit, not enough for it to hold up in court. No one cares – it’s just women writing, what does it matter who gets the credit?

These are about half the stories, all self-contained, that Paull uses to illustrate the myriad of ways in which women can relinquish parts of themselves to be the titular ‘well behaved women’. They are frequently heartbreaking and unnerving because of how close to home they can hit; I’m sure most of us know someone who has experienced a similar story, if we haven’t been that woman ourselves.

I do not want to belittle the effect of the book by adding that Paull adds a distinctly Perth/southwest Australian flavour to the book, with references to day trip to Rottnest Island and weekends to Bunbury and Denmark, with one story focusing on music festival Groovin the Moo. (I just found out it happens in places other than Bunbury; I always thought it was a WA thing, the way some devotees carry on about it.) Perhaps this is what made it that much more unnerving and heartbreaking to me; Paull may very well have based some of her stories on things she’d heard and people she knew over the years, and I may very well have known some of those people, or at least people like them; women like them.

The Other Windsor Girl – Georgie Blalock

In The Other Windsor Girl, Georgie Blalock follows the life of a young Princess Margaret through the eyes of romance writer-turned-courtier (didn’t even know that term still existed!) Vera Strathmore. Vera runs into Margaret at one of the parties and gatherings the younger sister is always attending, and amusing Margaret with a piece of gossip she stumbled onto. Margaret decides she likes the witty young woman and takes her under her wing, ostensibly as a friend, but as Vera discovers, Margaret was too in need of sycophants to ever truly have friends, because that would imply an equal take. (Does giving royal blessing and taking time and energy count as equality?)

The book starts in the war years, though the bulk of it is set around Margaret’s relationship with Peter Townsend, and then Anthony Armstrong-Jones. The Netflix series The Crown has tackled Margaret and Townsend’s relationship with great sympathy, and Blalock’s take is that they both realised they were too selfish to make the sacrifices two people in their position would have had to in order to stay together; this retelling of events confirms my research that argues when it came down to it, Margaret preferred to stay in her gilded cage than fly free, giving up Townsend rather than giving up her royal privlidge.

I’ve always thought – as much as someone can when talking about people you never knew who have been dead for years – that Margaret would eventually have been unhappy with Townsend, would have been unhappy with anyone, because she struggled with the idea that a good relationship is an equal exchange of time, energy and care. Throughout the book, her ‘friends’, including Vera, understand that their role is to soothe and boost her up in return for the privileges of being in her inner circle. All of them, including Vera, ultimately leave that circle in order to get married, have careers, do things and have relationships that are more equal than being a courtier to an unhappy princess.

Blalock tempers this selfishness with the recognition that Margaret would have been a very lonely woman, the skills – her intellect, her vivaciousness – that could have made her a success in her own right in a different set of circumstances wasted on being the Queen’s younger sister, instead creating a woman who was deeply resentful about her lost opportunities. Blalock maintains a fine balance between sympathy for such woman and contempt for a bird who chose to stay in their gilded cage.

Margaret’s relationship with Armstrong-Jones is treated with all the foreboding you would expect of something that died a long, painful, public death. You just know that someone who cheats so openly is not going to make a good husband, let alone a royal one, and that Margaret will soon tire of making concessions to his lesser status and income, even his height. Her relationship with Armstrong-Jones is interwoven with all the ‘what ifs’ in regards to Townsend. Being the woman she was, her relationship with Townsend would probably have ended, and ended badly, as well, but I could empathise with never knowing how the love of your life would have played out, had it been let play out.

A fascinating insight to a woman who had so much to give the world and so little platform to give it; perhaps the scandals and destruction of her life could be attributed to all that energy that had no place to go and instead turned inwards.

The Grace Year – Kim Liggett

The Grace Year was a recommendation for my SFF bookclub, though I wouldn’t actually call it a fantasy novel; I would group it with books like The Handmaid’s Tale and Only Ever Yours.   (Though I can see how comparisons to The Hunger Games and The Power were made.)

Kim Liggett’s novel is set in an agricultural society where women are banished at sixteen to work their way through their ‘magic’ so they aren’t a danger to themselves or their future husbands when they return, ie, docile women. The groups never returns in tact, and protagonists Tierney James’s narrative makes it apparent how quickly the girls turn on each other in a bid to come out top of the heap – which just means subservient to the most powerful man in the village and hoping said man will never tire of and discard them.

I don’t consider this fantasy because there doesn’t appear to be any real magic, just a deeply misogynistic culture desperate to keep women down, despite of – or perhaps because of – the fact they are out-numbers two to one. And it’s damn effective, because these girls and women never realise their advantage, or at least never utilise it. There are incidents of wives being accused of unnatural things in order to be executed so their husbands can have a new wife, or because they have something else coveted, or because they dare to carve out what life of truth they can in a world build on the idea that women are dangerous and need to be contained and submissive.

What was particularly noteworthy was how effectively the girls and women police themselves, perpetuating the myth that they are dangerous, desperate to eke out whatever power they can nab from the crumbs the men swept off the table. It’s a reminder that a lot of what we call ‘catty’ and ‘bitchy’ behaviour often stems from being forced to compete for extremely limited resources because another group commandeered the lion’s share and is now using that free-for-all over the scraps as an example of why women can’t be trusted.

In the end, Tierney’s reprieve comes through the protection of a man who loves her enough to ‘overlook’ her misdemeanours, without factoring in how harsh the penalty is for such infractions, or trying to reshape society into something more equitable.  It just drives home how much these girls and women are at the mercy of men prepared to stick their necks out if they care enough; if they don’t, well, tough luck on those women.

(An interesting aside; it was brought up in that bookclub that the protagonists of a lot of YA SFF are teenagers, but that it’s easy to forget that because they think, talk and act so much older. I wonder if this is just a trope of YA SFF or it’s because the character have often been forced from babyhood to take on responsibilities and wisdom far beyond what you would expect of a Western teenager.)

An interesting read, though not quite at the level of the titles it’s been compared to.

The Rich Man’s House – Andrew McGahan

It’s not often I find two engaging reads in such quick succession; The Rich Man’s House literally had me up til midnight, thinking I could finish the remaining 200 pages in 30 minutes… and then suddenly it was two hours later.

The Rich Man’s House is set in a slightly alternative reality where the highest peak is south of the Tasmania’s coast, a tectonic plate that, over millions of years was flipped on its side and pushed upwards to over twenty-five kilometres (Everest sits at a little over ten.) It mentions esteemed climbers like Edmund Hillary and George Mallory who are now only well known within climbing circles because they never summited The Wheel, despite both still summitting Everest and both dying in the attempt to summit The Wheel. The only man to enjoy that privilege is selfish, greedy, underhanded billionaire Walter Richman (I see what McGahan did there!) who comes across as a Donald Trump expy – devious, lying, pathologically selfish and self absorbed in his quest to satisfy his ego and hedonism.

Rita Gausse is the daughter of a famed architect who is sought out by Richman at her father’s funeral. Intrigued, she agreed to a retreat at Richman’s mansion, built into The Wheel. Richman acquired the exclusive rights to the mountain through nefarious means; McGahan clearly has an axe to grind with the obscenely wealthy and the way they spend their money (don’t hugely blame him on that score); his house is basically a nine-figure monstrosity built on the side of the biggest mountain in the world because he could. In another scene, he spends a hundred million dollars on a fireworks show for six people… because he could.

(Seriously, Richman sounds like someone took Trump and made him even more arrogant, devious and unlikeable. You really have to read it to understand how that’s possible.)

The book weaves in the history of The Wheel, including its high rates of death, attributed to the nature of working, well, against nature, but with hints of something more sinister afoot. Rita has a sixth sense, a knack with what she calls ‘presences’, dawn-of-time type energies who are poisoned by human interaction, some of whom respond very violently by those interactions. Rita made a career out of appeasing and sending off such energies, although she burnt out in a cloud of cocaine and LSD; now Richman wants her to get to the bottom of the malevolent forces causing so many violent, inexplicable deaths on ‘his’ mountain. 

There are references to famed Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and the refusal of him and his team to work on the mountain, to the point Richman then banned all Sherpas in retaliation; Norgay’s justification is that there was something different, not right about The Wheel that he had not encountered with any other mountain. Norgay is the smartest person in the book for being the only one whose self of self preservation was greater than his ego. 

This is one of the most engaging reads I have consumed in some time; and I do mean consume, as I was tempted to blow off multiple commitments that day (I was reading it half an hour at a time on public transport) and stayed up til after midnight reading it. Don’t come whinging to me if you don’t get any sleep!

Dark Matter – Barty Crouch

What a ride!

Barty Crouch’s Dark Matter can be a little confusing to follow to begin with, which is entirely the point with such concepts, as it makes much better sense when you have the whole picture, and that whole picture tends to fall into place somewhere between the halfway mark and the final chapter. It reminded me a lot of Ben Elton’s Time and Time Again in that regard (though minus Elton’s cynical wit, unfortunately.)

Jason Dessen is an ordinary physics professor at a local university who is kidnapped one night for no apparent reason, only to wake up somewhere where he is a celebrated scientists. He stumbles around, trying to make sense of things while having no answers to the questions like where has he been for the last eight months (to the best of his knowledge, with his wife Daniella and their son), eventually being clued in by one of his colleagues. Apparently he built a box which allows the person inside it to shift dimensions, that every choice he (and by extension, everyone) makes leads to a fork in the road that creates different dimensions, a potentially infinite number of them. Jason has been switched dimensions with another Jason, and needs to find his way back. Off he and his ‘colleague’ go, trying to get back to Daniella.

Dark Matter is actually less a scifi read then a love story – it’s about Jason trying to get back to Daniella, knowing he has limited resources with unlimited choices. It’s about the choices we make that end us up where we are; one Jason chose to settle down in the face of an unexpected pregnancy, while another walked away from the relationship to pursue scientific discovery. I doubt any of us have not, at some point, wondered what may have come of us had we taken one option over the other all those years ago.

By the end of the book, there are several dozen (at least!) Jasons, all of whom have a valid ‘claim’ to Daniella, and it poses some interesting philosophical and moral questions over who ‘gets’ to be with her. (The way this was resolved appealed to my feminist values.) Because only two Jasons are really fleshed out, and one of them has a far better ‘claim’ than the other, it’s difficult to have a lot of empathy for the other Jasons, who all went through hell, some worse than our protagonist narrator, although I’m not sure how Crouch could have resolved that without dedicating another hundred pages to a series of internal dialogues and making their voices distinct enough that we felt we were reading about different men. Certainly, that is beyond my own talents as a writer, so I feel I can’t criticise the lack of what I myself can’t do.

Overall, a very gripping read. It took me a while to get into, but that’s typical of such books where the reader initially feel quite confused and has to glean information from casual comments from various characters. I actually prefer this type of narrative than an information dump as the payoff is a more engaged read… it’s just difficult to get into to start off with, but worth sticking it out for.

Prick With a Fork – Larissa Dubecki

Prick With a Fork are the memoirs of self-confessed world’s-worst-waitress-turned-food-critic Larissa Dubecki. There were moments through out book where I found myself chuckling at her succinct, witty and sometimes bitchy summary of the hospitality industry – the establishments (from juice bars through to fine dining) the staff and its hierarchies and, of course, the customers. One of my favourite parts included the fact that the rate of gluten intolerance in western cultures currently stands at about 1%, but the number claiming to be gluten intolerant is more like 10%, so the remaining 9% are either lying or too stupid to understand what intolerance is. It is Dubecki’s wish that, if she ever gets to run the world, no-one gets to muck around with restaurant dishes on the basis of ‘dietary considerations’ unless they can produce a medical certificate or are willing to duke it out with the Head Chef.

(I once had a co-worker who had a customer insist that they were coeliac, please make sure there is no gluten whatsoever near my plate, multiple times… and proceeded to order a beer. Guy got into an argument with co-worker about beer not containing gluten. Co-worker at this point was so pissed off at the guy’s complete lack of understanding as to what ‘coeliac’ and ‘gluten’ meant that she not only refused him his beer but told every last bartender not to serve him, either.)

There are some very funny stories about various scams and the inevitable culture of hook-ups and bust-ups that happens in a high-pressure environment that has anti-social hours. I have to admit, she made some valid points about children in dining establishments, although she compared them to socialising dogs – they need to be trained from an early age so they don’t grow up believing making a mess where you stand is acceptable – that, perhaps, might make me adapt a little more patients to the rugrats who make my establishment look and sound like downtown Falluja on a Friday evening. (Though it’s entirely possibly that, next Friday evening, I will be cursing them out to my co-workers once more.)

Dubecki is now a food critic – which has its own share of funny stories that takes up the end quarter of the book, much of it about how much more attentive the staff are when they realise who you are. To paraphrase her, you can’t polish a turd, but you can roll it in glitter. She is married to a restaurant owner, and, despite her snarkiness, clearly has affection for the industry. She may have moved to another area of hospitality, but she’s still a lifer.

The Farm – Joanne Ramos

Joanne Ramos’s debut novel, The Farm, is set in a slightly dystopian near-future where automation (and the subsequent unemployment) and the willingness (and legal ability) for the rich to buy the labours of the poor and ratcheted up a notch; namely, super-wealthy women and couples (mostly Chinese and American) are buying surrogates (namely Filipino, though highly educated American Reagan is in high demand) who stay in a self-supporting compound and are pretty much at the whims of the wealthy clients who have paid for the use of their bodies as incubators.

Ramos weaves existing issues regarding surrogacy (the ethics of paying for such a service, the question of autonomy in regards to the surrogate vs the biological parents) into a near-future setting where such things can be legally documented, up to and including an involuntary abortion (at the biological parent’s request) because the foetus has been flagged for abnormalities that the parents are not interested in their child possessing. The surrogate doesn’t get a say, and this is largely where The Farm becomes unstuck. Having such a procedure done on you against your will, even if it is not your child, legally or biologically, ought to be jarringly horrific (sometimes scenes from Only Ever Yours still pop into my head) but instead come across as… well, that kinda sucked, but the girl did sign up for it. And the point that most of the surrogates are poor Fillipino women whose only ‘skills’ are their young, fertile bodies should have made me want to find someone else who had read it to discuss the implications of indentured servitude with, but instead made me feel like, eh, it sucks, but they were well paid for what they did.

(At least, they should have been; as the novel goes on and our educated surrogate Reagan starts asking questions, it becomes clear just what conditions have to be fulfilled to get the bonus. Hint: miscarriage or forced termination don’t meet those conditions.)

And while the conditions the women live in are luxurious, with the aim to make them as healthy as possible, they are also severely limited, with a main character Jane’s ability to see her daughter based on the whims of her Client. It should have been an interesting contrast between the wants of the person paying a premium for a service versus the needs and desires of the person whose body it is that largely feels very bland and unexplored. And it felt like a very pat ending for what should have been a complex story with a myriad of ethical issues; Reagan and Jane go off to live with The Farm’s organiser, who… had a change of heart… or something… but they tied up all the loose ends, folks!

I feel this will be a book that, when I skim this review in a year, or even a few months, I’ll barely remember it. Which is precisely why I’m writing this review. It was a great concept that had the potential to create a great discussion on wealth disparity and women’s only value lying in their young, fertile bodies (or at least the baby-whispering skills they acquired while they were making use of their young, fertile bodies). Shame it fizzled out into such an uninteresting end.

Identity Crises – Ben Elton

Ben Elton’s humour has all the subtlety of a brick; this is, after all, a guy who has collaborate with Rowan Atkinson. And I usually like that about him; he mocks the very things he embraces. (I still wistfully think of the witty, sarcastic literary baby he might have made with Jackie Collins.) He takes pot-shots at establishments that really need to have a few pot-shots taken at them. And my issue with his latest offering, Identity Crises, is that it takes pot-shots at a cause close to my heart, the #metoo movement.

Identity Crises follows ‘amiable, old-school’ detective Mick Matlock as he attempts to unravel a series of seemingly unrelated events. The first victim, a transgender male-to-female named Sammy, gets him into all sorts of trouble as first he suggests women be more vigilant when walking alone in parks, and then omitting the fact that Sammy is discovered to be pre-operation in the autopsy. (He would have faced the same level of backlash had he revealed it, thereby making an issue of it.) Elton is gleeful in taking the mick – no pun intended, although Elton may have intended it – of gender fluidity and its changing terms that get all but the most up-to-date Millennials in trouble for mis-speaking, however well-intentioned they may have been, eventually.

Then there is Jemina, a booted Love Island contestant* who cries non-consent retroactively; she consented at the time, see, when she thought it would save her getting booted off the island, but when the guy she fooled around with cut her anyway, well, that’s nonconsent by stealth. I get the ludicrousness of such a claim amid far more tragic and traumatic real-life examples, and I get that Elton was taking pot-shots at the kind of people who corrupt well-intentioned movements for their own petty gain, but the blanket dismissal of the #metoo movement felt incredibly disrespectful.

Then there’s Rodney Watson, a period actor who longs to be the next Colin Firth but acts closer to the next Jimmy Savile. He latches onto the #metoo movement for his own gain, see-sawing between acting deeply sympathetic towards victims for the cameras (while feeling up every pretty, subordinate woman he comes across) and lambasting the media for wanting to posthumously prosecute the likes of Samuels Pepys. Again, I get it – Elton is mocking those who exploit movements designed to hold them accountable – but Watson is just so damn creepy that you get some semblance of relief from his comeuppance.

The whole story is tied together with an overarching faux-Brexit, Russian meddling and fake news theme. The characters (those of whom make it to the final page) all get what’s coming to them. There’s a delightfully snide reference to our youth-obsessed culture and a twenty-five-year-old actress being too old to play speaker of the house.

I suspect my issues with the book are personal ones. I have had no issue when Elton takes his brand of humour and savages talent shows (Chart Throb) the one percent (Meltdown) or the culture of guns and violence (Popcorn). Which raises the question – do I simply not like it when Elton takes potshots at the things I cherish, or should something like #metoo me above mocking?

I’ll leave it as unresolved as Elton’s own attitudes in the book.

*Could not work out if it was a ‘real’ portrayal of the reality show or a hybrid of all the worst of them.

The Secret Runners of New York – Matthew Reilly

I enjoyed The Secret Runners of New York far more than I ought to have, but I went in with expectation of a light action YA novel and was not disappointed in that regard. Secrets follows the adventures of Skye Rogers as she navigates her way though one of New York’s elite high schools, complete with a clique of mean girls that would fit in nicely on the set of Gossip Girl… just with more money. One of those Mean Girls* inducts Skye into their family secret, a portal that transports them to some point in the future via an amber heirloom held by Chief Mean Girl. The characters have no issues entering and exiting the portal, though it has a weird age limit (15-18) and seems to know if the person falls outside that. Interesting idea but not really explained, and Reilly was never great at cobbling together science to justify his ideas.

Sky and her brother Red manage to work out that the future is 2040 (if Damon Gameau survives, he’s gonna be disappointed) and that gamma cloud that conspiracy theorists have been yammering on about is not only a real catastrophe in the making that will wipe out about 99.5% of the population (with survivors mostly being already unhinged) but will do so in the next few days. We learn the extent of the devastation through newspapers from 2019 that Skye finds in 2040 and the stories of the few survivors that aren’t crazy, plus the titbit that a lot of the casualties were caused prior to the gamma cloud, a kind of worldwide French Revolution, 2019 style (assault weapons may have been involved). Thanks to the Mean Girls, whose selfishness and short-sightedness would have been horrific had it not been so two-dimensional, Skye spends much of the book stuck in 2040 trying to get back to warn/save people. Will she succeed? Have you red a Matthew Reilly book before?

I cannot emphasise enough that to call Reilly a pulp fiction writer doesn’t really do justice to how white bread his books are, and Runners was no exception. He drops the ball on his portrayal of teenage girls, but given this is a guy who writes very two-dimensionally, it was nothing new to me.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and feel Reilly is better suited to stand alone novels than series. I’ve liked the Seven Ancient Wonders series but it definitely feels in places like he’s running out of steams. (Also, his books aren’t that memorable, so five books over more than as many years can  make it difficult to remember the plot.)

*I read the book two days ago and have already forgotten most of the names. That’s how memorable it was, though it was damn enjoyable at the time.