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!

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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.

A Tumultuous Life – Brian Burke

A Tumultuous Life is Brian Burke’s autobiography, and as such, ought to be approached with the same caution you would any autobiography; it’s a genre that, even in the hands of the most self-reflective subjects, is still incredibly prone to bias. None of us wants to address our flaws and mistakes. Having said that, I found Life to be a reasonably even-handed account of Burke’s life (by the standards of high bias that autobiographies bring). And if nothing else, I cannot fault the man for his devotion to his wife and family, the adoring way he speaks about Sue (and the fact that, decades later, he still can’t believe she deigned to go out with him) is quite charming.

Life reads like a who’s-who of political, financial and social figures in Western Australia in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. He relationship with Julian Grill comes across more like BFFs than comrades-in-arms. His assessments of figures like Alan Bond, Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, Carmen Lawrence, Robert Holmes a Court and Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest seem reasonably balance in a genre where a lot of political memories amount to ‘x is a saint and their opponent y is the devil incarnate’. I found his claim of Bill Shorten to possess excellent leadership skills to be somewhat premature (the book was published in 2018) and would have liked greater insights into the Rudd/Gillard dynamics, though I get that particular power play went down long after he had left politics.

Now for the elephant in the room: WA Inc. Understandably, given the nature of the book, Burke’s position is that he inherited a corrupt mess from Ray O’Connor (who also got caught up in WA Inc) and got the blame in part because a long-simmering issue finally blew its top on his watch and in part because those supporting O’Conner’s government resented having their unearned privileges away. (Burke was very sympathetic of Gillard’s fight with the industries sector which amounted to ‘let us keep our low tax rate or we’ll destroy you.) He claims any unearned allowance, either that he shouldn’t have got in the first place or was reimbursed twice, was the result of careless bookkeeping as opposed to malicious greed. Again, this is his autobiography, so who knows what really happened, but overall I found his explanations to be reasonable, especially in light of the fact his makes a valid point that so many politicians have been caught out doing similar things in recent years that have been resolved by paying the money back and promising to be more circumspect in what they claim for.

I feel he was far too generous in his opinion of Alan Bond, focusing on the man who ‘unbolted the America’s Cup’ rather than the high-level fraud. Given how critical he was of Robert Holmes a Court for similar behaviour, I am curious where such a forgiving attitude of Bond came from. I realise the America’s Cup thing and Bond’s larrikan-type public persona did a lot for some people, but Burke’s flattering portrayal of him seemed excessive.

Burke is hugely critical of Richard Court and feels his prosecution was more of a persecution at the hands of a Liberal government determined to tarnish his legacy. What I found interesting was that Burke’s opinion of various Premiers doesn’t seem to be tied to their political party; he didn’t like Court, but he didn’t like Lawrence either, and held Gallop in high regard. His partisan attitudes do a lot, in my opinion, in overcoming the natural bias that comes from being an autobiography.

I’ve always been fairly left-leaning, and I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed this book as much had Burke been a Liberal premier trying to justify his actions in the same set of circumstances. I cannot understate how important it is to recognise that this is an autobiography with all the flawed, self-justifying thinking that any autobiography is going to attract. Having said that, I find it an intriguing read that shed a lot of light on my state’s recent history.

Anna of Kleve; Queen of Secrets – Alison Weir

I’ve written before of Alison Weir’s series about Henry VIII’s queens, having already done a mixed reviews of her accounts of Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour. I had looked forward to her interpretation of *Anne of Cleves’s life as the Queen who oversaw so much upheaval, outliving not only Henry himself, but the two wives that followed her, his son Edward, and only predeceasing his daughter Mary by one year.

Weir veers into conspiracy theory territory, with secret lovers and children. Her Anne consistently sees the best in Henry, even when she ought not to. Why is she blaming men like Thomas Seymour for encroaching on her lands but not Henry for approving Seymour’s rapaciousness?

One of the things I enjoyed about Philippa Gregory’s The Boleyn Inheritance was the idea that Anne had a very canny mind who witnessed and overheard many things due to the idea that her poor English skills made her dim-witted; Gregory’s outcome for her is that of a canny woman who knew a good deal when she saw it (and recognising her parallels to Katherine of Aragon what happened to her for holding out) and who enjoyed a great deal of freedom as a result of bowing to forces far more powerful than herself. In Queen of Secrets, Anne is a woman who… kinda bumbled into a generous situation and whined when further monarchs refused to honour the same generous conditions. Which is not to say Edward and Mary wanted to damn her to poverty; in a limited third-person narrative, Anne came across as deeply entitled for being unhappy that she was no long able to maintain half a dozen estates (all of which were granted to her by Henry) to a high standard on the Crown’s dime; she could have maintained two or three estates to that standard on her allowance. I kept seeing the same situation from Edward and Mary’s situation, being expected to maintain a step-mother of a few months (who had been followed by two more step-mothers) in a style almost as lavish as their own, the monarch’s. So it was difficult to have sympathy for her.

Her final years are tragic, and Weir returns to her initial theory of a secret lover and their children. It was an interesting idea, and certainly no more far-fetched than the recent theory that Queen Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots met a portrayed in the 2018 film Mary Queen of Scots. I just find it didn’t intrigue me the way it could have. And therein lies the issue I have with this book; such an interesting woman, so many intriguing ideas, and somehow, it doesn’t quite work.

 

*Weir has opted to use Anne of Cleves’s more traditional title; I have opted to refer to her by her more commonly known one.

Debt; The First 5000 Years – David GraeberGraeber

David Graeber’s Debt; The First 5000 Years is a little dry, as a marriage between economics and anthropology is wont to be, but it’s well worth reading. Graeber looks at the history of humans with credit and debt, including nomadic indigenous races commonly thought to have lacked the sophistication to organise a running credit-and-debt scheme, and, interestingly enough, the highly sophisticated system the Irish used, which included an honour price for every man, woman and child and the idea that anyone, even Kings, could be dishonoured to the point they essentially became slaves.

Graeber is a an advocate of the idea of financial Jubilees, cancelling debts from third world nations that, in his opinion, should never have been granted and have, in dollar terms, long been paid back. (It is the effect of compound interest that means not only is far more owed despite the dollar amount being paid back, the full amount will never be paid back.) I liked that he advocates for forgiving college loans despite the fact that he, who struggled to repay his, won’t benefit from them.

He talks about debt peonage, such as essentially forcing employees to buy overpriced goods on credit at the company stores (not a lot of competition when you’re a plantation worker in Haiti) which means they will never get out of debt and a rather charming ancient custom (though not as ancient as I would like) of fathers going into debt for their daughter’s weddings, then putting the debt on the daughter, which means daughter is kept by the squire who loaned the money until he bores of her, then sends her to the mines for a few years hard labour. (This is my paraphrasing, but it’s not that far off from Graeber’s words.) The idea that women and children were a man’s property the same as his livestock and actual property is a concept as old as humanity, but it’s still creepy – and, admittedly, very thought provoking.

A very interesting read and I may end up coming back to this post once I’ve had time to mull it over.

The French Photographer – Natasha Lester

So, I’m a big fan of Perth writer Natasha Lester. She ticks a lot of my boxes – historical fiction, gutsy heroines, detailed descriptions of gorgeous period costumes that she had clearly done a lot of research on. But her latest effort, The French Photographer, was something of a disappointment for me.

The story follows Jessica May, a Vogue model-turned-war-photographer who was loosely inspired by Vogue model-turned-war-photographer Lee Miller. After her blossoming career was accidentally tanked by an opportunistic, down-on-his-luck ex, she decides to put her photography skills to use and goes to the Western Front. Here she encounters rampant sexism and rape culture. For all the general disappointment I found in this book, I do want to give kudos to Lester for being brutally honest about the bad behaviour of Allied servicemen in the face of ‘temptation’ from German women and girls and the prettier photographers, portraying it as no more acceptable when coming from the ‘winning’ side.

Perhaps if this had been a book that was primarily about the horrors of war, it would have been more interesting. But this is a Natasha Lester book, so the key part of the story is about the epic, ill-fated romance between Jessica and Dan Hollworth, and this is where it comes unstuck.

The French Photographer feels like Lester is recycling a lot of her old plot devices. You have the scheming villainess trying to steal Dan for herself from Her Mother’s Secret; the WWII-era and present day split narrative from The Paris Seamstress and the two-dimensional horndog villains from A Kiss From Mr. FitzGeraldThe French Photographer feels like Lester has cobbled together all the worst elements from her previous novels while retrieving none of the good. I got what she was trying to accomplish with Jessica, but the character felt flat and two dimensional, as flat as misogynistic Warren Stone.

(There’s a side plot with Marth Gellhorn, aka the third Mrs. Ernest Hemingway, herself a journalist and photographer. Her story in WWII would have been far more interesting.)

Lester is not a Miles Franklin calibre writer; I get that, and I enjoy her work for what it is, escapist fun with gutsy heroines and gorgeous costumes. But she can do better than this; she has done better than his.

My Husband and I – Ingrid Seward

Ingrid Sweard’s biography My Husband and I portrayed Queen Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip’s relationship as as much an ordinary couple who’ve enjoyed seventy years of marriage as any book on that particular marriage is going to. Though fraught with protocols completely foreign to most of us – her seniority to him, the expectations and pitfalls of royal life, the lack of formal role available for the Monarch’s consort – it is also grounded in a relationship that has more in common with any couple of their generation – my grandparents, for example – than you might think.

There are references to Charles and Anne’s rivalry that, stripped down to the basics of siblings of a close age, could apply to the majority of siblings in the western world. (I may or may not have related to Anne’s spitefulness as a child.) There’s also the age-old story of Edward in particular being on the receiving end of a more permissive upbringing; in part, no doubt, because he was realistically never going to be King, but also because that’s what parents tend to do, with each child they become a little more confident and relaxed.

There are parts which pertain specifically to the realities and responsibilities of royal life, including spouses that just couldn’t take the strain. (Again, Edward seems to have gotten the better deal, possibly from learning from his sibling’s mistakes.) There’s also a reference to Phillip leaving Elizabeth to continue a tour around the time of Andrew’s birth, something that seems highly neglectful to me but was very much part of that generation’s thinking – the show must go on, and stops for nobody. (Not even third in line to the crown.)

(Oh, and don’t read this if you’re a Diana fan. It’s not a particularly sympathetic read in that regard.)

Ultimately, I found this to be a very charming reflection of the seventy-year marriage of a couple who just happen to be one of the most well-known (and certainly more enduring) couples of the 20th/21st centuries. Seward writes in a way that she could have been writing about my own grandparents and still made it an engaging read (and issue I had with Michelle Obama’s memoirs, which I found to be interesting only because of the subject matter, no because of the writing itself). It ends of a sombre note, reminding us that while they still appear to be in good health for their ages, they are both in their 90’s and that this couple that have been together for so long will one day have to go it alone. It is a very humanising read of a marriage that has been discussed perhaps more than any other relationship before it.

Untitled; The Real Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor – Anna Pasternak

I’ve never found a book on Wallis Simpson that I thought to be a particularly satisfying read, fiction or non-fiction. For a woman scintillating to capture a King’s heart so firmly that he would rather abdicate than live without her (or at least live openly with her as his wife), she tends to come across as rather uninteresting.

Anna Pasternak’s newest biography of Simpson changes that, and completely shifts the narrative, placing a lot of the blame for the events that went down firmly on Edward’s shoulders. Perhaps Pasternak is a particular fan of Simpson, or even Edward’s brother George, but her portrayal of Edward is of a womaniser and dilettante who swept through life fling after fling. When he was comfortable, he could be charming and engaging, but lacked the dedication to Kingship and all it entails to make such a commitment when it didn’t suit him.

Pasternak’s interpretation of events comes across rather stalker-ish. Simpson seemed to enjoy the attention she got from catching the heir apparant’s eye, knowing that as a married (and previously divorced) American, she would soon be usurped by someone else. Simpson is presented of a woman who would have been happy to regale her American friends stories about her brush with royalty as she spent her twilight years with her husband in the comfort and compatibility of two equals. Instead, she become perhaps the most damned consort since Anne Boleyn, blamed for a man’s decision to tear the country apart over his ‘love’ for her. I hope, like Boleyn’s has been doing for the last few decades, this is the beginning of a rehabilitation for Simpson’s reputation and we might in future see more portrayals of a woman stuck in a bad set of circumstances created by a man who wanted what he wanted and saw no reason he should be denied it.

Pasternak captures the wit, charm and insights that allowed her to gain Edward’s heart to the extent she did; to the extent that he depended on her and refused to hear anything of giving her up, not even from Simpson herself, who never wanted events to turn out the way they did.

Indeed, she probably would have been happier had she stayed with her second husband, Ernest. They two seemed far more suited and on more equal terms; how does a woman ever make herself equal to a King, even a former one? Edward comes across as a child who, having decided only One Thing would make him happy, pursued that One Thing to the detriment of all else… and was then furious that he did in fact have to relinquish all else to have it.

I have long felt that to blame Simpson for Edward’s abdication, even if she was actively pushing for it – which Pasternak is adamant was not the case – is to remove the agency of a powerful, intelligent man. He made his own choices, even if they were heavily criticised one, and he should have had enough brains in his head to recognise the consequence of those choices. Pasternak is highly sympathetic to the situation Simpson found herself in, while being quite complimentary to the traits that made her so becoming to Edward – her wit, her style, her warmth, her intuitive understanding of how to make him feel comfortable. Pasternak’s Simpson is a woman I would have like to have known, not some dry character out of a nonfiction.

Becoming – Michelle Obama

I feel like I need to find a bomb shelter to hide in after admitting this, but I found Michelle Obama’s autobiography Becoming rather underwhelming. Don’t get me wrong, I have a lot of respect and admiration for the woman who, in my opinion, was the greatest US First Lady since Eleonor Roosevelt. I just found the book to be nothing special in terms of an engaging read about an interesting subject. If Obama hadn’t been the subject, it would have been a decidedly average read. And yes, I get the point is that it is about Obama, but a well-written piece of work should be interesting no matter who it’s about; I’ve read books about complete nobodies that I randomly picked off the shelf that were insightful and witty about their relatively mundane lives and way more engaging than Becoming.

I was unaware prior to reading the book that Obama is a relatively privileged woman, albeit one still facing race-related barriers. While she didn’t do a lot professionally that was strictly related to her law degree, she speaks in a very precise, reasoned way that has no doubt been influenced by that law background, and that may be part of what made me feel so indifferent to it. I didn’t feel connected to her struggle with fertility, and I realise my long-standing lack of interest in having children makes me a little biased, but I’ve also read books and seen films and television shows portray a yearning for parenthood with such authenticity that I got it, even without ever having experienced that yearning myself.

I have no doubt she has worked very hard to accomplish what she has, and Barack probably wouldn’t have accomplished half of what he did without her. I’m glad for both of them that this has proven to be such a popular book. (I’m perverse enough to be curious how the numbers stack up with the Trumps release their biographies; something tells me they won’t be nearly as well-read.) I just don’t think it does justice to how the Obamas have fired the public imagination the way they have.

The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver

I read The Poisonwood Bible a few years ago for another bookclub, and it stayed with me without me remembering the title. Recently, a member of my current bookclub spoke about it and the storyline matched up with the title-less book that had stayed lodged in my memory. Rereading it, all the reasons it had stayed with me came back.

Poisonwood follows the lives of the Price family, with evangelist Baptist missionary Nathan hauling his family – wife Oleanna and daughters Ruth May, twins Adah and Leah, and oldest Rachel, to Belgium-occupied Congo. His church leaders have misgivings about Nathan taking on such a trip, and as the book progresses, it becomes increasingly apparent why; Nathan has a religious fervour that more and more appears to be madness, and one starts to wonder if a lot of these missionaries were actually mentally ill and believed God was talking to them when it was actually their schizophrenia.

This being the Congo in the 1960s, things go south quite quickly, and the Church pulls out about the same time the Belgiums do. Not Nathan Price, though, who insist on staying, and insists that his wife and daughters do their spousal and filial duty and stay with him in a situation that becomes increasingly poverty and drought stricken, not to mention immured in political turmoil.

The narrative shifts between the four daughters and Oleanna. Oleanna is a very interesting character, a brow-beaten wife who was very much a product of her time, and begs the reader to understand her reasons for doing what she did – namely, for doing very little to protect her daughters from a situation that resulted in one death and three traumatised adults. After one trauma too many, Oleanna finally makes a run for it with her remaining children, although the damage is done and they remain estranged from her, resentful for doing nothing in the fact of their father’s religious mechanisms.

A fascinating look into the toxicity of religious fervour; I often wondered was Nathan mentally ill, or was he so lost in his sense of entitlement, of being obeyed by his wife and children, by the natives he deemed to be his inferiors, that he irreparably damaged everyone around him, including himself? Poisonwood also touches on the political instability that has characterised Africa for most of the twentieth centuries, largely caused by European colonialists who lit out when things got tough and left their mess for the locals to deal with, largely by installing tinpot dictators who aped their former colonialist masters in their lives of decadence while everyone else starved just beyond their gated communities.

Poisonwood is an unrelenting sad read, almost as bad as Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life (at least I could reread Poisonwood). But, like Life, it’s heartbreak lies in its realistic portrayal of people damaged beyond repair; it would be an insult to give them a happy ending.

Look Me in the Eye – John Elder Robison

Look Me in the Eye is the memoir of John Elder Robison, a man who was diagnosed with Asperger’s in his forties. The bulk of the book takes place before his diagnosis, so he only understood how being autistic make him who he was with the hindsight of a middle-aged man. Some of his childhood recollections are heartbreaking, as someone who didn’t understand the nuances of social interaction, and found the inconsistent standards frustrating. For example, he would try to interact with a girl in the schoolyard, called ‘Chuckie’ in the book, trying different tacks every day, all of them failing; later in the book, when he talks about the presumption that autistic children prefer to play alone, he debunks this, saying he so spectacularly failed at engaging with others that playing alone was preferable only in the sense of avoiding further failure.

His tendency to tell the truth, and focus on the things he enjoyed, got him labelled as anti-social; his inability to smile on cue and demonstrate physical displays of his emotions got him labelled as sociopathic (if he couldn’t demonstrate feelings, apparently that meant he didn’t have any). But this focus, deemed obsessive by neurotypical people, could have its pros; he became a highly regarded technician with high-profile bands, including KISS, because of his ability to develop technical stunts that surpassed anything anyone else was able to do. Towards the end of the book, he talks about the tolerance the arts and entertainment industry has towards people who are eccentric.

He also parlayed his fascination with cars into a successful restoration and service business; early on in the book, he talks about a broken-down Porsche that he bought, which he restored obsessively until the day came that he realised there was nothing more he could do to it, so he sold it for considerable profit and bought another broken down Porsche; rinse and repeat.

There’s also a charming part towards the end of the book where he talks about his compatibility with his second wife in animal terms, like a dog who likes to be petted and sleep in piles, and his conviction that the dogs which get petted the most have the thickest fur. Weather or not this is a legitimate claim, it is a very sweet sentiment from a man who found his niche, which is really all any of us want.