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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

'Night Shift' Midnight, Texas #3 by Charlaine Harris

Received via NetGalley

From the BLURB:

Welcome to the most intriguing mystery you'll read this year.

Welcome to Midnight, Texas.

At Midnight's local pawnshop, weapons are flying off the shelves-only to be used in sudden and dramatic suicides right at the main crossroads in town.

Who better to figure out why blood is being spilled than the vampire Lemuel, who, while translating mysterious texts, discovers what makes Midnight the town it is. There's a reason why witches and werewolves, killers and psychics, have been drawn to this place.

And now they must come together to stop the bloodshed in the heart of Midnight. For if all hell breaks loose-which just might happen-it will put the secretive town on the map, where no one wants it to be...

‘Night Shift’ is the third book in Charlaine Harris’ ‘Midnight, Texas’ urban fantasy series.

I must admit that I went into ‘Night Shift’ a little bit wary. I really, really disliked Harris’ sophomore effort in a series that brings minor and beloved characters from all her other series together … But second book ‘Day Shift’ lacked emotional heart for me, and largely because two of my favourite characters established in book #1 were inexplicably cut down. But I was quickly buoyed by ‘Night Shift’, because those two favourites – Fiji and Bobo – and their unrequited love affair was touched upon quickly, hinting that it’d be a lodestone for this instalment. And lo and behold, it was;
 Bobo had seemed a little broody for days, though no one was sure why. Fiji who was always aware of Bobo, was a little hyped by the fact that she was almost certain that he was staring at her even when she wasn’t speaking. She didn’t know why; she sadly suspected it was not for the same reason she liked to look at him. In fact, looking at Bobo was one of her favourite things to do.

Something is stirring underneath the town of Midnight, Texas. Strangers are being pulled to the town to commit suicide at the crossroads, and everyone in town is aware that this is just the prelude to a bigger bad waking … The best way to describe the action of ‘Night Shift’ is with this exchange between witch Fiji and psychic Manfred, which I loved because it speaks to a more menacing and intriguing “big bad” that’s plaguing the town of Midnight, and just because I love how meta it is that Charlaine Harris gives some love to ‘Buffy’ when she herself is the creator of what has become another iconic vampire series (there’s also mention of Fiji reading some Anne Rice, which also tickled my meta);

“Maybe you’re right, Manfred. Did you ever watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer?” 
The change of subject left him teetering. 
“Ah … sure. My grandmother loved it.” 
“Do you ever wonder if Midnight’s on the Hellmouth? Like Sunnydale?” 
Manfred laughed. “That’s exactly what it feels like,” he said. “You must be Willow, and Olivia must be Buffy. And Lemuel is Angel.” 
That brought a smile to Fiji’s face, too. “I would classify Olivia more as Faith,” she said. “Bobo can be Xander.” 
“So Diedrik would be Oz.” 
For a reason Manfred couldn’t fathom, Fiji flushed.
I loved the mystery at the heart of ‘Night Shift’, both because it’s more satisfying than the more human mysteries of the past two books and because Fiji very much gets to be at the centre of things. For this reason also, Bobo doesn’t get a lot of page time which I didn’t love … but I can appreciate this book being more Fiji’s show, Bobo had to remain a bit of a mystery to her (and therefore, to readers). I adore Fiji and any time Charlaine Harris chooses her as the series focus, the plot is vastly improved.

I also appreciated that Harris at least touched on a little mystery for Manfred, by mentioning the young woman he crushed on in book #1, but who has all but vanished from the series since; 

Manfred wondered how Creek Lovell was faring. He’d had a crush on her the size of a boulder, and he’d never figured out if it was returned.
I can’t find anything on the internet about whether or not ‘Midnight, Texas’ will continue beyond ‘Night Shift’ – but I sure hope so, for this little emotional nugget about Manfred and Creek, and also because my old favourite from Sookie’s world – Quinn, the weretiger – has hope in his heart by the end of ‘Night Shift’, and I’d love to see how it works out for him.

I really, really loved ‘Night Shift’ – even as things got a little ridiculous towards the end, I just found it great fun and really thought Harris hit her stride juggling all these characters and their relations against a menacing big bad. ‘Midnight, Texas’ is currently filming as a TV-movie, which I’m also ridiculously excited about (not least because Dylan Bruce – who played Paul in ‘Orphan Black’ is onboard to play Bobo!), and the IMDB description has it billed as “Twin Peaks meets True Blood” which is just so on-the-money I can’t stand it, and my hopes are up high.

‘Night Shift’ is Charlaine Harris at her tangled, paranormal-noir best – with beloved witch Fiji as the emotional centre of this instalment, plus a good subplot about Olivia and Lemuel and enough kernels of complication to leave fans hoping for more instalments … ‘Night Shift’ is the high of this series so far, and I want more.


Tuesday, April 26, 2016

'The Moor' Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes #4 by Laurie R. King

From the BLURB:

In the eerie wasteland of Dartmoor, Sherlock Holmes summons his devoted wife and partner, Mary Russell, from her studies at Oxford to aid the investigation of a death and some disturbing phenomena of a decidedly supernatural origin.

Through the mists of the moor there have been sightings of a spectral coach made of bones carrying a woman long-ago accused of murdering her husband--and of a hound with a single glowing eye. Returning to the scene of one of his most celebrated cases, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Holmes and Russell investigate a mystery darker and more unforgiving than the moors themselves.

‘The Moor’ is the fourth book in historical mystery series ‘Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes’ by Laurie R. King, first published in 1998.

For a little while there in 2014 I was seriously into King’s ‘Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes’. Having just discovered the series I tore through The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, A Monstrous Regiment of Women and A Letter of Mary in a matter of weeks and gave five-stars to all. And then I got to fourth book The Moor and reading it was slow-going … I couldn’t get into the story, which sees Mary and her now-husband Sherlock Holmes revisiting one of Watson’s famous tales (really Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s) The Hound of the Baskervilles. The mystery of this fourth book just wasn’t clicking for me, possibly because it felt like there was an over-reliance on the Conan Doyle original to ground the plot, whereas in the first few books of the series I’d been thoroughly enjoying the originality and Holmes’ determination to break away from his famous detective past.

I also found it hard to get into a reading groove with this book, because it lacked the chemistry between Mary and Holmes that I’d been so enjoying in the first three. Book one felt like a very platonic relationship between the two, in which they were both finding their footing with one another – but by book two it was clear there was more going on between them than just mentor/mentee, and as they became equal partners in investigations, you could really read the spark of romance between them. By book three they were very recently married, and it was fascinating reading them adjust. Book four actually has Mary and Holmes separated for a fair bit of the investigation into a ghostly carriage roaming the Moors, which worked to highlight that Mary is very much still her own woman and capable of functioning without her new husband, but means we’re not getting as much of that witty banter and cunning back-and-forth between them.

But since I started reading and then put aside ‘The Moor’, Laurie R King has released two more ‘Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes’ books – ‘Dreaming Spies’ and ‘The Murder of Mary Russell’ – the 14th book in particular has been causing quite a buzz in the fandom community that has not gone unnoticed by me (the blurb promises, the series will “never be the same after this bombshell”). Thus, I’ve pushed myself to finish ‘The Moor’ so I can get back on track with this series with aims of getting to books #13 and #14. It was a slog, but I’m glad that on the other side of ‘The Moor’ is book number five, ‘O Jerusalem’ which I have on good authority is a favourite instalment for lots of ‘Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes’ fans.

So I slogged through ‘The Moor’ – and eventually I must admit the very thing that was annoying me (an over-reliance on referencing Conan Doyle’s Baskervilles) became – if not endearing, – then certainly intriguing. Laurie R. King takes the opportunity of placing Sherlock Holmes in close proximity to, quite possibly, his most famous case as a way to examine how much he hates and rejects the fame and infamy that Watson’s stories have brought him. And it provides at least one nice opportunity for Mary Russell to come to Holmes’s defence;

‘My husband does not really enjoy talking about his old cases, Mr Ketteridge. It makes him uncomfortable.’ 
Most men, and certainly forceful men like Ketteridge, tend to overlook women unless they be unattached and attractive. I usually allow this because I often find it either amusing or convenient to be invisible.
On that level I appreciated ‘The Moor’ within the series and in expanding the universe of Mary Russell and Holmes. This book ended up feeling like burying the past, where in the beginning I had resented King’s bringing it too much to the fore;
 ‘Gould?’ Holmes laughed. ‘He’s the most gullible of the lot, full of the most awful balderdash. He’ll tell you how a neighbour’s horse panicked one night at the precise spot where a man would be killed some hours later, how another man carried on a conversation with his wife who was dying ten miles away, how – Revelations, visitations, spooks, you name it – he’s worse than Concan Doyle, with his fairies and his spiritualism.’

But I still found this mystery too slow going, and the sluggish pace (which seems in keeping with the ethos of locals Russell and Holmes find themselves in the company of) rather infuriating, and not conducive to a steady read. I also didn’t love that Russell and Holmes split up to investigate separately for a fairly good chunk of this story. All in all, this is not my favourite instalment but I have my suspicions (even just looking at Goodreads ratings!) that quite a few don’t love this particular addition to the series, and soldiered on as I now have to get to the other side and better instalments of ‘Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes’.


Sunday, April 24, 2016

'Tomorrow When the War Began' - ABC television adaptation of John Marsden's series

Tomorrow When The War Began, Series 1 Ep 1:  
Celebrating end of year, Ellie takes her friends on a trip to a remote destination called 'Hell'. They return home to find their parents are missing, the phone network down and homes ransacked.
The first book in John Marsden’s ‘Tomorrow’ series, ‘Tomorrow When The War Began’ was first published in 1993. It became one of the most popular young adult series in Australia, concluding in 1999 with seven books in the core series, followed by a spin-off trilogy called ‘The Ellie Chronicles’ which ran from 2003-05. The series is a fictionalized account of an invasion of Australia by unknown (but usually vaguely Asia-Pacific) foreign forces, and the microcosm of a small town called Wirrawee and a group of local kids who are camping in the bush when their town is overrun with enemy combatants, and upon their return they decide to fight back against the invasion.

The first book of the series was turned into a highly successful Australia film in 2010 – starring Caitlin Stasey as protagonist Ellie Linton – and it ranks number 17 on the most successful Australia box office films of all time, thus far. After the success of the 2010 film fans eagerly awaited a sequel – certain that the film’s popularity would guarantee a franchise. And while there was a nebulous promise that the story would continue, it was never clear if that would be as film or TV series (and when the likes of Caitlin Stasey and Phoebe Tonkin from the 2010 film went onto great success in Hollywood, Australian fans were pretty certain the original cast wouldn’t be reassembled).

Then it was announced last year that ‘Tomorrow When The War Began’ (affectionately abbreviated and hashtagged to #TWTWB) would be coming to our small screens on ABC TV! This was huge news, extremely well-received. You really can’t underestimate what a beloved book series Marsden’s TWTWB is – becoming a staple of every Aussie teenager’s reading life. And it’s a series worth celebrating across generations – a series about teenagers taking matters into their own hands and fighting back, surviving on their wits, cunning and each other. It’s also a very nuanced series; with themes of man vs. nature, the morality of war and survival, and so much more.

TWTWB re-launching as a TV series at this point in time feels extremely appropriate, as refugee and asylum seeker debates rage in Australia and our Government seems to lack any comprehension of what has been happening (and is still at crisis-point) in places like Syria.

Watching the first episode of TWTWB, I’m reminded of this quote that’s been borne out of the refugee crisis – Just because it’s not happening here, doesn’t mean it’s not happening. Echoed in this stunning British ad, which imagines war breaking out in the UK. This was another strength of Marsden’s TWTWB series – to ask one of the biggest what if’s? of young Australia readers. What if we were invaded? What if your family was locked up? What if you had to pick up a gun and fight back?

The first episode of TWTWB has brilliant duality to set-up the entire first installment of the book series. There’s a very clear before/after being introduced in this first episode as we see the core cast of seven pack up their camping gear and get ready for a trip into ‘Hell’ – a beautiful, secluded section of bushland. Their town of Wirrawee is celebrating a state fair with all the dressings, and they wave goodbye to the euphoric town as they take the track that leads them into the wilderness, for five-days of escape. But upon their return, Wirrawee is completely changed to a dark, barbed, battle-ground, and the end of this first episode does cover a pivotal moment for Ellie (Molly Daniels), when she is forced to defend herself and her friends.

It may seem like this first episode covers a lot of the first book’s content – but there’s plenty more to come in this six-part miniseries (and I’m not sure how deep into the book series the TV show will even cover, but I hope we get more seasons!). Aside from the eerie set-up of war (and there are some beautiful scenes, setting up the devastation) the characterisation in this first ep is spot-on. We very succinctly get the closeness and fractures beginning to show in relationship of best friends Ellie and Corrie (played, refreshingly by Madeleine Madden – who is also Zoe Preston in ABC3’s other brilliant series, Ready For This). Town larrikin Homer (Narek Arman) and posh new girl, Fiona (Madeleine Clunies-Ross) have nice push-pull chemistry. Fi’s parents (lovely to see Sibylla Budd as her mum, I’ve liked her since The Secret Life of Us!) are written to be a little closer to the political action it seems, and the hostile family environment is a clever touch. Robyn (Fantine Banulski) clearly has an unreciprocated crush on Lee (Jon Prasida) – and the fact that all this character chemistry is oh so subtly communicated in the first 46-minute episode is quite an impressive feat.

This is a fantastic start to a much-loved Aussie series. I got goosebumps just watching the brilliant opening-titles sequence, to be honest (and I was reminded that before Veronica Roth’s post-apocalyptic Chicago ferris wheel in Divergent, Aussie readers had the iconic Wirrawee wheel, a leftover relic of the fairground before the war began!). 

I also can’t help but think that re-franchising TWTWB as a TV series is a smart move – not least because other book-to-film franchises (okay, American ones – but still!) have been experiencing fatigue around multi-installments. It’s also not insane to think that other popular YA series enjoying success right now (again, American, but stick with me!) like The 100about a group of kids all alone without adult supervision and up against enemy combatants – that it’s a good idea to give Aussie teens their own version of this compelling survival story. I’ve long been asking where all the great YA TV adaptations are, and I’m thrilled that we now have ‘Tomorrow When the War Began’. It’s such a layered, subversive and complex book series – and from the looks of episode one that’s all going to translate beautifully to the small screen.

You can watch 'Tomorrow When the War Began' episodes on ABC iView 

The series airs on Saturday's at 7:30pm

Monday, April 11, 2016

'Where the Shoreline Used to be' Stories from Australia and Beyond, Edited by Pam McIntyre and Susan La Marca

From the BLURB:

A rich and unique collection of short fiction, poetry, illustration and song lyrics from Australia and beyond.

An encounter with a strange boy on a beach, a dog in space, a world of butterflies, a talking whale, two girls who take on the world, and a thousand silver ghosts . . . Like the pull of the tide, these stories and poems will draw you in and encourage you to explore.

Funny, dramatic and poignant by turns, and featuring both established writers and exciting new talent, Where the Shoreline Used to Be is a stunning collection that will challenge and excite your imagination.

Including: Shaun Tan • Scot Gardner • Arwa Abousamra • Trudy White • Kate Miller-Heidke • Keir Nuttall • Felicity Castagna • Amie Kaufman • Alice Pung • Gayle Kennedy • Davina Bell • Meg Caddy • Courtney Barnett • Barry Jonsberg • Meg McKinlay • Kyle Hughes-Odgers • Shivaun Plozza • Ali Cobby Eckermann • Margo Lanagan • Wil Wagner • Lizzie Wagner • Tony Birch • Leanne Hall • PM Freestone • Andrea Hirata

‘Where the Shoreline Used to be’ is a collection of short stories from Australia and beyond, edited by Pam McIntyre and Susan La Marca, who also edited the 2012 short story collection, ‘Things A Map Won't Show You’.

I loved McIntyre and La Marca’s first short story collection, and was so happy to see them come out with a second book that’s perfectly oriented for the schools market. There are long and short-short stories, poems and artwork within – all of which will stir the imaginings of young readers, and hopefully encourage them to dabble themselves in this wonderful medium.

As with ‘Map’, ‘Shoreline’ is pretty free-form thematically – these authors, poets and illustrators are allowed to run rampant with that beautiful title, though a sense of time more than place feels to have the slight upper hand.

Margo Lanagan’s ‘The Queen’s Notice’ is visceral and feral-delightful, reading like something of a ‘Romulus and Remus’ foundation myth;

It was true, he did smell, strongly and cleanly of deep earth and queen-favour. His mind was beginning to fill with other things, as a quick-tunnel trickles full of loose earth, but he still had the queen’s scene in all his skin-folds, creeping in his mouth-hairs, raw and clear, warm and sweet.
Margo Lanagan, The Queen’s Notice
Amie Kaufman’s autobiographical ‘I Swear This Part is True’, cuts to the very heart of storytelling in the first place, when it comes to our own histories;

We are our own myth makers, every one of us. This is why, when it comes to our stories, the manner of the telling matters very much. Tell it right, and you can shape and create a small part of yourself.
Amie Kaufman, I Swear This Part is True

Arwa Abousamra’s very personal ‘Muslim Footprint’ navigates her arrival in Australia at the age of nine. She came from Saudia Arabia where she was born but that wouldn’t recognise her citizenship – and then she goes through her years of schooling when she was both made to feel like an outsider, and proud of her heritage.

The whole book is full of delicious morsels – there’s not one story in there that I didn’t love. But to pick out a very few more …

Kate Miller-Heidke’s 2009 song ‘Caught in the Crowd’ has the lyrics reproduced, and as a poem it blends in beautifully with time setting – of those moments in school when you’re more than a little ashamed of the way you behaved. Those who’ve fallen in love with Shivaun Plozza’s debut novel ‘Frankie’, will revel in her short story here called ‘The Point’ – about the sheer awkwardness of being in close proximity to other people’s families while being an interloper on vacation with them. The opening line – ‘the caravan stinks of tinned pineapple,’ – was so evocative, I could feel the humidity from the page. One of my favourite Australian artists – Kyle Hughes-Odgers – illustrates a short story by Meg McKinlay (‘How To Make A Bird’).

Pam McIntyre and Susan La Marca have turned their keen editorial eyes to delivering another fantastic collection of Australian short stories that are perfect for school study, and pure enjoyment too.


Thursday, March 31, 2016

LGBTQIA+ LoveOzYA Posters

Hello Darling Readers,

First came ‘Readalikes’, then the Genre Posters and now I’m thrilled to give you two LGBTQIA+ posters – celebrating Aussie Queer YA.

Talking and writing about Diversity in YA is something I’ve been invested in for a while now, and for me it always comes back to this one line that the character of C.S. Lewis says in William Nicholson’s play, Shadowlands;

We read to know we are not alone.

That’s it.
That’s the whole reason storytelling is storytelling and storytellers keep talking, writing, and performing.
Pretty simple, huh?
… Except when it’s not.
When you don’t find yourself in the pages of books; because every love story is boy-meets-girl and people want to put you into black-and-white, male-or-female boxes, or don’t understand why you’re happier being alone.

I didn't meet another openly gay person until I was in grade 12. That's a long time to rely on fictional characters for reflections of myself. And at that time, I didn't find any in books. That's why I started the #AusQueerYA tumblr. I wanted to coincide with the #LoveOzYA movement to help make Australian LGBTQIA YA stories more visible for those who need them, and make the people these characters represent more visible to everyone else. I'm so thrilled these posters have been made. I wish they'd been on the wall in my school library.
      Michael Earp

That's why I wanted to put these posters out there; and I hope they make a difference, even just a dent. I hope they bring a little positivity after so much hate and bigotry swirling around in Australia recently. Especially because I can see there’s going to be a hard slog ahead in our politics for marriage equality. Safe Schools was gutted after a hate-filled campaign of ignorance and propaganda – and I fear it’s just the first of many strategies that won’t care what messages they’re sending to our young people, and the damage they're inflicting.

I told a friend I was doing this. They asked me why I was doing it. I told them I’m doing it for 10 year old me; not all of us are lucky enough to see 20 years. 
— Jessica Harvie

As the debate rages I hope books will be a place of solace and understanding, for kids especially. I hope they find themselves in the pages of books – the books on these posters and so, so many moreAnd I hope they don't feel so alone, because they're not. 

… and now, I have a few people to thank;
Jessica Harvie put her hand up to design these posters, and I’m so grateful to her – not only for her keen design-eye, but also her invaluable input into the books list too. Jessica is currently writing her honours thesis on queer YA. She is trying to start a blog over at and tweets under @jlharvie.
And a couple of other people kindly helped me with compiling and weighing in on the list. I’d like to thank them profusely;  
·      Amelia Lush, bookseller at Better Read Than Dead.
·      Michael Earp, who is also responsible for the wonderful #AusQueerYA tumblr.

'Lemons in the Chicken Wire' by Alison Whittaker

From the BLURB:

WINNER – 2015 black&write! Indigenous Writing Fellowship

From a remarkable new voice in Indigenous writing comes this highly original collection of poems bristling with stunning imagery and gritty textures. At times sensual, always potent, Lemons in the Chicken Wire delivers a collage of work that reflects rural identity through a rich medley of techniques and forms. It is an audacious, lyrical and linguistically lemon flavoured poetry debut that possesses a rare edginess and seeks to challenge our imagination beyond the ordinary. Alison Whittaker demonstrates that borders, whether physical or imagined, are no match for our capacity for love.

‘Lemons in the Chicken Wire’ is Alison Whittaker’s debut poetry collection, available from Magabala Books. Alison is a Gomeroi poet, life writer and essayist from Gunnedah and Tamorth, north-western New South Wales.

I’m going to be upfront and say I don’t read a lot of poetry. But there are certain publishers and voices keep me coming back for more – and Magabala is one of them. They published one of my favourite verse novels in Ali Cobby Eckermann’s 'Ruby Moonlight', which I just love intensely. When I heard that the 2015 black&write! winner was again a poetry book, I was really excited and knew I’d seek it out. And I’ve got to say … Alison Whittaker surpasses expectation, and in one book has become another favourite poet of mine, a new voice I’m eager to read more of.

Whittaker isn’t just a poet; she’s also a law student who actually won the 2015 Indigenous law student of the year annual award. But in her debut poetry collection ‘Lemons in the Chicken Wire’ she’s mostly taking readers away from the hustle and bustle of the big city, to explore and remember her life growing up on country in rural New South Wales.

This collection of Whittaker’s feels very grounded in some ways – as she observes life growing up on country, with this real sense of place and connectedness to her culture. But in another sense she’s examining big constructs that lift the reader even out of their own pre-conceived ideas and, yes, prejudices … as ‘Lemons’ is largely exploring aboriginality, and dislocation alongside gender, sexuality, and queer aboriginal identity.

And now let me take a moment to recommend that you listen to Whittaker speaking on Radio National about her collection – especially for her honing in on the ideas around queer aboriginal identity. Because she says there is this assumption that the city is the only place to go where you will be accepted as a queer aboriginal person, and ‘Lemons’ for one thing is completely counteracting that idea.   

The entire collection is deliciously audacious – and you really do get this sense that Whittaker revels in the subversiveness of her themes and explorations, countering what many people will imagine aboriginality to be, and where it exists in modern Australia. She is exploring rather weighty themes, but there’s a sultriness to her woks, a cheeky lightness – ‘Wattle in the Dykes’ – and a beautifully languid touch that can turn to biting sting in a few keystrokes;

-ing; -ly 
I sucked her fingers one by one 
where I lingered, rings of lipstick stayed 
on one knuckle, then another 
hot and red and suddenly 
like a surprise cut 
red marks like keen slices 
as if she moved them, presently 
they would split at the joint 
like a doll whose ball sockets rotted 
dislodge into my throat 
and choke me 

As I said, I don’t read much poetry. I know what I like, and I like what I like and I really like – even love – Alison Whittaker’s ‘Lemons in the Chicken Wire’. Sometimes it’s her absorbing, precise language that paints such an image;  

The Sticking Place 
Last nights make a gluey bubble 
in thin crepe expansive time 
tonight I watch that lingering bubble 
cloud the moon, and mine the light.  

Here time is halted, as if the earth 
stopped turning to gaze at a lover 
you turn your gaze to country 
mournfully, feet curled into the earth 
aware that dawn waits to prise you. 

But time, it stands back-to-back with you 
and it leans, and sometimes you 
gain momentum with its weight, other times 
it’s a limp carcass whose shoulders dislocate. 

This night, time is still 
a warm, soundless bubble 
shrouds dreads of the morning. 

The last night on country  
you bury yourself in the earth under time’s weight 
to hold this touch 
you gasp it, gasp it, eat it.

… sometimes I just liked that Whittaker was taking me outside of myself, and poking at my own assumptions – cracking them open or squeezing till they pulped. ‘Lemons in the Chicken Wire’ just introduced me to a favourite new voice in indigenous and poetry writing, and acts as a reminder of why I seek out these works from the indelible Magabala Books.


Sunday, March 27, 2016

'The Midnight Watch' by David Dyer

From the BLURB:

David Dyer's astonishing novel The Midnight Watch is based on the true story of the SS Californian, the ship that saw the Titanic's distress rockets and yet, unfathomably, did nothing. A psychological thriller.

Sometimes the smallest of human failings can lead to the greatest of disasters.

As the Titanic was sinking slowly in the wretchedly cold North Atlantic, she could see the lights of another ship on the horizon. She called for help by Morse lamp and the new Marconi telegraph machine, but there was no response. Just after midnight the Titanic began firing distress rockets.

The other ship, the Californian, saw these rockets but didn't come. Why not?

When the story of the disaster begins to emerge, it's a question that Boston American reporter John Steadman cannot let go. As soon as he lays eyes on the Californian's captain and second officer, he knows a story lurks behind their version of events. So begins his strange journey towards the truth. Haunted by the fifteen hundred who went to their deaths in those icy waters, and by the loss of his own baby son years earlier, Steadman must either find redemption in the Titanic's tragedy or lose himself.

Based on true events, The Midnight Watch is at once a heart-stopping mystery and a deeply knowing novel – about the frailty of men, the strength of women, the capriciousness of fate and the price of loyalty.

‘The Midnight Watch’ is Australian author David Dyer’s debut novel; a fictionalised account of the true story of the Titanic and the Californian.

I’m going to hazard a guess that not many people know that the sinking of the Titanic – which claimed some 1500 lives – could have been prevented in more ways than one. But at the rescue-level, there was the fact that Titanic was carrying only 20 lifeboats when the ship could have taken 60 or so, or that some of those lifeboats carried a measly twelve passengers when they were tested to take 70 men. But the greatest injustice atop so many has to be that a ship called the SS Californian was closest in location to the RMS Titanic, and even saw distress rockets – and yet did nothing for six hours as she sunk and lives were lost. David Dyer’s ‘The Midnight Watch’ is a fictionalised account of what happened aboard the Californian that she became a ‘ship of shame,’ alternately following the story of Californian’s Second Officer Herbert Stone who informed his captain of the rockets being shot by an unknown ship, and more closely by fictional Boston journalist John Steadman, whose job is to bring up the bodies in stories.

Make no mistake; everything about this story – the truth, and what Dyer has fictionalised – is fascinating. Equally fascinating is how Australian author David Dyer presumably got so interested in the legend of the Titanic and lesser-known story of the Californian in the first place – according to his biography, Dyer ‘spent many years as a lawyer at the London legal practice whose parent firm represented the Titanic’s owners in 1912. He has also worked as a cadet and ship’s officer on a wide range of merchant vessels, having graduated with distinction from the Australian Maritime College.’ So it should come as no surprise that ‘The Midnight Watch’ feels meticulously researched – and there is evidence aplenty of Dyer’s legal and naval mind working to flesh out what has sunk into somewhat hollow legend with the passing of time.

Perhaps Dyer’s best plot-device was to tell the bulk of this tale through the eyes of reporter John Steadman – a grizzled, alcoholic anti-hero estranged from his wife years after the death of their baby son for which she still blames him. Steadman is a fictional construct, though the Boston American he writes for really was the first to break the story of the Californian, which saw Titanic’s distress signals, but did not assist. Steadman is this haunted man and throwback to another age of journalism in which reporters wore disguises to get the story, pounding the pavement to get words to the editor in time. The story of the Titanic holds so much fascination even after all these years (and that James Cameron film) – so imagine what a cracker of a story it was at the time; the unsinkable ship sunk on its maiden voyage, and some of America’s richest drowned with it;

Only a few hours earlier, the Carpathia had berthed in New York, watched by forty thousand onlookers. The survivors came ashore in driving rain, and their individual stories – like the tiny flames of candles being lit in a dark cathedral – had begun to illuminate a very great tragedy. Visions flashed upon the consciousness of a nation: first-class men standing on sloping decks in dinner jackets, steerage passengers rushing wildly for the boats, Italians being shot dead by the Titanic’s officers, the mighty Captain Smith, his great white beard spreading around him in the black waters, swimming to a lifeboat with a baby in his arms. There were visions of shame, too: when a passenger was asked how Mr Ismay, chairman of the line, had escaped the doomed ship, the passenger simply shrugged and said, ‘Well, he got into a lifeboat.’
It strikes me that The Midnight Watch does read like a mystery – one in which the readers know who the villain is, and are eagerly waiting for the detective (or, in this case, journalist) to put all the clues together and hit on the right piece of evidence and witness that sets him off on a path to find the guilty party. It means that there’s this constant, pervasive, sense of foreshadowing and inevitable gloom that hangs like a thick fog. Readers know what shame some aboard the Californian are grappling with (Herbert Stone in particular) and we’re just waiting for the moment when Steadman’s nose for a good story leads him to the right cracks in conscience.

I think what also elevates this story is that Dyer has managed to hone in on a theme of hubris (of man and machine), chivalry and what it actually means to be a man … These all run undercurrent throughout the book, and indeed the Titanic legend itself. ‘Women and children first,’ is this profound mandate that put women in the lifeboats by virtue of their sex alone, and speaks to this maritime law of men that seems tied to a knight-ish code of chivalry. Indeed, some of the Titanic legends – like the band played on, shipbuilder Thomas Andrews spent his final moments encouraging and herding people onto lifeboats, and that Captain Edward Smith went down with his ship – upholds this story of men doing the right and honourable thing – so much so, that the very idea of ‘honour’ becomes closely linked to manhood.

Dyer takes this examination one step further, when reporter John Steadman settles into investigating the story … his estranged wife, who is a stalwart Suffragette, bemoans the Titanic ‘legend’ that’s already surfacing and suggests all this talk of heroic men is blowback on the women campaigning for the vote. She notes that Suffragettes are being physically attacked in the street since the sinking, have had parades cancelled and the slogan ‘Boats or Votes?’ is being lobbed at them, alluding again to that act of chivalry – women and children first – to which she replies that she would have refused to get into a boat. John Steadman’s Suffragette daughter echoes her mother’s sentiment, claiming she would prefer to make her own way by finding a plank of wood to float on (which I hoped was a beautiful and subtle head-nod to the infamous ‘could Jack have fit on the door?’ Titanic mythbuster conundrum).

I also really appreciated that Dyer orientates the Titanic story in a wider political, international and social context. The aforementioned suffragette movement and its repercussions there, but also how the sinking of the Titanic became a bit of a British/American rivalry … a ship built in Britain, captained by British officers that killed so many American lives – and adding salt to the wound is the fact that the captain of the ‘ship of shame’ Californian was an Englishman too – the very model of a gentleman – a Liverpool man nonetheless. At one point, Steadman muses that the Titanic represented, ‘the great Edwardian hubris of her makers,’ and that line just so beautifully distils the sentiment.

Was my story, then, not one of hubris after all, but dramatic cowardice? I’d been told that Liverpool men were tough, that they had a special sort of courage. Liverpool was, after all, the city from which England sent the ships to build her empire. So was what I had here a very remarkable and unique creature: the Liverpool craven? Had this man left fifteen hundred people to die because he was scared of the dark and cold? If so, how did he go on living? We all commit shameful acts at some time – my life as a drunken journalist had been one long sequence of moral lapses – but this was of a different magnitude altogether. This was worse than Mr Ismay getting into a lifeboat. This would disgrace a nation.
There are also allusions to anti-immigration views of the time, when so many newspapers gleefully repeat the story of Italian ‘cravens’ being shot by crewmen, because they were rushing the lifeboats. Or the way Washington felt the ramifications, because American president of the time, William Howard Taft, had his dear friend and aid Archibald Butt perish on the Titanic – it is reported that he was walking round the Whitehouse in tears, asking to be left alone.

While reading the first-half of this book, I struggled with the idea that much as I was enjoying the story its greatest strength could also in many ways be its greatest weakness – and that was a serious lack of female characters. Those who are included did feel quite wooden – the tragic Shirtwaist girls Steadman once reported on, the Titanic women who gained seats on lifeboats, the nameless prostitutes Steadman beds, his dutiful daughter and scornful suffragette wife – none of them held real weight. It was looking as though ‘The Midnight Watch’ wouldn’t pass the literary-equivalent of a Bechdel test … and then a surprising twist at the end puts one particular woman front-and-centre of the Titanic story, and I found myself both heartbroken and buoyed to read her portrayal. That this book examining all the old ideas of what it means to be a strong, honourable man should leave off with a woman commanding the page spoke volumes. And something Steadman ponders early on echoed for me; that maybe this century really would belong to the women.

I loved ‘The Midnight Watch’ and it’s definitely a favourite book of 2016 for me. A story we all seem to know so well is alive in our imaginations once again, but David Dyer’s true strength as a storyteller lies in what he pushes us to examine in the lives of mere men.