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Sunday, January 15, 2023

'Spare' by Prince Harry, The Duke of Sussex audiobook (read by the author) ghost-writer, J.R. Moehringer

From the BLURB:

It was one of the most searing images of the twentieth century: two young boys, two princes, walking behind their mother's coffin as the world watched in sorrow - and horror. As Diana, Princess of Wales, was laid to rest, billions wondered what the princes must be thinking and feeling - and how their lives would play out from that point on.

For Harry, this is that story at last.

With its raw, unflinching honesty, Spare is a landmark publication full of insight, revelation, self-examination, and hard-won wisdom about the eternal power of love over grief.

Prince Harry wishes to support British charities with donations from his proceeds from Spare. The Duke of Sussex has donated $1,500,000 to Sentebale, an organisation he founded with Prince Seeiso in their mothers' legacies, which supports vulnerable children and young people in Lesotho and Botswana affected by HIV/AIDS. Prince Harry will also donate to the non-profit organisation WellChild in the amount of £300,000. WellChild, which he has been Royal patron of for fifteen years, makes it possible for children and young people with complex health needs to be cared for at home instead of hospital, wherever possible.

‘Spare’ is indeed, the sensational memoir by Prince Harry – ghost-written by Pulitzer-prize winning author and journalist, J.R. Moehringer – and which is currently the fastest-selling nonfiction book of all time (according to Guinness World Records) having sold 1.43 million copies on its first day, unseating Barack Obama’s memoir record.

With my agent hat on too; Harry's non-fiction book is also giving a good news boost to the most beleaguered bookish format of the pandemic, which desperately needed it (from 2022 roundupPublishers Weekly; "...with the largest drop coming in the industry’s biggest category, adult nonfiction, where print sales fell 10.3%.") A rising tide floats all boats, and the same way the Obama's memoirs boosted non-fiction sales the world over, so too is Harry's when the form has been floundering. Bravo, and many thanks!

I listened to the audiobook (which was a phenomenal experience in itself, highly recommend - and not just because at AUD$23 the iTunes audiobook is way cheaper than the RRP hardback at indie bookstores, a AUD$60 whopper!)

What immediately struck me about ‘Spare’ is how well-written it is. Once the Spanish translation dropped a week ahead of embargoed release, and the press (largely driven by the British media pack) started picking it apart with their teeth, they very much implied that it was a salacious piece of ‘Mommie Dearest,’-esque tat. But it’s not that. It’s ghost-written by J.R. Moehringer who is a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, and it shows in evocative and haunting writing (early on there are descriptions of a childhood at Balmoral, like it’s a Highland Disneyland – full of beloved ghosts and legends – and from those evocative pages you just know you’re in very good storytelling hands.)

Moehringer also gifts ‘Spare’ with an important journalistic structure; that there is an argument and thematic through-line to the entire thing … which is; the breakdown of the 4th estate for their embedded relationship with the royal family, and the toxicity of the press – particularly the British tabloid press.

For all that people have been making fun of frozen todgers and Freudian Elizabeth Arden that’s also in the pages, it is actually a book with a lot of subtle layers and connections made throughout, and I was genuinely impressed at the literary prowess and strong argument at the heart of ‘Spare.’ And I’m also not surprised that the same press pushing the salaciousness are doing so to avoid Harry’s true grievance and message which is; a large corner of the British press, owned by Rupert Murdoch (who Harry takes repeated and named aim at), is not fit for purpose. He’s taking the angle of how this has almost become like an abusive relationship the royals have wandered into and now can’t get out of (on his father Charles’s relationship to the press; “He hated their hate, but oh - how he loved their love!”) but I read it and more see the implication that if a large cohort of the media are in bed with the royals, and can be bribed with leaks and tattle-tale from their comms teams, to swap out weighted stories for clickbait … then who is *actually* holding one of the most powerful families and institutions to account, if it’s not the 4th estate – who are seemingly bought and paid for, by the royal family?

I’m sure that’s not the actual message Harry intended people to take away – but it’s there for the taking, certainly. And this is probably closer to the real reasons the royals, their ‘true believer’ staff, and the cottage-industry of media who make money off their backs - are really disgruntled with Harry – because if you start tugging on one thread of his story, the whole institution starts to unravel with his revelations.

This happens a few times throughout, actually – Harry gets pretty close to a deeper understanding, but keeps it at the personal and somewhat surface-level and refrains from taking it out-wide into the ramifications for the monarchy.

In fact; Harry’s ongoing support for monarchy is a small mark against the book overall, in my opinion – but I understand, the same way that 13-year-old Harry recounts travelling to Africa with his father and hearing an oral historian recount the Zulu War, which Harry listens to intently and only reveres the ‘red coats’ mentioned in the battle … I get it; he’s had more conditioning and indoctrination than most, and it’ll take longer and a lot more to break those bonds that have been ingrained and sold for him as a birthright and history to be proud of. I can appreciate that he’s signalling he needs to put more work in (and he admits as much; he looks back on that memory of hearing about the Zulu war, and can now see the glitch in his thinking).

The other mark against the book for me was the war chapters (yes I'm anti-war, but I know why Harry included them for his ongoing work with veterans and mental health - which makes a very good case for inclusion in the book) ... no, it's more because I was bored listening to how a helicopter works. Total snooze-fest!

Grief is the other big theme of this book – and love. Those two, always together and entwined. Harry really sadly speaks of being in his early 20s and certain he’ll be a “young dad” – marry young and start a family. It’s pretty clear that his own family is not close and overly-affectionate and he wants to start that for himself, have that and build it. But he’s constantly thwarted – girlfriends are scared off by the media and he’s lonely. That also rings very, hurtfully, true. He’s a lonely kid who grows up to be a lonely young man, wayward and a little lost most of the time. Especially after the media also help in cutting-short his army career (leaks mean his position in Iraq and Afghanistan are signalled to the enemy - an Australian woman's magazine is actually the first to break an embargo and print his whereabouts - putting him and many around him in danger. FFS, it happens so often throughout - he's utterly warranted in hating them, the bogeymen of his childhood grown to being his adult tormentors).

It's why the Meghan chapters feel like a turning-point in so many ways - because what is absolutely undoubted is how much he loves her. He's absolutely head-over-heels, and frankly I get it. She's *gorgeous* and charming, intelligent and thoughtful ... a real "ohhhhhh," moment comes early in their relationship, when Harry recounts a small argument they had, inconsequential - but he responds with too much rage and tone that the situation does not call for. Meghan calmly slips away, Harry goes to find her once he's also more centred and she says - in no uncertain terms - that she won't be spoken to that way, ever, and this will not be how they go about arguing (with rage). Harry sheepishly apologises, and Meghan asks him if there's a reason he thinks that's the way adults settle arguments (this is also when she gently asks him if he's ever had therapy - to which Harry says he tried, but it didn't work. Meghan probably saves his life when she says, "try again.")

I see a lot of people mocking his constant references to “mummy,” and the many times he looks for spiritual connections and signs from her (at one point even speaking to a spirit-medium, which he’s pretty sure is bunk, but is also desperate enough for connection to at least give it a go.)

I’m very happy for the people who’ve never lost a loved one, making fun of all this stuff in the memoir and trying to push Freudian connections. Congratulations to them. I just read it as a deep well of grief that keeps painfully contracting and expanding. Listening to this on audiobook, it was a wholly wrenching and wonderful listening experience – not least because deep missing and love for Diana rings through his voice, as does his grief. Harry is at once self-deprecating and serious when he details what he believes to be signs from Diana, and it’s hard to fault him on this when - for instance - Tyler Perry even surprisingly says the reason he offered to help Harry and Meghan settle in America, is Diana (his late mum was a fan) or Archie fixating on an old-looking painting at Perry’s house, which upon closer-inspection has a plaque stating that it is a depiction of goddess Diana – on the hunt. I do get it, the spiritual medium stuff *is* odd, but it’s also … grief. I’ve patiently listened to family who’ve detailed signs they’ve received from our loved ones who passed, and I believe that they believe it because they need to. That’s all.

The big thing that surprised me in this book was, I came away with a better opinion of William and Kate Middleton (I KNOW! Who'd have thunk?) For all that the press have glommed onto they physical altercations and intimidation between the Heir and the Spare, I think Harry actually highlights a few realities of royal life I was unaware of and works to show the ways that his whole family - but maybe his older brother especially - are trapped by this cycle that Charles and Camilla in particular, welcomed into the royal roster (that is; the hiring of ex-Government and media spin-doctors in comms teams, a precedent of leaking against each other and an unhealthy obsession with tracking their popularity as catalogued by the media ...) The fact that the only other person around who can understand William's unique and difficult position is his own father, who is obsessed with one-upping his son as the next in line to the throne. I genuinely got the impression that William is stuck, and lashing out because of it - and has little to no interest in the Crown whatsoever, but is playing the part he's been assigned.

What's missing from 'Spare' seems to be a surprising amount. Namely to do with the Queen and Prince Philip who are both really missing from its pages ... I'd suggest that might have been a decision after both their deaths, and in respect to the fact that they couldn't respond to any of Harry's claims. There's a part of me - personally - that wonders if a big thread that was cut out, is whether or not the Queen in her later-years was not as "with it" when it came to these machinations with the press and day-to-day decisions of her office? I'd say that's likely, and I would not be surprised if royal employees (like the Bee, Wasp and Fly who Harry aliases from her comms teams) and maybe under permission of Charles & Co. over-stepped, lied, and did as they thought best, knowing the Queen wasn't as hands-on as she'd previously been. “Is he in the room with you, granny?” Harry asks his grandmother at one point, after he's been thwarted in seeing her by one of her courtiers (after she'd encouraged him only the day before, to come and see her since she had the whole day free.)

Mmmmm. I think it’s possible that what was left out of ‘Spare’ could have been questions about the Queen’s capacities in her final years, and maybe how some people in her circle took advantage of her diminished health …

'Spare' has been made out to be a bit of a circus. It's not that. It's Harry, I think, providing his own historic record and ensuring that one primary product of the press (stories about him, and his wife) are depleted by him, and him alone (yes, for profit - which is another revenge against those who've been profiting off their story and tragedy for years.)

He's taking all the air out of his own tale, so that it is devalued for those people who've plagued him - and his family - their whole lives. In doing so he's also taking a considerable amount of shine off the Crown jewels, for sure. Showing that at the end of the day, they're just people - as dysfunctional as most others.

Once this historic family of Harry's held onto their divine right by blood and battle - now the battlefield has changed to the press and social media, but there's still a war being raged and if nothing else, Harry is taking himself and his family off the chess-board once and for all. A spare pawn, no more.


Monday, January 9, 2023

'Olympus, Texas' by Stacey Swann


From the BLURB: 

A bighearted debut with technicolor characters, plenty of Texas swagger, and a powder keg of a plot in which marriages struggle, rivalries flare, and secrets explode, all with a clever wink toward classical mythology. 

When March Briscoe returns to East Texas two years after he was caught having an affair with his brother's wife, the Briscoe family becomes once again the talk of the small town of Olympus. His mother, June, hardly welcomes him back with open arms. Her husband's own past affairs have made her tired of being the long-suffering spouse. Is it, perhaps, time for a change? Within days of March's arrival, someone is dead, marriages are upended, and even the strongest of alliances are shattered. In the end, the ties that hold them together might be exactly what drag them all down.

'Olympus, Texas' by Stacey Swann came out in 2021, and I’ve had the book (kindly sent to me by Hachette Australia at the time) on my TBR ever since.

It’s the second week of 2023 and I think I’ve already had one of my best reading experiences, and a new fave book.

The way I’d describe it is … if ‘One Tree Hill’ had been developed by HBO. This would be it. ‘Olympus, Texas’ is basically southern gothic, Greek myth, soap-opera. If you liked ‘Early Morning Riser’ by Katherine Heiny, you’ll dig this. And yes there's obviously Greek Mythology inspo throughout, but look me in the eye and tell me Mount Olympus wasn't just the first Coronation Street, Dallas, or Summer Bay ...

It’s all about the Briscoe family of Olympus whose patriarch Peter (the Zeus-esque character) had three children out of wedlock, on top of the three he had in his marriage to matriarch, June (or, Hera). And all the kids were raised in small town Olympus; one with the secret of their paternity, while twins of Peter’s mistress were welcomed into the Briscoe family fold.

When we meet this twisty family - the stars of small-town gossip - it’s spanning a couple of tumultuous weeks in their lives, kicked off when Peter and June’s middle son March returns home after two years of exile, for sleeping with his brother’s wife.

Everything is a powder-keg ready to explode as this family and the people who orbit them keep repeating generational traumas and mistakes. It’s delicious. I gasped, I laughed, I cried.

Of course people are going to come to this and read more of the Greek Myth overtones - Peter's mistress was Lee who had twins called Artie and Arlo that were permitted to be half-siblings to the "official" Briscoe children; which is the Leto being seduced by Zeus and giving birth to Apollo and Artemis thread. March - the troubled brother who slept with his sister-in-law - is Hades, cast out of the family for his indiscretions and temper, returned when the story begins (with two big dogs in tow, veritable Cerberus). That's totally cool if you want to connect-the-dots with all the wonderful Greek Myth keynotes, but I got a lot of enjoyment out of the book by not going too hard-eyed into that side, I really took it at face-value as Soap Opera (which is all the Geek Myths are anyway, lol - Aphrodite cheated on Hephaestus with Ares, you what!)

Ultimately this is a really beautifully-written book, so compelling as to feel like you’re reading a tightly-choreographed dance, or the entirety of a first season of prestige television … it’s that southern charm with gothic undertones, stories about people using each other as weapons to make themselves feel better and how we all play certain characters to appease our families and communities.

Whew. I’m gonna be thinking about this one for a LONG time, and recommending it far and wide!


Monday, January 2, 2023

'The Ninth Life of a Diamond Miner: A memoir' by Grace Tame

Received from the publisher 

From the BLURB; 

Grace Tame has never walked on middle ground. 

From a young age, her life was defined by uncertainty - by trauma and strength, sadness and hope, terrible lows and wondrous highs. As a teenager she found the courage to speak up after experiencing awful and ongoing child sexual abuse. This fight to find her voice would not be her last. 

In 2021 Grace stepped squarely into the public eye as the Australian of the Year, and was the catalyst for a tidal wave of conversation and action. Australians from all walks of life were inspired and moved by her fire and passion. She was using her voice and encouraging others to use theirs too. 

The Ninth Life of a Diamond Miner is Grace's story, in Grace's words, on Grace's terms. Here she returns, again and again, to the things that have driven and saved her: love, connection and radical, unwavering honesty. Like Grace, this book is sharply intelligent, deeply felt, wildly unexpected and often blisteringly funny. And, as with all her work, it offers a constructive and optimistic vision for a better future for all of us.

I spent the day reading ‘The Ninth Life of a Diamond Miner: A memoir’ by Grace Tame - kindly gifted by PanMacmillan.

*Deep breath*

I found this to be both pulverising and illuminating.

As a memoir it stretches and reverberates. Grace jumps around in her own timeline, sometimes - and she can give a long-eyed gaze over her lifetime, and then snap it short when she pleases. This is her right, and it makes it sound more like *her* - and the way her actually autistic mind works.

In reading, I was relieved to discover that I didn’t actually know a lot about the trial relating to Grace Tame as the survivor of ongoing childhood sexual abuse. I had more knowledge of her work post-trial in which her abuser was convicted, and she became an activist (and Australian of the Year) speaking out on behalf of victims and campaigning for better respect for them, particularly by and in the media.

So I’m glad that I really only have Grace’s account, but I - of course! - still found her writing about the schoolteacher who groomed and abused her to be horrific. It’s hard to read. Of course it is. But she writes it at once with such clear-eyed memory, intricately layered with tender context and knowledge of how abuse looks, feels and how predators work. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to recount - alongside her abuse as a child too, and her anorexia as a result of ongoing trauma. But I found her recounting to be necessarily forthright, while still retaining a tender sadness for the girl she was. I also thought the way she kept survivors front of mind in the narrative was subtle but hugely powerful.

And then I was deeply disturbed (but not surprised) by the many ways Grace was failed. Particularly by her school - who have since had many more survivors come forward with accusations against that rock spider of a creeper teacher, Nicolaas Bester.

Even recently, Grace recalls how she was vilified for refusing to smile in photographs with then Prime Minister Scott Morrison - who failed survivors at every turn of his Prime Ministership. She isn’t unaware of the fact that she did everything “right” - her abuser even boasted of his crimes and was convicted - but she is still hated and disbelieved. Because she lives in the light. Because she has challenged institutions and powerful individuals, and always will.

At one point, Grace writes that she feels certain she’ll write more books than just this one. She talks about her life lived with art (and indeed, she illustrated the incredible front cover!) - some of her sentences and thoughts within are so prickly and perfect (“That sticky, sticky voice.”) and I too feel certain that she is just beginning. I know she is. It’s all ahead of her - but even knowing that, I was grateful for the balm of this book, and Grace showing people what survivorship can look like. Imperfect. Chaotic. Messy. Unrelenting. Ongoing.

Grace doesn’t owe the public anything. But I am glad for a generous spirit and decision to share her story many times over. She keeps reaching out in the dark, and I feel very strongly that those who need to - will keep finding her. This book is just another beacon.


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