Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Review: The Derby Girl by Tamara Morgan

4 stars

The Derby Girl  is the third book by Morgan I've read, and I've come to realise that she's is exceptional at creating emotionally complex and realistic characters and plots. 

Gretchen, roller derby player and perpetual student, has been giving Dr. Jared Fine, local plastic surgeon and national hero, his coffee for months, but he doesn't recognise her when she stops to help him with his broken-down car orr when he asks her out a few minutes later. Jared is fascinated by Gretchen's her tough-girl demeanour, but Gretchen is playing a role and holding herself back, worried that Jared only wants the fantasy of the tattooed derby girl. 

The interplay between Jared and Gretchen was great. They snipe away at each other, and Gretchen doesn't take any shit, calling Jared out when he's being a selfish prick. He's a classic messed-up anti-hero (although a very nuanced one), and much of the book's conflict comes from Gretchen's concern that his relationship with her might be emotionally unhealthy. Having said that, we also have an excellent sub-plot surrounding Gretchen's aging grandmother, with whom she lives. 

Although Jared had a tendency towards dickishness, Morgan constructs this in such a way that, for the most part, you can't really hold it against him. Jared's sensitiveness, his upbringing and career, and his growing awareness his male privilege, meant that I didn't have any problems with him as a hero, at least until the final chapters. Up until then, there was never any doubt in my mind that Gretchen would reform him, in the great tradition of romance heroines everywhere.

Except that, I kind of felt that, in the end, she didn't. And, even though I suppose that was in line with the complex emotional realism that I value from Morgan, it also is the reason I shaved the rating down to 4 stars, even though I decided about halfway through that it was definitely a 4.5. 

In short, the ending let me down. Throughout the book, Jared has a complicated relationship with his father, and fights against the thought of becoming an uncaring, manipulative bastard like his old man. Without giving too much away, the ending sees him manipulate his friends to get what he wants, and, for me, this played into the fatalistic belief that he would become like his father, and took away from the hopeful note that his relationship with Gretchen could somehow 'save' him. 

Even though it may not sound like it from the way I've presented Jared and Gretchen's relationship, the traditional idea of a woman being responsible for her male partner's wellbeing and behaviour is one that is challenged throughout The Derby Girl. It does concern Gretchen that this is what Jared expects of her, and they discuss her concerns in the final pages of the book:
"...that's the problem. I can't be responsible for your actions or lack thereof. That's not a relationship. That's a jail sentence."
 "You're wrong." When she opened her mouth to protest, Jared grabbed her hands, unwilling and unable to let her go. "The problem with that scenario isn't that I'm asking you to be my reality check--It's that you haven't asked me to yours in return."
This is also where Gretchen's strength of character is important, in that it gives the reader peace of mind that the dynamic will always be that of equals, because she isn't afraid to draw boundaries and stick to them.

On the whole, The Derby Girl was a funny and enjoyable read with good emotional depth. I came away loving it, and it was only packing the dishwasher afterward that I started to have reservations about the ending. So, really, the take-away here is to never to do housework. It gives you to much time to think stuff over. 

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Non-Fiction Review: Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi by Steve Inskeep


At a basic level, I don’t really need to provide a synopsis for Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi, because the title does it for me. As the name conveys, it is the biography of a city that has undergone rapid and haphazard expansion, and of its citizens. But it’s more than that, because Inskeep has used Karachi as a microcosm to to explore many broader phenomena. Firstly, there's the history. Just like the country as a whole, Karachi's physical and social landcape has been shaped by Jinnah and the Partition, by military coups and the Bhuttos, by growing Islamisation and conservatism. However, as much as the story of Karachi is linked to its national context, it's also a remarkably universal one, of refugee crises, housing insecurity and unchecked and uneven development, of division along ethnic lines and of partisanship and corruption.

Inskeep tells these tales with unerring compassion and insight, which is why the trigger-happy quote given pride of place on the dust cover makes me so angry. It says:
[This book] will interest anybody who wants to understand the wars the United States is fighting, as well as anyone worried about the future of Pakistan, which may be the most important question facing the world today. Impressively structured and briskly told, Instant City is the Friday Night Lights of terrorism.
I’m sorry, but that guy did not read the same book I did. The book I read mentioned the US’ military entanglements maybe twice, and while Islamic extremism is woven throughout the book, Inskeep handles it very judiciously. His treatment of it is an exercise in perspective, a reminder that only tiny percentage of terrorism spills over into the West. Like the 2009 Ashura bombing that opens the book, or the bombings that happened in Lahore over Easter, the vast majority of terrorism is citizens of a country killing citizens of the same country who are ideologically, ethnically and/or religiously different (or sometimes people who aren't, but who simply get caught in the fray). 

In the Note on Sources that concludes the book, Inskeep writes: if this book succeeds at all, it lets the city speak for itself and be judged on its own terms. And it does. It doesn't buy into the problematic discourses that the West constructs around Pakistan, the Muslim world and the Global South, but neither does it pull its punches. Inskeep is present throughout as a narrator, but he makes few judgements or conclusions, prefering instead to let his interviewees speak for themselves. Where things are contentious, he provides all interested parties a chance to give their side of the story.

Ultimately, it's these traits that take Instant City out of the realm of simple biography, and make it into a discerning analysis of the complexities and contradictions of Karachi, and Pakistan as a whole. I have a policy of not rating non-fiction, but if I did, Instant City would be a definite 5 stars.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Review: His Princess by Kiru Taye

3.5 stars

His Princess is the third story included in Kiru Taye's Men of Valor boxset. I enjoyed the setting of pre-colonial Southern Nigeria so much that I read straight through all three stories in a day, but His Princess was the stand-out for me, for a number of reasons. 

Firstly, it was longer, which meant more time for character development. Our heroine, Ezinne, is a slave/servant. When her mistress returns to her home kingdom to visit her father, she gifts Ezinne to her husband, Prince Emeka, as a 'companion' while she is away. Ezinne is resentful of the arrangement, but she's irrevocably bound to her mistress, and intrigued by the kind prince. Emeka has long been interested in Ezinne, but he's not about to take her as a concubine, nor as a second wife. Emera is an upstanding man and I thought Ezinne was an excellent heroine, who was strong but vulnerable, and who had secrets that needed protecting. 

His Princess is one of those rare stories where I had no inkling as to how the complications were going to resolve themselves. That was partly because the characters are at an impasse, but also because - to my shame - I have no knowledge of pre-colonial Igbo culture (Even after some Googling, it's a guess that the stories are set in Igboland - someone correct me if I'm wrong). In settings and time periods I'm more familiar with, I know the rough likelihood of a divorce or annulment, and I might be able to speculate on other ways the author would resolve hero married to a woman that isn't the heroine, but here, I literally had NO CLUE what the socially acceptable options were. 

The ending was even more of a surprise than I expected - a bit melodramatic and fairytale-like, but in a good, Brothers Grimm way. The road to the HEA was rougher than the other two stories, and so, in the end, the pay-off is bigger.

His Princess also featured slightly better editing than His Treasure and His Strength, where there was some inconsistent first/third person narration. It was minor - all that was needed was to italicise the first person sentences so that it was clearer that they were thought processes - but still annoying. 

However, I'd still recommend all three stories; the other two are probably 3 star reads for me. Throughout all three stories, Taye weaves certain historical realities, such as slavery and polygamy,  throughout and yet never alienates a modern reader used to different social norms. This is undoubtedly her strength. Again, though, His Princess gets a special mention: because it's set at the royal court, it features the most interesting socio-political context. 

Thursday, 7 April 2016

Review: Craving Flight by Tamsen Parker

3.5 stars

Tzipporah Berger is thirty-seven, once-divorced and newly part of an Orthodox Jewish community. When she mentions to the rabbi's wife that she's looking to remarry, gruff local butcher Elan Klein is put forward as a candidate. He ticks all the right boxes for Tzipporah, and she's hopeful that he might even be able give her what she needs in the bedroom, but BDSM isn't really something you can bring up between "How do you feel about children?" and "How strictly do you keep kosher?" in an Orthodox courtship. Marriage is always a struggle, but it proves even more so for two people who don't know each other very well outside of the marriage bed, and who originally come from two very different worlds. 

Tzipporah was such a vulnerable character, as was Elan towards the end, and basically Craving Flight emotionally gutted me. Some of that was in a good way, but it was also partly in a it-all-ended-too-soon-and-I-haven't-made-peace-with-everything way. I found it to be a very emotional read, and I don't feel like I can rationalise all those feelings very well, so bear with me. 

Elan was a gentle giant - gotta love a gentle giant - and the brusque care he showed Tzippporah was touching. Nonetheless, as a ba'alat teshuva (a secular Jew who has chosen to become Orthodox), she struggles with feelings of inadequacy, which are inadvertently exasperated by Elan and his family. Even though these feelings mostly surround matters of religious observance, it's something I think most women can relate to, as we're socially conditioned to link our worth to our relationships with other people. 

Both Elan and Tzipporah are fully-grown adults who have been married once before, and who each have a life and profession of their own. Tzipporah works as a professor, and has to constantly defend her decision to live a life that people outside the community - including her own family - see as oppressive. When it came to age, gender and religion, I thought that Craving Flight was measured and thoughtful, which is why the quick turnaround to a HEA at the end was such a shock to the system. 

I'll pick up the odd BDSM book occasionally, even if I don't read very many of them, but I've rarely felt so uncomfortable about the sex scenes in a book before. I started to skim over them, because they were just too much for me, both in terms of the kink itself and the characters' interactions. It wasn't that there was a power imbalance between them - they were all clear on that front - but...Tzipporah just became so emotional, and Elan was still so inscrutable. We never get to see his reactions to being a Dom; the focus is always on Tzippoarah, and it was just hurt my heart to see her laid bare emotionally. 

I think I could have coped with it better if I'd had more insight into Elan as a character. We did get to see some emotion from him towards the end, but having been been such an unemotional character up until that point, it came as a bit of a bombshell that I didn't expect, and didn't recover from. 

I don't know why I had such strong reactions to Craving Flight, or whether other readers can expect the same. Nor do I even know whether this review will even be at all useful for someone deciding whether or not to read the book, but here it is anyway. I would recommend giving it a go, especially since it's free on both US and Australian Amazon. 

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Opinion/Reflection: Australia's Erasure of Its Indigenous History

Australia's having another flash-in-the-pan moment where it has the choice to face up to its institutionalised erasure of Indigenous Australians in our history, or keep its head in the sand. Unsurprisingly, we've chosen the latter.

This time, the spark was a Daily Terror article manufacturing outrage over the fact that UNSW encourages the use of the word 'invasion' over 'discovery' when talking about British occupation. The whole thing has gone down much the same way it always does, and I don't have anything to say about it that an Indigenous voice hasn't said better; Luke Pearson's What Was 200 Years Ago? is particularly powerful.

However, something else that has caught my eye this week, as we've been dealing with this, is two remarkably similar stories of Indigenous archaeological finds on government building sites. One is in Sydney, where I live, and the other in New Zealand's Waikato region, where my family are from.

While building Sydney's much-anticipated lightrail, workers and heritage experts have uncovered a site with 22,000 Aboriginal artefacts, and the Sydney Morning Herald reported that an Indigenous heritage group is having to apply for an urgent stop work order. Transport for NSW claimed that the archaeological site was less than one percent of the whole site, and that workers could still work around it, but representatives from the heritage group said that the cache was the most easily identifiable part of a larger site, and that the whole area needed to be surveyed. The finds have significance for our understanding of inter-tribal trade and interaction, and according to an elder in the ABC article cited below, half of the site has already been destroyed. Transport's NSW statement is as follows:
All work that has occurred on the site since the artefacts were found has been in consultation with all Aboriginal groups...Transport for NSW and ALTRAC Light Rail are investigating, in conjunction with the Aboriginal representatives, opportunities to recognise the items found on site, for example in displays or education programs. The social value of the site to the local Aboriginal community is very high and we are continuing to work with [the Aboriginal groups] to identify the artefacts and how they came to be found in Randwick. - ABC News, Indigenous atrefacts found at Sydney light rail construction site, calls to halt work
Compare that response with what happened when a pre-European skull was found while digging a culvert for the New Zealand's new Waikato expressway. For a start, a stop work order was given immediately, and workers were transferred to sites up and down the expressway, away from the site. The press release from the New Zealand Transport Agency describes their process, and I've added some annotations for non-New Zealanders:
The Transport Agency's Hamilton highway manager Kaye Clark said project protocols which the NZ Transport Agency has developed alongside Waikato-Tainui immediately came into play when the remains were uncovered.   
“Our protocols include provisions for kaitiaki (guardian) from iwi [tribes] to work on site, as needed, to monitor earthworks as they unfold. This discovery was made by the kaitiaki and the project archaeologists working alongside each other, which is exactly what should happen,” Mrs Clark says.
The area was blessed by Waikato-Tainui [the local tribe] this morning (March 30) and work has stopped in that area while archaeologists remove the remains and carry out investigations in the surrounding area. 
Mrs Clark says where possible the Transport Agency worked hard to align new highways away from any sites of significance. 
“Working with iwi and the local communities we try to identify all areas of significance before we embark on our projects. Where that is not possible archaeological investigations are undertaken at the start of any project to collect and record any history so we can make it available for all New Zealanders,” Mrs Clark says. 
“In situations like this, we also have protocols we have developed alongside iwi to ensure correct cultural processes are followed.” 
Waikato Tainui, Te Arataura Chairman Rahui Papa said the co-designed process which led to the protocols being developed makes for an easier transition to ensure the correct cultural practice is engaged. 
“The NZ Transport Agency and Waikato-Tainui will continue to work in partnership to satisfy cultural values and to complete the journey that we embarked on together,” Mr Papa says. 
Once the koiwi has been removed, examined and the site investigation are complete the koiwi [remains] will be reinterred at Taupiri Urupa by kaumatua [elders].
Are you seeing a difference? Because I certainly am. One's on the defensive, and one's proactive. Also, one's a statement that was only made after the media picked up on the issue, and the other was a standard press release created to any inform interested parties about what had occurred. That's not to say that New Zealand is some kind of utopia - they still have the same legacy as any other settler society - but when it comes to tangibly respecting their Indigenous heritage, they're light years ahead of Australia.

You can be assured there are no public servants in NSW making statements about working hard "to align new highways away from any sites of significance". We don't even recognise that Indigenous Australians have sites of significance.

In 2014, there was a backlash when then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott said that the British arrived to "nothing but bush", but essentially our society functions on this premise. It's why there's mass outrage when we're told that 'discovery' is not an acceptable term, why Indigenous heritage groups have to campaign for something that should be automatic. In another depressing incident from the last week, it's why Tony Abbott was able to publish a Quarterly essay in which one of the opening lines was "we [Australia] lack a colonial past to complicate the present", and nobody really batted an eyelid. 
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