writer, editor & phd candidate

Author: Tara Calaby Page 1 of 24

June Reading, 2021

Lots of PhD reading again in June… and this list doesn’t even include all of the journal articles! I did manage to grab a little fiction reading time, and utterly loved both of the novels I finished.

THOUGHTS: Flaubert’s Parrot (Julian Barnes)

I am terrible at reviews, so instead I present you with a collection of quotes from Flaubert’s Parrot that spoke to me particularly loudly while reading it.

May Reading, 2021

Another very PhD-focused reading month, which meant that I only read the one novel (and even then, that was PhD-adjacent). I did enjoy it, though! My favourite read this month was Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered by Karen Kilgariff & Georgia Hardstark, which was way more thinky than I was expecting it to be and just very good in general.

April Reading, 2021

My April reading was predominantly PhD focused, which means that I actually only read two works of fiction. It also means that, when you gather all my brief reviews together, it becomes very clear that I am not very creative when it comes to reviewing academic books!

My favourite reads this month were Neo-Victorian Fiction and Historical Narrative: The Victorians and Us by Louisa Hadley and History and Cultural Memory in Neo-Victorian Fiction: Victorian Afterimages by Kate Mitchell. Apparently I like books on Neo-Victorian fiction.

March Reading, 2021

Every so often I try to be a better reviewer, and shortly afterwards realise that my head really doesn’t work that way. I do want to talk about the things I’ve been reading, though, so I’m going to experiment with a monthly post that includes copies of the book-thoughts I post on Goodreads/Library Thing and perhaps a bit of extra commentary.  

March was a bit unusual for me, because I had surgery at the end of February and was therefore going through various stages of recovery during March. Because of this, I was mostly watching reality TV at the beginning of the month. That said, I did eventually do some reading, much of it PhD-focused.

My favourite fictional read this month was easily The Serpent’s Skin, by Erina Reddan—such a strong, original voice! As for non-fiction, I particularly enjoyed Prostitution and Victorian Society, by Judith R. Walkowitz, which combined thorough research and an engaging writing style.

REVIEW: The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka (Clare Wright)

For someone who grew up in Australia, I have read very little about the Eureka Stockade. I’m sure I would have been shown the location while on a grade five school camp to Ballarat, but I have much stronger memories of dressing in period costume at Sovereign Hill and learning to write on a slate. Miners’ rebellions over such dull things as taxes just don’t rate with children, it seems.

The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, therefore, is the first in-depth account of the Stockade, and all of the events—major and minor—that led up to what occurred in Ballarat in December 1854. It’s very well suited to me, too, as the focus is largely on the women of Ballarat, and it is a social and political history, rather than a military history of events.

Clare Wright’s writing style is contemporary, informal, and often poetic.  She makes extensive use of quotes from diaries, letters and newspaper reports, so that the words of the people she’s talking about occupy almost as much space in the book as do her own. The formatting of the ebook edition I read made it difficult to distinguish block quotes from standard text, which was unfortunate and occasionally confusing, but I very much appreciated Wright’s commitment to allowing her subjects to speak for themselves where possible.

There is a lot of information here, so the book does feel very lengthy, and I found the first part less engaging than the latter parts, which were more focused on Ballarat itself. This isn’t a primer, but rather a collection of voices that is obviously the end product of an enormous amount of research.

I’m still not an expert on miners’ rebellions, but I come away from reading The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka knowing a lot more about the people involved with this rebellion in particular, and having a greater sense of why the Eureka Stockade is so often considered an important event in Australia’s history.  

REVIEW: The Pull of the Stars (Emma Donoghue)

The Pull of the Stars book cover

Three days in the life of Julia Power, a maternity nurse in a Dublin hospital overwhelmed by patients at the peak of the Great Flu.

The Pull of the Stars is another excellent novel from Emma Donoghue. Her level of research is impressive, as always, but it never overwhelms the humanity of her characters or the emotion of her chosen subjects. I was a little reluctant to read a novel about a pandemic in the middle of a pandemic, but there are moments of hope woven in that speak as much to the current crisis as they do to the grief and fear felt in 1918.  I will say that this isn’t a happy novel, so if you’re seeking something light with a happy ending to escape from the weight of the world right now, I’d suggest you put this one aside for a few months.

While the writing in The Pull of the Stars is always clear and well-crafted, I struggled a lot at first with the lack of quotation marks. Their absence adds to the immediacy of the novel’s action, but it took me about half the book to adjust to the technique and, in the meantime, I was often taken out of the action by my inability to identify whether a sentence was speech (and, if so, who was saying it). I can be a bit slow with this sort of thing, so I’m sure other readers will adapt almost immediately.

I also found that my enjoyment of the book waned a little for the last of the four parts. I loved the first three sections and felt like there was a good mix of realistic sadness and of lighter moments that helped it not to feel ceaselessly depressing. The final part takes away much of what made the earlier sections hopeful, however, and the replacement felt a bit like an eradication of queerness so that the protagonist could take up the pure duty of motherhood in a world where women are expected to show their love for their husbands by bearing them a dozen children.

This is a personal reaction, as a lesbian who is really struggling with the bleakness of the world right now, and I acknowledge that there is an enormous difference between a straight author employing these negative queer tropes and a lesbian author doing the same. The final part doesn’t take away from the great writing in the novel as a whole—it just made me wish that I had delayed reading it until a time when I didn’t need to seek hope in fiction due to a lack of it in the real world.

REVIEW: The Pact (Jodi Picoult)

Cover of The Pact

Chris is found with his girlfriend, Emily, who is dying of a gunshot to the head. Was it a suicide pact, or did he murder his lifelong best friend?

I picked this up at a library book sale a few years back because I remembered enjoying Nineteen Minutes. I’m not sure how much I can say that I felt the same way about The Pact. At no point did I seriously consider leaving it unfinished, but I didn’t engage with the plot or the characters on an emotional level at all. My key motivation in reading through to the end was finding out what truly happened on the night that Emily died.

It’s definitely easy to read, and the 451 pages of my edition didn’t feel as lengthy as I had feared. Picoult keeps the reader guessing right up until the novel’s conclusion, and does so through the use of multiple point-of-view character. Most of these characters have no idea what really happened, so there’s always the awareness of truth being constructed by the individual according to their own biases—emphasised by the defending lawyer, Jordan’s, refusal to even engage with an objective truth any more. This would have been a more effective tactic, I think, if Chris had not been one of the characters giving their point of view. Chris, after all, knows what happens on the night in question, so the reader is always aware that it’s the author that’s keeping his truth away from them.

I think that the choice to have so many perspectives also limits the emotional connection that the reader can feel with the various characters. I felt very distant from the novel at all times. There isn’t a great deal of emotion in its pages, which is something I can actually very much appreciate, but I didn’t read any real emotion between the lines either. The Pact is a novel that deals with grief, suicide and trauma, but all of these things feel like mere pieces of evidence to be raised in the ultimate trial. This was particularly grating to me with regard to Emily’s childhood trauma and the ongoing effect it has on her, and it made me think a lot about how the traumatic experiences of women and girls are so commonly employed as inciting events in fiction, with inadequate space and sensitivity given to the subject. Here, at least, the trauma is inserted as motivation for Emily, not a male character connected to her, but I think we need to think deeply about the implications of creatively co-opting pain not personally experienced.

Does any of this mean that The Pact is a bad book? Of course not. It’s an engaging read that holds its mystery ever at the forefront, keeping the reader interested and curious right up until the very end. The lack of emotion I felt while reading the story means that it likely won’t stay with me for long, but I don’t at all feel that the time spent reading it was wasted.

TV: Lynda Day (Press Gang)

Always a little behind the times, I took around three decades to get around to watching “Press Gang”, despite owning the DVD collection for two of those decades. I thought I’d probably left it too late, as 80s and 90s teen TV has generally aged poorly, but I ended up being pleasantly surprised. Sure, the fashion is a bit iffy, but the soul of the series holds up well even today.

I wish I’d watched “Press Gang” back in the day because I really could’ve used having a character like Lynda to see myself in. Like me, she’s ambitious, driven, goal-focused… and absolutely rubbish at people. It’s not that she doesn’t have a good heart, but rather that emotions are a confusing and irritating distraction from more important things—especially when those emotions are her own. Her single-mindedness makes her an excellent editor, but it’s at the expense of human relationships, something that she touches upon occasionally but never in any real depth. She has Kenny, her ever-patient best friend and assistant editor, and Gazette head-writer Sarah, but they both leave her eventually, and that comes as no surprise.

At the beginning of her friendship with Sarah, Lynda says that everyone leaves her, as a way to manipulate Sarah, but it’s a manipulation based on truth. Lynda is too much for most people to handle. She’s hard work, she’s abrasive, and she is quite terrible at offering the comfort and understanding that most people want from a friend. To be fair, she doesn’t expect to receive that kind of care, either. Lynda might be difficult, but she’s rarely a hypocrite. She does what she thinks is the right thing to do, and she’s loyal to the people she cares for, even if they can’t see that, obscured as it is by her harsh tongue and abrasive ways.

And then, of course, there’s Spike, Lynda’s on-off boyfriend. He wants Lynda from the moment he meets her, but she takes a while to warm to him, and even longer to admit that she has feelings for him as well. “Press Gang” is partially the story of the push-pull relationship between Lynda and Spike and, while the later series don’t quite maintain the antagonistic chemistry of the show’s beginning, there is still the feeling that Lynda needs to be with someone like Spike, who will call her out when she behaves badly, but still love her for who she is, instead of despite of it.

Importantly, “Press Gang” never punishes Lynda for being a strong-minded woman who puts her work before her emotions. It’s not that Lynda never suffers negative consequences of her actions, but rather that bad things don’t happen to her simply because of the person she is. If anything, the powerful people in her life are too accepting, too willing to uplift her as a young woman of exceptional talent. I’m more than happy to overlook a little lack of realism on that count, though, as I would far prefer young female media consumers were offered too much hope for future success rather than too little.

Lynda’s a great character because she remains herself throughout the entirety of “Press Gang”. There’s no softening, no adoption of a more palatable kind of femininity, and I wish there had been a lot more Lynda’s to be found in my childhood media consumption, instead of an endless parade of girls casting off their tomboy personalities the moment that puberty began.

REVIEW: Kung Fu Panda (Xbox 360)

Kung Fu Panda Xbox 360 Cover

When I bought my Xbox 360, many years ago now, it came with three free games: Saint’s Row, Lego Indiana Jones, and Kung Fu Panda. Apparently they wanted to appeal to both the family market and the white-people-who-enjoy-games-full-of-the-N-word market. I tried Saint’s Row a while back and DNFed it pretty quickly. I was expecting Kung Fu Panda to be a speedy DNF as well. I’ve never seen the movie it’s based on, and my recent experiences in dealing with my game backlog have taught me that movie tie-in games are rarely any good.

This one, though? It’s really not bad! It’s extremely short and not exactly challenging, but I don’t necessarily think that’s such a terrible thing for a game that’s largely aimed at kids. I had a major case of pandemic brain when playing it, and it felt like the ideal game to pick up in that kind of situation—when you want something to occupy you but not to be taxing in any real way. I picture myself replaying it in the future when I’m stuck on the couch with a bad head cold.

As I said, this is not a long game. I finished it in around five hours of game play, and that’s with getting the 100% achievements for most of the levels. In the single player campaign, there aren’t many options for extending the length; the action is generally very railroaded, so it’s not like you can head off and explore for hours on end. There’s a reasonable amount of variety for the short length, however. You mostly play as Po, but there are also sections where you take control of other characters, who have different skill sets. Shifu, for example, has a cloud jumping ability, which is fun until you forget to hit the jump button and go crashing to your doom. A less successful game play element involves pressing specific buttons within a short time frame in order to execute fancy moves. I’m never a huge fan of that, but I’m even less of a fan when it happens with no warning in the middle of a seemingly normal fight.

On the whole, the cameras and controls were good for a game of this age. It allowed me to change the camera controls to the modern directions, but there was no way to alter the vertical movement in the one brief flying scene, which was unfortunate for both me as a player and for the characters I kept crashing into lightning bolts in consequence.

The voice acting might feel a bit strange to a player familiar with the film cast, but for me it generally worked quite well. Visually, it was good for a game of its age, which is probably helped by the lack of human characters.

All-up, Kung Fu Panda proved to be one of the pleasant surprises of my backlog adventure. It’s a solid family-oriented game with a mix of platforming and fighting elements that are entertaining in a non-demanding way.

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