Tara Calaby

author, historian & phd candidate

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.

REVIEW: Halo 2: Anniversary

Halo 2 Anniversary cover

I came to the Halo franchise very late. I played the original game for the first time nearly two decades after its release, and now the sequel sixteen years after it came out in 2004. The advantage of leaving it so long is that my introduction has been through the updated anniversary editions that form part of the Master Chief Collection that was released for the Xbox One.

I was absolutely not a player of shooters until I met Bioware. Prior to picking up the first Mass Effect game, the only FPS I’d played was the admittedly great-for-the-time N64 Goldeneye game. One of the things I’ve come to terms with over the last year is that my taste in games has changed greatly from when I got my first console a little under two decades ago. I used to be big on platforming (weren’t we all?) and couldn’t stand first-person shooters. I didn’t really like ranged attacks at all. Now, however, platformers feel like a chore, and not a bearable one – think scrubbing the shower grouting, rather than taking the recycling out. Shooters, though, have become much more enjoyable to me, and the Halo games have been my introduction to the straightforward kind of FPS, as opposed to the heightened atmosphere and coolness of the Bioshock games.

While I like shooters now, I still don’t fall into the true target audience of the Halo games. There’s a definite sense in the first two games that we’re meant to use the characterless Master Chief as an avatar for our own hero fantasies, and my hero fantasies have never involved being a dude with no personality who goes around shooting aliens. (As a comparison—and me being me, of course it’s a Dragon Age 2 comparison—I would give almost anything to be as cool as Garrett Hawke.) I wish there was an opportunity to either learn more about who the Master Chief is, or else to define that for yourself. Because of this, I really appreciated the introduction of the Arbiter as a playable character in Halo 2. While I struggled with some gameplay aspects connected to this (from a distance, there’s no way of knowing who’s an enemy and who’s an ally), the Arbiter is definitely a more interesting protagonist than the faceless Master Chief.

As far as the other characters go, well, the storyline is a little cumbersome at times, but both Miranda Keyes and Johnson are likeable and well-portrayed by their voice actors, Julie Benz and David Scully. (Keith David does a good job as the Arbiter as well.) In the Anniversary edition, all of the characters look great, too. The humans are quite realistic (and Miranda actually looks like a commander instead of a cam girl) and all of the aliens have benefited from their HD glow-up. The scenery looks much prettier, too, although switching between the original and remastered versions reveals that sometimes this comes at the expense of atmosphere. The improved sound is excellent, demonstrated particularly well when the soundtrack heightens during several of the mass fight scenes.

I had two key issues with Halo 2. The first is quite straightforward: it’s very repetitive. If the game were as long as many modern games are, I would have struggled to finish it without pausing to play something else in between Halo sessions. Generally, a mission involves moving through an area filled with enemies and either killing all those enemies or else getting past them without being killed yourself. Obviously, that’s the basic outline of many games, but I don’t think Halo really goes beyond that outline. The cutscenes are mostly just at the beginning and end of each mission, and there’s not a lot of real variation between one mission and the next.

The second key problem is that it’s not always clear where you need to go and what you need to do. This game would benefit so much from a map function, or at least some kind of indicator on the radar of where you’re supposed to head next. A lot of my game time was spent wandering in circles trying to find a way out of a particular area. There’s also the fact that it’s a rare thing for the game to indicate whether you’re in a kill-everything area or a these-things-will-respawn-until-eternity area. For people who are playing for the sheer enjoyment of shooting stuff, this probably isn’t a big issue, but I’m more goal-driven in games, and I’d have really appreciated knowing when I could move on without going full Armageddon on everything first.

I personally enjoy gaming as a solitary pursuit, so I can’t speak at all about the multiplayer maps or experience in Halo 2. I do, however, appreciate that a game that has such a focus on the multiplayer aspect also has a strong single player campaign mode.

All up, I am enjoying finally getting to experience such an important gaming franchise, and I think it’s been a good primer on FPS gaming for me. I think a lot of my criticisms of both this game and the original relate a lot to who I am as a gamer, rather than to the quality of the game as a whole. And, ultimately, none of them stopped me playing, nor enjoying, Halo 2—they just meant that it won’t ever be a favourite, and that’s fine. I have enough games I play once a year as it is.

The Ghost of You

Black Telephone magazine

A slightly belated announcement that the second issue of Black Telephone Magazine has launched, containing my piece “The Ghost of You”—a dark sci-fi piece about love and loss, with a fantasy aesthetic.

You can find my piece here, but please check out the rest of the great content as well!

Review: Princess Amy (Melinda Pollowitz)

Melinda Pollowitz, Princess Amy (Bantam, 1981)

Category: Young Adult Fiction > Romance

Series: Sweet Dreams, #4

Setting: 1980s Michigan, USA

Locations: Mackinac Island, Petoskey

Key Words: Love triangle, class, family, snobbery, LARP, holiday, romance, cousin

In Brief: The biggest issue with this book is that we’re supposed to believe that Amy is torn between Pete and Guy when Guy is just plain awful. We’re told repeatedly that he’s really hot, and that’s why Amy can’t stay away despite him being a prat, but she finds Pete attractive too, so it doesn’t make any sense. The dialogue’s often clunky, too.

Huh?: The Chad-like Guy and all his super snobby friends apparently play a LARP version of D&D. Not likely.

Protagonist: Amy Painter (16 years old, female, white, American, middle class, slim, able-bodied, neurotypical)

Diverse Key Characters: Pete Demarest (working class)

Content Warning: Unhealthy weight loss discussion and behaviour. (Amy’s aunt and cousin diet constantly and want Amy to do the same. Initially she says she doesn’t need to, because she’s not overweight, but by the end of the book she’s crowing about her stomach shrinking and she’s dropped a dress size in three weeks.)

Author: Melinda Pollowitz (American)

Review: Jessica Gets Spooked (Francine Pascal)

Francine Pascal, Jessica Gets Spooked (Bantam, 1993)

Category: Junior Fiction > Contemporary

Series: Sweet Valley Kids, #43

Setting: 1990s California, USA

Key Words: Twins, Bullying, School Trips, Pranks, Crushes

In Brief: Not one of the better Kids books. As happens far to often in these, bullying isn’t dealt with at all well, made even worse in this one by the inclusion of the terrible concept of boys harassing and assaulting girls because they “like” them. Telling kids that this is a thing—and an acceptable thing, what’s more—sets them up for a lifetime of toxic gendered behaviour. Uncool.

Protagonist: Jessica (7 years old, female, white, American, middle class)

Other Key Characters: Elizabeth (7 years old, female, white, American, middle class)

Content Warning: Toxic gendered behaviour

Review: Jessica’s Monster Nightmare (Francine Pascal)

Francine Pascal, Jessica’s Monster Nightmare (Bantam, 1993)

Category: Junior Fiction > Contemporary

Series: Sweet Valley Kids, #42

Setting: 1990s California, USA

Key Words: Nightmares, Twins, Fears

In Brief: An entertaining and realistic story that would be genuinely helpful to readers who had nightmare monsters of their own. I particularly appreciated the fact that the nightmares were depicted as being truly scary and not just something Jess could conquer through courage alone.

Protagonist: Jessica (7 years old, female, white, American, middle class)

Other Key Characters: Elizabeth (7 years old, female, white, American, middle class)

Author: Molly Mia Stewart (ghost writer, presumably American)

Creator: Francine Pascal (American)

Illustrator: Ying-Hwa Hu (Taiwanese American)

Review: The Fault in Our Stars (John Green)

The Fault in Our Stars book cover
John Green, The Fault in Our Stars (Penguin, 2012).

Category: Young Adult Fiction: Contemporary

Setting: 2010s Indianapolis, USA

Key Words: Cancer, Romance, First Love

In Brief: A book that initially is more about life than imminent death, but which succumbs to many of the usual tropes by the end.

The Plot: A terminally ill girl meets a boy in her cancer support group and they fall in love.

The Protagonist: Hazel, a sixteen-year-old girl whose terminal cancer has been paused by a new drug.

The Love Interest: Augustus, seventeen years old and in remission for fourteen months at the start of the novel.

Other Female Characters: The only main one is Hazel’s mother, who is more complex than it initially seems. Hazel has kept one school friend, but their friendship is surface level compared with her friendships with Augustus and Isaac.

Diverse Characters: The three teenage characters are disabled / chronically ill.

The Worst Bit: Three words: Anne, Frank, applause.

(content warnings under the cut)

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