Book Review: A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, by Jane Rawson

Available in selected bookstores.cv_a_wrong_turn_at_the_office_of_unmade_lists

The first I heard of this book was when it went on an Australian list of the ‘Most Underrated Books for 2014’, which began this year thanks to the Small Press Network. This award, says an article on The Conversation, seems set out to reward ‘off-beat, experimental and innovative books’ – ones that haven’t been quite as well-reviewed as they should have, but nonetheless deserve a wider audience. Soon after I finished the book, actually while I was at litcrawl in Wellington last month, I saw that it had in fact won this prize.

This is the debut novel of Jane Rawson, a news website editor from Melbourne. A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists begins in the future, in Melbourne, after a non-specified climate crisis which has left our heroine Caddy lonely, poor and desperate. She has no job, but is a struggling writer, scraping together money by batting her eyelashes at soldiers and being pimped out by her friend Ray to rich developers.

Ray is a wheeler and dealer – a survivor. He is well-off through his various underground business ventures, inasmuch as this is possible in a dystopian world. The twist in the tale begins when a peacekeeper sells him some very special maps. The first time he uses them, he is swept into a pseudo-Dickensian world called ‘The Gap’, which appears to be a beaurocratic world where Unmade Lists require an office, and things that have passed through people’s minds are stashed – in Suspended Imaginums (a suitably grim set of worlds are accessible there).

Rawson has skill in pushing the action along while filling in what you need to know about the world – following to the letter rule no 1 – show, don’t tell. A Wrong Turn plays with voice and genre, slipping around ably, something like a Jasper Fforde novel. When Ray meets Simon and Sarah, Sarah becomes the first person, because they are Caddy’s creations – or so we are led to believe.

This book is enjoyable and light-hearted, while addressing the question of what you would do to save your future if you knew exactly how bad it was destined to be. For me, the only weakness in the writing was in dialogue, specifically the snappy dialogue between Caddy and Ray. I felt the persona of Caddy was a bit too crazed, but perhaps I had just imagined her differently to her creator.

I agree with the panel in saying that this book deserves a wider audience. It is distinguished by its quality of production and its realistic dystopia. Well worth a read for those who know Melbourne or San Francisco well – it was my fascination with San Francisco that attracted my attention to the book.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists
by Jane Rawson
Published by Transit Lounge Publishing
ISBN 9781921924439

Book Review: The Days of Anna Madrigal, by Armistead Maupin

The full series is available in bookstores nationwide. 

I began reading Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City cv_the_days_of_anna_madrigalafter honeymooning in San Francisco, the city in which these are based. The love that Maupin has for his city shines through, and as somebody who counts San Francisco as one of their favourite cities in the world, I could hardly avoid becoming an avid follower of Maupin’s world.

The start of the series sees country girl Mary-Ann arrive in the big city, all wide-eyed and bushy-tailed. This is the ninth in the series, and while most of the main characters are there, this story focusses on Anna Madrigal’s childhood.

This is a road-trip book, with everybody going off in what appears to be opposite directions. Brian, one of the original tenants of Barbary Lane, comes with his new girlfriend, to take Anna (92) off for what they assume is likely to be her final trip ‘home’, to the town she grew up in as a young man. We learn, through flashbacks throughout the book, about Anna’s youth, and her mother’s friend Margaret, who helped her to understand her differences and gave her the confidence to make the ultimate decision.

Meanwhile, Anna’s live-in friend Jake (introduced many books earlier in the series as a workmate of Michael’s – one of the original flatmates) has another plot in mind, and hopes to take her to Burning Man. The descriptions of Burning Man are phenomenal – while I couldn’t ever imagine myself at one, to have one described by such a passionate participant in the artistic lifestyle, is a fantastic ride. (below is a concept for a central sculpture for this years’ Burning Man) embrace_burning_man

The ending wasn’t the one I expected, and there were some heart-wrenching moments in the process, but it had everybody, and it carried on the stories to possible conclusion with Maupin’s usual panache.

This isn’t a stand-alone novel. What you will get out of embarking on the series though, is well worth it. They are well-written, based around a likeable group of friends who have their loves and losses, and they do a better job than any other set of novels to elucidate the San Franciscan lifestyle. One thing Maupin does well (he is now 70) is to keep up with the cultural trends. Where once gay San Francisco was all bath-houses and indiscriminate sex, segueing very sadly into AIDS; now the main gay couple are a cosily married loved-up couple.

Another good reason to start the series is to open your eyes. As a straight, white, married woman, I haven’t been faced in my life with the choices that gay and transgender people must make, in sometimes challenging circumstances, in order to feel like themselves. I embrace the fact that, in many parts of the world, these choices are no longer as difficult as they were decades ago.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

The Days of Anna Madrigal
by Armistead Maupin
Published by Doubleday
ISBN 9780857521293

 

Book Review: Frog Music, by Emma Donoghue

cv_frog_musicEmma Donoghue’s new book Frog Music throws you straight into the heart of the action. Blanche Beunon, French immigrant to the United States, ex-circus performer, stripper and prostitute, is singing a French lullaby when a bullet slams through the window of the bedroom, instantly killing her friend, Jenny. The rest of the book flashes back and forth between past and present, fleshing out the story of the unlikely friendship between Blanche and Jenny, the ill-fated cross-dressing, lesbian frog-catcher.

Like many other people, I loved Room, Donoghue’s best-selling, Man Booker short-listed, account of a young boy and his mother held prisoner for years in a one roomed shack. It was beautifully written with a strong voice. I was eagerly looking forward to Frog Music, despite having not the slightest notion of its subject matter.

Frog Music is an account of the real-life murder of Jenny Bonnet that took place just outside San Francisco in 1876. I did not realise that the book was inspired by true events until I read the Authors Notes at the conclusion of the book. There are copious notes at the end of the book; an afterword, song notes, and a glossary. It is clear that a lot of research went into the writing of this story. The book is all the richer for it. Donoghue cleverly evokes the sights, sounds and smells of San Francisco in all its gritty, unseemly glory. This is not the San Francisco of tourist brochures; smallpox is rife, the city is struggling with a heat wave, there are brothels and gambling dens on every street corner.

“Passing her favourite noodle house, Blanche breathes in hot oil, ginger, and sesame. Then rotten vegetables, from the next alley. This quarter’s always filthy – mostly because the City supervisors won’t fix its sewers or pay for garbage collection. Arthur relishes it, claiming that skirting piles of fishtails makes him feel like a true bohemian. The newsmen call Chinatown a laboratory of infection; if even half what they say were true, Blanches thinks irreverently, she and Arthur and all its other residents would be dead by now.”

I confess I struggled with this book at times. It is a brutal story. The sex scenes are far from gentle and there is much description of underage prostitutes and children abandoned to orphanages (although calling these baby farms “orphanages” seems almost too kind). However, I persevered because I became desperate to know the fate of the baby son that Blanche had taken back from an orphanage and then lost to her unscrupulous lover and pimp, Arthur. Making you care about a character that you dislike so intensely is the mark of a truly clever author.

This is not an easy book to read but nor is it an easy story to forget. The stench of the alleys and the music of the streets will follow you for some time.

Reviewed by Tiffany Matsis

Frog Music
by Emma Donoghue
Published by Picador
ISBN 9781447249771