A most Delicate Truth from John le Carre

delicate truth by john le carreJohn le Carre‘s spy novels were always a cut above for me; him and Frederick Forsyth ruled my thriller firmament in my teens, when the second-hand book stores were raided for the Colin Forbes, Len Deightons, Adam Halls, the Bond books, and soforth.

It was le Carre’s mood that won me, the sheer honesty of his tales in which grey was the colour de rigeur and the good guys, if you could find them, were never guaranteed of victory. As with the Cold War, everyone was playing for a draw.

In A Delicate Truth, his latest, he examines matters of conscience and political expediency, as a former British diplomat and a serving public servant find an incident on Gibraltar has not so much a delicate truth but a damned inconvenient one for Her Maj’s government. Against the backdrop of terrorism and rendition, mercenaries and dirty tricks, it’s a fraught tale of men unable to sleep easily with guilt and the ways in which the system seeks to silence them.

The characters are stoic, suitably reserved, in their dealings, and the dialogue is brilliantly esoteric, with echoes of phrases used to at times Yes Minister levels of cutting effect within the overall atmosphere of growing malevolence. Le Carre knows when to be sparse and when to use his astute descriptions of setting, a wonderful example of crafted world building.

While the end note was superb, the actual climax felt a little convenient, just a touch, but in no way undermined the story or the carefully presented character arcs that brought it about.

It’s been a long time since I devoured The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy — the Tomas Alfredson movie was beautifully realised — but A Delicate Truth takes me right back to the joy of those masterpieces. Le Carre is as foxy as he ever was.

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Pacific Rim: One for the dinosaurs

pacific rim posterIt could have, and should have, been superb: Pan’s Labyrinth director Guillermo del Toro (see also Devil’s Backbone, Cronos and Hellboy) helming a big-screen flick in which giant mechs — human-driven robots — battle giant monsters — ‘kaiju’ — for dominance of the Earth.

Pacific Rim is a pretty movie. It has some comedy moments. Ron Perlman’s appearance got a chuckle from the cinema. But that can’t save it.

Oh hackney! Where is your plot? Your logic? Where are your characters? Where is your time limit, for pity’s sake?

No more stereotypes, I beg you. Neither racial nor gendered. Isn’t it time we left this boyish, dinosaur-aged bullshit behind?

Look to anime, to Evangelion … see? See how something can be pretty and still tell a story?

Women can pilot mechs and don’t need to be protected by oafish, testosterone-fuelled males. What a great excuse for a punch-up — ‘apologise to the lady’. FFS, the ‘lady’ could’ve kicked both their arses.

Oh mechs, your tactics are flawed, and writers, your world building so thin I could ride a daikaiju through it as easily as they crash through your ludicrous sea wall.

I could go deeper, dissect the many aggravations and sheer occasions of stupid evident in this half-baked, pedestrian effort, but I’ve already given it more than two hours of my life.

In a mech shell: an irrelevant comedy side act, boorish leads — what the hell is Hollywood doing to Idris Elba? — and flimsy plot devices make for a monster of a flop.


Black Spring by Alison Croggon: revisiting Heathcliff for a spell

black spring by alison croggonAlison Croggon, whose fantasy novel The Gift (first of the Pellinor series) floated my boat way on release in 2002, has done a fine job of cutting to the chase in Black Spring (Walker Books, 2012), which makes no bones about its strong foundation in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.

Croggon takes the structure — a narrator arrives, meets some of the players and receives the story in a monologue from someone in the know — the mood and the cornerstones of the plot about thwarted desire, class and revenge, but does some elegant re-imagining.

UPDATE, VIDEO: Alison Croggon talks Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë and Black Spring at the Wheeler Centre

The moors are out; instead, it’s a highland plateau — just as isolated, just as windswept — with a touch of the fantastic.

Narrator Hammel, a writer, begins in an almost New Weird setting of hedonistic city, where the literati have their own guild and a certain social sway. It might bring to mind the shenanigans of the Romantics wine bar crowd. Hammel retires to the north, a rented manor in sight of the Black Mountains. The plateau is a land of mystery, a kind of Transylvania meets Sicily, with changeable weather and a certain harshness, just right for this dark tale. It’s a land of small villages, of priests vying with magicians for the fear of the populace if not their hearts, of rampant superstition … and the vendetta, a way in which the king’s coffers are enriched and the male population is culled.


It might be a fantastical setting but for the incongruous presence of the Catholic church, uncomfortable in a land where magicians really can burn people from the inside out, send curses and engage in psychic combat, making this more of an alternative realm.

Hammel meets the Heathcliff analogue, Damek; has a suitably wonderful paranormal experience in line with Lockwood’s dream of Cathy in the Brontë version; and then is told the tragic story of Damek’s obsession with Lina, the daughter of the local lord both blessed and cursed with royal and witch blood.

Perhaps the most notable departure from Brontë’s text is in the ending — this isn’t called Black Spring for nothing!

The characters are all suitably flawed, each unable to prevent the inevitable tragedies that drag them all down.

Croggon uses suitably prose of the era with all her poetic might, delivering a satisfying if — as I recall the original — slow-paced recounting of love and revenge.

  • This is my fourth review as part of the 2013 Australian Women Writers Challenge — the first was Glenda Larke’s Havenstar; the second, Krissy Kneen’s Steeplechase; the third, Christine Bongers’ Dust — and completes my commitment to review four titles. There are, however, more on the shelf — let’s see how I go!
  • Dust, by Christine Bongers: easy to take a shine to

    dust by christine bongersIt’s not hard to see why Dust (Woolshed Press, 2009) was named a Children’s Book Council of Australia notable book, among its many accolades. It’s a simple, powerful coming-of-age story, the sort of thing that’s just the ticket for school libraries. Fairly subtle, too.

    Chris Bongers grew up in Biloela and she taps that experience in this tale set in the countryside of her childhood. Like heroine Cecilia, Bongers had a mob of brothers to run amok with, too: how many chinese burns, corkies and horse bites did she trade? Droughts and flood and heaps of strine are, however, only the wonderfully drawn backdrop of this tale, set in the 1970s with a modern bookend.

    Cecilia is on the cusp of moving from primary school to high, and there’s a steep learning curve to do with being yourself, of making choices, of caring for those on the fringes who have no one to care for them.

    Working up ways to dodge the worst of penance in the confessional is just the start of it.

    There’s the mysterious Kapernicky sisters, chalk and cheese and both just a little off; and the new girl, peaches-and-cream Hayley in her revelatory knee-high white boots; and Glenda with her ciggies and alluring coterie of no-gooders … and just what has got into Cecilia’s brother, Punk?

    australian women writers review challenge logoBongers has the knack of flipping the switch from larrikin humour to pathos. Of painting her characters in human strokes, the good with the bad with the damn frustrating. Of letting the time go by, incident by incident, letting the allusions grow as the illusions slowly fade.

    She perfectly captures that onset of maturity, young people trying to make sense of the world. Coming to realise that the dust of regret accumulates, seeking a way to keep the surfaces clean or at least keep the rug in its place; discovering the power of compassion.

  • This is my third review as part of the 2013 Australian Women Writers Challenge. The first was Glenda Larke’s Havenstar; the second, Krissy Kneen’s Steeplechase.
  • Headstones and lake reflections in Ballaratia

    Ballaarat Old Cemetery, Ballarat

    Ballaarat Old Cemetery

    Friday was sunshine and fluffy clouds, little breeze, the typical Ballaratian winter’s day, we are told, but the first we’ve been able to enjoy. So Kirstyn and I took the day off and went to the Ballaarat Old Cemetery.

    The city fathers were indeed wise to commission a second, with the city being a boom gold town and all, and the cemetery quite compact — population, about 25,000 (according to a sign board at the graveyard).

    Here a lawn of unmarked pioneer era graves, here the Jews, here the Irish, the Germans … here the Chinese with the only oven I’ve seen outside of Mt Morgan.

    Diggers' Eureka memorial, Ballaarat Old Cemetery, Ballarat

    Diggers’ Eureka memorial, Ballaarat Old Cemetery

    Probably the boneyard’s greatest claim to fame is the Eureka rebellion, with separate monuments for soldiers and rebels who died in the uprising, the insurgents so popular a jury would not convict them for treason. Interesting wording on the monuments, too. Fascinating insight.

    We were struck by the number of children and infants mentioned on the stones, a sign of the harsh conditions in the late 19th century, no doubt. Those simple engravings conveyed so much sorrow.

    Others blustered with Christian piety or simple resignation and hope; some struck more affecting messages: my beloved has gone down into the garden to gather lilies in the garden.

    More cemetery pictures

    The cemetery is well tended, sparkling with wafting strands of cobweb glistening like fishing line. An information building offers some insights. There are few grand monuments, defying expectation of a wealthy town’s significant departures; maybe the toffs have got their pillars out at the ‘new’ cemetery … We will investigate!

    Eclectic Tastes Cafe, Ballarat

    Eclectic Tastes Cafe, Ballarat

    Next to the cemetery is the Eclectic Tastes Cafe. This converted home is one of those cafes that is welcoming as soon as you walk through the door — eclectic in decoration through its various rooms, a proudly parma-free zone, and a darn tasty menu with good coffee. I knocked back a sensational skillet of kidney beans and cheese and stuff, gently spiced, served with sourdough for sopping up the sauce. Kirstyn had a vegetarian pizza that even tempted me, thanks to nuts and blue cheese sauce. It’s the favourite eatery we’ve come across here so far.

    Boathouse Restaurant, Lake Wendouree, Ballarat

    Boathouse Restaurant, Lake Wendouree

    Later in the afternoon, we headed for Ballarat’s defining geographical feature: Lake Wendouree. It’s been a site for rowers since 1864; now it’s dotted with boatsheds and cafes and parkland. We’ve yet to do a proper tour of the lake, and on Friday were content to just hover around one part where the Lake View Hotel enticed with its second-storey balcony … but we opted for cake and coffee on the deck at the tad pricey Boathouse Restaurant, right on the water, with a wonderful willow tree for extra scenery. There we could take in the water birds and joggers, rowers and paddlers and anglers as the sun sank and chill came down. One couple in a canoe pulled up at the cafe for coffee.

    We snapped off a bunch of photos and retreated to home in the gloaming, appetites whetted for further exploration of Ballaratia.

    More sunset pictures

    Lake Wendouree sunset, Ballarat

    Sunset, Lake Wendouree