Good things come in threes

Herewith, three groovy recent outings that put a smile on my dial:

totes80s21. Totally 80s. Sure, the tour is well over now, but I enjoyed this greatest hits parade far more than I thought I would. Great to see Real Life’s David Sterry, for starters; Wa Wa Nee brought the keytar; Katrina of the Waves rocked out. The main draw, though, was ticking off a bucket list item to finally see Berlin‘s Terri Nunn in action. The set list for Berlin: No More Words, Metro, Masquerade, Animal (yes, still making vibrant music!), Dancing in Berlin, Take My Breath Away, Sex (I’m a). Such a happy vibe, I was smiling from the moment the second song of the night, Safety Dance, got the crowd grooving.

2. Ghostbusters. The remake. Seen it twice now and it’s very cool. The climax feels a little pedestrian (maybe that was just the echo of the original) but to see these four women work together so capably — not an arse shot in the whole movie — is such a delight. Sign me up to the Holtzman fan club. I like what the flick said and how it said it and I had a lot of fun at the same time. Neat cameos, too.


 
3. Pokemon Go. I blame/thank my wife. She loaded it on my phone. And then I went to the city and saw the augmented reality overlay the game provides and it was, like, wow. And then last night we’re parking (because Ballarat turned on the wind machine) and we’re surrounded by other people parking because there are three PokeStops with lures and the critters are spawning like crazy and it’s fun and it’s kind of communal fun — I haven’t seen that much life in that street on a Monday night ever. I also like that public art and graffiti and historic sites are PokeStops so these sites are drawn to your attention. How much attention you pay as they spin and disgorge goodies and critters is up to you.

Anyway. Today is a day to consider some good things and share the word. May you too count good things.

In which Lady Helen leads us on a merry dance

Lady Helen and the Dark Days ClubLady Helen and the Dark Days Club (Angus & Robertson, 2016), the first volume in a new series by Alison Goodman, is due for publication next year*, but the author kindly threw a launch party in time for Christmas. For those eager for her next work following the New York Times best-sellers Eon and Eona, it was a fine present indeed.

Having covered science fiction, crime (with a slight SFnal twist) and fantasy with equal aplomb in previous works, Goodman now turns to the paranormal with her Dark Days Club.

There is perhaps slightly more explanatory text here – summaries of events, an almost telepathy to show the meaning behind the body language – than I remember from previous outings, but the story, more than 400 pages of it, speeds by at an easy pace, driven by the spark of quick-witted Lady Heroine and the deepening dilemmas in which she finds herself.

How clever to set it in the Regency, for this story is all about veneer and the monsters behind the facade, duty and passion, control and denial. The painting of this period of English history is sensationally wrought, the minutiae of daily life for the Quality (and their window on the lesser classes) effectively grounding the world without dominating it, referencing historical events, people and places, then braiding in the supernatural story.

Australian women writers challenge 2015Lady Helen, our titular heroine, is 18, her parents lost under despairing circumstances, the ward of her uncle and aunt who are devoted to her social climb, that is, marriage. She has some of her mother’s infamous adventurous streak, however, sneaking into the library to read books, so very unladylike. Of course, she has more than that in common with her mother, and soon her fabulous nature as a potential member of the mysterious Dark Days Club is uncovered.

The tension between her attraction to adventure, both romantic and physical, and the pressure to conform to social propriety is deft, perhaps best mirrored in the two suitors for her attention, if not affection, in a socially respectable duke and a lord of some infamy.

This presents the most obvious theme of the story, that “sometimes there is no good choice”. And Lady Helen has some serious choices to make as a demonic world is revealed to her, that and her special place in the fight to contain it. Dark days indeed!

I’m particularly taken with the humour of sidekick and maid Darby, who had me chuckling with an almost Pink Panther scene in which she tests her mistress’s reflexes with thrown objects.

Another element I especially appreciate is the slow reveal, allowing us to know Helen and her Regency world, the privilege and the constraints, as mysteries are bled into the opening chapters and then revealed in line with her growing understanding of the secret war of the Dark Days Club.

This is a world where every choice, every benefit, comes at a cost, and it is this grim reality that helps makes Lady Helen’s story such an enjoyable read.

* addendum: December 14 in Australia, January 16 UK and January 26 US.

  • This review completes my four-book commitment to the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge. Others were Cherry Crow Children by Deborah Kalin, The Dagger’s Path by Glenda Larke, and The Dangerous Bride by Lee Kofman.
  • Moira Finucane, does it again

    glory box la revolucion


    The milk was good, but it was the tomato sauce that took the prize.

    There on Collingwood’s Melba Spiegeltent catwalk, Moira Finucane in a white gown, tearing out her heart — only her heart was a family-size bottle of tomato sauce, dribbling and spurting in time with her anguish. Exit to Hollywood blonde Clare St Clare taking that dripping container while singing Blue Velvet.

    Yes, it’s Finucane & Smith, strutting their art — some new, some old — in Glory Box La Revolucion (until 13 September 2015).

    The troupe provide about 90 minutes of entertainment: another highlight, one of the best covers of Bowie’s Wild is the Wind you’ll ever hear, by Mama Alto accompanied by piano.

    That same piano that keeps our table, only a row back from the catwalk, safe from flying milk as Finucane empties two 2l bottles over plastic-wrapped audience, self and stage in wild abandon.

    Elsewhere, she’s nude under witchy fingernails and black diaphanous cape, and rockin’ it out to Garbage (if memory serves) in jeans and leather jacket with St Clare.

    There’s acrobatics involving chairs, rope, trapeze, cork screw … this is 18+ wine drinking. A bewigged industrial thrash dance. A song about more than coffee in Paris, an ooh la la to equality and respect.

    Boobs, chuckles, politics, art: always entertaining. All in the luscious surrounds of the Spiegeltent with its Innocent Bystander pinot noir at the bar.

    The card on the table tells us that Finucane & Smith are heading off to Cuba and may be some time. NO, we say. For all that we’ve seen of Moira Finucane, we still haven’t seen enough.
    Melba Spiegeltent at Collingwood

    SIDE DISH

    lamp at savanna ethiopian eritrean restaurantBefore the gig, we had dinner at Savanna, an Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurant. Check out this funky ceiling lamp! Check out the delicious menu — we shared a platter of various veg and meat with injera for $45, washed down with organic Ethiopian shiraz at $6 a glass, and walked out pleasantly stuffed. Highly recommended.

    Aurora: Earth is a spaceship too

    aurora by kim stanley robinsonAurora (Orbit, 2015) by Kim Stanley Robinson is named after a planet on which humanity hopes to found a colony; it’s a long way away, so far it’s a multi-generational voyage in a time without fancy stasis chambers. Instead, the spaceship, simply called ship, is composed of biomes representing different terrain types on Earth, big enough for lakes, glaciers, forests, critters of all kinds. Maintaining the balance of inputs and outputs necessary for agriculture — for life — occupies much of the humans’ time, in cooperation with a quantum computer. Starvation is never far from the horizon. It’s a delicate see-sawing balance, both scientifically and socially.

    Things don’t go to plan, of course. And while I can’t reveal too much, it’s not spoiling things to say the colonists have decisions to make about the best way forward — or backward, even.

    The first section, detailing the trip and the travails to Tau Ceti, is told in the third person centred on a young girl, Freya. The central story is narrated by the computer, allowing a great deal of info dumping — mostly painless — leavened with humour as the AI grows. It also allows scope for commentary on human foibles, one of the delights of the story. The final scenes are again in our protagonist’s viewpoint, reflecting on Freya’s experience, on the space program, on humanity.

    There is a singular moment, a single line of description relating to ship, that defines the power of KSR’s prose, but I can’t repeat it here, because spoiler. It is beautiful, poignant, pragmatic, elegant. It made me love this book.

    This is the first KSR book I’ve read — I know, I know — but based on this, it won’t be the last. Note even dubious amounts of repetition in the text can overshadow the deft handling of technical terms and processes; the sheer imagination that manages, mostly, to keep humanity at its centre, even when ship is narrating at some emotional distance.

    KSR has something to say, and for the most part he says it well.

    For me, Aurora is not just a superbly unromantic story of space colonisation, but also an allegory — would ship agree, I wonder, given its interest in metaphor and the like? Hell, maybe it’s not even — best summed up by this translation of a poem that captures the attention of two characters, talking to how we need to look after this world as man-made climate change threatens to radically change our biome, how we are ‘kleptoparasites’, stealing from our descendants:

    ‘There’s no new world, my friend, no
    New seas, no other planets, nowhere to flee–
    You’re tied in a knot you can never undo
    When you realise Earth is a starship too.’

  • A review copy of Aurora was provided by the publisher. You can read an excerpt here.
     

  • Sense8: feeling the love

    sense8 posterThe Netflix show Sense8 has been called slow and clumsy, but for me, it’s a must-see.

    The globe-trotting 12-episode first season marks a coming together of Babylon 5 maestro J Michael Straczynski and the Wachowski siblings, who upped the action ante with The Matrix.

    It tracks the lives of eight people who are psychically linked, the link activated by the death of a character played by Daryl Hannah.

    They are, briefly:

  • A Kenyan with a Jean Claude Van Damme fixation running a bus in Nairobi and trying to make enough money to buy life-saving medication for his HIV-infected mother
  • A DJ in London, who runs afoul of criminals and returns to her native Iceland
  • A safe cracker in Berlin who didn’t get on with his dad, at all
  • A banker in Seoul who also specialises in martial arts, a good outlet for the frustration of being a daughter in a son’s world
  • A scientist in Mumbai who prays to Ganesh and is engaged to the perfect man, but does not love him, despite sharing a tendency to break into Bollywood
  • A macho actor in Mexico City, trying to hide the fact he is gay for fear of damaging his career
  • A Chicago cop whose dad is also a cop, haunted by a problematic case
  • A San Francisco trans woman, whose mother insists on calling her Michael still and is well versed in hacking and blogging.

    There is also an enigmatic sensate who is able to offer some oversight and insight of their predicament.

    Some, admittedly, are more interesting than others. Each has their own concerns, some seemingly more potentially lethal than others, but all are gradually pulled into a communal fight for survival nominally against a scientific cabal looking to restrict their freedom.

    Only Kala in India still has, it appears, interaction with both parents. Many have lost a parent; several have siblings. Only two have supportive partners, neither of whom are hetero (not including Kala’s fiance). Attraction blooms among some in the group, but all feel it — they feel more or less everything, in fact, although the why and the when is a little muddy.

    The acting is superb, which helps maintain interest as the story takes its own delicious time to introduce its cast and its concept. And the production shows an impressive use of resources and editing as the characters share feelings and sensations across the globe, cross-inhabiting each other’s beautifully, indulgently shot locations. Characters share an orgy at one point, but also combat, fast cars (there is a San Francisco fight-chase sequence that is remarkable as the sensates lend a hand), and the simple pleasure of a piano recital.

    This latter brings to stark relief one of the highlights of this show, and the reason that, despite the blips, I’ll be lining up for season 2: not since Treme have I been affected by such displays of honest emotion — such empathy. As my wife noted when we were talking about this, when was the last time we saw a male character cry unabashedly out of sheer joy?

    Sense8 should win awards for editing, for sure; a well as the shared-space scenes, the transitions between scenes is often deft. But it’s the pleasure of the slow immersion, the unveiling of story and character, and that pure emotion that has me hooked. It will be interesting to see if it is, like Treme, as affecting on rewatching. For now, though, bring on season 2.
     
     

  • A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night: a worthwhile stroll

    girl walks home alone at nightIt doesn’t surprise that director Ana Lily Ampour, a Britain-born Iranian, grew up in the US: this debut feature film is steeped in Western celluloid, to the extent of a laugh-out-loud use of Leone-like soundtrack at one point.

    A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) might be set in Iran, or it might be set in Detroit (based on Ampour’s graphic novel, it was shot in California): its desolate streets and industrial backdrops and urban decay, a single crowded drug-fucked nightclub, bring to mind Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (reviewed here).

    The hero (Arash Marandi), or at least the protagonist — it’s hard to find heroism in a drug dealer — is a James Dean lookalike, though this rebel has a cause: to get out of ‘Bad City’, where his father is an addict and his horizon is strictly limited.

    Enter the titular heroine (Sheila Vand) — her hajib used to effect in one of the black-and-white flick’s best set pieces, skateboarding down a night-lit street, cloth flying cape-like. There’s a degree of feminist bent to our vampire; also loneliness and likely boredom, enlivened by pop music and the occasional murder.

    Part of the joy here is in the interaction: the actors convey much with little conversation; the quiet here is engrossing. The performances of the leads in particular are quite wonderful. Combined with the cinematography, that’s plenty of reason to check this out right there.

    The movie lacks the subtext of Lovers, the narrative cohesiveness, but it’s a stylish genre-clash and an affecting movie, well worth visiting for some arty pastiche of east meets west.

    Bell Shakespeare’s Hamlet: what a sweet prince this is, or, the award for best use of condoms in a Shakespearean play goes to:

    Hamlet-webOh my bard! I caught the two-and-a-half-hour epic that is Bell Shakespeare‘s Hamlet at the Melbourne Arts Centre last night, and I’m still reeling.

    One of the best Shakespearean productions I’ve seen? Without a doubt.

    The set design: a facade of doors and windows, shakily climbable, splits the stage. Behind this lit window, a spy, replaying dialogue just heard behind another, as the new king keeps an ear on his fellows. Behind this one, the boudoir. Look, the bed becomes a grave, Yorick! With dirt for the shovelling, a pit for fair Ophelia, complete with toe tag after she is wheeled in in a wheelbarrow. And see here, how the theatre bunting can lose some letters and have others changed to present a far more telling dramatic title! Best use of condoms in a Shakespearean play!

    The lighting, used to highlight the areas of the drama, whether by spotlight or torchlight or flickering wall lights, was sensational. One dramatic front-lit Dracula-like moment still blazes in my mind. Underpinning that, the music, just touches of thriller bass or gay song to enhance the mood, or the sound of rain, or the sound of fighter jets doing a flypast.

    Here a mobile phone captures a moment; there, an electronic listening device is disabled or revealed. And here, it’s halberds and foils, and the ensemble sharing a king’s joke as he dons a player’s crown.

    And here’s the thing of it, the thing that really elevated this production: the acting. Not just in delivery and emotion, and there was plenty of emotion, but in the interplay. In the interpretation of the lines. Bawdiness. Cheekiness. The use of repetition to telling effect. The use of props to add context to the lines, to illuminate character — the play with said condoms between Ophelia and Laertes as he prepares to leave at the airport (with Rosencrantz and Guildernstern hailed over the PA in the background!), the sister-brother relationship anchored around their doomed father. The physicality: Ophelia (Matilda Ridgway, divine), only days in to the play’s run, already sports scrapes and bruises revealed by her dishevelled night dress.

    They play them well (better than well; I love that to be fit to receive a guest still in her a nightrobe, Doris Younane’s Gertrude first slips on her shoes, then transforms her hair), but it is Hamlet’s show, and Josh McConville is amazing, physically and emotionally, seamlessly switching from rude imp to avenger to distraught son. Bravo!

    Hamlet plays at the Arts Centre till July 25.