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This post contains spoilers.

I was looking for an easy airplane read when I came across this book by the author of the much talked about young adult novel Eleanor and Park. I would usually (and perhaps unfairly) be sceptical of anything written by someone named Rainbow, but after flicking through the first few chapters I decided the writing was engaging enough to keep my mind occupied at 30,000 feet. In the end I spent more of my flight time gripping the armrests and reading this very helpful article on weird airplane noises, but once I was safely on the ground I finished Attachments within a few days. It’s an easy but worthwhile read – a little predictable, but also thoughtful and well written.

Attachments is a romantic comedy, aimed more at adults than young adults (particularly adults in their late twenties/early thirties). Lincoln is twenty-eight, still wounded from the loss of his first love, and living at home with his Mum. He is the IT guy at a local newspaper, and his primary responsibility is monitoring emails. He becomes caught up in an exchange between Beth and Jennifer (much of the novel is written in email format), and eventually falls in love with Beth.

The thing I enjoyed most about this book was the insight into the friendship between the two women. Their discussions about family, romance, and babies were smart and thoughtful. As Heat magazine notes Attachments is – at least when it comes to the conversations between these two women – “easy to relate to.”

There were some surprising moments in the plot, but in the end things turned out pretty much the way I expected them to. I didn’t feel, as The IMG_20150723_121131Argus claims, that Rainbow Rowell kept me “guessing” with Attachments; nor did I agree with the following Publisher’s Weekly quote: “the solution – imperfect but believable – maintains the novel’s delicate balance of light and dark.” There was a touch of darkness to Attachments – or, more accurately, a touch of reality – but in the end the light wins out. In fact, I thoroughly enjoyed the book up until the ending – not so much because it was predictable (I didn’t pick up this novel looking for surprises) but because it was so sappy and Meg-Ryan-romantic. It felt out of keeping with the rest of the book, which was much more refreshingly realistic about love and relationships, about the commitment and work that is involved. I kind of wanted Beth and Lincoln not to end up together, for each of them to find someone else compatible and work at building successful relationships, rather than just falling into each other’s arms and living happily ever after. In the end Beth really does get the easy way out. She gets the ‘meet-cute.’ I also thought the fact that Lincoln got over his ex-girlfriend only by obsessing about and idealising Beth was a little too easy.

But anyway. I’m over-analysing. This was a fun book, with lots of funny, clever, and relevant moments that I enjoyed. Recommended airplane – or post-airplane – reading!

Attachments, published in 2011, is Rainbow Rowell’s first novel. She lives in Nebraska.

The most difficult performance in the world is acting naturally, isn’t it? Everything else is artful.

-from ‘Flesh and the Mirror’

I’ve been reading this bulky collection on and off for a couple of years. I bought this Vintage edition in a Castlemaine bookshop while I was in town for a friend’s wedding in 2013, and since then it’s crossed continents with me a number of times. I dipped into the stories here and there, and then a few months ago I finally committed. I kept the heavy volume on my bedside table and read it cover to cover, first story to last. Finishing felt like a sigh of relief – like I’d been through something. I sat up late, half-naked and perspiring in the Cambodia-in-June humidity, writing my notes on the collection. The heat, the dark, the sweat … all felt very appropriate.

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This collection was published posthumously in 1995, and includes stories from the 1960s right up until Carter’s later work in 1993. Angela Carter wrote nine novels but – as Salman Rushdie points out in his introduction – “the best of her … is in her stories.”

Carter is probably best known for her subversive fairytales (‘The Bloody Chamber,’ ‘The Tiger’s Bride’ etc) and for being something of a champion of feminism. But reading this comprehensive collection you start to realise that Angela Carter was first and foremost a lover of language – as Alison Lurie notes in The New York Times, “As a writer, Carter could do almost anything.” Burning Your Boats includes a number of impressionistic biographies (Edgar Allen Poe, Jeanne Duval, and – my favourite – Lizzie Borden), as well as reflections on life as an expatriate in Japan (including ‘Flesh and the Mirror’), and stories that are much more grounded in modern life, such as the previously uncollected story ‘The Quilt Maker.’ As Rushdie notes, Carter had an “addiction to all the arcana of language.” Her stories are replete with symbolism, magical realism, myth, and hints of the gothic. Many of them investigate the idea of the unconscious, in both form and content, and consequently often affect the reader on a subconscious level.

[V]ivid as a hot-house

-from ‘The Snow Pavilion’

Getting through this collection was harder than I expected. The prose is dense in a lot of the stories, and I found myself stumbling over it, or rather hacking away at it the way one hacks through a rainforest. The writing is also jungle-like in its heat – there is a great deal of heavy-breathing-life in these stories; sex and blood are common themes. Other verbs that come to mind are cloying and suffocating. Being caught in this book felt a lot like being stuck in the Lizzie Borden household, as described in ‘The Fall River Axe Murders’: “The house is thickly redolent of sleep, that sweetish, clinging smell. Still, all still”; on a day that is “combustible.”

Carter admits that her writing is not striving to make the reader comfortable. In the afterword to Fireworks she notes that she is writing tales, and that “the tale differs from the short story in that it makes few pretences at the imitation of life.” According to Carter, the tale also has one purpose – “that of provoking unease.”

I did find some sense of connection, however, in Carter’s stories about Japan. Most notably ‘Flesh and the Mirror,’ in which the narrator wanders the streets of Tokyo wallowing in romantic anguish, and extending her feelings out into the city itself:

I was trying to subdue the city by turning it into a projection of my own growing pains. What solipsistic arrogance! The city, the largest city in the world, the city designed to suit not one of my European expectations, this city presents the foreigner with a mode of life that seems to him to have the enigmatic transparency, the indecipherable clarity, of dream

Always dissatisfied, even if, like a perfect heroine, I wandered, weeping, on a forlorn quest for a lost lover through the aromatic labyrinth of alleys. And wasn’t I in Asia? Asia! But, even though I lived there, it always seemed far away from me. It was as if there were glass between me and the world. But I could see myself perfectly well on the other side of the glass.

My own experience of wandering the winter streets of Seoul – a twenty-something expat with a broken heart and a selfish sense of the city reflecting my own drama back to me – is all too recognisable in this story.

On finishing Burning Your Boats I was left with the overwhelming feeling of not having quite understood. But there is so much that has stayed with me – images (a man being swallowed by a mirror, a brother and sister in a forest), characters (an aging movie star who makes a pet of the de-toothed MGM lion), and feelings (the chill of northern winters, the heat of Massachusetts). Maybe, like with Murakami, these things will settle in my unconscious and slowly rise to the surface later on, somewhat clearer.  Or maybe I just need to re-read the collection. Alison Lurie suggests that Burning Your Boats is best not consumed all at once. She’s probably right. And there is definitely so much in here that is worth returning to. Like the quilt maker on the final page of this collection notes, maybe all I need to do is “Shake it out and look at it again.”

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Angela Carter was born in England in 1940. She lived in Japan, the US, and Australia. She died in 1992, at 51 years old.

This review contains spoilers.

You’re now a criminal. Good one, bad one, that’s up to you.

While I really enjoyed Breaking Bad, I’m generally sceptical of spin-offs. I gave this one a go because I like Bob Odenkirk (if you haven’t seen it, check out his sketch comedy series Mr Show with David Cross) and because I have great faith in Vince Gilligan as a writer (other people apparently had faith as well – according to IMDb, Better Call Saul had the highest debut rating in cable history, with 6.9 million viewers watching the first episode). I’m happy to report that this is a spin-off series that really works – both as an interesting and revealing prequel to Breaking Bad, and as a show in its own right.

Better Call Saul takes place in 2002 – six years before Breaking Bad. Saul (Bob Odenkirk) is not yet Saul Goodman but James McGill, a scam artist turned small time lawyer struggling to make an ‘honest’ living. James McGill used to be ‘Slippin’ Jimmy,’ a con artist with a serious talent for ripping people off. But after his big-time lawyer brother Chuck (Michael McKean) bails him out James decides to turn over a new leaf. He studies hard, earns a law degree, and becomes a lawyer himself.

As this reviewer for The Independent notes, Better Call Saul has lower stakes than Breaking Bad. But it doesn’t matter. Saul is a quieter, funnier, and stranger kind of series, and so the dramatic moments (when they do come) resonate perfectly. The writing is excellent – scenes feel well paced and carefully structured. The performances are also top notch: Michael McKean is wonderful as the genius lawyer with a (somatic) electromagnetic sensitivity. Rhea Seehorn is also great as Kim Wexler, McGill’s close friend. While there is some hint of romantic possibility between James and Kim, it is not the focus of their relationship, and this is really refreshing. She is first and foremost a good friend, someone who grounds and supports him.

I did feel like the final scene of the last episode was a bit too much of a quick turnaround. I could see where the motivation was coming from, but I didn’t feel like it had been built up enough. I’m interested to see where they take the series from here. In a way, because this is a prequel, the writers are kind of restricted in terms of what they can do with the characters. But perhaps having those sorts of boundaries to work inside of is a good thing. It’s certainly different. And, as this writer for Variety notes, knowing where these characters end up in Breaking Bad gives a weight and sense of impending tragedy to Saul that is really compelling. Having said that, I don’t think you need to have watched Breaking Bad to enjoy Better Call Saul; this series works well on its own, and while watching I rarely found myself thinking back to events in Breaking Bad, or wishing there were more references. The biggest (and most important) link between the two shows I think is thematic: the question of morality and what makes something right or wrong, an action good or bad. As Spencer Kornhaber notes in The Atlantic, “Better Call Saul is, like Breaking Bad, a great meditation on the nature of wrongdoing.” I know exactly where James McGill is headed, in the long-run, and yet I can’t help but like him.

Better Call Saul is created by Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould. The series first aired in 2015, and has been renewed for a second season.