And that’s how I feel about Peanuts

This post contains some gentle spoilers for The Peanuts Movie but none for Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

I don’t get super-excited about up-coming movies usually. My honest reaction upon being asked if I had seen the new Star Wars was to ask, “Oh, is it out already?” However, one movie that I have been mildly looking forward to is The Peanuts Movie. (Actually, in Australia its called, Snoopy and Charlie Brown: The Peanuts Movie but I’m not going to bother acknowledging that particular slice of ridiculousness beyond this bracket.)

I would not say that I am a huge Peanuts fan. However, I did read quite a few Peanuts collections when I was a kid (and they were probably decades old by then), which I remember enjoying sufficiently. And let’s be perfectly clear about this: “nostalgia” is the only reason this movie got made.

There is an interesting essay (with the rather click-baity title of “How Snoopy Killed Peanuts“) that claims that it was the development of Snoopy that saw Peanuts lose its edge:

Cuteness had replaced depth in a strip that had always celebrated the maturity and adult-like nature of precocious children.

Most of the strips that I read belonged to this earlier, darker time. I don’t wish to engage with that thesis other than to note that the assessment of the earlier Peanuts strips certainly matches how I understood Peanuts.

Although it is a new, separate thing, it is only natural that part of judging any adaptation is evaluating how well it encapsulates the spirit of the original. On the superficial level, The Peanuts Movie gets much of it right. The most obvious difference is the transition from a 2D comic strip to 3D animation. This works pretty well, and the key to its success is that the facial expressions are rendered in 2D. It sounds weird and it looks jarring at first but it effectively retains a significant amount of the original Peanuts look.

Beyond the animation, most of the iconic images get a look in: think Lucy’s psychiatry booth, Schroeder playing piano, Snoopy on his doghouse, etc. Similarly, homage is paid to the television specials with the distinctive Peanuts theme and the garbled, incoherent, off-key trombone-like voices of the adults.

All of this is quite an accomplishment, but one that could be more or less taken for granted in the twenty-first century (apart from the 2D expressions). However, the facet of Peanuts that stands out in my memory is its world-weary pessimism. (Once, when Charlie Brown is told that “you win some, you lose some” he responds dreamily, “Gee, that’d be neat.” [Okay, I’m just going to leave my misquote there because my memory of it was the important point.])

Peanuts - pe_c010917.tif

Peanuts Comic

In the strip, Charlie Brown lives in a universe where angst is just common sense and there is no reasonable expectation that anything will work out. So, I was very interested to see if this darkness made it into what was ostensibly a kid’s movie.

And it kind of does. Charlie Brown fails at virtually everything he turns his hand to throughout the movie, even when he has tried his darnedest and comes within moments of accomplishing anything. Charlie Brown has circumstances rail against him almost as often as his own ineptitude—an as near perfect expression of adulthood as you are likely to find. However, in the universe of the movie things do work out. Effort and perseverance are rewarded: albeit it only in the cinematic denouement. (Perhaps that is more the effect of translating nearly fifty years of comic strips into ninety minutes of popcorn upsell than anything else.)

It is not that the strip was an exercise in blatant nihilism, but it certainly presented hopes and dreams as a kind of cruel joke, and the movie, while not blatantly karmic, certainly seeks to reward an earnest heart.



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Short Review of How to Set a Fire and Why

Jesse Ball is one of the novelists working at the moment who is really pushing the art form in interesting directions. His previous novel, A Cure for Suicide, was equally entrancing. However, the whole ambiguity-as-climax technique is getting a little tired, though it is nowhere near as on the nose as the ending of Inception, for example. Ambiguity in literature gives life and tension to the work, but to repeatedly structure a story to arrive at that particular conclusion is to run the risk of M. Night Shyamalan-ing oneself.

And it’s not just Ball’s style that seems familiar. At one point about a third of the way through, How to Set a Fire and Why really started to feel (a lot) like The Catcher in the Rye updated for the twenty-first century. The main character, Lucia Stanton, started sounding a lot like Holden Caulfield. Intelligent, yet disaffected, and at that particularly teenage stage of viewing morality in terms of high contrast. Both are full of moral pronouncements tailored to scenarios far more specific than actually encountered.

Like Holden, Lucia is also going through this stage of maturation without guidance and direction. This lack of direction obscures their foresight leaving them at the mercy of impulse, particularly when the impulses are simply too far removed from the theoretical scenarios for them to rely upon their own inchoate moral sensibility.


Ball is a talented and inventive writer who is (gently) pushing narrative boundaries and providing us with some amazing sentences. Ball’s style tends to the dreamlike anyways, which may be painting him into a corner as far as the search for an authentic ending is concerned. A climax which is too concrete might just disrupt the whole delicate house of cards that he has constructed. Both novels that were mentioned are delightful and invigorating reads that, despite themselves, don’t seem to satisfy. How to Set a Fire and Why is a blistering, yet ultimately ephemeral, read.

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Review of “Half of a Yellow Sun”

A few days ago there was a quote going around on Facebook:

The bigger the issue, the smaller you write. Remember that. You don’t write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid’s burnt socks lying on the road. You pick the smallest manageable part of the big thing, and you work off the resonance.

—Richard Price

The main problem with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel is that it is too big. The story is set across the Biafran War and takes on some super-human challenges along the way: Colonialism; African cultural diversity; war and war-crimes; humanitarian crises; sisters. It really has an amazing scope.

And yet, for all of the potential, this novel is curiously unaffecting. All of the emotional cues are there, but they are never brought to bear (unlike Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner which had me blubbering unabashedly even as I felt completely manipulated).

The story centres on a number of personal relationships, which I think is the correct instinct, but it is too unfocused. Is the house-boy, Ugwu, the glue that binds the tale, or is it the relationship between twin sisters, Olanna and Kainene, or their respective romantic relationships? At certain junctures it is each of these, lasting only a moment before moving to the next.


The depiction of personal relationships are quite divergent. On one hand, the studies are character driven and are nuanced and individual in their observations. On the other, they tend to the soap-operatic.

The action of the novel is treated similarly schizophrenically. Much like The Kite Runner, the novel is at its most interesting in its depictions of a pre-war society. The war and the resultant humanitarian crisis (that is, humanitarian crisis as an act of war) is handled much less deftly than Ugwu’s removal from his tribe to take up a position as Odenigbo’s house-boy, for example.

The novel swings wildly between quiet introspection and fever-pitch with barely any notes in between. The moments of high-drama become almost bland in the relentlessness of their tone—an effect of being too big to write about. Instead of writing about a “kid’s burnt socks” we are instead given a fleeing scene where a barely before seen servant is decapitated and yet continues to run.

Although fictionalised, the novel has a ring of authenticity to it, and indeed, the author based much of the action on stories from her parents and others of the generation that survived the Biafran War. Generally, I dislike recommending (blatantly) for edification but this book has real value as an historical textbook.

Tonal flaws aside, the style and the pacing are adequate. The story is broken in to four sections and we move between the early and late sixties. This allows for some light suspense but does not produce the convergent climaxes of other books, such as Leila Aboulela’s Minaret or Liam Murray Bell’s The Busker.

Overall, the book is rewarding on an intellectual level but fails to engage on a more visceral level. This restraint would certainly have been better served reining in the melodrama and perhaps even the ambitious nature of the story—writing small instead of being swept up by the epicness of it all.



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Short Review of The Girl on the Train

Any story told from multiple points of view will contain plenty of conflicting information. Imagined slights; misheard snippets; the brain’s impulse to compensate for inadequate data and knowledge. These are the constant underpinnings of human subjectivity. They are what give us agency but also isolate our experiences away from universality, producing experience that “is ringed round for each one of us by that thick wall of personality through which no real voice has ever pierced on its way to us, or from us to that which we can only conjecture to be without.”1

A precarious situation is this finding-ourselves-in-the-world. But now add further impediments: addiction, paranoia, trauma. The possibility of knowing oneself already reduced; the possibility of truly knowing someone else a dangerous illusion. Perhaps the most sincere are the most misleading. When faced with three unreliable narrators the mystery can transmute in an instant.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins is a thriller about what we think we saw, what we think we did. What we think we remember.

After all, what is a mystery book if not the archaeology of the surprising connections between ourselves and others that hide away from our own limited point-of-view.



1 Walter Pater, The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry (Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 2005), 153.

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Review of “Mrs Engels”

It has been quite some time since I read Friedrich Engels’s The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844. There are really only two things that I remember.

The first was his argument against the suggestion that the working classes were profligate. Engels’s point was that the relative duration of good and bad times meant that the only noticeable effect of saving when possible was an overall lowering of the standard of living.


The second feature that sticks with me is that although Engels decried the English treatment of the Irish as sub-human, he also grudgingly admitted they had a point:

True, this limit is relative; one needs more than another, one is accustomed to more comfort than another; the Englishman who is still somewhat civilised, needs more than the Irishman who goes in rags, eats potatoes, and sleeps in a pig-sty. 1

Both Engels’s sympathy for the working poor and racism get a brief run in Mrs Engels, but the work, while being ostensibly historical fiction, is essentially a character study of Engels’s de facto partner, Lizzie Burns.2

As far as literary heroines go, Lizzie is not particularly likeable—even though most other characters at one point or another refer to her as a being a good sort. Lizzie is capricious, petty, devious, and generous by turns. Lizzie seems to regularly set off with good intentions only to have them thwarted by a spasm of pique. However, the enthralling quality of Lizzie is that she gives voice to all of the unflattering things that people think but rarely admit. The author also engages in little touches that flesh out Lizzie’s portrait, such as the occasional misspelt word, or phonetically spelt (particularly Engels’s German utterances), to illustrate her illiteracy.

This novel contains the fullest representation of the inner life of any character I have seen in literature. In that way, it is almost a kind of stream-of-consciousness. However, stream-of-consciousness is a stylistic representation of thought—that is, what is important is how to represent thought as an activity, and not so much what was thought about—, and while there are certainly elements of that here, it is not an adequate explanation for most of what is occurring.

Do not let this talk of stream-of-consciousness be distracting, for Mrs Engels is firmly in the historical fiction genre and as a piece of historical fiction the work is fascinating for its insights into Marxism and the milieu in which Marx and Engels were operating. Unlike some historical fiction (ahem, Ophelia’s Muse), the touch is light enough so that the parade of historical characters does not seem contrived or obligatory and their main theoretical points not simply plucked from Wikipedia.

The book also seems to be a study of the Irish notion of “grand,” which apparently means, “Okay, but only just.” The first few times the Engels reacts to Lizzie describing something as “grand” I thought it was a misunderstanding on the part of the German language native. It’s not until a flashback in which Lizzie’s sister, Mary (Fred’s original paramour), explains what grand means in Irish English.

For all that is wonderful about this book, the pace is reasonably plodding and the plot deceptively thin. These are relatively minor issues, but it does mean that patience and persistence are required for what is ultimately a satisfying read.

1 Engels’s larger point is that the Irish drove down wages because they were willing to work for lower wages because they required “less.” Excerpt From: Engels, Friedrich. “The Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844 / with a Preface written in 1892.” iBooks.

2 Although Engels regarded the contemporary form of marriage as a form of class oppression, he eventually married Lizzie on her deathbed. However, Engels initially spent twenty years with Lizzie’s sister, Mary Burns, who was also opposed to marriage.


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Review of “The Kite Runner”

Generally I enjoy books while I read them (with some exceptions—I’m looking at you, The Shameful State) with the problems of the particular book only revealed upon reflection. That being said, in Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner there are a couple of jarring moments of overwrought melodrama. 

In broad strokes, the story tells of a privileged Afghan boy who leaves Afghanistan as a refugee and begins a new life in America only to be called back nearly two decades later. 

It is this return to Afghanistan that marks the turn from affecting tale to heavy handed plot twists. Coincidences begin to proliferate at an astonishing rate, as characters and incidents from the first half are paraded through the redemption quest phase of the story. It would have been a stronger work if only the author had reined in a couple of the plot twists. 

The first half is unique and deeply affecting, but is let down by too many contrivances in the back end. Overall, The Kite Runner is a pretty good read if you willingly submit to its emotional manipulation and tendency towards melodrama. 

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In which I award my “2015 Book of the Year” 

After too many years of studying it took some time before I was ready to even look at a book again. Earlier this year I started to pick up the occasional book. However, in 2015, the physical book, while delightful, certainly lacks convenience.

With the help of the Overdrive app and my local library I was able to access significantly more books than I otherwise could have. And by updating my Goodreads account regularly I can sort through the list of books that I have read by date read and also date published.

So my 2015 Book of the Year comes from the information contained in my Goodreads account (this is my disclaimer against inaccuracies). The list of contenders comes from books that were published in 2015, not all of the books that I read in 2015 (with a couple of exceptions that will be noted below).

The thing to do now is to list the contenders along with whatever rating I uploaded to Goodreads when I finished them. I do this for a couple of reasons. Firstly, to show what books I have read, and, by extension, all of the books that I haven’t read. If I have skipped over your favourite book for my award then it’s probably because I haven’t read it. Or because your taste is awful. It’s fifty-fifty really.  Secondly, a list of books and some stars will allow the reader to gain some insight into the kinds of things I value in literature, so that the reader may correctly weight my opinion in relation to their own.

In general, two or three stars indicate that the book is reasonably readable. Four stars means something quite remarkable, while one star means that I would not recommend the book to anyone under any circumstances.

The Contenders

  1. The Shameful State by Sony Labou Tansi. ☆ (According to Goodreads, the published date for this book is 3 January 2016, which is patently absurd.)
  2. Esther by Rebecca Kanner. ☆☆☆
  3. The Bronte Plot by Katherine Reay. ☆☆
  4. The Girl with Ghost Eyes by M. H. Boroson. ☆☆☆☆
  5. Food Whore: A Novel of Dining and Deceit by Jessica Tom. ☆☆
  6. Ophelia’s Muse by Rita Cameron. ☆☆
  7. The Busker by Liam Murray Bell. ☆☆☆☆ (Apparently first published in 2014, but the edition I read was published in 2015.)
  8. A Cure for Suicide by Jesse Ball. ☆☆
  9. South on Highland by Liana Maeby. ☆☆☆
  10. ClownFellas: Tales of the Bozo Family by Carlton Mellick III. ☆☆
  11. A Better Man by Leah McLaren. ☆☆☆☆
  12. The Truth and Other Lies by Sascha Arango. ☆☆☆☆ (Was originally published in German in 2014 but the English translation was published in 2015.)
  13. I Saw a Man by Owen Sheers. ☆☆☆
  14. The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty by Vendetta Vida. ☆☆☆☆
  15. The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud. ☆☆
  16. The Corpse in the Cellar: A 1930s Murder Mystery by Kel Richards. ☆☆☆
  17. An Ordinary Epidemic by Amanda Hickie. ☆☆☆
  18. The Wonder Lover by Malcolm Knox. ☆☆☆☆
  19. Positive by David Wellington. ☆☆☆
  20. Tim Connor Hits Trouble by Frank Lancaster. ☆☆

Going back through this list as revealed some inadequacies of the rating system and my own inconsistencies. For example, Ophelia’s Muse is significantly better than both The Bronte Plot and Esther, though that is not borne out by the stars awarded. The problem with Ophelia’s Muse is that while it is mostly very good, the bad bits are awful, while both The Bronte Plot and Esther are much more middling overall.

The Finalists

And whatever brief comments I left on Goodreads . . .

The Wonder Lover by Malcolm Knox. 24953062The beginning is a bit purple but the style settles down soon enough. A singular work.


The Truth and Other Lies by Sascha Arango. 23492595This starts exquisitely and even though it becomes more pedestrian as it goes on it remains enchanting right to the end. That is to say, it begins like a fairy tale but becomes a murder mystery/thriller too quickly. Still, I couldn’t put it down.


The Girl with Ghost Eyes by M. H. Boroson. 25159239It’s always difficult in magical stories to give the villains interesting and relatable motivations, and this book, while not perfect, comes as close as I have seen. The differing world views/religions of each of the major characters provides a meaningful basis for their actions. The author got the villains fully to “hatred/vengeance” but this would have been great if only they had pushed through to something more. But still, not a bad effort.This book did a good job of explaining itself as it went. Nearly all of the magical/supernatural elements were given sufficient explanations. As far as I can recall, there wasn’t any plot holes or logical inconsistencies that were waved away with “magic.”Maybe someone with more familiarity with Chinese myths would find this grating and over simplified but for me it was nicely done.


The Busker by Liam Murray Bell. 21351792There’s a lot to like about this book. I particularly like the flashback structure being organised geographically. The three subplots are each allowed to end organically and still come together in a cohesive whole. Thematically the book is similar to “Tim Connor Hits Trouble” in that it is concerned with the increasing commerciality of life. TCHT is set in the Higher Education sector and deals with that in more detail, whereas this book deals with a wider range but with its most detailed description of the music industry. The aspect that I particularly like is that economic issues are only considered peripherally by the main character. The flashpoint of each subplot is the protagonist not understanding the aspects of economic reality that the respective antagonists have chosen to focus on. (The protagonist/antagonist description is not that accurate in all cases but you get the point.) A good read.

The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty by Vendetta Vida.

23590710This is a bit of an unsettling read. It doesn’t really start to come together until the poem in the middle. At first glance the plot seems to be a collection of events—both likely and unlikely—but it’s really quite a literal take on the process of personal reinvention.

And the winner is . . .

The Wonder Lover by Malcolm Knox!!

From the disconcerting second person narrator in The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty to Liam Murray Bell’s chronological arrangement, all five of the Finalists are extraordinary pieces of literature. However, the final decision came down between the eventual winner and The Truth and Other Lies. Both of them managed to have a fairytale quality to the language, but The Wonder Lover sustained it for longer. 

The Wonder Lover succeeds as a piece of literary fiction in ways rarely seen on their own, let alone in the same work. It has a unique narrative voice, has novelty that feels like uniqueness and not a gimmick, and has an ending that arises from the characters so it does not feel contrived.

Overall, it has been a good year for books. I enjoyed almost everything that I read, and was utterly impressed by a good proportion of those. Even The Shameful State, which I did not enjoy, was notable in a number of ways (not the least of which was that it was mercifully short). 

Living as remotely as I do, the other exciting thing was the ability to access a pretty good selection of novels on ebook through my local library. The convenience of ebooks meant that I was able to move swiftly from one book to the next. The negatives are that the experience is not as good as a real book and that it is too easy to start reading every time I get my phone out or read in bed. My feeling is that reading on an iPhone or an iPad is a less immersive experience than paper or dedicated ebook reader, but the convenience is unparalleled. 

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