Review: Spark by Rachael Craw

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Seventeen year-old Evangeline Everton doesn’t have a choice. Struggling to come to terms with the death of her mother, and anxious about returning to school, Evie has nightmares, pins and needles, a quickened pulse and a tightening chest. She develops an inexplicable need to be close to her best friend, Kitty, and an intense attraction to Kitty’s twin brother, Jamie. But, her physical symptoms and intense social dependencies are more than mere signs of severe anxiety.

Evie’s DNA has pre-determined that she is a Shield, created to protect a Spark. Strays kill Sparks. So, when Kitty is attacked, Evie is suspected of being a Stray to Kitty’s Spark. When Kitty is attacked a second time, Evie’s speed, strength, connectedness to and protectiveness of Kitty proves that she is her Shield. But, it is not enough for Evie to protect Kitty from an attack – Kitty will only be safe if Evie kills the Stray.

Spark, the début novel by YA author Rachael Craw, follows Evie as she tries to understand and control her abilities, her over-protective pull to Kitty and her intense desire for Jamie, while also trying to find out who the Stray is and mentally and physically prepare herself to kill it.

Spark is, for the most part, a thrilling read. Narrated by Evie, her developing super-human abilities are cleverly tangled up with her anxieties about her relationships with her friends and her aunt and guardian, Miriam. The only disruption to the otherwise fast-paced narrative is the exposition of the sci-fi elements. Evie starts evolving into a Shield faster than any Shields have before her, which sets her up as an exciting character to follow, but also makes it harder for the reader to develop an understanding of the sci-fi elements. Explanations of Shields, Strays, Sparks, Kinetic Transference and other sci-fi elements are staggered throughout the book, as none of the knowledgeable characters want to overwhelm Evie with information. While the staggered exposition makes for a slightly disjointed read, it doesn’t cause a major disruption to the flow of the story.

Rachael Craw writes in the biography section at the back of the book that she created Spark because she wanted to create a feisty female character. Spark is primarily concerned with the development of Evie’s abilities. Evie spends the early part of the story swooning and fainting, which would put her in the passive damsel category, if not for the justification that her body is initially overwhelmed by her transition to a Shield. As she gains an awareness of her abilities, Evie develops an assertive drive and evolves into a feisty and both mentally and physically strong young woman.

The banter between Evie and some of the minor characters, coupled with the antagonist, Richard, being nicknamed Dick, makes Spark a fun read. The sci-fi elements of the fight scenes were easy to visualise and the flirtations between characters were swoon-worthy. Bonus points for Craw’s homage to Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. Spark answers all of the major questions it sets up, while ending with a series of new captivating complications that will be explored in the second book of the trilogy, Stray.

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‘Men Overboard: Blokes, Wimps and Mates’ at The Wheeler Centre

Clementine Ford, Benjamin Law, Jennifer Granger and Ben Birchall discuss masculinity.

Clementine Ford, Benjamin Law, Jennifer Granger and Ben Birchall discuss masculinity

Last night I went to ‘Men Overboard: Blokes, Wimps and Mates’ at The Wheeler Centre. The focus of the panel was to ask what it means to be a male in the 21st century. Clementine Ford chaired the panel. She opened the evening by suggesting that masculinity in today’s society equates once again with physical strength. She invited her fellow panellists to discuss what they perceive to be the current ideals of masculinity and whether today’s society has taken a step forwards or backwards. Clementine ended her brief introduction by quipping about her position as emcee by paraphrasing Tony Abbot – ‘there are at least three men in my family so I am qualified to lead them’.

BLawBenjamin Law referred to his collection of personal essays, The Family Law, to discuss his experience of masculinity anxieties he had growing up, which he said were primarily about his physicality. He jokingly referred to himself as an ‘Asian hybrid man-child thingy’, as he has full lips and developed a deep voice and a complete lack of forearm hair. Benjamin commented that ‘Gay Australia’ is ‘incredibly white and ‘people would never suspect you could be a racial minority and gay’. He argued that the problem with any questions of masculinity is that ‘how we present as masculine or feminine is always someone else’s business’.

Granger

Jennifer Granger referred to her book Feminine Lost – Why Most Women are Male to argue that men and women are made up of both masculine and feminine qualities, and the combination of masculine and feminine features determines how we interact with the world. She believes what happens to women will have a corresponding effect on men, and vice versa. She described the emergence of what she sees as a ‘highly feminine man’, who doesn’t enjoy confrontation, has difficulty facing decisions and is receptive (but does not initiate). Jennifer believes there is a masculine and feminine role in every heterosexual relationship and a ‘butch’ and ‘feminine’ role in every homosexual relationship.  She also categorised the ‘macho man’ as ‘almost Neanderthal’, and the ‘pseudo-masculine’ as a man nursing wounds from unfairness of loss of privilege after the rise of the powerful woman.

Ben Birchall used a slideshow in his presentation, which he titled ‘masculinity 2.0’.

Ben's slide show featured a photograph of his son wearing a dress, which he used to illustrate the need for children to be free to explore their own identity

Ben’s slide show featured a photograph of his son wearing a dress, which he used to illustrate the need for children to be free to explore their own identity

He quipped that he is part of the problem, as he identifies as ‘a masculine man’. Ben believes there currently is a nostalgic view of masculinity, of 1970’s moustached, beer-swigging Dennis Lilly to compensate for the previously idealised super-buffed and preened David Beckham world. Mateship is paramount in this nostalgic masculinity, which involves sport and a ‘fetishism’ of ‘male time’ away from women.  Ben suggests this type of masculinity is just as rigid as its predecessor. Fatherhood ‘allows you to play a masculine role’, prompting Ben to explore what masculinity means to him and to ask himself how he can raise a good son. Ben believes masculinity is an impossible archetype. He said 1 in 8 men suffer depression, men are twice as likely to self-medicate, and 80 percent of suicides are men. Ben believes ‘manhood is too hard to define’, and if men were ‘concentrating less on being better men, it might free them to be better people’.

PEggyClementine suggested the unforeseen side effects of feminism is the perceived sense of emasculation and resulting blame on women. Referring to School Girls: Young Women, Self Esteem, and the Confidence Gap by Peggy Orenstein as a reference point, Clementine argued that some men perceive equality as a loss, as legislation that empowered men and restricted women has been removed. Ben Birchall acknowledged the many inequalities that women still face, but also argued that men are disadvantaged in health services. Jennifer commented that we have lived in a patriarchy for over 4,000 years, so any change will be gradual.

Clementine questioned Jennifer’s binaries of masculine and feminine. Clementine argued that notions of masculine and feminine are socially created, saying ‘I don’t think those things are gendered’. Jennifer argued that masculine and feminine are internal in all of us. Ben Birchall commented that masculine and feminine binaries are alive and well on social media (and sell products to consumers). He later commented that Unilever owns Dove (who have the highly successful ‘Real Beauty’ campaign) and Lynx (with campaigns where masses of scantily clad women are drawn to a male after he sprays the deodorant). Also countering Jennifer’s belief that men possess both masculine and feminine qualities, Benjamin Law argued that grizzly, macho guys resent being told they can’t be what they are. An audience member later asked Jennifer what research methodology she used to support her masculine/feminine theory, particularly in relation to the butch/feminine in homosexuality, and Jennifer responded by referencing biblical archetypes.

Raising concerns about the nostalgic masculine man of Ben Birchall’s presentation, Clementine said celebrating ideals of masculinity with the mythology of mateship between men only, freezes women out. Benjamin Law commented on his upbringing in Queensland, which he described as a ‘concentrated version of Australia’. He said growing up ‘you have to decide what sort of man you want to be’, and he was fortunate enough to know he was gay at a young age (he came out at 17). Benjamin Law argued that Jennifer’s categorisations of ‘butch’ and ‘feminine’ homosexuals is heteronormative, and that any notions of feminine or masculine roles are constantly negotiated and changing internally, regardless of sexuality.

An audience member commented that there are numerous campaigns on raising young girls to challenge stereotypes (the Always #LikeAGirl campaign is a brilliant example).

She asked whether there are similar campaigns for men. Clementine mentioned an up-coming documentary, The Mask You Live In, which explores how the phrase “man up” is the worst two words you can say to a male, as it asks them to sacrifice their emotional side. More info on the documentary can be found here.

 

Review: Narrative structure in ‘Burial Rites’ by Hannah Kent

Burial Rites is a compelling début historical fiction novel by Hannah Kent that explores the life of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland. In 1829, Fridrik Sigurdsson, the son of the farmer at Katadalur, and Agnes Magnúsdóttir and Sigrídur (Sigga) Gudmundsdóttir, Illugastadir workmaids, are convicted of the murders of Natan Ketilsson, a herbalist and owner of Illugastadir, and Pétur Jónsson, a convicted robber. All three are sentenced to death. Agnes is delivered into the custody of District Officer Jón Jónsdóttir. She awaits her sentence at his home under the watchful eyes of his wife Margrét and their daughters Steinvör (Steina) and Sigurlaug (Lauga). Agnes prepares for death by recounting her story to her spiritual advisor, Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jónsson (Tóti).

The focus of the novel is not on the crime itself – Agnes has already been convicted and is waiting to die – the question is whether she was fairly judged. The reliability of characters’ perceptions of events and of one another are explored through different narrative perspectives. There is no single authoritative voice in the novel, as it alternates between first-person narration by Agnes, and third-person narration, primarily from the perspectives of Tóti and Margrét. Switching between perspectives creates suspense and prevents the reader from getting too engrossed or dependant on one narrator. The prejudices of other characters and the perception of Agnes as a hardened criminal are explored through third-person narration. First-person narration allows Agnes to intimately and selectively convey her experience to other characters, and to convey to the reader her fears of sharing those experiences.

The emotive and intimate exchanges between Agnes and her captors contrasts heavily to the historical documents that open each chapter of the book. The documents add an authenticity and depth to the story while also dehumanising and damning Agnes and her co-accused. The absolute damnation by the courts is conveyed at the outset in letters from District Commissioner Björn Blöndal, who writes ‘…after the anticipated authorisation from the Supreme Court in Copenhagen, I intend to execute the Illugastadir murderers’.  The bleakness of Agnes’ existence is exemplified through court documentation of her meagre belongings, which include ‘a white sack with useless odds and ends in it’ and ‘an old shift of faded blue’. The public perception of Agnes as a calculated murderer is communicated through the poems of Poet-Rósa, which include the lines ‘For you have stolen with your scheming / he who gave my life meaning, / and thrown your life to the Devil to deal.’

While Agnes’ story is bleak, Burial Rites is by no means a depressing read, as hope is offered by questioning those in power and by providing a voice to the powerless. Hannah Kent is currently working on her second book, a historical novel set in 19th-century Ireland.

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