The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark — New Review, Bookclub Edition

Cover: Tor.com

The Haunting of Tram Car 015 is a short novel not only in terms of the number of pages, but also in the amount of time it covers. Perhaps that is why I felt it was over before I could really form an opinion of it, even though other short books have felt long enough for me to get into. Everything was interesting, there just wasn’t quite enough of it.

It’s nice to see a fantasy novel (novella) that isn’t about saving the world, or a war, where there is a big historical event but it plays out in the background. The Haunting of Tram Car 015 is what its title suggests it is: the story of a haunted tram. And, specifically, the two officers who are in charge of getting it unhaunted. It’s a slice of life, a slice of career. For what it was, I enjoyed it. I just don’t know if it was terribly memorable.

Never seek a wish from a djnn. They’re much better at negotiating than we are and things almost always go badly.

The Haunting of Tram Car 015, P. Djèlí Clark

That said, I want to see more of the relationship between Agent Hamed Nasr and Agent Onsi Youssef. I’d definitely read a series of stories about them uncovering unknown folkloric creatures around Egypt and Albania. Especially if they could take Abla with them and have Agent Fatma el-Sha’arawi turn up from time to time.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar — Reread Review

My first time reading Salt Creek, I absolutely devoured it over the course of a few days’ holiday. Despite never having lived in Australia, I seem to have a weakness for Australian authors – and Salt Creek particularly appealed to me because it was set in that period of Australian history in which the country was being ‘settled’. As I think I’ve mentioned, themes of home are always intriguing to me, probably because I moved around so much as a kid.

I went up the rutted track, retracing the route we had taken the night before, and when I reached the first bend I looked about and could persuade myself that our home wasn’t so bad except that since it had no stone but that in the chimneys it appeared as temporary as an outhouse or a shed. It was a puzzle of the raw new timber and painted windows and doors that Papa had brought here when he was building the house, and materials scavenged from the Coorong: silvered wood, mud and wattle and thatching – incoherent shelter when considered together.

Salt Creek, Lucy Treloar

On this reread, a lot of which I liked about Salt Creek the first time was still there. I enjoy the settling, the descriptions of the place and the house, the way Lucy Treloar evokes an oppressive and even abusive atmosphere without – at least at first – bringing it right out into the open. The character development of Hettie and her siblings slowly realising that something is wrong is very effective. The characters are excellently defined, all having different interests and different relationships with each other and their surroundings.

When my boots got wet while walking I lifted my skirts high and strode those shallow lakes and with the clouds at my feet it were as if I were stilt-walking the sky.

Salt Creek, Lucy Treloar

Salt Creek is another of those books that almost makes me want to write an essay. There’s definitely a bird motif happening, what with the family being called ‘Finch’ and the repeated mentions of the birds that fly overhead. I’d probably want to compare it to The Godwits Fly, which has birds much more explicitly as a metaphor.

This time reading it, I wasn’t quite as enchanted. I think this had to way Salt Creek is written – and maybe to do with the fact I’ve been doing a lot more prose editing than I was in 2017. I found myself wishing for more commas! There’s a book club question at the back of the book which asks:

Does the author’s adoption of a nineteenth-century prose style help us to understand the characters and their actions? Does it make the story more authentic?

And maybe it does make the story more authentic. But I struggled with it this time around in a way that I definitely didn’t before. Maybe it was just because the previous book I read was set in the future!

Still, I enjoyed rereading Salt Creek. It’s definitely something that I’ll come back to again in the future.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

The Loneliest Girl in the Universe by Lauren James — New Review

When I read Dread Nation, I hoped I’d be able to tick the checkbox next to ‘horror’ on my list of unread genres. (To see why that wasn’t the case, head over to that review!) When I started The Loneliest Girl in the Universe, I had absolutely no thought of horror on my mind. And yet, to me, The Loneliest Girl is far more frightening.

The last time I hugged someone, smelt their shampoo or even just spoke to them face to face, was 25 February 2062. Five years ago. I’m officially further from any other human being than anyone else has been since the evolution of the species.

The Loneliest Girl in the Universe, Lauren James

My notes while reading The Loneliest Girl are full of increasingly frantic comments from ‘suspicious of [X] – seems to have said the thing that’s most helpful’ to ‘don’t trust [Y]! don’t trust anything about this book!’ I even sent a message to Lindsey, who I bought the book from, to say I was side-eyeing every character. I remembered her saying the plot really picked up at the halfway point, but for me it was amazingly tense from far before that.

Romy, the main character, has nightmares about astronauts. But my main terror came from other people! For a long time, I was second-guessing myself. Was I meant to suspect literally every other person Romy interacted with? Or was I being overly cautious? The sense that she was being manipulated built and built until that climax Lindsey had prepared me for.

I want to make him happy more than anything else. As long as J is happy, everything will be OK.

The Loneliest Girl in the Universe, Lauren James

The Loneliest Girl in the Universe was nothing like I expected. I didn’t know Romy was going to be a fanfic author – it’s always slightly weird to me to see fanfic represented in media. I didn’t know I was going to be utterly gripped and unable to put the book down. I didn’t know I was going to be reading the first book I’d qualify as horror!

But all those unknowns were brilliant. I thoroughly enjoyed this. I wonder whether, after reading my review, someone else would go into it and find their own things to be surprised by. I haven’t given away any plot details, but I wonder if this would count as ‘spoilers’ of a different kind. What do you think?

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

How to Be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis — Reread Review

I remembered that How to Be a Heroine was good, but I’d forgotten how very good it is! It helps, of course, that a lot of Samantha Ellis’s heroines are the same as mine – Anne Shirley, Jo March, Katy Carr and Sara Crewe, to name just a few. Samantha Ellis opens with a story of ‘arguing (over the wuthering) with [her] best friend about whether [they]’d rather be Jane Eyre or Cathy Earnshaw’. Nickie and I have had similar arguments. I specifically remember leaving an English class in Sixth Form arguing over whether Charles Bovary or Rodolphe Boulanger was the more desirable partner.

But I hope I’m braver about love now, and I’m tempted to make a rule that any heroine who spends a whole novel in love with someone who can’t or won’t love her back is not truly a heroine.

How to Be a Herione, Samatha Ellis

Like Samatha Ellis, who begins How to Be a Heroine surprised by the negative qualities of her beloved Cathy, I think both Nickie and I have grown up out of our previous opinions and moved closer to some middle point between these two extremes. Charles Bovary’s ‘Nice Guy’ no longer seems harmless and therefore acceptable, and Rodolphe Boulanger’s wild passion needs tempering with some sympathy for people around him.

I don’t agree with everything Samantha Ellis says – I adore Anne’s House of Dreams and still love Little Women despite it’s Victorian preachiness. The fact that Jo and Anne give up writing doesn’t bother me as much as it bothers Samantha Ellis – maybe because she’s a writer and I’m not. Or, perhaps the differences come down to the fact that I’m 12 years younger. It doesn’t really matter, because agreeing with How to Be a Heroine isn’t the point. It’s fascinating just to see these character analysed in this loving and yet educated way. We do agree about Cousin Helen and her School of Pain, at least!

Next to my heroines, I felt undefined, formless; I had no narrative arc, no quest, no journey.

How to Be a Heroine, Samantha Ellis

The twelve year difference means that some of my heroines weren’t touched on. There’s no sign of Mildred Hubble, clumsy and unlucky but determined; or Matilda, whose rises above her neglected childhood to take life into her own hands; or Enid Blyton’s Naughtiest Girl at School who conquers her temper through community and responsibility. But even so, How to Be a Heroine got me thinking about all those beloved characters, wondering how I would see them if I resisted those books now – and how I might feel if I do so again another decade from now.

If all literary criticism was like this, I’d read a lot more of it!

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The translucent, golden punch tastes velvety, voluptuous and not off-puttingly milky. Under its influence, I stage a party for my heroines in my imagination, and in my flat. It’s less like the glowering encounter I imagined between Cathy Earnshaw and Flora Poste, and more like the riotous bash in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Not everyone is going to like milk punch. So there are also dirty martinis, and bagels and baklava, and my mother’s masafan, Iraqi marzipan. The Little Mermaid is in the bath, with her tail still on, singing because she never did give up her soaring voice. Anne Shirley and Jo March are having a furious argument about plot versus character, gesticulating with ink-stained hands. Scarlett is in the living room, her skirts taking up half the space, trying to show Lizzy how to bat her eyelashes. Lizzy is laughing her head off ut Scarlett has acquired a sense of humour, and doesn’t mind a bit. Melanie is talking book with Esther Greenwood, who has brought her baby and also the proofs of her first poetry collection. Franny and Zooey have rolled back the rug and are doing a soft shoe shuffle in rhinestone hats. Lucy Honeychurch is hammering out some Beethoven (in this scenario I have a piano. A ground piano. Well, why not?) Marjorie Morningstar is gossiping about directors with Pauline and Posy Fossil. They’ve come straight from the shows they’re in, till in stage make-up and full of stories. Petrova, in a leather aviator jacket, goggles pushed back, a chic scarf knotted around her neck, is telling the thrilling story of her latest flight and how she fixed an engine fault in mid-air. Mira, in her paint-stained jeans and poncho, is listening, fascinated, asking a thousand questions. Mildred has been persuaded to drink a tiny glass of sherry, then another tiny glass, then another and now she and Lolly are doing a wild, strange dance in the hallway, stamping their feet, their hair flying wild and electric. Lolly’s cakes, in the shape of patriarchs she hates, are going down a treat. The Dolls from the Valley are telling Flora some truly scandalous and unrepeatable stories, and she is firmly advising them to get rid of their men and find worthier paramours. Celie is modelling trousers of her own design and taking orders from the Lace women; Judy is giving her a ten-point plan on how to expand her business to an international market. She is quite drunk but nevertheless the plan seems quite coherent, even if it is punctuated by her bellowing ‘More leopard print, more leopard print!’

Cathy looks tumultuous and on the edge of violent weeping and just as I think she’s going to storm out or trash my flat, Jane arrives, late, with an unexpected guest. Cathy turns in anticipation: is it Heathcliff? Once I would have joined her but now I’m glad it isn’t him. It’s a better surprise. It’s Emily’s hawk. Hero or Nero. Jane’s found him at last, and has him on her arm, perched on her glove; small for a bird of prey, he is dashing and patrician looking, brown and white, observing the room with dark, flinty eyes. When Cathy sees him, she looks at Jane and smiles.And in the kitchen is a heroine I probably should have had when I was four and sitting on my parents’ carpet, wishing it would fly. In the kitchen is Scheherazade.

How to Be a Heroine, Samatha Ellis