Book review: The Stonor Eagles, William Horwood

William Horwood was already a favourite, but this novel has elevated him once more in my eyes.

James MacAskill Stonor, the baby of his family, is the straw that broke the camel’s back in his parent’s unusual marriage. The Stonor Eagles follows Jim as he navigates life from an idyllic but unhappy childhood in Deal, Devon, to a complex adult life, explored through his work as an artist. His greatest achievement is the Eagle series, built on mythological stories of the endangered sea eagle, first told to him by his broken father, who carries guilt for the destruction of the last breeding pair on his home of Skye, and embellished on by the artist.

The three arcs–of the artist, the art, and the eagles–are tied tightly in an elegantly interwoven narrative. There are many places where you don’t see the parallels coming in each arc until they are upon you.

Horwood manages an exquisite damning of man and progress, of broken families and dreams, but leaves the reader on a note of hope. A gentle reminder that you can come home again.

The Stonor Eagles is literary in feel and scope, but the plight of the eagles strikes a deeply fantastic tone to the story. I would highly recommend this to anyone who cares about what we do to the planet, or enjoys a good redemption story. William Horwood was already a favourite, but this novel has elevated him once more in my eyes.

Review: Greg Chapman’s Hollow House

30968911Greg Chapman’s shorts, and his collection Vaudeville and Other Nightmares, have been part of my reading spectrum for the last few years. Before Hollow House, I mostly would have described his work as gothic, though his collection (reviewed here) demonstrated his abilities within the whole gamut of the horror genre.

Hollow House is Chapman’s first published novel, and it was nominated for the Bram Stoker Awards (highly-regarded international awards for horror fiction). I admit to some trepidation, seeing all the glowing reviews from the horror community, as I’ve not been much of a horror reader for the last decade.

The fears were well founded. Chapman takes the veneer of civility and decency of cookie-cutter suburbs and upends it to shake out all the secrets and deviance. While the story has gothic overtones, he seamlessly embroiders in cosmic horror to the fabric of setting and character.

Most of characters tend toward unlikeable to downright despicable, the perfect garden in which the Kemper House sows its deadly crop. While it would likely have been impossible with such a large cast of characters, some further character development could have given the piece a little more nuance.

Much more gory than my previous experience of Chapman’s work, Hollow House kept to (what I suspect is) Greg’s love of the gothic with a blood-spattered, existential horror. An excellent first novel that creeped and grossed me out; so a solid offering to the genre.

Real does not equal always strong

I stumbled across a discussion the other day about the findings of Gender Inequality in Film (the infographic is disheartening but exceptional work by the team at the New York Film Academy). One of the comments attracted my attention, and I’ve been musing on it since.

The gist of this woman’s comment was that Dr. Ryan Stone in the movie Gravity, the female protagonist played by Sandra Bullock, set the cause of feminism back by her actions. This had me puzzled and confused.

For those who haven’t seen the film, I would suggest that you do. It’s spectacular, and the production team have focused on beautiful starscapes and realistic disorientation in the vastness of the universe around. If you haven’t seen it, please read on. I don’t think any of the spoilers I mention should give away the story, beyond any trailers released or reviews read.

Dr. Stone is a medical engineer who is recruited by NASA as a Specialist, because of the advanced electronics work she does at home, and in the beginning of the movie is on a spacewalk finishing the last of the repairs on the Hubble Telescope. What happens from there is that a debris field hits the Telescope, her vessel and leaves her spinning out into space, cut off from command at Huston and without her fellow astronauts. The rest of the movie is about her bid to get home, aided by veteran astrounaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney).

Most of the movie, she is out of her depth. Out of control and unaided. Spinning out in space, untethered, is but one of many problems she faces. Now, as a minimally trained astronaut, and one on her first mission, facing disaster and possible lonely death in space, she panics. The sounds of the movie are all heavy breathing and shrill calls for assistance and trying to reach Huston. Even with training, I imagine that spinning out into space like this is every astronaut’s nightmare, as it’s a death sentence when there is no assistance.

As it goes on, every event mounts another hurdle for her; not one plan comes off as it should. She is unable to be assisted by any one else. She is required to rely on the memory of the minimal training she has to fly aircraft that does not have instructions in the same language nor the same set-up. She faces up to having to confront the same event that last caused her distress to escape once again.

Admittedly, at one point, she gives up. She believes she cannot succeed. That she is without any assistance. She cries, she talks to herself, and says farewell to her life in the only way she feels she has left.

Nothing that she did was not an emotion I could not understand. Overwhelmed, in a seemingly hopeless and life-threatening situation, she alternated between coping and not coping. The character of Dr. Stone was an engineer, not an astronaut who had spent all their life training to be on the International Space Station.

There is a difference between being real and setting back the cause of feminism. Moments of weakness, of giving up, do not mean a person is not strong. In fact, sometimes realise which battles are not worth your fight is intelligent. Recognising that you are overwhelmed does not mean you are less of a person.

Just because Dr. Stone did not act in a gung-ho manner, like a two-dimensional male lead charging in to save the day and damn the odds, does not mean the character let down the cause of feminism. Because you rely on the experience of a more senior member of the team, it does not make you useless or less of a person.

There seems to be a great deal of confusion about what constitutes a real woman character in fiction and in film. Let me share my thoughts. A real woman is someone an audience can relate to, who lives by the rules she deems are important. A real woman has a story that has an effect on the way she reacts to situations. A real woman relates to her environment, settings and surrounds in a believable way.

In the same way, feminism is not answering all questions and achieving all goals on your own, without gathering and relying on experience of others. Feminism means being equal in rights to others; so has an equal right to life, to the pursuit of their own happiness and projects not controlled by another; not that an individual never accepts assistance or never works with another.

Gravity is a film that went for realism in its production and in its storyline, particularly with their female lead. I would highly recommend it as a film to see, as an offering that is a little different and wholly engrossing, and attempted to be true to the actual experience of being in space.

For those who have thoughts on Dr. Stone in Gravity, or “real women” in cinema, I hope you’ll share them and we can have a discussion on this topic.