Malibu Rising – The Story of An Ordinary Paradise

Malibu Rising is the story of hugely successful singing star, Mick Riva, and the family he abandons. Following the death of their mother, oldest sister, Nina, steps in and looks after her siblings. We follow Riva family history, from 1956 when hopeful singer Mick, meets a pretty girl called June on a Malibu beach, through to a fateful night in 1983 when the now adult Riva siblings throw a chaotic party in Nina’s Malibu house.

Malibu Rising is about family patterns playing out from one generation to another – and efforts, usually self-defeating, that people make to escape those patterns. This theme is handled with some subtlety. There is also reflection on the idea that ambitions aspiring to supposedly perfect lives, often just recreate flashier versions of former, ordinary lives. I enjoyed the descriptions of Malibu in this regard. Malibu has a reputation as a paradise for millionaires. It is actually a place to live like any other, where it pays to have comprehensive home insurance against natural disaster.

More difficult is the way the story is told. There is no central narrator. We see things from multiple points of view. Once the party starts in the book’s second half, virtually everyone coming in the door gets their few paragraphs. This was confusing and made it difficult to stay engaged. Sometimes we also get a strange author voice butting in, saying things like “there were twenty five people in the living room, not that anyone was counting”.

I didn’t know what to make of this. Was the author reflecting on how each individual is an author of their own story, while a bigger, fateful author appears to push the plot in its own direction? Well maybe. I think this book does have literary ambitions, even if it as written as a kind of soap opera. But the point of view thing was still potentially confusing and did not help involvement with the story.

Overall Malibu Rising was an interesting novel thematically, though perhaps not the most engaging read.

Houston in the blind, permission to share a blog post on the film Gravity

I recently watched Alfonso Cuarón’s film Gravity, which tells the story of a couple of astronauts who become trapped in Earth orbit. Space debris destroys their shuttle, along with satellites which allow communication with Earth. Now they have to try and survive. Part of this effort involves continuing to talk to Mission Control in Houston, as though messages are still getting through. The routine is to address each message to ‘Houston in the blind’.

“They can’t hear us,” says inexperienced astronaut Ryan Stone.

“We don’t know that,” replies veteran Matt Kowalski. “That’s why you keep talking. If someone is listening they just might save your life.”

Gravity is an interesting film on many levels, not least in what it has to say to writers. When you are a writer starting out, no one is listening. Maybe no one will ever respond. Somehow you have to keep talking to Houston in the blind as if they are there.

We see the value of this approach during a particularly dire moment later in the film. Kowalski has been lost, and Ryan, after reaching a badly damaged International Space Station, finds herself trapped in an escape capsule with no fuel. At this moment Kowalski seems to return. He opens the capsule door, sits beside Ryan and provides some relaxed encouragement. Kowalski is a hallucination, but by talking to someone who isn’t there, Ryan manages to sort out her thoughts and find a way forward. The mirage of the conversation gives actual help. There are religious parallels. Ryan had considered prayer before Kowalski’s hallucination arrived – and prayer is once again a manner of communication where you are talking to Houston in the blind. That type of message will never be answered, but some people continue to gain actual comfort from the act of assuming their call gets through.

Point of view is also interesting. Sometimes we are in Ryan’s helmet, seeing out of her eyes. Then with a subtle movement we move outside, to view her story as observers. We are both Ryan and her audience, with her when she calls for help, but also in the position of someone receiving that call.

Writers are trying to communicate. Initially they only do this with themselves, using writing as a way to sort out personal thoughts, as Ryan did talking to the hallucination of her fellow astronaut. But even an illusory audience can provide actual help, and might turn into a real audience. If the message keeps going out with enough conviction, then you might find that Houston in the blind is receiving – as Ryan discovers at the end of the film. In a damaged capsule she reaches Earth and hears Houston telling her that they are sending a rescue mission.

So, taking Matt Kowalski’s advice…

“Houston in the blind, this is mission specialist Martin Jones. Permission to share a blog post on the film Gravity, with reference to writing… copy that.”

Ophelia And The Marvellous Boy – A Story Of Magic Celebrating Science

Ophelia And The Marvellous Boy is a kind of melancholic mashup of Night At The Museum and Hans Christian Anderson’s nineteenth century tale, The Snow Queen. A city museum is about to stage an exhibition of swords, but the museum is actually an alternative reality in disguise, a prison where a Snow Queen of centuries ago has imprisoned a boy who might have the power to end her reign. A curious young girl discovers the boy. She has to find a way to release him and help him in his quest.

I actually came across this book on a list of “STEM” titles, that is books which might help young readers in understanding and appreciating science and technology. If that’s what you’re looking for, then Ophelia And The Marvellous Boy is a conundrum. In many ways, it presents the usual misleading idea that science is all about limited pigeonholing, which prevents an appreciation of a wider, more magical reality. The story is similar to The Snow Queen in that sense. One of the main points Anderson makes is that modern rationality is apparently no match for Christianity.

However, The Snow Queen is a subtle tale, which in its criticism of rationality, also reveals how people can be misled by their imagination. The boy and girl in Anderson’s tale first come across the Snow Queen in a story which they mistakenly believe is real. The Snow Queen is herself a product of of viewing the world in an imaginative rather than rational way.

Ophelia And The Marvellous Boy has this same two-sided quality. Ophelia in her restless wandering around the museum discovers the Marvellous Boy, locked away by the Snow Queen. Ophelia finds him only because she is more curious and willing to look than other people. This is part of her nature as a budding young scientist. Another important aspect of science is the discipline needed to put aside preconceptions and prejudices and see what’s in front of you. Now here’s the tricky thing: Ophelia has to put aside her preconceptions, which in this case requires her to accept that there is a magical world hidden in a museum. To do this she must be a proper scientist, accepting what she sees, even if it doesn’t coincide with what she thinks she should be seeing. When Darwin devised his theory of evolution, the preconceptions of his time demanded that species were fixed and unchanging. Darwin had to accept the evidence of his eyes that species changed all the time. He had to set aside his old conception of reality and accept a new one, crazy as it seemed to be. Ophelia has to do exactly the same thing.

My initial feeling was that the portrayal of science in Ophelia And The Marvellous Boy was unnecessarily negative. But once I started to think about it, I wasn’t so sure. Why make the little girl into a scientist if you were just going to portray science in a negative light? In the end I came to the conclusion that author Karen Foxlee explores the contradictions of The Snow Queen in a modern setting. She has written a clever book which seems to be critical of modern science while also celebrating it. By a roundabout route, the nostalgic resurrection of a fairy story becomes a demonstration of that admirable discipline needed by brave scientists, who put aside what they are supposed to see, and see what is actually there.

Calculating A Good Story – The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl

The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl by Stacy McAnulty published in 2018.

This middle grade novel is about Lucy, a 12 year old girl who, when struck by lightning, develops an incredible ability in mathematics. After a period of home schooling, her grandmother/guardian decides that attending a regular school will help Lucy develop social skills.

I don’t think The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl is a good middle grade novel, I think it’s a good novel, which just happens to have children as its characters. The categorisation of novel by age group started developing in earnest in the 1960s, so that today there’s a feeling that people have to read novels featuring characters who are like themselves. That’s alright, except for the fact that novels are also useful in finding out about people who are not like ourselves. I am not a 12 year old girl with social anxiety and incredible abilities in maths. I am a man in his fifties who has never felt much of an affinity with maths – but that doesn’t mean I can’t find The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl interesting.

One of the things that Lucy learns during her time at school is that although she might feel like the only freak in the world, other people have their own concerns and are not really taking much notice of you. That’s what books can provide – an insight into things other than us.

So maths – I have enough ability to muddle along, but have never been something very comfortable with it. The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl was an education for me, a window into the world of maths. I was good at English at school, a subject which I believed was an altogether vaguer affair. But what did I know. Lucy loves the constant known as pi – a number which you get in dividing a circle’s circumference by its diameter. This simple calculation comes out as a number that goes on forever, beginning 3.14159…. with as many numbers after that as you want. Pi is constant, applying to any circle of any size. But you can never say precisely what pi is, because you can never get to the end of it. There is something fundamentally dependable about Lucy’s favourite bit of maths, something that always remains the same. But there is also an unknowable quality about it. I imagined there was a big difference between the precise world of maths and the uncertainties of life which people write about in stories. That, however is not really true. Maths and more artistic pursuits are not so far apart after all.

The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl is a good novel for school children. It will teach them about maths and show how it can be used to solve real world problems that might mean something to them – like boosting the chances of adoption of dogs at a dog shelter. There are also a few lessons about dealing with difficult social situations. Beyond that, The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl is, as I say, a good novel. It says something about life that is relevant generally.