The Graveyard Book

Dark urban young adult fantasy

I have been reading this author for a long time, and he has an impressive bibliography of novels that straddle the blurry line between fantasy and realism. This book has been sitting on my shelf for quite a while after my partner bought it for me, and I have to admit, the cover had not really attracted me. I know the artist is incredibly well-known, and while I agree the style is probably in line with the themes of the book, it is a bit skeletal and knobbly for my tastes. It sat there gathering dust for some time until I thought, I just need two more books to finish my 2018 Goodreads Reading Challenge, this one looks relatively short and it has been a while since I’ve read this author.

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“The Graveyard Book” by Neil Gaiman is a young adult fantasy novel about a little boy called Nobody Owens who lives in a graveyard. Narrowly escaping murder like the rest of his family by the man Jack, Bod, as he is affectionately known, is granted refuge among the ghosts and creatures who live in the graveyard. Although adopted by Mr and Mrs Owens, and watched over by his mysterious guardian Silas, Bod is given a large amount of freedom within the confines of the graveyard. However, the protection cannot last forever, and sooner or later Bod must return to the real world and live his life.

This, at heart, is a book about growing up. Gaiman sets the scene by introducing the graveyard, its features and residents and uses them as a yardstick to measure how Bod grows and changes over time. In his usual subtle way, Gaiman explores the differences between good and bad, child and adult, accepting help and self-reliance – all things that young people must navigate as they start to find their own way in the world. This is also a book about boundaries, which ones are flexible, which ones are permeable and which ones must remain steadfast. Gaiman is never condescending in this book, and I think that the way that he writes about the challenges Bod faces leaves a lot of room for young readers to make up their own minds about the way things turn out. I really enjoyed how Bod aged over time, and I think it’s quite rare for a children’s book to really examine how children’s personalities develop.

I think the problem I had with this book is that while it is undeniably rich, at times it felt a bit constraining while reading it. I completely understand that Gaiman explores different kinds of freedoms and deliberately uses the border of the graveyard as both a physical and metaphorical barrier. However, because the majority of the story is set within the graveyard, and a lot of the story is Bod revisiting places and people within that graveyard, there were times where the book feels a bit repetitive.

Nevertheless, a complex and sophisticated young adult novel in Gaiman’s trademark style that I think many kids would enjoy.


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The Graveyard Book

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Dear Santa

I received this book as part of a work Kris Kringle. As Christmas was drawing near, I thought it was just the time to read it (even if this review is a little belated). Proceeds from sales go towards cancer research and none of the authors were paid, so it was definitely a book bought for a good cause.

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“Dear Santa” edited by Samuel Johnson OAM and illustrated by Shaun Tan is a collection of letters by many well-known Australians addressed, of course, to Santa. With the likes of Leigh Sales, Helen Garner, Deborah Mailman, Missy Higgins and Shaun Micallef, each of the 68 contributors revisits the Santa of their childhoods through the eyes of an adult. Some letters are long, some are succinct, some are cynical, some are hopeful, some are downright desperate. Many seek the basics of sleep or the simplicity of sweets. Many call for bigger gifts like world peace, a treaty and relief from the drought.

This is a lovely little book that would make a brilliant Christmas coffee table book. Although ostensibly about Santa, it takes thoughts from a broad selection of Australians on the state of the country, where we’ve come from and where we are heading. Definitely aimed at an older audience, there are plenty of witticisms and astute observations peppered throughout.

This book probably lends itself more to flicking through or picking up and reading at random than it does reading from cover to cover. I sat down one evening with a gin and tonic and dark chocolate and did exactly that, and after a while the letters start to blur together a little (it wasn’t the gin, I swear).

Nevertheless, a lovely seasonal book for an excellent cause. Keep an eye out for next Christmas.

Dear Santa

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Slade House

British supernatural horror novel 

I first read this author when I was 18 years old after his book “Cloud Atlas” was recommended to me by someone I was seeing at the time. I have been slowly getting to some of his other books, though his manuscript for the Future Library project is something I will probably never get to read. Anyway, I was getting to the pointy end of my 2018 reading challenge, and this book was short and sitting on my shelf so I decided it was time to read it.

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“Slade House” by David Mitchell is a horror novel set in the UK. It begins in 1979 with a teenage boy called Nathan who is dragged along by his mother to an exclusive event at a manor called Slade House. After some difficulty finding the address, and after Nathan taking some valium, they eventually find the iron door in an alleyway and make their way into the manor’s garden. Things don’t seem so bad and Nathan befriends another teen called Jonah. However, when things start becoming a little strange, Nathan finds himself unable to leave. 9 years later, a divorced police officer is investigating Slade House and disappearances that are associated with the mysterious address. 9 years later after that, a shy member of a supernatural club goes to a party at Slade House. Will the cycle continue, or will someone be able to break the circuit and see through the illusion?

This book was genuinely terrifying. I was about halfway through, in the chapter Oink Oink, and my heart was positively racing. Mitchell has a real flair for getting inside the head of a diverse cast of characters, and for conjuring empathy in his readers. Each point of view character is isolated in their own way, and Mitchell shows us that courage comes from unexpected places and to never underestimate people based on their appearance. Mitchell is also an expert in layering stories and each chapter builds on and elaborates the former, bringing the true horror of the story to the fore.

I actually don’t have much more to say about this book except that if you’re looking for a well-written and extremely unsettling horror story, look no further.

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Slade House

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The Blue Salt Road

Novella retelling seafaring folklore

About a year ago, I found out that one of my favourite authors was retelling British folklore. I was excited then, and I was just as excited a couple of months ago when I saw that she had released a second book in a similar theme. Just as pretty, with a deep blue hardcover and nautical imagery in silver detail, I knew I had to have it.

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“The Blue Salt Road” by Joanne M. Harris is a fantasy novella about a young man of the Grey Seal clan, the most playful of the selkies, and he the wildest of them all. Tempted by the adventure of walking among the Folk who live on land, he casts off his seal skin one night at the call of a red-haired lass. After meeting her under the moonlight several times, the young man is tricked, his sealskin stolen and his memories gone. With no memory of his former life, the young man must try to make the best of a new life thrust upon him. However, when he is asked to do the unthinkable and with no knowledge of how to return to his home, the young man soon finds himself with nowhere to go.

Inspired by the ballad “The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry“, this story takes the most well-known version of the selkie myth, where a man steals a selkie-woman’s skin to make her his bride, and turns it on its head. Harris, in her trademark immersive style, takes the coastal landscape and examines it from every angle: a watery wonderland, a cold and inhospitable climate, a place of fear, a place of love. In the same way, she takes the selkie’s relationship and examines it from every angle: a place of lust, a place of betrayal, a place of understanding, and a place of love.

This book made me a lot more uneasy than her previous one in this collection. I think part of it was that the story of a man tricking a woman to be with him is so pervasive, but the story of a woman tricking a man to be with her is much less common. For some reason, men pursuing women by any means is normalised but women pursuing men by any means feels wrong. Without going into spoilers, the ending made me even more uneasy. I felt that Harris explored an interesting motive behind the red-haired woman’s actions, but ultimately I found the successive breaches of trust a bit hard to deal with. I get that Harris is going for a dark interpretation, but I there was something about the ending left me much more unsettled than the previous one.

A beautifully rendered story with a hint of bitterness, Harris challenges our understanding of gender through this traditional tale.

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The Blue Salt Road

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The Adventurous Princess and Other Feminist Fairy Tales

Collection of illustrated short stories of reimagined fairy tales

If you listen to my podcast Lost the Plot, you may recall that I spoke to this author some time ago about her plans to run a crowdfunding campaign to publish her feminist fairy tales. Very excitingly, the campaign was successful. Even more excitingly, the campaign reached almost five times the original goal which meant that the book included four more fairy tales than originally anticipated. I received my copy late last year, and I couldn’t wait to read it.

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“The Adventurous Princess and Other Feminist Fairy Tales” by Erin-Claire Barrow is a collection of illustrated short stories inspired by traditional fairy tales and reimagined from a feminist perspective. Barrow takes on some familiar stories such as CinderellaBeauty and the Beast and Snow White as well as some lesser known ones like Allerleirauh and The Goose Girl. Each story features a diverse cast and an empowering twist on the original plot of the stories.

The absolute highlight of this book is without a doubt the illustrations. Barrow’s striking and whimsical watercolours bring the stories to life and reinforce the image of diverse women at the centre of these classic tales. Barrow’s women are ethnically diverse, queer, disabled, older, larger, young and gender non-conforming. Barrow’s women have jobs, dreams and callings but most importantly, they have agency. They make their own decisions and when they ask for help, it is from a place of strength rather than weakness. The stories themselves are succinct and accessible, and girls and women of any age can enjoy them. I particularly liked the shorter stories that turn stereotypes on their heads and bring otherwise ridiculous stories to a satisfying ending.

Quite a few people have reimagined fairy tales, including, famously, Roald Dahl in his “Revolting Rhymes” and increasingly in Disney films. What is different about this book is that it is not just about empowering conventionally beautiful straight women, it is about representing women from all backgrounds. I think that the only additional woman I would have liked to have seen is a trans woman, and I look forward to seeing future illustrations and stories from Barrow.

An accessible and inclusive take on traditional fairy tales that can be enjoyed by readers of all ages.

Buy a copy directly from the author’s website.

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Wundersmith: The Calling of Morrigan Crow

Second book in children’s fantasy series “Nevermore”

If you haven’t read the first book, skip this review because there will be spoilers.

I read the first book in this series some time ago, and although I felt that it wasn’t so unique as to be mindblowing, it was nevertheless an enjoyable read. When the second book came out recently, I thought I’d give it a go.

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“Wundersmith: The Calling of Morrigan Crow” by Jessica Townsend is a children’s fantasy novel and the second book in the “Nevermoor” series. The story picks up shortly after Morrigan has been accepted into the Wundrous Society after completing a number of trials. One of nine new members in unit 919, each is bound to keep Morrigan’s secret: that she is a wundersmith. A powerful wielder of magic feared by the citizens of Nevermoor. However, when Morrigan is excluded from all classes except for the history of catastrophes caused by other wundersmiths before her. However, with citizens of Nevermoor disappearing, Morrigan becoming more and more isolated and letters threatening to expose unit 919’s secret unless each member participates in a nigh impossible tasks, it is seeming less and less likely that Morrigan will every truly be a member of the Wundrous Society.

I actually enjoyed this book quite a bit more than the first one. I felt like Townsend has hit her stride and plot-wise, this book was interesting and cohesive. I enjoyed how she kept several mysteries going at once, and wove in what Morrigan was learning about the city of Nevermoor seamlessly into the solutions. I also felt that the worldbuilding was stronger in this book, and I felt that I was starting to get much more of a sense of Nevermore and how the world works. As miffed as Morrigan was about the history lessons, it was an ingenious way to round out some of the context of why the people of Nevermore are so frightened of Wundersmiths. I also enjoyed the trisky lanes and learning a bit about the geography of Nevermoor. Finally, I thought that Townsend’s exploration of good and evil was much stronger in this book with as many twists and turns as the tricksy lanes themselves.

Although I did think that this book was stronger than the previous, I did occasionally feel that sometimes this book was quirky for the sake of being quirky. I also felt that, although it wasn’t as the first book, this book does still borrow a lot of themes from other young fantasy books I have read. There were still quite a few tropes, but I do feelt that this series is starting to come into its own.

An engaging book that picks up where the first left off and lifts the story to a new level.

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Wundersmith: The Calling of Morrigan Crow: Nevermoor 2

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Lyra’s Oxford

Short story revisiting Philip Pullman’s reimagined Oxford of “His Dark Materials”

As I’ve mentioned a couple of times recently, I was struggling to meet my 2018 Goodreads challenge goal of 80 books, so I was scouring my bookshelves trying to find some shorter books and this one caught my eye. I read the first book in the author’s new series relatively recently and I knew that some of the same characters featured in this one, so I thought I’d dip into a bit of world-building and check it out.

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“Lyra’s Oxford” by Philip Pullman is a short book set two years after the events of his series “His Dark Materials“. The book includes a short story called Lyra and the Birds as well as a number of tidbits and pieces of paraphernalia from the Oxford of Lyra’s World. Lyra and the Birds is a whirlwind chase for Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon among the many colleges of the city while following a lost witch’s daemon.

If you’re a huge fan of the series, this is a fun little vacation back into the world of daemons, mysteries and Lyra’s stomping ground. I really enjoyed the fold out map in the centre, and the other fictional documents in the book. I also really enjoyed an older Lyra, juggling studies and socialising but also with the same sense of adventure.

While I enjoyed a lot about this, I wasn’t enormously sold on the plot. Lyra and Pan race around Oxford and while it is certainly an exercise in worldbuilding, and leaves some questions unanswered, I didn’t really feel like as a self-contained story there was much in the way of plot and character development. I think I preferred his other companion book “Once Upon a Time in the North”, a rollicking story about the inimitable Lee Scoresby and his daemon Hester.

A fun little book for fans of “His Dark Materials”, but not quite as satisfying as the novels.

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Lyra’s Oxford

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