Echo North

Retelling of Norwegian fairy tale

Our feminist fantasy book club rolled around again, and this time we were tackling a reinterpretation of a Norwegian fairy tale. I hadn’t heard of this one before, but given how cold it is in Canberra right now, it seemed a very appropriate winter choice. Our host put together a wonderful Winter Solstice feast on the night and we discussed the book in earnest.

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“Echo North” by Joanna Ruth Meyer is a fantasy novel that reimagines the Norwegian fairy tale “East of the Sun and West of the Moon“. The story follows Echo Alkaev, a young woman with a facial difference who lives with her father, a bookseller, and her brother. When her father remarries, and then disappears, Echo is heartbroken. However, when she finds him near death in the forest months later, Echo is given a choice by a talking wolf: live with him for a year in exchange for her father’s safety. Echo agrees, and soon finds herself in a strange and shifting underground castle that requires magical care. She eventually discovers the library, an enchanted room that allows her to enter books through mirrors. There, she meets new friends and begins to unravel the secrets of the castle and the wolf.

This is a creative story that borrows elements from the original fairy tale but combines them with enough new ideas to really make it a unique tale. Everyone in the book club agreed that the magical library with mirrors that allowed you to step into books was a stroke of genius and we all really, really wanted one. Meyer explored some interesting themes including the way people treat Echo because of the way she looks, friendship, honesty and perseverance. There were also some interesting twists in this story that kept it engaging.

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Winter solstice feast

Where this story falls down a little is the plot. Although Meyer has lots of interesting ideas when it comes to magic and place, I felt that a lot of the narrative choices didn’t quite hit the mark. There were a lot of loose threads that I felt could have been tied together a little more neatly, like the stepmother, the witch, the north wind and Hal. I also wasn’t super happy with Echo as a character. I appreciate this is a fairy tale, but the idea that if you love someone ardently enough everything will work out really needs to be thrown into the bin. Fate hangs on whether Echo can prove her love enough, but I think that it was Echo who needed her community, her father and later her lover to prove to her that they could love her enough. I also felt that Echo was woefully unprepared for her trip north, and there was a scene where she sells her winter coat and then continues on through the snow. I didn’t believe that she would survive for a second.

An inventive story that, while enjoyable enough to read, probably needed a little reworking to tighten the plot and give poor Echo the love and survival skills she deserved to have a true adventure.

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The Twins

Historical fiction about twins on either side of a war

Content warning: child abuse

This book is one of the rare occasions where I saw the movie (or at least part of it) before I read the book. When I saw a copy in the translated literature section of the Lifeline Book Fair, I thought I would see how it compared.

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“The Twins” by Tessa de Loo and translated by Ruth Levitt is a Dutch novel about twin sisters Anna and Lotte who, upon their father’s death, are separated from one another. Lotte, recovering from tuberculosis, is sent to live with progressive and educated family in the better climate of the Netherlands. However Anna, naturally more robust, is kept in Germany with much poorer relatives to help them with their farm. Living through either side of the war and apart almost 70 years, the sisters meet by chance as old women at a health resort in Spa. With so much between them to catch up on, both wonder if they can ever bridge the divide.

I think that the premise of this story is an interesting one, and the sisters are a clever way to explore the nuance and different perspectives of the war. Although Anna grows up among Nazis, she is at a significant disadvantage in other ways to Lotte including suffering physical abuse, emotional abuse and neglect at the hands of her aunt and uncle. Lotte’s ability to influence politics is, accordingly, extremely limited and de Loo uses her perspective to explore the idea that it is the collective, rather than individuals, who are responsible for travesties such as World War II.

While this is an interesting and stimulating premise, unfortunately this book suffered when it came to readability. The rigid structure of the two sisters taking turns to recount parts of their lives felt artificial, and the stories dragged. As it is translated from Dutch, it is hard to say whether it is a better read in its original language. I found Anna’s story more compelling than Lotte’s, but both were a bit of a slog. I don’t think it would be fair to suggest that this book is sympathetic to the Nazis. Rather, it sheds a light on some of the economic drivers behind fascist ideology. However, I did feel like it was written in a way to be more sympathetic towards Anna’s German perspective.

A challenging read with a unique concept, but ultimately I think the film was better.

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Kingdom Cold

Multicultural fantasy reinterpretation of King Arthur mythology

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.

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“Kingdom Cold” by Brittni Chenelle is a medieval fantasy novel about Charlotte, a princess, who at 16 years old is betrothed to a prince from a far away kingdom called Vires. When she first meets Prince Young, Charlotte will do anything within her power to sabotage the engagement. However, when her kingdom is invaded and she must flee for her life, Charlotte’s life changes forever.

This is a diverse reimagination of a classic mythology that. Chenelle explores gender roles, love, differences in culture and differences in faith against the backdrop of war and violence. Charlotte is a spirited princess who starts out prissy and dependent and who, by the end of the book, develops into someone much more strong. I quite enjoyed the character of Young and felt that he was a good counterweight to the story.

I think one thing that I struggled a little with this book is the sense of place. Charlotte’s kingdom feels very small geographically, and the invasion itself small in scale. I understand that Chenelle is writing in American English, but given that the characters are broadly European, African and Asian in ethnicity, I think I would have liked to have seen a little more diversity in language as well as a better sense of distance and geography. I also struggled with the character Milly, Charlotte’s handmaid, and felt that she didn’t really get a fair shake of the stick in this story.

A story that explores themes of romance between cultures and courage in the moment, fans of Arthurian legend may find an intriguing retelling.

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Bodies of Men

Queer military fiction set during World War II

Content warning: war

I received an advance reading copy of this book courtesy of Harry Hartog, but I would have bought a copy anyway because I know the author through his work with the ACT Writers’ Centre. Although not ordinarily a genre I would choose, I was willing to put my own feelings about war aside to give this book a chance.

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“Bodies of Men” by Nigel Featherstone is a war novel set in Egypt about two Australian men. William is a young corporal who, almost immediately after arriving in Alexandria, is caught in a skirmish with some Italian soldiers and is saved by another young man called James. Recognising him as his long lost childhood friend, the opportunity to reunite properly is lost when James is suddenly absent without leave and William is unceremoniously sent out into the desert to supervise training at an army depot. When William does find James recovering from injuries in a mysterious family’s house, the connection is undeniable. However, with constant patrols through Alexandria, rumours flying about what happened to the Italians taken prisoner, differences in class and the Hillens keeping their own secrets, William and James will have to decide how much they are willing to risk for a forbidden love.

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I accidentally visited the Australian War Memorial during the Last Post ceremony

As I intimated earlier, I don’t generally like war novels but I really liked this one. Featherstone has seamlessly blended in-depth research and knowledge with a thorough understanding of human connection and chemistry. One of the things that my friend and I keep records of every year on our book list is how many books we read include queer content. However, while I make an effort to read books by LGBTIQA+ authors and including queer content, it is rare that I find a book that depicts intimacy like this. Featherstone has a knack for finding the beauty in something that is rarely conceived of as beautiful or valuable outside its usefulness: the male body.

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I think that the only part of this book that I had difficulty with was the role of the Hillen family. On one hand, the secretive European family brought an extra dimension to the war and the context in which William and James were fighting. Their house was like an oasis in the heat. On the other hand, the refuge they provided to William and James did at times feel a bit like a deus ex machina and did not always seem, from an outsider’s perspective, like a fair exchange.

Nevertheless, this is a fresh and poignant story that builds on the tradition of military fiction and reinterprets it with a historical perspective that certainly existed but has rarely been told.

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Say Hello

Memoir about living with a disability and facial difference

Content warning: discrimination

I had heard about this book long before it was published because I have followed the author online for some time. When I heard she was coming to Canberra to speak about her book, I not only went along to watch but scored myself a signed copy.

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“Say Hello” by Carly Findlay is a memoir about growing up and living with a skin condition called ichthyosis. Arranged as a series of essays covering various topics, this book is a candid account living with a disability and a facial difference, but living with society’s insensitive and often cruel reactions to her appearance and barriers to accessibility.

Findlay is a clear and frank writer whose book combines her personal experience, the stories of her friends and fellow activists and her significant knowledge of disability activism. I consider her courageous not for living her life (as so many people tell her), but for discussing deeply personal issues in such a public way and for building a platform to advocate for disabled people and raise awareness about the barriers that they experience throughout both Australia and the world. Some of the most powerful chapters in this book address the often well-meaning but ill-considered comments she constantly receives from people she meets and the diverse and sometimes diverging perspectives within the disability community. However, I think my favourite chapter was the chapter on fandom. Findlay’s experiences struggling to make friends throughout school, the difference to her life that getting a job at Kmart with a supportive manager and team made, and her discussion of how friendship as a skill we must learn and practice really stuck with me.

Memoir is a genre that I believe is very important to ensuring diverse stories and perspectives are heard, that I read quite a lot of, but that ultimately I struggle with. One criticism that you may have made me make is that I often feel like the author hasn’t given enough information or detail. However, how much to share with the reader is a question of balance, and I think Findlay may have tipped a little far towards too much detail. One thing that I hadn’t realised until I googled something I was reading in the book is that Findlay has adapted many essays she has written in the past as chapters for her book (something that I understand a lot of writers do). This means that quite a few of the chapters are overlapping, and because Findlay’s writing has improved a lot since she first started blogging, there is a bit of a range in quality. I think it also meant that this book didn’t always have a clear thread or audience, and I felt that it would have benefited from some more robust editing.

This is a very important book that highlights the impact that unsolicited comments have and the nuance and diversity within the disability activism space. Regardless of my own struggles with the genre, there is no doubt that memoir is critical to building empathy and this is a book that definitely builds empathy.

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The Rook

Urban fantasy about amnesia and a secret society

This was a set book for my feminist fantasy book club. It is getting a lot of attention recently because it is being adapted into a TV series. We mostly read books written by women, but this author is an Australian man who wrote this book from the perspective of a woman.

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“The Rook” by Daniel O’Malley is an urban fantasy novel based in London about Myfanwy, a young woman who wakes up with no memory. When she finds a letter in her jacket pocket to herself from herself, she discovers that she works for a secret agency as a high ranking administrator and that someone is trying to kill her. As she follows the trail her former self left her, Myfanwy is faced with a decision: start a new life, or solve the mystery of her old life.

This is a fun, fantasy/superhero take on the classic spy thriller genre. O’Malley brings bureaucracy to life and explores the concept of how a government could possibly handle ongoing and wildly variable threats of a supernatural variety. O’Malley is a spirited writer and largely this is an easy book to read. It actually reminded me a lot of Brent Weeks’ “The Night Angel Trilogy“, both in style and in the concept of some of the antagonists. O’Malley pushes human bodies and human wills to their limits in a similar way.

Prior to meeting with the rest of my book club, I had been taking notes on my phone, which I won’t quote here because it is way too full of spoilers, about things that bothered me about this book. There were numerous things. First of all, as someone with a Welsh name that your average Australian struggles to say, I was absolutely aghast that O’Malley made the decision to suggest that Myfanwy pronounces her name “Miffany”. What? WHAT?! No. Unacceptable. If you want to call your character Miffany: fine. Do that. But to deliberately mangle a Welsh name is completely out of order and I refused to think of her name as anything other than Myfanwy the entire time reading this book.

I could see what he was doing, but I did feel at times that O’Malley was trying to be diverse and global while writing this book, but sometimes it just did not work. For example, at one point he refers flippantly to “sunning herself on some balcony in Borneo”. Borneo, for those playing at home, is not a country; it is an enormous island shared by three countries: Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. I won’t go in detail to the lack of high-rises, the proportion of rainforest, the humidity or the conservative clothing culture. However, O’Malley made a few off-hand remarks about far away places and advantages that some races have to using powers, and it fell a bit flat.

I think that the biggest problem I had with this book was the exposition. So. Much. Exposition. In my notes I wrote “this book is 60% exposition”. The structure of the book is primarily an alternation between Myfanwy’s current thoughts, and the letters that past Myfanwy has left her to read explaining her job and how things work. While this is a perfectly acceptable way to structure the novel, despite supposedly differing significantly in personality, the two Myfanwys are almost indistinguishable in voice. Past Myfanwy also spends most of her time writing at length about different aspects of the Checquy (pronounced mystifyingly and annoyingly as Sheck-Eh). I appreciate O’Malley’s worldbuilding, I do, but there has to be a balance between giving your readers enough information to understand your world and actually propelling the story along.

I think that this book is probably very appealing to a lot of people, and I foresee that the TV series is going to be very popular. It annoyed me on a lot of levels, but it was readable enough and novel enough to get me through.

 

 

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The Place on Dalhousie

Coming of age drama about family, relationships and place

One thing my sister and I share is a love of Melina Marchetta’s books. Some time ago, I saw Marchetta speak about a previous book, and afterwards I felt so guilty that I didn’t think to get one signed for my sister. So this time when I saw her speak, I made sure to get a signed copy for my sister as an early birthday present. However, I may have sneakily read it before I gave it to her.

“The Place on Dalhousie” by Melina Marchetta is a novel about a young girl called Rosie who finds herself in a remote country town caring for an elderly woman when a flood hits. She meets an emergency volunteer called Jimmy, and in the chaos and the excitement, they form a fleeting connection. Two years later, Rosie returns to her childhood home in Sydney to face her stepmother Martha and the house her father built and left them after he died. Hurt, angry and in desperate need of help, Rosie doesn’t have a lot of options, but when Martha begins to look at selling the house, Rosie will have to reconsider her ideas about what family is.

This is a lovely book that is a loose sequel to Marchetta’s earlier books “Saving Francesca” and “The Piper’s Son” (though you absolutely don’t have to have read the first two to enjoy this one). Marchetta explores a plethora of themes in this book ranging from grief to motherhood to family to different Italian migrant experiences to relationships to aged care. It is exquisitely written and as a reader, you cannot help but fall in love with the abrasive but genuine and fierce Rosie. Marchetta gently explores her characters’ strengths and weaknesses, and brings them together with everyday things.

The only criticism anyone could possibly make about this book is that the ending is tied very neatly in a bow. But you know what? Sometimes you really need a book like that. If you’re looking something to warm you up this winter, this is the perfect book to curl up with.

 

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