The Northern Reach

Family saga set in Maine, USA

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

Image is of a digital book cover of “The Northern Reach” by W. S. Winslow

“The Northern Reach” by W. S. Winslow is a family saga set in and around the small fictional coastal town of Wellbridge in Maine, USA. Spanning about 100 years and the four intersecting Lawson, Baines, Moody and Martin families, traumas echo through the generations against the dramatic Maine coastline.

This was a really readable novel with an exceptionally strong sense of place. Winslow has a real strength for characterisation and each point of view character has a unique and distinct voice. I really enjoyed Liliane, the sophisticated French woman who finds herself widowed in unwelcoming Wellbridge. I also really liked the sisters Coralene, Marlene and Earlene and the subtleties in their relationships and Winslow’s hints of infidelity. Winslow also thoughtfully and sensitively explores family trauma and how they impact not just the immediate generation but the subsequent generations afterwards. The moody coastal atmosphere is also complemented by some ghostly visitors.

The only thing that was a bit challenging about this book was keeping track of all the families. Winslow helped a lot by providing a full family tree at the beginning of the book and then specific branches throughout, however reading an eBook did make it a little hard to flip back to the diagrams.

An immersive and insightful novel about the complexities of families, relationships and small towns.

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A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Austere Academy

Children’s book series about three hapless orphans

I am still enjoying reading this series and watching the corresponding TV adaptation, and I was looking for a snappy read to curl up in front of the heater with now the evenings are getting colder. If you haven’t read this series before, I would recommend starting at the beginning.

Image is of the book “The Austere Academy” by Lemony Snicket. The hardcover book is sitting inside an open notebook where the letters V.F.D. are written diagonally next to a pen. A tape measure snakes around the book and the notebook.

“The Austere Academy” by Lemony Snicket is the fifth book of 13 in the “A Series of Unfortunate Events” collection. After the Baudelaire children Violet, Klaus and Sunny barely escape the events of the previous book unscathed, they are sent to a boarding school called Prufrock Preparatory School. Any hope that finally their luck may change is dashed when Vice Principal Nero advises that because they don’t have a guardian, they will be living in a small, crab and fungus-infested shack. The only upside is that they have finally made some friends: the two Quagmire triplets Isadora and Duncan. However, when a new sports teacher called Coach Genghis starts at the school, things begin to look very dire.

I think that this is my favourite book in the series so far. There is some subtle but noticeable character development. The Baudelaires have started to lose faith in the adults around them and for the first time, do not sound the alarm when they realise a new scheme is afoot to steal their inheritance. Instead, they cut to the chase and start making their own plans. I also really enjoyed that Sunny has started occasionally saying actual words that Snicket doesn’t need to interpret.

Interestingly, I actually liked the plot of this book better than I did the corresponding TV series episodes. The TV adaptation attempted to soften the situation by introducing some additional benevolent characters, and I felt that the Baudelaires’ lack of hope in the book made the ending much more tragic.

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Honeycomb

Novel of original and interrelated fairytales

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

Image is of a digital book cover of “Honeycomb” by Joanne M. Harris and illustrated by Charles Vess. The cover (which will be the cover for the Australian edition) is powder blue with text and a stencil design of roses, vines, honeycomb and bees in bronze.

“Honeycomb” by Joanne M. Harris and illustrated by Charles Vess is a novel made up of original fairytales. Many of the chapters are distinct stories in the form of fables and parables, however most of them connect to an overarching story arc featuring the Lacewing King, a handsome yet selfish man who wanders through his kingdom ruling over the Silken Folk doing as he pleases. Nevertheless, as time passes and the number of his enemies grows larger, the Lacewing King’s self-interested lifestyle becomes unsustainable.

I have been a fan of Joanne M. Harris (styled as Joanne Harris for her non-fantasy fiction) for a really long time, and as early as 2012 I was reading her #storytime vignettes on Twitter (which have now been removed and collected into this book). I was even inspired to make the little painting below. The stories in this book make for hard-hitting, unsettling chapters that all contribute towards the overarching story of the Lacewing King. Harris conjures a captivating and uncomfortable world made of insects and excess, the same world that was touched upon in her previous book. Some of the fables in this book have clear underlying morals and are told in a similar style to “Animal Farm“. Harris writes particularly about the perils of following the crowd and placing too much faith in self-proclaimed leaders and self-important loudmouths. However, it is the journey of the Lacewing King that I was the most invested in. I really liked how Harris shows the repercussions of indifference over generations, but how also people can change their worldview. There are also stories that initially don’t appear to be related to the main story that Harris masterfully weaves in later.

The Lacewing King Page 1
Image is a watercolour illustration with a bee telling a story to three larvae against a background of yellow hexagons.

While individually I found each fairytale very readable, I did find it hard to settle into this book. I found myself reading one story then setting the book down. I think that although the structure of the book lent itself to this kind of story, it ultimately did feel quite interrupted.

A thought-provoking and refreshing approach to the fairytale genre.

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The Bone Shard Daughter

Fantasy novel about a crumbling island empire

It has been a while since my fantasy book club has met, though I hosted one a couple of months ago for a book I read quite some time ago, and by coincidence the title of this book was quite similar to the last one I reviewed.

Image is of a digital book cover of “The Bone Shard Daughter” by Andrea Stewart. The cover is of a terraced city, waves, ships and a large key stylised as marble carvings.

“The Bone Shard Daughter” by Andrea Stewart is a fantasy novel and the first novel in “The Drowning Empire” series. The book is about an empire of islands ruled by a reclusive emperor who maintains peace and order remotely through the use of beings called constructs. In the emperor’s palace, his daughter Lin competes for her father’s favour by learning bone shard magic to unlock secrets and her birth right as heir. Meanwhile, Jovis, an Imperial navigator turned renegade, is sailing through the archipelago in search of a boat with blue sails. Pursuing a particular heroic goal, Jovis must decide whether he doggedly continues his quest or whether he reluctantly accepts the other opportunities for heroism he is faced with.

Although I was a bit slow starting this book before book club, once I began reading I couldn’t stop. It is a gripping story with an uncomfortable and brilliant magical premise. Stewart asks the reader to consider what price it is reasonable for an empire to ask its citizens to pay for security, and when that price becomes too high. Jovis is one of those great characters with a tough, efficient exterior and a sentimental interior and I loved his chapters with his peculiar animal sidekick Mephi. Lin is a strategic and courageous character whose missing memory creates a sense of mystery and intrigue. I really liked the way that Stewart places her characters in situations where their decisions have life or death consequences, and some of those situations are heart-breaking. There are lots of complex storylines woven through this book that intersect and intertwine in surprising ways.

This book lingered with me for a long time after I finished it and I can’t wait to read the rest of the series when it comes out.

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Growing Up Disabled in Australia

Non-fiction anthology of essays and memoir by people who grew up disabled in Australia

Note: in this review I used the terms disabled person and person with a disability interchangeably to reflect that some people prefer person-first language and some people prefer identity-first language

Content warning: bullying

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher. I was really excited to receive a copy of this book because I had read another book in the excellent “Growing Up” series. I also read the editor’s memoir and was very confident that this was going to be a well-curated collection.

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Image is of a digital book cover of “Growing Up Disabled in Australia” edited by Carly Findlay. The cover is white text on a background of blocky paint strokes in pink, yellow and turquoise.

“Growing Up Disabled in Australia” edited by Carly Findlay is an anthology of short autobiographies by 47 disabled people. The contributors, who come from an incredibly diverse range of backgrounds and cultures, have a very diverse range of disabilities and perspectives. There are some well-known people including Senator Jordan Steele-John, and plenty of people who are not so well known but whose stories are just as important.

This is a really well-rounded collection that showcases the myriad of experiences people with disability have in this country. Disabilities can affect mobility, senses, learning, mental health, chronic health and cognitive ability. They can be caused by genetics, illnesses or injuries. Something that I think a lot of people don’t consider is that people may have more than one disability, and I thought that Dion Beasley’s piece To Lake Nash and Back about growing up Aboriginal, Deaf and with muscular dystrophy in the Northern Territory surrounded by love, family and dogs particularly captured this intersectional experience and the importance of accessibility and community. C. B. Mako uses free verse poetry in December Three to succinctly how a person with two disabilities who is also a carer, a parent and a member of the migrant community can be excluded from all of those identities.

This book is full of exceptional creativity and I really enjoyed the variety of styles each piece was presented in. Kerry-ann Messengers two poems ‘Life Goes On’ and ‘The Blue Rose’ explored the depth of emotional reaction, positive and negative, that people have towards her as a person with Down Syndrome. Tim Slade’s poem A Body’s Civil War explores the sense of destabilisation living with auto-immune conditions where your body attacks itself. I really loved Sarah Firth’s comic Drawing My Way which gave a practical example of alternative ways information can be presented to assist people with learning disabilities like dyslexia.

Although there each contributor’s experience is unique, nuanced and impacted by other factors such as race, gender, class and cultural background, there were common themes that wove their way through the book. I was surprised at how many contributors wrote about the significance of animals, particularly dogs, in staving off feelings of isolation and loneliness (though I particularly enjoyed Iman Shaanu’s subversive piece Blurred Lines where she writes “For the record, I hate dogs and would prefer a guide cat if that was a thing”). Hippotherapy by Alistair Baldwin was a particularly wry piece about the ubiquitous experience of horse-riding as an activity for disabled kids. At a time when everyone is talking about vaccinations, it was really poignant to read about two contributors, Gayle Kennedy and Fran Henke, who each wrote about the lasting impact of contracting polio, a disease that has been eradicated in Australia through vaccination programs but that continues to affect people of older generations.

However two of the common themes that were the hardest to read about were bullying and lack of accessibility. Jessica Newman-Marshall’s piece Dressing to Survive describes the cruel judgment and bullying she received as a person with a disability that affects not just mobility but causes her to have a very low BMI in a world that constantly scrutinises women for their weight. Kath Duncan, writes in Born Special about the prejudice and bullying she experienced growing up with missing limbs and reclaiming the word ‘Freak’ for herself.

However not everyone with a disability is bullied. Belinda Downes, in writing about her facial difference and disability in Having a Voice, reflects on how it is not her appearance that has made things most difficult for her, but rather people in her life deciding on her behalf what is best for her in terms of corrective surgery and accessibility needs. In Forever Fixing, El Gibbs writes about living with the chronic skin condition psoriasis and how learning about the social model of disability helped her to find a community and see barriers to access, rather than herself, as the problem.

There are a multitude of other things that I could write about this book, but I will finish off to say that this is an incredibly important work that highlights the fact that there is no single disabled experience and that the biggest barriers for people with disabilities are systemic.

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Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters

Post-gender biopunk science fiction novel

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher.

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Image is of a digital book cover of “Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters” by Aimee Ogden. The cover is of a silhouette of a person standing underwater on the launch-pad of a vehicle.

“Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters” by Aimee Ogden is a science fiction novella about a woman called Atuale whose village has been overwhelmed by a disease. Having undergone gene-editing to live with her husband and his technology-resistant people on land, Atuale must return to the sea to seek a favour from the one they call the World Witch. However, the World Witch is one of many Sea-Clan people Atuale left behind and even though they have a new form, their history remains unchanged. It soon becomes clear that the only way to find a cure is to leave the planet. Faced with an intimate journey through space with the World Witch to seek assistance from other, more technologically advanced human races, Atuale must decide which betrayals she can live with.

I absolutely love this genre, and Ogden’s style and themes reminds me a lot of one of my favourite authors, Vonda N. McIntyre. Ogden hints at a huge post-human diaspora of which we see only the smallest glimpse through Atuale’s limited gaze. Atuale is a fascinating character who discards the limits of one civilisation for those of another. What she lacks in education and understanding of the broader galaxy, she makes up for in courage and determination. The World Witch is also a great character, and I enjoyed the exploration of alternative biology and the genetic ability to change one’s gender.

This is a quick book, and one that I think could have used a slightly slower pace. I felt that the tension between Atuale and the World Witch, particularly their past history, was a little rushed and I would have liked to be strung along a little more. While I liked that we see the world (and the universe) through Atuale’s naïve perspective, I also felt like the worldbuilding could have been a little more comprehensive. This is not to say that I wanted every single detail about altered human lives in the far reaches of the galaxy, but I wanted the sense that that detail did exist – even if we couldn’t see it.

A very easy and enjoyable read that needed just a bit more suspense.

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Echidnas Can’t Cuddle

Illustrated children’s book about echidnas and showing affection

On the second night of my Tasmania hike, my friend and hiking buddy insisted that I read this book she had found in the library because it was so cute. I didn’t quite get around to it on the second night, but on the third night we were staying in one of the trimanya huts, which means echidna in Palawa language, and I luckily found a copy in the library there. I also saw three different echidnas on my Tasmania trip, and they are so fluffy down there!

Image is of “Echidnas Can’t Cuddle” by Nieta Manser and illustrated by Lauren Merrick. The cover is of an echidna’s face surrounded by watercolour, collaged spikes. The book is placed in front of a veranda and Australian bushland, with a sign on a wooden post that says trimanya that has a dotted echidna footprint below it.

“Echidnas Can’t Cuddle” by Nieta Manser and illustrated by Lauren Merrick is a children’s book about an echidna called Erik who longs to be able to experience cuddles like other animals do. The problem is, every time Erik tries to cuddle someone, he inadvertently hurts them with his spikes. Despondent, Erik runs away. However, when predators try to attack him, Erik learns what his spikes are really for.

Image is of a very fluffy chocolate brown echidna

This was a very sweet book with a lovely message about accepting the bodies we have and celebrating their functions. The text rhymes and is very accessible for children. I also thought that it was a nice comment on intimacy and that when hugs might not be appropriate, there are other ways to show affection. Additionally, it is important to respect what other people are comfortable with. I really enjoyed the illustrations, and Merrick used some interesting techniques to produce an almost three dimensional effect by collaging watercolour illustrations.

Image is of a light brown, almost blonde, echidna searching for ants

A lovely little book that would be great for young children.

Image is of a reddish brown echidna behind some native plants

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One Small Island

Illustrated children’s book about Macquarie Island

I mentioned in my previous book review that I recently went on a hike in Tasmania. There were lots of fantastic things about this hike, but there were two things in particular I really enjoyed: the collection of books at each hut and the lovely and enthusiastic ranger on our first night who told us about this book.

Image is of “One Small Island” by Alison Lester and Coral Tulloch. The cover is of an island in the distance with an ocean below and the aurora australis above. The book is resting on a handrail with bushland, ocean, coastline and mist in the background.

“One Small Island” by Alison Lester and Coral Tulloch is an illustrated children’s book about the history and biodiversity of Macquarie Island. In particular, the book explores the impact of humans on the island’s delicate ecosystem and the battle to undo the damage done by invading species.

This is a beautifully and intricately illustrated book that captures the dramatic landscape and fragile wildlife with its vivid language. Not only is this a story about a critical environmental issue, the destruction of native flora and fauna due to introduced species, it is also a story with a beginning, a disaster, a challenge and a resolution.

An excellent book for children and adults alike with a keen interest in natural history.

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Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

Memoir about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail

Content warning: drug use, mental health, sexual harassment

I first really heard about this book when I heard Reese Witherspoon’s”excellent speech (transcript here) about her film production company that produced an adaptation of this book. I have read quite a few books now that have been adapted by Witherspoon’s company (“Gone Girl“, “Big Little Lies” and “Little Fires Everywhere“), and this one has been on my list for a while. My friend lent me her copy quite some time ago, and for a while I though I had accidentally Marie-Kondoed it. When another friend invited me to go on a three night trek in Tasmania recently, I felt like it was the perfect opportunity to finally read this book. I had a better look and found it tucked away in my non-fiction bookshelf.

Image is of “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed. The cover has a single hiking boot on a white background. The book is placed between two grey and mint coloured hiking boots, in front of a large blue backpack in front of scrub in the Tasmanian wilderness.

“Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail” by Cheryl Strayed is a memoir about Cheryl, a woman in her early 20s who is spiralling. In the wake of her mother’s death, a broken marriage and a heroin addiction, Cheryl realises that something needs to change. After spotting an innocuous guidebook about the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl is galvanised by the goal to hike it alone. With an overweight pack, little experience and only the hope that her pre-packed supplies arrive at post offices along the way, Cheryl is pushed to her absolute limit. Completely alone for a significant part of the journey, she must reckon with her life so far and how she can keep putting one foot in front of the other in the direction she needs to go.

If you ever find yourself on a hiking trip, this is the perfect book to pack. Strayed is an honest and raw writer whose vulnerability and determination make for a compelling mix. While I frequently talk about how I struggle with memoir on this blog, this is the kind of memoir I really enjoy. It reminded me a lot of “H is for Hawk“, blending trauma with literature and a very narrow yet fascinating topic. Although a lot of the book is spent hiking by herself, it is the characters Cheryl meets along the way who really make this book. There is a particular section in the book where Cheryl has overestimated her access to water and is then approached by two terrifying men which was chilling.

When I was on my last day of my hike in Tasmania, I had developed some pretty impressive blisters on the soles of my feet and in between my toes. Although wearing two pairs of socks, taking some anti-inflammatories and applying band-aids liberally had helped, walking was quite painful. Reading about Cheryl’s (much worse) ordeal with feet rubbed raw by ill-fitting boots and her resilience helped me realise that I could get through it too and complete every last kilometre of the walk.

A great companion for hiking that, unlike Cheryl, I declined to burn once finished.

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Monsters of Men

Young adult science fiction novel about fascism, colonialism, sexism and war

Content warning: fascism, colonialism, slavery, violence and sexism

I started reading this series a couple of years ago and spaced out the first and second books like I often do with a series. It hadn’t quite been a year since I read the second book, and I probably would have waited a little longer, but then a film adaptation of the first book in the series was released earlier this year, and I thought I had better wrap up the series before I saw the film.

Image is of “Monsters of Men” by Patrick Ness. The cover is orange text and circles against a black background, and the book is superimposed against a background from the Mars Perseverance Photo Booth, which was released around the same time to promote the current NASA mission to Mars.

“Monsters of Men” by Patrick Ness is the final book in the “Chaos Walking” series. The story picks up immediately after the events of the preceding book where a scout ship from another wave of settlers has landed near the fraught city of New Prentisstown. A three-way war is afoot between Mayor Prentiss’ men, the secret organisation the Answer and the native species of the planet known as the Spackle. Todd and Viola find themselves separated again: Todd trying to persuade the Mayor into negotiating peace and Viola trying to warn the new settlers of the unrest that awaits them if they land.

This is a challenging finale to a compelling series. Ness distinguishes this book from the other two by finally giving voice to one of the Spackle, previously only referred to by the number 1017. Renamed The Return in this book, he struggles with his own hatred towards the humans who enslaved and tortured his people which makes it difficult to truly return to the fold and ways of his people. I really enjoyed The Return’s chapters, and felt that through his perspective, the book’s commentary on colonisation became much more well-rounded. A key theme in this book is redemption, and the extent to which we can overwrite past decisions with new ones. I felt that Viola’s worsening health and her difficulty in meeting with Todd created a sense of tension that really helped to propel the book along. I also really liked how Ness tackled the issue of literacy, and despite being denied an education, Todd’s feelings of personal inadequacy.

Having read this book as a finale to the “Chaos Walking” series, I do think I need to comment briefly on the film adaptation. Despite how much I enjoyed the series, the film was pretty lacklustre. It suffered from having so many writers involved, and sacrificed depth for awkward moments and rushed storytelling interspersed with prolonged chased scenes.

If by chance you went to see the film, I can assure you that the series is much better.

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