Realm of Beasts

Fantasy novel about a dying utopia

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

Realm of Beasts by Angela J Ford

“Realm of Beasts” by Angela J. Ford is the first novel in the fantasy series “Legend of the Nameless One”. The book starts with the mysterious Tor Lir, who has abandoned his homeland to pursue his true destiny, finding the corroding edges of Paradise. Also inhabiting this land is an enchantress called Citrine who has the ability to connect with incredible mythical beasts. When they meet each other at the home of Novor Tur-Woodbury, the benevolent giant who overseas Paradise, it is hardly an auspicious meeting. However united by a common enemy, they must put their differences aside to beat the evil that threatens not only Paradise but the whole world.

Ford has a visceral style of writing and focuses a lot on the senses and sensations of the body. Throughout the story, Ford juxtaposes the beautiful against the ugly and sets the stage for a contest between good and evil. Ford tantalises the reader with hints of Tor Lir’s past and a complex world outside the borders of Paradise.

I think the key thing that I really struggled with about this book was structure. I felt like the book didn’t really kick off until halfway through, when Citrine and Tor Lir are introduced to each other. I felt like everything that had happened up until that point probably could have been summarised as background, and the story could have just jumped right into a fast-paced plot.

Although the structure demands a lot of commitment from the reader for the first half of the book, the story really kicks off after the second half and builds into something that fantasy fans could enjoy.

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Carly Findlay – Say Hello

Literary event with debut author and disability activist Carly Findlay

Content warning: sex, language, cyberbullying

Over the weekend I was very excited to go to see Carly Findlay speak about her new book “Say Hello” about living with a chronic skin condition called ichthyosis at an event organised by Muse which had to be held at the Street Theatre, tickets were selling so fast. Findlay was interviewed by writer Ginger Gorman, and they both arrived on stage wearing pyjamas!

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Left: Ginger Gorman Right: Carly Findlay

Gorman introduced the discussion by saying that she and Findlay were book buddies, and their new books had been photographed side by side around the country because they were generally in the same section (and, I presume, because Findlay comes right before Gorman!). They explained that the reason they were wearing pyjamas was because they first time they met in person, Findlay was feeling sore and advised Gorman that she would be wearing pyjamas at their catch up in a fancy hotel. Gorman apparently turned up wearing pyjamas as well, and the friendship began.

Findlay explained that she actually wears pyjamas to work most days because she now works a lot from home. She said that people with disability should be allowed to work in comfort. She said that when she previously worked in government she had to wear conservative clothing but now she dresses for comfort.

Findlay and Gorman then discussed the issue of accessibility, and the fear that many people with disability have to speak up for their needs. Findlay reflected on a comment she once made to an artist about how it is difficult to attend her performances because they are often on so late. The artist told her that they were on too late for her as well given her illness. Findlay asked her why she didn’t ask for an earlier time slot, and the artist said it was because she didn’t know she could.

Gorman asked Findlay whose responsibility is it to ask about accessibility and adjustments, and Findlay said it was everyone’s. She said that everyone needs to make sure that it’s an environment where people are comfortable asking, especially people who do not look like they have a disability.

Gorman then asked Findlay about her appearance activism and told a story about how her own daughter had seen a little person and had asked questions, so they approached the person to ask questions. Findlay said that she is constantly asked in public about her appearance, and that parents frequently make up stories about her (e.g. that she is sunburned) and take their children up to speak to her. Findlay said that she doesn’t want to educate people all the time, and that it is not your right to know how someone became disabled. She said, “Our bodies are not up for public discussion” and noted that a lot of people may simply have been born that way. She said that despite this, strangers often demand to know and feel that they have a right to know and educate their children. However, often this comes across incredibly insensitively.

Gorman asked Findlay about some of the things she has been asked by strangers, and Findlay described one incident when someone asked her how long her life span is. She said, “I’m not a budgie”. Findlay said that people often want to ask about sex and whether she can have sex. She said that someone once asked the late activist Stella Young whether she had a vagina, a question that you would never ask someone without a visible disability. Gorman noted that the chapter on sex in Findlay’s book is basically “fuck off”. If you have questions that you really want to ask, I really recommend that you watch Findlay’s episode of “You Can’t Ask That” on Facial Difference.

On the topic of inappropriate questions, Gorman turned to an incident that became notorious for how insensitively Findlay had been treated. Findlay explained that she had been on many radio interviews where she had awkwardly been asked to describe herself on air (something she noted that people without a facial difference would never be asked to do) and had been a regular guest on radio in relation to her work in the Melbourne arts scene. She was invited to do an interview with ABC Mornings host John Faine to discuss microaggressions. She said that she was encouraged to do the interview because of the exposure, but noticed when she arrived it was already a bit strange.

She said that he seemed tetchy about her moving a sit/stand desk down so she could sit, there was no briefing and he didn’t seem to know who she was. She said that he described her as looking like a burns victim and made the infamous comment about her face on Halloween. She said that even when he asked her whether she could have sex and said that she should be grateful for people praying for her, she felt that she couldn’t walk out because it was live radio. She said even callers who rang in said his questions were inappropriate and afterwards she thought it was going to ruin her career, but it ended up becoming a trending topic. Findlay has written about the experience herself, so you can read about it here.

Gorman then asked Findlay about another issue that went viral: the Reddit attack of 2013. Findlay said that she noticed something strange was going on when after her boyfriend had stayed over and they went to see a band, and her website started getting a much higher than average number of hits. It turned out that a photo had been posted of her on the subreddit /r/wtf and had received a huge number of hate speech comments. Findlay read out the response she wrote to huge applause from the audience, and then said that after she posted it it was upvoted thousands of times. The response was so upvoted that it floated to the top of the thread, prompting a (backhanded) apology from the original poster and interview requests from CNN. Findlay reflected that the experience was not good but the exposure was excellent and she won the internet.

The next question Gorman put to Findlay was about the support she had as a child. Findlay said that she was really lucky because her parents (including her mother who was there in the audience) treated like any other child. She said that they made the choice not to engage with the media, and when she did as an adult, that was her choice to make. She said that her parents taught her respect and worthiness. She said that at school in a small country town, there was another girl with a different disability, but that she didn’t make a connection between their experiences. She said that she didn’t understand the social model of disability then and that it is society that makes barriers.

Findlay went on to talk about her school experience, and said that children excluded her. She said that her mother would make her the most beautiful, elaborate lunches to show her how much she loved her, but Findlay said, heartbreakingly, that she didn’t understand why her mother loved her so much when nobody else seemed to. She said that she didn’t have a friend, so she didn’t know how to be a good friend. However, she said that everything changed when she got a job at Kmart. She said that she made friends and then afterwards went to university and was treated like everyone else. Findlay said working at Kmart was a turning point in her life.

Gorman’s last question for Findlay was about identifying as having a disability. Findlay said that she first started identifying as having a disability after volunteering and getting involved in the community, and having to identify became about asking for assistance and accessibility. Findlay talked about the importance of belonging to a community, but said that she had also experienced lateral violence. She said that because there are so few opportunities created for people with disability, when someone is successful, people think that that means that they won’t get a break. However, she said actually it opens up more opportunities. Findlay said that she has been told that she had to choose between being mainstream and being an activist, but that you can’t grow only talking to the same people. Gorman reframed this as the fear of people taking up too much space and noted that it’s not a pie. Findlay said that she does like pie.

There were quite a few interesting audience questions which I’ll summarise:

  • a request for a verbal description of the stage (which Findlay did very eloquently),
  • how Findlay deals with intrusive questions and comments like “I’d kill myself if I had what you have” (Findlay gave some examples of when managers and colleagues had and had not been supportive, and said that unfortunately she couldn’t tell people offering her stem cell treatment to fuck off because of the code of conduct; Findlay gave some advice about speaking out to HR, supervisors and supervisor’s supervisors),
  • what the most ridiculous thing Findlay has ever been asked was (has she been licking lollies? facial peel? microdermabrasion?)
  • what books was Findlay inspired by as a child (Findlay said that she got books as presents while she was in hospital as a child, and they were a lifeline),
  • what’s next?

Findlay said that she is very tired and is going to take a long rest from her book tour. However she said that submissions are open for her next project, “Growing Up Disabled in Australia” and she’s hoping to do a picture book, like a junior version of “Say Hello”. Gorman said that it doesn’t sound like much of a rest, and Findlay finished off the event by joking that she needs her mum to take away her devices.

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I Do Not Come To You By Chance

Novel about Nigerian email scams

Unlike the title suggests, this book did come to me by chance. I am almost certain that I found it in my street library. As I’ve mentioned many times before, it is an ongoing goal of mine to read more diversely. Nigeria has a very long tradition of literary culture, and this is not actually my first Nigerian novel. However, it has such a unique theme that I was really taken by it when it popped up one day and I decided I’d probably better give it a read.

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“I Do Not Come To You By Chance” by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani is a novel set in Nigeria by a young university graduate called Kingsley. Known as Kings to his friends and family, he is the oldest son in his family, the opara, and with a brand new engineering degree he expects to walk into a job. However, despite his parents’ insistence that education is the key to success, the job market in Nigeria suggests otherwise. When the family faces financial ruin, Kings is forced to seek help from his wealthy but somewhat morally bankrupt uncle, the flashy Cash Daddy. Despite his parents’ condemnation of Cash Daddy’s business practices, Kings is tempted by the business of email scams.

This was a fascinating book that took something that is often nothing more than the derisive phrase “Nigerian prince scam” and uncovered the humanity behind a real phenomenon. Nwaubani compares the many different classes of Nigeria, both the different levels of wealth as well as the many different levels of poverty. She also goes into compelling detail about the mechanisms of how the 419 scams actually work and the kinds of people who attempt, succeed at and fall prey to. Nwaubani shows great skills in character development and the Kings that we meet at the beginning of the book subtly shifts into a very different Kings by the end. I also really enjoyed watching his siblings grow up and the ripple effect Kings’ decisions have on his family.

I think that although I loved the premise and that Nwaubani’s writing was very strong, the moral dilemma seemed a little drawn out. It seems strange to say this because I’m not that much of a romance fan, but I think that this book could have used a little more romantic intrigue. I completely understand that Kings’ focus is on money and his career, but I felt that he went from childish infatuation to hiring sex workers very quickly and there wasn’t much of a middle ground. Nevertheless, I think that this book could have used a little more emotional drama to balance out the moral drama.

A very interesting book that I enjoyed and look forward to leaving in my street library for someone else to read.

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Melina Marchetta – The Place on Dalhousie

Literary event with acclaimed Australian author Melina Marchetta

Content warning: suicide, terrorism

I have just gotten home from this event at Muse, and I’ve just put dinner on the stove, so I thought I’d type out my thoughts while they’re still fresh in my mind and while I’m waiting for the soup to boil. I was absolutely thrilled to see Melina Marchetta speak at Muse for the second time. In conversation with our friend author Sean Costello, she was here to talk about her new novel “The Place on Dalhousie”. Costello managed to get in lots of great questions, and I was furiously taking notes in the front row.

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Costello kicked off the event by asking Marchetta about genre, noting that her books can now be found in just about every section of a bookstore. Marchetta said that she “wanted to prove I could write more than about Italian girls in the suburbs”. However, in this novel she completes what she describes as her “Inner West trilogy”, revisiting characters from her books “Saving Francesca” and “The Piper’s Son”.

Costello then asked Marchetta about writing about multiculturalism, and her thoughts about multicultural Australia today. Marchetta said that her character Josie from her first novel “Looking for Alibrandi” (Costello tried without success to penalise mentions of this book with the audience shouting out tomato, but Marchetta couldn’t help bringing it up several times in the discussion) would be disappointed with where we are now. She felt that there has been little progress made and said that she feels devastated when she hears racism coming from the Italian community. She said that while it wasn’t all bad, it wasn’t always a positive experience and her own grandfather was interned during World War II. She said that while there has been some progress, it hasn’t been enough and Australia exports this idea of a monoculture which doesn’t reflect the Inner West.

The next question Costello asked was about writing about home as someone with Italian heritage. Marchetta said that she spent a lot of time trying to run away from being “that Italian girl” when she was young, but says that she feels differently now she has a child. She said that she has never had such a strong sense of where she belongs as she does now. She said that home is belonging to a community, and as her daughter originally came to her as a foster child, it is really important to provide that sense of community.

Marchetta and Costello compared their experiences visiting Italian relatives after growing up in Australia, and shared stories about how familiar their relatives seemed but how traumatising it was to leave in a time with no Skype or Facebook, and likely no opportunity to see your family back home again. She said people assume that Italian families are all very close, but in reality, relationships are not always easy. She said that families take work and in her new book, one of her characters has to learn what it means to have a family.

In her current book, Marchetta said that she writes about two Italian girls with different backgrounds – one whose family migrated to Australia pre- and post-WWII, and another who moved here in the 1990s because of Italy’s economic situation. She said that the different migration periods really determine experience and how much family support there is around. She said that people expect that Italy is a wealthy country, but there is a lot of poverty, especially in Sicily.

Costello asked her about the connection between the three books. Marchetta said that in “The Piper’s Son”, there was a notable absence of Jimmy. She said that people wanted her to write about him, but she had to know where he was before she could fit him into a story. She said that she wanted to put three characters together in a situation and see how they reacted, but admitted that “sooner or later they’re going to end up in Sydney”.

Costello then asked her about her “Lumatere Chronicles” series (which I adore) and the links between those books and her “Inner West Trilogy”. Marchetta said that there are common themes such as romanticising the motherland, the loss of language, being an exile or a child of a migrant, and the experiencing of leaving a place forever. She stressed again that for her, it is people, not a place, that is home.

Costello said that he had heard Marchetta describe her writing style as like that of a gardener rather than an architect. Marchetta said that she also thinks of it as a pioneer, rather than a settler. She said that the relief she feels at getting a first draft of a book out is almost the same sense of relief as seeing it in bookstores. However she said that she often finds the magic in the rewrites, and took the opportunity to mention how valuable her editors are at this point.

Costello asked her what audience she has in mind when she is writing her books, and Marchetta said that she never thinks about audience or genre. She said that when “Looking for Alibrandi” was published (tomato!), it was marketed as both a young adult and adult’s book. She said that someone once said to her that they almost didn’t find her novel because they didn’t go to the children’s area. She said that was great, because they charged $3 more for the adult version. She said her current book has less sex in it that some of her young adult novels, but is still marketed as an adult novel.

Costello noted that there is a lot of music in “The House on Dalhousie” and asked her about the soundtracks that she listens to while writing. Marchetta said that the book is set in 2011, so she was trying to be true to that year. She said that there is music by David Gray, and that she was hoping to include a song by The Lumineers that felt perfect, but that it didn’t actually come out until after 2011. She said that she did sneak in a Game of Thrones reference that was probably a few months too early hoping that people who don’t have a life don’t notice.

Costello then confronted Marchetta with the rumour that her book “Looking for Alibrandi” (tomato!) is the most stolen library book and asked her how she felt about that. Marchetta said that she thought it was a rumour made up to promote the film adaptation, but then one day had a hairdresser admit to her that she had in fact stolen the book from a library herself. Marchetta said that it was her favourite kind of theft.

Soup interlude.

OK, so Costello said that for many kids growing up, her books changed their lives, and asked what book changed Marchetta’s life. Marchetta said that her favourite book growing up was “Anne of Green Gables”, but that she was a troubled reader as a child. She said that her mother didn’t give up on her, and look where she ended up! She said that she is still surprised at how much solace a book can bring you, and that she returned to the “Queen’s Thief” series recently when she was having some sleepless nights.

Then it was time for audience questions, and I was first of the mark with a question about Marchetta finding redemption in her male characters, looking particularly at Froi in the “Lumatere Chronicles” and Bish in “Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil”. I said that I had always enjoyed Marchetta’s fluid morality and asked whether she looks at redemption again in her new book. Marchetta said she does try to be optimistic and believe that people can change, but she did note that people are more willing to forgive men than women. She said that women often receive far more criticism for wrongdoing than men. She said that in her new book, it is a female character who she explores the theme of redemption with this time.

There were plenty of other great questions from the audience as well, and unfortunately I can’t completely remember what everyone said. However, I do remember that Marchetta said that her earlier books particularly were about girls in a boys’ world. Marchetta talked about the differences between writing a book and writing a screenplay, and some of the things she advocated to keep in the film and how she negotiated moving a key event from the end of “Looking for Alibrandi” (tomato!) to the middle, rather than having it removed altogether.

She was asked about whether she would change anything in her earlier books, and she said that she wouldn’t write about suicide now because since her first book was published, she has known people who have taken their own lives. She said that when she wrote the first draft of “Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil”, the Paris Attacks hadn’t happened yet. She said that her editor had a family member who was in Paris while she was reviewing the manuscript, and that she wouldn’t write about it now. Marchetta said that writing about things that are close to you is incredibly hard.

There were plenty more questions, but unfortunately our hour was up. Marchetta very kindly stayed back and signed copies of her new book for everyone (including a copy for my sister that she gave me tips on how to read first without anyone knowing). A fantastic event with great questions and I can’t wait to read this new book.
 

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The Frankenstein Adventures

Adventure retelling of classic horror story

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

“The Frankenstein Adventures” by Bil Richardson is a retelling of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” to celebrate the 200 year anniversary of its publication. Drawing inspiration from more modern interpretations of the story, Victor Frankenstein is happily married to his wife Elizabeth and is busy trying to create life with his assistant Igor. When he hears that his old school nemesis is working on creating life himself, Victor takes a couple of shortcuts to win the race. However, when things don’t work out to plan, his creation flees and unwittingly kicks off a manhunt across the countryside.

This is a fun- and pun-filled story that takes elements of a classic story in a more modern, action style. Richardson has a clear writing style with a strong focus on dialogue and wordplay. I actually much preferred Richardson’s version of Victor Frankenstein, much more than Shelley’s gnashing mess of a man who, to his own detriment, is completely unable to face his own mistakes. I liked that Victor and Frank reconcile at the end and each acknowledge their own part in the events that played out.

I did feel that the setting of this book was a little confusing. It wasn’t exactly clear exactly where Castle Frankenstein was, but it did seem to be somewhere in America rather than in Europe. I also had some questions about the audience for this book. I understand that Richardson is quite keen to get young boys reading, and while I think that elements of this story will appeal to them, most of the characters are adults and there is a lot of quite gruesome violence. I also found Maria’s story, while synonymous with what happens to William in the original story, to also be quite disturbing and never fully addressed.

An interesting take on a classic story, Richardson’s Frankenstein family is far more emotionally intelligent than the original.

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The Knife of Never Letting Go

Dystopian young adult science fiction with a gender twist

I have been reading this author for a while, and I was so excited to meet him in person at the Sydney Writers’ Festival last year. I think that he really is the cutting edge of young adult fiction right now, and when he told me last year that he had a character in one of his series with the same name as me, I knew I was going to have to give it a go. To celebrate 10 years of publication, the series was recently released in these very striking editions with black-edged pages and I absolutely had to have them. It has been a while since I’ve reviewed a book with tinted edges, and there is also a film adaptation currently in production, so I thought I’d better get moving.

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“The Knife of Never Letting Go” by Patrick Ness is a dystopian young adult science fiction novel about a boy called Todd Hewitt who lives in a place called Prentisstown. In a town inhabited solely by men, where everyone can hear everyone else’s unfiltered thoughts at all times, Todd is the youngest. Spending most of his time alone with his dog Manchee, Todd is waiting for his 13th birthday, the day he will become a man, which is just a month away. However, when Todd stumbles across an impossible silence, everything he thought he knew about his town is thrown upside down.

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Sorry, my dog was just being too cute not to include this one

When I picked up this book, what I was expecting the satire of “The Rest of Us Just Live Here” or the poignancy of “Release“. However, this is a very different story. One thing I love about Ness’ writing is that he is not afraid to commit completely to exploring a difficult, nuanced issue. In this story, Ness creates a world where there truly is a difference between men and women. He uses what he knows about gender in society and throughout history to take this difference to its horrifying extreme. When I read “The Power“, this was the book I was hoping for and finally I got it. I also really liked that Ness constantly placed Todd in difficult moral situations and did not always let him choose the right way. Todd struggles with feelings of guilt and conflicting interests, and is by no means the perfect protagonist. Ness is also an incredibly versatile writer and there are a lot of subtleties in the language he uses in this book.

As much as I was hooked by this story, I can’t give it a perfect review. There were some things that happened in the narrative that I wasn’t quite sure about. Also, because we learn about the world as Todd learns about the world, there are some big knowledge gaps that we as the readers can identify but where Todd (somewhat maddeningly) doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. I do appreciate that this is a trilogy, so there is still a lot yet to happen, but it is a very ambitious story and I wasn’t always completely on board with the way the story was unfolding.

Nevertheless, Ness is an excellent and relevant storyteller and if I had teenagers, I would be giving them his books.

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The Knife of Never Letting Go (Chaos Walking Book 1)

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Like Water for Chocolate

Mexican magic-realism romance

This is one of those books that everyone seems to nod knowingly when you mention its name. The title just rolls off young tongue when you say it, and is so evocative. I always thought it referred to the craving for water you often feel after eating chocolate. However, I later found out that it actually refers to a Spanish phrase meaning emotions almost boiling over, referring to how hot chocolate is made in Mexico. After watching the film adaptation of the book, I managed to somewhere find an incredibly battered copy of the book. The copy was so battered, it is literally the first book I think I’ve ever seen with an actual bookworm. Nevertheless, I was very ready to read it.

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My attempt at making one of the book’s recipes, cream fritters,. I think I under-cooked the custard, or under-beat the egg white, but anyway I only managed to fry up three of them before everything essentially disintegrated, so if any colleagues are reading this, I was going to bring this into work, but be grateful that I didn’t! Also, after the fiasco of trying to fry a fourth fritter, there was no chance I was going to attempt the complicated syrup recipe in the book (more egg white) so I just went went with golden syrup. They tasted OK in the end, like very rich eggy pancakes, but a far cry I’m sure from what Esquivel had in mind.

“Like Water for Chocolate: A Novel in Monthly Instalments with Recipes, Romances and Home Remedies” by Laura Esquivel and translated by Carol and Thomas Christensen is a Mexican magic-realism romance novel. The story follows Tita, the youngest of three daughters in the De La Garza family, who falls in love with a man called Pedro. However, as the youngest daughter, Tita is forbidden to marry by her mother who instead forces Tita to look after her until she dies. In an interesting twist of logic, Pedro decides to instead marry her sister Rosaura in order to remain close to Tita. However, confined by her duties and relegated to the kitchen cooking the most sumptuous meals, it isn’t long before Tita’s emotions start to seep out.

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My first book worm!

This book is simply delightful. I have a real soft spot for books that have recipes in them, and this entire book is peppered with traditional, hearty Mexican recipes. Real soul food. I love how intertwined Tita’s cooking was with her emotions, and I loved the subtlety of the magic that sweeps through the house whenever Tita becomes emotional. I also loved the story of Gertrudis, the middle sister, who is a beacon of sexual liberation and girl power. It’s a wild tale, with increasingly outrageous and unlikely events, and it is immensely fun to read. I really enjoyed Esquivel’s writing, and there is a tongue-in-cheek aspect to it throughout the entire novel.

I think that there were just a few things that were a bit annoying about this book. I found the interlude where Tita leaves the manor in a great state of depression to be really quite tedious, and the characters that were briefly introduced at that point to be pretty beige (although an interesting insight into the ethnic diversity of Mexico). I also wasn’t that sold on Pedro either, who seemed to be throughout the story an irredeemable idiot.

Nevertheless, a magical Mexican romp that will leave you in a state of incredulity. Definitely worth a read if you want something that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

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Like Water For Chocolate

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