Category Archives: Book Reviews

My Cousin Rachel

This book and I didn’t get off to a great start. It’s just recently been made into a film, and I loved “Rebecca” so much I thought I simply had to get a copy. First of all, I have a beautiful set of Daphne du Maurier novels – but it doesn’t include this one. So I tried to pick up a copy from some secondhand bookstores, but I couldn’t find one anywhere. Finally, on my lunch break, I found a copy in Dymocks in Canberra City that didn’t have photos from the new film adaptation over it. However, when I got back to the office I realised that the cover had damage to the bottom! My colleague very kindly went back to swap it for me, but they didn’t have any more copies in store. Bummer! So I guess I’m stuck with this one, but I did get a couple of goodies including an ARC and a notebook to make up for it.

20170730_154827

“My Cousin Rachel” by Daphne du Maurier is a historical novel set in Cornwell, UK during the Victorian era. The story is narrated by Philip Ashley, a young man orphaned as a toddler who was raised by his cousin Ambrose. Philip grows up to be just like his cousin, and loves their bachelor lifestyle on Ambrose’s idyllic country estate. However when Ambrose’s health begins to suffer in the English winters, he leaves Philip for months every year to visit warmer climates. It is on his third such trip that he meets Philip’s distant cousin Rachel. Philip is increasingly disturbed by the letters from Ambrose about his swift marriage to Rachel and his rapidly declining health. He decides to visit Italy himself to check on Ambrose and find out about this mysterious cousin Rachel.

This is a compelling novel that is best read in the winter. Du Maurier is queen of setting an ominous tone, morally ambiguous characters and creating women dwarfed only by their reputations. Philip is a complex character who is both oblivious and obstinate, and he makes for an interesting narrator. I don’t want to give too much away, but while I didn’t enjoy this as much as I did “Rebecca”, this is still an engaging read. Du Maurier maintains tension throughout the entire book, but I felt like the ending was just a bit too predictable.

Not quite “Rebecca”, but not bad. I’m very interested to see what they made of the movie.

3 Comments

Filed under Book Reviews, General Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mystery/Thriller

Escapades in Bizarrchaeology

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

Escapades in Bizarrcheology

“Escapades in Bizarrchaeology: The Journal of Captain Max Virtus” is a history book with a twist. Narrated by the fictional Captain Max Virtus, the readre is taken on a tour of his Warehouse in Bizarrcheology. The book covers quite a few areas of geographical areas and themes in ancient history with a particular focus on Rome, Egypt, war and weapons.

This is a fun read that I think would be well suited to pre-teens and early teens. It has a good mix of silliness with historical facts, and covers a broad range of historical information. The book has a very diverse range of structures like recipes for making mummies, letters and quizzes that I think would be great for capturing the interest of young readers.

It does have a really strong focus on fighting and weaponry, and I think I would have liked to have read a bit more about bizarre examples of history in other topics. Most of the historical figures discussed in the book are men, and while I appreciate that women have been excluded from many history books (and while I did enjoy reading about the famous woman pirate Ching Shih), they are there and I would have liked to see more women in this book.

An enjoyable and educational read.

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews, eBooks, Non Fiction

The Girl on the Train

I was in the mood for something fast-paced, and I had this book sitting on my shelf after I picked it up for an easy $2 from the Canberra Lifeline Bookfair. This book has gotten a lot of attention recently after being made into a film, and has been touted as the next “Gone Girl“. Would it match up to all the hype?

20170725_181809

“The Girl on the Train” by Paula Hawkins is a thriller novel set just outside London, UK. Rachel, a thirty-something woman with a drinking problem, catches the same train to the city, morning and evening. While the rest of her life seems like it’s falling apart, she looks forward to that brief moment twice a day where she can watch a particular blissful couple she’s named Jess and Jason and daydream about their perfect lives. Until one day, Rachel sees something. Something that shatters her fantasy and pulls her back into a world she’s been desperately trying, and failing, to escape with alcohol.

This book starts out strong and kind of fizzles from there. I think there’s no other way about it. The premise of the fleeting glimpse from a train window is a compelling one, and the beginning seems really promising. However, it ends up being like one of those old time cartoons where the scene starts off beautifully illustrated and the further the character walks, the more unfinished the scene becomes until they end up just standing by themselves on a blank page looking admonishingly at the animator.

The characters end up being quite two dimensional (I think only one woman character out of four has a job). The men are kind of indistinguishable, and the amount that the women’s lives seem to revolve around the men is super boring.  Opportunities for interesting relationships and characters are lost (I’m looking at you, red-headed cockney train guy). The “twist” is easy to guess. Only one character has any kind of interesting backstory. Even the conversations end up being really repetitive because there’s never really any new information.

I could understand how “Gone Girl” was so popular – it was enthralling and it was an excellent example of the unreliable narrator. This book instead leaned heavily on the concept of unreliable memory and as a result the revelations just felt a lot more unlikely (or uninteresting).

A quick read but by no means an excellent read, this book is exactly OK.

5 Comments

Filed under Book Reviews, Mystery/Thriller, Uncategorized

The Last Redhead

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

The Last Redhead

“The Last Redhead” by L. J Mozdy is a science fiction novel set in an alternative world ruled by advertising campaigns and high-speed trains. After her mother dies giving birth to her, the Last Redhead, the only known redhead in the world for 20 years, lives her entire childhood in an orphanage. On her 18th birthday she’s kicked to the curb and picked up by the Spermicidal Maniac who informs her that they are going to have lots of redheaded babies and make lots of money. However, he’s not the only one who wants to find the Last Redhead and make some money off her, regardless of what she wants.

This is quite a surreal story, set in a strange world even more obsessed with beauty and advertising that our own. Mozdy is quite a creative writer with a similar writing style to Tom Robbins. He takes a particular interest in the grotesque minutiae of human existance. He weaves in social commentary, biology and pseudoscience to shed light on a society gone made with the idea of red hair. This is quite a dense book though with a rather rambling story line, so it’s definitely more of a slow burn than a fast-paced book.

An interesting story with clear parallels to our own world, this book takes the myth of redheadedness going extinct to its most extreme.

Leave a comment

Filed under eBooks, Science Fiction

Dragonclaw

Kate Forsyth’s historical novel and fairy tale retelling “Bitter Greens” was one of the first books that I reviewed on this blog. When another of her books was nominated as the next book to be tackled by my feminist fantasy book club, I was really excited to see her take on the genre. Then, even more excitingly, Kate Forsyth came to speak at the National Library of Australia this week. I got several books signed, but I’ll be writing more about the event for the ACT Lit Bloggers of the Future program later on.

20170720_210334

“Dragonclaw” by Kate Forsyth is the first book in her series “The Witches of Eileanen”, as well as being her first published novel. The story begins in a secret valley, where foundling Isabeau has grown up with her guardian, the wood witch Meghan. On her 16th birthday, Isabeau has the opportunity to showcase the skills and power she’s been developing over the years. However, in a world where witchcraft is prohibited and witches themselves persecuted, the initiation is risky. After drawing the attention of enemies, Isabeau finds herself sent on a dangerous quest by herself to the heart of Eileanan, a journey that she is perhaps not yet ready for. Meanwhile, elderly Meghan summons her courage to climb Dragonclaw and seek the advice of the last species untouched by the war on magic. However Meghan is not prepared for the help that their council reluctantly provides.

Winter has well and truly arrived in Canberra, and I was definitely in the mood to snuggle up with a fantasy adventure. In a genre usually dominated by male writers, it was really refreshing to read a fantasy novel where the majority of the characters were women who each wield power in their own way. The story itself is a blend of original ideas and traditional magical concepts which makes this a very easy story to step into. There is so much action in this book and it was a great story to discuss in a book club. There were also plenty of modern and traditional themes to unpick and lots to read into about the characters, their relationships and their particular flaws. Even how you pronounce characters’ names got a big discussion, especially the name Meghan (MEGG-an, MEE-gan, or MAY-gen, like my sister?)

I picked up the 20th anniversary edition of this book (the red one pictured above) for book club, but then I found the original 1997 edition at the most recent Canberra Lifeline Book Fair. Unusually, I preferred the original. I really liked the grey stonework design that matches in each book in the series. There’s a scene in “Dragonclaw” where Meghan is walking along a stone wall, and I think the cover design really captures that aesthetic perfectly.

This is the first book in a series of six, and then there is a further trilogy again set in the same world. I thoroughly enjoyed it and as it’s shaping up to be a long cold winter, I may very well delve into a few more of these before it ends.

2 Comments

Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Fantasy, Signed Books

The Beat on Ruby’s Street

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

The Beat on Ruby's Street

“The Beat on Ruby’s Street” by Jenna Zark is a historical young adult novel about Ruby, an eleven year old girl growing up among the Beat Generation in Greenwich Village, New York City in 1958. Living a carefree existence with artist Nell-mom, musician Gary Daddy-o and brother Ray,  everything comes crashing down when “the Man”, in the form of a social worker, comes looking for her. Although she tries to comfort herself with her own words and poetry, when she misses out on seeing Jack Kerouac, Ruby worries that her golden birthday coming up in just a couple of days isn’t going to be so golden.

This is a great little story that is really easy to read. In fact, after being invited to come watch my friend play jazz this afternoon, I thought what better place to spend my afternoon reading a book about the bohemian lifestyle than at a quirky live music venue. Ruby is a strong character with the perfect adolescent mix of overconfidence and uncertainty. Although we see the Beatnik scene through her eyes, this book raises some interesting questions about the children who grew up there and the tension between artistic self-interest and acceptable standards of care. Ruby has far more freedom that many children do today, but she also has a lot of uncertainty about meals, schooling and, sometimes, even the location of her parents. The only thing that I was a little disappointed in was the abrupt ending. However, this book does have a bit of a “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” feel about it and I think is ultimately meant to just be a glimpse into Ruby’s life.

I really enjoyed this book. A lovely and nuanced little snapshot into a vibrant time in history.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews, eBooks, Historical Fiction, Uncategorized, Young Adult

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

If you spend any time on the internet at all, you might have noticed that 26 June 2017 was the 20 year anniversary of the publication of one of the most famous books of our time. I don’t reread many books these days, but I thought I would make an exception for this one. I also want to talk about some of the beautiful new editions.

20170701_133748

“Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” by J K Rowling is the first in a children’s book series that took the world by storm. The story follows Harry Potter, an orphan boy who discovers he is actually a wizard, as he learns about his identity, the secret wizarding world and the magical boarding school of Hogwarts. Harry navigates schoolwork, friendship and his newfound fame as the Boy Who Lived with his new friends Hermione and Ron. Together, the three uncover a plot that could spell disaster for not only themselves and their school, but all the wizarding world.

20170701_133533

I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve read this story, but it has been a while since the last time. I recently bought the Bloomsbury 20th Anniversary Edition (pictured at the top) which was available both in paperback and hardback in each of the four Hogwarts house colours. I have come to terms with the fact that I am a Hufflepuff so I bought the Hufflepuff hardcover edition with the yellow and black tinted edges. This edition is simply gorgeous and has plenty of great new content about the house, the common room, famous Hufflepuffs and Hogwarts as a whole.

Last year I also bought the illustrated edition (pictured above) so after having a flick through the bonus content in the anniversary edition, I decided that I’d reread the story together with Jim Kay’s beautiful watercolour artworks. They are absolutely stunning, but there weren’t quite as many as I had expected. There are lots of character studies and sweeping scenery (the Hogwarts Express and Hagrid’s Hut really stand out), but I had expected a little bit more magic.

Then, as a reward for completing something really long and boring last year, I bought this great Harry Potter set where the spines all line up together to make a picture of Hogwarts (pictured below). It matches a similar set I have of the Narnia series where the spines make an image of Cair Paravel. Unfortunately, there’s no bonus illustrations or information in this edition but gosh it looks wonderful on my bookshelf.

20170701_133900

Anyway, enough about editions – the story. It’s been 20 years since this book was published, and I really think that J K Rowling has written something timeless. Apart from the fact that she’s still releasing new books and the “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” movie franchise is going gangbusters, there is a whole new generation of kids who are starting to read these books. At the heart of this story is the classic fantasy premise of:

  • orphan boy discovers magical powers
  • orphan boy goes on an adventure to learn how to use them
  • orphan boy recovers magical object
  • orphan boy save the world from evil

You know, the fantasy story that everyone knows and loves. However, by setting her story with one foot in a magical world (heavily inspired by European mythology) and the other in 1990s England (with all its accompanying cultural references), this book has a modern relevance that no ordinary high fantasy novel can achieve.

I first read this book when I was about nine years old after a friend of mine recommended it to me. Even though I was skeptical of a book called “Harry Potter” (my own nickname being Harry), I was absolutely blown away by what I read. I was also completely swept up in the Harry Potter hype which culminated in the release of the seventh and final book in the series in 2007, and which had a small revival last year. Rereading this book as an adult, I have a more critical eye, but I think this is still an ideal book for children. Scattered with equal parts wonder, humour and social commentary, it’s little wonder children devoured, and continue to devour, this book. The rest of the series grows darker and more mature, and this really is a story that grows up with a child as the child reads it.

Reading it now, it’s not perfect but it’s pretty close. Rowling cleverly drops little hints throughout the first book that have relevance not only to the ending of that book, but to the series as a whole. It’s an ideal book for an 11 year old – the same age as Harry himself – to immerse themselves in and picture themselves getting their Hogwarts letter (I’m still waiting for mine), learning that they are special and going to exciting classes to learn spells. Some of the writing is admittedly a bit simplistic – even for a children’s book. However, that simplicity is also what makes some of it incredibly funny, even all these years after I first read it. There are also a couple of inconsistencies which become a bit more apparent as time goes on. One of these is the rule that underage (or expelled) witches and wizards aren’t allowed to do magic at home, a rule that Hermione, Lily Potter and even Hagrid all break at some stage in this book. Harry has to buy a pointed hat for his school uniform, something which I don’t think we ever see him or his peers wear. The number of witches and wizards in Hogwarts (and in the wider wizarding community) is also not really clear. You’re never really sure if there are 140 or 1400 in Hogwarts, or how many live in the UK as a whole.

“Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” is a much shorter story that the rest of the books in the series, and you do at times feel like some of the detail of how magic works is glossed over a bit. For example, if transfiguration is turning one thing into another, how exactly is bringing chess pieces to life transfiguration? Wouldn’t that be charms? I feel like Rowling takes her time with this aspect of the story more in the later books as magic and spells are more relevant to the plot. However they are nevertheless a bit relevant to this plot and I think she could have fleshed her concepts out a bit further.

Ultimately though, I only have to ask myself a few questions to determine how I feel about this book. Did I enjoy it? Yes. Would I read it to my children? Yes. Will I keep on engaging with new content like the “Fantastic Beasts” film franchise and the Pottermore website? Yes. Yes. Unashamedly yes. 20 years on this book is just as popular as ever. It’s now published in nearly 70 languages including Latin and Welsh. It is a literary phenomenon that spoke to a generation and is already speaking to the next.

There will always be Harry Potter books on my bookshelf.

3 Comments

Filed under Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fantasy, Pretty Books, Tinted Edges, Young Adult