Category Archives: Book Reviews

A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Reptile Room

Children’s book series about three hapless orphans

I was reading my review of the first book in this series, and I actually cannot believe it has been almost three years since I wrote that review. As is often the case, I was scrounging around for short books to read at the end of last year to meet my reading goal, and I thought I’d pick the series back up. The hardcover editions of the series are really lovely with deckle edges and eerie illustrations.

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“The Reptile Room” by Lemony Snicket is the second book of the 13 that make up “A Series of Unfortunate Events”. After things end rather badly with Count Olaf, the Baudelaire children are sent to live instead with Dr Montgomery Montgomery, a world renowned herpetologist who lives in a wonderful large house housing countless species of reptile. The children warm to him immediately, and prepare to accompany him on his next expedition to Peru. However, when Uncle Monty hires Stephano, the new assistant is strangely familiar to the children.

I enjoyed this book a lot more than the first. Uncle Monty is a lovable character who is as oblivious as he is brilliant, and I thought his profession and the way the reptiles are woven into the story made it for a much more interesting read.

The adults are still pretty useless in this book, and I will stress that this is a book for a particular age group.

I’ve been finding it interesting actually watching the Netflix television series, episode by episode after reading the books. The series has drawn very heavily from the books, but has given the audience a little more of the over-arching story. It is a bit of a different experience, but if you’re keen to get your kids reading, getting them into both the books and the TV show might not be a bad idea.

 

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Hare’s Fur

Novel about family, trust and ceramics

I picked this book up at Muse one day while having a browse of the bookshop. It’s not secret I love rabbits, and although this book isn’t about any lagomorphs, it still piqued my interest. I have a soft spot for books about ceramics anyway, and I hadn’t heard of this local author before, so I bought myself a copy.

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“Hare’s Fur” by Trevor Shearston is a novel about Russell, a potter who lives alone in the Blue Mountains. Grieving the death of his wife only months previously, Russell continues with his work throwing his beautiful bottles, teapots and plates and glazing them with his signature glaze using ore from a secret place near his home. One day while collecting ore, he finds three children camped out in a cave. Although still raw from his loss, as he learns about their story, Russell must decide how much he can open his heart to the siblings.

This is a quiet, subtle novel with a strong sense of place. Shearston writes beautifully about the art of pottery and leads the reader gently into an understanding of this craft, the skill required and the value of excellent ceramics. I thought Shearston handled the issue of class, one of the main themes in this book, very well. Although not wealthy per se, Russell is an educated, accomplished man who mostly socialises with peers from the art world. His life of routine and contemplation is starkly juxtaposed against the disrupted lives of three kids who have grown up in poverty and are facing the prospect of foster care. The social observation rounds out the reader’s understanding of the Blue Mountains region as a place not only of scenic beauty that attracts tourists and artists alike, but also a place with pockets of disadvantage.

While the strength of this novel is its mood, it is a slow burn so if you’re looking for action or suspense, it might not be for you. This story unfolds slowly and gently with a focus on characters rather than plot.

An enjoyable and insightful novel, perfect for a weekend read.

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Filed under Australian Books, General Fiction

The Swan Book

Speculative fiction novel about an Aboriginal woman and her swans

Content warning: sexual assault

I’ve mentioned previously on this blog that I’ve started listening to audio books as a means of motivating myself to go to the gym. I’m still fine-tuning how exactly I select which books to listen to, but certainly the quality of the narrator is something I’ve realised is important to me. I have been trying to read more books by Aboriginal authors, and although I had heard of this author, I hadn’t actually read any of her work. I was scrolling through the categories on Audible and this book jumped out at me. I listened to the narrator in the sample, and immediately knew I wanted to hear more.

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“The Swan Book” by Alexis Write and narrated by Jacqui Katona is a speculative fiction novel about an Australia in the not too distant future. The story is about a young woman called Oblivia Ethylene who does not speak and whose story begins when she was found living in a tree. Taken in by a climate migrant Bella Donna, Oblivia lives on a swamp inside a rusted out hull in the middle of a military-run Aboriginal camp in Australia’s far north, and they are visited often by the overbearing Harbour Master.

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A photo I took a while back of black swans on Lake Burley Griffin, Canberra 

However, as time passes, it becomes clear that Oblivia is not a reliable narrator, and her life actually began before she was found in a tree. We learn that Oblivia was gang raped, outcast from her family and deeply traumatised by the experience. Oblivia forms a deep connection with swans that come to Swamp Lake, later renamed Swan Lake, inspired by Bella Donna’s own love for the white swans of her homeland. After Bella Donna dies, Oblivia is visited by the newly sworn-in first Aboriginal President of Australia, Warren Finch who informs her that she is his promised bride. As Oblivia is forced to follow him to the Southern cities, she is in turn followed by the ghosts of her past and confronted by new ghosts in her future.

This is a deeply rich and complex novel that tackles a number of issues through a unique perspective such as trauma, the Intervention and climate change. I was struck by how many of the issues and predictions Wright made seem even more pressing now, only 7 years after publication. Oblivia is a fascinating character who appears both more aware and more naive than she first seems. Wright is a natural storyteller with a patient style, slowly unfurling each new piece of information and examining it from several perspectives before laying it down carefully before you. Nothing is rushed in this novel, yet at the end I found myself still unsure about so many elements of the plot. How much was real, how much was Oblivia’s fantasy, and how much was something in between? I’m still not certain what happened to the Genies or to Warren Finch, and whether Oblivia saw herself on TV or an impostor.

I absolutely must comment though on the narration of this book. Jacqui Katona was a superb narrator who captured the spirit of the novel completely. She has a soft, slightly cracked voice that reminds me of dust picked up by a desert wind. I loved listening to Katona speak in language, and she had a great knack for capturing the voices of the different characters, the matter-of-factness of the narration generally and even singing refrains from some of the songs referenced in the book.

Although Katona brought this book to life, I did at times find it a bit challenging to listen to. It’s no secret to anyone who has met me that I’m not the best at processing what I hear, but I did find this book at times maybe a little complex to concentrate on while I was also trying to count reps at the gym. Although Wright revisits pieces of the story several times, I did at times find myself asking whether a certain part was supposed to be ambiguous, or whether I had just missed something while I was trying to set the speed on the cross-trainer.

A captivating, intricate and extremely relevant book that Katona impeccably narrates.

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Peter Pan

Classic children’s novel where children don’t grow up

This book hardly needs an introduction. “Peter Pan” has been adapted so many times into so many mediums, but most particularly film. There has been films that are animated and live action, a sequel to and a prequel to the book. Even though I had never read the book before, I had seen so many adaptations of the story that I was very familiar with the plot and themes. I can’t recall where I found this beautiful edition, but I’m not surprised that I bought it. Part of the Puffin Chalk collection, the book has a beautiful chalk-inspired design on the front and back cover and has deckle edges.

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I must have spent about an hour looking for the chalk I knew I had somewhere in the house to draw a hopscotch “court”. On the plus side, while looking for it I found a lost set of keys. 

“Peter Pan” by J. M. Barrie is a classic children’s novel about three children called Wendy, John and Michael Darling who meet a boy called Peter Pan who teaches them to fly. Peter takes them to Neverland, an island only able to be accessed by air. The Darling children join Peter and the Lost Boys in fighting pirates, play-fighting with the Native American tribe, listening to mermaids, watching fairies and hunting the many beasts that live in Neverland. Peter and Wendy play at being mother and father to the young boys, but before long, Wendy realises that they are forgetting their own parents. However, before she can make for home, she is kidnapped by the nefarious Captain Hook who is seeking revenge for Peter cutting off his hand and feeding it to a crocodile.

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It was a really interesting experience finally reading this book that has inspired so many films and concepts. I think every adaptation I’ve seen has drawn quite faithfully on elements from the story, and the themes of Peter Pan have filtered so completely into pop culture, so when I did read it, almost every phrase and every event was familiar to me. The book is jammed full of ideas of love, adulthood and motherhood and what you potentially lose by gaining immortality.

Barrie has quite a primal way of writing, depicting children as almost feral creatures who are often selfish and ruled by instinct. When the children first fly to Neverland, they fly for days, stealing fish from birds and unphased by the unknown. In fact, Barrie’s style reminded me a lot of Joan Lindsay’s “Picnic at Hanging Rock“; dark, with quite a lot of allusions to death and violence, and bodies being things that are malleable and even disposable. The result is a book that while magical, often evokes a sense of unease rather than a sense of wonder. Peter himself is irreverent and unsentimental, with no qualms about using violence including (Barrie hints) against his own Lost Boys. The contradiction between Peter’s rejection of his own mother, playing father to Wendy as mother but yet refusing to grow up is the heart of this novel.

Originally a play, the novelisation was published in 1911 so it is unsurprising that there are elements of this story that have not aged well. If I were reading this book to a child, there would be a lot of points upon which I would have stop and discuss – not least of which Barrie’s depiction of the people indigenous to Neverland. This book deals directly and indirectly with death, which is also hardly surprising given the character of Peter Pan was inspired by Barrie’s own brother who died in childhood. The book also has quite entrenched gender roles, with Wendy moving straight from her nursery into becoming the mother for the lost boys, later returning to Neverland to do Peter’s spring cleaning.

I think this book will remain a classic because growing up is a timeless and universal theme for all children. However, it is a book that I think needs to be read with a critical eye and with an understanding of the context in which it was written.

 

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Filed under Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fantasy, Pretty Books, Puffin Chalk

Beauty (Guest Review)

Guest review of memoir about eating disorder

If you spend any time on Twitter, or on the news, you might have come across the #AuthorsforFireys campaign where authors in Australia and around the world ran mini-auctions of great prizes to raise money for the areas affected by bush fires this summer. I offered two auction items, and one lot was the first ever guest post on this blog. The winner was Sydney writer and reviewer Julia Clark who generously donated to the NSW Rural Fire Service, and this is her review. 

Content warning: eating disorders, sexual assault

After the success of her first book “Eggshell Skull“, which saw Bri Lee take on the Queensland justice system for its treatment of sexual assault survivors while she also pursued her own justice, the author returns with another traumatic subject in “Beauty”. Lee takes the opportunity in this extended personal essay to explore her experience of disordered eating, especially as it materialised during promotion for “Eggshell Skull” in 2018. Lee’s representation of her illness is honest, laying her obsessive and circular thought patterns out on the page, but her story never strays into grotesquery in her refusal to make her illness a spectacle.

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Photo by Julia Clark

This second release again demonstrates Lee’s strong and balanced approach to memoir and trauma writing particularly in her invocation of Aurelias and rumination on the concept of “self-control”. As an intelligent and highly educated woman, Lee must navigate the age-old dichotomy of mind and body as made paradoxically difficult by society’s patriarchal expectations of what a woman “should” be. For Lee, the push and pull of demands to be pretty but not too pretty and smart but not too smart manifested in a desire to transcend her body entirely, to shed her womanly form in order to free herself. When explaining the impulse behind her disordered eating Lee says, “I wanted to be full without food, to transcend it.” Then later, when embarrassed by her appearance, “It transported me back to the newsagent’s and the longing for invisibility—or, more accurately, really, for people to see past my body.” The need to live as and nourish this body, which is the marker of a “failure” to meet societal expectations, remains as the unreconcilable question on which hinges Lee’s self-loathing in “Beauty”.

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Photo by Julia Clark

While Lee’s writing shines in its candidness and vulnerability, the book falls down in its attempt to extrapolate and speak to women’s experience of beauty more generally. Two key touchstones of the essay remain largely uninterrogated: 1. Repeatedly beauty is equated with thinness without examination and with little mention of the alternates of ugliness and fatness. 2. Lee easily slips between “I” and “we” in her analysis of beauty standards but does no work to acknowledge the many different ways in which “we” (i.e. women) experience the world and the standards impressed upon us (i.e. through differences in race, gender, age, ability, size, etc). When lamenting how the beauty industry sells images of happiness as much as skincare, Lee writes, “When all our images of happiness and success are also skinny, young, and hairless, it becomes a never-fulfilling prophecy.” Never mind the fact that these images are also almost always white, able-bodied, cisgender, without any kind of facial difference, or without any of the other visual markers of deviance from the beauty standard that Lee leaves unnamed. The assumption held throughout “Beauty” is that the reader is approaching the world of beauty from the same place as Lee, which immediately erases the possibility of other experiences or interpretations outside of Lee’s privileged social position.

With all of that said, “Beauty” is not completely insubstantial as Lee provides a reference and recommended reading list with titles from writers with long careers of interrogating beauty from mainstream and marginalised positions. In this way, Beauty operates as a starting point, a door cracked open for anyone who is searching for the vocabulary to discuss their experience of feeling inferior in the face of the monolith Western beauty industry.

Julia Clark is a PhD student, poet, and theatre reviewer in Sydney. She’s interested in the intersection of aesthetics, objects, and bodies. If she’s not reading or writing, she’s at the theatre. You can read more of her work at juliaclarkwrites.com.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Guest Reviews, Non Fiction

Tin Man

Novel about love, loss and living a life

Another find from the Lifeline Book Fair, I picked up this book because of its striking yellow and blue cover, and bought it because of the author. I read Sarah Winman’s “When God was a Rabbit” shortly after it came out, and I remember being very struck by the book at the time. I actually have her second book on my shelf to read as well, but I decided to tackle this one next.

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My partner very kindly modeled for me

“Tin Man” by Sarah Winman is a novel set in an industrial UK town from the 1950s to 1990s about two men, Ellis and Michael. In the first half of the book, the narrative flits between past and present, and we learn that Ellis is mourning the death of his wife Annie. However, as his moves through the motions of trying to keep going, his thoughts keep drifting back to the past and his mother, his father and his best friend Michael, who moved to their town when he was 12. The second part of the book is told from the perspective of Michael, whose journals shed light on the intensity of his friendship with Ellis and the hardship of being a gay man in London during the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

This book isn’t very long, not much longer than a novella, yet Winman crams entire lives between these pages. She is without a doubt a beautiful writer and excels in her relationships, capturing their complexity and fluidity over time. Ellis and Michael are great contrasting characters and Winman is able to shift narrative perspective completely, examining events through two different experiences. I think I particularly enjoyed the character of Ellis, who Winman depicts as a very young soul who struggles to find a sense of self among the strong personalities in his life. She picked a clever title for this book, referencing both the career Ellis is stuck in as well as his emotional state. I also really enjoyed Ellis’ mother Dora. The opening chapter about the story of how she came to possess a painting was enthralling in its banality about a raffle ticket at a community centre, and I, perhaps like Ellis, found myself wishing that there was more of her in the novel.

This is a surprisingly difficult book to review, especially without revealing too much of the story. I completely understand Winman’s message, and how constrained so many people felt (and still feel) by society when it came to loving who they love. However, the theme of same-sex love being sidelined for heterosexual love when one charactergrows out of it” is a theme I’ve come across many times in very well-known works such as “Brideshead Revisited”, “the Color Purple” and even the “Tales of the Otori” series. Perhaps it would have been better if the character of Annie had been fleshed out a little more, but of all the characters in the story, she remains the most mysterious. Everyone seems to automatically adore her, but we as readers don’t really get much opportunity to understand why.

An intricate novel that I think will touch many people, even if it tackles some familiar themes.

 

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The Testaments

Sequel to “The Handmaid’s Tale”

This book hardly needs an introduction. Everyone has been talking about Margaret Atwood since her prize-winning novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” was made into a television series and commenting at length about the extent to which the story mirrors current events today. The original novel ends rather abruptly, but with the TV series now renewed for a fourth season, it has gone far beyond the ambit of the original novel. So when Margaret Atwood announced that 34 years after the original novel she would be publishing a sequel, there was a huge amount of interest. The interest was compounded when she (somewhat controversially) was awarded the Booker Prize for the new novel jointly with author Bernadine Evaristo. I have a fraught relationship with Margaret Atwood’s writing. Some of her books like “Cat’s Eye” and “The Blind Assassin” I would name among my favourite novels of all time. Others, like “The Heart Goes Last” and “The Robber Bride” left me lukewarm. Buying this eBook left me feeling a bit apprehensive, but with tickets to see her speak in Canberra just next month, I knew I had to read her new book.

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“The Testaments” by Margaret Atwood is a dystopian novel set approximately 15 years after the events of her acclaimed novel “The Handmaid’s Tale”. There are three point of view characters: Lydia, Agnes and Daisy. Lydia is an Aunt: a high-ranking woman governing and implementing laws about women in Gilead, the nation formerly known as the USA. Agnes is an adopted daughter of a Commander in Gilead who escapes an arranged marriage by agreeing to become a Supplicant: a future Aunt. Daisy, also an adopted daughter, lives in Canada. However when her parents are victims of a terrorist attack, Daisy learns her true identity and become essential to Mayday: an underground resistance movement.

“The Handmaid’s Tale” ended on a cliffhanger, and for those readers who were desperate to know what happens next, to Gilead as much as to Offred, this book certainly answers those questions. Atwood is at her strongest in Lydia’s flashbacks to her arrest when the government was overthrown and Gilead was first established. I felt like the scenes where successful, “immoral” women were detained inside the stadium were realistic, compelling and deeply disturbing. I also felt that Atwood was asking the reader an important question: can the means always justify the ends? The idea of Supplicants to be a interesting form of subversion.

However, this is a bit of a tricky book to review. In some ways, we are living in a time of sequels, prequels, retellings and reboots. There seems to be a chronic inability to leave things to the reader’s imagination. I’m not going to go into depth about a related pet peeve of mine: unnecessarily verbose fantasy novels, but it’s a similar problem. The books I’m enjoying the most right now are those that leave me wanting more. Apart from exploring what it means to be a Supplicant, I wasn’t sold on Agnes’ story and Daisy’s story, while certainly the most action-packed, seemed chaotic and the plan to infiltrate Gilead felt flimsy. Maybe ultimately it was a question of scale. In a classic fantasy or science fiction novel, I would happily suspend my disbelief that a nobody becomes a chosen hero who saves the day mostly through luck and timing. For a story that purports to be a realistic alternative future, it was hard to be convinced. Neither Agnes nor Daisy were particularly compelling characters, and I found myself mostly looking forward to Lydia’s chapters hoping for more flashbacks.

I haven’t read Evaristo’s novel, the other winner of the 2019 Booker Prize, but I am a little surprised that this was a joint winner. For fans of the TV series and original novel, this will fill in plenty of gaps and show old characters in new light. However, I think that “The Handmaid’s Tale’ was excellent as a standalone novel and while this sequel is fine, it was not necessary.

 

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