Category Archives: Book Reviews

The Shepherd’s Hut

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of Harry Hartog.

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“The Shepherd’s Hut” by Tim Winton is about a teenage boy called Jaxie on the run from the dregs of a brutal start to life in a small Western Australian town. Escaping on foot, he ends up in a salt lake wasteland with dwindling supplies. When he has almost run out of food, water and ammunition, Jaxie comes across a shepherd’s hut, occupied by a stranded and mysterious elderly Irishman called Fintan. The two are very wary of each other, but come to an uneasy truce to not ask any questions about the other’s past. Fintan’s generosity with his basic larder of food, and his uncertainty about when, or even if, replacement supplies will arrive, means that they cannot permanently hide away from their world.

Although this was quite an easy book to read, it is a difficult book to review. The book is written in a kind of stream of consciousness narrative from the perspective of Jaxie, and this is without a doubt the highlight of the novel. Jaxie is a brilliant character full of untold complexity who is both the product of his upbringing as well as a fresh and unique voice. Winton portrays a young man with a sharp mind, one already full of knowledge and understanding if not education and experience. Jaxie’s raw, untempered thoughts are arresting, and hurtle the reader through the book. Although his words may paint him as a tough and harsh kid, it quickly becomes clear that Jaxie is very sentimental and craves to be seen as worthwhile.

This is definitely a book to make you think, and I have been thinking about it quite a bit since I read it, but I’m still not quite sure what to make of it. It’s a very compelling story, but some parts of it I felt were rushed or jammed on. In fact, I think I was in maybe the last eighth of the book, and I couldn’t believe it was about to end and couldn’t possibly see how everything would be resolve (or at least finalised).

I think the tenuous and cagey friendship between Jaxie and Fintan, the centrepiece of the book, was a prime example of this. Winton spends the majority of the book setting up the characters and putting them into a kind of routine, and then just when you felt like the friendship was about to become interesting, the book rushes into a ending that to me felt so coincidental and unlikely that it was jarring. I appreciate the technique of leaving a book open-ended, but I think how you get to that open end is important, and I’m not sure the final climax was really the best choice.

Tim Winton has been writing and speaking extensively about toxic masculinity, and I think for the most part that this book absolutely explores some of the nuances of expressing masculinity and what it means to be a man. However, again, the jarring ending meant that the message felt really muddled and I wasn’t quite sure what the point was anymore.

The language Winton used also obscured the purpose of the book and left me with a lot of questions about class and audience. Jaxie is styled with a very idiosyncratic, colloquial yet thoughtful way of speaking which is very engrossing. However, it also really made me wonder who exactly the audience of this book is intended to be. Is it meant to be for more privileged, metropolitan Australians to give them a taste of wild country life, or is it meant to make it more accessible to blue collar Australians and resonate with them through shared language? Is it meant to be both? I’m just not sure.

Anyway, I can’t really write too much more about this book without giving things away, but essentially this book was a smack around the head and my ears are still ringing. If you’re looking for something to make you think, make you feel and make your jaw drop, this is it. If you’re looking for a comfortable read, you’re not going to find it here.

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Filed under Advanced Reading Copies, Australian Books, Book Reviews, General Fiction

South of Main Street

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

South of Main Street by [Gately, Robert]

“South of Main Street” by Robert Gately is a novel about a man called Henry Wolff who is a little bit strange. Prone to treating the outside of his house like an obstacle course and making inappropriate jokes at inappropriate times, he often exasperates his two daughters. When his wealthy wife dies, the question of how Henry is going to be cared for and a court hearing about financial guardianship drives a wedge between the two sisters. However, Henry’s not too bothered by all that. In a town where Main Street divides the well-to-do from the struggling, Henry starts to spend more time with those who are often overlooked.

The simplicity of this story belies the complexity of themes that are explored. Gately addresses the pressures that domestic violence, mental health, trauma, addiction, homelessness, poverty and death place on families and sensitively explores the strange legal beast that is guardianship. By using Henry as the lens through which we perceive his motley group of friends, Gately is able to leverage the idea of simple kindness to build empathy for people who are often marginalised. I think that while perhaps this book doesn’t delve too deeply into the psychology and socioeconomic reasons behind disadvantage, it nevertheless is persuasive through its depiction of decency through human interactions. I also thought that the fraught relationship between Robin and Sharon, the two sisters, was one of the strongest and most engaging parts of the book.

This book is very much about the day-to-day, and some parts of the book are a little slower in pace than others. I think quite a few of the conversations between Henry, Dixie (who is addicted to drugs) and Danny (who struggles with his father’s alcoholism and feelings of abandonment by his mother) are some of the more difficult parts to get through. However, I think that because of these little run-of-the-mill encounters, the book is quite relateable to people who have family stresses but need to get on with their daily lives nonetheless.

An interesting story with a strong message, I think this book does a thorough job of bringing to light some important social issues.

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Filed under Book Reviews, eBooks, General Fiction

The Velveteen Rabbit

It’s no secret how I feel about rabbits, so I thought I’d do a special little review for Easter and review one of my favourite childhood books.

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“The Veleveteen Rabbit” by Margery Williams and illustrated by William Nicholson is a children’s chapter book about a toy rabbit who longs to be real. His friend, the Skin Horse, explains nursery magic to him and how a toy comes to be real through the love of a child. After a perfect summer as the Boy’s favourite, the Boy falls ill and the Velveteen Rabbit’s future is no longer certain.

I had this story on audiobook as a child, and reading this brought me straight back to being snuggled up in bed with my own menagerie of toys listening to a voice explaining to me how it was they became real. I was in tears almost the entire way through reading this book. If I have children, I will definitely read them this book if I can get through it without becoming choked up with emotion. It really is an absolute classic story, as relevant now as it was then. In fact, it is incredible that a story published 96 years ago now doesn’t have anything in it that would be considered inappropriate today. Williams has such a wonderful style of writing that manages to convey so much yet remain in childlike simplicity.

The copy I have, which is styled as ‘The Original Edition’, is interspersed with striking images in red, yellow and baby blue. These lithographs aren’t in a colour scheme I would ordinarily associate with children’s books, but they actually work really well. They give a warm vibrancy to the story and Nicholson captures the messiness of life and love as a child’s beloved soft toy.

I really cannot recommend this book enough. If you’re looking for an Easter story, or a story for any occasion for a child, you cannot go wrong with this one.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Children's Books, Classics

The Stolen Bicycle

This was the set book for the March Asia Bookroom book club. It has a beautifully understated cover design that hints at the contents but gives away very little. However something that is very telling is that it has been longlisted for the Man International Booker Prize.

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“The Stolen Bicycle” by Wu Ming-Yi and translated by Darryl Sterk is a literary novel set in and around Taiwan and explored over several decades. The narrator, an established author and bicycle enthusiast called Cheng, tells the story of his family. However, to tell the story of his family, a family whose history is made up of a succession of stolen bicycles, there are some things he has to track down. While he searches for answers about his father’s disappearance and unaccounted-for bicycle, he meets many interesting people along the way with their own usual stories.

A lot of people have recommended Murakami to me over the years as a master of storytelling and magic realism. This is better. Wu has an uncanny eye for finding the humanity in everything. This book draws out the heart of Taiwan and its history, but also goes to the soul of the human condition. This is a book about trust, kindness, loss, obsession, generosity and, above all, bicycles.

There are few criticisms to make about this book. However, I think some people may find it a little slow-paced and meandering at times. There are lots of stories interwoven throughout this book and it sometimes can be hard to find a common theme. However, ultimately, the reader’s attention is drawn back to the narrator’s favourite topic: the bicycle.

An excellently-written book and a brilliant insight into the diverse history and people of Taiwan. This book will linger with you for a long time and teach more than you ever thought possible about bicycles.

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Filed under Book Reviews, General Fiction, Magic Realism

The Anti-Cool Girl

Content warning: mental illness, addiction, suicide ideation. 

My experience of this book was a bit different to my usual reviews because I didn’t read it, I didn’t listen to it as an audiobook per se, but I listened to it as a podcast called “Mum Says My Memoir is a Lie“.

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“The Anti-Cool Girl” by Rosie Waterland is deeply personal memoir about Waterland’s experiences growing up in a dysfunctional family plagued by mental illness, addiction and poverty. Waterland chronicles her sometimes hilarious and sometimes deeply painful memories from birth up until just before publication. Although Waterland’s mother Lisa’s alcoholism had prevented her from reading the book when it first came out, Lisa has since sobered up and is ready to challenge Waterland on some of the things depicted in the book. On the podcast, each episode begins with Waterland narrating a chapter from the book and then Waterland and her mother Lisa spend the rest of the episode discussing the events of the chapter, especially around whether Waterland’s recollections are correct.

I think it’s difficult to separate out the book from the podcast because so much of podcast is the book, so this is going to be a kind of combined review. Waterland is a very funny writer, and has a exaggerated, self-depreciating sense of humour that balances out the more serious parts of the book. Waterland is also unflinchingly honest about her feelings and experiences, sometimes in quite shocking (and refreshing) detail. This book is overall an incredibly telling insight into Australia’s care and protection system, the public housing system and the mental health system. Rosie also shares her personal experiences with depression, suicide attempts, bullying and weight gain and then her remarkable success in her writing.

When I first started listening to this podcast, hearing Waterland read a chapter of her book, my initial judgment was that her mother Lisa was a terrible mother whose alcoholism traumatised her children. I think that if I had read the book by itself, that would have remained my judgment the entire way through. However, having Lisa participating in the podcast and responding to each chapter did lead me to think that Waterland was perhaps not always the most reliable narrator, especially in the chapters about her younger years. It also gave me a lot more empathy for Lisa and a better appreciation of her own struggles. However, where the facts aren’t completely clear or when some of the subject-matter gets a bit dark, you can count on Waterland to bring the mood back up with a joke or an embarrassing story about herself, even if it’s a bit embellished.

This is a powerful, hilarious and insightful book that is given a whole new layer of depth through this unconventional storytelling platform. I think the book is good, but the podcast is excellent and it is a very rare opportunity to listen to frank conversations between an author and her subject-matter: her mum.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Non Fiction

Murder in the Mail: A Bloody Birthday

I received an early review copy of “Murder in the Mail” courtesy of the curator Felicity Banks, and you can hear her talk about this project in detail and interactive fiction generally on the latest episode of my podcast Lost the Plot. You can also sign up to “Murder in the Mail” yourself by checking out the Kickstarter campaign, which closes on 14 April 2018.

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“Murder in the Mail: A Bloody Birthday” by Felicity Banks is an interactive fiction series of letters, postcards, artwork, photographs and objects that are posted to you over the course of 8 weeks. You are Hachi, a university student whose cousin Naomi was murdered at her own birthday party. There were six people aside from Naomi who attended the party: you, Naomi’s mother and four art student friends from university. They all agree to send you letters and their artworks about what happened that night, and it’s up to you to interpret the clues and figure out who is the murderer.

This is a really fun, engaging way to experience a murder mystery. As a reviewer, I received nearly all the parcels in one hit and I was racing through them to find out more information and read more clues. However, I think stretching them out over 8 weeks would be even better way to experience the anticipation and intrigue of what is coming next. The other benefit to stretching it out is the opportunity to discuss your theories on the messageboard with other readers between installments.

The story itself was really enjoyable. I love a puzzle, and I really liked the twists and turns and how each character’s motives and idiosyncrasies emerged over time. There are plenty of red herrings and plenty of interesting social issues jammed into this story, and it’s quite incredible how invested I became in the characters over each installment of the story. The artworks are a great touch to bring life to the story and to give the characters and extra dimension of reality. This is a great example of how a number of authors and artists can collaborate together to make something really interesting.

As I mentioned above, it’s currently only available via Kickstarter but it is an all-or-nothing project, so if it doesn’t its funding goal, you won’t get an opportunity to experience it. If you love murder mysteries and want to support local Canberra authors and artists, I really encourage you to check it out and find out what happened to Naomi.

 

 

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Filed under interactive fiction, Mystery/Thriller, Uncategorized

Orlando

For those of you who listen to my book podcast Lost the Plot, you may be aware that I have a Patreon page where listeners can sign up for different reward tiers to help keep Lost the Plot on air. There are lots of different awards, and quite frequent giveaways. However, the top tier reward is The Bookworm where you, the listener, get the singular ability to choose a book for me to review. I currently have one patron on The Bookworm tier, her name is Kendall, and she nominated this book for me.

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“Orlando” by Virgina Woolf, is a book that really cannot be boxed neatly into a genre. Part love letter, part historical fiction, part magic realism, part gender exposé – none of these categories on their own quite do the novel justice. The story is about a young man called Orlando who grows up in a wealthy family in Elizabethan England. Both energetic and whimsical, Orlando has a number of love affairs and secretly longs to be a poet. However, after his heart is broken by a Russian princess, and a number of other social setbacks, Orlando flees England to work as Ambassador to Turkey. However, once there, Orlando undergoes a mysterious change and his – or her – life is never the same.

My first thought upon reading this book was how intricate and complex it is. This book is steeped with so much meaning, that it has pages upon pages of footnotes at the back to explain the personal significance of each of Woolf’s references. I’m not sure if it’s a testimony to the kinds of books I’ve been reading recently or a symptom of modern writing, but it has been a long time since I have read a book that felt like every single word was a deliberate choice. The writing really is spectacular and if you’re looking for inspiration for beautiful writing, you really can look no further than Woolf.

My second thought is that this is a deeply intimate book. There’s something almost voyeuristic about reading this book, because it makes the reader examine in minute detail the character of Orlando, who is modelled on Woolf’s friend and lover Vita Sackville-West. This makes it, thematically, a fascinating story about sexuality and gender. The introduction by Sandra M. Gilbert sheds further light on this by explaining that distinctions between being a lesbian and being transgender in the 1920s were much blurrier than they are today.

However, although it is an intricate and compelling book, it is not a perfect book and there were a few things that grated on me. First of all, you can tell it nearly 100 years old because the opening sentences include flippantly racist violence. Woolf describes a decapitated ‘Moor‘ and uses far, far worse terms at certain points throughout the novel and it was a pretty appalling way to start a book.

Another issue for me was less about inappropriate content and more about plot and pace. I think perhaps because this book is so closely modeled on the life and family history of Woolf’s lover, there was some sacrificing when it came to the book’s plot. The story meanders through the ages, more a comment on the societies of Vita’s various ancestors than a cohesive story. In fact, because there were so many footnotes in my edition explaining each reference to something in Woolf’s or Vita’s life, it took me quite a while to get through this book because I kept flipping back to read each note.

Ultimately though, this is a beautifully-written, intimate and insightful novel that says a lot about society then and now. What it lacks in story arc, it makes up for with language.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Classics