Category Archives: Australian Books

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

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”.

Second Picture

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

Vasilisa the Wise and Tales of Other Brave Young Women

Illustrated retelling of seven European fairy-tales

As I mentioned recently, it was December and I was struggling to meet my 2019 Goodreads Reading Challenge goal of 80 books. I attended my book club‘s Christmas party, we played a small but savage game of Dirty Santa where the prizes were books (of course) and this was the one that I won. Obviously I was thrilled because it is Kate Forsyth, who is incidentally the author of the second book I ever reviewed on this blog. It was also, fortuitously, very short which meant that I had a reasonable chance of squeezing it in before the end of the year.

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“Vasilisa the Wise and Other Tales of Brave Young Women” by Kate Forsyth and illustrated by Lorena Carrington is a collection of European fairy-tale retellings. There are seven stories, each of them featuring a resilient, courageous and ingenious woman who must overcome adversity in her own way.

This is a really enjoyable collection of stories, not least of which because they are all lesser-known stories. Forsyth has chosen tales from the UK, France, Germany, Norway and Russia and despite considering myself relatively well-read when it comes to fairy-tales each of these was brand new to me. Forsyth preserves traditional themes and settings, including romance, but imbues her heroines with rather more agency and gumption than was often seen. I really liked the sisters in Katie Crackernuts, the snake story of A Bride for Me Before a Bride for You, and the unusual kingdom in The Toy Princess.

Carrington brings a unique illustrative style using silhouettes and layers to help the reader visualise the interplay between light and dark which is so prevalent a theme in fairy-tales. I particularly enjoyed the objects on shelves in The Toy Princess.

A beautiful, original collection of stories suitable for all ages and especially for collectors of fairy-tales.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Fantasy, Graphic Novels, Short Stories

The Harp of Kings

Historical Celtic fantasy novel 

Content warning: family violence

After somewhat of a writing hiatus, one of my favourite authors has come back with force, and I was thrilled to find out she was releasing a new trilogy of novels. Taking advantage of Christmas sales, I picked up a copy from Harry Hartog and couldn’t wait to read it. I’ve also been inspired to make a Spotify playlist that you might like to listen to while reading this review.

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My partner and I both have Irish heritage, and he received this beautiful bodhrán from his parents, and I the exquisite silver bookmark, after they visited Ireland a couple of years ago

“The Harp of Kings” by Juliet Marillier is the first book in her new “Warrior Bards” historical fantasy series. Set some 20 years after the events of “Blackthorn and Grim“, with connections to elements of the “Sevenwaters Series“, the story is about singer and musician Liobhan who is training with her brother Brocc to be an elite warrior on Swan Island. Liobhan has a rivalry with another young recruit called Dau and all three trainees are surprised when they are asked to go on an undercover mission on the mainland to recover a lost harp. Given new names, backstories and personalities, Liobhan, Brocc and Dau must not falter. With court intrigue, secluded druids and the possibility of otherworldly interference, any wrong step could put the mission, and the kingdom, into jeopardy.

It will surprise nobody that I adored this book. This is Marillier at her finest, and this book blends new characters and themes with familiar places. In particular, Marillier explores the lifelong impact of growing up as a child subjected to family violence, and in particular violence from siblings. Liobhan is a great leading character who has the moxie of Liadan in “The Son of Shadows” but exceptional strength, fighting ability and musical talent. However, Liadan is headstrong and must balance her ambitions, prejudices and integrity to make the right decision. I also loved Dau’s story arc, and how Marillier introduces him as seemingly a one-dimensional character whose courage and depth is explored in depth as he must allow himself to become vulnerable.

Although I loved this book, I have to say that of the three point of view characters, I was probably invested in Brocc’s story the least. I think this is possibly due to him being the most passive character in the book. While this does make sense given the plot, I did find myself looking forward to Liobhan and Dau’s chapters much more.

A fantastic beginning to the series, I can’t wait for the second. Knowing Marillier, there is undoubtedly a lot still in store!

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Fantasy, Historical Fiction

Myrren’s Gift

Medieval fantasy novel about a curse and revenge

Content warning: sexual violence, sexism

This was a set book for my feminist fantasy book club. I have a few books by this author on my shelves, in a couple of different genres, but had never read any books of her books, including from this series. I downloaded an eBook version and settled in to read.

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“Myrren’s Gift” by Fiona McIntosh is a medieval fantasy novel about a teenager called Wyl Thirsk who becomes the General of his country Morgravia’s army, following in his father’s footsteps. Although loyal to King Magnus, there has always been tension between Wyl and the crown prince Celimus. When Celimus forces young Wyl to watch the torture and execution of an accused witch, Wyl steps in to try to reduce her suffering. The result is a magical gift that is both a blessing and a curse. When Wyl and those closest to him are betrayed, this terrible gift may prove to be the answer to saving Morgravia from certain destruction.

This is a classic heroic fantasy novel where the fate of the land weighs on the shoulders of a young man. I think probably the most compelling thing about this novel is the tiny amount of magic: Wyl’s life-changing new ability. Without going into too much detail, the very few times in the novel where this was explored in depth were the most interesting parts. There were some interactions between Wyl and other characters that cast this magic into relief, but I did feel that the premise (which almost certainly is explored in greater depth in later novels in the series) wasn’t explored enough in this book.

Unfortunately, there were far, far more things that bothered me about this novel than made it enjoyable. I don’t think it’s possible to talk about “Myrren’s Gift” without talking about violence against women. The society conjured by McIntosh is inherently a sexist one. Women are without a doubt second class citizens considered valuable only for their marriageability. Sexual violence against women was so prolific in the early chapters that I kept count: Myrren was sexually assault by guards and a lord, was sexually harassed prior to being tortured and again by the prince. The king raped his own wife twice.

In fact, it wasn’t until I got to page 1,179 of 1,317 that two women actually spoke to each other about something other than a man – and it was two women discussing how the princess looked like she was in heat. The princess wasn’t great either, to be honest. She was meant to be a tomboy who was “too skinny” with “boyish hips” but also incredibly attractive in that typical early 2000s way. I was really disappointed that McIntyre didn’t give her any more agency than enjoying horse-riding. Valentyna had so much potential, but she just ended up hiding in the woods with a male child, waiting for the hero to save her. I wasn’t particularly happy with the way Wyl was depicted either. There is quite the song and dance about how he isn’t conventionally handsome, and how much more value other characters have simply because of their good looks and height.

I also have to say something about the editing. I’m not sure if this was the case in the original paperback, but the eBook I bought had some serious issues with repetitiveness. For example:

Ancient law requires that the victim be burned wearing the samarra, which was believed to entrap evil humours emanating from the witch’s flesh.

Morgravian law required that the victim be burned wearing the samarrs which would trap the evil humours.

And:

“I just have a strange feeling that Gueryn will be preserved for the one reason that it might bring Koreldy back to Cailech’s fortress”

“Then if Gueryn is alive – and I choose to believe he is – I think he will remain a prisoner of Cailech for no other task than to entice Caliech’s enemy back”.

Ultimately, although the concept is a really interesting one, the amount of sexism and tautology that you have to wade through for the tantalising scraps of magic don’t quite seem worth it. While I understand that the magic gets explored in more depth in the sequels, I’m just not convinced that I’ve been hooked enough to continue with this series.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Fantasy

The Blue Rose

Historical fiction about botany and the French Revolution

Quite some time ago, when I was doing the ACT Literary Bloggers of the Future program (now renamed New Territory), I went along to see Kate Forsyth speak at the National Library of Australia. Afterwards, as I wrote in my blog post, Forsyth kindly did some book signings and when I showed her my name on a scrap of paper, she liked it enough that she wrote it down. She said that she was working on a book about a Welsh gardner, who perhaps might have a sister. She asked me what I liked, and I hurriedly said books and bunnies, and I left fervently hoping that this time I might have a character named after me. She did not disappoint.

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“The Blue Rose” by Kate Forsyth is a historical fiction novel about Viviane, the daughter of a Marquis who lives in a chateau in Brittany, France. Viviane grows up isolated, with no friends but the servants she is told not to socialise with, while her father lives at the court of Louis XVI. That is, until her father hires a gardener from Wales called David to rebuild the chateau’s gardens. David and Viviane immediately connect, but when Viviane’s father returns, David is chased away and Viviane believes he is gone forever. She is soon married off and sent to be a maid-in-waiting to Marie-Antoinette, but with unrest increasing in Paris, Viviane’s survival is far from guaranteed.

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I saw Forsyth speak again at Harry Hartog last year, and it was fascinating to listen to her discuss how research into her family’s history and a lifelong love of roses led her to research the first scarlet rose imported into France at the beginning of the French Revolution. Unsurprisingly, this line of inquiry led to a well-researched novel that covers a very well documented time in French history, but from a lesser-known perspective. Although Viviane is part of the French nobility, instead of great loss the Revolution ultimately brings freedom from the absolute patriarchy she lives under. For all her naiveté, she is sweet, resourceful and believable. Meanwhile David, a self-made man from a humble background, must learn temperance and patience if he is going to find success.

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Pulling back the curtain for a second, these are the conditions in Canberra right now

Although a medium size novel, it is one of significant geographic scale. Forsyth takes the reader from rural to urban France, and then from France to China – the home of the ancestor to most of today’s roses. Forsyth is also well-known for her fairy tales and fantasy, and draws upon a story about an impossible rose as a loose framework as well as a parable told within the novel. While David’s time in China is brief, Forsyth’s own travels and studies into the ill-fated British trading trip give fascinating insight into how diplomatic encounters unfolded in the 1700s.

This is a very ambitious book that covers a lot of ground during a tumultuous period of history, and at times I felt that the romance aspect of the novel got a little lost.  Viviane and David are in fact separated for the majority of the book. While it does feel like it is mostly Viviane’s story anyway, and I understand the narrative significance of David going off to seek his fortune while Viviane’s is all but taken from her, there wasn’t a lot of space left for relationship development. It is a complex and sophisticated book that I felt needed a tiny bit more of a central theme to tie everything together.

An important piece of historical fiction that brings together two key pieces of history. Having a character named after me was just a bonus.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Historical Fiction

Beautiful

Audiobook retelling of Nordic fairy tale 

I am a Juliet Marillier tragic, and I was so excited to hear that she had a new audiobook coming out, and was even more thrilled when I won a copy on Audible in a contest! To win, I had to share which fairy tale I would most like to see retold from a unique perspective, and I said Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Red Shoes” because (like many of his fairy tales) I always felt the punishment was disproportionate to the crime. Anyway, I had recently joined the gym and I decided to waste no time and start listening during my next workout. I had listened for about 5 minutes while I was on the stair-climber (or something equally painful), when I laughed aloud because I realised that I had just read this story very, very recently.

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“Beautiful” by Juliet Marillier and narrated by Gemma Dawson is a retelling of the Nordic fairy tale “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” about Hulde, a princess who lives in a palace at the top of a glass mountain. Her mother, the queen, rules over Hulde and the palace servants with an iron fist. Hulde is told from a young age that her destiny is to marry the most beautiful man in the world. The only friend Hulde has is a white bear called Rune who comes to visit, and who shows her kindness and takes the time to teach her about the world. However, when he leaves, Hulde is left with more questions than answers about her future. When her wedding day arrives, her life is turned upside down and she finally has the opportunity to make her own destiny.

This book was an absolute delight. I have never been so motivated to go to the gym as I was to hear the next part of this story. There are so many wonderful parts to this book that I kind of don’t want to tell you about for fear of spoiling the joy of discovering them for yourself. Hulde is a brilliant, complex protagonist whose physical, emotional and perhaps even magical strength helps her to overcome the many challenges she is faced with. Marillier does a wonderful job showing Hulde’s journey from naive, innocent girl to fully-realised woman. In this story, problems aren’t solved by violence or trickery, but rather with patience, kindness and courage. I’m still smiling about the companions Hulde meets along the way, and the thrill of finding out the romantic direction the book took. I would also like to mention that I quite enjoyed Dawson’s narration, and felt that she captured Hulde’s innocence and strength really well while also creating distinct voices for the different characters.

I think the only thing that people may find frustrating about this story is that quite a lot of the book is about her learning things that the reader likely takes for granted and making mistakes that the reader likely feels are easily avoidable. Hulde is very young in spirit, and while this means that she has a lot of character development, there is a fair amount of time taken up by people explaining things to her. However, I do think that this is a necessary part of the story as Hulde navigates issues like power, independence, kindness and love.

I simply adored this story and if anything was going to get me to the gym, it was the prospect of listening to this.

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Filed under Audiobooks, Australian Books, Book Reviews, Fantasy