I received this book as part of a work Kris Kringle. As Christmas was drawing near, I thought it was just the time to read it (even if this review is a little belated). Proceeds from sales go towards cancer research and none of the authors were paid, so it was definitely a book bought for a good cause.
“Dear Santa” edited by Samuel Johnson OAM and illustrated by Shaun Tan is a collection of letters by many well-known Australians addressed, of course, to Santa. With the likes of Leigh Sales, Helen Garner, Deborah Mailman, Missy Higgins and Shaun Micallef, each of the 68 contributors revisits the Santa of their childhoods through the eyes of an adult. Some letters are long, some are succinct, some are cynical, some are hopeful, some are downright desperate. Many seek the basics of sleep or the simplicity of sweets. Many call for bigger gifts like world peace, a treaty and relief from the drought.
This is a lovely little book that would make a brilliant Christmas coffee table book. Although ostensibly about Santa, it takes thoughts from a broad selection of Australians on the state of the country, where we’ve come from and where we are heading. Definitely aimed at an older audience, there are plenty of witticisms and astute observations peppered throughout.
This book probably lends itself more to flicking through or picking up and reading at random than it does reading from cover to cover. I sat down one evening with a gin and tonic and dark chocolate and did exactly that, and after a while the letters start to blur together a little (it wasn’t the gin, I swear).
Nevertheless, a lovely seasonal book for an excellent cause. Keep an eye out for next Christmas.
Collection of illustrated short stories of reimagined fairy tales
If you listen to my podcast Lost the Plot, you may recall that I spoke to this author some time ago about her plans to run a crowdfunding campaign to publish her feminist fairy tales. Very excitingly, the campaign was successful. Even more excitingly, the campaign reached almost five times the original goal which meant that the book included four more fairy tales than originally anticipated. I received my copy late last year, and I couldn’t wait to read it.
“The Adventurous Princess and Other Feminist Fairy Tales” by Erin-Claire Barrow is a collection of illustrated short stories inspired by traditional fairy tales and reimagined from a feminist perspective. Barrow takes on some familiar stories such as Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast and Snow White as well as some lesser known ones like Allerleirauh and The Goose Girl. Each story features a diverse cast and an empowering twist on the original plot of the stories.
The absolute highlight of this book is without a doubt the illustrations. Barrow’s striking and whimsical watercolours bring the stories to life and reinforce the image of diverse women at the centre of these classic tales. Barrow’s women are ethnically diverse, queer, disabled, older, larger, young and gender non-conforming. Barrow’s women have jobs, dreams and callings but most importantly, they have agency. They make their own decisions and when they ask for help, it is from a place of strength rather than weakness. The stories themselves are succinct and accessible, and girls and women of any age can enjoy them. I particularly liked the shorter stories that turn stereotypes on their heads and bring otherwise ridiculous stories to a satisfying ending.
Quite a few people have reimagined fairy tales, including, famously, Roald Dahl in his “Revolting Rhymes” and increasingly in Disney films. What is different about this book is that it is not just about empowering conventionally beautiful straight women, it is about representing women from all backgrounds. I think that the only additional woman I would have liked to have seen is a trans woman, and I look forward to seeing future illustrations and stories from Barrow.
An accessible and inclusive take on traditional fairy tales that can be enjoyed by readers of all ages.
Buy a copy directly from the author’s website.
Second book in children’s fantasy series “Nevermore”
If you haven’t read the first book, skip this review because there will be spoilers.
I read the first book in this series some time ago, and although I felt that it wasn’t so unique as to be mindblowing, it was nevertheless an enjoyable read. When the second book came out recently, I thought I’d give it a go.
“Wundersmith: The Calling of Morrigan Crow” by Jessica Townsend is a children’s fantasy novel and the second book in the “Nevermoor” series. The story picks up shortly after Morrigan has been accepted into the Wundrous Society after completing a number of trials. One of nine new members in unit 919, each is bound to keep Morrigan’s secret: that she is a wundersmith. A powerful wielder of magic feared by the citizens of Nevermoor. Unfortunately, as a result, Morrigan is excluded from all classes except for the history of catastrophes caused by other wundersmiths before her. Soon, with citizens of Nevermoor disappearing, Morrigan becoming more and more isolated and letters threatening to expose unit 919’s secret unless each member participates in a nigh impossible tasks, it is seeming less and less likely that Morrigan will every truly be a member of the Wundrous Society.
I actually enjoyed this book quite a bit more than the first one. I felt like Townsend has hit her stride and plot-wise, this book was interesting and cohesive. I enjoyed how she kept several mysteries going at once, and wove in what Morrigan was learning about the city of Nevermoor seamlessly into the solutions. I also felt that the worldbuilding was stronger in this book, and I felt that I was starting to get much more of a sense of Nevermore and how the world works. As miffed as Morrigan was about the history lessons, it was an ingenious way to round out some of the context of why the people of Nevermore are so frightened of Wundersmiths. I also enjoyed the trisky lanes and learning a bit about the geography of Nevermoor. Finally, I thought that Townsend’s exploration of good and evil was much stronger in this book with as many twists and turns as the tricksy lanes themselves.
Although I did think that this book was stronger than the previous, I did occasionally feel that sometimes this book was quirky for the sake of being quirky. I also felt that, although it wasn’t as the first book, this book does still borrow a lot of themes from other young fantasy books I have read. There were still quite a few tropes, but I do feelt that this series is starting to come into its own.
An engaging book that picks up where the first left off and lifts the story to a new level.
Wundersmith: The Calling of Morrigan Crow: Nevermoor 2
Fictionella about lost rocks and finding your heritage
A while ago I caught wind of a very intriguing project: a collection of fictionellas, each constructed around one of forty rocks missing from a rock board found in a tip shop in Tasmania. This project resonated a lot with me. I come from a family of geophysicists, and while I am not overly passionate about minerals, my father did buy me a little rock board of my own from Tasmania which I have kept since I was very small (and have only lost two rocks). Anyway, while I am not passionate about rocks I certainly am about books so when the campaign started, I knew I had to order one.
“Crocoite” by Margaret Woodward is a fictionella about a young woman called H who decides to retrace the steps of Tasmanian prospectors past and search for crocoite and the remnants of a lost town. H’s exploration in the chapters Wood and Prospect is interrupted by correspondence from a certain F Heazlewood in the 1870s that makes up the chapter Trace. The the book is interspersed with black and white photography, most particularly at the end of the last chapter Wood where H reflects on her heritage.
This is an intriguing little book that appears to tread a fine line between fact and fiction. It is certainly a celebration of the natural beauty of the Tasmanian landscape, but with more depth than average. Having grown up among people interested in the minerals exposed to the air and hidden beneath our feet, I found it to be a warm story that gentle examines questions of history, identity, place and heritage. I also enjoyed the idiosyncratic font that links certain letters together (which, I have discovered, is called ligature).
As this is a fictionella, and necessarily short in length as well as scope, there are of course limits to what can be included. However, I think that for other books in the series, I would like to see some discussion (especially by the people themselves) of the Aboriginal Tasmanian experience and how some of those stories could be woven into the Lost Rocks project.
A lovely little book that is part of a fascinating project, I’m keen to collect more. They are all limited print though and I believe this one may already be sold out, so don’t delay if you want to get one.
Canberra-based short stories for young and old
If you listen to my podcast Lost the Plot, you might remember me speaking to this particular author back in Episode 25 about short stories. More recently, I helped to launch his latest collection of short stories in a live podcast event. While I had read quite a few, and listened to more on his podcast, I thought it was high time that I finished reading both collections and sat down to review them.
“Capital Yarns Volume 1” and “Capital Yarns Volume 2” by Sean Costello are two collections of shorts stories based in and around Canberra. Each story is constructed around three objects nominated by friends, family and members of the public which are highlighted in bold text. The stories range in theme, some more playful, some darker, some tackling modern social issues. In the second volume, printed in a slightly different format, the stories are arranged by age group and grow progressively more serious as the book goes on.
A Canberran born and bred, Costello’s love for the city permeates the pages of each book. Clearly a keen people-watcher, Costello brings to life stories of ordinary Canberrans in some well-known and not-so-well-known parts of Australia’s often derided but increasingly cosmopolitan capital city. Costello pokes fun at some of the stereotypes of Canberra including its politicians and its hipsters, but importantly his satire is always aimed at privilege and he never punches down. Costello makes a clear effort to showcase the diversity of Canberrans and some of my favourite stories are decoding the opposite sex and how i met your grandfather in Volume 1 and hey sister and delusions of grandeur in Volume 2.
Like many authors, I think Costello starts to hit his stride a little more in Volume 2 and I felt that the arrangement by age group lent an overall cohesiveness to the book that wasn’t quite there with Volume 1. I also felt that the stories in Volume 2 were a bit stronger overall and were perhaps a little less about issues, places and things were instead more driven by plot and characters.
Two lovely collections of heartfelt stories filled with Canberra pride that you can experience for yourself in written or audio format on Costello’s website.
Historical fantasy retelling of classic fairy tale
Content warning: family violence, disability
It’s no secret that I adore Juliet Marillier and her beautiful and whimsical historical fantasy novels. I generally try to space them out, but I am getting towards the end of all the books she’s written (so far), so it has been a while since I have picked one up. Anyway, approaching the end of the year, I was in dire need for a comfort read, and I was very eager to give this standalone novel a go.
“Heart’s Blood” by Juliet Marillier is a historical fantasy novel that reimagines the classic story of “Beauty and the Beast“. The story follows a young woman called Caitrin who is on the run from her abusive family home. Trained as a scribe, when she hears of a job vacancy at the mysterious fortress known as Whistling Tor, locals warn her against it and the disfigured chieftain called Anluan. However when Caitrin arrives, she finds that fear of the known is far worse than fear of the unknown and soon settles into the strange rhythm of the household. While she attempts a seemingly insurmountable task that others before her have failed, she discovers that ugliness is often much more than skin deep.
Marillier, as always, gently coaxes into life sensitive and well-considered characters who overcome hardship and find strength and comfort in one-another. Marillier’s book are and continue to be incredibly inclusive and tackle modern issues through a historical lens. Although this is not the first book of hers with a character with a disability, this book is the first book of hers I have read that really explores the issue of family violence. I thought that she handled Caitrin’s experiences, and the toll they took on her self-esteem and identity, very adeptly and drew out the issues of vulnerability and courage for both Caitrin and Anluan very well. I also really liked that Marillier again made a main character with a disability someone who is capable and desirable.
However, this wasn’t my favourite of Marillier’s books. The plot twist about the true nature of the evil at Whistling Tor I saw coming a mile away, and I felt like a large proportion of the book was spent waiting for the ending I knew was on its way. While I did fully respect that Marillier incorporated themes of family violence into her book, I felt that it could have been a little less distant relatives come take advantage and a little more close to home like unfortunately so many domestic violence stories are. I also felt a little that the way that part of the story is resolved got a bit Jane Eyre towards the end with a bit of deus ex machina in the form of a cart of people going by at just the right time.
Regardless, this is a sweet and enjoyable story and a unique retelling of a classic fairy tale. I read this book in no time at all, and look forward to the next Marillier book I tackle.
Memoir about growing up as an only child in post-war Europe
The first I heard of this book was when I went to go see the author speak at the National Library of Australia. As someone from a large family, I have always been a bit curious about the dynamics of a family with only one child, and so I bought a myself a copy and got it signed by the author.
“Only” by Caroline Baum is a memoir about growing up as an only child with two European parents in England. With Caroline’s successful businessman father an Austrian refugee from the war and her beautiful mother an orphan from tragic circumstances, her elegant yet traumatised parents raise her in an affluent home full of tension and high expectations. As a young adult, the controlled and isolated environment of her childhood becomes stifling and Caroline begins to forge her own life. However, as her relationship with her parents turns increasingly fractious as they age, Caroline finally severs ties with her parents. Resuming contact years later after a tentative olive branch, Caroline soon finds that her relationship with her parents is forever changed.
This is a beautifully written book that weaves together the many themes experienced by this small but complex family. Baum explores the deep and lasting impact of her parents’ trauma on her family’s unique dynamic, and throughout the book struggles to reconcile with her father’s controlling behaviour against his extreme vulnerability as an older man. Baum is very cognizant of her family’s privilege and her recollections of her extraordinary upbringing are tempered with an awareness that the dinners, schools, clothes and travel were not opportunities available to many people. I also really enjoyed Baum’s recollections of her early days as a journalist, which honestly would have made a great memoir in its own right.
I think the one thing that I felt was missing was a bit more information about Baum’s life in Australia. I think that with any memoir, it’s hard to know what to include and what to exclude. This is a book about being an only child, but I would have liked to have read more about what it is like to be an only child living in another country away from your parents.
A fascinating insight into an elite and insular post-war family, I enjoyed this book and I look forward to reading more of Baum’s work.