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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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Opioid, Indiana

Novel about disadvantage and coming of age

Content warning: drugs, mental illness, suicide

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

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“Opioid, Indiana” by Brian Allen Carr is a novel about 17 year old Riggle who ends up living with his uncle in a rural Indiana town in Trump’s America after his parents have died. When Riggle is accused of having a marijuana vape pen, he is suspended from school for 5 days. Careful to conserve his mobile phone data and avoid his uncle’s wrath, Riggle tries to think of what to do for the week. However, when his uncle’s girlfriend tells him that his uncle is missing, he realises that if they can’t come up with the $800 rent that’s due, they’re going to have nowhere to live. So starts 5 days of Riggle looking for his uncle, finding work, meeting locals and chatting with Remote, a shadow puppet his mother introduced him to who explained how the days of the week got their name.

This is an engrossing book that explores a number of issues that continue to impact disadvantaged rural areas under the leadership of President Donald Trump. Poverty, drug addiction, grief, depression, suicide, lack of job opportunity, lack of housing security, mental illness, gun violence, school shootings and Confederate flags all take their toll on Riggle. However, I found him to be a really warm and interesting character despite the significant amount of hardship he had endured, not least of which was losing both his parents.

Very few books about orphans deal with the trauma of parents dying in a meaningful way, and I felt that Carr’s use of Remote as both a comforting remnant of childhood as well as a lens through which Riggle sees the world as inspired. Other things that his mother taught him, such as making an omelette, end up opening doors for Riggle that he didn’t even know were there. I also thought that Carr introduced an intriguing bit of unreliability into Riggle’s story when he begins to notice people making a particular shape with their hands that looks like Remote, suggesting that Riggle is unconsciously seeking meaning in a world that makes no sense.

There are a lot of themes woven through this book, and one that I think I would have like a little more developed is Riggle’s friendship with Bennet. Bennet, an easygoing biracial character with a loving yet strict mother, draws out an sense of intimacy from Riggle. However, given how important friendships are during times of difficulty, and given the distance from Riggle’s only other friend, I think I would have liked to have seen this friendship developed a little more.

A well-constructed and unique novel, I’m surprised it hasn’t received more acclaim.

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McSexy

Racy romance set in Ghana

Content warning: sexual themes

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

“McSexy” by Sianah Nalika DeShield is a romance novel set in Ghana about playboy millionaire Mike Frimpong and PhD candidate and children’s book author Lily Annah. Although Mike has everything, all the important people in his life keep nagging him to settle down, marry and have children. With his masculinity called into question, Mike accepts a bet that he will have a baby before the year is out. After making the bet, he meets the beautiful, intellectual Lily and sparks fly immediately. However, Lily’s family is experiencing serious financial problems and she secretly applies to an advertisement for a very unconventional job.

This is a fun, light-hearted novel full of drama and with an outrageous premise. DeShield is fearless when it comes to pushing her characters to extremes for comedic effect. However, even though it certainly had a much different tone, this book reminds me a little of “Letting Go” where the success of the characters is a given, but their ability to form and maintain relationships is the area in which they struggle. I particularly liked Lily because even though she has academic and writing success, she doesn’t yet have financial success, which created some interesting class tensions in the book.

However, I think it needs to be clear that this is not a serious book and both Mike and Lily are ultimate Mary Sues and in particular, Mike’s sexual prowess and financial acumen beggars belief at some points. Although an enthusiastic writer, DeShield does a fair bit of telling rather than showing and there were points where felt she could have dialed the description back a little and relied a bit more on suggestion, such as during the sex scenes.

A fun and entertaining story, that is a refreshing take on the romance genre.

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The Devil’s Apprentice

Young adult novel about a good boy accidentally going to hell

Content warning: religion, suicide

Note: I have made some edits to this review following a conversation with the author

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author. As it turned out, the author is Danish and I managed to read this while I was travelling in Denmark.

“The Devil’s Apprentice” by Kenneth B. Andersen and translated by K. E. Semmel is a young adult novel about a young teen called Philip who is bullied relentlessly by a classmate. Despite being thoughtful and kind, after a terrible accident, Philip finds himself in hell by mistake. It quickly appears that the Devil is ailing, and while trying to secure the perfect heir for the future of Hell, he ends up with the angelic Philip instead. However, despite Philip’s naivete and strong moral compass, he finds Hell is beginning to grow on him.

This is a book with an interesting question: can innately good kid can learn to be bad? Andersen creates a hell with two castes: demons who live and work there, and human souls who are there to be punished. Philip primarily engages with the demons of Hell, befriending them while they encourage him in his studies to become evil. I like that although Philip seemed to struggle socially on Earth, he managed to befriend a lot of people in Hell. Andersen spends a lot of time exploring friendship, and exploring what it means to be good and evil.

Now, compared to a similar book I read previously where Hell is a hotter, more crowded and more bureaucratic version of Earth where you still have to go to work and pay bills, this book’s version of Hell is more inspired by traditional Christian beliefs, and Philip regularly passes non-demon residents of Hell, known as the condemned, who are trapped in eternal torment of varying types depending on their particular sins.

One thing that was pretty confronting to me was several references to people who had committed suicide being subjected to eternal torment for “taking the easy way out”. Since discussing this issue with the author, he has clarified to me that the intention was only meant to refer to people seeking to escape the ramifications of crimes against humanity on earth. However, this is not entirely clear in the English translation, so I would recommend bearing that in mind while reading.

An interesting exploration of good and evil with universal messages about friendship, bullying, acceptance and agency.

If you are experiencing thoughts of suicide, are feeling overwhelmed or have lost someone to suicide, please contact Lifeline (13 11 14) if you are in Australia, or your local crisis service if you are in another country. 

If you wish to learn about suicide intervention, I would strongly recommend the LivingWorks ASIST course (https://www.lifeline.org.au/get-help/topics/preventing-suicide) and Mental Health First Aid training.  

 

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Malibu Motel

Cautionary tale about a lottery-winner’s fall from grace

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

“Malibu Motel” by Chaunceton Bird is a novel styled as being based on the true story of a lottery-winner. The story follows Caish Calloway, living the high life in California happily spending their winnings on partying, property and cars and investing in ventures that go nowhere. When Caish hears about a particular opportunity, they are quick to invest and when the returns are good, Caish invests more. If it sounds too good to be true, it is, and Caish soon finds themselves with only a few million of their winnings left. Enough for most people to live on for the rest of their lives, Caish is in denial and refuses to abandon their life as a high-flier. Convinced that another win is just around the corner, Caish soon begins a slow slide into chaos, bringing many people down along with them.

This is a really interesting story about a unique but not impossible premise: how do you live your life after you win the lottery? Bird creates a character full of hubris who sees the win not as luck but as destiny and something that was earned through hard work and perseverance. However, Caish’s overconfidence and entitlement is ultimately their downfall and Bird explores how capitalism, materialism and even religion play a part in Caish’s undoing. One thing that Bird really excelled at was dramatic irony, and the audience can see Caish’s mistakes coming a mile a way. Bird also explores the mental gymnastics Caish performs to absolve themselves of any personal responsibility for their failings whatsoever. Anyone reading this will immediately be reminded of a Caish that they know. I really enjoyed that Bird added to the mystery and the universality of the story by withholding many of the personal attributes of his characters, in particular gender.

Without giving too much away, at the end of the book there are copies of official documents with identifiable information redacted. Initially I was a bit uncomfortable with them included, because I felt that it may have crossed the line into invading someone’s privacy by sharing such intimate information. However, I since read that Bird’s inspiration was actually another person which I think explains the strength of Caish’s characterisation. I think unfortunately in this case the thing that let the book down the most was the proof-reading.

Like a train wreck you can’t look away from, this is an immersive book about human folly that should absolutely be read while listening to this song.

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The Ice Palace

Norwegian literary novel about a missing schoolgirl

Content warning: missing child

While on my trip to Northern Europe, I wanted to read a book from every country I visited. This book is hailed as a Norwegian classic, and I was keen to try something a bit different to Scandi Noir.

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“The Ice Palace” by Tarjei Vesaas and translated by Elizabeth Rokkan is a literary novel about a young girl called Siss who meets a new girl in school just as winter is setting in at her small Norwegian town – freezing the river solid. Although Unn is much more reserved than popular Siss, Siss is nevertheless drawn to her and the two girls spend an intimate evening playing together. The next day, after Unn skips school to explore a frozen waterfall, the town bands together to try and find her. One of the last to see her, Siss is grilled for answers as to where she may be. While Unn remains missing, Siss is also at risk of being lost.

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Icicles on traditional houses just outside Oslo, Norway

This is a beautiful, eerie novel that explores the intense yet fragile nature of the friendship of young girls. I don’t like to compare books too much, but it reminded me of “Picnic at Hanging Rock” and “Cat’s Eye” by Margaret Atwood. It had a similar dreamy quality juxtaposed against the sharp clarity of friendship, made all the more dramatic by the captivating yet deadly winter landscape. The opening scenes of the book with the cracking sounds of the ice in the darkness and the frozen beauty of the waterfall was mesmerising. This is quite a short book, almost a novella, and I am still haunted by it. Vesaas knows exactly how much information to give to the reader, and exactly how much to withhold. I also thought that he provides the reader with an incredible insight into the life-shattering and unresolved grief that comes with knowing someone who has gone missing.

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A waterfall on our way to Aurlandsfjord and Nærøyfjord

This was an excellent, haunting book that is an ideal novel for travelling through the spectacular scenery of Norway.

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The Priory of the Orange Tree

Epic fantasy novel about intrigue, warriors and dragons

This was the next set book for my feminist fantasy book club, and I decided to tackle it straightaway during my long flight to Europe. I bought an eBook, but the cover of the hardcopy is exquisite. So if you don’t mind deadlifting every time you turn a page (it is an enormous book), but want to buy a copy, consider the a hardcopy.

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One of our members’ beautiful table setting

“The Priory of the Orange Tree” by Samantha Shannon is an epic fantasy novel about a world split between the East and the West. In the East, where dragons are revered and wise creatures of the sea, a young girl called Tané is training to be a dragonrider. On the eve before her studies and abilities are put to the test, she discovers something forbidden and is forced to choose between herself and the law. In the West, where dragons are firebreathing wyrms who bring disease and destruction, another young woman called Ead is rising through the ranks at court in the land of Inys. Charged with protecting the devout and imperious Queen Sabran, Ead keeps her identity and her skills a secret. However, as Ead grows closer to Sabran, and attacks by assassins increase in number and ferocity, the secrets become harder to keep. Meanwhile, there is one secret that cannot be ignored: the impending return of the Nameless One.

There were lots of things that were great about this book. Ead was an incredibly enjoyable character and I loved her storyline, her character growth, her history and her abilities. I think it was pretty obvious that Shannon did too, because Ead’s story does dominate the book. I really liked the diversity of relationships, and I absolutely adored Tané’s journey towards being a dragonrider. Shannon’s writing was strong, and her worldbuilding was a creative spin on traditional dragon myths around the world. I thought the religion in Inys built around virtues and a creation story that are interpreted elsewhere in other countries was an insightful look at how Christianity has evolved and changed.

I hate to say it, because it’s a familiar gripe of mine with fantasy novels, but this book was too long. I reached the end of my patience with this book at about page 600 of its 800-odd pages. As much as I like Ead, she really did overshadow the rest of the story, and her adventures with Sabran and Inys felt much more filled-out than Tané’s journey. This may have reflected Shannon’s confidence with the subject-matter, as Tané’s part of the world was clearly modelled on countries in East Asia, whereas Ead’s story was inspired by Western European culture. In comparison, Tané’s plot felt like a very rushed deus ex machina, and across the board I felt like Shannon leaned heavily on determinism and the repeating of historical events rather than interesting moral dilemmas, ingenuity or an extremely well-thought-out plan.

I have nothing to say about young Lord Loth’s point of view chapters, they were the most dull and left almost no impression on me at all. Niclays on the other hand actively annoyed me, and his role in the books was baffling all the way up to the climax (which, after an inordinate amount of foreshadowing, was over in two chapters). He was one of the few morally ambiguous characters, but with not nearly the subtlety of Kalyba who was far more interesting. I legitimately could not understand why Laya stuck by him throughout the end. His motivations (greed and a lost lover) just did not justify his choices whatsoever, and he wasn’t much of a counterweight for either Ead or Tané, even tempered by Loth’s banal chapters. Considering he only seemed to exist to bridge the gap between East and West, I honestly would have axed Niclays altogether and invested that time into Tané’s origin story which was itself very flimsy. I also wish that Shannon had explored her fascinating giant trees a little more. Instead of developing lore, legend and how these ancient lifeforms influenced the events unfolding today, they end up being little more than plot points and I felt that the opportunity was wasted.

A book with plenty of highlights that could have used some firm culling (of Niclays).

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