Category Archives: Book Reviews

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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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

Griffin & Sabine

Interactive graphic novel about love and letters

I picked this book up goodness only knows how long ago from the Lifeline Book Fair. It was clearly a graphic novel, but it has an enigmatic front cover. I actually assumed that it was about a bird called Griffin (it is not). Given how dire things were getting for my 2019 Goodreads Reading Challenge, I decided that this book had sat on my shelf long enough.

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“Griffin & Sabine” by Nick Bantock is a graphic epistolary novel about an artist called Griffin who begins receiving mysterious postcards from a tropical island far away, written by someone called Sabine. From the outset, Sabine appears to have intimate knowledge about Griffin and his artwork, and as their correspondence becomes more and more involved, Griffin begins to wonder who she really is.

This is a stunning piece of fiction, expertly executed with illustrations, writing and even fold-out letters. Bantock is clearly a creative genius who is able to manifest two distinct voices and bring them to life with striking and original designs. Looking at the cover of this book, I had absolutely no idea what I was in for and I enjoyed every second. I was also thrilled that even though I bought it secondhand, all of the pieces were still intact and I was able to enjoy the tactile experience of lifting the longer letters out of their envelopes.

A shining example of the graphic novel genre, and a story that left me equal parts delighted and disturbed.

 

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Filed under Book Reviews, Graphic Novels, Mystery/Thriller

Jim Henson’s The Storyteller: Dragons

Graphic novel of dragon stories inspired by Jim Henson’s The Storyteller

I really enjoy graphic novels, and knowing this, my partner bought me this book quite a while ago. I’m going to be honest with you right though, there was a very particular reason why I picked up this book to read towards the end of last year. It was December, I had one month left to reach my 2019 Goodreads Reading Challenge goal of 80 books, and I was in big trouble. Whenever I find myself in this situation, there is really only one option: to read the shortest books on my to-read pile.

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I took this at The Copper Dragon, a fantasy-themed bar in Tuggeranong, ACT. Unfortunately it wasn’t open, but I really want to visit! 

“Jim Henson’s The Storyteller: Dragons” is a graphic novel with stories and art by Daniel Bayliss, Nathan Pride, Hannah Christenson and Jorge Corona with some script and colours by Fabian Rangel Jr., Cassie Kelly and Jen Hickman. There are four stories told in the style of the television series: Son of the Serpent, The Worm of LambtonAlbina and Samurai’s Sacrifice. Each explores the well-known theme of dragon and hero in different cultural and gender contexts.

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Also speak of dragons, my city currently has a fire right next to it and I took this immediately after taking the photo above

I think my favourite of the stories is the first, Son of the Serpent. Daniel Bayliss, a graphic novelist and artist from Mexico, draws on mythology and graphic art from native cultures of North America, and his bold, colourful designs are breathtaking.

Probably one thing that made this book a little hard for me was that I actually had never watched Jim Henson’s The Storyteller. Each of the stories is clearly inspired by the format of the television show, with the dog interjecting while the Storyteller tells a tale, and it felt like there were quite a few in-jokes that went over my head. The art on the front cover is gorgeous, but unfortunately it didn’t reflect any of the stories within, and I wasn’t as captivated by the other three as I was the first.

A fun graphic novel for nostalgic fans of the TV show (or of dragons) but might miss the mark for graphic novel aficionados.

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Filed under 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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