Category Archives: Pretty Books

These are all my posts about books that have exceptionally nice covers or particularly fancy editions that I have found.

The Rabbit Back Literature Society

I can’t remember where I got this book from. Maybe the Canberra Lifeline Book Fair? Wherever it came from, I know exactly why I chose it. It has a gorgeous cover design with blue metallic lettering and any book title with the word “rabbit” in it is always going to hook me instantly.

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“The Rabbit Back Literature Society” by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen and translated from the Finnish by Lola M. Rogers is a magic realism novel about a woman called Ella who has returned to her hometown Rabbit Back to live with her parents. Reeling from a bad breakup and not fully equipped to deal with her father’s deteriorating health, Ella tries to focus on marking high school papers on literature. However, when she is given a copy of “Crime and Punishment” with a different ending after accusing a student of cheating, the book leads her to the Rabbit Back library. From there, she finds herself more and more drawn into the secretive and wildly successful lives of members of ‘the Society’, and the mysterious Laura White behind it.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Jääskeläinen has a piercing and intimate style of writing that is utterly engrossing. The characters, power plays, intrigue and history of Rabbit Back were endlessly fascinating and the story keeps you guessing the entire way through. Ella starts out seeming like a bit of a lightweight, but Jääskeläinen brings a lot of depth to her character and I enjoyed watching her unfurl in different and unexpected ways. I also really liked the other characters and their complicated relationships with each other. There is a lot going on in this book and it’s the perfect blend of quaint and dark.

I think the only issue I had with the novel was that there were maybe one too many loose ends left untied. I am definitely an advocate for leaving things to the imagination and not spelling out every single detail in books, but I think that there were a few things that could have been rounded out a little more. Some of the members of the Society got a lot less airtime than others, and I would have liked to have seen more interactions amongst them and between them and Ella. I also would have liked a bit more on Ella’s parents. Ella seemed to have very few memories of her childhood and I was expecting that gap to get filled in to a degree as she continued researching. However, it never did and I think more backstory on Ella probably would have facilitated even more character development later.

As it stands, this was a very enjoyable book that will appeal especially to lovers of books and secrets.

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Filed under Book Reviews, General Fiction, Magic Realism, Pretty Books, Uncategorized

A Pocketful of Crows

I have been a fan of Joanne Harris‘ work for a very long time, so I was very surprised when I first found out about this book by seeing its gorgeous cover in a bookshop. It’s a beautiful hardcover edition with a black dust jacket and gold detail. This was my first read of 2018 and because I have already lent it out, today’s photograph is a guest photo by my friend Annie.

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“A Pocketful of Crows” by Joanne Harris is a fantasy novella about a wild girl with nut brown skin, crow wing hair and no name who runs with the deer and flies with the hawk and hunts with the vixen. However, when she meets a young human man and falls desperately in love with him, she allows herself to be tamed and named. Turning her back on her people, the Travelling Folk, she despairs when nature begins to turns its back on her and the man she sacrificed everything for is not as true as he promised.

This is truly an exquisite book. Drawing heavily on English and Scottish folklore, this book is dark and light in all the right places. The wild girl is an incredible character and although her ways are both enchanting and feral to the human reader, Harris forces us to empathise with her the entire way. I was absolutely captivated with this book and raced through the vivid prose and illustrations in a day.

Another thing I really liked was the signature complex way in which Harris depicts women. The wild girl defies the social conventions of the humans and the Travelling Folk, but is nevertheless bound by the consequences of her actions. I also enjoyed the way Harris explored the tension between fetishisation of the “exotic” and white beauty ideals.

There really isn’t much more to say about this book – it really does speak for itself. My only regret is that I didn’t realise it was coming out sooner.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Fantasy, Pretty Books

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

People have been recommending this author to me for a long time. One of my reading goals in 2017 was to try to read authors of more diverse backgrounds, including books published in languages other than English, and this one has been on my list for a while. The edition I have is actually part of the Vintage 21 Rainbow set with tinted edges, however because this one is white, strictly speaking the page edges aren’t coloured. Either way, it looks good on my shelf and it was high time I read it.

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“The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” by Haruki Murakami is a magic realism novel set in Japan in the 1980s. The story is told from the perspective of Toru Okada, a man who has recently quit his job as a law clerk and who stays at home keeping the house while his wife Kumiko works. When Kumiko asks him to search for their missing cat, named after Kumiko’s brother Naburo Wataya, Okada begins to have strange encounters and telephone calls with some very unusual people. Okada begins to realise that the missing cat is the least of his problems.

There is so much going on in this book and it’s quite lengthy, so I won’t go into too much more detail about the plot. It is also a translated novel, with the English by Jay Rubin, so events aside, my review will necessarily have to be based on Rubin’s interpretation. Anyway, first of all, this is a fascinating book. Okada is quite a subversive protagonist whose passive and domestic ways are almost a rebellion against the expectation of both the reader and those around him. Despite the criticism he receives from others in the novel, I found him to be a refreshing character. Like a kind of magnet, people are drawn to him and compelled to tell him their life stories and in listening, he begins to draw out themes and parallels that apply to his own problems.

This is a story that is very rich in motifs and imagery. There is quite a large cast of characters who each take turns telling bits and pieces of their own stories, and it is a very complex novel. It becomes increasingly complex towards the end as the supernatural elements begin to become more prominent although Murakami manages to maintain a reasonable level of coherence throughout. I found that this book had quite a Roald Dahl-esque tone about it, no doubt due to the translator’s own style, with lots “terrific” thrown about that ultimately I felt suited the story.

Writing this review is tricky because while it is a complex, compelling story – is that enough for it to be a good book? There were quite a few times where I felt like there was a little too much crammed into this book, and some of the delicacy and subtlety of the earlier chapters was lost towards the middle – especially Lieutenant Mamiya’s recollections of his involvement in the Japanese occupation of Manchukuo in World War II. It is quite a long book, and there a lot of strands of story to keep abreast of as it progresses – some of which, like Creta Kano’s, seem to fizzle out without resolution.

An incredibly intricate story with a myriad of characters, it was at times a difficult read but has definitely left me wanting to read more of Murakami’s work.

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Filed under Book Reviews, General Fiction, Pretty Books, Tinted Edges, Vintage 21 Rainbow

Lincoln in the Bardo

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of Harry Hartog Woden. It has one of those cool die cut designs where you can see an image through the “window” of the front cover, although this was not used in the final design of the book. As this was not my first George Saunders book, I gave it to my Dad to read first because I knew he enjoyed Saunders’ short stories. When my Dad gave it back to me saying he wasn’t able to finish it I was intrigued. This book was this year’s Man Booker Prize winner – surely it must be fantastic, right? I had to find out for myself.

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“Lincoln in the Bardo” is the first novel by George Saunders and is part historical fiction, part magic realism. Based on the events surrounding the death of Willie, the young son of America’s 16th president Abraham Lincoln, the story takes place on the night of Willie’s funeral. Distraught by the death of his son, Abraham Lincoln visits the body in the crypt where Willie is interred. However, unbeknownst to his father, Willie’s spirit emerges that night to mingle with the other souls who have not been able to move on to the afterlife.

The absolute first thing to say about this book is that it has an incredibly creative and refreshing narrative structure. The story is told by a chorus of voices, some of whom are ghosts encountered by Willie and some of whom are guests at the party thrown at the Lincoln’s house. The voices are sometimes complementary, sometimes contradictory and provide a multifaceted glimpse into the man that was Abraham Lincoln and Saunders’ concept of a limbo inhabited by ghosts who cannot move on. I found that the beginning of the story was very compelling. There was a particular scene where the guests were giving simultaneous yet contradictory descriptions of what the weather had been like that evening that I thought was a great comment on the fallibility of history and human memory.

However, it’s difficult to sustain such novelty and momentum in a novel and I did feel as though the latter half was neither as strong or as structured as the former half. While I found the gossipy exploration of Lincoln’s presidency and family life fascinating, the concept of the bardo – the space between life and afterlife – seemed as though it grew muddier as the book progressed. There were several confusing concepts, such as Willie’s peculiar susceptibility to being consumed by vines made of shrunken tormented souls. Although adding a sense of urgency to the plot, some of these aspects of the intermediate state in which Willie finds himself don’t make a great deal of sense. Why would the fate of a child’s soul depend on the conduct of the other souls he is surrounded with in the cemetery where his body is left?

For fantasy to allow the reader to effectively suspend disbelief, the author needs to set rules for their imagined world that are at least coherent, if not plausible. Saunders was making exceptions as fast as he was making the rules to his bardo otherworld and ultimately I found it hard to follow and therefore hard to immerse myself in. Other parts of the story, like the African American ghosts, seemed incidental and shoehorned in at the last minute.

I think this is absolutely a wildly imaginative book and Saunders is definitely not short on creativity. However, as in my review of “The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil”, I think he can sometimes be either too blunt or too abstract in his story-telling. Would I have given this the Man Booker Prize? I’m not sure. I’ll have to read some of the other contenders and compare.

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Filed under Advanced Reading Copies, Book Reviews, Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Pretty Books

Picnic at Hanging Rock

I bought a copy of this book ages ago in the Penguin Australian Classics edition which of course have gorgeous tinted edges and are in beautiful hardcover. This one is particularly whimsical. I’ve always meant to read this book because it is such a well-known Australian story, but I never managed to get around to it until I was invited to an event at the National Library of Australia celebrating 50 years since its publication. Finally, I decided to give this book a go.

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“Picnic at Hanging Rock” by Joan Lindsay is a novel that’s part historical, part mystery and part Gothic. The story is about a fictional boarding school for girls called Appleyard College in the Mount Macedon region of central Victoria. On Valentines Day in the year 1900, a group of girls go on a picnic to the famous Hanging Rock formation. After a lazy afternoon, four of the girls decide to go for a walk just before it is time to go home. However, when only one of the girls returns in hysterics and it is then discovered that one of the teachers is also missing, a search for the four missing women begins. The incident and the ensuing mystery has a ripple effect on the school, the town and ultimately the reader.

This story is definitely one that has ingrained itself in the Australian psyche and without a doubt has become a cultural phenomenon over the last 50 years. Lindsay has a real gift for capturing the unique beauty of the Australian bush and for maintaining and uncomfortable but irresistible sense of tension throughout the book. It has been 50 years and people are still talking about what happened to those girls. There is a “secret” final chapter that was axed from the book and I truly, truly advise that you avoid it. It adds absolutely nothing to the story.

In my write up of the National Library event, I talk a bit about arguably the biggest flaw in this book which is the complete absence of any kind of Aboriginal recognition. This book was written in the 1960s, 5 years after Aboriginal people were given the right to vote and in the same year as the 1967 Referendum. However, similarly to “The Nargun and the Stars“, it alludes to an ancient historical connectedness with the land without directly acknowledging the Taungurung, Wurundjeri and Dja Dja Wurrrung people who lived in the region for tens of thousands of years before being dispossessed of their land.  Perhaps at odds with the subject-matter of a story so concerned with femininity, Hanging Rock was in fact originally a sacred site for male initiation.

Ultimately though, this is a fascinating book that covers a wide range of themes including female sexuality, schooling, class, time and the harsh Australian landscape. It is an engrossing read that 50 years on shines a light on the Missing White Woman Syndrome and plays on the public’s sordid fascination with unsolved crimes.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Historical Fiction, Mystery/Thriller, Penguin Australian Classics, Pretty Books, Tinted Edges

H is for Hawk

I bought a copy of this book a few years ago as a gift for my partner while I was on holidays in England. The cover is really striking, and being about falconry I thought my partner would really enjoy it. After he read it, I asked him what he thought. He agreed it was partly about falconry, but it seemed to also have a lot to do with the author’s own mental state. He thought maybe I might get a bit more out of it, but it sat on my bookshelf for absolute ages before I got a chance to get around to it.

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“H is for Hawk” by Helen Macdonald is a non-fiction book about falconry. In her grief after her father’s sudden death, Macdonald rekindles an old hobby and buys herself a young goshawk. Part memoir, part biography, Macdonald juxtaposes her own experiences training a goshawk against those of English author T H White, whose own attempts over 60 years earlier were ultimately disastrous.

Macdonald is a wonderful nature writer who excels in finding beauty in the minutiae of the English countryside. Her depiction of the raw vigour of a bird of prey on the hunt throws Macdonald’s sorrow in stark relief. Macdonald marries the intensely personal with crisp academia and the result is an incredibly rich book.

One thing I found particularly interesting was the history of falconry. Macdonald explains that for centuries, the study of training birds of prey has relied completely on building trust and positive reinforcement. It’s amazing to me that this kind of thinking has only crossed over to the training of other animals such as dogs and horses in the past few decades. People still talk about “breaking” horses. This year I enrolled my dog into (desperately needed) obedience classes, and my local dog club is trialing new techniques with a very heavy focus on positive reinforcement. I really enjoyed drawing parallels between Macdonald’s work with her hawk and my work with my dog. The other thing I found really interesting is Macdonald’s quiet subversion as a female austringer in what was typically very much a man’s sport.

I could go on, but this is a fascinating, challenging and deeply personal read and I walked away from this book much more knowledgeable about goshawks, English literature and mental health.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Non Fiction, Pretty Books

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

If you spend any time on the internet at all, you might have noticed that 26 June 2017 was the 20 year anniversary of the publication of one of the most famous books of our time. I don’t reread many books these days, but I thought I would make an exception for this one. I also want to talk about some of the beautiful new editions.

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“Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” by J K Rowling is the first in a children’s book series that took the world by storm. The story follows Harry Potter, an orphan boy who discovers he is actually a wizard, as he learns about his identity, the secret wizarding world and the magical boarding school of Hogwarts. Harry navigates schoolwork, friendship and his newfound fame as the Boy Who Lived with his new friends Hermione and Ron. Together, the three uncover a plot that could spell disaster for not only themselves and their school, but all the wizarding world.

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I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve read this story, but it has been a while since the last time. I recently bought the Bloomsbury 20th Anniversary Edition (pictured at the top) which was available both in paperback and hardback in each of the four Hogwarts house colours. I have come to terms with the fact that I am a Hufflepuff so I bought the Hufflepuff hardcover edition with the yellow and black tinted edges. This edition is simply gorgeous and has plenty of great new content about the house, the common room, famous Hufflepuffs and Hogwarts as a whole.

Last year I also bought the illustrated edition (pictured above) so after having a flick through the bonus content in the anniversary edition, I decided that I’d reread the story together with Jim Kay’s beautiful watercolour artworks. They are absolutely stunning, but there weren’t quite as many as I had expected. There are lots of character studies and sweeping scenery (the Hogwarts Express and Hagrid’s Hut really stand out), but I had expected a little bit more magic.

Then, as a reward for completing something really long and boring last year, I bought this great Harry Potter set where the spines all line up together to make a picture of Hogwarts (pictured below). It matches a similar set I have of the Narnia series where the spines make an image of Cair Paravel. Unfortunately, there’s no bonus illustrations or information in this edition but gosh it looks wonderful on my bookshelf.

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Anyway, enough about editions – the story. It’s been 20 years since this book was published, and I really think that J K Rowling has written something timeless. Apart from the fact that she’s still releasing new books and the “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” movie franchise is going gangbusters, there is a whole new generation of kids who are starting to read these books. At the heart of this story is the classic fantasy premise of:

  • orphan boy discovers magical powers
  • orphan boy goes on an adventure to learn how to use them
  • orphan boy recovers magical object
  • orphan boy save the world from evil

You know, the fantasy story that everyone knows and loves. However, by setting her story with one foot in a magical world (heavily inspired by European mythology) and the other in 1990s England (with all its accompanying cultural references), this book has a modern relevance that no ordinary high fantasy novel can achieve.

I first read this book when I was about nine years old after a friend of mine recommended it to me. Even though I was skeptical of a book called “Harry Potter” (my own nickname being Harry), I was absolutely blown away by what I read. I was also completely swept up in the Harry Potter hype which culminated in the release of the seventh and final book in the series in 2007, and which had a small revival last year. Rereading this book as an adult, I have a more critical eye, but I think this is still an ideal book for children. Scattered with equal parts wonder, humour and social commentary, it’s little wonder children devoured, and continue to devour, this book. The rest of the series grows darker and more mature, and this really is a story that grows up with a child as the child reads it.

Reading it now, it’s not perfect but it’s pretty close. Rowling cleverly drops little hints throughout the first book that have relevance not only to the ending of that book, but to the series as a whole. It’s an ideal book for an 11 year old – the same age as Harry himself – to immerse themselves in and picture themselves getting their Hogwarts letter (I’m still waiting for mine), learning that they are special and going to exciting classes to learn spells. Some of the writing is admittedly a bit simplistic – even for a children’s book. However, that simplicity is also what makes some of it incredibly funny, even all these years after I first read it. There are also a couple of inconsistencies which become a bit more apparent as time goes on. One of these is the rule that underage (or expelled) witches and wizards aren’t allowed to do magic at home, a rule that Hermione, Lily Potter and even Hagrid all break at some stage in this book. Harry has to buy a pointed hat for his school uniform, something which I don’t think we ever see him or his peers wear. The number of witches and wizards in Hogwarts (and in the wider wizarding community) is also not really clear. You’re never really sure if there are 140 or 1400 in Hogwarts, or how many live in the UK as a whole.

“Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” is a much shorter story that the rest of the books in the series, and you do at times feel like some of the detail of how magic works is glossed over a bit. For example, if transfiguration is turning one thing into another, how exactly is bringing chess pieces to life transfiguration? Wouldn’t that be charms? I feel like Rowling takes her time with this aspect of the story more in the later books as magic and spells are more relevant to the plot. However they are nevertheless a bit relevant to this plot and I think she could have fleshed her concepts out a bit further.

Ultimately though, I only have to ask myself a few questions to determine how I feel about this book. Did I enjoy it? Yes. Would I read it to my children? Yes. Will I keep on engaging with new content like the “Fantastic Beasts” film franchise and the Pottermore website? Yes. Yes. Unashamedly yes. 20 years on this book is just as popular as ever. It’s now published in nearly 70 languages including Latin and Welsh. It is a literary phenomenon that spoke to a generation and is already speaking to the next.

There will always be Harry Potter books on my bookshelf.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fantasy, Pretty Books, Tinted Edges, Young Adult