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 Ask and the Answer

Young adult science fiction novel about fascism, colonialism and sexism

Content warning: fascism, colonialism, slavery and sexism

This author is one of my favourite young adult authors, and I was thrilled to meet him some time ago at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. After the event, he signed a copy of my book and was quite excited to see my name. He told me that he had a talking horse with this name in his series “Chaos Walking”, which at the time I hadn’t read yet but was thrilled to hear. Angharad isn’t exactly a common name in books. Since then I read the first book, but had yet to meet Angharrad the talking horse who it turns out is introduced in the second. If you haven’t read the first book yet, I recommend you read my review of “The Knife of Never Letting Go” instead. Like the previous book, this 10 year anniversary edition has striking black tinted edges and very subtle embossing of slightly shiny black text on the matte cover. It has been sitting on my shelf for far too long.

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“The Ask and the Answer” by Patrick Ness is the second book in the young adult science fiction series “Chaos Walking”. After discovering the truth about what happened to the women of Prentisstown, and meeting Viola, the girl who came from offworld, Todd and Viola arrive in Haven to find that it has been surrendered Mayor Prentiss, who now refers to himself as President of New Prentisstown. Todd and Viola are quickly separated, and Viola is placed in a healing clinic with women healers while Todd is locked up with the former Mayor of Haven. While recovering from her gunshot wound, Viola discovers that there is an underground resistance movement. Meanwhile, Todd is put to work supervising enslaved individuals of the planet’s native species, the Spackle. Unable to contact one another, Viola and Todd start to question their trust in one another.

This is an incredibly hard-hitting novel that picks up immediately where the previous one left off. Ness had already begun to explore the inequality between men and women caused by men developing Noise – the unchecked ability to project their thoughts to everyone around them – as a consequence of colonising the planet in the previous book. However, in this book he explores this issue far deeper and makes vivid connections between the way the Spackle are enslaved and controlled, and the way the women of New Prentisstown are enslaved and controlled. Towards the end of the book, Todd asks men who have been complicit in detaining, assaulting and marking women who they believe is going to be next.

Ness does an excellent job of character development in this book, really exploring what it means to be a man in Todd’s world. Juxtaposing Todd against Davey, Mayor Prentiss’ son, he examines how the two boys react to being made to brand Spackle and direct them to engage in slave labour. He also explores how Mayor Prentiss introduces Todd to control and violence so gradually in a way that is reminiscent of the progression of the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, and little by little Todd becomes complicit himself in the very things he condemned. I also found Mayor Prentiss’ use of information as a means of control equally chilling, and Ness draws all these themes together, driving the story towards an explosive conclusion.

One thing that always stands out to me about Ness’ writing is its sophistication, and his ability to reckon with complex themes in a way that doesn’t speak down to young adults but converses with them. A frequent complaint I have of second books in trilogies is that they are often a bit of a sagging bridge between the first book and the last. However, similar to “The Secret Commonwealth“, I actually thought this book was stronger than the first.

A compelling and insightful book that weaves in themes of politics and history while still being a fast-paced and exciting story. I would highly recommend this, and all of Ness’ books, to young adults.

Image of Castor the Sloth, looking through a telescope. #StartOnYourShelfathon The Quiet Pond.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Pretty Books, Science Fiction, Tinted Edges, Young Adult

The Secret Commonwealth

Fantasy novel in the new series from the author of “His Dark Materials”

I am certain I wasn’t alone in my excitement when Philip Pullman announced that he would be writing a new trilogy following on from the series “His Dark Materials”, and I thoroughly enjoyed the first book in the new series. If you haven’t read the first book, then you might want to avoid this review in case of spoilers. Then, before I knew it, the next book was out and I picked it up from Harry Hartog Woden who, given current circumstances were doing takeaway books. The cover design is brilliant, it’s consistent in style with the first book but so striking in its own right.

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“The Secret Commonwealth” by Philip Pullman is the second book in the trilogy “The Book of Dust” which is set after the events of the “His Dark Materials” series. Lyra is in her early 20s and studying at Oxford in St Sophia’s, a college of young women, but still calls Jordan College, where she was given academic sanctuary as a baby. Lyra has taken her studies seriously, and has become intrigued by new philosophical works advocating for a radical type of rationalism. However, things are not going well for Lyra. Since gaining the ability to separate, she and her dæmon Pantalaimon have become increasingly estranged. When Pan witnesses a murder one night while exploring the city alone, Lyra’s life is turned upside down and she must journey halfway across the world to find answers to the questions she is left with. Meanwhile, Dr Malcolm Polstead, a young academic with secret connections, must trace the murdered man’s steps to find the truth about mysterious roses.

I picked up this book and I was absolutely ensconced for days. Pullman is at his absolute finest in this novel, and combines all the elements required for an excellent novel in perfect measures. Familiar with Lyra as a confident, plucky young girl from the original series, this adult Lyra we meet in just as compelling. Her unusual upbringing and the impact of the events and her decisions in “The Amber Spyglass” have not left her unscathed, and instead we have a young woman who is struggling with self-esteem and finding her place in the world with no family. Pullman pushes his concept of dæmons, an outward expression of your soul shaped like an animal that you can speak with, to completely new places, and I am still thinking about the implications of what it means when you don’t get on with your own dæmon.

This book also shows an entirely new side to Malcolm, who we got to know as a good-natured, resourceful boy in “La Belle Sauvage” and a friendly if boring tutor in “Lyra’s Oxford“. If Lyra’s part of the story explores more deeply the philosophical discourse, Malcolm’s investigates the causes behind the sudden economic and political upheaval and the swift changes to the international religious organisation known as the Magisterium. Since we left him as a young boy, Malcolm has developed a number of skills and has grown into a fascinating and rather intimidating man.

I think that my only critique of this book is that despite being 687 pages long, I did not want it to be over. I rarely tolerate books that are long for the sake of being long, but the pacing and complexity of this novel was so perfectly executed that I was absolutely willing to be at Pullman’s mercy and follow this story to all the unexpected places it goes. I think that this book was better than the first in the trilogy, but it did admittedly develop a lot of the concepts introduced by Pullman in “La Belle Sauvage” who smoothly referenced the events in this book to remind the reader without being overly repetitive.

I cannot wait until the final in the series; Pullman has really hit his stride.

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Black Beauty

Classic novel about horses and animal welfare

Content warning: animal cruelty

Recently, I was thrilled to be involved in reading an extract from a book for Read Tasmania’s Lockdown Reading Group. Enjoying the experience so much, I was inspired to do a reading on the Tinted Edges Facebook page. I chose this book because it is a very beloved favourite, but also because it is relatively short, out of copyright, and I really wanted to enjoy this edition which came as part of a collection of children’s classics. This one has powder blue tinted edges, and is just lovely. If you want to watch all the readings, you can check them out here.

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“Black Beauty” by Anna Sewell is a novel about a young black colt who grows up free and happy with his mother on a farm in rural England. A good-natured horse, he is very gently broken in and then sold to a Squire’s estate called Birtwick Park. There, Beauty befriends some other horses, and begins to learn a little about the wider world. As the book progresses, circumstances outside his control mean that Beauty is sold, and sold again. Although brought up with kindness, Beauty experiences all sides of humanity and through his eyes the reader learns the true impact of our actions on horses.

When I was young, I had three favourite books: “White Fang“, “Watership Down” and this one. Sometimes when you grow up, you find that your favourite books haven’t necessarily withstood the passage of time. However, this one is as relevant as ever and it was an absolute delight to revisit. In fact, considering this was Sewell’s only published novel, it is incredible how good it is and how well it has held up today. It was also the first English novel to be told from an animal’s perspective, and has been though to have inspired the genre of pony fiction.

Rereading it as an adult, I can see how this is really an extended fable, designed to teach the readers about the folly and cruelty of the many different ways in which horses were (and, to be honest, often still are) treated. Sewell expertly connects these moral lessons with Black Beauty’s own story, sometimes having him experience them first hand and sometimes having him witness them or hear about them from his friends. Seeing the way horses are treated with whips, spurs, violence and equipment such as bearing reins is absolutely heartrending, and it is little wonder that this book had such a strong social impact.

This is a very emotional story, and it was amazing how much the characters such as Merrylegs, Ginger and Jerry had stayed with me over the years and how much you connect with them while reading. I had forgotten how much action was in this book, and how Sewell keeps the reader on their toes with dramatic near misses as well as tragedies. Another thing I realised reading this as an adult was that I think Sewell perhaps wrote herself into the story as a benevolent lady who intervenes on Beauty’s behalf towards the end of the story, which I thoroughly support.

I enjoyed rereading this book immensely, and if you haven’t read it yet, you won’t be disappointed.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Children's Books, Classics, Pretty Books, Tinted Edges

The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling

Young adult novel about family, culture and mental health

Content warning: mental illness

I mentioned in an earlier post that I went a little overboard in the #AuthorsforFireys Twitter auctions, but there was absolutely no way I was going to let this one pass me by. The author was offering a copy of her book to the top 30 bidders, and each book would have the pages HAND PAINTED. Obviously I had to bid. In fact, I took the bidding so seriously that I kept a list of how many bids there were and for what amount so I could make sure that I didn’t miss out.

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I had planned on hand-making dumplings for the phone, but I just couldn’t face it

“The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling” by Wai Chim is a young adult novel about Anna, an ordinary teenager trying to study, keep on top of her chores and try not to get on the wrong side of the popular girls at school. Except Anna’s family isn’t quite as ordinary. Anna’s mum spends all day in bed, and her dad never comes home from work at his Chinese restaurant an hour north of Sydney. She has to look after her younger siblings Lily and Michael, interpret for her parents who moved to Australia from Hong Kong, and try to convince her school’s careers counsellor that she’s taking her future seriously. Up until this point, Anna had been able to keep everything afloat. However, when her mum suddenly becomes much more unwell, it becomes clear that things can’t continue the way they have been. Plus, there’s a boy.

This is an extremely refreshing take on the young adult genre. Chim has a great sense of place, and I loved the mood of Anna travelling between her home in Ashfield and her father’s restaurant in Gosford – sometimes by train, sometimes by car. I also loved the scenes in the restaurant itself, and watching Anna develop confidence and friendships while working in the kitchen in a way that she struggle to at school. Also it’s very hard not to read this book without being hungry the entire time, and I would highly recommend having something delicious to snack on while reading to complete the experience.

Chim covers a lot of topics in this book: friendship, transitioning to adulthood, young romance, culture, family dynamics and in particular mental health. While I’ve read quite a lot of Chinese literature over the past few years, but I don’t think I’ve read any books that use Cantonese before, in particular the Jyutping romanisation system, which I was really interested to learn about. I thought that the way Chim handled Anna’s mother’s illness was very sensitively done, and found a good balance between impact mental illness can have on families and the distress it can cause the individual who is unwell. Rory was a great romantic lead who was able to provide support and advice to Anna based on his own lived experience. He was also just an absolute sweetheart.

I felt that Chim did a really good job of accurately portraying mental illness, especially around inpatient care, the chronic nature of many mental health conditions and the fact that there often isn’t an instant, magical cure. However, I did feel that the chapters towards the end of the book that explore what a new normal looks like for the Chiu family, while very important and emotionally charged, didn’t have the same pacing and tension as earlier in the book.

Nevertheless, I think this is a great example of modern Australian YA. I think that it’s incredibly relevant and tackles issues that a lot of teens, regardless of their background, will get something out of.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Pretty Books, Tinted Edges, Young Adult

Life After Life

Historical fiction novel about the chance to relive a life

Content warning: stillbirth

This is one of those books that you buy because based on the little you’ve heard about it and the pretty cover, you’re certain you’re going to enjoy it. Sometimes books like this are cursed with waiting on the bookshelf for a long time because you’re never quite sure when the right time to read it is going to be. I guess I was in need of a good book, because I finally picked this one up. I read it a little earlier in the year, and there are quite a number of chapters that deal with the Spanish Flu, which, given circumstances at the moment, seemed like quite the coincidence.

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“Life After Life” by Kate Atkinson is a historical fiction novel about Ursula, born into a well-to-do English family during a blizzard on 11 February 1910. Despite her family’s relative privilege, Ursula does not survive the birth. However, Ursula is reborn again during a blizzard on 11 February 1910 and this time she does survive. However, surviving life is no easy feat. Gradually, Ursula begins to vaguely remember things from her past lives and atrocities to come, and starts to wonder if she could prevent them altogether.

This is a beautifully written book that gently explores the impact that small decisions made in the moment can have on the rest of our lives. Atkinson also closely examines identity, family and what it means to be British. There is so much in this book, and it extremely well-executed. I adored the scenes with Ursula’s family, particularly her brothers Teddy and to a lesser extent Jimmy. I also loved how the family collectively disliked her older brother Maurice but included him in everything anyway. Her parents are fascinating characters, and at the end of the book, you find yourself wondering if perhaps there was even more to them than met the eye.

Fox Corner is a beautifully idyllic home that is a respite from the atrocities later experienced in the UK during the first half of the century. However, I also enjoyed how Atkinson shows that Ursula, in many of her lives, outgrows Fox Corner and her mother’s values that, while once progressive, are now conservative.

However, there were definitely parts of this book that I enjoyed more than others. While I certainly felt that each chapter had something to say, there were some chapters that were a little more slow and abstract than others without Atkinson’s knack for interpersonal relationships to drive them as they had the others.

Nevertheless, I was not disappointed at all in this book and I am very tempted to go and buy the second.

Image of Castor the Sloth, looking through a telescope. #StartOnYourShelfathon The Quiet Pond.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Historical Fiction, Pretty Books

Queerberra

Photobook about LGBTIQA+ people in Canberra

As I alluded to in a previous review, I went a little crazy bidding on things in the #AuthorsforFireys Twitter auctions to raise money following the Australian bushfire crisis earlier this year. I think if I had won everything I had bid on, I would have bankrupted myself. However, I have absolutely no regrets about the things that I was lucky enough to win, and this is one of them. Unlike most of the auctions, the offer for this one was that anyone who donated $100 to a bushfire charity would receive a copy of the book. Not contest, just straight up books for donations. Even better, because it’s Canberra, I got to meet with the producer/editor for lunch on a relatively smoke-free day. This book is a sensory delight. The cover is done in textile, the debossing feels amazing, and before you even open it, you can tell it is an extremely professional work.

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Luckily I still have one of my placards with one of the many We Are CBR stickers that I handed out like candy. I actually donated a lot of the memorabilia I had collected, especially stickers, to the National Library of Australia so I’m glad I still had some lying around for this review.

“Queerberra”, produced and edited by Victoria Firth-Smith with photography by Jane Duong, is a photobook showcasing some of the wonderfully diverse LGBTIQA+ people who live in Canberra.

This is a beautifully curated collection of photographs of 100 humans being authentically themselves around the city of Canberra. The photography is incredible, and the book is sandwiched between a foreword by the ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr and introduction by Firth-Smith, and a series of annotated thumbnails or proof sheets at the end with a bit of information about each model. It is an incredibly joyful book to flip through with many familiar faces from the Canberra business, politics, journalism and arts community. Each individual and scene is unique, but there is a real connectedness in this book. A strong sense of unity in diversity.

The timing of this book couldn’t have been better. In a time where we seem to be living through historical event after historical event, it’s incredible to think that this book was published during the 2017 marriage equality plebiscite. While the harm caused to the LGBTIQA+ community by putting their rights to a public vote cannot be minimised, the day that the announcement was made in Canberra was itself an incredible historic event. I ran from the office for an extremely early lunch break to go meet my friends and celebrate, and the street party in Braddon that evening was euphoric.

Initiatives like this were critical to ensuring that this wasn’t a checkbox, academic activity. This was something that affected the rights of real people. The people who live in our city, who we work with, who we sit next to on the bus, who makes our coffee, who represents us in parliament, who helps us when we need help. Our friends. Our families. Ourselves.

So, honestly, to receive a copy of a book like this at such a difficult time for Canberra was a breath of fresh air. If you want something to remind you that the last few years haven’t just been fires and plagues, I cannot recommend this book enough. It is a piece of history.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Photo Book, Pretty Books

Bring Up the Bodies

Historical fiction about the Tudors

Some time back I read “Wolf Hall“. If you haven’t yet read that book, you might want to skip this review and go to the beginning. Anyway, I found out that there is quite an excellent miniseries adaptation of the first two books of the Thomas Cromwell series done by BBC. I didn’t want to watch it before I finished the second book, and with the recent release of the third book in the series, I very was motivated to read it. I borrowed this lovely copy from my friend, and the gold cover is really spectacular.

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“Bring Up the Bodies” by Hilary Mantel is the second book in her historical fiction series about the court of King Henry VIII of England, but in particular about Thomas Cromwell. The book picks up almost immediately after the first left off. Cromwell has been promoted to the position of Master Secretary to the King’s Privy Council after securing the King’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. However, the marriage is not going well and while he and the King are guests at the Seymour family’s estate Wolf Hall, the King begins to develop an interest in young Jane Seymour. However, despite setting a precedent with his former wife Catherine, Anne will not go quietly and Cromwell is tasked with finding the solution.

It’s hard to follow any novel with a sequel, and Mantel had the additional pressure of following up a Booker Prize winning novel with a sequel. However, after reading this book, it is hardly a surprise that Mantel won the Booker Prize again becoming the first woman in history to win twice. She doesn’t break her stride at all, and Cromwell is as complex and compelling as he was in the first novel. The writing is just as exquisite and the motivations she finds for such a singular person as Cromwell and his actions speak universally.

Something that this book made me realise was how critical to the nation’s security it was at the time for Henry to have a male heir. There is an incredible scene not too far in the book where all the characters realise that if Henry were to die, there is no backup plan. Without Henry and without a prince, the country would be thrown into chaos. I also really enjoyed how Mantel unpacks Cromwell’s efforts at eroding the power of the Church. With the Catholic Church under considerable scrutiny these days, it is fascinating to read about how the state took on the church nearly 500 years ago.

The only difficulty I had with the first book really was that it was very dense politically. This book is political, certainly, but the politics now are far more personal. Cromwell assumes the role of an investigator, and necessarily must interview peoples and revisit events and rumours multiple times before he can confidently present the evidence that will remove Anne. This means there are parts of the book that feel a little repetitive, though Mantel does a stellar job of bringing new perspectives to previously understood information.

An excellent piece of historical fiction which has made me very much look forward to the final book in the trilogy.

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Peter Pan

Classic children’s novel where children don’t grow up

This book hardly needs an introduction. “Peter Pan” has been adapted so many times into so many mediums, but most particularly film. There has been films that are animated and live action, a sequel to and a prequel to the book. Even though I had never read the book before, I had seen so many adaptations of the story that I was very familiar with the plot and themes. I can’t recall where I found this beautiful edition, but I’m not surprised that I bought it. Part of the Puffin Chalk collection, the book has a beautiful chalk-inspired design on the front and back cover and has deckle edges.

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I must have spent about an hour looking for the chalk I knew I had somewhere in the house to draw a hopscotch “court”. On the plus side, while looking for it I found a lost set of keys. 

“Peter Pan” by J. M. Barrie is a classic children’s novel about three children called Wendy, John and Michael Darling who meet a boy called Peter Pan who teaches them to fly. Peter takes them to Neverland, an island only able to be accessed by air. The Darling children join Peter and the Lost Boys in fighting pirates, play-fighting with the Native American tribe, listening to mermaids, watching fairies and hunting the many beasts that live in Neverland. Peter and Wendy play at being mother and father to the young boys, but before long, Wendy realises that they are forgetting their own parents. However, before she can make for home, she is kidnapped by the nefarious Captain Hook who is seeking revenge for Peter cutting off his hand and feeding it to a crocodile.

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It was a really interesting experience finally reading this book that has inspired so many films and concepts. I think every adaptation I’ve seen has drawn quite faithfully on elements from the story, and the themes of Peter Pan have filtered so completely into pop culture, so when I did read it, almost every phrase and every event was familiar to me. The book is jammed full of ideas of love, adulthood and motherhood and what you potentially lose by gaining immortality.

Barrie has quite a primal way of writing, depicting children as almost feral creatures who are often selfish and ruled by instinct. When the children first fly to Neverland, they fly for days, stealing fish from birds and unphased by the unknown. In fact, Barrie’s style reminded me a lot of Joan Lindsay’s “Picnic at Hanging Rock“; dark, with quite a lot of allusions to death and violence, and bodies being things that are malleable and even disposable. The result is a book that while magical, often evokes a sense of unease rather than a sense of wonder. Peter himself is irreverent and unsentimental, with no qualms about using violence including (Barrie hints) against his own Lost Boys. The contradiction between Peter’s rejection of his own mother, playing father to Wendy as mother but yet refusing to grow up is the heart of this novel.

Originally a play, the novelisation was published in 1911 so it is unsurprising that there are elements of this story that have not aged well. If I were reading this book to a child, there would be a lot of points upon which I would have stop and discuss – not least of which Barrie’s depiction of the people indigenous to Neverland. This book deals directly and indirectly with death, which is also hardly surprising given the character of Peter Pan was inspired by Barrie’s own brother who died in childhood. The book also has quite entrenched gender roles, with Wendy moving straight from her nursery into becoming the mother for the lost boys, later returning to Neverland to do Peter’s spring cleaning.

I think this book will remain a classic because growing up is a timeless and universal theme for all children. However, it is a book that I think needs to be read with a critical eye and with an understanding of the context in which it was written.

 

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Filed under Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fantasy, Pretty Books, Puffin Chalk

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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Moby Dick

Classic adventure novel, micro-history of whaling, gay love story

Content warning: mental illness, racism, animal cruelty

My very good friend Annie bought me this stunning edition as a gift probably close to two years ago. A deep blue hardcover with the most incredible silver foil embellishments, the front has an iconic and stylised whale’s tail, and the back has a ship sailing beneath a silver full moon. And the pages. The pages. Tinted edges so silver that they are reflective. This is an incredibly beautiful book, but this novel intimidated me for some time. Firstly, because it is long: over 600 pages of nautical text. Secondly, because I still feel guilty for losing a copy of this book when I borrowed it from the library as a teen many years ago. However, it had been glinting on my bookshelf long enough. Maybe encouraged by the similarly beautiful “Saga Land“, I decided it was finally time.

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This is likely going to be somewhat controversial, but I’m just going to go for it. “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville is three books in one.

Firstly, it is an adventure story about a man styling himself as Ishmael who, after starting to feel depressed, decides to mix things up and join a whale hunt. Having previously sailed on merchant ships, his experience is enough to get him signed up but not enough to achieve any particular responsibilities. Aboard the Pequod, Ishmael finally catches a glimpse of the dark and mysterious Captain Ahab, and soon learns of his obsession with seeking revenge against the white whale known as Moby Dick who bit off his leg on a previous voyage. As the journey continues, the narrative flicks between Ishmael and Ahab, and Ahab’s fixation on hunting Moby Dick leads him to take more and more risks.

Secondly, it is a micro-history about the whaling industry. Interspersed throughout the novel, Melville (ostensibly through the voice of Ishmael) provides the reader with detailed explanations of the particulars of whaling, how it’s done and what the materials obtained from whaling are used for. These rather clinical descriptions are contrasted against Ishmael’s observations of whaling generally, showing the reader the extent of  the profit, cruelty and waste that stems from whaling. Melville goes into minute detail about the types of ropes and weapons used, how the whales are dissected for parts and what happens to their bodies after they are discarded.

Thirdly, this book is a queer interracial love story between Ishmael and a man called Queequeg from a fictional Pacific island nation. Ishmael and Queequeg meet when they are given the same bed in the same room at an inn to share by the inn-keeper. Quickly developing rapport, they agree to pool their resources and to travel together henceforth. If you think that reading this story as queer romance is an unreasonable interpretation of such a masculine adventure story, then I present to you the following:

This being told to Queequeg, he at once complied [with putting his tomahawk away and ceasing to smoke in bed], and again politely motioned me to get into bed – rolling over to one side as much as to say – I wont touch a leg of ye. “Good night landlord,” said I, “you may go.” I turned in, and never slept better in my life.

Upon waking next morning about daylight, I found Queequeg’s arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought I had been his wife.

Considering how sociably we had been sleeping together the night previous, and especially considering the affectionate arm I had found thrown over me upon waking in the morning, I thought this indifference of his very strange.

…but presently, upon my referring to his last night’s hospitalities, he made out to ask me whether we were again to be bedfellows. I told him yes; whereat I thought he look please, perhaps a little complimented.

He seemed to take to me quite as naturally and as unbidden as I to him; and when our smoke was over, he pressed his forehead against mine, clasped me round the waist, and said that henceforth we were married…

After supper, and another social chat and smoke, we went to our room together. He…took out his enormous tobacco wallet, and groping under the tobacco, drew out some thirty dollars in silver; then spreading them on the table, and mechanically dividing them into two equal portions, pushed one of them towards me, and said it was mine.

Man and wife, they say, there open the very bottom of their souls to each other; and some old couples often lie and chat over old times until nearly morning. Thus, then, in our hearts’ honeymoon lay I and Queequeg – a cosy, loving pair.

We had lain thus in bed, chatting and napping at short intervals, and Queequeg now and then affectionately throwing his brown tattooed legs over mine…

He at once resolved to accompany to that island, ship aboard the same vessel, get into the same watch, the same boat, the same mess with me, in short to share my every hap; with both my hands in his, boldly dip into the Potluck of both worlds.

On the occasion in question, Queequeg figured in the Highland costume – a skirt and socks – in which to my eyes, at least, he appeared to uncommon advantage; and no one had a better chance to observe him, as will presently be seen.

I rest my case.

Anyway, on to the review. This book almost defies reviews. It is both very funny (the preacher climbing a pulpit made of whale ribs pulling up the ladder behind him) and very boring. It is full of interesting facts, dull facts and erroneous facts (Melville decides that despite being warm-blooded and lactating with a horizontal tail, whales are a type of fish). It is both very progressive (Queequeg is given a higher wage than Ishmael due to his skills and experience), and racist (Queequeg is frequently referred to as a savage), with a range of characters of different races, some more likable and stereotyped than others.

The eponymous character Moby Dick barely features in the novel at all. Melville switches from soliloquy to omniscient third person to theatrical dialogue without any care whatsoever for consistency. Ishmael is both mysterious and dramatic, hinting at experiencing bouts of manic and depressive episodes, high education and low income, a possibly teaching background and, later, and telling his tales to a bevy of handsome young men in Italy.

I probably enjoyed Ahab’s chapters the least, because they were mostly of him muttering under his breath beneath the moonlight, weighing up between hunting Moby Dick and REALLY hunting Moby Dick while chief mate Starbuck looks on grimly. The whale hunts themselves were both fascinating and awful, the whales suffering incredibly while Ishmael provides technical commentary on exactly the way they die. The other characters were a motley bunch with second mate Stubb a firm favourite, especially while pushing the sailors on in the whaleboats with equal parts insult and encouragement in a very amusing tone.

How do you review a book like this? It’s excellent and terrible in almost equal measures. This is a book full of contradictions that, nearly 170 years after publication, still gives readers a lot to think about and plenty to discuss.

 

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