Category Archives: Signed Books

Into the World

I received not one but ten copies of this book as part of a prize pack from a book club contest from Allen & Unwin. I’m part of a sort of feminist-fantasy book club, and although this isn’t a fantasy book at all, it does have quite a few feminist themes. The prize pack also included a couple of bottles of wine, some snacks, some book club questions and some French-inspired recipes. I also got to meet the author at a local event, so I was very lucky to get my copy of the book signed as well.

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“Into the World” by Stephanie Parkyn is a historical fiction novel based on the life of Marie-Louise Girardin, a real French woman.In the novel, Marie-Louise has just given birth to a baby boy who, widowed, she cannot afford to keep. Estranged from her family and entangled in the politics of the French Revolution, Marie-Louise makes the drastic decision to give up her son and find work at sea. However, given the attitudes towards women in 18th Century France, Marie-Louise disguises herself a man and finds a job as the ship’s steward on board the Recherche. While the official mission is for two ships to find the missing French explorer La Pérouse who disappeared somewhere near New Holland, Marie-Louise’s ship also carries a number of naturalists looking to study the continent’s unique flora. Marie-Louise befriends the scientists but finds her loyalties torn between them and the officers of the ships, particularly Kermadec, the captain of the second ship. As tensions threaten to boil over, Marie-Louise worries that her secret will be discovered.

This is a difficult book to review. Parkyn has clearly put an enormous amount of research into this book. Her environmental science background meant that the detail of the expedition is meticulously captured and it was very easy to imagine life on the boat and the characters and experiments of the naturalists. The sailors’ reactions to the new plants, animals and people of the Australian continent felt very authentic. Parkyn had a tricky job to depict two trips around the continent and compare first impressions with second impressions, but I think that Parkyn brought that fresh perspective in a clipped, academic style.

Nevertheless, there were quite a few things that I struggled with in this book. Very little has been written about the enigmatic character of Marie-Louise, and I absolutely appreciate that like most historical fiction novels, an author needs a bit of creative license. Parkyn creates a backstory of intrigue and involvement in the French Revolution which I thought did give a bit more impetus for Marie-Louise’s extreme choice to become a male sailor than simply being an unwed mother. A revolutionary so bold as to dress as a man and go sailing around the world to undiscovered lands, I was expecting Marie-Louise to be brave and canny.

However, I felt like the character of Marie-Louise in this book is very timid and unsure. She is constantly second-guessing herself and while I appreciate how nerve-wracking it would have been for the real Marie-Louise, I really would have liked to have seen a much more bold and confident character to match those incredible feats. Any sailor who hopped on a ship to travel uncharted seas would have had to have been brave; a woman hiding her identity, doubly so. I really wanted Marie-Louise to show that kind of gumption.

Something else I was surprised about was the ending. Without giving away too much, Parkyn chose to end the story differently to the way the real Marie-Louise’s story ended. I can understand the temptation to give her an uplifting ending, but I think that maybe the real story would have given Marie-Louise the hero’s ending that I think she deserved. I also think that while there was a huge amount of historical detail, I would have liked a bit more French culture.

Anyway, this was a really interesting story about a woman who had a fascinating life but unfortunately did not leave much of a trace of her incredible adventures behind. Parkyn brings Marie-Louise’s unique story to life, and though I didn’t necessarily agree with all the choices she made for Marie-Louise, I thought it was a very well-researched book.

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Heart of Brass

If you listen to my podcast, you might recall that a couple of episodes ago I interviewed local Canberra author Felicity Banks about interactive fiction and her project “Murder in the Mail“. A while ago, by coincidence, my partner bought me a copy of her book at CanCon, completely unaware that Felicity and I had already been chatting!

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“Heart of Brass” by Felicity Banks is the first book in her pre-Federation Australian steampunk series “The Antipodean Queen”. The story is about a young upper class Englishwoman called Emmeline whose family has a lot of secrets but not much money. One of those secrets is that Emmeline, a keen inventor, has a steam-powered heart made of brass. When her attempts to save her family’s financial situation through a strategic marriage go very awry, Emmeline is sent to the colonies on the last convict ship and finds herself in Victoria. In this strange new land, she realises that she has a lot more freedom and opportunities than she perhaps had at home, but also has a lot more enemies.

This is a very fast-paced book full of action and intrigue. Banks introduces a very diverse range of characters that give a really holistic sense of the kinds of people who made their way to Victoria during the gold rush. This steampunk book involves a little bit of magic, and I really enjoyed the subtlety of Banks’ magic system and the way people can interact with metal. I think that it worked really well in a steampunk setting, and particularly well in a goldrush setting. I liked the way that people tapped into the properties of metal and used them to express themselves and enhance themselves in the clothing that they wore.

Now, I absolutely have to mention something about this particular book that really made it enjoyable for me. At the end of the book is a short choose your own adventure-style story called “After the Flag Fell” about a true historical figure called Peter Lalor, but set in Banks’ own steampunk reimagining of the Eureka Stockade. This was such a fun and cleverly done little story, and I was flipping through trying to achieve all the goals and collect all the items with absolute delight.

I think maybe the only thing I found a bit challenging in this book is that there is a lot going on, and Emmeline and her two new companions Matilda and Patrick are on the run for the majority of the book. Sometimes this made it a little bit difficult to keep up with all the action, but I think for people who really enjoy adventure fiction, this isn’t going to be much of an issue.

A fun story with an especially fun choose your own adventure bonus at the end, Banks’ novel is a fresh look at Australia’s history and blows apart some of the dark areas of our past with explosions, metal and lots and lots of steam.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Fantasy, Historical Fiction, interactive fiction, Signed Books

A Perfect Alibi

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher, Leaf by Leaf Press, which is a cooperative of writers from the UK in an area called the West Midlands where I lived for 6 months as an 18 year old. I was pretty excited to read this one and retrace some familiar places.

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“A Perfect Alibi” by R. J. Turner is a mystery/thriller novel that starts out in a cemetery. A young woman called Jane returns to her hometown for her estranged father’s funeral. When the time comes to lower his coffin into the ground, a naked woman’s body is discovered in the grave. Detective Inspector Dundee and Detective Sergeant Eccles are assigned the case, and while they are investigating Jane discovers that her father had been hiding even more from her than just his feelings. However, he had the perfect alibi, right? He was already dead.

This is a modern take on the mystery/thriller genre. I really enjoyed the diverse range of characters, including the lesbian police officer, people whose linguistic background is critical to the plot and the characters in wheelchairs who contributed significantly to solving the crime. Turner did an excellent job as well depicting the difficulty balancing work with family and casts Dundee’s moral weaknesses in stark relief against the better judgment of his female colleagues. He also manages to do with while maintaining the likability and relatability of Dundee which was an impressive feat.

Without giving too much away, I think the part about this story that I struggled with the most was Pete’s. While I enjoyed Jane, Dundee, Eccles, Agnieska and most of the other characters, I found Pete a bit difficult to relate to and his arc a bit hard to engage with. I see how his story was necessary to move along the entire plot, but I enjoyed the parts with Jane, Dundee, Eccles and Agnieska far more.

This was a fast-paced read with a surprising amount of depth, especially regarding the characters. I would be interested to see if Dundee gets up to more shenanigans in future books.

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Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow

A lot of people have been talking about this newcomer on the scene of children’s fantasy. The book is by an Australian author, and when I saw a signed copy in the window of a Canberra bookshop, I thought I’d better grab a copy and give it a go myself.

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“Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow” by Jessica Townsend is a children’s fantasy novel about a young girl called Morrigan who is cursed. Blamed for every mishap that takes place in Jackalfax, a town in the state of Great Wolfacre, in the Wintersea Republic, where her father is Chancellor, Morrigan is treated like an outcast by her community and her family. Due to die on Eventide, Morrigan is instead rescued by the charismatic Jupiter North and taken to a magical city called Nevermoor. However, her status in this city is not secure. In order to avoid the deadly hunt of smoke and shadow, Morrigan will have to trust Jupiter’s confidence that she will pass the trials to gain entry and sanctuary into Nevermoor’s prestigious Wundrous society.

First things first, I think kids will probably enjoy this book. Although I’m an adult, if I look at this book through the eyes of my younger self, it’s easy to read, it doesn’t shy away from heavy themes, yet it has a strong sense of wonder about it. There are some really creative elements that I enjoyed in Jupiter North’s hotel like Morrigan’s bedroom that changes daily and the chandelier that regrows. It’s a fast-paced story and Morrigan has a sense of integrity that really resonated with me. Townsend writes in a style that’s both complex and age appropriate and I think has a particular knack for capturing the subtleties of a young person’s emotions and relationships. There was a particular part where Morrigan felt guilty about something and eventually confessed to Jupiter, and I just felt like the whole emotional exchange was handled by Townsend in a really realistic way. Something being a much bigger problem for the child than it is for the adult, but the adult appreciating being told the truth in the end nonetheless. I’m certain I would have whipped through this as a kid.

However, I am no longer a kid, and this is not my first fantasy book. This book has been touted as the next “Harry Potter” and I think that is a fair but not necessarily favourable comparison. Drawing on themes from J K Rowling’s famous series and the gothic atmosphere from “A Series of Unfortunate Events“, this book definitely has a familiar vibe to it. I could go through the various tropes in it, but I don’t want to give away any spoilers. I did really like some of the side-characters, but Morrigan herself I thought could have been a bit more interesting. Maybe after Harry Potter and Bella whatserface from “Twilight” I’m a bit tired of dark hair and pale skin being considered a revolutionary appearance. The trials themselves as well I wasn’t completely sold on. Morrigan felt a little bit like Harry Potter bumbling his way through the Triwizard Tournament meets Jill Pole muddling up Aslan’s instructions in “The Silver Chair”.

Also, there was something about the world building that confused me a bit. The Wintersea Republic seems like a very English-inspired world/country (surprising given Townsend is from Queensland, Australia but again very typical for this kind of fantasy), and Nevermoor is this kind of missing magical fifth state that is only accessible via a type of giant clock. I couldn’t quite get a grip on the relationship between the Wintersea Republic and Nevermoor, and the extent to which the former has magic. Maybe this will be revealed later in the series, but at the moment it feels a bit unfinished.

Anyway, while I may be old and jaded, I’m fairly certain that for lots of kids for whom this will be their first foray into fantasy, this book will be a breath of fresh air and they will thoroughly enjoy the story. For adults who have read several children’s fantasy books, this one will feel very familiar. Perhaps a little too familiar. Either way, it’s about the target audience and the target audience will love it.

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Dragonclaw

Kate Forsyth’s historical novel and fairy tale retelling “Bitter Greens” was one of the first books that I reviewed on this blog. When another of her books was nominated as the next book to be tackled by my feminist fantasy book club, I was really excited to see her take on the genre. Then, even more excitingly, Kate Forsyth came to speak at the National Library of Australia this week. I got several books signed, but I’ll be writing more about the event for the ACT Lit Bloggers of the Future program later on.

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“Dragonclaw” by Kate Forsyth is the first book in her series “The Witches of Eileanen”, as well as being her first published novel. The story begins in a secret valley, where foundling Isabeau has grown up with her guardian, the wood witch Meghan. On her 16th birthday, Isabeau has the opportunity to showcase the skills and power she’s been developing over the years. However, in a world where witchcraft is prohibited and witches themselves persecuted, the initiation is risky. After drawing the attention of enemies, Isabeau finds herself sent on a dangerous quest by herself to the heart of Eileanan, a journey that she is perhaps not yet ready for. Meanwhile, elderly Meghan summons her courage to climb Dragonclaw and seek the advice of the last species untouched by the war on magic. However Meghan is not prepared for the help that their council reluctantly provides.

Winter has well and truly arrived in Canberra, and I was definitely in the mood to snuggle up with a fantasy adventure. In a genre usually dominated by male writers, it was really refreshing to read a fantasy novel where the majority of the characters were women who each wield power in their own way. The story itself is a blend of original ideas and traditional magical concepts which makes this a very easy story to step into. There is so much action in this book and it was a great story to discuss in a book club. There were also plenty of modern and traditional themes to unpick and lots to read into about the characters, their relationships and their particular flaws. Even how you pronounce characters’ names got a big discussion, especially the name Meghan (MEGG-an, MEE-gan, or MAY-gen, like my sister?)

I picked up the 20th anniversary edition of this book (the red one pictured above) for book club, but then I found the original 1997 edition at the most recent Canberra Lifeline Book Fair. Unusually, I preferred the original. I really liked the grey stonework design that matches in each book in the series. There’s a scene in “Dragonclaw” where Meghan is walking along a stone wall, and I think the cover design really captures that aesthetic perfectly.

This is the first book in a series of six, and then there is a further trilogy again set in the same world. I thoroughly enjoyed it and as it’s shaping up to be a long cold winter, I may very well delve into a few more of these before it ends.

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Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize, I confess I hadn’t heard of this book until the author came to visit Canberra and speak at the National Library of Australia. Although softly-spoken, Madeleine Thien is clearly a passionate and deeply knowledgeable person. She very kindly signed a copy of her book for me and I was very much looking forward to reading it.

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“Do Not Say We Have Nothing” by Madeleine Thien is a family saga set in Mao’s China. Crossing a generation and a continent, the story is about a young Chinese-Canadian girl Marie and a mysterious girl called Ai-Ming who comes to live with Marie and her mother after the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. As Marie learns more about Ai-Ming’s family, she grows to understand how they are connected and the lasting impact of the Chinese communist regime on the generations that survived.

This is one of those books where I’m really reluctant to say too much because I really don’t want to detract from the whole experience. Although it begins slowly, this book gradually unfurls into an extraordinarily beautiful novel. In fact, if you find you’re struggling with it in the beginning, I would strongly recommend that you put on the Goldberg Variations referenced so frequently to better ground yourself in the story. I also found the music better connected me to the characters, especially the beloved trio Zhuli, Sparrow and Kai.

I’ve read a number of books set around different aspects of Mao’s rule and the Cultural Revolution, and some excellent ones are Wolf Totem and The Four Books. This is the first one I have read that I have come away feeling like I now have a deep, nuanced and holistic understanding of the history and trauma of those tumultuous decades in China. This is also the first time I’ve seen an author pit two generations against one another in quite this way, capturing both how devastating and inspiring the power of the people can be when harnessed.

I think I might just about leave it there, except to say that this is a profound and beautifully written book that warms up to a crescendo ending that will leave you changed forever.

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Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil

Melina Marchetta has been the trailblazer of Australian teen fiction since the early 1990s, so I was really excited when she came to speak at Muse in Canberra not too long ago. A quietly thoughtful and articulate speaker, afterwards she kindly stayed back to sign copies of her latest novel.

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“Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil” is a modern mystery thriller set in France and the UK. Chief Inspector Bish Ortley has been temporarily relieved of his police duties after an incident with a colleague when he gets a disturbing call from an old friend. A bus has been blown up in France and his daughter, who is away on camp, was on it. Pulling himself together enough to drive over the Chunnel, Bish finds out that his daughter was not the only person of interest on that bus. Another teen, Violette LeBrac, is the daughter of the infamous Noor LeBrac who is serving a life sentence for her involvement in a bombing in London many years earlier. When Violette disappears taking another teen with her, Bish finds himself leading the hunt to find her. Along the way, he finds himself forced to face his demons, past and present.

This is an interesting, compelling and relevant story with many, many layers. Marchetta is second to none when it comes to exploring the teenage psyche and she definitely has not lost her touch with the advent of the internet and social media. After writing about the Italian immigrant experience in Australia, Marchetta does a convincing job tackling the Middle Eastern experience in Europe. Her exploration of race is multifaceted and informed, and Bish’s own complex identity is a valuable conduit between two very polarised experiences. Although there were times where I felt the characters were perhaps a little too virtuous, the rest of the story more than made up for it and I found myself staying awake way too late to finish this one.

A cracking read that couldn’t be timed better. Reading this book is like having your finger on the pulse of Europe.

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