Category Archives: Signed Books

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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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Fantasy, Signed Books

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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Filed under Book Reviews, General Fiction, Historical Fiction, Signed Books

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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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Mystery/Thriller, Signed Books, Uncategorized

The Secret Loves of Geek Girls

I had been waiting for the right time to read this book, one that I had gotten by way of a Kickstarter some time last year and that came with a gorgeous signed bookplate sticker, and finally the time had come. After days of heatwave, the evening had cooled down enough that I could snuggle in bed with a cup of tea and one of my bestie’s homemade chocolate chip cookies. I’d just come back from seeing the new Disney movie Moana, my dog was coming in occasionally to say hello to me, and in the background was the white noise of a fan and my boyfriend admonishing his randomly assigned teammates in Overwatch over voice chat. The mood was well and truly set.

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“The Secret Loves of Geek Girls” is an anthology compiled and edited by Hope Nicholson. The book contains non-fiction stories, comics and essays by over 50 creators (including Margaret Atwood) all about being a geek girl in love.

You never really know what you’re going to get when you back a Kickstarter project, but the final product of this book was much more than I had hoped for. It is a real celebration of women’s creativity, passion, intelligence and eloquence. I was really impressed at the diversity of voices that emerged from these pages and I felt their heartbreaks as my own heartbreaks. As somewhat of a geek girl myself, I knew about a lot of the fandoms (though the Dr Who references and any game that wasn’t a single player RPG was a bit lost on me). Some of the stories were much stronger than others, and I loved Minas TirithFanfiction, F/F, angstCherry and Montreal, 1993 the most. Some of the artwork in here is spectacular, and some a little less so.

This is an inclusive, well-considered collection of stories by geeky women for geeky women who are looking for everything from something nice to flick through through to dating advice and, most of all, solidarity.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Graphic Novels, Non Fiction, Signed Books

Revenants: The Odyssey Home

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author. I don’t read much fiction or even historical fiction about war, so I was a little apprehensive about this one. However, when I opened the parcel and saw the little courtesy bookmark, I knew I was going to give this one a red hot go, and boy am I glad I did.

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“Revenants: The Odyssey Home” by Scott Kauffman is a historical fiction novel set in a small town in the USA in the 1970s. Betsy, a high school sophomore cheerleader, is upset when her brother returns to fight in the Vietnam War, and is devastated when he doesn’t come home. As she starts to drift in school, her principal gives her an ultimatum: either she volunteers as a candy striper at the local veterans hospital, or she repeats her sophomore year. Although initially repulsed by the horrific injuries suffered by the young men there, Betsy perseveres and finds herself a niche. However, that’s not all she finds, and what she anticipated to be a boring summer turns into a hunt to solve the mystery of a nameless, faceless patient.

This book reads like a slice of time. Kauffman has an incredibly immersive style of writing, and uses slang from the era and local turns of phrase effortlessly in a manner reminiscent of Daniel Woodrell or Irvine Welsh. This is more than a story about war. This is a story about trauma: about the physical and emotional effects of war that trickle down through lives, families, and even through generations. I really learned a lot about this book. You can be as anti-war as you like, as I am, but that doesn’t erase the fact that war still happens and people still suffer. You don’t have to support war to support those people at risk of poverty, homelessness, disability, mental health issues and suicide. Betsy is a really great character who Kauffman imbues depth, complexity and flaws and he balances the mystery plot with the social commentary perfectly.

This was a really standout take on the impact of war and it really opened my eyes in more ways than one.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Historical Fiction, Mystery/Thriller, Signed Books

The Skeleton Diaries

If there is anything that gets me out of the house to an event, it’s books. Last year I was invited to go along to a young professionals networking event, which sounded the exact opposite of how I’d normally spend my time. However, something caught my eye on the e-invite. It was being held at Muse, one of my favourite Canberra bookstores, and there was going to be an author talk. Well, that was enough for me! I went along, and once the networking part was out of the way, Australian National University graduating student Rachael Stevens took the stage to talk about mental health, overcoming anorexia and her self-published book. After the event, she stayed back and signed copies – and of course I bought one.

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“The Skeleton Diaries” is a memoir by Rachael Stevens about when she was hospitalised in 2007 at 15 years old for anorexia. The memoir begins when her mother takes her to see a counsellor who suggests she keeps a diary. At first, Rachael’s diary entries feign confusion about what’s going on, distancing herself even further from others. However, as the book progresses and Rachael’s health reaches breaking point, she is forced to acknowledge the truth: she has anorexia and her body is shutting down. Rachael is first admitted to a paediatric ward before being transferred to a youth psychiatric ward and there is placed on an unrelenting and unsympathetic treatment regime. However, while suffering outwardly from the state of her body and the treatment by hospital staff, inside Rachael begins to cultivate the tiniest flower of hope which helps her to overcome her disordered thinking.

This book is a powerful insight into disordered thinking: the disordered thinking of a person suffering from anorexia, and the disordered thinking of society around the treatment of mental health. Some of the most striking passages in this book are about Rachael’s silent cries to be treated as a person, and not have her worth determined as simply a collection of symptoms or numbers on a scale. Although only 15 when she first wrote in her diary, I was really impressed by Stevens’ clear yet compelling writing style. It is a brave thing to do to send your story out in the world, especially when you are so young, and I did feel compared to other memoirs of this nature, Stevens was rather guarded about the details of her life and the trauma and abuse she experienced. However, the focus of this story is really on anorexia and the havoc it wreaks on your mind and body.

A really important book that is a stark reminder that this country still has a long way to go when it comes to prioritising, understanding and funding mental health issues.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Non Fiction, Signed Books

Australi

I’ve been anticipating this graphic novel for a long time. Like most Kickstarters, it’s always a bit of a gamble when it comes to whether the project will get funded, when it will get delivered and what the final product will be like. I backed the project in September 2015, and I only just got my reward this week and I couldn’t wait to crack it open.

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“Australi” is a graphic novel written by Timothy Wood and illustrated by Pius Bak. An alternative history with a good dash of fantasy, this story is set in an Australia colonised by three empires: the British, the Far East Serpentes Federation and the Red Jade Dynasty. These three empires are carving the land up for its precious gemstones but as a result of their greed, the beautiful country they have occupied has started to die. Australi’s fate is in  the hands of Maloo: a young orphan Aboriginal boy. In possession of a stolen gem and on the run from camel folk, Maloo finds himself on a serious detour after falling into a dark cave.

Probably the first thing you’ll notice about this graphic novel is the artwork, it is undoubtedly gorgeous. The story is short and gripping, and I was surprised that the first volume ended so soon. The dialogue and text is pretty sparse, but there’s a real sense of the beginning of an epic story. The character design is pretty cool and I particularly like the guardians, the giant animals and Imogen (though I’m looking forward to seeing some more female characters in later volumes).

As excited as I was to receive this graphic novel, I was also a bit apprehensive. I thoroughly support more representation of Aboriginal characters in media, and have been really excited about things like acclaimed TV series Cleverman and reading stories by authors like Anita Heiss, but I fretted about how this would go. Neither the author nor the illustrator are Aboriginal. However, when I first opened the book, right at the beginning there was a statement at the front that says:

“Australi was created to celebrate the heritage of Australia and the First Nations’ Peoples. This story is not their story, but an attempt to capture its spirit. The team consulted throughout with Indigenous artists, community figures and cultural centres and firmly believe what has been hidden, now needs to be seen. To know, to celebrate and to honour”.

It’s a little early to tell, but I think so far it seems like the author and illustrator have treated their story sensitively. We only meet Maloo and the Guardians in this first issue so I’m looking forward to seeing more characters. I think the only thing that was a bit confusing is that Maloo is an orphan who is isolated from his culture, yet he has a boomerang and is wearing body paint. I think this could have been a good opportunity to shed a bit of light on growing up disconnected from your culture, and I’d like to see this get either explained or fleshed out in later issues.

“Australi” looks like the beginnings of an original Australian fantasy adventure, and it’s great to see a bit more diversity in the leading character. It’s a cracking read and I’m really looking forward to future issues of what I hope is a great series.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Fantasy, Graphic Novels, Signed Books