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The Swan Book

Speculative fiction novel about an Aboriginal woman and her swans

Content warning: sexual assault

I’ve mentioned previously on this blog that I’ve started listening to audio books as a means of motivating myself to go to the gym. I’m still fine-tuning how exactly I select which books to listen to, but certainly the quality of the narrator is something I’ve realised is important to me. I have been trying to read more books by Aboriginal authors, and although I had heard of this author, I hadn’t actually read any of her work. I was scrolling through the categories on Audible and this book jumped out at me. I listened to the narrator in the sample, and immediately knew I wanted to hear more.

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“The Swan Book” by Alexis Write and narrated by Jacqui Katona is a speculative fiction novel about an Australia in the not too distant future. The story is about a young woman called Oblivia Ethylene who does not speak and whose story begins when she was found living in a tree. Taken in by a climate migrant Bella Donna, Oblivia lives on a swamp inside a rusted out hull in the middle of a military-run Aboriginal camp in Australia’s far north, and they are visited often by the overbearing Harbour Master.

Black Swan

A photo I took a while back of black swans on Lake Burley Griffin, Canberra 

However, as time passes, it becomes clear that Oblivia is not a reliable narrator, and her life actually began before she was found in a tree. We learn that Oblivia was gang raped, outcast from her family and deeply traumatised by the experience. Oblivia forms a deep connection with swans that come to Swamp Lake, later renamed Swan Lake, inspired by Bella Donna’s own love for the white swans of her homeland. After Bella Donna dies, Oblivia is visited by the newly sworn-in first Aboriginal President of Australia, Warren Finch who informs her that she is his promised bride. As Oblivia is forced to follow him to the Southern cities, she is in turn followed by the ghosts of her past and confronted by new ghosts in her future.

This is a deeply rich and complex novel that tackles a number of issues through a unique perspective such as trauma, the Intervention and climate change. I was struck by how many of the issues and predictions Wright made seem even more pressing now, only 7 years after publication. Oblivia is a fascinating character who appears both more aware and more naive than she first seems. Wright is a natural storyteller with a patient style, slowly unfurling each new piece of information and examining it from several perspectives before laying it down carefully before you. Nothing is rushed in this novel, yet at the end I found myself still unsure about so many elements of the plot. How much was real, how much was Oblivia’s fantasy, and how much was something in between? I’m still not certain what happened to the Genies or to Warren Finch, and whether Oblivia saw herself on TV or an impostor.

I absolutely must comment though on the narration of this book. Jacqui Katona was a superb narrator who captured the spirit of the novel completely. She has a soft, slightly cracked voice that reminds me of dust picked up by a desert wind. I loved listening to Katona speak in language, and she had a great knack for capturing the voices of the different characters, the matter-of-factness of the narration generally and even singing refrains from some of the songs referenced in the book.

Although Katona brought this book to life, I did at times find it a bit challenging to listen to. It’s no secret to anyone who has met me that I’m not the best at processing what I hear, but I did find this book at times maybe a little complex to concentrate on while I was also trying to count reps at the gym. Although Wright revisits pieces of the story several times, I did at times find myself asking whether a certain part was supposed to be ambiguous, or whether I had just missed something while I was trying to set the speed on the cross-trainer.

A captivating, intricate and extremely relevant book that Katona impeccably narrates.

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Filed under Audiobooks, Book Reviews, General Fiction, Science Fiction

Vasilisa the Wise and Tales of Other Brave Young Women

Illustrated retelling of seven European fairy-tales

As I mentioned recently, it was December and I was struggling to meet my 2019 Goodreads Reading Challenge goal of 80 books. I attended my book club‘s Christmas party, we played a small but savage game of Dirty Santa where the prizes were books (of course) and this was the one that I won. Obviously I was thrilled because it is Kate Forsyth, who is incidentally the author of the second book I ever reviewed on this blog. It was also, fortuitously, very short which meant that I had a reasonable chance of squeezing it in before the end of the year.

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“Vasilisa the Wise and Other Tales of Brave Young Women” by Kate Forsyth and illustrated by Lorena Carrington is a collection of European fairy-tale retellings. There are seven stories, each of them featuring a resilient, courageous and ingenious woman who must overcome adversity in her own way.

This is a really enjoyable collection of stories, not least of which because they are all lesser-known stories. Forsyth has chosen tales from the UK, France, Germany, Norway and Russia and despite considering myself relatively well-read when it comes to fairy-tales each of these was brand new to me. Forsyth preserves traditional themes and settings, including romance, but imbues her heroines with rather more agency and gumption than was often seen. I really liked the sisters in Katie Crackernuts, the snake story of A Bride for Me Before a Bride for You, and the unusual kingdom in The Toy Princess.

Carrington brings a unique illustrative style using silhouettes and layers to help the reader visualise the interplay between light and dark which is so prevalent a theme in fairy-tales. I particularly enjoyed the objects on shelves in The Toy Princess.

A beautiful, original collection of stories suitable for all ages and especially for collectors of fairy-tales.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Fantasy, Graphic Novels, Short Stories

The Harp of Kings

Historical Celtic fantasy novel 

Content warning: family violence

After somewhat of a writing hiatus, one of my favourite authors has come back with force, and I was thrilled to find out she was releasing a new trilogy of novels. Taking advantage of Christmas sales, I picked up a copy from Harry Hartog and couldn’t wait to read it. I’ve also been inspired to make a Spotify playlist that you might like to listen to while reading this review.

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My partner and I both have Irish heritage, and he received this beautiful bodhrán from his parents, and I the exquisite silver bookmark, after they visited Ireland a couple of years ago

“The Harp of Kings” by Juliet Marillier is the first book in her new “Warrior Bards” historical fantasy series. Set some 20 years after the events of “Blackthorn and Grim“, with connections to elements of the “Sevenwaters Series“, the story is about singer and musician Liobhan who is training with her brother Brocc to be an elite warrior on Swan Island. Liobhan has a rivalry with another young recruit called Dau and all three trainees are surprised when they are asked to go on an undercover mission on the mainland to recover a lost harp. Given new names, backstories and personalities, Liobhan, Brocc and Dau must not falter. With court intrigue, secluded druids and the possibility of otherworldly interference, any wrong step could put the mission, and the kingdom, into jeopardy.

It will surprise nobody that I adored this book. This is Marillier at her finest, and this book blends new characters and themes with familiar places. In particular, Marillier explores the lifelong impact of growing up as a child subjected to family violence, and in particular violence from siblings. Liobhan is a great leading character who has the moxie of Liadan in “The Son of Shadows” but exceptional strength, fighting ability and musical talent. However, Liadan is headstrong and must balance her ambitions, prejudices and integrity to make the right decision. I also loved Dau’s story arc, and how Marillier introduces him as seemingly a one-dimensional character whose courage and depth is explored in depth as he must allow himself to become vulnerable.

Although I loved this book, I have to say that of the three point of view characters, I was probably invested in Brocc’s story the least. I think this is possibly due to him being the most passive character in the book. While this does make sense given the plot, I did find myself looking forward to Liobhan and Dau’s chapters much more.

A fantastic beginning to the series, I can’t wait for the second. Knowing Marillier, there is undoubtedly a lot still in store!

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Fantasy, Historical Fiction

Myrren’s Gift

Medieval fantasy novel about a curse and revenge

Content warning: sexual violence, sexism

This was a set book for my feminist fantasy book club. I have a few books by this author on my shelves, in a couple of different genres, but had never read any books of her books, including from this series. I downloaded an eBook version and settled in to read.

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“Myrren’s Gift” by Fiona McIntosh is a medieval fantasy novel about a teenager called Wyl Thirsk who becomes the General of his country Morgravia’s army, following in his father’s footsteps. Although loyal to King Magnus, there has always been tension between Wyl and the crown prince Celimus. When Celimus forces young Wyl to watch the torture and execution of an accused witch, Wyl steps in to try to reduce her suffering. The result is a magical gift that is both a blessing and a curse. When Wyl and those closest to him are betrayed, this terrible gift may prove to be the answer to saving Morgravia from certain destruction.

This is a classic heroic fantasy novel where the fate of the land weighs on the shoulders of a young man. I think probably the most compelling thing about this novel is the tiny amount of magic: Wyl’s life-changing new ability. Without going into too much detail, the very few times in the novel where this was explored in depth were the most interesting parts. There were some interactions between Wyl and other characters that cast this magic into relief, but I did feel that the premise (which almost certainly is explored in greater depth in later novels in the series) wasn’t explored enough in this book.

Unfortunately, there were far, far more things that bothered me about this novel than made it enjoyable. I don’t think it’s possible to talk about “Myrren’s Gift” without talking about violence against women. The society conjured by McIntosh is inherently a sexist one. Women are without a doubt second class citizens considered valuable only for their marriageability. Sexual violence against women was so prolific in the early chapters that I kept count: Myrren was sexually assault by guards and a lord, was sexually harassed prior to being tortured and again by the prince. The king raped his own wife twice.

In fact, it wasn’t until I got to page 1,179 of 1,317 that two women actually spoke to each other about something other than a man – and it was two women discussing how the princess looked like she was in heat. The princess wasn’t great either, to be honest. She was meant to be a tomboy who was “too skinny” with “boyish hips” but also incredibly attractive in that typical early 2000s way. I was really disappointed that McIntyre didn’t give her any more agency than enjoying horse-riding. Valentyna had so much potential, but she just ended up hiding in the woods with a male child, waiting for the hero to save her. I wasn’t particularly happy with the way Wyl was depicted either. There is quite the song and dance about how he isn’t conventionally handsome, and how much more value other characters have simply because of their good looks and height.

I also have to say something about the editing. I’m not sure if this was the case in the original paperback, but the eBook I bought had some serious issues with repetitiveness. For example:

Ancient law requires that the victim be burned wearing the samarra, which was believed to entrap evil humours emanating from the witch’s flesh.

Morgravian law required that the victim be burned wearing the samarrs which would trap the evil humours.

And:

“I just have a strange feeling that Gueryn will be preserved for the one reason that it might bring Koreldy back to Cailech’s fortress”

“Then if Gueryn is alive – and I choose to believe he is – I think he will remain a prisoner of Cailech for no other task than to entice Caliech’s enemy back”.

Ultimately, although the concept is a really interesting one, the amount of sexism and tautology that you have to wade through for the tantalising scraps of magic don’t quite seem worth it. While I understand that the magic gets explored in more depth in the sequels, I’m just not convinced that I’ve been hooked enough to continue with this series.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Fantasy

The Anti-Cool Girl

Content warning: mental illness, addiction, suicide ideation. 

My experience of this book was a bit different to my usual reviews because I didn’t read it, I didn’t listen to it as an audiobook per se, but I listened to it as a podcast called “Mum Says My Memoir is a Lie“.

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“The Anti-Cool Girl” by Rosie Waterland is deeply personal memoir about Waterland’s experiences growing up in a dysfunctional family plagued by mental illness, addiction and poverty. Waterland chronicles her sometimes hilarious and sometimes deeply painful memories from birth up until just before publication. Although Waterland’s mother Lisa’s alcoholism had prevented her from reading the book when it first came out, Lisa has since sobered up and is ready to challenge Waterland on some of the things depicted in the book. On the podcast, each episode begins with Waterland narrating a chapter from the book and then Waterland and her mother Lisa spend the rest of the episode discussing the events of the chapter, especially around whether Waterland’s recollections are correct.

I think it’s difficult to separate out the book from the podcast because so much of podcast is the book, so this is going to be a kind of combined review. Waterland is a very funny writer, and has a exaggerated, self-depreciating sense of humour that balances out the more serious parts of the book. Waterland is also unflinchingly honest about her feelings and experiences, sometimes in quite shocking (and refreshing) detail. This book is overall an incredibly telling insight into Australia’s care and protection system, the public housing system and the mental health system. Rosie also shares her personal experiences with depression, suicide attempts, bullying and weight gain and then her remarkable success in her writing.

When I first started listening to this podcast, hearing Waterland read a chapter of her book, my initial judgment was that her mother Lisa was a terrible mother whose alcoholism traumatised her children. I think that if I had read the book by itself, that would have remained my judgment the entire way through. However, having Lisa participating in the podcast and responding to each chapter did lead me to think that Waterland was perhaps not always the most reliable narrator, especially in the chapters about her younger years. It also gave me a lot more empathy for Lisa and a better appreciation of her own struggles. However, where the facts aren’t completely clear or when some of the subject-matter gets a bit dark, you can count on Waterland to bring the mood back up with a joke or an embarrassing story about herself, even if it’s a bit embellished.

This is a powerful, hilarious and insightful book that is given a whole new layer of depth through this unconventional storytelling platform. I think the book is good, but the podcast is excellent and it is a very rare opportunity to listen to frank conversations between an author and her subject-matter: her mum.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Non Fiction

With Love from Miss Lily: A Christmas Story

HarperCollins the publisher was running a bit of a Christmas special and had this book available to read for free. In fact, I think it still is available for free. It has been a while since I read a Jackie French book, and while I whipped through it before Christmas, my intentions on having this review ready for Christmas were sadly not fulfilled. So, here it is, slightly late: my review.

Cover image - With Love from Miss Lily: A Christmas Story

“With Love from Miss Lily: A Christmas Story” is a short story by Jackie French set shortly after the first novel in her “Miss Lily” series called “Miss Lily’s Lovely Ladies”, about the contribution of society ladies to World War I. This short story takes place in France during winter. A hospital is running low on supplies, patients are dying of influenza, and head nurse Sophie is worried that she won’t be able to have the ceasefire Christmas she was hoping for. However, between the dying old woman who won’t stop furiously knitting, the handsome captain and the help from Miss Lily, somehow Christmas makes it after all.

This is a very short but touching story that manages to weave a bit of history, feminism, family, friendship and even a dash of romance altogether. I really enjoyed reading it on my drive down to my own family Christmas and I am a bit intrigued about the rest of the series.

I think I’ll finish the review here because it’s such a short story, I’m at risk of writing a longer review than story. Sorry I didn’t get this up in time for Christmas!

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Filed under Book Reviews, eBooks, Historical Fiction, Short Stories