Tag Archives: book review

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

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

Saga Volume 7

I’ve been following this graphic novel series (by Brian K. Vaughn and illustrated by Fiona Staples) for a while, so if you want to see what I’ve written about earlier volumes you can check them out here, here and here.

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In my last review, I said that I liked Volume 6 a bit less than the other volumes. I’m very sad to say that I think despite starting out all guns blazing, Saga is on a downward trend. If you’re going to kill off main characters, you need to replace them with something of equal or greater value. Unfortunately, I’m just not loving the replacements. It’s such an action-intensive series that, especially with these volumes only coming out every 9 months or so, it’s a bit hard to keep tabs on everything that’s going on. I think maybe it’s also crossed the line from being wild and irreverent to actually quite maudlin.

Anyway, look, I’ll probably keep reading these, but I’ve definitely lost a bit of my enthusiasm after the last couple of volumes. It’s still hard-hitting, but maybe not as fun.

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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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The Essex Serpent

I got an advance reading copy of this book courtesy of Harry Hartog in Woden. It’s been sitting on my to-read list for a while, and when one of the store assistants asked me what I thought of it last time I was there, I thought I’d better get a wriggle on.

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“The Essex Serpent” by Sarah Perry is a historical novel set in Victorian England. Recently widowed Londoner Cora Seabourne finds herself, her son Francis and his governess/her best friend Martha bourne, well, to the sea to continue her mourning in fresher air. Taking up residence in the Essex town of Colchester, Cora’s friends insist on writing her a letter of introduction to meet William Ransome, the vicar of nearby village Aldwinter. An aspiring naturalist, Cora finds herself entranced by the little town’s “Trouble”, rumours of the Essex serpent and the sinister mischief attributed to it. Cora becomes more and more involved in the village and the vicar’s family, forgetting her husband and his doctor, her close acquaintance whom she fondly calls the Imp.

There is no doubt that Perry is a strong writer and her book is rich in research and imagery. She combines elements of Victorian devoutness, its fascination with the macabre, and its yearning for scientific knowledge with great finesse. It’s an original story with Perry’s own style interwoven with classic Victorian language that makes this book feel unique yet familiar. The characters were true to their times, but written in a way that the reader had a more modern insight into their lives, sexualities and abilities. It felt like all the pieces were there for a great novel, but for some reason I just wasn’t hooked. Maybe the gothic undertones of this novel would have suited a bitter winter better than the 30°C days I’ve been having the last week. The chapters just seemed to stretch on, and I longed for the beautifully succinct letters as interludes between them. Maybe the romantic and cryptozoological tension simply just wasn’t enough to carry the story the whole way through. Maybe the characters were just a tad too human to fall in love with.

An interesting and well-written book, if a little meandering for my taste. However, I think someone who was passionate about the Victorian era and historical fiction will probably enjoy this.

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More Hubs That Provoke

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the author, and I was very interested to see what it was about. Roy T. James is recently retired from a long and diverse career with the Indian Navy and has been writing at length about his thoughts and philosophies about the world and where it’s heading.

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More Hubs that Provoke” by Roy T. James is a short collection of essays about various topics that have piqued the author’s interest. This book ranges in topic from the modern role of politicians to predictions about the evolution (or demise) of humanity. James has a particular interest in the organisation of society, and a lot of his chapters explore the changing roles of caste, democracy and gender.

This book is clearly intended to be provocative, yet I was surprised by how many of James’ ideas I agreed with. I particularly enjoyed his suggestion that with a more educated public, political leaders are becoming less distinguishable from the general populace and therefore more redundant and easily replaceable with computer programs. James is an articulate writer with clearly reasoned arguments and this is a succinct and snappy book. The only one of his statements that I found myself violently in disagreement with was right at the beginning where he suggests that writing is an unnatural form of communication for people with insufficient social skills. Given he wrote this book, that may have been irony.

A quick, interesting and eloquent read with some novel ideas.

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Fight Like a Girl

Clementine Ford is one of Australia’s most well-known feminists. A columnist for Daily Life, Ford has become famous for her acerbic and dramatic writing style and for unashamedly publicly drawing attention to the horrific online abuse she receives on a daily basis. She’s just published her first book, and as the set book for Feminartsy‘s Read Like a Feminist bookclub, it was solidly on my list.

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“Fight Like a Girl” by Clementine Ford is her manifesto on feminism. Drawing largely on her own personal experiences and knowledge, Ford discusses topics ranging from eating disorders, sexual violence, online abuse, abortion and sexuality. Part memoir, part statement of values and part humour, this book chronicles Ford’s journey towards finding her brand of feminism.

I struggled with this book. About halfway through I messaged a friend who was reading it at the same time to discuss it. I couldn’t really figure out what I was reading. It wasn’t a heart-wrenching, beautifully written memoir like “The Hate Race“. Nor was it an immaculately researched, clear and succinct guidebook like “Speaking Out: a 21st Century Handbook for Women and Girls”. My friend said it sounded like I was having trouble with the structure, and I think that was exactly it.

This book is loosely structured by theme, but there is a lot of overlap. It reads like a stream of consciousness. While there were some interesting insights and vividly described memories, there were also a lot of blanket statements, vulgarity and humorous hyperbole. Although I agreed with a lot of what Ford was saying, I’m not sure this is a book I would recommend. I thoroughly agree with the right for women to be as gross and loud and human as they like, but this book kind of reminded me a bit of an art exhibition I saw earlier this year. A film had been playing of a one-armed man who was vomiting blue dye. I could appreciate the art, but after I while I simply couldn’t look at it any more. I appreciate that the language she uses represents the language in which she is spoken to every single day, but after a while this book became a bit too abrasive.

Thematically, I think some of Ford’s chapters were stronger than others. I felt like her arguments about abortion, her exposé of online abuse and the hypocrisy of being called a “man hater” were her strongest chapters. She really hit her stride and stuck a great balance between facts and feelings, and wrote convincingly and evocatively. In some of her other chapters she was a bit more laissez-fair with facts and sources.

I also felt like this book was written for a narrow audience: Ford’s fans. Ford is critical of men, ranging from white (ribbon) knights to to MRAs, and fair enough. Ford is also scathing of women who “don’t need feminism because…” and rightly so. However, it’s a little hard to figure out who this book is for. Instead of hooking people with urgent and heartbreaking empathy like Maxine Beneba Clarke, or with cool logic and by being informative without being condescending like Tara Moss, this book seems to be written for people who already agree with her. While I agree that it’s not the role of women generally to educate men on the overwhelming social benefits of gender equality (that’s what the internet is for), I think as a prominent feminist Ford could probably have used her writing a little more effectively to spread her sound and valuable messages – especially to other women.

There was a lot in this book, and it gave me some stuff to think about and a few chuckles, but mostly I felt like I was the choir being preached to. Ford’s columns are great in moderation, but a whole book’s worth of sexist slurs (regardless of the irony with which they were being used) was a bit overwhelming and ultimately, this book was a bit of a slog.

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Small Great Things

So I’ve been sitting on this review for a week or two because I actually had tickets to see Jodi Picoult speak. Her talk and the book signing wasn’t until tonight and I didn’t want to write my review until I’d seen her. I live-blogged the talk on the Tinted Edges Facebook page and I have to say, she is WOKE. I managed to ask her about her thoughts on the ridiculous White Lives Matter counter-movement to Black Lives Matter while she was signing my book and she was very well informed and very eloquent. Anyway, “Small Great Things” is her newest book and I got an advanced reading copy from Harry Hartog.

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“Small Great Things” by Jodi Picoult takes a real life event, where a black nurse in the USA was looking after a baby in a postnatal ward was told by the white supremacist father that people like her couldn’t touch the baby, to an extreme conclusion: what if the baby goes into distress and the nurse disregards her superior’s instructions and tries to help? When the baby dies, Ruth finds herself in the centre of a medical negligence matter. White public defender Kennedy takes on her case having represented many other black defendants. However it’s not until Kennedy meets Ruth that she begins to really see some of the more subtle prejudice that is inherent in American society. Some of it is her own.

I’ve quite a few of Picoult’s books and although she never shies away from hard-hitting issues, none of them have touched me before like this one has. As Picoult herself wrote for Time Magazine, this isn’t a book for people of colour. This is a book for white people to encourage them to think about and talk about issues concerning race. There are so many points in the book where Kennedy says something that is well-intentioned but the impact on Ruth is actually tantamount to a micro-aggression. Kennedy just ploughs through the awkwardness. However, when we don’t talk about race, we conveniently don’t have to think about how things we say can actually be condescending, minimising and even erasing of people’s experiences. Picoult captures that sinking feeling, one in my own ignorance and naiveté I have felt many times, when you mean well but say the wrong thing. She lingers on that feeling, the uncomfortableness of it, and doesn’t let us glaze over and keep going. In this book we have to examine the impact of our words and actions and that is a powerful and educational thing. In terms of story, it is the classic Picoult archetype. There’s a controversial issue, a court case and a twist. That didn’t bother me so much in this book, because court is the time where you get to say your piece and that is a critical element of the story. However I did feel a little bit like the ending was too tidy. Life isn’t tidy, race isn’t tidy and the way (especially given recent political events) race is handled politically is definitely not tidy at all. 

I think that this is definitely a book worth reading. It’s a great story, it is impeccably researched and very well considered, and I feel like it is a huge leap forward in terms of empathy and mutual understanding. The timing of this book couldn’t be better.

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The Water Knife

When I read my first novel by Paolo Bacigalupi last year, I was blown away. “The Windup Girl” was a rip-roaring piece of environmental science fiction and Bacigalupi’s post-climate change world set in South-East Asia was eerily familiar and foreign all at once. When I found out that he had a new novel coming out called “The Water Knife” I waited for it to come out in bookstores. When it did come out it was a beautiful-looking book, but it had been released in the larger trade paperback format instead of the smaller size that my copy of “The Windup Girl” was in. I’m a bit finicky when it comes to books matching, and so I held off for a while waiting for it to be released in a smaller edition so they lined up nicely on my bookshelf. A few months went by, and I simply couldn’t wait any longer so I swallowed my book vanity and bought a copy. Ultimately, I think this was the better choice. The smaller edition does match in size, but the trade paperback is just so pretty with the blue-on-black design.

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Enough about the cover, now to the content. “The Water Knife” is set in a dystopian USA along the hotly contested Colorado river. Drought is a very real issue and refugees are fleeing Texas in search of water. Angel is a Water Knife who works for Catherine Case, making sure that the only direction the water flows is to her empire in Las Vegas. Lucy is a journalist who reports on injustice in the floundering city of Phoenix. Maria is a young Texas refugee who ends up being in the wrong place in the wrong time. Something is going down in the drought-stricken city of Phoenix, and everyone has an interest in it.

This book is simply fantastic. Bacigalupi has the rare skill of being able to write science fiction that not only seems plausible, but is actually also extremely readable. At its heart, this is a book about bureaucracy and how power divides the wealthy and the poor. While I was reading this, I was actually doing a course on public policy and we were looking at the Murray-Darling Basin – Australia’s biggest water resource. I have never read a book that has made me so interested in bureaucracy. Bacigalupi’s dry, poverty-stricken landscape interspersed with modern technology is extremely rich in detail. The plot is very fast-paced and you’ll race through this novel. However, I think it’s the characters that steal the show. There’s no good and bad in Bacigalupi’s world: only complexity. Every helping hand and every betrayal is perfection.

“The Water Knife” by Paolo Bacigalupi is a brilliant book, and I’m glad I didn’t wait any longer to read it. If you’re looking for a novel that merges a thriller plot, science fiction and environmentalism, look no further.

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The Help

This is one of the rare times that I saw the film before I read the book. I remembered quite liking the film “The Help” at the time, but thinking that it lacked depth. I had intended on reading the book, but hadn’t gotten around to it because to be honest, I wasn’t really that enthusiastic. Then I came across the Penguin By Hand Series. A series of general fiction books written by women, these beautiful paperback editions each show off a different kind of craft in beautiful embossed designs. “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett, is gorgeously decorated like a quilt and if you run your fingertips across the cover, it feels like it’s been quilted. I picked up a copy and I’m hoping to eventually get the full set of these beautiful books.

“The Help” is set in Jackson, a city in the state of Mississippi, USA in the early 1960s, where racist attitudes and racist laws are still very much in force. The book is narrated by three different women: two maids and a graduate. Aibileen is a black maid who has been working for white families for decades. Minny, who is also a black maid, is Aibileen’s younger friend whose smart mouth gets her into a lot of trouble. Skeeter is a young white woman who has just come back from college and is looking to start her career in journalism. When Skeeter’s friend Hilly conspires to introduce separate toilets for black maids in a racially motivated “health initiative”, Skeeter is inspired to interview black maids in Mississippi and write about the their lives. However, the risks of being caught after curfew and of the maids being found out by their employers, not to mention the risk that the story won’t even get published, prove to be significant hurdles for Skeeter’s scheme.

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I wasn’t expecting much from this book, but I was surprised at how much I liked it. The film is almost more of a comedy than a drama and paints Skeeter as an almost insufferable Mary-Sue. The book is far, far better with a lot more substance and nuance. Skeeter is much more well-rounded as a character with plenty of faults and many sacrifices to make. Instead of being a book about a privileged girl following her dreams of becoming a writer, it is a book about a white woman learning that good intentions are no substitute for empathy and understanding. I thought that Aibileen and Minny were also much better depicted in the book, with far more focus on their home lives and their own perspectives. I really felt that where the movie glossed over the racial issues, the book went into far more depth and detail. Minny in particular has so much more going on than meets the eye, and is an incredibly complex and interesting character.

Stockett is a convincing and evocative writer with a real flair for characters and relationships. I think my only lingering reservation is that I would have liked to have seen a story of working as a black maid in Mississippi in the ’60s written by a black author. I was somewhat mollified after reading “Cane River” and I do think that Stockett was able to tackle this topic with sensitivity and insight. A surprisingly enjoyable novel that is easy to read, I would highly recommend it over the film.

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