Tag Archives: book reviews

Say Hello

Memoir about living with a disability and facial difference

Content warning: discrimination

I had heard about this book long before it was published because I have followed the author online for some time. When I heard she was coming to Canberra to speak about her book, I not only went along to watch but scored myself a signed copy.

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“Say Hello” by Carly Findlay is a memoir about growing up and living with a skin condition called ichthyosis. Arranged as a series of essays covering various topics, this book is a candid account living with a disability and a facial difference, but living with society’s insensitive and often cruel reactions to her appearance and barriers to accessibility.

Findlay is a clear and frank writer whose book combines her personal experience, the stories of her friends and fellow activists and her significant knowledge of disability activism. I consider her courageous not for living her life (as so many people tell her), but for discussing deeply personal issues in such a public way and for building a platform to advocate for disabled people and raise awareness about the barriers that they experience throughout both Australia and the world. Some of the most powerful chapters in this book address the often well-meaning but ill-considered comments she constantly receives from people she meets and the diverse and sometimes diverging perspectives within the disability community. However, I think my favourite chapter was the chapter on fandom. Findlay’s experiences struggling to make friends throughout school, the difference to her life that getting a job at Kmart with a supportive manager and team made, and her discussion of how friendship as a skill we must learn and practice really stuck with me.

Memoir is a genre that I believe is very important to ensuring diverse stories and perspectives are heard, that I read quite a lot of, but that ultimately I struggle with. One criticism that you may have made me make is that I often feel like the author hasn’t given enough information or detail. However, how much to share with the reader is a question of balance, and I think Findlay may have tipped a little far towards too much detail. One thing that I hadn’t realised until I googled something I was reading in the book is that Findlay has adapted many essays she has written in the past as chapters for her book (something that I understand a lot of writers do). This means that quite a few of the chapters are overlapping, and because Findlay’s writing has improved a lot since she first started blogging, there is a bit of a range in quality. I think it also meant that this book didn’t always have a clear thread or audience, and I felt that it would have benefited from some more robust editing.

This is a very important book that highlights the impact that unsolicited comments have and the nuance and diversity within the disability activism space. Regardless of my own struggles with the genre, there is no doubt that memoir is critical to building empathy and this is a book that definitely builds empathy.

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

The Rook

Urban fantasy about amnesia and a secret society

This was a set book for my feminist fantasy book club. It is getting a lot of attention recently because it is being adapted into a TV series. We mostly read books written by women, but this author is an Australian man who wrote this book from the perspective of a woman.

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“The Rook” by Daniel O’Malley is an urban fantasy novel based in London about Myfanwy, a young woman who wakes up with no memory. When she finds a letter in her jacket pocket to herself from herself, she discovers that she works for a secret agency as a high ranking administrator and that someone is trying to kill her. As she follows the trail her former self left her, Myfanwy is faced with a decision: start a new life, or solve the mystery of her old life.

This is a fun, fantasy/superhero take on the classic spy thriller genre. O’Malley brings bureaucracy to life and explores the concept of how a government could possibly handle ongoing and wildly variable threats of a supernatural variety. O’Malley is a spirited writer and largely this is an easy book to read. It actually reminded me a lot of Brent Weeks’ “The Night Angel Trilogy“, both in style and in the concept of some of the antagonists. O’Malley pushes human bodies and human wills to their limits in a similar way.

Prior to meeting with the rest of my book club, I had been taking notes on my phone, which I won’t quote here because it is way too full of spoilers, about things that bothered me about this book. There were numerous things. First of all, as someone with a Welsh name that your average Australian struggles to say, I was absolutely aghast that O’Malley made the decision to suggest that Myfanwy pronounces her name “Miffany”. What? WHAT?! No. Unacceptable. If you want to call your character Miffany: fine. Do that. But to deliberately mangle a Welsh name is completely out of order and I refused to think of her name as anything other than Myfanwy the entire time reading this book.

I could see what he was doing, but I did feel at times that O’Malley was trying to be diverse and global while writing this book, but sometimes it just did not work. For example, at one point he refers flippantly to “sunning herself on some balcony in Borneo”. Borneo, for those playing at home, is not a country; it is an enormous island shared by three countries: Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. I won’t go in detail to the lack of high-rises, the proportion of rainforest, the humidity or the conservative clothing culture. However, O’Malley made a few off-hand remarks about far away places and advantages that some races have to using powers, and it fell a bit flat.

I think that the biggest problem I had with this book was the exposition. So. Much. Exposition. In my notes I wrote “this book is 60% exposition”. The structure of the book is primarily an alternation between Myfanwy’s current thoughts, and the letters that past Myfanwy has left her to read explaining her job and how things work. While this is a perfectly acceptable way to structure the novel, despite supposedly differing significantly in personality, the two Myfanwys are almost indistinguishable in voice. Past Myfanwy also spends most of her time writing at length about different aspects of the Checquy (pronounced mystifyingly and annoyingly as Sheck-Eh). I appreciate O’Malley’s worldbuilding, I do, but there has to be a balance between giving your readers enough information to understand your world and actually propelling the story along.

I think that this book is probably very appealing to a lot of people, and I foresee that the TV series is going to be very popular. It annoyed me on a lot of levels, but it was readable enough and novel enough to get me through.

 

 

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Filed under Book Reviews, eBooks, Fantasy, Mystery/Thriller

The Place on Dalhousie

Coming of age drama about family, relationships and place

One thing my sister and I share is a love of Melina Marchetta’s books. Some time ago, I saw Marchetta speak about a previous book, and afterwards I felt so guilty that I didn’t think to get one signed for my sister. So this time when I saw her speak, I made sure to get a signed copy for my sister as an early birthday present. However, I may have sneakily read it before I gave it to her.

“The Place on Dalhousie” by Melina Marchetta is a novel about a young girl called Rosie who finds herself in a remote country town caring for an elderly woman when a flood hits. She meets an emergency volunteer called Jimmy, and in the chaos and the excitement, they form a fleeting connection. Two years later, Rosie returns to her childhood home in Sydney to face her stepmother Martha and the house her father built and left them after he died. Hurt, angry and in desperate need of help, Rosie doesn’t have a lot of options, but when Martha begins to look at selling the house, Rosie will have to reconsider her ideas about what family is.

This is a lovely book that is a loose sequel to Marchetta’s earlier books “Saving Francesca” and “The Piper’s Son” (though you absolutely don’t have to have read the first two to enjoy this one). Marchetta explores a plethora of themes in this book ranging from grief to motherhood to family to different Italian migrant experiences to relationships to aged care. It is exquisitely written and as a reader, you cannot help but fall in love with the abrasive but genuine and fierce Rosie. Marchetta gently explores her characters’ strengths and weaknesses, and brings them together with everyday things.

The only criticism anyone could possibly make about this book is that the ending is tied very neatly in a bow. But you know what? Sometimes you really need a book like that. If you’re looking something to warm you up this winter, this is the perfect book to curl up with.

 

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, General Fiction

Wanting

Historical fiction linking colonial Tasmania with Dickens’ London

Content warning: racism, colonisation

This book wasn’t my first choice and it didn’t have a particularly auspicious beginning. In my one and only attempt at a blind date with a book, at a bookstore with the punny name Hooked on Books which has long since closed in the coastal town Batemans Bay, I found myself unhappily with a book that was fourth in a series that had not read. Now, I appreciate that the point of a blind date with a book is that you get a book wrapped in brown paper and have no idea what might be inside. However, I didn’t really think it was in the spirit of the exercise to wrap a book that you needed to have read the first three in the series to appreciate. Anyway, I reluctantly asked to swap, and they reluctantly agreed, and I walked away with this book. It sat on my bookshelf half unwrapped for three years, and when I found myself with a second Flanagan book on my to-read pile, I thought it was about time I read the first.

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“Wanting” by Richard Flanagan is a historical fiction novel about the explorer Sir John Franklin and his wife Lady Jane Franklin, his stint as Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen’s Land and the cultural impact of his disappearance while on an arctic expedition. The book mostly splits between the story of Mathinna, an Aboriginal girl adopted then soon after abandoned by the Franklins, and Charles Dickens’ involvement in a play inspired by Sir Franklin’s disappearance. The two stories are connected not only by the Franklins, but by the theme of desire.

I really liked the beginning of this novel. The Protector is a fantastic character in his abhorrence and Flanagan’s sense of dramatic irony is second to none. I felt like it was a strong start and Flanagan captured the brutality, the indifference and the arbitrariness of colonisation and the devastating impact it had on the Aboriginal people of Tasmania. Flanagan is a strong writer and brings to life the terrible contrast between the increasing affluence of the white settlers, and the increasing desolation of the indigenous population.

The beginning was good, but there were so many things that irked me about this book. The juxtaposition between Dickens’ chapters and Mathinna’s chapters was jarring. I can see what Flanagan was trying to do, but I just don’t think it got there. Neither Dickens nor Franklin were compelling enough characters and I honestly eye-rolled my entire way through each of Dickens’ chapters. Mathinna was much more compelling, but I was very unhappy with the way that she was handled. Her story was told as a tragedy, and instead of giving her any agency at all, Flanagan depicts her as a victim subjected to horrific (and, in my opinion, largely unnecessary) violence.

This actually isn’t the first book I have read about the Franklins and Mathinna, and a lot of the criticisms I had about that book, I am going to echo again here. I just don’t think that the story of what happened to the original people of Tasmania needs to be bolstered by shoehorning in figures from the British literary scene of the 1800s. I wish that Flanagan had just excised the entire Dickens story and had stuck with Tasmania. The Franklins weren’t that interesting, and I wasn’t sure that cutting Franklin’s daughter Eleanor out was particularly strategic either because that was a missed opportunity for exploring the family’s interaction with Mathinna.

Anyway, I think that Mathinna’s story needs to be told and that someone, probably one of the incredible Aboriginal writers being published at the moment, needs to do it justice.

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

The Bell Jar

Classic literature about a young woman living with depression

Content warning: mental illness, depression, suicide

This is a book that really doesn’t need an introduction. To be honest, I’m not entirely certain where I found my copy. It has no price on it. It’s a 2005 edition so the pages are starting to yellow a little but it’s in good condition. Maybe I found it in my street library, or someone else’s. I’ve had it sitting on my to-read shelf for a long time and, look, I’m not going to lie, I picked it up and put it down a few times, but eventually I managed to settle into it.

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The backdrop of this photo is from Issue 1 of Lost Magazine, unfortunately no longer in print. The photographer of the model is Simon Tubey.

“The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath is a novel about Esther, a university student in her late teens who wins a prestigious summer internship in New York with a group of eleven other young women. From a lower middle-class family in Boston, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime for Esther. However, up close, the lifestyle isn’t as glamorous as she anticipated. When her run of winning scholarships and opportunities suddenly runs dry, Esther’s mental state plummets and after attempting suicide she is admitted to a psychiatric ward.

It’s difficult to read this book entirely as fiction given that Plath herself died after committing suicide shortly after its publication. It is beautifully written and over 50 years after publication is still refreshing in its frankness. There is a brilliant scene early in the book where after attending a very fancy function, the entire contingent falls ill with food poisoning. It sounds a bit trite to say, but this book reads like it must have been far ahead of its time. Plath is scathing about how meaningless the work at the magazine is, and depicts the way Esther’s cynicism begins to bleed into everything and how she fails to find meaning in her life in nothing short of a brilliant way. I also thought that Plath’s description of life in a psychiatric ward, and the experimental and harmful treatments from the time that Esther is put through, was both horrifying and very well done.

When reading books that were written long ago, I always get the strange feeling that nothing and everything is different. There were certainly plenty of observations that Plath made about sex, sexism, the commodification of beauty and class that still hold true today. However, one of the most difficult things about reading older books is seeing the way that race – even indirectly – was handled. There are quite a few instances where Esther compares her own appearance unfavourably towards people of different ethnicities or describes a person of colour’s appearance in a stereotyped way, and honestly, it is jarring when it happens. I also wasn’t super happy with how Joan, Esther’s boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend who is also a lesbian, was handled. And yes, yes, I know that people are a product of their times, but that doesn’t make people intrinsically right and ideas and attitudes, no matter how reflective of the time they were expressed in, can never be immune to criticism.

This is a short, sharp novel that is an illuminating snapshot of the time and still, to this day, has a lot to say about mental health, gender equality and class. It is difficult to separate the book from the author’s own life, but it does stand on its own and remains a cutting and raw exposé of life as a young woman struggling with mental illness and straddling a class divide.

 

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Filed under Book Reviews, Classics, General Fiction

The Strawberry Thief

Fourth installment in the “Chocolat” series

Warning: this review contains spoilers for “Chocolat”, “The Lollypop Shoes” and “Peaches for Monsieur le Curé”

I’m an enormous Joanne Harris fan, and I’ve been reading her books since I came across one in a house my family stayed at in the south of France when I was a teenager. I loved the first book in this series, and it was probably one of my earliest forays into magic realism. As more books in the series have been released sporadically over the years, I’ve religiously bought and read them. I didn’t think there was going to be another one, but as soon as I saw that there was, I rushed to the bookstore to buy it. Unfortunately, I was a couple of days to soon for the release date, so I tried again a few days later and secured myself a copy.

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“The Strawberry Thief” by Joanne Harris is the fourth installment in the “Chocolat” series. In this book, Vianne Rocher is back living in the French village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes. Although she is back working in a chocolate shop, Vianne is going through a transition phase. Her daughter Anouk has moved away to Paris to live with her boyfriend, her other daughter Rosette, isolated by her disability, is spending more and more time alone and Roux seems to be pulling away from her. When a tattoo artist called Morgane moves into the shop across the way, Vianne fears that someone else has come to try to steal her daughters away from her. However, when Rosette inherits a piece of land, the community is thrown into a spin and the unlikely person left to solve the mystery of the recently deceased Narcisse is the local priest Raynaud.

Harris is an exquisite writer, and I love how this series has grown over time. When “Chocolat” was first published, Vianne was strong, feisty and idealistic. She blew into Lansquenet on a wild wind with Anouk with big plans. As time goes on, and she has a daughter with a disability, Vianne changes. She becomes more concerned with fitting in, with being accepted, and somewhere along the line she changes from being a mysterious witch to a small business owner. Even though she loves her daughters more than anything, she is starting to grieve their transition into adulthood and is finding it hard to imagine her life without them. Vianne also experiences a lot of guilt as a mother of a child with disability.  I thought that Harris really captured Vianne’s point of view in a way that would resonate with a lot of people.

This book is also really the first book that has shown Rosette’s perspective as a person with disability. Rosette has cri du chat syndrome, and because of her appearance and difficulties with verbal speech, she struggles to find acceptance. I felt that Harris did a really good job of balancing Rosette’s inner voice with her outer voice, and how she goes through the motions of trying to find her own independent life.

I think that the one thing that I wasn’t entirely comfortable with was the way that Harris connected magic with Rosette’s disability. Without giving too much away, there is a part in the book that suggests that Rosette’s disability is caused by some kind of cantrip and that if the spell can be broken, her disability will, if not cured, be significantly reduced. I completely see what Harris was trying to do and tie in the themes of the series together with the realities of living with and parenting someone with a disability. I think that despite the way Harris approached the rest of the book, it was this part that suggested that Rosette’s problem was her difficulties in communicating, and not the failure of her community to adapt, make adjustments and include her.

This series has changed over time, but at its heart it is a series about motherhood. Harris is a flexible and beautiful writer and each book grows and explores new issues as society grows. This is a perfect pick-me-up over a cup of hot chocolate.

 

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Filed under Book Reviews, General Fiction, Magic Realism

The Human Part

Finnish family drama

I’m a little guilty about the way I came about this book. My partner actually found it on the street somewhere, like someone had left it on the roof of a car and had forgotten about it when they had driven off. Naturally, he gave it to me, and, when I saw that it was a library book, naturally I had every intention of returning it. However, because I have an interest in lost books, I thought it would be a good idea to read it first. Ah, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I put it on my to-read shelf, and completely forgot about it, and then I realised it had been a really long time since we had found that book. Worried that it would be wildly overdue and would have racked up an enormous amount of fines, I raced through it and returned it to the library insistent on paying them. The librarian, who was very polite, told me that she could not let me pay the fines due to their privacy policies, but reassured me that the fines were small (I actually have the number $7 in my mind) and that she would explain it to her supervisor and try to get the fines waived.

“The Human Part” by Kari Hotakainen and translated by Owen F. Witesman is a novel about an elderly woman called Salme who, while attending a writer’s festival with her daughter, reluctantly agrees to sell her life story to an author experiencing writer’s block. She and her husband, who has stopped speaking, could use the money. As her story and the story of her adult children emerges during their tense meetings together, it is suggested that the author is taking some creative license. Soon he is imagining what Salme’s children must be thinking and doing, and then another character is introduced who will change everything.

I really struggled with this book. Sometimes it’s tempting to give the author the benefit of the doubt and throw the translator under the bus, but it wasn’t the writing that bothered me about this story. Rather, it was clear that this was meant to be a story about people and connection and relationships, but all the characters, with the slight exception of Salme, seemed like cardboard cutouts. Salme’s adult children are depicted as dysfunctional in their own ways (and, to be honest, I think there were three of them but I can only remember two clearly) but apart from their social issues, there wasn’t really much to remember about them.

Hotakainen touches on issues like poverty, mental health and work politics, but never quite manages to say anything particularly meaningful. The story sort of meanders from person to person without ever really finding its voice. The narrative structure, using stories within stories and moving from one character to the next exploring the connections in between, reminded me a lot of a film I saw a long time ago. I think the film did it better.

A rather flat book that sadly didn’t quite seem like it was worth the rigmarole of keeping it to read instead of returning it straightaway.

 

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