Tag Archives: book reviews

Darkskull Hall

Fantasy novel about a noble born girl sent to learn magic

Lockdown in Canberra continues, and I am still making an effort to chip away at my to-read shelf by whatever means necessary. One thing I realised is that I have a lot of fantasy books that, for some reason or another, I just have never gotten around to reading. I picked up this book when the author held a fantastic fantasy trivia night about 3 years ago that my fantasy book club went along to and absolutely dominated. In addition to winning a prize, I bought a copy of the first book in the author’s series and had it signed.

Image is of “Darkskull Hall” by Lisa Cassidy. The paperback book is in shadows and has a “staff” to the right illuminated with blue/green light at the top and warm “fire” light coming from the left. The cover is black with a picture of a young white woman with long brown hair who is holding green light in her hand with flames to the left.

“Darkskull Hall” by Lisa Cassidy is the first novel in the fantasy series “The Mage Chronicles”. The story is about a 16 year old called Alyx who is of noble blood and who lives a privileged, carefree life. All she thinks about is riding her pony and the budding romance with her oldest friend. However, her idyllic life comes to a grinding halt when she is told that she is the daughter of a mage and must go study across her nation’s border at a place called Darkskull Hall. The journey through contested territory is perilous, and some at Darkskull Hall even more so. Without any clear magic ability, knowledge of her true history or the protection of her family, Alyx must forge new friendships and find the courage to survive.

This is a readable book and Cassidy captures the voice of a teenage girl struggling with the abrupt transition from her previously pampered life. I enjoyed the gradual character development and while it is incremental, Cassidy does a good job of showing how the experience of Darkskull Hall, and loss of trust as a result, irreparably changes who Alyx is as a person. One thing that was incredibly refreshing was that Cassidy actually clearly knows a thing or two about horses, unlike some other fantasy novels I’ve read recently.

This isn’t a particularly ground-breaking example of the genre, and plenty of the hallmarks of a typical fantasy novel were there: magic school, yet-to-be-discovered magical talent, war with neighbouring country, irritatingly and unnecessarily vague teacher. Reading this, I had the sense that despite the diversity of the characters, the world is quite small and we don’t get much sense of different languages, cultures and geographies. I am sure the world gets explored more in later books.

I wasn’t sure after reading this book whether I would read the next in the series, but I was pleasantly surprised that it really got under my skin. This is, at heart, a character-driven book and I kept finding myself thinking about them after the book was finished.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Fantasy, Signed Books, Young Adult

Under the Whispering Door

Queer romance novel about life, death and what lies between

Content warning: death

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher.

Image is of the eBook cover of “Under the Whispering Door” by TJ Klune. The cover has a house with colourful storeys stacked precariously on top of one another, with a little scooter next to it. In the background is a stylised forest with a silhouette of a large deer.

“Under the Whispering Door” BY TJ Klune is a queer speculative fiction romance novel about a man called Wallace who has died. A lawyer by trade, Wallace’s initial instinct is to try to negotiate with the reaper who has been assigned to him about how to get back to his old life. However, when he finds himself at a strange tea shop run by a man called Hugo, Wallace begins to realise that while his old life was actually not that fulfilling, he is not quite ready to cross over.

Coincidentally, I have been reading a few books that grapple with the afterlife and the question of what lies beyond. This was overall a very enjoyable one. Klune is excellent at a slow-burn romance, and in that respect it is as delicate as the other book of his I’ve read. Wallace is the quintessential corporate lawyer but somehow Klune’s take on his character development feels fresh and original. This book radiates with warmth, and I enjoyed the tenderness that developed between Wallace, Hugo, reaper Mei, Hugo’s grandfather Nelson and, of course, a ghost dog called Apollo. I also liked how Klune set out the many rules of how the crossing over process is supposed to work, and promptly begins breaking them with wild abandon. I am very passionate about improving bad rules, and lots of bad rules are improved in this book.

One of the only things that frustrated me about this book was how frequently the characters say that Mei is an excellent (albeit inexperienced) reaper, when everything in the plot appears to suggest otherwise. I found her maddeningly vague, the few dead people she brought to the teashop seemed extremely unhappy about it and she seemed extremely quick to lose her temper with anyone who didn’t live in the teashop. The budding romance suffered a little for a bit too much tell and not quite enough show. Apart from being a device for adding tension, the reason why Mei was able to touch ghosts but not Hugo was never really explained. In fact there seemed to be a lot of inconsistencies about what ghosts could and couldn’t do, especially when it came to Apollo the dog.

Nevertheless, an enjoyable and sweet story about finding the biggest joy in the smallest pockets of life.

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Filed under Advanced Reading Copies, Book Reviews, eBooks, Fantasy, Magic Realism

The Wonderling

Children’s book about an orphan fox boy

I cannot remember where I bought this book from, but there is no mistaking why. It is a beautiful hardcover book with copper metallic detail on the lettering both on the slipcase and beneath. Then, of course, is the premise. As I have mentioned many times on here I am a big fan of animal fantasy, and the little anthropomorphic fox and suggestions of steampunk had me hooked.

Image is of “The Wonderling” by Mira Bartok. The hardcover book is resting on a slate grey background with a pocket watch, a clockwork mechanism with a bunny and a key to the right. The cover is outlined in lime green with a teal band across and filling in the middle. There are clockwork beetles in the corners, ribbons, a key and a red fox with one ear wearing a great jacket and a necklace with the number 13.

“The Wonderling” by Mira Bartok is a children’s animal fantasy steampunk novel about an orphan fox boy known only as 13. A “groundling”, a mix of both fox and boy, he lives at the Home for Wayward and Misbegotten Creatures run by the cruel Miss Carbunkle. Bullied and downtrodden, when he makes a new friend called Trinket who gives him a new name, Arthur agrees to escape the Home and try to find the truth about his past and his destiny.

There were a lot of positive things about this book, and I think Bartok’s writing is probably the strongest selling point. It is lyrical and playful and her descriptions are lovely to read. I really enjoyed the art sprinkled throughout the book and the all the different types of groundlings. Trinket was one of the best characters who, despite being tiny and almost entirely birdlike, had lots of gumption and pizzazz. I enjoyed the interludes with the young boy Pinecone and his family in their treehouse, and they were some of the most enjoyable parts of the book.

However, this book was heavily inspired by “Oliver Twist” with the hapless Arthur just as much a victim of circumstance as the orphan Oliver, and even Quintus is just like a hybrid of the Artful Dodger and Fagin. Despite these broad plot and character similarities, the story was rather confusing and there were a lot of elements that didn’t make sense or simply went nowhere. For example, someone out of kindness put something in Arthur’s pocket, but didn’t help any of the other groundlings? But Arthur inexplicably never checked his pocket? And then the thing was lost anyway? I also felt that while individually the elements of Arthur’s world were very whimsical, collectively the worldbuilding was a bit lacking. Some of the choices (e.g. men wearing top hats walking cats in Lumentown) seemed to be based more on aesthetics rather than logic.

An easy if somewhat meandering read that draws a lot of inspiration from Dickens.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fantasy, Pretty Books

Trace: Who killed Maria James?

Non-fiction book about making a podcast about an unsolved murder

Content warning: murder, graphic violence, child sexual abuse

I started listening to this podcast when it first aired back in 2017 and I was immediately engrossed, but perhaps not for the same reasons as everyone else who listens to true crime podcasts. In 2008 a friend of mine went missing while travelling overseas and was found dead several weeks later. The answer to the question of what happened to her has never been resolved. In fact, her case has also been discussed in episodes of different podcast. So listening to this story about a woman who was murdered in her own bookstore being told by someone who was truly committed to finding out the truth gave me hope that perhaps one day the truth of what happened to my friend will be uncovered. When the author came to the Canberra Writers’ Festival the following year to discuss her book, I knew that I had to go along. I’m not quite sure what led me to finally pick it up three years later, but the timing couldn’t have been better. After all these years, the Victorian Coroner is re-examining the case. The podcast had a new episode out just this month and you can keep up to date with the court proceedings here.

Image is of “Trace: Who killed Maria James” by Rachael Brown. The paperback book is resting against a red brick wall next to a small silver microphone. The cover is white with interlocking puzzle pieces. Behind the missing pieces is a photograph of Maria James in red.

“Trace: Who killed Maria James” by Rachael Brown is a non-fiction book about the making of Season 1 of the true crime podcast “Trace“. This season is about the unsolved murder of Maria James, who was found stabbed to death in her own bookshop in 1980. Brown reviews historic case material and interviews police officers who were involved in the original investigation while she tries to negotiate the production of the podcast and navigate interviews with witnesses who may be reluctant to speak out.

This is an engrossing book that goes into much deeper detail than the podcast, with a strong focus on Brown’s own experiences researching and recording. With the extra space afforded by the book, Brown is able to give a lot more detail about the different leads that were and were not followed by Victoria Police. She outlines the initial investigation, and shares the in-depth interviews she has with the detective who was the lead of the case. I think some of the most powerful parts of the book are when Brown, in her signature honest style, acknowledges the choices she made as a journalist and the times where those choices were mistakes. Brown is forthright about balancing the needs of the interviewees, the priorities of the producers and pursuing promising lines of enquiry. The most harrowing parts were about Maria’s sons and their experiences of abuse by priests of the Catholic church, and the stories Brown uncovered from over survivors of abuse. Perhaps, however, the most disturbing parts were how many errors there seemed to be in the way the evidence in Maria’s case was handled and whether or not these errors were accidental.

An incredibly important book not just for true crime fans or even fans of the podcast, but for all of us who believe that the truth should not be obstructed.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Non Fiction

Nine Perfect Strangers

Low-key thriller novel about an unconventional health retreat

Content warning: suicide, mental health

I received a copy of this book ages ago courtesy of Harry Hartog. I have been on a real adaptation kick recently so when I heard that a TV adaptation was being released, and given my very real lockdown attempt to finally get on top of my to-read shelf, I was inspired to finally read it.

Image is of “Nine Perfect Strangers” by Liane Moriarty. The paperback book is sitting on a blue and silver yoga mat between a Tibetan singing bowl and a small milk jar with a sprig of wattle blossom. The cover is white with 9 differently coloured stones balanced on top of one another, and has the additional text that says “Can a health retreat really change your life forever?”

“Nine Perfect Strangers” by Liane Moriarty is a low key thriller novel about 9 people who sign up for a wellness retreat at a place called Tranquillum House on a property in rural Australia. A bestselling novelist, a couple with relationship issues, parents and their adult child, a mother, a lawyer and a cynical man everyone seems to recognise each find themselves hoping to change their lives for the better. The charismatic Masha, director of the program and supported by her staff Yao and Delilah, is eager to lead each person on a personalised 10-day journey of wellness and healing towards a new life. However, after the first few days it becomes apparent that Masha’s methods are unorthodox, illegal and potentially deadly.

This was a very readable book with Moriarty’s signature character-driven style. The book changed focus from character to character, but was primarily told from Frances the writer’s perspective who was particularly endearing. Moriarty really teased out each character’s personality and traumas, and even though his family’s story was one of the more challenging ones, I really enjoyed the character of Napoleon and how Moriarty unpacked his nerdy cheeriness to expose the pain beneath. I also thought Ben and Jessica had a really interesting dynamic, and Moriarty explores how a drastic change in life circumstances can impact a relationship and different perspectives on cosmetic surgery. I thought she really captured the spirit of the wellness tourism industry with just the right amount of foreboding to keep things interesting. I really felt that Moriarty must have spent quite a bit of time researching, because the way she wrote about certain elements of the book was very realistic. The tension between the projected confidence about finding the answers to a fulfilling life and the self-doubt that affects us all was done really well, and Masha’s hubris was something to behold.

As readable and amusing as it is, this book is a little bit extra and there were a few parts where the drama felt a little excessive. While I really enjoyed Moriarty’s descriptions of Tranquillum House, there was maybe a little too much celebration of the colonial project and the house’s convict history and no recognition of traditional owners of the land. Seeing the modern timber and glass building in the (American) adaptation of the book, I felt that perhaps it was the better setting. The ending was maybe a little too drawn out and neat, but in these times far be it for me to begrudge a happy ending.

A spirited and enjoyable read with a good dose of histrionics and a very tidy resolution. While the TV series is maybe a little too Americanised and a little melodramatic, so far it seems well-cast and fun enough to watch.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, General Fiction, Mystery/Thriller

The Cabinet

Surreal novel about human evolution and Korean society

Content warning: fatphobia

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher.

Image is of the eBook cover of “The Cabinet” by Un-su Kim and translated by Sean Lin Halbert. The cover has an image of a chameleon holding onto a black branch, stylised with different textures including images of cabinets. The cover has a pale pink background, and the text is enclosed in boxes with a black cat peeking over the top.

“The Cabinet” by Un-su Kim and translated by Sean Lin Halbert is a surreal novel about a young man called Mr Kong who works in a dull office job in Korea. One day, out of boredom, he discovers a locked cabinet and when he finally manages to unlock it becomes obsessed with reading the files of people with strange bodies and abilities known as “symptomers”. As Mr Kong becomes more and more involved in their difficult and sometimes annoying lives, he must decide what his ethical obligations are for this possible new species of human.

As I have mentioned on here previously, I am always very interested in biopunk and books that examine the possibilities of genetics and human evolution. Mr Kong spends a considerable amount of time musing on how the symptomers represent the next dominant species and one that will overtake humanity as we know it. I enjoyed the individual vignettes of the individuals who contact him, and Mr Kong’s rather exasperated role as a sort of social worker for these people trying to help solve their impossible situations. I felt that the writing (including Halbert’s translation) was very smooth and captured a sense of corporate absurdism which was both amusing and eminently relatable. I enjoyed Mr Kong’s character development, especially in relation to his ostracised colleague and examining fatphobia and neurodiversity in Korean society and workplaces.

I think where things fell down a bit for me was a lack of internal logic within Kim’s worldbuilding. While individually the case studies of symptomers were interesting, such as the man with a gingko tree growing out of his finger and a people who would disappear and reappear much later into the future, Kim’s explanations for how genetics could cause these things to happen were all but absent. He hints at experimental interference, but I guess for someone who is a bit of a science fiction aficionado, I think I was looking for at least a little bit of effort towards an explanation. Even something as convenient as a “chrono-impairment” genetic disorder or having a new X-gene. I appreciate that this book is less science fiction and more surrealism and social commentary, but I think a bit more consistency to try to link how someone with a lizard in their mouth could possibly be connected with someone who sleeps for years at a time would have helped. I think that ultimately it read more like a collection of short stories tied loosely together by Mr Kong’s observations about corporate culture and inclusivity, and thus lacked cohesion.

A creative and thought-provoking novel that was enjoyable to read even if it at times felt disjointed.

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Filed under Advanced Reading Copies, Book Reviews, eBooks, Science Fiction

Under Your Wings / The Majesties

Dark mystery about a wealthy Chinese-Indonesian family

Content warning: family violence, racial violence

When I first heard about this book, I knew immediately that it was a book I wanted to read. I lived in Indonesia for 5 years when I was very young, and another year for university, but have not read nearly as much fiction by Indonesian authors or set in Indonesia as I would like. I was already familiar with this author from her translation work, and after a bit of trouble finding a physical copy of the book (it has been republished in America under a different title), I found out that it was available as an audiobook. I was training for a run with one of my dogs (that we ended up not being able to go to anyway), and it was the perfect length and topic for my next listen.

Image is of the audiobook cover of “Under Your Wings” by Tiffany Tsao. The cover has a picture of a woman in profile with her hair up in a bun against a plain white background. She is in black and white with a red butterfly covering her eyes. The cover has the words “Blood is thicker than water, but poison trumps all” in red.

“Under Your Wings” (published in the USA as “The Majesties”) by Tiffany Tsao and narrated by Nancy Wu is a mystery novel about a young woman called Gwendolyn Sulinado who is the sole survivor of a mass murder. As she lies in hospital on the brink of death, she reflects on her life and upbringing and tries to piece together what caused her twin sister Estella to poison her entire wealthy Chinese-Indonesian family.

This was a very enjoyable book for me and had lots of elements to hook me and keep me hooked. I have been lucky enough to attend some enormous Chinese weddings in South-East Asia and have experienced first hand some of the opulence that comes along with them, and I loved Tsao’s casual yet compelling descriptions of the wealth enjoyed by Gwendolyn’s family. While at university, I wrote a paper on the racism experienced by Chinese-Indonesians, particularly during the May 1998 riots, and I thought Tsao’s novel explored this historic racial tension from a unique and insightful point of view. Tsao acknowledges the privilege enjoyed by the Sulinados and other families in similar positions, and the necessary political deals and exploitation that leads to such extreme wealth. Tsao also acknowledges the tension between pribumi and Chinese-Indonesians goes two ways as discovered by Gwendolyn when exploring her family’s history.

Tsao also examines the issue of intermarriage between powerful families and how money, prestige and reputation are sometimes put before the safety and wellbeing of individual family members. One of my favourite parts of the book, however, was reading about Gwendolyn’s work mixing genetic engineering (something I love to read about), her passion for entomology and fashion to create beautiful dynamic garments. Wu was a perfect narrator for this story and her ear for accents captured the nuance of Chinese-Indonesians not only of different genders and ages, but who had studied in Australia as compared to the USA.

I think probably the only thing that I wasn’t completely sure about was the twist at the end. Without giving anything away and not to say that the ending didn’t fit the narrative, I felt that the story was already so delicate and complex, I didn’t think that it needed one more final reveal to make its point.

A beautifully written and beautifully narrated book that had me from the get-go.

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Filed under Audiobooks, Australian Books, Book Reviews, General Fiction, Mystery/Thriller

Red Sparrow

A thriller about Russian and American spycraft

Content warning: objectification of women, torture, sexual assault

It is the time for film adaptations, and this book is actually the tie-in edition. I remember seeing quite a slick trailer for this film (though I had never seen it), so on a whim I picked up this book at the Lifeline Book Fair. I have been reading a lot of books that have been adapted into films or TV shows recently so I thought I would stick with this trend and chip away at my to-read shelf.

Image is of “Red Sparrow” by Jason Matthews. The paperback book is sitting next to a bowl of borsch, Eastern European beetroot soup garnished with sour cream and dill. The cover is red with a picture of Jennifer Lawrence who plays one of the main characters in the film adaptation.

“Red Sparrow” by Jason Matthews is a thriller novel about Russian and American spies. After her career is stymied, former ballet dancer Dominika is pressured by her uncle to join Russian intelligence and train to become a ‘sparrow’, a secret agent trained in seduction. Her target is Nate: an American CIA agent who is forced to leave Russia and take up a much less exciting post in Finland. When Nate and Dominika cross paths, they are instantly drawn to one another and begin a game of spycraft made even more dangerous by attraction.

Image is of the book in a paper bag filled with ingredients in reusable containers.

I was able to forgive a lot in this book for one simple reason: at the end of each chapter was a recipe. I absolutely love fiction books with recipes, and this book had a recipe at the end of every chapter. The story had quite a lot of potential, and the earlier chapters in particular were tense and surprising. I enjoyed reading about Russia, and even if the parts about the sparrow school weren’t even remotely true it made for compelling (though disturbing) reading.

Image is of the book next to a plate of potato fritters that were absolutely delicious, and a creamy spinach dip that didn’t quite work.

As enjoyable as it was to cook recipes from the book, the rest of the book left a lot to be desired. I thought that the set up would have been perfect for a Spy vs. Spy thriller, where both Dominika and Nate use their spycraft skills to try to hook the other into betraying their country and spilling state secrets. Unfortunately, this book suffered from classic American exceptionalism, the tension between Dominika and Nate is broken way too early on and the book swiftly becomes more about the mechanics of passing on state secrets which, while of great interest to a former CIA agent, was of far less interest to me. This decision to shift focus meant that the pacing felt sluggish for the rest of the book, and I was much less invested in the characters. One thing I was shocked about was how frequently the author referred to breasts. Perhaps I’m not the target audience, but I was really shocked at how frequently the narrative was interrupted with superfluous references to breasts.

I’d like to say that the film was better, but it was not. They made the torture more gruesome, the sex more rapey and there was, disturbingly, more chemistry between Dominika and her uncle than there was between Dominika and Nate. An OK book peppered with fun recipes that did not need a film adaptation.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Mystery/Thriller

Nevernight

Italian-inspired fantasy about a school of assassins

Content warning: sex, very mild spoiler about one character

This was the most recent set book for my fantasy book club and, given lockdown, likely to be the last one for a while. I have seen these books for sale with that typical white cover, black silhouette with a splash of colour that is pretty standard across the epic fantasy genre.

Nevernight (The Nevernight Chronicle, Book 1) | Rakuten Kobo Australia
Image is of a digital book cover of “Nevernight” by Jay Kristoff. The cover is of a black crow overlaid with other images such as a cat, a barrel, a sword, hands, stars, a cross, a vial and a mask.

“Nevernight” by Jay Kristoff, the first book in “The Nevernight Chronicle”, is a fantasy novel about a teenage girl called Mia who is gearing herself up for an assassination. In a world with three suns, it is very rarely dark yet shadows creep through the city she calls home and Mia has been in hiding since she was a child. Once she collects her tithe she, and the mysterious catlike shadow she calls Mr Kindly, flee the city to try to find the Red Church: a school of assassins full of students driven by revenge. However, the Red Church may be even more deadly than the city of bones she left behind.

Once this book got going, it was an engrossing read. Kristoff’s Italian-inspired Senate and city of Godsgrave was a unique setting, where geography meets anatomy under an almost never-ending daylight. I liked the magic in this book, and Kristoff manages to strike a good balance between maintaining the mystery of Mia’s abilities yet keeping the reader satisfied by exploring them in a variety of situations. He also is ruthless about who lives and who dies, and particularly in the later parts of the book, keeps you on your toes. I really liked the politics between the students and it was in these scenes that Kristoff’s writing really shone.

However, I found the first half of the book way too overwritten. Kristoff used a particular sentence structure multiple times along the lines of “all [noun]-[adjective] noun, and [noun]-[adjective] noun” which grew a bit tedious:

  • “all open mouths and closed fists”
  • “all milk-white skin and…bow-shaped lips”
  • “all crushed red velvet”
  • “coal-black eyes”
  • “feather-down smile”.

I did feel like Kristoff found his groove as the book progressed, though he did like to write a passage, go back in time to give it context, then write the passage again which felt a bit repetitive. There was a really, really long chase scene through a desert that seemed a bit unnecessary, and it was after that the book started to come into its own. There were a few other things that bugged me. In the opening scenes, Mia loses her virginity to a “sweetboy” (a sexworker) and it is a painful, bloody cliché that is treated like a universal occurrence even though it isn’t. Unbelievably, she paid for the experience even though he was clumsy and she didn’t orgasm. It is not until page 326 that she realises perhaps she paid the sweetboy too much.

At some point Mia acquires a horse she nicknames Bastard, and although he is described as being 20 hands high, she easily is able to jump on him. It always disappoints me a little reading fantasy where the author gives away how little they know about horses, and this was a classic example: 20 hands is the size of the Guinness World Record holder for tallest horse, it is absolutely ludicrous that Mia could mount him without a stepladder. On top of that, Kristoff says that he is a thoroughbred which Wikipedia will quickly inform you ranges from 15.2 to 17 hands high i.e. a foot shorter than Bastard. Slight spoiler: another thing that didn’t make much sense was the character Hush. Although Hush is frequently described as beautiful, it is revealed at one point that he has no teeth. Another quick Wikipedia search indicates that loss of teeth can result in a sunken face and a shrinking jawbone.

A readable book with good worldbuilding and an interesting premise that annoyed me from time to time.

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Filed under Book Reviews, eBooks, Fantasy, Young Adult

The One Dollar Horse

Young adult pony fiction about rescuing a horse to become a champion

Content warning: racial stereotypes, slurs

When I was young, I was an avid pony fiction fan and have even written about how it is at heart a feminist genre of books. So when I saw this book at the Lifeline Book Fair with fuchsia page edges, gold lettering and a pretty grey horse on the cover, of course I bought it. I realised despite this blog’s namesake and my shelves being full of them, it’s been a while since I’ve reviewed a book with tinted edges and this one caught my eye.

Image is of “The One Dollar Horse” by Lauren St John. The paperback book is resting on a green ribbon with gold fringe and lettering that says “Finalist” next to a small horseshoe. The book has pick page edges and a grey horse on the cover.

“The One Dollar Horse” by Lauren St John is a horse fiction novel about a teenage girl called Casey Blue who lives in East London. With her single father recently out of prison, Casey does not have many resources to support her pie in the sky dream: winning the Badminton Horse Trials. However the closest Casey can get right now is volunteering at a local riding school and riding one of the ponies after all the students have finished. However when she comes across an emaciated and wild-eyed horse on his way to the knackery, her split-second decision to save him changes everything.

This is a classic horse story of overcoming adversity, finding a pony and achieving greatness. In some ways, St John had an interesting premise: the impact of incarceration on a family. I felt that this aspect of the story was handled quite sensitively and St John explores how discrimination on the basis of an irrelevant criminal record can haunt someone, even after they have done their time. I thought that Storm Warning’s storyline was strong, and the trauma he experienced takes a long time to heal from. A high-spirited horse with physical and psychological damage is a big challenge, and I really enjoyed the patience and creativity Casey used to build trust and win him over.

However, there were quite a few flaws in this book that I was not able to overlook. First of all was the sheer number of dei ex machina. Nobody can fault Casey’s passion and drive, but ultimately, despite her lack of experience and resources, things just work out for her. She ultimately receives a trainer, accommodation, stabling, farrier services, tack, clothing and money all through luck and generosity of others. I certainly appreciate that many of the riders Casey is up against come from extremely privileged backgrounds with all the money and support in the world, and that eventing is an incredibly expensive sport. I’m not too proud to admit that perhaps some of this is envy, and that any teen girl with a pony wishes that everyone would drop everything and throw money and time at them to fulfil their dreams of competing. However, there were just too many things that fell into Casey’s lap, as much as I appreciated that she’d had a tough time and deserved a bit of luck.

However the real issue I had with this book was the inadvertent racism. One of the volunteers at the riding school is of Chinese heritage, and St John refers to her as “the Chinese girl” Jin multiple times (instead, of course, just by her name Jin), and her sole role in the book is to spend her time assisting Casey and facilitating her uncle dressed in “black martial arts pyjamas with a dragon embroidered on the pocket” to administer acupuncture, whose speech St John writes in an exaggerated “Chinese” accent. I’m sure you don’t need my assistance to identify the stereotypes. She also describes a character as “g*psy dark” and is disparaging towards characters who are overweight. Despite being quite understanding of Casey’s situation, St John writes in rather a sneering, snobby tone about the other people who live in her apartment block and who she goes to school with. You would think, given her sympathy for Casey’s background, she would be more sympathetic towards people of similar backgrounds but sadly no. Even poor Mrs Smith cops it a bit being described at the tender age of 62 as an “older woman”.

While I enjoyed the fantasy of rescuing a horse to build an unshakable bond, and the complexity added by Casey’s father’s challenging background, ultimately I had to suspend disbelief just a little too often and the effect was frequently interrupted by St John’s likely unconscious but nevertheless pervasive sense of superiority.

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Filed under Book Reviews, General Fiction, Tinted Edges, Young Adult