Tag Archives: book reviews

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Gothic novel about two sisters in a mysterious manor

I needed a new audiobook to listen to when I was doing training for my hike in Tasmania, and I had made a shortlist of books that were around 5 hours long which seems to be the sweet spot for my attention span. I had heard of this one before but had no idea what it was about. It looked a bit spooky and I was keen to try something a bit different.

Image is of the audiobook cover of “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” by Shirley Jackson. The cover is a black and white artwork of two blonde girls and a black cat with townspeople behind them in a style that looks similar to linocut printing

“We Have Always Lived in the Castle” by Shirley Jackson and narrated by Bernadette Dunne is a gothic novel about an 18 year old girl known as Merricat who lives in the Blackwood family manor with her sister Constance and her uncle Julian. Constance never leaves the house and its grounds and Uncle Julian is a wheelchair user, so it is up to Merricat to walk into town each week to shop for groceries. Although the people in the village serve her and let her take library books home without ever expecting her to return them, they are also openly hostile towards her. Nevertheless, Thefamily shares a quiet life with Merricat playing with her cat Jonas, Constance working in her garden and Uncle Julian working on his book about the family’s recent history. However, when their cousin Charles turns up the manor, their peaceful existence is thrown into disarray.

This is a delightfully unsettling book that keeps you guessing the whole time. Merricat is a captivating narrator who is utterly unreliable and who appears both younger and older than her actual age. I really enjoyed the way Jackson maintains the sense of uncertainty throughout the book with characters saying contradicting things about what happened to the Blackwood family that are never truly resolved. Merricat’s use of magic and superstition contributes to the mysterious atmosphere and undermine’s the reader’s understanding of what is real and what is not. Dunne was an excellent narrator who captures Merricat’s apparent innocence perfectly.

A fascinating book that kept me thinking and wondering long after it had finished, and a really good option if you’re in the mood for something eerie.

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Filed under Audiobooks, Book Reviews, General Fiction, Horror, Mystery/Thriller

The House in the Cerulean Sea

Queer urban fantasy romance

This was the set book for my most recent fantasy book club. Although I hadn’t heard of this author prior to reading the book, the author has had a number of books published recently and is generating quite a bit of hype for his novels.

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Image is of a digital book cover of “The House in the Cerulean Sea” by TJ Klune. The cover is of a two storey redbrick house perched precariously on a blocky, stylised cliff face over blue ocean with a sunrise behind.

“The House in the Cerulean Sea” by TJ Klune is a queer romantic urban fantasy novel about a public servant called Linus who works as a case worker for the Department in Charge of Magical Youth. Linus spends his days in a toxic workplace writing reports about the compliance of special orphanages with child welfare standards and his evenings alone listening to records with a cat who doesn’t particularly like him. Linus’ life is lonely but predictable, and he is always careful to maintain clear boundaries between work and home. However, when he is called to attend a meeting with Extremely Upper Management, Linus soon finds himself auditing an institution so secret even he has never heard of it. He travels to Marsyas Island Orphanage and meets the enigmatic Arthur Parnassus and the peculiar children he is responsible for. As Linus gets to know them, it becomes harder and harder to remain objective.

The book club member who picked this book also picked “The Rook“, and it has been really interesting reading another example of a subgenre that I’m going to call bureaucratic fantasy. Most fantasy novels focus on war and overcoming evil, and it is kind of a nice change to read about the less exciting practicalities of how magic might be regulated in a more real world setting. It was also really refreshing to read a romance novel that gently unfolds without anything especially bad happening. This is a sweet novel with a strong message of belonging. Klune manages to maintain a sense of tension without ever causing the characters too much discomfort, which is honestly kind of a relief during these times. The kids were really fun and I particularly enjoyed Chauncey and his big dreams of becoming a bellhop.

There were only two things that jarred with me a little. One was that Linus’ world didn’t really have a clear, consistent internal logic. There are a mishmash of magical beings that seem to derive from different mythologies and belief systems without any of those belief systems actually being incorporated into the story. It’s not often that I would be calling for more exposition, but I did feel that the magic was more of a nod to the canon rather than well thought out itself. The other was that while I appreciated the sweetness of the story, there were a number of scenes that were just too saccharine for my liking.

A light-hearted story that is not particularly challenging but is satisfying nonetheless.

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Filed under Book Reviews, eBooks, Fantasy

Where the Fruit Falls

Family saga novel about racism, Aboriginal identity and intergenerational trauma

Content warning: racism

2020 was not a great year for authors. Usually when an author publishes a book, especially with a well-resourced publisher, the author has the opportunity to promote the book through events such as interviews, panels and readings. For many authors last year, social distancing, lockdowns and curfews meant that promoting books in person simply was not possible. This book was published last year and although I saw a lot of discussion about it on social media, unfortunately I don’t think it got anything like the publicity that it deserved. I bought a copy and it is a beautiful book with a striking design including gold foil on the cover. I haven’t been very active on here recently, but this is my next book to review, and given that today is the first day of Reconciliation Week, it is an ideal time to boost an Aboriginal author.

Image is of “Where the Fruit Falls” by Karen Wyld. The softcover book is sitting between three pink lady apples and three potatoes. The cover is red with a winding blue river in the background and the silhouette of a tree in the foreground with apples picked out in gold foil.

“Where the Fruit Falls” by Karen Wyld is a family saga set in Australia in the mid-1900s. After the end of a family chapter, Brigid, a young woman with a white mother and an Aboriginal father who was killed in action, leaves her grandmother’s apple orchard to make her own way. Following a willy wagtail, Brigid finds her way to lost kin to have her twin babies on country and to gradually make peace with her identity. However, in a changing world, her daughters must face their own challenges and survive the prejudices levelled against them for the colour of their skin.

When I’m reading, I usually take notes of my impressions of the book and things I liked or didn’t like. For this book, the only note I wrote was this: “This story feels like a pebble that has rolled up and down a beach, over and over. It may not be the same shape as the original stone, but it is still the same stone; just smoother and a nice weight in your hand”. This book feels like a story that has been told over and over, perfected a little more with each retelling. Some people have described this book as magic realism, however Wyld elaborates a little more on how she considers it a literary device rather than a genre and how she inserts fractures in her her writing to draw the reader’s attention. Embellished in some parts, abridged in others, this story flows with a familiar rhythm.

However, this is by no means a typical story. Wyld makes some fearless narrative decisions that are devastating in their impact and reverberate throughout the whole novel. Brigid is a complex character who struggles to break free from the lessons she was taught about her skin colour and her worth as a child. Through her daughters Tori and Maggie, Wyld explores the stark difference in how people are treated based on their appearance and the assumptions made about their connection to country and culture. Although Wyld never refers to any particular region or city, this book has a really strong sense of place and I really enjoyed seeing the land through Brigid’s eyes and the city through the twins’.

A beautifully constructed and heartbreaking story. Not just this week but every week, I implore you to follow, support and listen to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers to learn about and empathise with this country’s history and the continuing impacts of colonialism, and this book is an excellent place to start.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, General Fiction, Magic Realism

The Northern Reach

Family saga set in Maine, USA

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

Image is of a digital book cover of “The Northern Reach” by W. S. Winslow

“The Northern Reach” by W. S. Winslow is a family saga set in and around the small fictional coastal town of Wellbridge in Maine, USA. Spanning about 100 years and the four intersecting Lawson, Baines, Moody and Martin families, traumas echo through the generations against the dramatic Maine coastline.

This was a really readable novel with an exceptionally strong sense of place. Winslow has a real strength for characterisation and each point of view character has a unique and distinct voice. I really enjoyed Liliane, the sophisticated French woman who finds herself widowed in unwelcoming Wellbridge. I also really liked the sisters Coralene, Marlene and Earlene and the subtleties in their relationships and Winslow’s hints of infidelity. Winslow also thoughtfully and sensitively explores family trauma and how they impact not just the immediate generation but the subsequent generations afterwards. The moody coastal atmosphere is also complemented by some ghostly visitors.

The only thing that was a bit challenging about this book was keeping track of all the families. Winslow helped a lot by providing a full family tree at the beginning of the book and then specific branches throughout, however reading an eBook did make it a little hard to flip back to the diagrams.

An immersive and insightful novel about the complexities of families, relationships and small towns.

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Filed under Advanced Reading Copies, Book Reviews, General Fiction

Honeycomb

Novel of original and interrelated fairytales

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

Image is of a digital book cover of “Honeycomb” by Joanne M. Harris and illustrated by Charles Vess. The cover (which will be the cover for the Australian edition) is powder blue with text and a stencil design of roses, vines, honeycomb and bees in bronze.

“Honeycomb” by Joanne M. Harris and illustrated by Charles Vess is a novel made up of original fairytales. Many of the chapters are distinct stories in the form of fables and parables, however most of them connect to an overarching story arc featuring the Lacewing King, a handsome yet selfish man who wanders through his kingdom ruling over the Silken Folk doing as he pleases. Nevertheless, as time passes and the number of his enemies grows larger, the Lacewing King’s self-interested lifestyle becomes unsustainable.

I have been a fan of Joanne M. Harris (styled as Joanne Harris for her non-fantasy fiction) for a really long time, and as early as 2012 I was reading her #storytime vignettes on Twitter (which have now been removed and collected into this book). I was even inspired to make the little painting below. The stories in this book make for hard-hitting, unsettling chapters that all contribute towards the overarching story of the Lacewing King. Harris conjures a captivating and uncomfortable world made of insects and excess, the same world that was touched upon in her previous book. Some of the fables in this book have clear underlying morals and are told in a similar style to “Animal Farm“. Harris writes particularly about the perils of following the crowd and placing too much faith in self-proclaimed leaders and self-important loudmouths. However, it is the journey of the Lacewing King that I was the most invested in. I really liked how Harris shows the repercussions of indifference over generations, but how also people can change their worldview. There are also stories that initially don’t appear to be related to the main story that Harris masterfully weaves in later.

The Lacewing King Page 1
Image is a watercolour illustration with a bee telling a story to three larvae against a background of yellow hexagons.

While individually I found each fairytale very readable, I did find it hard to settle into this book. I found myself reading one story then setting the book down. I think that although the structure of the book lent itself to this kind of story, it ultimately did feel quite interrupted.

A thought-provoking and refreshing approach to the fairytale genre.

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The Bone Shard Daughter

Fantasy novel about a crumbling island empire

It has been a while since my fantasy book club has met, though I hosted one a couple of months ago for a book I read quite some time ago, and by coincidence the title of this book was quite similar to the last one I reviewed.

Image is of a digital book cover of “The Bone Shard Daughter” by Andrea Stewart. The cover is of a terraced city, waves, ships and a large key stylised as marble carvings.

“The Bone Shard Daughter” by Andrea Stewart is a fantasy novel and the first novel in “The Drowning Empire” series. The book is about an empire of islands ruled by a reclusive emperor who maintains peace and order remotely through the use of beings called constructs. In the emperor’s palace, his daughter Lin competes for her father’s favour by learning bone shard magic to unlock secrets and her birth right as heir. Meanwhile, Jovis, an Imperial navigator turned renegade, is sailing through the archipelago in search of a boat with blue sails. Pursuing a particular heroic goal, Jovis must decide whether he doggedly continues his quest or whether he reluctantly accepts the other opportunities for heroism he is faced with.

Although I was a bit slow starting this book before book club, once I began reading I couldn’t stop. It is a gripping story with an uncomfortable and brilliant magical premise. Stewart asks the reader to consider what price it is reasonable for an empire to ask its citizens to pay for security, and when that price becomes too high. Jovis is one of those great characters with a tough, efficient exterior and a sentimental interior and I loved his chapters with his peculiar animal sidekick Mephi. Lin is a strategic and courageous character whose missing memory creates a sense of mystery and intrigue. I really liked the way that Stewart places her characters in situations where their decisions have life or death consequences, and some of those situations are heart-breaking. There are lots of complex storylines woven through this book that intersect and intertwine in surprising ways.

This book lingered with me for a long time after I finished it and I can’t wait to read the rest of the series when it comes out.

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Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters

Post-gender biopunk science fiction novel

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

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Image is of a digital book cover of “Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters” by Aimee Ogden. The cover is of a silhouette of a person standing underwater on the launch-pad of a vehicle.

“Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters” by Aimee Ogden is a science fiction novella about a woman called Atuale whose village has been overwhelmed by a disease. Having undergone gene-editing to live with her husband and his technology-resistant people on land, Atuale must return to the sea to seek a favour from the one they call the World Witch. However, the World Witch is one of many Sea-Clan people Atuale left behind and even though they have a new form, their history remains unchanged. It soon becomes clear that the only way to find a cure is to leave the planet. Faced with an intimate journey through space with the World Witch to seek assistance from other, more technologically advanced human races, Atuale must decide which betrayals she can live with.

I absolutely love this genre, and Ogden’s style and themes reminds me a lot of one of my favourite authors, Vonda N. McIntyre. Ogden hints at a huge post-human diaspora of which we see only the smallest glimpse through Atuale’s limited gaze. Atuale is a fascinating character who discards the limits of one civilisation for those of another. What she lacks in education and understanding of the broader galaxy, she makes up for in courage and determination. The World Witch is also a great character, and I enjoyed the exploration of alternative biology and the genetic ability to change one’s gender.

This is a quick book, and one that I think could have used a slightly slower pace. I felt that the tension between Atuale and the World Witch, particularly their past history, was a little rushed and I would have liked to be strung along a little more. While I liked that we see the world (and the universe) through Atuale’s na├»ve perspective, I also felt like the worldbuilding could have been a little more comprehensive. This is not to say that I wanted every single detail about altered human lives in the far reaches of the galaxy, but I wanted the sense that that detail did exist – even if we couldn’t see it.

A very easy and enjoyable read that needed just a bit more suspense.

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Echidnas Can’t Cuddle

Illustrated children’s book about echidnas and showing affection

On the second night of my Tasmania hike, my friend and hiking buddy insisted that I read this book she had found in the library because it was so cute. I didn’t quite get around to it on the second night, but on the third night we were staying in one of the trimanya huts, which means echidna in Palawa language, and I luckily found a copy in the library there. I also saw three different echidnas on my Tasmania trip, and they are so fluffy down there!

Image is of “Echidnas Can’t Cuddle” by Nieta Manser and illustrated by Lauren Merrick. The cover is of an echidna’s face surrounded by watercolour, collaged spikes. The book is placed in front of a veranda and Australian bushland, with a sign on a wooden post that says trimanya that has a dotted echidna footprint below it.

“Echidnas Can’t Cuddle” by Nieta Manser and illustrated by Lauren Merrick is a children’s book about an echidna called Erik who longs to be able to experience cuddles like other animals do. The problem is, every time Erik tries to cuddle someone, he inadvertently hurts them with his spikes. Despondent, Erik runs away. However, when predators try to attack him, Erik learns what his spikes are really for.

Image is of a very fluffy chocolate brown echidna

This was a very sweet book with a lovely message about accepting the bodies we have and celebrating their functions. The text rhymes and is very accessible for children. I also thought that it was a nice comment on intimacy and that when hugs might not be appropriate, there are other ways to show affection. Additionally, it is important to respect what other people are comfortable with. I really enjoyed the illustrations, and Merrick used some interesting techniques to produce an almost three dimensional effect by collaging watercolour illustrations.

Image is of a light brown, almost blonde, echidna searching for ants

A lovely little book that would be great for young children.

Image is of a reddish brown echidna behind some native plants

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Children's Books

One Small Island

Illustrated children’s book about Macquarie Island

I mentioned in my previous book review that I recently went on a hike in Tasmania. There were lots of fantastic things about this hike, but there were two things in particular I really enjoyed: the collection of books at each hut and the lovely and enthusiastic ranger on our first night who told us about this book.

Image is of “One Small Island” by Alison Lester and Coral Tulloch. The cover is of an island in the distance with an ocean below and the aurora australis above. The book is resting on a handrail with bushland, ocean, coastline and mist in the background.

“One Small Island” by Alison Lester and Coral Tulloch is an illustrated children’s book about the history and biodiversity of Macquarie Island. In particular, the book explores the impact of humans on the island’s delicate ecosystem and the battle to undo the damage done by invading species.

This is a beautifully and intricately illustrated book that captures the dramatic landscape and fragile wildlife with its vivid language. Not only is this a story about a critical environmental issue, the destruction of native flora and fauna due to introduced species, it is also a story with a beginning, a disaster, a challenge and a resolution.

An excellent book for children and adults alike with a keen interest in natural history.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Children's Books, Non Fiction

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

Memoir about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail

Content warning: drug use, mental health, sexual harassment

I first really heard about this book when I heard Reese Witherspoon’s”excellent speech (transcript here) about her film production company that produced an adaptation of this book. I have read quite a few books now that have been adapted by Witherspoon’s company (“Gone Girl“, “Big Little Lies” and “Little Fires Everywhere“), and this one has been on my list for a while. My friend lent me her copy quite some time ago, and for a while I though I had accidentally Marie-Kondoed it. When another friend invited me to go on a three night trek in Tasmania recently, I felt like it was the perfect opportunity to finally read this book. I had a better look and found it tucked away in my non-fiction bookshelf.

Image is of “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed. The cover has a single hiking boot on a white background. The book is placed between two grey and mint coloured hiking boots, in front of a large blue backpack in front of scrub in the Tasmanian wilderness.

“Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail” by Cheryl Strayed is a memoir about Cheryl, a woman in her early 20s who is spiralling. In the wake of her mother’s death, a broken marriage and a heroin addiction, Cheryl realises that something needs to change. After spotting an innocuous guidebook about the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl is galvanised by the goal to hike it alone. With an overweight pack, little experience and only the hope that her pre-packed supplies arrive at post offices along the way, Cheryl is pushed to her absolute limit. Completely alone for a significant part of the journey, she must reckon with her life so far and how she can keep putting one foot in front of the other in the direction she needs to go.

If you ever find yourself on a hiking trip, this is the perfect book to pack. Strayed is an honest and raw writer whose vulnerability and determination make for a compelling mix. While I frequently talk about how I struggle with memoir on this blog, this is the kind of memoir I really enjoy. It reminded me a lot of “H is for Hawk“, blending trauma with literature and a very narrow yet fascinating topic. Although a lot of the book is spent hiking by herself, it is the characters Cheryl meets along the way who really make this book. There is a particular section in the book where Cheryl has overestimated her access to water and is then approached by two terrifying men which was chilling.

When I was on my last day of my hike in Tasmania, I had developed some pretty impressive blisters on the soles of my feet and in between my toes. Although wearing two pairs of socks, taking some anti-inflammatories and applying band-aids liberally had helped, walking was quite painful. Reading about Cheryl’s (much worse) ordeal with feet rubbed raw by ill-fitting boots and her resilience helped me realise that I could get through it too and complete every last kilometre of the walk.

A great companion for hiking that, unlike Cheryl, I declined to burn once finished.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Non Fiction