Tag Archives: book reviews

River Queens: Saucy boat, stout mates, spotted dog, America

Memoir about a gay American couple, their restored river boat and their dog

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

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“River Queens: Saucy boat, stout mates, spotted dog, America” by Alexander Watson is a memoir about a couple, Alexander and Dale, who decide to restore a luxurious wooden motor yacht. Together with their dalmatian Doris Faye, the pair embark on a physical and emotional journey first getting the boat seaworthy, and second taking it out on the Arkansas, Tennessee and Ohio Rivers. Along the way they meet the unique characters who make a living operating marinas and locks and maintaining boats.

This is a lovely book. Watson captures the domestic dynamic between Alexander and Dale in a beautiful way: creative and tempestuous Alexander draws on his experience from antiques and quiet and reliable Dale is the ship’s captain. Doris Faye is the beloved mascot who wins over every stranger. Watson has an engaging writing style and brings everyone they meet on the river to life. As someone from Australia, which is (at least among Anglo-Australians) a bit of a monoculture, I loved reading about people’s different accents and eccentricities, and the culture of camaraderie along the river. I’ve travelled on river boats a couple of times: a house boat on the Canal du Midi in France, a narrow boat on the Trent & Mersey Canal in the UK and the Clyde River in the USA. It was really nice adding to the little I know with people who have made an idyllic holiday a lifestyle.

A issue I often have with memoir is that I get so engrossed in the story and the people in it, and I find myself wanting to know much more about the “characters” and their lives. As a gay couple travelling the southern states of America, Alexander and Dale occasionally are not met with acceptance, including from their own families. I found myself wanting to know more about their families and their earlier lives, however I have to remind myself that these are real people and perhaps not all their personal details need to be exposed to sate my curiosity. One issue that was very easily solved was that I really wanted a map so I could follow the trio along their journey. It turns out, Watson has just such a map on his website.

This book is a great modern take on a classic American journey and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Non Fiction

Crocoite

Fictionella about lost rocks and finding your heritage

A while ago I caught wind of a very intriguing project: a collection of fictionellas, each constructed around one of forty rocks missing from a rock board found in a tip shop in Tasmania. This project resonated a lot with me. I come from a family of geophysicists, and while I am not overly passionate about minerals, my father did buy me a little rock board of my own from Tasmania which I have kept since I was very small (and have only lost two rocks). Anyway, while I am not passionate about rocks I certainly am about books so when the campaign started, I knew I had to order one.

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“Crocoite” by Margaret Woodward is a fictionella about a young woman called H who decides to retrace the steps of Tasmanian prospectors past and search for crocoite and the remnants of a lost town. H’s exploration in the chapters Wood and Prospect is interrupted by correspondence from a certain F Heazlewood in the 1870s that makes up the chapter Trace. The the book is interspersed with black and white photography, most particularly at the end of the last chapter Wood where H reflects on her heritage.

This is an intriguing little book that appears to tread a fine line between fact and fiction. It is certainly a celebration of the natural beauty of the Tasmanian landscape, but with more depth than average. Having grown up among people interested in the minerals exposed to the air and hidden beneath our feet, I found it to be a warm story that gentle examines questions of history, identity, place and heritage. I also enjoyed the idiosyncratic font that links certain letters together (which, I have discovered, is called ligature).

As this is a fictionella, and necessarily short in length as well as scope, there are of course limits to what can be included. However, I think that for other books in the series, I would like to see some discussion (especially by the people themselves) of the Aboriginal Tasmanian experience and how some of those stories could be woven into the Lost Rocks project.

A lovely little book that is part of a fascinating project, I’m keen to collect more. They are all limited print though and I believe this one may already be sold out, so don’t delay if you want to get one.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Novella

The Fed-Up Cow

Illustrated children’s book about a cow’s quest for identity

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

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“The Fed-Up Cow” by Peta Lemon and illustrated by Maria Dasic Todoric is a children’s book about a very quirky cow called Hilda who decides that she’s tired of being a cow. With no fear of self-expression and a flair for ingenious costuming, Hilda experiments with living as a range of other farm animals with outrageous results.

This is a fun book that gently explores the idea of identity while introducing kids to the different characteristics of typical farm animals. With fun rhymes and Hilda’s funny facial expressions, this is an enjoyable story. The illustrations, while a little inconsistent, are very engaging and Hilda is brought to life as a lovable goofball. It’s always nice to see female characters being able to experiment and be silly.

It’s interesting looking at a book about a farm from the perspective of an adult Australian. Firstly, farms don’t look like that here, partly because this is a dry country full of drought and partly because farms don’t really operate on such small scales any more. With more and more kids growing up in the city, but more and more environmental (and ethical) issues affecting farms, I wonder if we’re going to see a change in flavour of farm books in future.

A fun children’s book with a refreshing twist on the classic farmyard story.

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The Fed-up Cow

 

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Filed under Book Reviews, Children's Books

The Little Prince (Le Petit Prince)

French children’s classic about life and love

Although a classic, this book has recently been generating a lot of discussion after being adapted into a film. It is a book have never read, and I came across this beautiful edition with gold tinted edges. Shockingly, despite the name of this blog, it has been over a year since I’ve reviewed a book with tinted edges – something that I shall have to remedy, because I certainly haven’t stopped reading them.

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“The Little Prince” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and adapted from the French by Rosemary Gray (more on that later) is a children’s book about a pilot stranded in a desert. He wakes up to find a little prince requesting him to do a drawing. The pilot, although an adult, appears to have retained a child’s way of thinking and is able to connect with the little prince while he awaits rescue in the desert. Although not very forthcoming in answering questions, as the unlikely pair run out of water, the pilot slowly learns about where the little prince has come from and what he is really looking for. The little prince recounts his adventures leaving behind his beloved flower on his own planet, and meeting strange adults on various tiny planets and learning from their exaggerated behaviours, before he finally arrives on Earth.

This is a whimsical and bittersweet story that uses innocence and childlike logic to tackle personal and social issues. On his adventures, the little prince learns about vanity, greed, pointlessness, the value of experience and, finally, love. The reader is left wondering whether the little prince was in fact real, or whether he was something that the imaginative pilot conjured up to help get himself through a time of great hardship. This book lingers particularly on the importance of intangible things, like human connection, and the impermanence of physical things.

Sometimes, when you read a book, you can easily see the value in it it, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you like it. This is one of those books. I cannot with complete certainty say whether it was the story itself that grated on me, or whether it was the translation. I have bakery-level French, so reading the original is beyond me at this stage, but I understand that this book has been subject to many translations and some preferred over others. I decided to have a bit of a look at the original English translation by Katherine Woods and immediately I liked it better. It is far more lyrical and much more in keeping with the style of the time. I think sometimes people are tempted to try to oversimplify language for children’s books, but there has been criticism of publishers “dumbing down” children’s books recently. If kids aren’t exposed to new words, how will they learn them?

Anyway, translation issues aside, I think that this story is definitely a bit of a “where we went and what we did there“, though I did feel that there was quite a lot of gentle exploring of social and personal issues like I said before. It is a short book, and though some of the life lessons seem a bit disjointed from one another, it’s an easy enough story to read.

While perhaps not my favourite of children’s books, certainly worth a read and definitely worth doing your research when it comes to translations (unless, of course, you can read French).

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The Little Prince

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Filed under Book Reviews, Classics, Pretty Books, Tinted Edges

Capital Yarns Volumes 1 and 2

Canberra-based short stories for young and old

If you listen to my podcast Lost the Plot, you might remember me speaking to this particular author back in Episode 25 about short stories. More recently, I helped to launch his latest collection of short stories in a live podcast event. While I had read quite a few, and listened to more on his podcast, I thought it was high time that I finished reading both collections and sat down to review them.

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“Capital Yarns Volume 1” and “Capital Yarns Volume 2” by Sean Costello are two collections of shorts stories based in and around Canberra. Each story is constructed around three objects nominated by friends, family and members of the public which are highlighted in bold text. The stories range in theme, some more playful, some darker, some tackling modern social issues. In the second volume, printed in a slightly different format, the stories are arranged by age group and grow progressively more serious as the book goes on.

A Canberran born and bred, Costello’s love for the city permeates the pages of each book. Clearly a keen people-watcher, Costello brings to life stories of ordinary Canberrans in some well-known and not-so-well-known parts of Australia’s often derided but increasingly cosmopolitan capital city. Costello pokes fun at some of the stereotypes of Canberra including its politicians and its hipsters, but importantly his satire is always aimed at privilege and he never punches down. Costello makes a clear effort to showcase the diversity of Canberrans and some of my favourite stories are decoding the opposite sex and how i met your grandfather in Volume 1 and hey sister and delusions of grandeur in Volume 2.

Like many authors, I think Costello starts to hit his stride a little more in Volume 2 and I felt that the arrangement by age group lent an overall cohesiveness to the book that wasn’t quite there with Volume 1. I also felt that the stories in Volume 2 were a bit stronger overall and were perhaps a little less about issues, places and things were instead more driven by plot and characters.

Two lovely collections of heartfelt stories filled with Canberra pride that you can experience for yourself in written or audio format on Costello’s website.

Capital Yarns

Capital Yarns Volume 2

 

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Short Stories, Signed Books

The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches (La petite fille qui aimait trop les allumettes)

Dark French Canadian novella about an isolated family

Content warning: death, neglect, numerous other things not mentioned in the review

So it was getting close to the end of the year, and my Goodreads 2018 Reading Challenge was stretching out in front of me looking mightily unattainable. I blame this book. To give myself a running chance at reaching my goal of 80 books, I decided to start aiming for shorter books. This one I think I must have picked up in the international literature section of the Lifeline Book Fair. It had a small spine. It would do.

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“The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches” by Gaétan Soucy and translated from the French by Sheila Fischman is a Canadian novella about a very isolated family. The unnamed narrator, one of two siblings, is awoken one morning with the discovery that their father is dead. Suddenly freed from the authoritarian existence he imposed upon them, the narrator decides to venture out to a nearby town to see about purchasing a coffin. However, upon arrival the narrator is faced with the revelation that their lives are not nearly as ordinary as they had thought.

This is a very short, intense book that juxtaposes flowery and archaic language with shocking revelations about the state of this family. Soucy uses the narrator’s extremely idiosyncratic way of speaking to obfuscate what is really going on, and piece by piece unveils the true nature of what has been happening on this isolated property through the narrator’s observations of other people’s reactions. It’s a very clever narrative structure, and an ingenious way to explore how what is horrifying to some can become normalised to others. An example of this is how the siblings treat their father’s body. They are both largely unphased by the death and the circumstances around it, and are surprisingly cavalier about arranging for his burial. The reasons for why they are both so desensitised to, and seemingly unaware of the significance of, his death slowly emerge as the story progresses.

Although this is a rich and layered book, it is not necessarily an easy one to read. I think that Fischman did a good job on the translation, but on a first read, a lot of the narrator’s thoughts and observations, as go over your head. I understand that it is meant to be a sort of anamorphosis, but in terms of readability, it is very dense and it’s easy to miss things. I think I also sometimes am a bit wearied with trauma being used as a plot device. A lot of books do it, sure, but I think I am started to get a bit frustrated with traumatic events being used as a ‘big reveal’. I would not consider this particular book to be misery lit. In fact, I think that it is a very literary noir novella. However, it is very heavy going thematically and becomes incredibly dark for such a short book.

A beautiful, intelligent and disturbing story that was delivered a lot for a $3 novella I picked up at the Lifeline Book Fair.

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The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches

 

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Filed under Book Reviews, General Fiction, Novella

Heart’s Blood

Historical fantasy retelling of classic fairy tale

Content warning: family violence, disability

It’s no secret that I adore Juliet Marillier and her beautiful and whimsical historical fantasy novels. I generally try to space them out, but I am getting towards the end of all the books she’s written (so far), so it has been a while since I have picked one up. Anyway, approaching the end of the year, I was in dire need for a comfort read, and I was very eager to give this standalone novel a go.

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“Heart’s Blood” by Juliet Marillier is a historical fantasy novel that reimagines the classic story of “Beauty and the Beast“. The story follows a young woman called Caitrin who is on the run from her abusive family home. Trained as a scribe, when she hears of a job vacancy at the mysterious fortress known as Whistling Tor, locals warn her against it and the disfigured chieftain called Anluan. However when Caitrin arrives, she finds that fear of the known is far worse than fear of the unknown and soon settles into the strange rhythm of the household. While she attempts a seemingly insurmountable task that others before her have failed, she discovers that ugliness is often much more than skin deep.

Marillier, as always, gently coaxes into life sensitive and well-considered characters who overcome hardship and find strength and comfort in one-another. Marillier’s book are and continue to be incredibly inclusive and tackle modern issues through a historical lens. Although this is not the first book of hers with a character with a disability, this book is the first book of hers I have read that really explores the issue of family violence. I thought that she handled Caitrin’s experiences, and the toll they took on her self-esteem and identity, very adeptly and drew out the issues of vulnerability and courage for both Caitrin and Anluan very well. I also really liked that Marillier again made a main character with a disability someone who is capable and desirable.

However, this wasn’t my favourite of Marillier’s books. The plot twist about the true nature of the evil at Whistling Tor I saw coming a mile away, and I felt like a large proportion of the book was spent waiting for the ending I knew was on its way. While I did fully respect that Marillier incorporated themes of family violence into her book, I felt that it could have been a little less distant relatives come take advantage and a little more close to home like unfortunately so many domestic violence stories are. I also felt a little that the way that part of the story is resolved got a bit Jane Eyre towards the end with a bit of deus ex machina in the form of a cart of people going by at just the right time.

Regardless, this is a sweet and enjoyable story and a unique retelling of a classic fairy tale. I read this book in no time at all, and look forward to the next Marillier book I tackle.

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Heart’s Blood: Whistling Tor 1

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