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Jim Henson’s The Storyteller: Dragons

Graphic novel of dragon stories inspired by Jim Henson’s The Storyteller

I really enjoy graphic novels, and knowing this, my partner bought me this book quite a while ago. I’m going to be honest with you right though, there was a very particular reason why I picked up this book to read towards the end of last year. It was December, I had one month left to reach my 2019 Goodreads Reading Challenge goal of 80 books, and I was in big trouble. Whenever I find myself in this situation, there is really only one option: to read the shortest books on my to-read pile.

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I took this at The Copper Dragon, a fantasy-themed bar in Tuggeranong, ACT. Unfortunately it wasn’t open, but I really want to visit! 

“Jim Henson’s The Storyteller: Dragons” is a graphic novel with stories and art by Daniel Bayliss, Nathan Pride, Hannah Christenson and Jorge Corona with some script and colours by Fabian Rangel Jr., Cassie Kelly and Jen Hickman. There are four stories told in the style of the television series: Son of the Serpent, The Worm of LambtonAlbina and Samurai’s Sacrifice. Each explores the well-known theme of dragon and hero in different cultural and gender contexts.

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Also speak of dragons, my city currently has a fire right next to it and I took this immediately after taking the photo above

I think my favourite of the stories is the first, Son of the Serpent. Daniel Bayliss, a graphic novelist and artist from Mexico, draws on mythology and graphic art from native cultures of North America, and his bold, colourful designs are breathtaking.

Probably one thing that made this book a little hard for me was that I actually had never watched Jim Henson’s The Storyteller. Each of the stories is clearly inspired by the format of the television show, with the dog interjecting while the Storyteller tells a tale, and it felt like there were quite a few in-jokes that went over my head. The art on the front cover is gorgeous, but unfortunately it didn’t reflect any of the stories within, and I wasn’t as captivated by the other three as I was the first.

A fun graphic novel for nostalgic fans of the TV show (or of dragons) but might miss the mark for graphic novel aficionados.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Fantasy, Graphic Novels, Short Stories

The Harp of Kings

Historical Celtic fantasy novel 

Content warning: family violence

After somewhat of a writing hiatus, one of my favourite authors has come back with force, and I was thrilled to find out she was releasing a new trilogy of novels. Taking advantage of Christmas sales, I picked up a copy from Harry Hartog and couldn’t wait to read it. I’ve also been inspired to make a Spotify playlist that you might like to listen to while reading this review.

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My partner and I both have Irish heritage, and he received this beautiful bodhrán from his parents, and I the exquisite silver bookmark, after they visited Ireland a couple of years ago

“The Harp of Kings” by Juliet Marillier is the first book in her new “Warrior Bards” historical fantasy series. Set some 20 years after the events of “Blackthorn and Grim“, with connections to elements of the “Sevenwaters Series“, the story is about singer and musician Liobhan who is training with her brother Brocc to be an elite warrior on Swan Island. Liobhan has a rivalry with another young recruit called Dau and all three trainees are surprised when they are asked to go on an undercover mission on the mainland to recover a lost harp. Given new names, backstories and personalities, Liobhan, Brocc and Dau must not falter. With court intrigue, secluded druids and the possibility of otherworldly interference, any wrong step could put the mission, and the kingdom, into jeopardy.

It will surprise nobody that I adored this book. This is Marillier at her finest, and this book blends new characters and themes with familiar places. In particular, Marillier explores the lifelong impact of growing up as a child subjected to family violence, and in particular violence from siblings. Liobhan is a great leading character who has the moxie of Liadan in “The Son of Shadows” but exceptional strength, fighting ability and musical talent. However, Liadan is headstrong and must balance her ambitions, prejudices and integrity to make the right decision. I also loved Dau’s story arc, and how Marillier introduces him as seemingly a one-dimensional character whose courage and depth is explored in depth as he must allow himself to become vulnerable.

Although I loved this book, I have to say that of the three point of view characters, I was probably invested in Brocc’s story the least. I think this is possibly due to him being the most passive character in the book. While this does make sense given the plot, I did find myself looking forward to Liobhan and Dau’s chapters much more.

A fantastic beginning to the series, I can’t wait for the second. Knowing Marillier, there is undoubtedly a lot still in store!

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

Myrren’s Gift

Medieval fantasy novel about a curse and revenge

Content warning: sexual violence, sexism

This was a set book for my feminist fantasy book club. I have a few books by this author on my shelves, in a couple of different genres, but had never read any books of her books, including from this series. I downloaded an eBook version and settled in to read.

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“Myrren’s Gift” by Fiona McIntosh is a medieval fantasy novel about a teenager called Wyl Thirsk who becomes the General of his country Morgravia’s army, following in his father’s footsteps. Although loyal to King Magnus, there has always been tension between Wyl and the crown prince Celimus. When Celimus forces young Wyl to watch the torture and execution of an accused witch, Wyl steps in to try to reduce her suffering. The result is a magical gift that is both a blessing and a curse. When Wyl and those closest to him are betrayed, this terrible gift may prove to be the answer to saving Morgravia from certain destruction.

This is a classic heroic fantasy novel where the fate of the land weighs on the shoulders of a young man. I think probably the most compelling thing about this novel is the tiny amount of magic: Wyl’s life-changing new ability. Without going into too much detail, the very few times in the novel where this was explored in depth were the most interesting parts. There were some interactions between Wyl and other characters that cast this magic into relief, but I did feel that the premise (which almost certainly is explored in greater depth in later novels in the series) wasn’t explored enough in this book.

Unfortunately, there were far, far more things that bothered me about this novel than made it enjoyable. I don’t think it’s possible to talk about “Myrren’s Gift” without talking about violence against women. The society conjured by McIntosh is inherently a sexist one. Women are without a doubt second class citizens considered valuable only for their marriageability. Sexual violence against women was so prolific in the early chapters that I kept count: Myrren was sexually assault by guards and a lord, was sexually harassed prior to being tortured and again by the prince. The king raped his own wife twice.

In fact, it wasn’t until I got to page 1,179 of 1,317 that two women actually spoke to each other about something other than a man – and it was two women discussing how the princess looked like she was in heat. The princess wasn’t great either, to be honest. She was meant to be a tomboy who was “too skinny” with “boyish hips” but also incredibly attractive in that typical early 2000s way. I was really disappointed that McIntyre didn’t give her any more agency than enjoying horse-riding. Valentyna had so much potential, but she just ended up hiding in the woods with a male child, waiting for the hero to save her. I wasn’t particularly happy with the way Wyl was depicted either. There is quite the song and dance about how he isn’t conventionally handsome, and how much more value other characters have simply because of their good looks and height.

I also have to say something about the editing. I’m not sure if this was the case in the original paperback, but the eBook I bought had some serious issues with repetitiveness. For example:

Ancient law requires that the victim be burned wearing the samarra, which was believed to entrap evil humours emanating from the witch’s flesh.

Morgravian law required that the victim be burned wearing the samarrs which would trap the evil humours.

And:

“I just have a strange feeling that Gueryn will be preserved for the one reason that it might bring Koreldy back to Cailech’s fortress”

“Then if Gueryn is alive – and I choose to believe he is – I think he will remain a prisoner of Cailech for no other task than to entice Caliech’s enemy back”.

Ultimately, although the concept is a really interesting one, the amount of sexism and tautology that you have to wade through for the tantalising scraps of magic don’t quite seem worth it. While I understand that the magic gets explored in more depth in the sequels, I’m just not convinced that I’ve been hooked enough to continue with this series.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Fantasy

And the Ocean Was Our Sky

Surreal illustrated retelling of “Moby Dick”

I forgot to mention in my previous review that another major reason for me finally reading “Moby Dick” is that a friend of mine had lent me a copy of this book. I’ve read several of Patrick Ness‘ books before and I was very much looking forward to this one, but it didn’t seem right to try to read it before reading the story it is inspired by. Luckily for me, this one is much shorter.

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“And the Ocean Was Our Sky” by Patrick Ness and illustrated by Rovina Cai is an illustrated young adult novel that reimagines the classic novel “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville as told from the perspective of a whale. Narrated by a whale who styles herself as Bathsheba, the reader is set adrift in an alternative underwater world where whales have developed technology, have reclaimed the depths of the sea and have themselves become hunters. Third Apprentice in a female-only pod under the command of Captain Alexandra, Bathsheba joins the hunt for the terrifying and monstrous Toby Wick. However, when they find a human man abandoned by his crew and Bathsheba is charged with torturing him for information, her perspective on humans and the ethics of the hunt is forever changed.

This book has haunted me since I read it late last year. Ness is a beautiful writer, and he has created a strange and unsettling world for his whales to live in that are realised with Cai’s sublime illustrations. The whales live in exile, only breaching on the rarest occasions and instead relying on breather bubbles that allow them to swim almost forever underwater. Except, to the whales, they are no longer ‘under’. To them, the ocean is their sky and the air below where the men and their ships live is the Abyss. However, the whales’ world is not an easy one to live in. The pods drag around sunken ships, and their cities are built on precipices. They see themselves as hunters but really they are banished, calling themselves hunters but in reality they are just as hunted.

Toby Wick was probably the element that disturbed me the most. Ness never quite gives enough information to the reader about what exactly Toby Wick is. Going much further than Melville’s white whale, the horror of Toby Wick is in the unknown. Is he a monstrous man, is he a machine, is he some awful hybrid of both? We are never truly certain. Throughout the book, hands are a prominent motif representing the ingenuity and dexterity of, and the terror inspired by, humans.

This is a dark and at times unnerving book that does not provide the reader with many answers, but leaves them instead with a lot of questions. A very original take on a classic story.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Fantasy, Graphic Novels, Horror, Young Adult

Moby Dick

Classic adventure novel, micro-history of whaling, gay love story

Content warning: mental illness, racism, animal cruelty

My very good friend Annie bought me this stunning edition as a gift probably close to two years ago. A deep blue hardcover with the most incredible silver foil embellishments, the front has an iconic and stylised whale’s tail, and the back has a ship sailing beneath a silver full moon. And the pages. The pages. Tinted edges so silver that they are reflective. This is an incredibly beautiful book, but this novel intimidated me for some time. Firstly, because it is long: over 600 pages of nautical text. Secondly, because I still feel guilty for losing a copy of this book when I borrowed it from the library as a teen many years ago. However, it had been glinting on my bookshelf long enough. Maybe encouraged by the similarly beautiful “Saga Land“, I decided it was finally time.

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This is likely going to be somewhat controversial, but I’m just going to go for it. “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville is three books in one.

Firstly, it is an adventure story about a man styling himself as Ishmael who, after starting to feel depressed, decides to mix things up and join a whale hunt. Having previously sailed on merchant ships, his experience is enough to get him signed up but not enough to achieve any particular responsibilities. Aboard the Pequod, Ishmael finally catches a glimpse of the dark and mysterious Captain Ahab, and soon learns of his obsession with seeking revenge against the white whale known as Moby Dick who bit off his leg on a previous voyage. As the journey continues, the narrative flicks between Ishmael and Ahab, and Ahab’s fixation on hunting Moby Dick leads him to take more and more risks.

Secondly, it is a micro-history about the whaling industry. Interspersed throughout the novel, Melville (ostensibly through the voice of Ishmael) provides the reader with detailed explanations of the particulars of whaling, how it’s done and what the materials obtained from whaling are used for. These rather clinical descriptions are contrasted against Ishmael’s observations of whaling generally, showing the reader the extent of  the profit, cruelty and waste that stems from whaling. Melville goes into minute detail about the types of ropes and weapons used, how the whales are dissected for parts and what happens to their bodies after they are discarded.

Thirdly, this book is a queer interracial love story between Ishmael and a man called Queequeg from a fictional Pacific island nation. Ishmael and Queequeg meet when they are given the same bed in the same room at an inn to share by the inn-keeper. Quickly developing rapport, they agree to pool their resources and to travel together henceforth. If you think that reading this story as queer romance is an unreasonable interpretation of such a masculine adventure story, then I present to you the following:

This being told to Queequeg, he at once complied [with putting his tomahawk away and ceasing to smoke in bed], and again politely motioned me to get into bed – rolling over to one side as much as to say – I wont touch a leg of ye. “Good night landlord,” said I, “you may go.” I turned in, and never slept better in my life.

Upon waking next morning about daylight, I found Queequeg’s arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought I had been his wife.

Considering how sociably we had been sleeping together the night previous, and especially considering the affectionate arm I had found thrown over me upon waking in the morning, I thought this indifference of his very strange.

…but presently, upon my referring to his last night’s hospitalities, he made out to ask me whether we were again to be bedfellows. I told him yes; whereat I thought he look please, perhaps a little complimented.

He seemed to take to me quite as naturally and as unbidden as I to him; and when our smoke was over, he pressed his forehead against mine, clasped me round the waist, and said that henceforth we were married…

After supper, and another social chat and smoke, we went to our room together. He…took out his enormous tobacco wallet, and groping under the tobacco, drew out some thirty dollars in silver; then spreading them on the table, and mechanically dividing them into two equal portions, pushed one of them towards me, and said it was mine.

Man and wife, they say, there open the very bottom of their souls to each other; and some old couples often lie and chat over old times until nearly morning. Thus, then, in our hearts’ honeymoon lay I and Queequeg – a cosy, loving pair.

We had lain thus in bed, chatting and napping at short intervals, and Queequeg now and then affectionately throwing his brown tattooed legs over mine…

He at once resolved to accompany to that island, ship aboard the same vessel, get into the same watch, the same boat, the same mess with me, in short to share my every hap; with both my hands in his, boldly dip into the Potluck of both worlds.

On the occasion in question, Queequeg figured in the Highland costume – a skirt and socks – in which to my eyes, at least, he appeared to uncommon advantage; and no one had a better chance to observe him, as will presently be seen.

I rest my case.

Anyway, on to the review. This book almost defies reviews. It is both very funny (the preacher climbing a pulpit made of whale ribs pulling up the ladder behind him) and very boring. It is full of interesting facts, dull facts and erroneous facts (Melville decides that despite being warm-blooded and lactating with a horizontal tail, whales are a type of fish). It is both very progressive (Queequeg is given a higher wage than Ishmael due to his skills and experience), and racist (Queequeg is frequently referred to as a savage), with a range of characters of different races, some more likable and stereotyped than others.

The eponymous character Moby Dick barely features in the novel at all. Melville switches from soliloquy to omniscient third person to theatrical dialogue without any care whatsoever for consistency. Ishmael is both mysterious and dramatic, hinting at experiencing bouts of manic and depressive episodes, high education and low income, a possibly teaching background and, later, and telling his tales to a bevy of handsome young men in Italy.

I probably enjoyed Ahab’s chapters the least, because they were mostly of him muttering under his breath beneath the moonlight, weighing up between hunting Moby Dick and REALLY hunting Moby Dick while chief mate Starbuck looks on grimly. The whale hunts themselves were both fascinating and awful, the whales suffering incredibly while Ishmael provides technical commentary on exactly the way they die. The other characters were a motley bunch with second mate Stubb a firm favourite, especially while pushing the sailors on in the whaleboats with equal parts insult and encouragement in a very amusing tone.

How do you review a book like this? It’s excellent and terrible in almost equal measures. This is a book full of contradictions that, nearly 170 years after publication, still gives readers a lot to think about and plenty to discuss.

 

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

If Cats Disappeared from the World

Japanese magic realism novel about death and the little things

I had noticed this little book a while ago in a bookshop. It has a striking cover, a ink black cat with eyes embellished with gold foil that makes it look like it’s staring right at you. I noticed it, but didn’t buy it. Then one day I was checking my street library, and a copy was sitting right inside. Of course I had to read it.

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Thank you to my colleague Ingrid and her obliging cat Callie for these great photos

“If Cats Disappeared from the World” by Genki Kawamura and translated by Eric Selland is a Japanese magic realism novel about an unnamed postman who is diagnosed with stage 4 brain cancer. Distraught, the narrator is offered a deal by the Devil, who appears as his doppelganger, as a way to prolong his life. For every additional day the narrator chooses to live, the Devil will remove an item from the world. The first item seems simple: telephones. However reminiscing about his ex-girlfriend and their relationship which was conducted primarily over the telephone, leads the narrator to reconnect with her one last time. The next item, television, also becomes problematic. When the Devil proposes cats, the narrator is faced with making Cabbage, the cat he inherited from his mother and who has suddenly started speaking, disappear.

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This is an unusual little novel with an intriguing premise: how much of the world can you remove before life isn’t worth living? I quite enjoyed the story of an ordinary man, with an ordinary job, who is faced with the reality of his unremarkable life just before his untimely death. I liked how the author explored the way that the narrator had allowed himself to become isolated, and how he had lost contact with those most important to him and how ultimately, in the wake of his mother’s death, he had himself become lost.

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It’s difficult to review a book when you like the idea but not the execution. I want to say something first about the translation, because it’s not clear how much of my criticism is due to the translation, and how much is due to the writing itself. I think that Kawamura has a relaxed, minimalist narrative style that Selland has adapted into a modern American tone. While occasionally drawing on global elements at points in the story such as Christian iconography, the Devil’s choice of attire and his travels with his ex-girlfriend overseas, there is not a very strong sense of place in this book.

While I understand that the narrator is meant to be a generic everyman, with nothing distinctive about his life except his feelings and relationships, I struggled to find a foothold while reading. I think that overall, Kawamura probably spent a little bit too long spelling out exactly what the author was thinking and feeling at any given time, and not really enough on fleshing out the novel’s strength: exploring the idea of what would happen if things started disappearing from the world. Maybe that would be the difference between magic realism and science fiction, but I think I would have preferred Kawamura to have committed more fully to his concept and spent less time the exposition of a backstory that I wasn’t invested in.

An interesting concept that felt like it needed colouring in.

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Filed under Book Reviews, General Fiction, Magic Realism

Opioid, Indiana

Novel about disadvantage and coming of age

Content warning: drugs, mental illness, suicide

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

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“Opioid, Indiana” by Brian Allen Carr is a novel about 17 year old Riggle who ends up living with his uncle in a rural Indiana town in Trump’s America after his parents have died. When Riggle is accused of having a marijuana vape pen, he is suspended from school for 5 days. Careful to conserve his mobile phone data and avoid his uncle’s wrath, Riggle tries to think of what to do for the week. However, when his uncle’s girlfriend tells him that his uncle is missing, he realises that if they can’t come up with the $800 rent that’s due, they’re going to have nowhere to live. So starts 5 days of Riggle looking for his uncle, finding work, meeting locals and chatting with Remote, a shadow puppet his mother introduced him to who explained how the days of the week got their name.

This is an engrossing book that explores a number of issues that continue to impact disadvantaged rural areas under the leadership of President Donald Trump. Poverty, drug addiction, grief, depression, suicide, lack of job opportunity, lack of housing security, mental illness, gun violence, school shootings and Confederate flags all take their toll on Riggle. However, I found him to be a really warm and interesting character despite the significant amount of hardship he had endured, not least of which was losing both his parents.

Very few books about orphans deal with the trauma of parents dying in a meaningful way, and I felt that Carr’s use of Remote as both a comforting remnant of childhood as well as a lens through which Riggle sees the world as inspired. Other things that his mother taught him, such as making an omelette, end up opening doors for Riggle that he didn’t even know were there. I also thought that Carr introduced an intriguing bit of unreliability into Riggle’s story when he begins to notice people making a particular shape with their hands that looks like Remote, suggesting that Riggle is unconsciously seeking meaning in a world that makes no sense.

There are a lot of themes woven through this book, and one that I think I would have like a little more developed is Riggle’s friendship with Bennet. Bennet, an easygoing biracial character with a loving yet strict mother, draws out an sense of intimacy from Riggle. However, given how important friendships are during times of difficulty, and given the distance from Riggle’s only other friend, I think I would have liked to have seen this friendship developed a little more.

A well-constructed and unique novel, I’m surprised it hasn’t received more acclaim.

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