Quite some time ago I started collecting these beautiful Penguin by Hand editions. There were six books written by women published with embossed covers inspired by different types of craft. I have three in my collection (so far) but have only reviewed “The Help” and “The Postmistress“. This book is just as beautiful as the others with a gorgeous tactile embossed design inspired by cross-stitch. I actually can’t believe it has been over five years since I last reviewed a book in this series. I feel like I have picked this one up and put it with a handful of books to read on several trips, but it has never made it to the top of the pile until now.
“The Forty Rules of Love” by Elif Shafak is a novel within a novel. The first story is about a mother called Ella who lives with her husband and three children. Her days are mostly spent on housework and preparing elaborate meals for her family. Despite being in the family home day in, day out, her family seem to be drifting away from her and her life feels meaningless. However, when she gets a part-time job reading for a literary agency, suddenly everything changes. The first book she is asked to read, the novel within this novel, is called Sweet Blasphemy by an author called A. Z. Zahara. This, on the other hand, is a historical fiction story set in today’s Iran in the mid-1200s about a Persian poet called Shams who befriends and becomes the spiritual instructor of an Islamic scholar known as Rumi. At the beginning of the story, we learn that Shams had a pivotal impact on Rumi’s poetry and that he was murdered. As Ella reads the story of Shams and Rumi, she begins to feel more and more inspired by love and decides to email the author.
I am no expert in poetry, but this book has just reaffirmed to me the strength of Iran and Persia‘s poetry tradition. My favourite parts of the books were by far the Sweet Blasphemy chapters. Shafak uses a range of characters to examine different parts of Persian society: a novice, a beggar, an alcoholic, a sex worker, Rumi, members of his household and even the person who killed Shams. There was an incredible magnetism between Shams and Rumi and even if their relationship was strictly platonic, it certainly felt very romantic. I also really enjoyed Shams’ rules and how each rule tied into the theme of each chapter. It was also a fascinating history of the origin of whirling dervishes.
I did find, however, that I was much less invested in Ella’s story. Somehow compared to the historical significance of Shams and Rumi and the mark they made on poetry and religion, Ella’s difficulties with her family, love life and career just weren’t as engaging. I could see that her story did serve to bring modern relevance to Shams and Rumi, but I’m not sure it was enough to keep me compelled.
A beautifully written novel, especially Shams and Rumi’s story, but a little unevenly paced.
Gosh I had a hard time finding this book. I was eagerly awaiting its release after reading the two other books (here and here) in this series of fairytale retellings, and I must have gone to five or six different bookshops before a staffmember managed to dig out their single copy from the back. As baffling as this is, I was thrilled to finally get a copy. Like the other books in the series, the cover design is a stunning cream with copper detail.
“Orfeia” by Joanne M. Harris is a fantasy novella inspired by British folklore. Unlike the other books in this collection, this story is set in modern-day London. The story follows Fay Orr who has recently lost her adult daughter to suicide. Struggling to find meaning in her otherwise empty life, Fay takes up running through the city at night to escape her despair. One night, she comes across a crack in a paving stone and somehow slips through it into another world. What she finds there is an opportunity to retrieve her daughter and bring her back to life. However, Fay must ask herself is she willing to risk what little she has left to lose to complete a seemingly impossible quest.
This is a chill-inducing story that draws on the way folklore evolves and changes through generations for its structure. Harris puts an initial story to the reader, and the book goes on to explore what is gained and lost by changing the story to achieve an alternative ending. A correct ending. Harris also flips elements of traditional folktales to create a fresh story where nothing is quite what it seems. Fay is a determined and desperate protagonist who leaps at the chance to rewrite her story. However, the impact of erasing history and therefore memory challenges the reader to consider whether, without our memories, we truly remain the same person. Like the previous books, like all fairy tales, this story has a dark, unsettling undercurrent. Harris leaves enough to the imagination for us as readers to fill in the cracks with an even darker colour.
An uneasy tale about love and loss, I cannot wait for Harris’ next book in this collection.
I picked up this book at a Lifeline Book Fair some time ago, and I was so excited it was back on this weekend after a long, COVID-19 hiatus. When I selected this book from the bookshelf, there was no doubt why I had chosen it at the book fair in the first place. The cover is stunning. There is a great little story at the end of the book where the author explains that the design is actually a photograph of his great-grandfather’s own painting – a tradition passed down from father and son. The book is embossed, and the floral designs just feel lovely to touch.
“The Book of Gold Leaves” by Mirza Waheed is a literary novel set in the disputed area of Kashmir. The book is about two young people: Faiz, an artist who paints papier-mâché boxes, and Roohi, a university graduate who dreams of romance and gazes out her bedroom window. When Roohi one day spots Faiz near the shrine by her home, she contrives a plan to meet him through old school connections and by navigating proper decorum. While their connection is undeniable, after Faiz witnesses several very personal instances of violence, he is compelled to leave his terrorised city to train as part of an armed militia. Divided by distance and differing religions, can their love survive?
This is a beautifully written book that juxtaposes a classic love story against the slow erosion of freedoms that comes from living in a place experiencing conflict. The gradual takeover of a local girls’ school by the military was a heartbreaking metaphor not only for the loss of rights gained in the past, but for the loss of a future. Waheed imagines an armoured vehicle called the Zaal that literally catches people in nets and disappears them, morphing into a horrifying urban legend within the already terrified community. Waheed also juxtaposes the gentle artist Faiz, who dreams of painting a masterpiece inspired by a painting of Omar Khayyám, against how easily he trains to use assault rifles and make bombs in nearby Pakistan. Faiz walks a tightrope between his obligations to the militia and his desire for a peaceful, loving life with Roohi and Waheed does an excellent job of capturing this tension.
The only additional thing I will say is that Waheed is such an evocative writer and uses so much imagery that multiple times I found myself off on a daydream tangent thinking about ideas he introduces. This is a thoughtful book that requires some time to ponder about, but which has a lot to teach a willing reader.
I have been anticipating this book since I first heard it was coming out earlier this year. I must have read her previous book “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell” just before I started this blog, and it is honestly a fantastic example of the fantasy genre. It was also adapted into a BBC miniseries which is, unusually, just as good and I highly, highly recommend it as well. Despite her excellence as a writer, the author has unfortunately not published anything since her debut novel came out about 15 years ago due to her struggle with chronic fatigue syndrome or more accurately known as ME/CFS. This is a debilitating disease that can affect anyone, and that has an enormous impact on day-to-day life. Clarke has spoken frankly about her experiences as an author with chronic illness and how she was able to tackle a project like her second novel.
In a physical sense, this book is absolutely stunning. The dust jacket is decorated with copper foil, and the hardcover underneath has a complementary but different design with each letter of the title, in the same font as the dust jacket, resting on a pillar. When I bought my copy from Harry Hartog, I was absolutely delighted to see that it came with a free tote bag which I have been using constantly, I love it so much.
“Piranesi” by Susanna Clarke is a fantasy novel about a man who lives in the House. The House is made up of many, many halls – each one leading to another. The man has one friend he calls the Other who in turn calls him Piranesi, though Piranesi is not sure if that is his real name. Piranesi spends his days observing the statues in the halls, gathering food, anticipating the ocean tides that rise and fall through the halls and writing his observations and thoughts in his carefully indexed notebooks. However, shortly after one of his biweekly meetings with the Other, the Other warns Piranesi not to speak to anyone else he might come across in the House. When a new person suddenly appears with a counter-warning, and Piranesi finds messages written in chalk, his understanding of the world is shattered. Unsure who is friend and who is foe, Piranesi must place his faith in the House and figure out the truth.
This is an exceptional novel. The pacing is absolutely perfect and Clarke expertly unfurls the story, tantalising the reader with each new piece of information. It is a surreal novel, and Clarke somehow manages to make the seemingly endless halls seem both infinite and claustrophobic. Piranesi is an extraordinarily patient, resourceful and spiritual character whose main object is survival in this peculiar world. His meticulous observation and note-taking skills allow him to predict the dangers and bounties of the House and live with just enough security to explore its halls and study its statues. Clarke is very concerned with perspective in this book, and it quickly becomes clear that Piranesi’s worldview is at odds with that of the Other and even with his past self. Through this novel, Clarke explores the limits of human adaptability and the lengthswe will go to for self-preservation. I also really liked how she handles the question of identity, what it is that makes us individuals and the extent to which memory and identity are entertwined.
Also, I cannot review this book without mentioning how thrilled and excited I was that there was a character called Angharad. I legitimately did not see how it could get any better, and then Clarke drops a character with my name.
An incredible book that I enjoyed start to finish. Clarke is one of the best fantasy authors out there and if she continues to write books of this calibre, there is no limit to how long I will wait for the next one.
I had seen these gorgeous books around for a while. These incredible hardcovers with their beautiful, colourful dust jackets with metallic accents – well, I just had to have them. The look absolutely stunning on my bookshelf. Although I had collected the entire set of Tales of the Otori, by Lian Hearn, a while ago, I only just recently got around to reading them.
The series is made up of a trilogy (“Across the Nightingale Floor,” “Grass for his Pillow” and “Brilliance of the Moon”, the finale (“The Harsh Cry of the Heron”), and a prequel (“Heaven’s Net is Wide”). “Across the Nightingale Floor” follows a boy called Tomasu who is being raised in a village of people known as The Hidden. After narrowly escaping the fate of his family, slaughtered by the Tohan clan, Tomasu is adopted by the Lord Otori and renamed Takeo. Takeo starts to display some powers that suggest he is not who he thought he was, and he begins training to assist his new adopted father in bringing the Tohan to justice.
The first book in the series, was full of surprises. Although it begins with a relatively standard fantasy premise, the series is set in feudal Japan which alone sets it quite apart in the genre. Something else that sets this series apart is that not far into the first book, it starts to become apparent that the writer is quite the feminist. The narrative is shared almost equally between the male and female main characters, and there are examples of women who own land and titles in their own right. Then, I found out that author Lian Hearn is in fact a woman. THEN I found out that Lian Hearn is actually a pseudonym, and the author is really Gillian Rubinstein, an author whose books I read (and, to be frank, abhorred) in school. After all this, when I thought that Hearn couldn’t surprise me any further, she introduced same-sex relationships into the mix.
The first three books in this series are good, but it was the fourth that was the standout. The characters that perhaps seemed a tad childish and a little too perfect grow to be flawed, adult and altogether more human. Hearn’s world is more expansive, the abilities of the mysterious Tribe explored in much greater depth and issues of gender, family and loyalty are really threshed out. The prequel is fine, but its narrative structure is very similar to that of the first book and so reads in a rather samey way. It shows Lord Otori’s upbringing, and so if you fall in love with his character, it is for that reason alone worth reading. Overall, Tales of the Otori is an incredibly intricate, engrossing and inclusive series which is a refreshing change from a genre that often lacks (ironically) imagination.
As is often the case, this book caught my eye browsing in one of my favourite secondhand bookstores in Canberra. Hiding out in the young readers section, it’s a gorgeous hardcover with an embossed and textured dust jacket. There were a few in the series there, but not quite in order, so I bought the first one and managed to find book two and three at the Lifeline Bookfair.
“Wolf Brother”, by Michelle Paver, is the first in the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series. These books seem to be a bit of a young adult version of “Clan of the Cave Bear” with perhaps a dash more fantasy in that tried and tested trope of young-orphaned-boy-who-discovers-powers-goes-on-quest-and-collects-magical-objects-to-save-the-world. Surviving an attack from an unworldly giant bear, Torak of the Wolf Clan embarks on a journey to fulfill his father’s last instructions. Along the way, he takes pity on an orphaned wolf cub and discovers that he’s able to communicate with it. Together they must find a way to stop the bear, navigating harsh terrain, hostile clans and mysterious mages.
Probably the best word to describe this book is forgettable. There’s nothing intrinsically bad about it, exactly, it’s just that it’s not particularly memorable. The most interesting thing about it is all the research Paver clearly did looking at prehistoric technologies and survival strategies. Aside from that, however, the characters aren’t particularly engaging, the plot isn’t groundbreaking, and the concept isn’t especially novel. It falls squarely within the young adult fantasy genre with little to distinguish it aside from the prehistoric theme. Even writing this review I’ve had to double check details because I just simply didn’t remember much about the book. All in all, it’s fine. There are plenty of books out there that are worse, but there are also plenty of books that are better.
This series would probably be good for tweens or teens who are interested in survival and prehistoric culture. I might possibly consider buying some more of the books just because they look so pretty on my shelf, but as yet I haven’t been able to muster up the enthusiasm to tackle the second book.
I was expecting very little when I picked this trilogy up at one of my favourite Canberra secondhand bookstores. I’d heard of “Divergent” by Veronica Roth before, and knew enough to know that it was another young adult dystopian series with a female protagonist. I figured it would be a carbon copy of “The Hunger Games” but was willing to give it a try because…well…I just liked the covers.
The Divergent series, which comprises of “Divergent”, “Insurgent”, “Allegiant” and “Four: A Divergent Collection”, is about a young girl called Beatrice who lives in a city where society is split into five factions based on what you value most in your personality. Beatrice grows up in Abnegation, the faction that prioritises selflessness and is responsible for the majority of the city’s administration. There is also Dauntless (bravery), Candor (honesty), Amity (peace) and Erudite (intelligence). At 16 years old, Beatrice must undergo an aptitude test to find out which faction she is best suited to, and then decide on Choosing Day whether she transfers into a faction that better represents her personality, or remains with her family in Abnegation.
Dystopian fiction is a classic science fiction genre that has had quite the renaissance recently, and “Divergent” et. al. is a perfect example of a using this medium as a thought experiment for exploring new and different social structures. While Roth’s premise itself is relatively novel, after you’re about halfway through the second book her ability to develop and ultimately execute it becomes more and more questionable. By the time you reach the third book, you have to suspend your disbelief so many times to accept her scientific premises that you almost have to brainwash yourself to make it to the end. Without giving too much away, Roth’s reliance on “serums” to manipulate the human mind in a variety of convenient ways is so far into the realm of unlikely that her meagre attempts at scientific explanation are completely redundant.
What Roth lacks in scientific credibility, however, she makes up for in spades with her writing and character development. This series absolutely races. I think I legitimately finished the three main books less than 48 hours after I started them. It has been a while since I’ve had a page turner that kept me awake late into the night, and it was extremely refreshing to read something that made me want more and more and more. She is a very evocative writer from an emotional point of view, and Beatrice is a complex, observant, flawed and human protagonist who is extremely likeable and provides a great lens through which her world is seen. Her relationships feel very real and Roth is able to boldly weave in the subtleties and intricacies between her characters making them all the more relatable.
If you read this series, don’t read it because it is a great example of the science fiction genre. Read it because it is a fast-paced teen romp through a dystopian landscape. Read it because of the exhilarating highs and the devastating lows. Read it because once you start, you’ll just keep turning the pages until there are none left. Just don’t bother with “Four: A Divergent Collection” – it adds exactly nothing to the series except a sense of frustration.