The Secret River by Kate Grenville
Thornhill Family #1
Text Publishing 2013 (2005)
Australians have an interesting relationship with our colonial history: part pride, part shame, part love, part wince. Until fairly recently, we were taught little about “Australian history” (meaning, always, white colonial history, not Indigenous-Australian history), and what we were taught was mostly the myths. James Cook was a captain (he wasn’t, not at the time) and a Great Man (he was okay, but no different from anyone else of his era in his attitude towards indigenous peoples), and that he “discovered” Australia (he didn’t); Joseph Banks was an intelligent, avid botanist who made meticulous records of his findings, and who we have to thank for the first settlement (he was a young, wealthy, egotistical man who shoved specimens willy-nilly into his bag and made some very ignorant observations of the east coast of Australia). That’s just the 80s – go back further and people were taught some pretty offensive “facts” about the Aborigines.
When I was in primary school, I distinctly remember being taught the history of colonial Australia – settlement – from the perspective that the whites came, the soldiers incited violence with the Aboriginals and killed as many as they could, and our ancestors are all rough-made thieves. That’s what stuck, anyway. I thought, for the longest time, that being taught about the bad calls made by the British in the early decades of colonialism meant that I hadn’t received a pro-white Australia (i.e. biased) teaching. And perhaps I didn’t. What’s really worrying, though, is that – until university – that was all I was properly taught about Australian history.
In an interview with Kate Grenville on ABC radio after the release of The Secret River in 2005, the interviewer, Ramona Koval, links the title of the novel to a line in WEH Stanner’s 1968 Boyer Lecture, “After the Dreaming”. ‘There is a secret river of blood in Australian history,’ which is the history of our relationship with the Aboriginal people, the river of blood.” The ‘secret river’ carries several meanings in connection with the novel, but this is the key one: the unspoken history, the history we’re just not taught, the history we all think we know and therefore don’t need to hear more about. We spend more time teaching about the bravery and horror of Gallipoli than we do our broader, more complex history – and without an understanding of our history, how are we supposed to truly understand what’s happening now?
There is a river of blood in Australian history, or as Grenville put it, “cupboards” that we have “drawn a curtain over”, and The Secret River aims to pull back a curtain on one such cupboard. In telling the story of Will Thornhill, a young man who was born into the extreme poverty of London in 1777, Grenville’s larger story is one of miscommunication and misunderstanding – with tragic and long-reaching consequences. The Secret River does what other stories of the time don’t quite manage: to remind us that the early settlers of Australia were largely uneducated, illiterate, terrified petty crooks and opportunists, people who knew nothing of the world or life beyond their area of grey, stony and rat-infested London (in Will’s case: Southwark). It’s not that we don’t know that, but that we don’t understand the implications. Between the large number of convicts and soldiers – who weren’t particularly educated themselves – the Aboriginal peoples were confronted with an influx of people who were unhealthy, with little knowledge of how to grow food, who were frightened and downright struggling. They were also coming from a land where the values of hierarchy, misogyny, religion and profiteering were deeply embedded.
Will Thornhill begins life in a harsh environment, a place where every day is a struggle to survive. Just one more mouth to feed in a large family, they often resort to petty theft in order to stay alive. Will gets an unlooked-for break, though, when Mr Middleton takes him on as an apprentice waterman, a proper trade. But disaster strikes after Will becomes a full waterman and marries Mr Middleton’s daughter, Sal, his best friend since childhood, and Will and Sal are reduced to petty crime in order to keep themselves and their new baby alive. In taking the time to establish Will’s background and the context for his crime as well as the kind of person he is, Grenville helps us realise that quite often, we have unreasonable expectations for our white convict ancestors. We are quick to point a finger at them and lay blame at their feet for the things that happened, for their England-oriented farming style that we are still suffering the side-effects of, but really, we have to put it into context and acknowledge that, while it doesn’t excuse it or make up for it, they really “didn’t know any better.” It’s not a nice pill to swallow, because it makes us feel better to lay the blame squarely at the feet of convicts and free settlers alike, alongside Governors and other upper-class officials. But we have hindsight, and they had British imperialism.
The story follows Will and his growing family through several years of early Australian settlement in what is now New South Wales. Arriving in Sydney in 1806, Will is made prisoner of his wife – a common thing to do at the time – and works for his ticket of leave. He encounters Blackwood, a man he knew in London who has been here longer and has his own boat, plying a lucrative trade on the River Hawkesbury where ex-convict settlers are growing food but are otherwise cut-off from the main settlement at Sydney, and begins working for him on the Hawkesbury. It is on his first trip up the river that Will sees a piece of land that captures his heart and imagination. Suddenly, he has dreams – dreams of a future, of the kind of life he could never have in London, with a home of his own.
Land is easy enough to acquire here. After all, no one else has claimed it. There was a simple process: “All a person need do was find a place no one had already taken. Plant a crop, build a hut, call the place Smith’s or Flanagan’s, and out-stare anyone who said otherwise.” (p.121) Will achieves his full pardon several years after arriving, but convincing Sal to move to what he calls Thornhill’s Point is harder. Sal wants to return to London; London is the place that has her heart. The one thing she brought from London was “a broken piece of clay roof-tile that she had found in the sand by Pickle Herring Stairs the morning of her last day in London.” (p.88-9) Sal cherishes this piece of tile, which acts like a talisman and an anchor to her past. She plans to take it back one day, back where she found it. “The thing was like a promise, that London was still there, on the other side of the world, and she would be there too one day.” (p.89) Sal can’t, or won’t, let go, but she agrees to move to Thornhill’s Point and gives Will five years to save enough money to move back to London.
It’s when they move to this piece of land that Will’s fallen in love with, that trouble starts. Or rather, that Will becomes involved in trouble that’s already started. The land may not have fences, houses or neat rows of planted vegetables, but it is still part of the Darug tribe’s land. Conflict arises, but Will is not prone to violence and is more terrified of them than anything else. Over time, he comes to realise that they too are farmers and landowners, just with different methods. Still, he’s not about to give up his piece of land to them, and his neighbours – among them a lowlife called Smasher Sullivan who keeps an Aboriginal woman chained up in his hut and who has brutal ideas of how to react to Aboriginal thievery – have stronger wills (ha ha) than he can stand up to. The resulting night of violence, terror, cruelty and death is one Will never fully recovers from.
While Grenville doesn’t present a Aboriginal perspective in this novel – the story is told fully from Will’s point-of-view, in third person, so that we see things in the way he understands them with a shade of omniscient depth overlapping it – it is a story that sympathises, and empathises, with the Aboriginal peoples. It doesn’t glamorous or mythologise them (not as far as I can see, anyway), but considering how many times previously the British had “colonised” other lands with equally disastrous consequences, it’s pretty hard to fault the Aborigines for their own struggles to understand or welcome the newcomers. People on both sides reached out and sought understanding, but at its heart, The Secret River is about what happens when people don’t take the trouble to understand each other, or wilfully shut their minds to learning from others. We see this still in effect today, not just between “white Australia” and the Aboriginals – whose knowledge and wisdom about this great and complex land we continue to ignore while we blindly wreck havoc – but between Palestinians and Israelis, between the religious extreme and the moderates, between upper and lower classes, between management and the people who actually do the work on the “shop floor”. The Secret River speaks volumes in more ways than one precisely because we haven’t learned anything, we haven’t moved on, we haven’t found the peace that we all crave.
If my review today seems abnormally long and rambling, even for me, I must apologise: I’ve been teaching this novel and getting into some of the issues and ideas in it at depth. There’s a lot more going on here than I’ve mentioned, of course, but hopefully I’ve given you the right kind of encouragement needed to pick up this book. Intelligent, well-written in a rather beautiful, poetic way that manages to maintain Will’s simplistic, childlike naiveté, The Secret River opens one of those “secret cupboards” of Australian history and gives a voice to those caught up in things they barely comprehend, in an insightful, engaging way. I loved this book, in which violence comes out of gentleness with a dreamlike haze, as if those early settlers like Will can’t quite believe in the magic, the mystery and the mayhem that surrounds them. A must-read for all.
Read in April 2014.
“What Grenville does brilliantly is make us sympathise with a character who will end up doing something unspeakable.” Musings of a Literary Dilettante’s Blog
“The Secret River is excellent historical fiction; I could recommend it for the opening London chapters alone. But it becomes truly great after Thornhill’s transportation to Australia – a sad and frightening novel of two cultures colliding.” Grub Street
“The book is very vivid in images, the landscape and sight and sounds are described in every detail. The scenes of mass massacres and the brutality of one suffered from the spear is very real and disturbing, it’s like watching a movie, the images stays with you long after you put down the book. I also learned about how the penal system works in those days, it was eye opening. It was a 9-month voyage to Australia. Wow.” JoV’s Book Pyramid
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The Paris Architect by Charles Belfoure
Sourcebooks Landmark 2013
There is a constant stream of novels written about the Jewish experience during World War II – a time that continues to both enthral and terrify us. It is of immense importance to keep the past alive through personal, human stories, in the hopes that we will be better prepared, better able to spot such atrocities today and in the future. Sadly we’ve seen that this is a nice theory that doesn’t play out; however it’s important to keep trying.
One area of WWII that is less explored but equally important are stories from the non-Jewish perspective, stories about Nazi soldiers or ordinary German civilians, stories about others who also experienced the war but in different ways. The Paris Architect adds to this meagre slice of historical fiction pie with its story of a French gentile and architect, Lucien Bernard, who has no particular feelings either way about the Jews – though when pressed, he’s no “Jew-lover” – but seeks to get by under German occupation.
In a strained and childless marriage to Celeste, and a social-climber mistress, Adele, on the side, Lucien’s big ambition in life is to have one of his designs built in Paris for all to see. The occupation has made much of life and work in the city stall, but there are also surprising opportunities as well. The Germans are building infrastructure – factories to make the weapons used against the Allies – on French soil, working with well-established French businessmen and unpaid forced labour to get their projects built fast. Lucien is approached by one such businessman, an old man called Manet, who has a frightening proposal. Flattering Lucien’s skills and vanity and appealing to a sense of moral rightness that Lucien doesn’t feel he possesses, Manet dangles the promise of hiring Lucien to build a big munitions factory if he will also design an ingenious hiding place for a wealthy Jew being hunted by the Gestapo.
It isn’t a sense of empathy for the Jews that leads Lucien to take on the task, one that could see him tortured and killed. It’s the challenge, the vanity, of besting others that leads Lucien to agree to Manet’s terms despite his incredible fear. Lucien isn’t interested in dying for a cause. He wants to live, survive the war, and prosper too. Architecture is more important to him than anything else in his life.
But as Manet continues to ask Lucien to design more hiding places for terrified Jews, and Lucien even meets one of the men he’s helping, something in him begins to change. The Jews become human beings, and the matter of hiding them, helping them survive and escape, becomes deeply personal. But as the Gestapo cotton on to the hiding places and begin torturing builders and craftsmen for information, the net starts to tighten around Lucien and Manet. How much longer before connections are made, and their time is up?
The Paris Architect is a wonderful story, a fresh take on the story of German occupation in France, the plight of Jews and life for non-Jews under the occupation. Lucien is one of those flawed characters who is undeniably, realistically human – the kind of person you can relate to because his concerns, his fears, his sense of morality are, lets be honest, the norm. Whether it’s World War II or today, most of us would be just like Lucien, regardless of how much we’d like to think we’d do better, be better. Human nature trumps in survival cases. If we already ignore people who are suffering in times of peace, why would we think we’d be any better in times of war and terror?
Yet Lucien also shows that you can make choices and change. You can decide what you want to stand for, what’s worth fighting for – and dying for. The tension in this novel is palpable, aided by gruesome scenes of torture by the Gestapo on French civilians. From a craftsmanship angle, a more subtle technique (“less is more”) would have been just as affective, if not more so. The problem with Belfoure’s scenes of torture is that it’s hard to write such scenes, especially in a readable novel like this (as opposed to a more “literary” style, as much as I hate using that term), without sliding into cheese. I’m not sure that Belfoure was quite successful in getting into the minds of Gestapo officers – can’t really fault him for that – but in the absence of true insight or understanding, the tension and genuine fear can be created in other, more convincing ways. The Gestapo officers began to sound like clichéd film villains in silly action movies – a Stallone cheesefest from the 80s, that kind of thing.
Belfoure was clearly more comfortable with the civilian characters, and developed Lucien into a believable, sympathetic character even when he’s not all that likeable. The fact that he matures and becomes, for want of a less corny expression, a “better person”, absolves him of his earlier vanity and ego. Not to mention that he’s quite honest with himself about his vanity and ego.
There’s a lot to learn from The Paris Architect – about daily life under occupation, about architecture and, especially, about human nature. Not always predictable, the tension and drama propels the story forwards to a fitting climax. At its heart, The Paris Architect is about the small deeds of courage and conscience that people are capable of in times of oppression and fear. While the self-policing conducted by French citizens on each other – spying on their neighbours, reporting people to the police to protect themselves – is unflattering, it serves to make those smaller, sometimes barely visible deeds all the more important. If I can bastardise a quote from Othello for a moment here, I would say that people like Lucien and Bette lived “not wisely, but too well.” The point being, they lived, and they lived a life they could be proud of by making choices that weren’t wise in the circumstances, but were worth it.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book.
“I love it when I finish a fiction novel feeling like I learned something, and I definitely had that feeling after finishing The Paris Architect. The pacing was perfect, keeping me invested in the story despite this being a fairly long book. I enjoyed every page of The Paris Architect and highly recommend it.” I’d So Rather Be Reading
“With his unadorned, zippy style and broad-brush characters, Belfoure writes like an up-and-coming Ken Follett but with more sex and violence and stronger language. There’s plenty of detail to interest architecture buffs, too.” Reading the Past
“The Paris Architect may be a glimpse into a significant, life-altering period in time in Paris’ long history of existence, but it is also a fascinating study in human nature and the broad spectrum of behavior one can find in any population.” That’s What She Read
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The Bees by Laline Paull – Science Fiction; Dystopian; Speculative Fiction.
OK, bees and science fiction. Is this my heaven or what? “Flora 717 is a sanitation worker, a member of the lowest caste in her orchard hive, where work and sacrifice are the highest virtues and worship of the beloved Queen the only religion. But Flora is not like other bees. With circumstances threatening the hive’s survival, her curiosity is regarded as a dangerous flaw, but her courage and strength are assets. She is allowed to feed the newborns in the royal nursery and then to become a forager, flying alone and free to collect nectar and pollen. A feat of bravery grants her access to the Queen’s inner sanctum, where she discovers mysteries about the hive that are both profound and ominous. But when Flora breaks the most sacred law of all – daring to challenge the Queen’s pre-eminence – enemies abound, from the fearsome fertility police who enforce the hive’s strict social hierarchy to the high priestesses jealously wedded to power. Her deepest instincts to serve and sacrifice are now overshadowed by a greater power: a fierce maternal love that will bring her into conflict with her conscience, her heart, and her society-and lead her to perform unthinkable deeds.Thrilling, suspenseful, and spectacularly imaginative, The Bees and its dazzling young heroine will forever change the way you look at the world outside your window.”
Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction edited by Grace L Dillon – Science Fiction; Anthology; Short Stories.
“In this first-ever anthology of Indigenous science fiction Grace Dillon collects some of the finest examples of the craft with contributions by Native American, First Nations, Aboriginal Australian, and New Zealand Maori authors. The collection includes seminal authors such as Gerald Vizenor, historically important contributions often categorized as ‘magical realism’ by authors like Leslie Marmon Silko and Sherman Alexie, and authors more recognizable to science fiction fans like William Sanders and Stephen Graham Jones. Dillon’s engaging introduction situates the pieces in the larger context of science fiction and its conventions.”
The Wonders by Paddy O’Reilly – Fiction; Speculative Fiction.
SO EXCITED about this book!! The Fine Colour of Rust was my favourite book read last year, and I’ve been reading her short stories in the collection, The End of the World. O’Reilly is fast becoming one of my new favourite authors. And now this – just wait till you hear what it’s about! – “What happens when three ordinary people undergo radical medical treatments that make them international curiosities? They become wonders. Leon has a small visible mechanical heart; Kathryn has been cured of a rare genetic disorder but is now covered in curly black wool; while performance artist Christos has metal wings implanted into his back. Brought together by a canny entrepreneur, the Wonders are transformed into a glamorous, genre-defying, twenty-first-century freak show. But what makes them objects of fascination also places them in danger.” (The link here goes to the U.S. edition which won’t be out until February 2015. Australian readers can get this through national book retailers now.)
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman – Fiction.
“There is something about Ove. At first sight, he is almost certainly the grumpiest man you will ever meet. He thinks himself surrounded by idiots – neighbours who can’t reverse a trailer properly, joggers, shop assistants who talk in code, and the perpetrators of the vicious coup d’etat that ousted him as Chairman of the Residents’ Association. He will persist in making his daily inspection rounds of the local streets. But isn’t it rare, these days, to find such old-fashioned clarity of belief and deed? Such unswerving conviction about what the world should be, and a lifelong dedication to making it just so? In the end, you will see, there is something about Ove that is quite irresistible…The word-of-mouth bestseller causing a sensation across Europe, Fredrik Backman’s heartwarming debut is a funny, moving, uplifting tale of love and community that will leave you with a spring in your step – and less ready to judge on first impressions a man you might one day wish to have as your dearest friend.”
Landline by Rainbow Rowell – Fiction.
“Georgie McCool knows her marriage is in trouble. That it’s been in trouble for a long time. She still loves her husband, Neal, and he still loves her – but that almost seems besides the point now. Two days before they’re supposed to visit Neal’s family in Omaha for Christmas, Georgie tells him that she can’t go. She’s a TV writer, and something’s come up on her show; she has to stay in Los Angeles. She knows that Neal will be upset with her – he is always a little upset with her – but she doesn’t expect to him to pack up the kids and go home without her. When her husband and the kids leave for the airport, Georgie wonders if she’s finally done it. If she’s ruined everything. That night, Georgie discovers a way to communicate with Neal in the past. It’s not time travel, not exactly, but she feels like she’s been given an opportunity to fix her marriage before it starts…Is that what she’s supposed to do? Or would Georgie and Neal be better off if their marriage never happened?”
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami – Fiction.
You know I’m a big Murakami fan so it’s no surprise I had to get a copy of this as soon as it came out, even though it’ll be a while before I can read it. “In high school, Tsukuru Tazaki belonged to an extremely tight-knit group of friends who pledged to stay together forever. But when Tsukuru returns home from his first year of college in Tokyo, he finds that they want nothing to do with him. Something has changed, but nobody will tell him what – and he never sees them again. Years later, Tsukuru has become a successful engineer, but is also something of a loner. It is only when he begins dating an older woman named Sara that he confesses the story of this mysterious betrayal and the shadow it has cast over his life. She becomes convinced that Tsukuru must track down his old group to try to answer the question that has haunted him all these years, creating a hole inside of him: Why did they suddenly turn on him? Tsukuru searches out his old friends, and as the truth reveals itself, he must confront the simmering emotional undercurrents that the group had suppressed in order to reach their ideal of perfect friendship – and in order to find himself.”
The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith – Mystery-Suspense; Detective Fiction.
I’m not a big mystery/detective book reader, I tend to get bored by crime fiction – the last time I tried it was a PD James mystery and I didn’t get very far. No depth, no character development, not much happening at all really. Same with thrillers, forensic science mysteries etc. I just get bored. However I don’t mind a more literary mystery book, and I LOVE Rowling’s writing, so I thought I’d give this a try. She can’t seem to please fans of the genre, but since I’m not a fan of the genre but of her work in particular, I think I’m a better audience for this book, yes? Be interesting to see, anyway. “When a troubled model falls to her death from a snow-covered Mayfair balcony, it is assumed that she has committed suicide. However, her brother has his doubts, and calls in private investigator Cormoran Strike to look into the case. A war veteran, wounded both physically and psychologically, Strike’s life is in disarray. The case gives him a financial lifeline, but it comes at a personal cost: the more he delves into the young model’s complex world, the darker things get – and the closer he gets to terrible danger …A gripping, elegant mystery steeped in the atmosphere of London – from the hushed streets of Mayfair, to the backstreet pubs of the East End, to the bustle of Soho – The Cuckoo’s Calling is a remarkable debut. Introducing Cormoran Strike, it is a classic crime novel unlike any other book you will read this year.”
The Girl in 6e by AR Torre – Fiction; Suspense; Psychological Thriller.
I’m familiar with the name Alessandra Torre, who writes erotic romance, though I haven’t read any of her books to date. I read reviews by Bri at All the Books I Can Read and Shelleyrae at Book’d Out and the mystery behind the protagonist’s enforced isolation is really is driving me a bit nuts. I just want to know! Also curious about the story, of course . “Deanna Madden, aka Jessica Reilly, hasn’t touched another person in three years. She hasn’t left her apartment. She makes money from performing to webcams on a sex site, where her clients pay $6.99 a minute for her time. She’s doing alright. The dollars are piling up in the bank. She’s the number 3 model on cams.com. And she hasn’t killed anyone for years. But when Deanna sees on the news that a little girl called Annie has gone missing, the story rattles her carefully ordered world. It’s uncomfortably similar to the dark fantasy of one of her most disturbing online clients. She’s convinced he’s responsible for the girl’s abduction – but no one will listen to her. So, after three years, Deanna finally leaves the apartment. And this is what happens…”
The Miniaturist by Jesse Burton – Historical Fiction.
“There is nothing hidden that will not be revealed … On an autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman knocks at the door of a grand house in the wealthiest quarter of Amsterdam. She has come from the country to begin a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt, but instead she is met by his sharp-tongued sister, Marin. Only later does Johannes appear and present her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. It is to be furnished by an elusive miniaturist, whose tiny creations mirror their real-life counterparts in unexpected ways … Nella is at first mystified by the closed world of the Brandt household, but as she uncovers its secrets she realizes the escalating dangers that await them all. Does the miniaturist hold their fate in her hands? And will she be the key to their salvation or the architect of their downfall? Beautiful, intoxicating and filled with heart-pounding suspense, The Miniaturist is a magnificent story of love and obsession, betrayal and retribution, appearance and truth.”
My Thinning Years: Starving the Gay Within by Jon Derek Croteau – Memoir.
Received for review from the publisher via TLC Book Tours. Not my usual fare I know! I don’t tend to read memoirs, for some reason. “As a child, Jon tried desperately to be his father’s version of the all-American boy, denying his gayness in a futile attempt to earn the love and respect of an abusive man. With this he built a deep, internalized homophobia that made him want to disappear rather than live with the truth about himself. That denial played out in the forms of anorexia, bulimia, and obsessive running, which consumed him as an adolescent and young adult. It wasn’t until a gruelling yet transformative Outward Bound experience that Jon began to face his sexual identity. This exploration continued as he entered college and started the serious work of sorting through years of repressed anger to separate from his father’s control and condemnation. My Thinning Years is an inspiring story of courage, creativity, and the will to live–and of recreating the definition of family to include friends, relatives, and teachers who support you in realizing your true self.”
The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories by Christopher Booker – Non-Fiction.
This a book I’ve had my eye on for years and always meant to get a copy when I was living in Canada. Finally just bit the bullet and ordered one from Bookworld.com. It’s a really big book (over 700 pages) but one I really want to read. “Breathtaking in its scope and originality, “Seven Basic Plots” examines the basis of story telling in literature, film, and libretto. No one will ever see stories in the same way again. This remarkable and monumental book at last provides a comprehensive answer to the age-old riddle of whether there are only a small number of ‘basic stories’ in the world. Using a wealth of examples, from ancient myths and folk tales via the plays and novels of great literature to the popular movies and TV soap operas of today, it shows that there are seven archetypal themes which recur throughout every kind of storytelling. But this is only the prelude to an investigation into how and why we are ‘programmed’ to imagine stories in these ways, and how they relate to the inmost patterns of human psychology. Drawing on a vast array of examples, from Proust to detective stories, from the Marquis de Sade to E.T., Christopher Booker then leads us through the extraordinary changes in the nature of storytelling over the past 200 years, and why so many stories have ‘lost the plot’ by losing touch with their underlying archetypal purpose. Booker analyses why evolution has given us the need to tell stories and illustrates how storytelling has provided a uniquely revealing mirror to mankind’s psychological development over the past 5000 years. This seminal book opens up in an entirely new way our understanding of the real purpose storytelling plays in our lives, and will be a talking point for years to come.”
Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets: A New Commentary by Don Paterson – Non-fiction: Literary Criticism.
I’m always looking for new “books about books”, useful ones, insightful ones. Not sure if this fits that category or not, as it’s Paterson’s conversational opinion mostly, but when you don’t have anyone to talk to about something like the Sonnets, where else to turn to but another book? Will get another opinion, at least. “Shakespeare’s Sonnets are as important and vital today as they were when first published four hundred years ago. Perhaps no collection of verse before or since has so captured the imagination of readers and lovers; certainly no poem has come under such intense critical scrutiny, and presented the reader with such a bewildering number of alternative interpretations. In this illuminating and often irreverent guide, Don Paterson offers a fresh and direct approach to the Sonnets, asking what they can still mean to the twenty-first century reader. In a series of fascinating and highly entertaining commentaries placed alongside the poems themselves, Don Paterson discusses the meaning, technique, hidden structure and feverish narrative of the Sonnets, as well as the difficulties they present for the modern reader. Most importantly, however, he looks at what they tell us about William Shakespeare the lover – and what they might still tell us about ourselves.”
Earthsong by Victor Kelleher – YA Science Fiction.
This book is sadly out-of-print, but I found this copy at my local Vinnies (an op-shop). Not one I read as a kid but I love finding these older Aussie titles. “The Earth of our distant future has become a strange and frightening place. Now, thousands of years later, two off-worlder humans Anna and Joe, are sent back to this wild and unpopulated planet to try to begin human life all over again. And together with their babbling computer companions Og, Trog and Walter, they set off on a journey of hope. But what they discover is a world far more confusing, far more powerful, than they’d ever imagined. Rats that seem to reason for themselves? Creatures that communicate in ancient human codes? What is going on? Following the highly acclaimed Parkland, Earthsong is the second book in a loosely linked trilogy about humanity, responsibility and freedom. Here Victor Kelleher takes those familiar themes and gives us new ways of looking at them, new consequences to grapple with. And the real truth about humankind – its ambitions, its responsibilities, its dreadful mistakes – is here for all to see.”
Halfway Across the Galaxy and Turn Left by Robin Klein – YA Science Fiction.
Another book from my childhood! I remember quite clearly that Klein’s Hating Alison Ashley was the most popular book read by girls in my class in primary school for a couple of years; this is one I read a bit later, also sadly out of print now. “The hilarious account of a crazy alien family’s stay on earth, as their extra-terrestrial powers and ignorance of earth customs get them into trouble, and adventures. The planet Zyrgon is ruled by the galactic police called The Law-Enforcers, who are after Mortimer because has cheated the government lottery for the 27th time in a row. His family is governed by the youngest daughter, 12-year old X, who wants to save her father from the detention centre. The family also includes Mother, who would rather design clothing and leave all worries to her daughter X. The oldest sister Dovis is a cosmic flier who writes poetry and levitates. The youngest is a boy genius, Qwrk who is a professor at age 5.”
Elephant in the Kitchen by Winsome Smith – Children’s Adventure Fiction.
Continuing with my St Vinnie’s haul of cheap books from my childhood is this gem from 1980 that I got for fifty cents. I think my older sister had a copy of this book – the cover is more familiar to me than the story, though I know I have read it. One for younger readers. “Cato the elephant was the star of the circus. Several months ago he disappeared very mysteriously. No one knows that he is now the size of a mouse! The circus magician has cast an evil spell on him – a spell that can only be broken by an act of kindness. Will Cato have to stay hidden in a dark kitchen drawer? Or will John Darcy and Sam help him by breaking the spell?”
Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake – YA Horror.
“Cas Lowood is no ordinary guy – he hunts dead people. People like Anna. Anna Dressed in Blood. A beautiful, murderous ghost entangled in curses and rage. Cas knows he must destroy her, but as her tragic past is revealed, he starts to understand why Anna has killed everyone who’s ever dared to enter her spooky home. Everyone, that is, except Cas…”
Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira – YA Fiction.
I’ve heard mixed things about this one but I’m curious, and I’ve enjoyed epistolary novels in the past. “It begins as an assignment for English class: write a letter to a dead person – any dead person. Laurel chooses Kurt Cobain – he died young, and so did Laurel’s sister May – so maybe he’ll understand a bit of what Laurel is going through. Soon Laurel is writing letters to lots of dead people – Janis Joplin, Heath Ledger, River Phoenix, Amelia Earhart …it’s like she can’t stop. And she’d certainly never dream of handing them in to her teacher. She writes about what it’s like going to a new high school, meeting new friends, falling in love for the first time – and how her family has shattered since May died. But much as Laurel might find writing the letters cathartic, she can’t keep real life out forever. The ghosts of her past won’t be contained between the lines of a page, and she will have to come to terms with growing up, the agony of losing a beloved sister, and the realisation that only you can shape your destiny. A lyrical, haunting and stunning debut from the protege of Stephen Chbosky (The Perks Of Being A Wallflower).”
The Maze Runner by James Dashner – YA Science Fiction.
“When Thomas wakes up in the lift, the only thing he can remember is his name. He’s surrounded by strangers – boys whose memories are also gone. Outside the towering stone walls that surround the Glade is a limitless, ever-changing maze. It’s the only way out – and no one’s ever made it through alive. Then a girl arrives. The first girl ever. And the message she delivers is terrifying. Remember. Survive. Run.”
Slave Girl by Lisa Cach – Historical Romance.
E-book from Netgalley. “From national bestselling author Lisa Cach comes an erotic, adventurous series about a slave girl with prophetic gifts. Nimia is to become her Roman ruler’s concubine, until a ruthless barbarian prince steals her heart—and more.” Currently only available as an e-book.
Up From the Grave by Jeaniene Frost – Urban Fantasy.
I have to admit I’ve lost my love for this series, but I’m still reading it – partly out of a sense of loyalty to the customers, partly in the hope that the next one will be better, partly for nostalgia… “There’s always one more grave to digLately, life has been unnaturally calm for vampires Cat Crawfield and her husband, Bones. They should have known better than to relax their guard, because a shocking revelation sends them back into action to stop an all-out war . . .A rogue CIA agent is involved in horrifying secret activities that threaten to raise tensions between humans and the undead to dangerous heights. Now Cat and Bones are in a race against time to save their friends from a fate worse than death . . . because the more secrets they unravel, the deadlier the consequences. And if they fail, their lives–and those of everyone they hold dear–will be hovering on the edge of the grave.”
Twice Tempted by Jeaniene Frost – Urban Fantasy; Paranormal Romance.
I’ve been having more luck with this spin-off series, though I’ve only read a couple so far. “Dating the Prince of Darkness has its challenges . . . Leila’s psychic abilities have been failing her, and now she isn’t sure what the future holds. If that weren’t enough, her lover Vlad has been acting distant. Though Leila is a mere mortal, she’s also a modern woman who refuses to accept the cold shoulder treatment forever – especially from the darkly handsome vampire who still won’t admit that he loves her . . . Like choosing between eternal love and a loveless eternity . . .Soon circumstances send Leila back to the carnival circuit, where tragedy strikes. And when she finds herself in the crosshairs of a killer who may be closer than she realizes, Leila must decide who to trust – the fiery vampire who arouses her passions like no other or the tortured knight who longs to be more than a friend? With danger stalking her every step of the way, all it takes is one wrong move to damn her for eternity . . .”
NEW IN HUGH’S LIBRARY
The Heart and the Bottle and Up and Down by Oliver Jeffers – Picture Book.
I love Jeffers’ books, and Hugh does too. These are ones he got for his birthday in July. The Heart and the Bottle is really sad.
Meg and Mog, Meg’s Eggs, Mog’s Missing and Meg and Mog: Three Terrific Tales by Helen Nicoll and Jan Pieńkowski – Picture Book.
Remember this series?? I had forgotten all about them, then one day I’m in Dymocks looking for a picture book to gift to a friend’s little one when I see Meg and Mog on the shelf and am instantly transported back to primary school, prep or grade 1, maybe even kindergarten, and absolutely LOVING these books! I can’t believe I’d forgotten about them, but it’s wonderful to see they’re still in print (first published 1972) and going strong.
The pages are boldly coloured with very little text, some dialogue bubbles and plenty for you to ‘ad lib’. Colourful and engaging, my three-year-old is loving them too! Meg and Mog: Three Terrific Tales contains Meg’s Veg, Meg Up the Creek and Mog at the Zoo.
Flashing Fire Engines and Dazzling Diggers by Tony Mitten and Ant Parker – Picture Book.
We had one of the books in this series out from the library a few months ago, and Hugh really loved it. We were in Dymocks (yes, again!) and I was looking for more Meg and Mog books (see above – success!) when Hugh saw these. They were, of course, placed on the lowest shelf, right where they’d catch his eye. He wanted the one about trains too, of course, but I said he could only have one (and we’d have to put back The Gruffalo’s Child, which he’d already picked out). He grabbed two and it was that classic scenario of: Do I want to fight my child in a busy public place and piss everyone off with the ensuing screams, or do I let this one go? Well, it IS a book, and with my book buying habit I’d be a bit of a hypocrite if I quibbled an extra ten dollars. That’s my reasoning, anyway. I know I could have stood my ground but to be honest I didn’t care all that much! Hugh loves books and I’m all for that.
For the sake of my sanity, my memory and my goal of reviewing every book I read, I am doing a bunch of mini reviews today in order to clear my backlog (and my desk) before I totally forget what I thought of them. These books are ones I read as far back as February but haven’t had the time to review properly; I still want to discuss them and share them with you, but I can’t remember enough about the plot or details I enjoyed etc., to be able to write a full review. Hence, this bundle of mini-reviews. I’ve left out a few titles that I still hope (or need) to review properly; my reading tally this year has been scarily low so this won’t be a long list.
The Chocolate Thief by Laura Florand
Amour et Chocolat #1
Summary from Goodreads:
Breathtakingly beautiful, the City of Light seduces the senses, its cobbled streets thrumming with possibility. For American Cade Corey, it’s a dream come true, if only she can get one infuriating French chocolatier to sign on the dotted line…
Melting, yielding yet firm, exotic, its secrets are intimately known to Sylvain Marquis. But turn them over to a brash American waving a fistful of dollars? Jamais. Not unless there’s something much more delectable on the table…
Whether confections taken from a locked shop or kisses in the dark, is there anything sweeter?
I have Angie at Angieville to thank for getting me to read this – it is SO MUCH FUN!! Funny, sexy, exciting, engrossing… It’s hard to go wrong when you combine chocolate with Paris with love and chemistry, isn’t it? And boy is there some sizzling chemistry going on here! If nothing else, read it for the sheer joy of Sylvain’s reaction when he discovers Cade broke into his chocolate shop and ate his chocolates – he follows her path through bins and trays of delicate chocolates like someone tracking an animal. His reaction is not what you’d expect. I just loved this, it’s the perfect read when you want cheering up, or a pleasurable distraction, or simply because you enjoy reading good books.
Read in February 2014
The Undead Next Door by Kerrelyn Sparks
Love at Stake #4
Mass Market Paperback
Summary from Goodreads: Three signs that something is very different with your new man:
1. He sleeps all day…which would be annoying except he’s so attentive at night.
2. He’s attacked by sword-wielding assailants, yet insists he can handle it on his own.
3. He never seems to age.
Heather Westfield has always lived a quiet life, but that all changes when she helps a very handsome, very mysterious stranger. There’s something not quite right about Jean-Luc, but still, she’s never been with a man so charming, so attractive…so wonderful. Now if only a murderous villain wasn’t after them, they might get their happily-ever-after.
I really enjoy this series. They’re warm, funny, they focus a lot on building chemistry and genuine love between the main characters as well as touching on the practicalities and logistics of mortals having relationships with vampires (Shanna and Roman from book 1 are often handy for providing insight to the newest female mortal on how a relationship could actually work). Plus the idea of “good Vamps” surviving on synthetic bottled blood is a better solution than Lynsay Sand’s “bagged blood” from blood banks – that’s always bothered me a bit because of how hard it is to get people to donate blood in real life, and so the idea that so much of it would get sidelined for vampires to drink has never really sat well with me. You know what they say: even fantasy must be believable, plausible, realistic (within the realms of said fantasy). Okay so “they” don’t say it but I do.
Heather and Jean-Luc were an engaging pair and well suited. Plus in this book the first were-animal is revealed, and Ian finds a way to physically age so he no longer looks like a teenager despite being over five hundred years old. There’s a lot of tension and excitement in this one; a very good addition to the series.
Read in June 2014.
Slave to Love: Erotic Stories of Bondage and Desire edited by Alison Tyler
Cleis Press 2011 (2006)
Erotica; Anthology; Short Stories
Summary from Goodreads: The right kind of punishment can be a powerful turn on. Restraint can release hidden desires. A simple leather strap, a shiny pair of handcuffs, a delicate silk scarf, a dominant’s stern gaze. The yearning for a partner who will take control can grip one as powerfully as the most intricate, indecipherable rope knot. In Slave to Love, Alison Tyler gathers the most popular — and often most taboo — fantasies of sexual control and erotic restraint. Featuring such popular erotica writers as Marilyn Jaye Lewis, Saskia Walker and Rachel Kramer Bussel, Slave to Love is luscious, naughty, and infinitely sexy.
This book took me forever to read – I started it about eight months or so before finally finishing it – and while short story anthologies do lend themselves to being read slowly over time, that wasn’t my aim. I simply didn’t enjoy this volume. I think I may have reached my limits, or discovered my limits, something like that. I didn’t find these stories sexy, which certainly puts them firmly in the “erotica” category – if you haven’t read any, erotica is not romantic, it can be quite stifling and heavy and uncomfortable. The stories here were often dark, or a bit strange, or simply uninteresting.
This is the third anthology like this that I’ve read, and each one I like less than the one before. Think I’ll have to stop here.
Finished in May 2014.
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Penguin 2013 (2012)
Summary from Goodreads: Despite the tumor-shrinking medical miracle that has bought her a few years, Hazel has never been anything but terminal, her final chapter inscribed upon diagnosis. But when a gorgeous plot twist named Augustus Waters suddenly appears at Cancer Kid Support Group, Hazel’s story is about to be completely rewritten.
Insightful, bold, irreverent, and raw, The Fault in Our Stars is award-winning author John Green’s most ambitious and heartbreaking work yet, brilliantly exploring the funny, thrilling, and tragic business of being alive and in love.
Several years ago I read Looking for Alaska and was more annoyed than impressed. Didn’t stop me from reading this one, though. While it was much less annoying and depicted believable characters in heartbreaking situations – I can’t imagine what it would be like to know that you’ve got such limited time left (it’s the knowing that is especially awful, aside from the diminished able-body-ness that the narrator, Hazel, must accept on a daily basis) – it still didn’t wow me the way it has many other readers. I was mostly afraid it would be self-indulgent, sentimental and emotionally manipulative. It isn’t, not much anyway. Hazel’s first-person narration is part of the success of the novel, and it can’t have been easy to get inside the head of a young girl slowly dying of cancer. Green manages to bring her to life and let her breathe (ooh ouch the irony) on her own.
It’s a story about living life to the fullest and what that actually means for quiet, ordinary people like Hazel. It was easy to forget that she was dying, or ill, even. She’s a brave soul and that just makes it harder: you so want her to live. It’s not just her story, though: it’s also Augustus’, and his is even more tragic. Predictable, but no less tragic for it.
To be honest, I just don’t have much to say about this book. It’s got humour and intelligence, but oddly enough (considering how readily this happens), it didn’t make me cry. There’s just something missing in Green’s writing that would enable me to connect better with his characters. It’s like … it’s a little too … polished, a little too … neat and tidy. Hard to put my finger on it. It’s been a couple of months or so since I read it and it isn’t sticking in my mind like good books usually do. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it, or didn’t care about the characters – I certainly did. It’s just that, as a novel, it didn’t work magic for me, and that’s that special quality that readers are always looking for, aren’t we?
Read in May 2014.
John Dreamer by Elise Celine
John Dreamer #1
Elise Celine 2014
YA Speculative Fiction
Summary from Goodreads: Andy wasn’t usually sure about much, but she was absolutely certain this was the weirdest day of her life as she stood stranded in the middle of a great white room with six strangers. Well, they were mostly strangers. She could have sworn she’d seen the guy with the green eyes before, and maybe that was why he kept staring at her.
When a man calling himself the Guardian appeared and said they had come to make their deepest dreams come true, they embark on an adventure none of them ever imagined, and the consequences of their actions would change them forever.
This was a nice, quick read, quite engrossing and interesting. The format reminds me of some other story – a book or a film – but I can’t think what and it’s really bugging me. I don’t mean that it’s derivative, only that I think it might be inspired by an older tale, if only I could what it is! Oh wait, am I thinking of the film Brazil maybe? Dreams within dreams? I feel like I’m getting warmer.
The characters are a bunch of misfits, except perhaps for the main character and John. The mystery, then, was why they were there and what their connection was. The story follows a pattern that you think is going to get repetitive and boring but isn’t because the “real” world, the dream space (the white room) gets incorporated into the scenarios. Though the characters are surprisingly slow at realising this.
It moves swiftly and keeps the momentum up, but to do so Celine had to sacrifice some much-needed character development. The characters are fairly thin sketches, a bit stereotypical, though they hint at greater depths. This is the first book in a series and while I’m not sure where the story goes from here (same characters??), it makes for fun, interesting reading.
Read in May 2014. My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via Netgalley.
All I Want for Christmas is a Vampire by Kerrelyn Sparks
Love at Stake #5
Mass Market Paperback
Summary from Goodreads: Toni Davis’s Christmas wish list:
1. Springing my best friend from the psych ward.
2. Living somewhere that doesn’t have coffins in the basement. Occupied coffins.
3. Finding Mr. Right. Please make him tall, dark, handsome, and alive.
This Christmas isn’t so merry for Toni. Her best friend’s been locked up in a mental hospital ever since she told the police she was attacked by vampires, and the only way for Toni to get her out is to prove that bloodsuckers really do exist. So she’s taken a job as a bodyguard for the Undead, but she gets more than she bargained for, especially when she meets Ian MacPhie, a Scottish rascal looking for Ms. Right.
Although Ian’s nearly five centuries old, he looks and acts like a twenty-seven-year-old hunk.
How can a dead man be so damn sexy? Could Mr. Wrong be Mr. Right? One forbidden kiss could lead to an eternity of passion—and all it takes is one moment under the mistletoe . . .
Hugely enjoyable, this one was. Really, I’m so glad I gave this series another try after starting with book 3 (Be Still My Vampire Heart) and disliking it so much, because all the other books I’ve read (eight so far) have been so much fun and not at all annoying. Toni is a solid heroine, hired as a day guard by the “good Vamps” to watch over them while they sleep because her fighting skills impressed Connor so much when he rescued her from a group of Malcontents.
There are several storylines going here, including Ian’s search for a nice Vamp lady to marry that results in some rather hilarious (and rather sad) dating fiascos, and Toni’s neighbour Carlos’ big secret. Lots of action and some attempt on the part of the bad guys (the Malcontents) to use some brain cells and come up with a plan of attack. Plus there’s some delightful chemistry between Toni and Ian and we get to see young Constantine work his magic. Literally.
Read in July 2014
The Fever by Megan Abbott
Little, Brown & Co 2014
Summary from Goodreads: The panic unleashed by a mysterious contagion threatens the bonds of family and community in a seemingly idyllic suburban community.
The Nash family is close-knit. Tom is a popular teacher, father of two teens: Eli, a hockey star and girl magnet, and his sister Deenie, a diligent student. Their seeming stability, however, is thrown into chaos when Deenie’s best friend is struck by a terrifying, unexplained seizure in class. Rumors of a hazardous outbreak spread through the family, school and community.
As hysteria and contagion swell, a series of tightly held secrets emerges, threatening to unravel friendships, families and the town’s fragile idea of security.
A chilling story about guilt, family secrets and the lethal power of desire, The Fever affirms Megan Abbot’s reputation as “one of the most exciting and original voices of her generation” (Laura Lippman).
I didn’t enjoy this as much as I’d hoped, partly because I was hoping it was more along the lines of speculative fiction (it certainly hinted at it!) and partly because I was reading a galley on my Kindle, and I struggle to interact with stories electronically. The other reason would be that I simply wasn’t all that interested in the characters. Deenie is perhaps the central character, but her father, Tom – a teacher at her school – also gets his point-of-view chapters. His side story is his status as bachelor and a vague flirtation with the French teacher. Her older brother, Eli, gets some air time too. No one character was particularly well developed, and the shift between such different characters gave it a choppy, uneven feel.
The plot itself started strongly, and built great atmosphere, but fizzled all too soon. It became fairly predictable, or rather, the build-up at the start created high expectations that didn’t hold. That said, I could have had a very different reading experience had I read this as an actual print book. The other issue is that, as a story about young adolescent girls and their complicated psychological make-up, I felt I’d read better, more thought-provoking stories. The Fever didn’t add anything or teach me anything new. Overall, simply disappointing.
Read in February 2014. My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via Netgalley.