As I try to catch up on reviews of books read earlier in the year, this being the middle of December, I very nearly overlooked this gem of a play. I'vAs I try to catch up on reviews of books read earlier in the year, this being the middle of December, I very nearly overlooked this gem of a play. I've read two different editions of this tragedy this year, several times over, so the fact that I first read it was back in February doesn't come with the usual problem of forgetfulness. On the pyramid scale (i.e. Bloom's Taxonomy) of learning, teaching a thing is high up there. I won't be forgetting the details of this play or the complex ideas and issues it tackles any time soon.
Othello is a simple enough story, in terms of plot, though whenever you start to explain it you discover just how intricate and multi-layered it is from the beginning. The character of Othello is a Moor - that is to say, a dark-skinned foreigner of uncertain origins, though he himself tells another how he is the son of a king in his own land - and the celebrated general of the Venetian army. Venice is a republic, a cultured and civilised city-state, the envy of the civilised world. It holds many territories beyond the city itself, including the island of Cyprus, a military outpost on the frontier with the Ottoman Empire. Venice is ruled by a duke - or "doge" - and many senators; one, Brabantio, spent several evenings with Othello, inviting him to tell the fantastical stories of his childhood and pre-Venice days at the senators home, where his beautiful daughter, Desdemona, listened avidly. She falls in love with Othello and the two marry in secret.
On the night of their wedding, Iago - Othello's ensign, or ancient (standard-bearer - the third-in-command in the army) - rouses Brabantio from his bed to tell him "an old black ram is tupping your white ewe." [Act I, scene I). Brabantio may have been interested in listening to Othello's stories, as a curious exotic, but the idea of a foreigner - and the protector of the city's wealth - stealing one its most precious jewels (Brabantio and other characters refer to Desdemona as a jewel, and in other instances as a possession), is not to be borne. Iago has long been Othello's trusted ensign, but behind his mask of friendliness and trustworthiness is a self-obsessed, misogynistic man of great ambition. He has cultivated friendship with Othello but this night learned that Othello had promoted Cassio to be his second-in-command over Iago. Cassio is much beloved by the ladies, and Iago scorns him as a man who may have studied the art of war in books but hasn't proven himself on the battlefield. Iago's cunning is, at first, unfocussed: he makes up his plan as he goes along, starting with betraying Othello to Desdemona's father, all the while carefully keeping his own role in it secret. His foil and dupe is Roderigo, a wealthy civilian who Iago constantly borrows money off.
Brabantio takes the matter of the unsanctioned marriage between his daughter and the outsider to the Doge, but the Doge does not take his side. Othello has proven his worth, the marriage is done, and Desdemona sides with her husband over her father. More pressing matters are afoot: the Turkish fleet is massing and looks set to target Rhodes; however, the clever senators understand it for the trick that it is and believe Cyprus is the real aim. The Doge must send Othello and the army out to defeat them. It is arranged that Desdemona will follow the army to Cyprus in the company of Iago and his wife, Emilia.
Desdemona arrives before Othello, as a violent storm destroyed the Turkish fleet and scattered the Venetian one. By the time Othello arrives on Cyprus, the war is over without a single fight between men. But the real war, the war between good and evil, the war between Iago and Desdemona for Othello's soul, is just about to begin.
My students were rather annoyed that I gave away the ending of this play at the beginning of the unit on Othello, so I've refrained from doing so here. In fact, there's so much to discuss with this play it's worth a whole book. For the purposes of writing this review, I'm going to focus on a couple of ideas in the play, a bit of context and the difference between the two editions I read this year.
Shakespeare adapted his play from an earlier, Italian play, changing certain things but keeping the general premise and the setting. It's set in the previous century, though a clear date is hard to discern as Venice was at war with the Turks four times (it certainly wasn't the last war). Yet it's very much an Elizabethan play, in terms of attitudes and prejudices (it was first performed for King James I in 1604, if I remember my dates correctly, but the Jacobean was a clear extension of the Elizabethan era, in which it was possibly written and at the very least, informed). While Hamlet is, on one level at least, about Queen Elizabeth I in terms of the anxiety the play reflects at the time it was written, Othello doesn't seem to speak to any major fears at home. Certainly, black people (Africans) were not hugely common, and the era saw the start of racism towards dark-skinned foreigners (more because such people were turning up on English shores and as servants/slaves in English homes, making them a visible affront compared to a distant, vague idea), but it could also be about the ongoing battle between perceived notions of civilisation and barbarity. The 'known world' had become even larger during the 16th century, with explorers journeying forth and bringing back all sorts of new things and stories, but the interesting thing about the play is just how sympathetic a character the dark-skinned outsider actually is.
(On a side note, there is an excellent essay - the first chapter in fact - in Stephen Marche's How Shakespeare Changed Everything, that sheds a perceptive light on the whole race issue: really fascinating. Also, Ian Mortimer's The Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan England - both the book and the 3-part TV series - provide additional contextual information that I recommend. Plus the show is great to use in the classroom!)
Othello may be denigrated by his foes, likened to animals and his foreign features exaggerated (Roderigo calls him "the thick-lips", for instance), but to his friends and employers he is valiant, noble and brave. He has won not just the heart but the (literally) undying loyalty of Venice's most treasured, beautiful women. In the first half of the play, he has the gift of a silver tongue, and humility too - he doesn't comprehend just how charismatic he really is. It is his insecurity, as the perceived outsider amongst the refined, civilised folk of Venice, that makes him insecure and self-conscious. And it is Iago's incredible ability to discern people's weaknesses, their flaws - their 'hamartias' - that enables him to turn Othello against his wife. Truly it is a remarkable performance that Iago puts on.
My students were preoccupied with two elements of the play, both of which surprised me - it shouldn't have, but it did, perhaps because this was the first time I'd taught it. The first was Iago's apparent lack of motive. It's hard to get across the old "just wait till you've experienced more of the world, then you'll see: there are plenty of Iago's around" without sounding incredibly patronising. The other is Othello's trust in Iago. They saw Othello as incredibly naive and gullible, and it was a struggle to help them see just how charismatic Iago was, too, and how clever. Watching the 1995 movie (with Lawrence Fishburne and Kenneth Branagh) helped a bit, but considering these plays are meant to be watched rather than read, it's not that strange that they had trouble visualising and stringing it together. It is a surprisingly complex story told with a deceptive simplicity and a very fast pace - so fast, in fact, that on my first reading it lent an unrealistic ridiculousness to the whole proceedings - a criticism that others have made over the centuries. But in the process of studying the play in order to teach it, the surface reading peeled back and I glimpsed pure genius at work in this play, both in terms of constructing a gripping, intense play and in terms of the wonderful imagery, symbolism and use of language used within it.
The Pelican Shakespeare edition has an absolutely excellent introduction by Russ McDonald that you should definitely read after reading the play; however, my students used the Cambridge School Shakespeare edition instead, a well-laid-out, accessible edition with the text of the play on one page, and explanations, plot snapshots and dramatic activities on the facing page. It's an excellent edition for use in the classroom, and there's plenty of room for making notes (more than a few pages of my copy are covered in notes, while my Penguin remains clean). Having used both editions simultaneously, I can say that if you're studying a Shakespearian play, you should definitely make use of more than one edition. The editors are different, the 'translations' are sometimes different (in fact, I referred to two other editions in compiling definitions for some of Shakespeare's more archaic language), and the introductions - worth the price of the book - are different. Other theorists and critics worth consulting (alongside Marche, above) include Harold Bloom, AC Bradley, Marilyn French, Thomas Rhymer and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
I enjoyed studying (and teaching) this play more than any other Shakespeare play I've studied, which includes the ones I did at university. It's thought-provoking (and provocative in other ways), clever and mesmerising. Having got so much out of this play, I look forward to delving into his other plays just as deeply - without the additional research, there's only so far you can go in this day and age (his original audience would have got more out of it on their first viewing, which is ironic considering how little education some of them would have had). It's just as well that I love learning, and getting stuck into texts - something I've missed doing, since my undergrad. Othello has piqued my interest in tackling Shakespeare in ways I hadn't felt before, and that is a glorious feeling....more
Anyone with small children (and older ones too, I'm sure) will be familiar with Julia Donaldson, in particular The Gruffalo and The Gruffalo's Child,Anyone with small children (and older ones too, I'm sure) will be familiar with Julia Donaldson, in particular The Gruffalo and The Gruffalo's Child, which - along with Room on the Broom - have been made into animated films that regularly show on the ABC. My son, at three, enjoys the books but finds the movies too scary - he's still young like that.
Room on the Broom is about a witch with "long ginger hair in a braid down her back" and a cat and a broomstick and cauldron. They're flying through the sky, having a peaceful, calm trip, when the wind snatches off her hat. A dog helps her collect it and in return she offers him a ride. Next she loses the bow from her hair, and a green bird brings it back. It, too, gets "room on the broom". And so on, until the broomstick is heavy and snaps in two. They all fall to the ground, and the witch encounters a big, red, terrifying dragon who wants to eat her. Her new friends save her, she makes a spell for a new broomstick, and off they go again - in style and comfort this time.
I love it when picture book authors work closely with the same illustrator for their books - like Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake, or Mem Fox and Julie Vivas; you start to instantly recognise their books based on the style of drawings, and come to associate the drawings with the author. (From a marketing perspective, it's a perfect way to make an instant connection with buyers as they scan the shelves.) There's also a comfort aspect at play - the same can be said of authors like Alison Lester, who do their own illustrations and also have a distinctive style. Such books tend to stick with you longer.
Room on the Broom has a delightful rhyme that almost sounds like song, or music - any picture book that rhymes like this is a pleasure to read out loud. The story just flows so well, it's fun to read, and pleasurable to the ear. Doesn't stop a kid from interrupting, though!
Over the fields and the forests they flew. The dog wagged his tail and the stormy wind blew. The witch laughed out loud and held on to her hat, But away blew the bow from her braid - just like that!
Julia Donaldson is another children's author I find myself gravitating towards whenever I'm looking for a new picture book - between her, Alison Lester, Mem Fox, Oliver Jeffers and a few others, you're never short of titles to consider! ...more
After more than two decades of marriage, Douglas Petersen's wife Connie suddenly wakes him in the night to tell him that she thinks she wants to leaveAfter more than two decades of marriage, Douglas Petersen's wife Connie suddenly wakes him in the night to tell him that she thinks she wants to leave him, that their marriage has 'run its course'.
Fifty-four year old Douglas is stunned and resistant. Connie is the love of his life, the only woman he's ever had a serious relationship with, and the mother of his two children: Jane, who died just days after she was born, and Albie, a moody youth about to transition to university. Douglas is a scientist, Connie an artist, and Albie takes after his mother.
Despite Connie's announcement, she is still determined that the family take their planned trip around Europe to tour art galleries and take in foreign places. Douglas sees it as his chance to change Connie's mind, but the trip is fraught with tension, and Douglas's inability to get along with his son is the cause of the disintegration of his carefully detailed itinerary.
Now, instead of going back to England with Connie, Douglas is determined to find Albie and bring him home - thinking that this will be a heroic act in Connie's eyes. That if he can return her son safely to her, she won't leave him. But the search for Albie in Europe tests Douglas in other ways, and away from Connie and all that is familiar to him, he has a chance to break out of his own tightly-controlled parameters and behave in ways that surprise him.
But is it enough to save his marriage? Can he rescue his fraught relationship with his son, a boy who has always managed to provoke irritation and disappointment in him? Us is a story of one middle-aged man's quest to preserve something that, perhaps, shouldn't be saved. A transformative journey not only across Europe, but through the past and his memories, the pieces of which come together to make Douglas Petersen a wholly real and sympathetic - if not entirely likeable - man facing a major upheaval in his life.
In the beginning, I loved this book. I loved the conversational style Douglas has in telling his story directly to the reader, his frank reflections and realistic flaws. This is very much a book about human nature, human foibles, the inconsistencies and contradictions inherent in being human, the ways in which life plays out and our best intentions don't always work out how you planned. It's a story about personalities, and making room for other people's characters, adapting and compromising, to make not just a marriage but a family work.
The trouble was that, after a while, I found the story and the style almost stifling, claustrophobic. Perhaps those are overly dramatic words, perhaps what I really mean is it was a bit repetitive in terms of style and voice, that Douglas's voice was too authentic and that I have, maybe, more in common with Connie and less patience for Douglas. I love getting inside a character so different from myself, but every story contains different elements - voice, style, plot etc. - that, together, either work for you or don't. It becomes wholly subjective, an emotional response to a person that you can no more consciously influence when reading about that person than you can, meeting them in the flesh.
Us is strongly realistic, almost painfully so. The non-linear structure is easy to follow - Douglas guides the whole way, which is very in keeping with his character (he loves itineraries and maps) - and helps break it up, as well as enable the full picture to come together slowly and with a solidity that comes from the use of small details, little snapshots. There's a quote from John Updike's Rabbit is Rich at the very beginning that fits this book perfectly:
He finds a hundred memories, some vivid as photographs and meaningless, snapped by the mind for reasons of its own, and others mere facts, things he knows are true but has no snapshot for.
As a description of the style and structure of this book as well as the way Douglas walks you through his memories and his life, this is very apt. The characters are recognisable - and often unpleasant - in all their flaws and quirks, and the scenarios feel familiar whether you've experienced them or not. There's skill in that, from Nicholls, that shouldn't be dismissed.
But essentially this is the story of a marriage in the process of dissolving, and the interesting thing was how you, the reader, feel about that. Do you want them to stay together? The stories and memories that Douglas chooses to share have a noticeable influence on that, until the last third of the book when you start to finally break away of Douglas's mindset and you have enough information to consider things for yourself. Perhaps the ending is a surprise. Perhaps it is a disappointment, yet really it is the only way it could have ended, in hindsight. But it is very sad. It made me think of how I - who have much in common with Douglas, really, being an introvert who dislikes 'partying' and finds socialising exhausting - could never be in a relationship with an extrovert like Connie. There have been times when, snuggling on the couch with my husband of a Friday or Saturday evening, we've remarked out loud how nice it is that our wishes are in harmony, not conflict. Yes that sounds a bit smug, but really it's just comfortable. The pattern of Connie and Douglas's relationship makes sense, the way it plays out and the hurdles they had to overcome, but at the end of the day Douglas won: it was Connie who had to change. It was Connie who gave up aspects of her life. That's never a great recipe for a long-term relationship.
Yet life is rarely neat and simple, and if it is, it might not feel like living. What this story really shows is how complicated every individual relationship is, that you can't apply one system of rules or expectations to every relationship, every marriage. That what works for some doesn't necessarily work for others. And that not every marriage should survive. That maybe it's better that it doesn't. I like to think I'm not the judging type, but we all try to make the world less chaotic, more familiar and understandable, by using our own frame of reference - our own perspective - to make sense of the world and the people in it, so everyone judges in that sense. This is one of the things I love about fiction: the chance to hear a voice different from our own, a different perspective, other people's choices, and not just get irritated that they didn't do things the way we would have done them, but to consider their choices in light of their own context, their own life and character. In that sense, fiction has great potential. I may not have enjoyed Us as much as it seemed I would at the beginning, but it still made an impression and reminded me of some of the qualities of storytelling that I really value.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours....more
Amira, Caro, Fiona and Morag are old friends who met when their children began kindergarten together. Now Tess, Janey and Bronte (and Morag's twin boyAmira, Caro, Fiona and Morag are old friends who met when their children began kindergarten together. Now Tess, Janey and Bronte (and Morag's twin boys) are fourteen and the four women see much less of each other. Amira, a teacher and single mother, has taken Tess with her on a year-long teaching exchange in Kalangalla, a remote Indigenous community outside Broome, Western Australia. With only a few months left and a big decision to make, Amira invites her old friends - and Tess's old friends, Bronte and Janey - to stay with them for a few weeks. What should be a relaxing and enjoyable holiday is strained by the changed personalities of the girls as they enter womanhood, and the pressures and stresses of approaching middle age for their mothers. When Morag's sixteen-year-old stepdaughter Macy joins them, having been suspended from school, the dynamic changes yet again and tensions come to a head.
Delving into the heart of mother-daughter relationships and the fraught friendships between adolescent girls, Mothers and Daughters also touches upon some of the issues faced by our Aboriginal population and the inherent racism in the country, as well as bullying, envy, growing up and figuring out what you really want in life. Ladd writes with intelligence and wit, and the novel resonates with warmth, humour and realism.
From the opening scene at the airport in Melbourne, at the opposite end of the country, the friction as well as the love between the characters is apparent. Fiona is acerbic and sharp, witty but tired, with a husband who doesn't seem to respect her - or any women - and an older son who is following suit. She drinks a lot and is loud with her opinions. Fiona captures the views of mainstream white Australia towards the Aborigines, and doesn't care who overhears. Her daughter, Bronte, has had a growth spurt and feels ungainly and enormous. When a modelling agency scout approached her, Fiona scoffed at the idea that her daughter could be a model. Bronte hasn't started her period yet and is shy; she lets her mother browbeat and criticise her and she hasn't yet learned to stand up for herself. For a long time she was friends with Janey and Tess, though on the outside, but Janey has moved to a private school and Tess left for remote WA, leaving Bronte struggling to fill the gaps.
Janey is a self-absorbed, unlikeable girl who loves her own body and spends her time glued to her mobile phone - when she's not swimming. Her mother, Caro, has put in hours of her own time, driving Janey to practice and meets - and driving Janey to be the best. Yet it always feels like her two girls love their Italian father more, who travels so much and comes home with presents, leaving Caro to do most of the active parenting. Or maybe it's that she's jealous of how much he loves them. Caro is a bit obsessed with appearance, and looking neat and attractive, and has led a largely protected life.
Morag, an aged-care nurse, left Scotland for Australia in order to be with Andrew, a man she'd met and fallen in love with while young, but who went on to marry someone else and have a daughter. He later divorced and tracked Morag down, and they had twin boys, Callum and Finn, and later a third boy, Torran. Morag left behind her ageing mother in Edinburgh, who she visits infrequently, and after years of living in Australia, it finally catches up with her:
She wasn't hungover, Morag suddenly realised. She was homesick. For years she'd lived quite happily in Australia. She'd made her peace with it, she thought - this was where her husband was, her children, her future. Coming north, though, had shifted something. Broome and Kalangalla were so different, so foreign to her, that they magnified the strangeness of this continent, made it all seem new again. New and overwhelming and completely alien. Her mind went back to a home visit she'd done one winter's day over a decade earlier - Newhaven, she thought, or maybe North Leith. There was a hostel next door to the flat she was visiting. It was snowing, and a black-skinned family - refugees, she'd guessed, asylum seekers from North Africa - were standing in the garden with their pink-palmed hands out, catching the dirty flakes, a look of total bewilderment on each of their faces. That was her, she thought. That was how she was feeling right now. [pp.249-250]
Unlike the other three women, Amira is less urban, more open-minded and adaptable. She and her daughter, Tess, fit in well among the Aborigines at Kalangalla, a community free of alcohol that has kept up the more traditional lifestyle of the local tribe. Tess runs around barefoot with her new best friend, an Aboriginal girl called Tia. Amira is reluctant to leave for the city again after her year is up, but it's not a decision she'll make without Tess. Tess has started exchanging romantic correspondence with Callum, Morag's son, but when Janey finds the letter Tess learns just how mean Janey can be, and how different their paths now are.
As you come to know the women and their girls, you definitely come to care for them, too. Ladd has captured four women representative of our mainstream, middle-class, white society, and four girls similarly representative. They feel and sound like real people, as do the Aboriginal characters they meet and interact with. As much as I found the novel entertaining, well-written and absorbing, it also felt just a bit contrived. It is far too easy to conjure up a similar scenario of four women with representative personalities (though much less realistic): Sex and the City. Caro was definitely reminiscent of Charlotte, for instance. And the girls, too, were fairly standard characters. While it did work, it also required me to put aside certain niggles like this, when I'd rather not have them in the first place. Fiona and Morag were perhaps the best characters in the sense that they felt quite natural and normal (even if you don't agree with Fiona's opinions - and I rather hope you don't - she's still a natural, identifiable character, whereas Caro seemed like a caricature to me). The issue isn't with realism, it's with putting a bit to much into the one book. Trying to capture too many perspectives. Trying to connect with all readers and their varied personalities. It didn't need to be quite so representative in order to work. You can still have conflict when the characters are less dissimilar.
But time, and how things change with it, how our relationships - all kinds - can fall fallow or fade, and how nostalgic we can be for the past is at the forefront of this novel, and how the characters interact. Societal issues and pressures form the details that create conflict or force people to face up to things, but at heart this is a story about four women hitting middle-age and not quite handling it all that well, and their daughters who are hitting puberty, wanting to exert their independence and embark on the start of their own lives - something that is often in conflict with their parents' wishes, which stem largely from nostalgia.
Despite the niggling feeling that Mothers and Daughters was trying to capture too much, I loved this book. I especially loved the inclusion of issues surrounding Indigenous populations here in Australia, as well as the classic urban-rural divide. Most of the characters are sympathetic and likeable (the exception is Janey), and their time in the remote Aboriginal community of Kalangalla provides a wonderful backdrop to the playing-out of their relationships. This is a story of contemporary life for Australian women of this demographic, warts and all. It's about what it means to grow up - how we must go through a "coming of age" process more than once, and how we transition from impatience in adolescence, to resistance in our forties. A heartening and, at times, heart-breaking tale of love, friendship and resilience, Mothers and Daughters is a wonderful story....more
It's been many years since Assassin's Apprentice came out in 1995. Where was I in 1995? Finishing high school - grade 10 - and slowly starting to reaIt's been many years since Assassin's Apprentice came out in 1995. Where was I in 1995? Finishing high school - grade 10 - and slowly starting to realise that Fantasy was the genre I loved. I read Assassin's Apprentice a year or two later, in college, and wanted so badly to love it. It had one of the new breed of Fantasy covers (click the link above to see it), and the genre, in the late 90s, was experiencing a true revival: fresh talent, new energy, original ideas and some beautiful covers by Voyager here in Australia (so different from those commonly associated with Fantasy thanks to publishers like Tor in the U.S. with their ugly, chunky fonts and often awkward-looking artwork).
But I digress. I wanted to love the first book set in the world of the Farseers - Hobb's first novel, if I remember correctly - but I couldn't. It wasn't long, but it was slow and uninteresting to me at the time; I couldn't get into it. I did give Hobb another go a few years later, when I was at uni and read The Liveship Traders. The first book took me a long time to get through, but it picked up at the end and the last two books were quite exciting. So it was with a mixture of excitement and trepidation that I received her newest, Fool's Assassin, in the mail. Not only was I leery of being able to enjoy Hobb's slower, more ponderous style (for such as it was from memory), but this is the start of a third trilogy set in the same world as her very first book, and the fact that I hadn't read the intervening books was a big looming ignorance which I feared would preclude any enjoyment at all.
Not so, on the last count at least.
The story reintroduces readers to FitzChivalry Farseer, bastard son of King Shrewd's oldest son, Chivalry, who abdicated the throne in favour of his younger brother, Verity. Fitz, son of a Mountain Kingdom woman, is the protagonist and hero of the previous trilogies, which see him being brought to Buckkeep Castle and trained as a spy and assassin - for the Farseer kings, if a bastard isn't useful to the throne, he's a threat. It is as a boy at the castle that Fitz first meets the Fool, a blonde boy in a land of dark-haired people who later, in the Tawny Man trilogy, figures prominently as a White Prophet, Fitz his Catalyst.
But Fitz has retired, as much as he's allowed to, and now lives incognito at Withywoods with his wife, Molly, and some of her children from her first marriage (to Burrich). Known as Holder Tom Badgerlock, Fitz is enjoying his quiet life, his wife, and being away from court politics. But on the night of Winterfest, three strangers appear at the manor house, a pale messenger he never gets to meet vanishes, and there's blood in his study - both the ground floor study where the messenger was waiting for him and his own, private study where Fitz does his real work. As angry as he is at the violation and the mystery, the trail soon goes cold, years pass and he forgets all about it. Until another pale messenger arrives, barely alive, with a message from the Fool that doesn't make sense, for all that its importance is clear. And just like that, Fitz is launched back into the world of intrigue, danger, adventure and death.
Fool's Assassin begins slowly, almost too slowly. It took me a while to get through the first few chapters, which seemed far too preoccupied in the minute details of Withywoods and Winterfest. Yet it does set the tone and pace for the novel to come, as well as ease you back into this world. And even though I can barely remember anything from Assassin's Apprentice, Hobb's gentle handling of exposition (including background information) meant that I never got lost. I'm not sure if readers who are more familiar with the earlier trilogies would appreciate the recapping and reminiscing as much as I did; it's hard to say. But all the details of who died, who was tortured, what happened to so-and-so from the previous books, didn't feel like spoilers to me; such details have actually motivated me to read the previous trilogies and catch up. In such a condensed form, the excitement and thrill of previous plots is forefront.
Fitz is technically an old man in this book: at the start he is forty-seven, and Molly, at fifty, is three years older. Twelve or thirteen years go by during the course of this book, but because of the intense Skill healing Fitz endured as a younger man, his body keeps healing and he looks younger than his true years. He'll need that boost of youth and vigour, as the end of this first volume is merely the beginning of a very personal adventure for Fitz. I would love very much to give some details, especially as the messenger plot-line I shared in the summary above is just one sliver of what happens in this, but I really don't want to spoil it for anyone. What I will say is that I loved Bee, she's a truly engaging heroine and fascinating too. It's interesting that Fitz doesn't realise a few things about her, especially considering I figured it out and I haven't even read the other books! Because of Bee, the slower pace and fine details of daily life became welcome, soothing almost, and intrinsic to the development of characters and plot. Sure it could have been slimmed down, but I wouldn't change anything: for all the pace, I found it exciting, gripping and immensely enjoyable.
It's also quite heartbreaking. There were several places in the story that set me crying, which I love: I love being that involved, that invested in the characters, that what happens to them affects me enough that I cry. Sure, I cry easily these days, but you still need that connection. One thing's for sure, Hobbs characters are alive, they're real, and the deceptive simplicity of the writing and plot draws you in in an organic, homely way. It fits well. It also makes you realise, in terms of the overall plot of the trilogy - which doesn't become clear until the very end of book 1 - how necessary it is to spend such a long time on establishing the characters, especially Bee. (And as a warning: this book ends on a cliffhanger.)
As for the world itself, Hobb builds on her previous work and as far as I can tell, nothing new has been added here. It's well established, but reminded me of one of the reasons why I struggled with the first book as a teenager: it's not the most interesting world. Following on the well-trodden path of modelling a fantasy world on medieval Europe, perhaps the most striking difference is the lack of religion. There's no religion in this world at all, at least not in the Six Duchies. There's magic and mystery, the supernatural, the long-gone Elderlings and newly-arisen dragons, but no religion. It's a surprising omission, once you note it, only because in our own world, religion is always there, even if you don't follow one or have personal beliefs. It still frames your world, shapes your experiences and your perspective. Without religion, the characters here need some kind of creed to follow, some shared understanding of how the world works and their place in it. Loyalty comes to mind, and the Farseer kings. They're not worshipped, but the lengths characters like Chade, Fitz's mentor, go to to protect the throne are almost worshipper-like.
Fool's Assassin is a successful re-entry into Fitz's world, I would say, and provides the pivotal beginnings to a new high-stakes plot. Even without having read the previous trilogies, I would say that this plot is the most personal for Fitz, I just can't say why without spoiling things. Am I eagerly awaiting the second book already? Absolutely! The best thing to do in the meantime, is go back to the beginning and read the Farseer Trilogy and the Tawny Man trilogy (I would love to read the Soldier Son trilogy too, while I'm at it). Hobb has reinvigorated my interest in this world, which I didn't think would happen, but considering how slow the pacing is here, how uneventful so much of this long book seems to be, that says a lot about her skill in developing characters, anticipation and momentum.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book. ...more
Alex Caine grew up in foster homes and was a wild kid until he started learning martial arts; since then, he's had focus, discipline and a means of eaAlex Caine grew up in foster homes and was a wild kid until he started learning martial arts; since then, he's had focus, discipline and a means of earning a living in illegal cage fights. He always wins, too, because he has a secret advantage: he can see people's shades, and knows what his opponents are about to do. It isn't until he meets Englishman Patrick Welby that Alex learns there's a name for what he is: mage. Once Welby unlocks the door to the hidden world of magesign and the Fey, Alex is reluctantly drawn in. Welby has his sights set on a powerful magical book that he hasn't been able to read, but he thinks Alex can. He wants Alex to go with him from Sydney to London to try and read the book, being held by a cranky and unlikeable bookseller called Peacock.
Welby's hunch was right: Alex can read it, only with unexpected consequences. The book is actually a vessel for a trapped piece of a Fey god, a being of chaos that was driven from this plane with only this one little bit remaining, a piece that latches onto a mortal soul and drives them to destruction. Alex is no less a victim, and with his training is driven to lethal acts. He'll do whatever it takes to get rid of the indestructible book, even braving the dens of flesh-eating Kin, before any more people die at his hands.
With the help of an unlikely but beautiful, inhuman ally called Silhouette, and pursued by a ruthless and ambitious magical-artefacts dealer called Mr Hood, Alex finds himself traversing the globe to hunt down shards of the powerful stone that first rid the world of the godling, Uthentia. Time is running out and the stakes are getting higher. Even if he succeeds in his quest to find the long-hidden pieces, he has only a hunch and conviction that he will be able to use what took three powerful mages to wield long ago. But there's only one way to find out.
I'm not a big reader of Urban Fantasy, mostly because the majority of books that fall under that sub-genre always use mysteries or detective work as their plot, and mysteries tend to bore me. Character development especially, and also world-building, are all-too-often overlooked in a mystery (or detective or thriller or CIA) novel. I'm not sure why Urban Fantasy must contain some kind of mystery-detective plotline, but I'm guessing it's a way to explore the familiar-unfamiliar world for the sake of the audience. When it's not a mystery, it's romance - paranormal romance. I find the latter more interesting and engaging because romance, by dint of its nature, relies on characters, so you get plenty of character development (or you should). Bound pleasantly straddles several tropes common to Urban Fantasy, combining Fey and Kin with human, magic and mystery with crime and violence, love and obsession with murder and mayhem. It has more of a classic Quest structure than a detective one, and uses the trope of introducing a new, hidden and complex world to an ignorant human as a means of providing exposition at a gradual pace. Overall, it works.
Bound is a gritty, dark urban fantasy, full of violence and gore and visceral imagery. There are hints of other works here - or rather, certain scenes reminded me of other works, which is not to say Baxter lacks originality but that stories create a community of ideas and imagination, which I love. The golems reminded me of Jonathan Stroud, the island of malnourished worshippers and the obese dictator reminded me of Iain Banks' Consider Phlebus (the first of his Culture science fiction series). Other elements of the novel reminded me of less tangible stories, books I couldn't quite remember or grasp. Overall it makes Bound feel like familiar territory, one that doesn't need much exposition to understand.
Alex Caine is a good protagonist and hero-figure, leading us into this new world unwillingly, but never baulking at what he knows he must do. For the most part, he asks good questions and uses his head. I can only hope that his character is more fully developed and explained over the following two books, as we don't learn a whole lot about him here. Silhouette, likewise, is a shadowy figure (no pun intended), but an excellent one. She's only half-human, and Baxter does a good job of developing her inhumanity while at the same time giving us plenty to like and relate to. The world of the Kin and the Fey is an interesting one, and while it might not be the most original of storylines or worlds, it is quite entertaining, in a dark and often violent way.
Where I struggled some was with the writing. Baxter's prose is solid, his details are nicely placed, and the dialogue flows quite naturally. But what I got really tired of was the constant use of the rhetorical question. Baxter uses it a great deal when Alex starts reflecting and thinking and in general, trying to figure things out. The occasional rhetorical question works fine, but sometimes there were several in the one paragraph and it does weaken the writing (not to mention makes Alex a tad annoying in those moments).
I enjoyed Bound, both for its dark, twisted other-worldly creatures and, at times, downright terrifying scenes of violence and gristly murder (the scene with the children was particularly hard to read), as well as for the simple but layered world-building. Alex Caine starts off the series as an ordinary man with a couple of extraordinary talents; by the end, he's something more than human and forever changed by his experiences. It can only get more interesting from here on.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book....more
In the kingdom of Ricalan, winter is a formidable force for many months of the year, as well as a useful ally in this time of invasion and attack. It'In the kingdom of Ricalan, winter is a formidable force for many months of the year, as well as a useful ally in this time of invasion and attack. It's not only the settlers from Mesentreia forcing the Ricalani tribes off their land as they've been doing for the last few decades, supported by Ricalan's Mesentreian queen. Now they must also contend with forces from the Akharian Empire to the west. The Empire is also feeling the pinch from Mesentreia and its settler-invaders, and is using Ricalan as a battleground. But the Empire are also slavers, taking every Ricalani civilian after attacking villages, and the Ricalani army is doing little to stop them.
For Sierra, the ongoing battles - both ideological and physical - are merely a backdrop for her own personal hell. In Ricalan, as in Mesentreia, magic is against the law, hunted down, eradicated. Sierra was hidden by her parents until a powerful Akharian Blood Mage, Kell, now working for the king of Ricalan and his mother, comes for her. Sierra's magical gift is fed by the emotions of others, particularly pain and suffering. And Kell, sadistic torturer that he is, has been using her to feed off his victims, store impressive amounts of power, all for him and his apprentice, Rasten. So she was there when Isidro was tortured, brutalised and defeated.
Isidro is foster-brother to the rightful king of Ricalan, Cammarian, the younger son of a minor southern prisoner of Mesentreian blood, Valeria, who was married to the Ricalani queen's brother. The queen chose Cam as her successor, and upon her death his own mother tried to have him killed. Instead, he fled with Isidro, leaving the throne for his older brother, Severian, to take. They have been on the run ever since, falling in with various groups, not staying too long on any one tribe's land lest they wear out their friends' welcome. Until Isidro is captured and then rescued, and Sierra sets herself free. All three of them are being hunted by Rasten and Kell, but it is Sierra who poses both the real danger, and a real hope for salvation.
After a bit of a slow start where I was strangely very confused over the three different nationalities and who was of which country and where the story was even taking place (there is a map but I read it weird, don't know how, and that started the confusion), Winter Be My Shield becomes a deeply engrossing, very interesting, solidly-constructed Fantasy story whose consistently measured pacing is nevertheless gripping due to the oodles of tension and anticipation throughout. I've spent a bit of time, in my summary, trying to provide some context and introduce the three nations, mostly because I had been so confused at first - in retrospect, it's hard to see how I could have been confused, but there you go. Spurrier actually does a very good job of doling out the exposition in manageable bites, at relevant points in the story. You never quite get to the end of understanding of this world, though: for as well-crafted as the world building is, there's always more to learn and reveal, and that helps add to the interest.
I enjoyed this story immensely, once I got into the swing of things and understood what was going on. There are several different 'sides' but only two main perspectives: Sierra and Isidro. Occasionally, Cam and Rasten get to share their perspective, and an Akharian mage called Delphine provides an absorbing Akharian perspective towards the end. The characters are fairly straight-forward, well fleshed-out, and realistically flawed and human. I was expecting Cam to be the main character - he's a typical protagonist, being heir to a kingdom, a fugitive, handsome, charming etc. Blonde, too - that always helps (his mother's blood; the Ricalani are described as being akin to Asian but very tall). So I was pleasantly surprised - and pleased - when it turned out that Isidro was a key protagonist alongside Sierra. Isidro is a more interesting character, more nuanced, and what happens to him - both at the beginning and at the end - adds to this.
Sierra could have been a bit of a formulaic character, but often manages to surprise. It's not the first Fantasy story to feature a character like her, and in some ways this story, and Sierra, reminded me of Kate Elliott's excellent Crown of Stars series. Rasten could be a stand-in for the deliciously evil Hugh, and so on. But I wouldn't go too far with such comparisons: the Children of the Black Sun trilogy stands clearly, solidly on its own feet, engaging with classic fantasy tropes while at the same time bringing new, or refreshed, ones to the genre. The magic system is uncomplicated yet intriguing, and Sierra's untrained ability is fascinating. You also really feel for her - and Rasten before her (a great villain is one you can sympathise with, even if slightly)- when you learn what kind of mage she is, and how much of a blessing her ability could be if Kell hadn't already started warping it for his own ends.
With a steady, slightly slow pace and a wealth of detail, Spurrier brings her wintery world to cold life. There's violence, gore and pain, but also simple pleasures and a complex history in the process of being unlocked, discovered and revealed. By the end of volume one, the stakes have only become immeasurably higher, and Sierra in a wary working relationship, of kinds, with Rasten. Everyone has their own motives, their own plans, which cris-cross messily over each other. I look forward to reading the next two books, Black Sun Light My Way and North Star Guide Me Home, and seeing what happens to these interesting characters in this intriguing world. A well-written, exciting Fantasy that only gets more absorbing the further you read.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book. ...more
According to Wikipedia, there is a category of fiction labelled Tasmanian Gothic, and The Alphabet of Light and Dark falls squarely within it. The subAccording to Wikipedia, there is a category of fiction labelled Tasmanian Gothic, and The Alphabet of Light and Dark falls squarely within it. The sub-genre is described thus: "Although it deals with the themes of horror, mystery and the uncanny, Tasmanian Gothic literature and art differs from traditional European Gothic Literature, which is rooted in medieval imagery, crumbling Gothic architecture and religious ritual. Instead, the Tasmanian gothic tradition centres on the natural landscape of Tasmania and its colonial architecture and history." This is the first time I've heard the term 'Tasmanian Gothic' but it clicked instantly - it's the perfect way to neatly capture the atmosphere and essence of Danielle Wood's haunting and beautiful first novel.
The present-day portions of the novel are set largely on Bruny Island, in the south of Tasmania, in 1999. Essie Lewis, only child of a university professor who's gone 'walkabout' on a global scale, and a mother who died of cancer when Essie was young, was brought up between her father, an environmentalist, and her grandfather, a successful businessman in hydro-electricity who began life in poverty. From her grandfather, Charlie, she learns stories from the past, pieces of her ancestors and others. When Charlie dies, in 1999, Essie puts her life as a marine scientist in Perth on hold, takes Charlie's ute and drives to Bruny Island, where she rents one of the shacks by the lighthouse where her great-great-grandfather was superintendent in the latter half of the nineteenth century.
She has a key to the lighthouse, now disused in favour of a more modern version nearby, and during the next several cold months, she spends a lot of time up by the light, with the postcard photo of a young Alva, a girl - her great-great-grandparents' daughter - who was born here. Alva looks just like Essie, and ever since Essie saw the picture when she was a child, she's been drawn to her long-dead relative. Now, using the bits and pieces of stories from her grandfather, her great-great-grandfather's log books, and some random things bequeathed to her by Charlie - among them a carved coconut; a tiny coin; a stone seamed in bright quartz and mica and bits of garnet; and a coiled plait of pale hair - Essie writes Alva's story, a story that Essie starts to recognise is really her own.
Also on the island is Pete Shelverton, a man also trying to find a measure of peace within himself. A chance meeting between Pete and Essie rekindles an old friendship that goes back to when they were children, but some history seems too hard to surmount, or escape.
At its heart, this is a story about belonging, and place, and time. As such, it's a deeply moving, beautiful, haunting book, a story that artfully, even subtly, bridges the gaps of time. Essie is uprooted, aimless, un-anchored. While she has an apartment in Perth, she has recently broken up with her boyfriend, David, and has no real attachment to the city. She likes things clean, sterile almost, and minimalist. She likes things to match, and colours to complement. She's organised, and introspective, and hard to reach, emotionally. She misses her mother, but it's as if her father doesn't like to share his grief over her passing; for several years after her mother died, Essie didn't speak. At the lighthouse on Bruny Island, she becomes hermit-like and absorbed in the past, and the act of creation, of bringing Alva to life. In the process, she feels close to truths her grandfather wouldn't have told her.
Likewise, Peter is a loner, a man who is content in his own company and solitude, who has spent months at a time on Macquarie Island, south of Tasmania, hunting the feral cats that live there and decimate the wildlife. After one such stint, he came home to discover his girlfriend couldn't, and didn't, wait for him. He waits eagerly, impatiently and with a sense of anxiety for word to come from the department, to hear he will be going back in September. Once he encounters Essie, though, things slowly start to shift inside him. Both Essie and Pete subconsciously recognise that it is through our relationships with others, especially real, deep and intimate relationships, that we find our sense of place and belonging.
The Cape Bruny lighthouse is one I've visited, incidentally, many many years ago: it's not something you're likely to forget any time, because it's at the edge of a promontory, perched above jagged, black, precipitous cliffs against which the sea violently hurls itself. I remember looking down at those thundering waves and feeling so incredibly insignificant, so incredibly mortal and fragile. It wasn't a particularly cold or overcast day, but this spot seemed to hold its own, stormier weather. This is my memory, at least, but aside from a mention of cliffs, this image doesn't feature in The Alphabet of Light and Dark. (I actually started to wonder whether I'd confused it with some other lighthouse, somewhere else in the state, but after a quick search online I found this picture that somewhat confirmed it, though it's probably that my memory has bridged gaps and isn't wholly accurate. That in itself is quite fascinating, though, and ties into the concept of the Gothic nicely: that I would associate such turbulent waters and cliffs with a colonial lighthouse.)
The lighthouse itself acts like a touchstone, a solid colonial object of mystery and romance, of light and dark (the 'alphabet of light and dark' is, literally, explained as the spaces between flashes - each lighthouse is different, so you can identify, at night, which lighthouse you're near [p.128]). I 'waxed lyrical' on lighthouses and what they symbolise in my recent review of The Light Between Oceans, so I'll point you in that direction rather than repeat myself here - suffice it to say, that the lighthouse serves much the same purpose here. Now with the added perspective of the 'Tasmanian gothic', the lighthouse takes on another layer - or really, everything about lighthouses can be summed up by the term. For Essie, it's a place of comfort, too. A true anchor in her mourning and sense of floating. Pete is the one who keeps it clean, coming every couple of weeks to keep the dust away; for him, too, it's an emblem of stability, routine, predictability. A lighthouse is a sign of civilisation, both literally and symbolically.
The novel touches upon the original Aboriginal inhabitants, and the idea that 'they walk no more upon this isle'. Now and again Pete - a descendent himself - hears typical racist comments, usually along the lines of Aboriginals getting government handouts once they claim ancestry. It isn't a central topic, more of a complimentary theme: the Aboriginals too, like Essie, have been displaced, dispossessed, no longer - often - have a place they can properly 'belong' to. Here in Tasmania, we have been taught for so long that all the Tasmanian Aboriginals were wiped out, that Truganini was the last Aboriginal, full stop. And so, when we started rewriting that 'fact', acknowledging all the descendants, many people refused to shift their thinking and view these people with great suspicion. We're no less racist here in Tassie than on the mainland, when it comes to the Indigenous population. It was a soft, complementary touch on the part of Wood, a lecturer in English at the University of Tasmania, to include them - part of me wanted it to be more prominent, to matter more, because I love stories about Indigenous issues etc. and learning from them - but I have to also acknowledge that having it as a shadow (again, that 'light and dark' theme) worked quite beautifully. After all, it is Essie's story, a colonial story, first and foremost. The Aboriginal story is part of it, a dark part, but not the whole of it.
The theme of place, and belonging, was strong here. When Essie goes to Scotland with David, prior to the 'present day' events of the novel, she has a moment I could completely identify with:
Essie is separated from [Alva] by time, but in space, she is intimately close, patrolling her walls, stepping through them like a ghost. It makes her feel giddy. She has to sit down on the cold stone, drop her head between her knees to stop herself from fainting. [...] She had felt it another time, too. In Scotland. She had gone with David to a conference in Glasgow. On the way, they had stopped in the city of Edinburgh and walked the steep streets up out of the cavity of the railway station into the city, dense and blackened with age. She looked down and there, carved squarely into the paving stone beneath her feet, was the inscription:
This is my own, my native land. --Walter Scott
Essie had needed to reach out to David to stop herself from falling in the Alice-hole that opened up there in the pavement, a core cut through centuries of Picts, Celts, Angles, Norsemen, all the way to infinity. Imagine that kind of belonging, she had said to David, breathless. He had not understood. [p.72]
I have felt that, and you have to love it when some surprising little detail in a novel leaps out at you like that and instantly connects you to a character. I tried to articulate it in a post I wrote late last year, on Tassie's colonial past and our persevering connection to it - why we love our old heritage buildings, etc. I think Essie captured it well. It's based around a shared culture, which is also why there's a disconnect between us (speaking as a white descendent of British settlers etc.), and the Aboriginals. I have lately been looking at prominent landmarks (since so much else has been changed, disfigured or removed altogether), like mountains and rivers, and trying to imagine Aboriginals there, back before we arrived. It is hard, though. It is so much easier to feel connected - to feel the absence of time within a place - when visiting a colonial heritage site, for instance.
The one thing I disliked, or that irked me, with The Alphabet..., was the use of present tense in the Essie and Pete chapters. It didn't seem like a good fit, it felt a bit stilted and awkward, even when the actual phrases, imagery and language was beautiful, and resonated. But then, the use of present tense has become a real fad in the last, oh, five or so years? and I'm completely and thoroughly sick of it. It's also not a very good tense to use - it's limiting, it's tricky to get right, and it often has the opposite effect from the intended one (it's primary use in fiction is to remove a sense of time, to make the story feel present and the ending unpredictable - for example, theoretically, if you have a first-person narrator and you use present tense, you could kill the character off, something that is illogical when using past tense). Past tense is a stronger, more versatile tense to use, and can achieve the same effect of timelessness and being 'in the now' that present tense should. This book pre-dates the fad, and uses it in a literary sense, but it's an ambitious tense for a first novel. It altered the tone, kept me at a distance I didn't feel was necessary, and, to me anyway, didn't achieve the desired effect.
That is my only real complaint. Otherwise, this is a truly beautiful book, full of rich description, a vivid sense of the past, and characters who felt alive. The atmosphere is imbued with this sense of a Tasmanian Gothic - a sense I'm grateful to have a name for, now. It is a story in which characters 'find themselves' by facing the past: a classic formula, because there's so much truth in it. As Charlie, Essie's grandfather, insists, 'the way things are now rested on the way things were.' [p.55] In order to understand what is, you have to understand what was. Essie's obsession with Alva provides her with a way to handle her own feelings about her parents and grandparents, the animosity between her father and Charlie, her mother's death. And Pete.
As I write this, I'm almost overcome with an urge to re-read the novel, right now. That doesn't happen very often. This is a story about stories, a story about connections across place and time, a story about finding your place in the world - and how you never really stop looking for it. A wonderful glimpse into the colonial past within the natural beauty of the Tasmanian coast, I highly recommend The Alphabet of Light and Dark....more
The question of whether you read Someone Else's Love Story as a story about faith and destiny, or coincidence and growing up, is a redundant one: it iThe question of whether you read Someone Else's Love Story as a story about faith and destiny, or coincidence and growing up, is a redundant one: it is not the answer that matters, but the fact that there is a question at all. For Shandi Pierce, she has spent the last four years in denial, so fiercely omitting the truth of the night she got pregnant that she's convinced herself she had a virgin birth. The illusion comes crashing down on the day she moves from her mother's mountain home to Atlanta, where her father lives, to continue her degree closer to campus. En route with her best friend, Walcott, and her three year old son, Natty, they pull over at a little petrol station because Natty is car sick. Going inside to get a drink, Shandi spies a handsome older man, who she pins as being divorced. Her parents divorced when she was very young due to arguments about how to raise their daughter (her mother is Catholic, her father is Jewish), and Shandi has had a few boyfriends since Natty was born who are all much older men.
The suspected divorcee is William Ashe, and he isn't divorced. He is in mourning, though, so when a drug-addled man enters the Circle K with an old gun and proceeds to rob the place, William sees it as destiny. Here is a way to end it all. Shandi reads William's reaction differently: she sees the way he moves between the gunman and her son, and thinks he is deeply protective - the quality all women want in their male partners when children are involved. She's sexually attracted to him, and being in a hostage situation, adrenalin pumping, only seems to heighten it. When William says "Destiny," she thinks he means them. She falls in love.
But William is deep in his own love story, the love he has - or had - for his wife, Bridget, and their two year old daughter, Twyla, who died in a tragic car accident exactly one year to the day of the robbery. William is autistic, though as his best friend Paula points out, he "learned how to pass." A genetic scientist, he's built like a football player and makes origami animals to keep his fingers busy while he thinks. When Shandi turns up at the hospital after the robbery, Natty in tow, she asks for his help in finding the boy's real father. Things changed for both of them that day at the Circle K; for Shandi, she killed a miracle. Now she has to find the truth, and hopes to find love along the way.
Someone Else's Love Story is a snappy, intelligent, engaging read, fast-paced enough to swing you along with it as it explores the characters' neuroses and conflicted states of being. For "conflicted" they are, and if it weren't for Shandi's slightly sarcastic, slightly ironic observations, it would slip into melodrama. The other thing that saves it from self-indulgence (that quality I can't stand) is Jackson's ability to see and explore the ways in which faith works for us as individuals, without ever coming across as having picked a side. William is, frankly, incapable of believing in God or anything else, and so the character presents a balance in that way. Shandi is seemingly neutral, or undecided, while Bridget was in training to be a nun. It's the push-and-pull between faith and everything (and everyone) else that matters, the way the characters work their way to an understanding that allows them to love and be loved. It's not just the concept of "religious faith" that the book deals with: more prominently, it explores the idea of faith in a non-religious context, too. Faith as in trust and understanding.
One of the things I liked about this book was its blend of cliché and originality. There are the characters: slightly-unlikeable yet oddly-likeable heroine, Shandi, caustic Paula and too-good-to-be-true Bridget, and distant, hard-to-reach but honourable William, plus gangly bean-pole Walcott who is so clearly in love with Shandi before either of them realise it (not to mention he's already pretty much Natty's father), and Shandi's Hollywood-esque rich dad and evil stepmother, Bethany. William does, of course, bring to mind Don Tillman from Graeme Simsion's highly entertaining 2013 novel, The Rosie Project; Don has Asperger's (though doesn't believe he does) and is a geneticist who helps a younger, attractive woman (Rosie) find her father via DNA sampling. In Rosie, there is romance between the two; in Love Story, there is Shandi's desperate attempts at romance that largely go unnoticed.
This isn't a story of new love, but of new beginnings to old stories. Often, they are other people's love stories, and Shandi has stumbled into them rather blindly. This includes her own parents and the truth of their unhappy marriage, which provides such an important lesson for their daughter. At its hearts, it's a story about being a parent, and the love parents have for their children - and what they sacrifice, or destroy, when love becomes a weapon. Jackson strikes true on many fronts, and what held me back from loving it is purely a subjective, personality thing. That magical relationship between reader and writer via the prose style, which no one can control. That magic relationship wasn't quite there for me with this book, though it's a successful story in so many ways. It also didn't help that I find the cover off-putting: too pinky-purple, too ugly-pretty with its loud, obvious daisy, too trite and commercial. I don't even like to look at it, but I hope it doesn't put anyone else off from reading this.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours....more
I hope everyone recognises this book. I had forgotten all about this series until I saw it in Dymocks back in July and was immediately transported bacI hope everyone recognises this book. I had forgotten all about this series until I saw it in Dymocks back in July and was immediately transported back in time to my childhood. I LOVED these books, they were big when I was in, what, prep? Grade 1?
Originally published in 1972, this is the first book and I decided it was a good place to start - I've since added Mog's Missing, Meg's Eggs and a three-in-one volume that includes Mog at the Zoo, Meg's Veg and Meg Up the Creek. They are bold and distinctive and I'm so, so happy they're still in print! Here is the first page, or half of it as they're all double-page spreads that don't fit in my scanner:
Meg, a witch whose spells often backfire in interesting ways, lives with her cat, Mog, and Owl. They creatures of habit and routine who enjoy their breakfasts. Meg has four witch friends: Jess, Bess, Tess and Cress. She has a broomstick and a cauldron and her spells are very ... inventive.
The pages are solid blocks of colour, primary colours mostly, and the text has a distinctive lack of punctuation that you just have to go along with. Dialogue is in the form of speech bubbles, so when you're reading out loud you have to ad lib a bit. There's always a lot to point at in the illustrations and plenty of comments, conjectures and opinions to share as you read it, because the stories imply much but leave a lot of it unsaid. My son loves these books and with their big, bold and unstructured text, it makes for a good book for kids learning to read. Helen Nicoll died a number of years ago but I believe Jan Pieńkowski, who illustrated the books, is still alive. There are 16 books in the series (that I know of, anyway) and each one is similar - and familiar - in terms of style and storyline, yet also distinctively different.
Having the chance to relive the fun of these books through reading them to my three-year-old is an absolute joy. There's something wonderful about sharing a story you loved as a child, with your own child, and watching them enjoy it just as much....more
If you're looking for a fun and sometimes surprising chick-lit romance full of food references (and recipes), you might want to pick up a copy of HowIf you're looking for a fun and sometimes surprising chick-lit romance full of food references (and recipes), you might want to pick up a copy of How to Bake a Man. While there are some more serious themes at play here - the young, working generation's struggle to find meaningful, satisfying work and a purpose in life; difficult people in the workplace; overcoming fear and taking risks - at its heart this story is a celebration of comfort food and love.
Becca Muchmore is twenty-seven, single, and trying to do something with her life by spending her savings on an MBA. Only, her first day back at uni is a humiliating experience for her, and she feels so out-of-place that she's ready to pack it in, go home and bake cookies. As her best friend Dez says, "But what are you going to do? You're in school and hate it. You quite your job that took forever to find. You can't make cookies your entire life." Yet that's exactly what Becca decides to do, despite her friend's wise words, despite her mother's theatrical sighs and criticisms. Within the space of just twenty-four hours, she's done the paperwork for the permits and licenses she'll need, and followed a connection from Dez's husband and secured a trial deal, selling baked goods to the staff at a law firm in a San Francisco skyscraper. Now she needs to bake, and bake some more.
Luckily, she has help: one of her neighbours and the de facto superintendent of her apartment building, Salvatore Souza, puts his arm muscles to work, mixing the tough dough for honey nuts. A man of many part-time trades, Sal is liberal with advice on women and love - of which he has plenty of experience - and lets Becca know that he's available to help her with her new business, should she need it. As Becca launches her new business, Becca's Best, at Winston, Janszen and LeGuin, she realises the job comes with an unexpected - and unpleasant - surprise: one of the lawyers, Jennifer Regan, is her doppelgänger. The resemblance between Becca and Jennifer would be nothing but a funny story if it weren't for the fact that Jennifer is the office cow, a deeply angry, mean-spirited and foul-mouthed woman with a sharp tongue and no interpersonal skills. She also happens to have a wonderful, handsome, genuinely nice boyfriend, a lawyer from another firm called Jeff, who Becca feels herself falling for, fast.
Over the next few days, Becca finds herself becoming increasingly obsessed with the resemblance she shares with Jennifer, how someone like Jeff could be with her, and what's going on between Jennifer and another of the firm's lawyers, Brad. While she bakes by night and tries to figure things out by day, the one thing Becca can't see is the truth in front of her: that there's a loyal, resourceful and uncomplicated man who's perfect for her, working alongside her, waiting for her to figure things out.
There is much to enjoy about How to Bake a Man. First of all, I find it hard to go past a book that so prominently features cooking, especially baking - I don't seek them out, but when they come my way they score (consider Baking Cakes in Kigali, Sweet Nothings and Sugar Spun Sister as good examples). Secondly, romance and baking just go so well together, don't they? (And in Baking Cakes in Kigali, cakes and detectives!) But this is also a coming-of-age story for Becca, as she figures out what she wants to do and goes for it. That's not easy to do, especially when you have confidence issues like Becca does.
I will say that Becca's ability to quickly set up her own company and acquire a client did strike me as a bit too easy, a bit quick and convenient. She started small-scale, it's true, but the focus of the story was on her emotional hang-ups, her would-be romance with clean-cut, preppy Jeff, and her obsession with Jennifer. The baking was a way in to that, albeit a consistently relevant one. Things just seemed to work out a bit too easily and cleanly for her, she didn't experience the blows and set-backs of most small businesses. I'm also unconvinced that anyone would readily buy baked goods twice a day, every day (just as I have no idea how she could cook that much in a day - making more than one recipe in a day is exhausting in my experience!). I'm not sure that her business, as structured, would actually work the way it's described here. You have to suspend disbelief and focus on the same things Becca's focussed on: namely, Jeff and Jennifer.
The physical likeness between Becca and Jennifer - which some people see immediately and others pick up on more slowly - was an interesting plot tactic, not something I'd read before, and used as justification for Becca's personal interest in Jennifer's life. Not sure I'm entirely convinced, but it makes for fun reading (there is some stalking involved). Really, the star of this story - the one character you can't help but love and appreciate from the beginning - is of course Sal (with, surprisingly, Becca's mother in second place). Unlike stories like Bridget Jones's Diary, the real love interest is portrayed as a good guy from the beginning. The only strikes against him, from Becca's perspective, are that he's a womaniser (which is just an impression she's picked up) and that he doesn't have a "real job" - and when you're white and middle class, that's important. But through helping Becca get her business going, she sees that he's reliable, dependable, loyal, useful, intelligent, friendly, and likeable. Like most people, she judges on appearances, and those are generally always shown to be misleading.
Becca can be frustratingly slow at times, though, especially on picking up Sal's none-too-subtle signals. But she has to go through a cycle of falling for the kind of man your parents would like to see you bring home, to realising it's just an infatuation and getting it out of your system, before you can see the man you really love, who was there all along. It's not original, but it's a classic.
With recipes for all the baked goodies talked about at the back of the book (in American measurements etc. - you'll need to do a bit of translating if you want to cook any of them), the story comes full circle. The commonly-held belief that "the way to a man's heart is through his stomach" is perhaps at the heart of this book, or at least is its structure, but really this is a story about a young woman coming into her own, realising her full potential, going after what she wants and succeeding at it. It's a story about strong women, lonely women, women in love and women in the wrong relationships. The tone is a nice balance of light-hearted and 'let's be serious for a minute here folks', though I found the scene with Jeff on Becca's couch a bit odd and disturbing. Maybe because the whole Jeff thing was so wrong for Becca, and that was the point where she seemed to realise it too - or be on the brink of realising it. Overall, a fun tale and some new recipes to try someday!
Oliver Jeffers writes very grown-up picture books, the kind that kids love and that can make adults cry. Okay, so he can make this adult cry - especiaOliver Jeffers writes very grown-up picture books, the kind that kids love and that can make adults cry. Okay, so he can make this adult cry - especially with The Heart and the Bottle.
It's the story of a little girl, "much like any other, whose head was filled with all the curiosities of the world." Her grandfather takes her to the forest, the beach, and listens to her stories and all her many questions. But then one day his armchair is empty.
She puts her heart in a glass bottle so it can't be hurt, and grows up into a young woman who has no curiosity about the world at all. But her heart is safe. Then one day she encounters a little girl, a girl just like she had been, full of questions about the world.
There was a time when the girl would have known how to answer her.
But not now.
Not without her heart.
She decides to get her heart back, but she doesn't know how, she can't remember. She tries all sorts of things. It is the little girl who has an idea, a way - and this answer will, to adult readers at least, represent a profound metaphor that will really make you appreciate the open curiosity and sense of wonder that children naturally possess - and maybe refrain from quashing it.
This book is sad - and poignant - to me for several reasons, all of them powerful and all of them due to the skill and artistry of Oliver Jeffers. With so few words and such beautiful illustrations he can say so much, about the spirit of childhood, about the love between children and those they look up to, about how precious curiosity and appreciating the world is, and that locking away your heart to keep it safe is no way to live. The book shares the joy of wonderment, the joy of listening to children and taking the time to talk to them, and how important it is to let yourself feel, and live, and love and, yes, hurt too, because that's part of life, and if you don't let yourself hurt you're probably not letting yourself love, either.
That's not to say that children don't get a lot out of this book. The best picture books are ones that both adults and children can enjoy - and Jeffers is one of those contemporary picture book writers who is treasured by both. While the stories about the boy and his penguin are a delight to read, and also beautifully illustrated (as is How to Catch a Star and This Moose is Not For You), there's something utterly beautiful and utterly tragic about The Heart in the Bottle that makes it such a powerful story, full of truisms and life, death and coping after the death of a loved one, about growing up and dealing with loneliness. Children can relate, because they are just like that little girl, and they're going to experience the loss of loved ones, especially - sadly - grandparents, who are so looked up to by children. Jeffers presents a gentle and insightful look at love, grief and being alive. A must for every library....more
The word 'circus' has many uses in today's English: aside from the regular, traditional circus, featuring clowns and elephants, there is also the (argThe word 'circus' has many uses in today's English: aside from the regular, traditional circus, featuring clowns and elephants, there is also the (arguably) metaphorical circus of the media, or politics. Coupled with the concept of a circus as a performance for the sake of entertainment, is entangled the concept of a feeding frenzy, a loud, seemingly chaotic ambush of a multitude of gazes. The freak shows of the 19th century may have officially ended, but our rapt attention to 'reality TV' shows - featuring people at their worst as well as their best - is testament to our ongoing love, obsession and fascination with the strange, the flawed, the bizarre or simply anyone who makes us feel better about ourselves. Paddy O'Reilly's latest book, The Wonders, does a superb job of shining a light on the blurred lines between what is normal and what is not, as well as our own rabid interest in creating the 'Other' as a way to position and understand who we are, collectively and individually.
I absolutely loved O'Reilly's previous novel, The Fine Colour of Rust; while The Wonders is written with the same light touch, and there are some moments of humour, these are two very different books. The Wonders is a more serious, more issues-based examination of society and its foibles, as well as our insecurities, fears and obsessive natures.
The story centres around Leon, whose heart began to give out when he was twenty-six; a year after his first (of many) heart attacks, he's given a new heart, but his body begins to reject the transplant. Living with his mother again while he waits to die, at the bottom of the heart transplant list because it would be his second transplant, Leon is contacted by a surgeon offering a possible chance at life - a highly illegal, unauthorised chance. The doctor, Susan Nowinski, and her husband, Howard, an engineer, have a radical plan to install a mechanical heart in Leon's chest. An excruciating procedure over the course of a year is followed by a recovery in isolation, until a local GP spills the beans after a routine check-up. Leon is contacted by many in the media (the expression 'media circus' comes to mind early on in the book, in the sense of a noisy, persistent menagerie), offering him money in exchange for his story, or from scientists and doctors wanting to study him, but it is a call from an American woman that draws him down to Melbourne to hear a more unique offer.
Rhona is a wealthy entrepreneur behind many successful shows, and her new idea is a winner - if she convince Leon to sign up for it. Not a conventional circus, to be sure, but it would require him to be on display, to be looked at. Rhona already has two others in the show: Kathryn Damon, an Irish woman "whose gene therapy for Huntington's had cured the Huntington's but left her covered in wool" [p.15]; and Christos Petridis, a performance artist from Greece who had special implants put into his back that enable him to bear - and flex - metal wings. After a few months of training and working out at Rhona's large home, called Overington, which is also home to rescued and ex-circus animals, they are introduced to the world as 'the Wonders', appearing at private dinners for exorbitant prices.
But fame always comes at a cost, not least for these three who are so different. They are both highly visible figures, and hidden, secluded ones, enveloped in a façade of disguise and illusion. Yet, that, too, is an illusion. Just as they cannot take off the very identities which have made their names - Lady Lamb, Seraphiel (which later changed to the more simple Angel), and Clockwork Man (later, Valentino) - neither can they be protected from the craziness in humanity that responds to difference.
Where The Wonders really delivers is on the themes and issues at its heart. The novel is deceptively light and easy to read: much like what we see on TV, on the surface at least it doesn't require effort to 'watch' what unfolds. But unlike with TV, O'Reilly constantly (and gently) encourages us to think, and question, and wonder. The wondrousness of life, the sparkling beauty of an individual and an appreciation of our differences is present, but juxtaposed against an encroaching darkness, a manic edge of fear, insecurity, greed and fetishistic obsessiveness. There are a few places where humanity's complex nature is explored overtly, such as when a group of disabled people - veterans, victims, unfortunates - ambush the Wonders after a show and declare their anger at what they see as shameless exploitation, calling the Wonders 'whores in a peep show' [p.136] and not contributing to society in a meaningful way. Kathryn, never one to back down or keep her own thoughts quiet, responds just as aggressively, but being faced with 'real' disability makes Leon feel empathetic.
Rhona tugged at Leon's sleeve and pulled him further into the passage. The gesture made Leon think about how no one would dare touch the empty sleeve or the hard gnarly stub of the man who waited below. If the man was not married, he probably felt the same loneliness Leon had been experiencing since he was implanted with his brass heart. It was more than sexual frustration. It was a deep ache of physical loneliness. A hunger. Wanting to be gripped by the wrist when a friend was making a point, or to have a hand pressed against his back as he was guided through a doorway. Leon was nervous of being touched and yet he craved it. And he knew from experience how disfigurement caused such discomfit and, at the same time, such fascination in most people that they were afraid to touch you even though it was the one thing they longed to do. [pp.136-7]
[caption id="attachment_20618" align="alignleft" width="193"] I love the North American cover! (The Wonders is due out in February 2015.)[/caption]Lingering at the periphery of such scenes - encouraged by the circus parallels - is the constant question of what is real and what is fake, what is illusion, disguise, and what is the 'real deal'. Christos, a self-absorbed artiste, changed his body for art - willingly, and with intent. Leon allowed others to experiment on his body on the slim chance of a second life. Kathryn, though, has become a true freak through no fault of her own, and has a truly horrible pre-Wonders past: her husband took advantage of her, taking demeaning photos of her, subjecting her to scrutiny in an attempt to make money, and even now that they're divorced, continues to harass her and Rhona, demanding a share of her income from the Wonders. What they each show, individually, and together, collectively, is just how complex humans are, how complex our lives are: the more we try to define, categorise and label in an attempt to understand and, ultimately, judge, the more difficult it becomes to do just that without distorting perception.
The characters are tangible, memorable and interesting, helping to propel the story forward. There is only minimal foreshadowing, and some backtracking into Leon's ground-breaking surgery, to break up the chronological flow. It is a coming-of-age story for Leon, who must grow as a person, let fame get to his head and then become grounded once more, but he must also learn how to let himself feel. For the man without a beating heart (it really would be freaky, not having a pulse!), Leon realises he can still feel, but more than that: that it is necessary to let others know that you feel, especially if they're to accept you as human.
While the idea of what it means to be human - or who is human - is at the heart of The Wonders and is brilliantly handled, I found that the style and structure of the novel itself was where I was slightly, ever-so-slightly, disappointed. Perhaps it is testament to O'Reilly's ability in crafting generous, fascinating and believable characters, but I felt cheated at the story's narrative style: it skims along the surface, dipping down into a scene and then coasting along the surface again, covering weeks and months in the space of a breath. It was partly because of this that I felt confused and not very convinced by Leon's relationship with Minh (and perhaps because of the context in which she's introduced into the story, I was suspicious of her too, which didn't help). I never really got to know Kathryn and Christos to an extent that would have satisfied - they remained displays, figures made up of their personas, people you couldn't touch. Maybe that's the point, and maybe it's a point too far, if it is.
Quite likely it will improve for me with further readings; I've learned from previous experience that those novels written in a deceptively simple way hold onto their secrets and their wonders - pun intended - for longer than those written in fancier language. Despite the unevenness of my initial reading experience, this is a subtle, layered tale, combining classic circus stories of showmanship, subterfuge and illusion (I couldn't help but be reminded of Angela Carter's excellent, and mind-bending, Nights at the Circus), as well as family, loyalty and generosity of spirit, with a perceptive social commentary on 21st-century attitudes, obsessions and prejudice. I heartily recommend The Wonders, which is a book that will satisfy in many ways, even if it didn't quite satisfy me, personally, in all of them. ...more