Category Archives: Pretty Books

These are all my posts about books that have exceptionally nice covers or particularly fancy editions that I have found.

A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning

Somehow, I never read this book when I was a kid. I’m not quite sure how this happened. It was first released when I was 11 years old, around the time the Harry Potter books were gaining traction, and I was a big reader. I think I had heard of them, but maybe I thought they sounded a bit childish, or maybe they sounded needlessly grim. Either way, I missed the boat. Now, you may remember that some years ago a film adaptation was made starring Jim Carrey. I remember watching it and being quite underwhelmed, and the film was not memorable at all. However, recently a new TV adaptation has been made starring Neil Patrick Harris. It’s available on Netflix, it’s gotten really good reviews, so I figured the time was nigh for me to give this book series a go before I watch the show. Canty’s had plenty of copies in stock, and the hardcover editions have really cool roughly cut page edges that add to the ambiance. Also, if you watch the show before reading the book – be warned: there are spoilers in the first episode that aren’t in the corresponding book.

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“The Bad Beginning” by Lemony Snicket, is the first book of 13 in the “A Series of Unfortunate Events” series. The story introduces the three Baudelaire children. 14 year old inventing genius Violet, 12 year old bibliophile Klaus and baby Sunny who is good at biting stuff. When the children receive the terrible news that their parents have died from the executor of the will, Mr Poe, they are sent to live with their distant relative Count Olaf. It’s not long before the children cotton on to Count Olaf’s nefarious plans to steal their inheritance.

I think the first thing to say about this book is that it is definitely a book for children. I’m pretty certain that if I had read this book as a child, I probably would have gotten a lot more out of it. Snicket has a that glib style of writing that I remember finding very funny as a kid. He uses lots of “big” words but explains their meaning in a careful way without being condescending. He also gives plenty of examples of the children being independent and being able to capably solve problems, do chores and cook. I think this is a quirky, educational book that would probably be a good gateway book to get reluctant readers reading. However, as an adult (especially an adult that studied law), it’s a bit hard to suspend disbelief enough to really immerse yourself into the story. A big piece of the plot hinges on a “law of our community” that itself is completely implausible in both it’s text and application. I also found the sheer incompetence of the adults (particularly the judge and the banker) to be really annoying. I know this is a bit of a trope in children’s book, but their collective ineptitude was just a bit much.

A solid children’s book that would be perfect to help kids improve their reading, but probably a bit of an eye-roller for parents.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Children's Books, Pretty Books, Tinted Edges

The Postmistress

This book is part of the Penguin By Hand set and like “The Help“, it has a beautiful embossed cover. The embossing matches the design and you get the wonderful tactile experience of it feeling as though it’s been cross stitched. I’d been eyeing off the set for a while, and bought myself this book as a treat for finishing a unit at university.

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“The Postmistress” by Sarah Blake is a World War II story set in 1941 about three women. There is Iris, who is the postmistress in a small town called Franklin in the USA; Emma, the Franklin doctor’s new wife; and Frankie, an American newsreader based in London that the other two women hear on the radio. The women are united by the increasingly irrefutable impact of the war in Europe on America, and by a letter to be delivered.

I have very complex feelings about this book. On the one hand, Blake is without a doubt a beautiful writer who has brought to life a fraught period in world history from a number of perspectives. Her research is excellent and the detail of her own descriptions of everyday life as well as that of Frankie’s observations in her reports on the radio are very immersive. Frankie is an excellent character and Blake does a great job of handling the peculiar situation women found themselves in during World War II with burgeoning opportunities resulting from necessity and changing social attitudes but the lingering sexism of the past still very much present.

There are some wonderful subtleties in this book, however I did find myself wanting more from the story. I felt that Blake simply did not do the character of Iris, the postmistress, justice. I was completely disinterested in Iris’ blossoming romance with the town mechanic. What I wanted to know more about was about Iris herself. There were only a handful of chapters told from her perspective, and there was scanty information given about all the things I was desperate to know. How did she get the job as postmistress? What was it like working in the post office? I was way more interested in her troubleshooting the machine that printed dates on the letters than I was in her anxiety over her virginity. I feel like with books that look retrospectively at the chronically underwritten role of women in history almost have a duty to look at the influence women had on keeping society running. Blake did a fantastic job in this sense with Frankie, so it just seemed out of step that Iris’ character was cheapened by reducing her to not much more than her relationship with a man.

The other thing that I felt was a wasted opportunity (and this is a minor spoiler, so if you want to read the book completely unsullied, skip to the final paragraph now) was that Blake hints that Frankie’s housemate Harriet had actually met Otto’s wife in London before they were separated in Spain and he went on alone to America. I was hoping that somehow Frankie might have put two and two together, and delivered some of Harriet’s intel or a letter or something but Otto’s story was left in limbo (which, fair enough, it is WWII – that’s realistic) and Frankie’s focus is elsewhere. I think I just felt that maybe where other things had failed and gone wrong, that could have been a nice little thing amongst the collective disaster of war to go right.

This is a well-written book with some great historical and literary merit, and this edition in particular is absolutely gorgeous. A unique take on America’s role in WWII that perfectly captures the senselessness of war, but that I wanted a little bit more from when it came to some of the characters.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Historical Fiction, Penguin By Hand

The Rest of Us Just Live Here

This book had caught my eye for a long while before I actually bought it. I’d seen it in two different editions: one with electric blue page edges, and one with sunflower yellow page edges. I’d ummed and aahed over buying it (I don’t read a lot of young adult fiction) but when I saw a copy with the blue edges on display one day at Beyond Q, I hesitated no longer.

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“The Rest of Us Just Live Here” by Patrick Ness is a somewhat satirical take on the young adult fiction genre. The story is told from the perspective of Mikey, a teenager in his final year of high school who is looking forward to going to prom and graduating with his friends Jarred and Henna, as well as his sister Mel. They’re all trying to live normal lives on the periphery of the “indie kids”; the protagonists in the constant battles against Immortals, or vampires, or zombies, or soul-eating ghosts. While indie kids are dying, mysterious blue lights are appearing and fissures into other dimensions are opening, Mikey’s just trying to sort out some of his own issues as the great expanse of adult life looms closer and closer.

This book was really refreshing. After having read many dystopian YA books in series like “the Hunger Games” and the “Divergent” series which are violent and serious and necessarily far removed from reality, it’s a nice change to read a book that pokes a bit of fun at the genre. I also really liked the way the author handles a variety of mental health issues and deals with sexuality in a modern, fluid and non-judgmental way. I also quite enjoyed the brief summary of the indie kids’ story at the beginning of every chapter which was then juxtaposed against Mikey’s much more mundane, everyday problems. Because let’s face it: coping with mental health issues, dealing with change and figuring out who you are – they are ALL everyday problems.

I think this would be a great book for teens aged 15 or 16 and over – especially those looking for a bit of a break from books that take themselves too seriously.

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I took a second photo without the dust jacket because it’s just such a pretty book!

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Filed under Book Reviews, Pretty Books, Uncategorized, Young Adult

PopCo

This book caught my eye at the winter Canberra Lifeline Bookfair this year glinting like a bright blue treasure. One of the great things about Scarlett Thomas’ earlier books like “The End of Mr Y” and “Our Tragic Universe” is that they were published in these beautiful editions with metallic detail and tinted edges. This one is adorned with silver digits and the most incredible navy blue page edges. I’d been keeping an eye out for this edition for ages and finally it was mine.

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“PopCo” by Scarlett Thomas is about Alice Butler, a woman in her late twenties who works for one of the world’s biggest toy companies. While she’s working on a new project to go with her kids’ code cracking kits, Alice is invited to a company conference that ends up being a lot more involved than she was expected. Even more unexpected are the mysterious coded messages that she starts to receive. Among all the new colleagues she’s been meeting, and all the seminars she’s been attending. Alice isn’t sure who the messages could be from. What she does know is that they’re dredging up memories of what it was like growing up with a cryptoanalyst as a grandfather and the significance of the necklace she wears around her neck.

The beauty of Thomas’ writing is that she’s incredibly clever, and writes about incredibly clever concepts, but does so in such a way that she never makes her audience feel stupid and never makes herself seem snobbish. Every book of hers I read, I learn something completely new and, having always enjoyed puzzles and maths as a kid, in this book I got to learn about the fascinating arts of cryptography and cryptoanalysis: making and breaking codes. Then there is all the fascinating stuff on marketing. Thomas is a considered and evocative writer and I always enjoy her slightly off-kilter, very brilliant and quite subversive protagonists. The first two thirds of this story are absolutely engrossing and almost unputdownable (I’m making this a word). While still incredibly interesting, the story does morph into something a little more moralistic in the last third which takes a little of the steam out of the mystery.

I’d been anticipating this book for a long time and I wasn’t disappointed. As captivating on the inside as it is on the outside, if you’re looking to read something a bit different and a bit enlightening, see if you can find a copy of this one.

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Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms

This is the perfect spring book. I hadn’t heard of Dr Anita Heiss or her books before I saw she was coming to speak at Muse. I’ve been really enjoying their author discussions that I’ve been going along to this year and I’m always looking to try new, local writers. However, although I’ve been making a concerted effort to read more diversely this year, I’m very ashamed to admit that I don’t think I’ve ever read any books by Aboriginal authors. Heiss was a very engaging speaker, and talked a lot about the research that went into her latest book and the importance of getting diverse books, authors and stories into the mainstream. She also very kindly signed a copy of her book for me at the end, which has a classic Aussie landscape on the front decorated with shiny gold lettering and beautiful blossoms.

“Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms” by Anita Heiss is a historical novel set in Cowra, NSW during World War II. A large number of Japanese soldiers are being kept prisoner at a POW camp, and one night they all manage to break out. With some soldiers killed, some recaptured and some who committed suicide, Heiss’ novel explores the idea of what could have happened if one soldier, Hiroshi, managed to seek refuge at the nearby Aboriginal mission called Erambie Station. Banjo Williams discovers Hiroshi under his family’s hut and decides to help him, enlisting his eldest daughter Mary to sneak Hiroshi food. Part romance, part spotlight on the discrimination experienced by Aboriginal people subject to the oppressive Aborigines Protection Act 1909 (NSW), this book  uncovers a piece of Australia’s history that is not often discussed.

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This is an important book. As my lamentable reading record shows, Aboriginal stories are not told nearly as often as they should be in Australia. While Aboriginal film and television has been slowly gaining traction over the years, Aboriginal writing is still very much behind where it should be. Heiss’ story cleverly uses the perspective of an outsider, Japanese man Hiroshi, as a critical lens through which the reader can look at the past (and present) treatment of Australia’s indigenous peoples. By drawing comparisons between the Aboriginal mission, the Japanese POW camp and the Italian POW camp it swiftly becomes clear how much of a factor race was in how well people were treated in 1940s Australia. This book is set in a time before Aboriginal people were allowed to vote and when Aboriginal identity was mutually exclusive to civil rights. Heiss’ novel is very well-researched and draws on academic, community and family resources to paint a vivid picture of 1940s country Australia and how different kinds of people lived there. Heiss has an open, honest style which makes this book accessible to all readers.

Whether you’re a history buff, a romance fan, a lover of Australiana or interested in books about war, I think most people will get something out of this book.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Historical Fiction, Pretty Books, Signed Books

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (No Spoilers)

I think it’s safe to say that the book that has generated the most hype this year is “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”. I have vivid memories of lining up early to get my pre-ordered copy of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” back in 2007. At the time, there was no doubt in my mind that Harry Potter was over. I had grown up with this book series, and this was its end. So when I found out that I was going to be able to experience the excitement of the release of a Harry Potter book one more time, well, needless to say I was beside myself with anticipation.

“Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” by J. K. Rowling, John Tiffany and Jack Thorne is the script of the play of the same name currently showing in London. The story picks up after the Harry Potter series finishes and for all intents and purposes can be considered the eighth Harry Potter book. The story is centred on Harry Potter’s second son Albus, a troubled teen wizard who struggles with living in the shadow of his father’s fame. Albus is determined to forge his own path but things don’t quite work out as expected and in trying to fix them, Albus risks disaster and losing everything he cares about – including himself.

I really don’t want to give away too much in this review because I genuinely think that spoilers would ruin it, so I’ll try to keep this as vague as possible. I absolutely enjoyed every minute of “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”. This book is a good mix of old and new with enough references to past events that it’s familiar, and enough new content that it’s engaging. For the most part, the plot held up and the characters were good. I thought that in particular the new character Scorpius, the son of Draco Malfoy, was outstanding and possibly even the highlight of the book. Harry is still very much Harry. Hermione is fantastic in some points but not so much in others. Ron is hopeless, but Draco is pretty good. The antagonist beggars belief and is probably the weakest part of the whole book, but there is enough going on with the other characters to hold up the story on either side. There are surprises, there are laughs and there are tears. I thought reading it as a play rather than a novel was going to be clunky, but actually it flowed really well.

So, is “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” as good as “Harry Potter and the Prizoner of Azkaban” or “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” (what I consider to be the pinnacle of the series)? No. Is it as good as the other books in the series? Probably not. Did I love it anyway? Yes. Definitely yes. The enormous nostalgia factor of this book forgives a lot of the issues with plot, character and continuity. Considering nine years ago I thought that I had stepped into the wizarding world for the last time, it was simply a joy to experience the hype and the magic of Harry Potter once more. Sometimes a bit of joy is all you need.

Ten points to Gryffindor.

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Barkskins

This is a book I had been looking forward to for a long time. Annie Proulx is one of my favourite writers, and I absolutely adore her gritty all-America postcard novels and short stories, especially her novel “The Shipping News”. When I heard she was releasing an intergenerational saga about deforestation in north America, I was thrilled. The book, when it finally arrived in stores, is an enormous tome beautifully decorated with gold detailing on the front cover.

“Barkskins” by Annie Proulx follows the lives and lineages of two French men who arrive in the new world in the late 1600s to work as indentured woodsmen. Their paths diverge dramatically and the choices they make have drastic repercussions on their progeny for generations. Where one family finds untold wealth among the seemingly endless forest resources of nothern America, the other finds solace among the trees that are slowly but surely disappearing.

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This was a very ambitious novel. “Barkskins” is a very well researched attempt to provide the reader with an overview of the social and economic factors that have led to the unprecedented deforestation of the Americas and the marginalisation of its indigenous peoples. However, as a novel, it just didn’t quite work. There were so many characters, but most of them were only fleeting figures in the novel. No sooner had you been introduced to one but they had been killed off and you were onto the next generation. Proulx’s strength is in her intimate snapshots of people’s lives, but this book was like flipping through an family photo album of blurry photographs. There was one point in the book where she was talking about two characters, and between cross-referencing the family tree at the back of the book and flipping through the chapters, I actually could not figure out who they were. I actually think that this book would have been better as a non-fiction. She had all of the material and research, but over 300 years of characters meant that the narrative was just too thinly spread.

“Barkskins” is an important book with strong social and environmental messages. However, it was an incredibly long read and I think it would have been better as non-fiction.

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Filed under Book Reviews, General Fiction, Historical Fiction, Pretty Books