Tag Archives: book reviews

Big Little Lies

This book is generating a bit of attention lately because of the TV adaptation that was released earlier this year starring Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon and Alexander Skarsgård. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to watch the series (but I’ll keep my thoughts on Foxtel to myself), so I thought I’d give the book a go and see what the hype is about.

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“Big Little Lies” by Liane Moriarty is a novel set in a small coastal community in Australia. The story follows single mother Jane who has just moved to Pirriwee Peninsular and has enrolled her little boy Ziggy into kindergarten. Although she forms a friendship with fiery Madeline and beautiful Celeste, two other mums with kids in Ziggy’s class, an incident on orientation day sets her offside with another parent. Meanwhile, Madeline grapples with a teenage daughter who is spending more time with her ex-husband and his new wife, and Celeste struggles to make sense of the brittle veneer of her seemingly perfect life.

I was surprised by this book. I think I have a lot of automatic prejudice against chick-lit or books that seem a bit mumsy. This book in particular has a strong focus on the interpersonal relationships between the kindergarten mums (and dad) at Pirawee Public and I was expecting it to be a bit…well…suburban. What I found was a book of significant depth with a wry and sometimes irreverent tone that tackled some heavy issues such as domestic violence and sexual assault. Moriarty has a real talent when it comes to her characters, and in particular I enjoyed the humerous interjections at the beginning and ending of chapters of various characters giving their amusing (and often contradictory) opinions about events as they unfolded.

I think probably the only think that frustrated me about this book was that the characters, while interesting and engaging, weren’t particularly diverse. Without mentioning any spoilers, there was a particular reveal about a character late in the book that I thought wasn’t very well done and which marred the story somewhat.

Nevertheless, this is a fun read that balances flippant jokes against serious insights. I was pleasantly surprised and I think it will do a lot to break down the stigma of domestic violence.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, General Fiction

High Summons and Grimm Remains

I received a copy of these two eBooks courtesy of the author.

High Summons     Grim Remains

“High Summons” and “Grimm Remains” are the first two books in the “Warlock of Rochester” series by Eli Celata. Urban fantasy set in the author’s own university town, the series is about a young biracial man called Jon who can secretly wield magic. He moves to a new city called Rochester for university and finds himself under the unlikely tutelage of the mysterious and taciturn Jordan. Desperate to find out more about the father he never knew, Jon steps into the world of magic and discovers that it comes with a price.

A modern take on the classic angels and demons story, this book is a love letter to the author’s own stomping ground on the USA/Canadian border. Jon is an interesting character with straddles two worlds not only because of his race, but also because of his magical status. “High Summons” was a little slow to warm up, but “Grimm Remains” was a quicker read with more diverse characters and more revealed about Jon’s family.

A fun interpretation of Constantine/biblical demon mythology best suited to those who love fantasy in modern settings.

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The Natural Way of Things

This book was already on my radar before it won the Stella Prize. It really got on my radar when I saw the author speak at the National Library in March. I was so stoked to hear what she had to say and get my book signed.

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“The Natural Way of Things” by Charlotte Wood is a book that I’m a bit reluctant to give too much background to. Two women wake up to find themselves drugged and in an unknown place. As the drugs wear off, they begin to understand the severity of their situation. Humiliated, degraded and isolated by an unlikely pair of guards, they realise that they are one of a group of ten women. As time goes on, what it is that links the women together begins to come clear and the power the guards wield over them begins to grow more tenuous.

First things first, this is the best book I’ve read so far this year. It is utterly compelling, unbelievably disturbing and uncomfortable in how close it hits to home. Wood is an extremely tactile writer and captures the full range of human experiences both physical and emotional. Although the location is fictional, the detail is so vivid and so…Australian that imagining it is effortless. Again, I don’t really want to give too much away about this book because I really believe it is an experience that you should simply let wash over you. Nevertheless, I do want to say some things about the characters. It was pretty appalling to me how familiar the characters of Teddy and Boncer were when I was reading about them. How people who consider themselves to be so unique end up being the worst kind of followers.

Reading this book, it’s impossible not to imagine yourself in the shoes of these women and wonder how you yourself would react in such a situation. I think the only criticism I could possibly have about this book is that Wood really demands a lot from her readers. She is deliberately vague about a lot of the details of the story, the “before” and “after” of the narrative. Although I think it’s largely a good thing (I think a lot of modern books suffer from bad cases of “tell” instead of “show), there are points where the lack of information can border on the frustrating.

Anyway, this is a phenomenal, visceral book that is confronting as it is engrossing. I read it a few weeks ago but I still find myself flashing back to it and thinking about it. I would highly recommend this book, and it winning the Stella Prize was no accident.

 

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, General Fiction

A Thousand Splendid Suns

I’ve been saving this book. I absolutely adored the author’s first novel, the incredible book “The Kite Runner”, and I was really looking forward to reading his equally as acclaimed second novel.

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“A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Khaled Hosseini is a novel that spans several decades and the lives of two women in Afghanistan. The illegitimate daughter of a wealthy man with three wives and many other children, Mariam grows up in a secluded hut with her mother. Although she relishes her father’s weekly visits, she longs for more than her mother’s pessimism and when she is 15, she risks everything and ventures alone into town to confront him. Years later, Laila, another 15 year old, is living in another city but it might as well be another world. Raised in a loving family, although somewhat in the shadow of her absent older brothers, Laila is taught that she can be whoever she wants. However after disaster strikes again and again, Laila finds herself in a desperate situation – one very similar to that of Mariam.

I wanted to like this book. I wanted to like it so much. I was absolutely blown away when I read “The Kite Runner”, by its creativity as well as its expression, but this book just didn’t do it for me. Part of it was the writing. For some reason, in this book I really felt that Hosseini did a lot of telling, but didn’t do much showing. A lot of the plot felt as heavy-handed as Mariam’s husband. You could see the blows coming a mile away. Story-wise, this book actually reminded me a lot of “The Colour Purple” by Alice Walker. The abusive husband, the lies, the family sent away, the unlikely but enduring female friendship. I felt like Walker’s novel was written much more from the heart. You really feel for Celie in a way that I just couldn’t feel for either Mariam or Leila. Mariam the martyr and Leila the angel. One thing that really bothered me (and which bothers me about a lot of fiction) was Hosseini’s treatment of virginity. He just seemed overly fixated on the seemingly inevitable pain and blood involved in a woman’s first time having intercourse – regardless of the context. Hosseini just didn’t really seem to do a convincing job getting inside the heads of his two female main characters.

There were two things that I did like about this book. The first was that it gave me a bit more understanding about the relentlessness of the conflict in Afghanistan. I did admire Hosseini’s goal of trying to share insights with the reader into the impact of war on ordinary life. The second thing was that where Hosseini’s female characters were a bit two-dimensional, the main antagonist, Mariam’s husband Rasheed, was a brilliant example of the mercurial, complex and often inescapable nature of domestic violence.

I was expecting a brilliant book and I got an OK book. Readable without being groundbreaking, descriptive without being immersive, this book simply doesn’t hold a candle to “The Kite Runner”.

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The Fun of Baking Bread

I received a copy of this cookbook as an eBook courtesy of the author. I’ve only reviewed one other cookbook on this blog, but I really enjoy cooking and trying new things. Regretfully, I’m not much of a baker, so I was keen to see if maybe this author had what it took to educate me.

The Fun of Breaking Bread

“The Fun of Baking Bread” by Andrea Schmidt is a instructive cookbook on the fundamentals of how to make your own bread.

Schmidt is a graphic designer as well as cookbook author, so I think it is critical to note that unless you have a colour eReader (which I do not), it would be best to get the paperback version so you can really appreciate the beautiful design and colour photographs. Also I’m always a bit nervous about spilling ingredients on my electronic devices. I was a bit apprehensive to give this book a go, because I know that baking is not my strength. However, Schmidt covers the fundamentals in a clear yet enthusiastic way that even I could follow. I decided to try my hand at baguettes, and while my shaping probably leaves a bit to be desired, I think they turned out rather well!

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A lovely little book that would be a great gift or a great starting point if you, like me, are intimidated by baking.

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Looking For Alaska

I recently came across an article about the top 10 most challenged books in USA schools, and this book was ranked number 6. I bought a copy some time ago after I read my first John Green book. Obviously I couldn’t walk past it: it’s a stunning 10 year anniversary edition with a gold dust jacket and black tinted edges. It’s also got some commentary from the author and some deleted scenes as well. However, after sitting on my shelf for a while, I was finally inspired to give it a go.

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“Looking for Alaska” by John Green is a young adult novel about a teenager called Miles who moves to Alabama for boarding school. Leaving his beige and bullied existence behind, he is quickly taken under the wing of his roommate Chip, known as the Colonel. Chip immediately gives him the ironic nickname of Pudge, and Pudge meets the others in the group, Japanese-American boy Takumi and the beautiful and wild Alaska. Obsessed with people’s final words and finding meaning in life, Pudge left his home in search for a Great Perhaps, and starts to wonder if he just might find it in Alaska.

Although I am completely against book censorship, I can see why this book is so often challenged (though, personally, I think that “The Rest of Us Just Live Here” pushes more boundaries). Green writes candidly about sex, drinking and smoking and his characters are paradoxical in their dedication to schoolwork but opposition to authority. I think that for the most part, none of it was too problematic (though I did feel as though Green romanticises smoking in a way that doesn’t gel with 2017 values). I found the boarding school setting quite interesting. Having gone to a boarding school as a day student and seen what boarding schools are like, I did feel like the degree of free reign students had was a bit unrealistic. Apparently Green based it on his own boarding school experiences though, so I might well be wrong. Pudge is an interesting narrator who, like Charlie in “The Perks of Being a Wallflower“, is much more a follower than he is a leader. Happy to tag along at the heels of the charismatic Colonel and Alaska, Pudge is easily influenced by his new friends. However, his lack of either passion or much of a sense of righteousness, especially after he is the victim of a particularly intense hazing incident, ultimately set him apart.

This book was Green’s debut novel, and I think on balance it was a heartfelt and compelling bildungsroman. I did feel like maybe Pudge could have had a bit more character development than he did, rather than have an experience, but it’s hard to say how reliable a narrator he ultimately is – including about himself. I also felt like Alaska was a classic manic pixie dream girl, and it looks like I’m not alone. Green himself responded to criticisms about the way she was depicted, and while I think part of the point of the book is how much Pudge idealises her, I did feel a bit like her character wasn’t quite as three dimensional as she needed to be.

This is a quick and gripping read that while probably not the best in the genre, I think certainly would have been groundbreaking in its honesty about teenage life when it was first published. A book that at its heart is about what it means to be a good friend, I think it will stick with me for quite a while.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Tinted Edges, Young Adult

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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