The Lady Has Wonderful Eyes

Sophie and the Sibyl
Patricia Duncker
Bloomsbury
June, 2015, RRP $29.99

Sophie and the sibylBefore I start I should mention that there are a few minor spoilers within this review. So if you are sensitive to that sort of thing best look away now.

A long time ago I read a historical romance in which the heroine had, unbeknownst to her family, run off to live with an artist—our romantic hero—with no discussion of marriage. At one point in the novel they went to visit the beautiful and spirited lady novelist George Eliot, who, if I remember rightly, bestowed some words of wisdom about living with conviction, or something. It was meant to make the heroine feel better about not following the proper path for a young lady of her time. Continue reading

Supposedly Human, the World’s Shame

Between Enemies
Andrea Molesini, trans. Antony Shugaar and Patrick Creagh
Allen & Unwin
November 2015
AU $29.99

between_enemiesAndrea Molesini’s Between Enemies is an eloquent tale of occupation, collaboration and resistance set in WWI.  Based on true events, it follows the aristocratic Spada household as their property is requisitioned by German soldiers, then Austrians.  Their village is occupied.  Eventually the whole household as well as several villagers are drawn to resist the occupiers.

Told from the perspective of 17-year-old Paolo, writing as an adult some ten years later, the story is full of high drama, but also nostalgia and melancholy.  Because the narrator is a teenage boy during the events, the story is also sadly filled with the objectification of Paolo’s crush Giulia.  While this is probably realistic, it’s a little tiresome to read, especially when the novel purports to say something about the natures of men and women and their relationships*.  This is usually by way of commentary delivered by Paolo’s eccentric but wise grandfather, and manages to be the same sort of thing supposedly wise men always say about women in stories of this kind.  If authors** could stop doing that, that would be swell. Continue reading

A New York Tale

Paradise Alley
Kevin Baker
Perennial
2002

imagesParadise Alley is an epic novel tracing the events of the days of rioting in New York City in July of 1863. It follows a number of characters—refugees from the Irish potato famine, a escaped slave, a newspaper reporter and a child prostitute, to name but a few. Think of Martin Scorsese’s film, Gangs of New York crossed with the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution—only more violent and barbaric.

Continue reading

Writers Aren’t People Exactly

WEST OF SUNSET
Stewart O'Nan
Allen and Unwin, RRP$29.99
June 2015

West of SunsetEver find that you read one book about an era, event or group of people, and are then bombarded with a multitude of other books centred on the same theme. For me, I am never sure whether my book trends are actual publishing trends or mere coincidences. I suspect my current trend of books about the Jazz Age—more specifically the leading couple of that age, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald—is an actual publishing trend. It definitely feels like one, right?

Continue reading

Didn’t Mean to Make You Cry

Early One Morning
Virginia Baily
Virago
September 2015

early_one_morningEarly One Morning, Virginia Baily’s second novel, is a powerful tale of loss and love in Rome.  Always a little leery of books about Italy in general, and somewhat underwhelmed by the title, I was pleasantly surprised by the book.  It is a beautifully written and poignant story.

Continue reading

Truth and Truthability

Newt's Emerald
Garth Nix
Allen & Unwin
September 2015, RRP $18.99

Newts EmeraldMy dearest reader

How much I have to tell you. Oh, but how are you? I trust you have been well?
I have the misfortune to suffer constantly from my nerves and have confined myself, of late, to my chambers. However, this has not prevented me hearing the most scandalous news.

I trust you have heard of Lady Truthful Newington who has come to London for the season. She has been staying with her aunt, Lady Badgery—that notorious virago—and is quite the heiress, and handsome too if the reports are true. No doubt she will attract those young gentlemen in need of a lady of fortune to bolster their own, or lack thereof.
Continue reading

Grendel’s Mum

BEOWULFbeo

J. R. R. and Christopher Tolkien

Mariner Books, August 2015

 

A thousand years on, the sharpness of Beowulf‘s images still strikes us. Longships cruise amid icy spray. A king stares with fear amid the riches of his hall. Then comes the fiend Grendel stalking across the moors. Tolkien’s translation weds to these visions the rhythm and grandeur of language that rumbles even as it exults, which rolls like the swells of the sea. Continue reading

And Wish that I Had a Mother

ArchipelagoOfSouls_smARCHIPELAGO OF SOULS
Gregory Day
Picador, June 2015, RRP $32.99

Archipelago of Souls appealed to me at first glance.  Its main character, Wesley Cress, arrives as a soldier settler on King Island and provides an instant link to my own family history.  My father and his brothers and sisters grew up for the most part on King Island after my grandfather took land there as a soldier settler himself.  Though the book is set probably 15 years or so before my family arrived there, I couldn’t help wondering if the (in)famous Kelly Quirk might make an appearance somehow.  That’s the power of half-remembered family legend, I suppose.

When I was 18 or so, we took a family trip to King Island to look at the old farm, which had been sold on to another family some decades again.  We went in June or July, for peak wind effect, and spent a few days in family reunion.  I never met my grandfather.  I’ve heard some of his ludicrous stories, tales about his … let’s call them “adventures” on the island and his youth, of his alcoholism and his time during the war.  My dad and my grandma, Na, also died when I was five and 14 respectively; and on the island I felt very connected with them despite their absense.  So the cold trip on the isolated island remains a powerful memory.  King Island is part of the family mythology.

Continue reading

To Let Our Country Live

WhenTheDovesDisappearWHEN THE DOVES DISAPPEARED
Sofi Oksanen, translated by Lola M. Rogers
Atlantic Books, May 2015, RRP $27.99

When the Doves Disappeared is a thoughtful glimpse into Estonian life during occupation by Nazi Germany, and the subsequent USSR rule.  It is a study in the meaning of political conviction; passion; loyalty; and love, amongst many other things.  Estonian-Finnish poet Sofi Oksanen’s second novel, it is both espionage thriller and literary reflection, with a gripping plot, elegant language, and carefully crafted, deeply flawed characters.

Continue reading

Loud and Dreadful Sound, which Sky and Ocean Smote

FloodOfFire_smFLOOD OF FIRE
Amitav Ghosh
John Murray, May 2015, RRP $29.99; eBook RRP $16.99

Flood of Fire is the final book in Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy and concerns the first Opium War, the eventual Chinese defeat, and the seizure of Hong Kong by English forces.  Sorry, um, spoilers I guess?  It introduces some further new characters in Kesri Singh, the brother of Deeti, Bahram Modi’s widow Shireen, and Neel’s son Raju.  We also catch up again with Zachary Reid, who’s had a bad time of it since last we saw him, after taking the fall for events at the end of Sea of Poppies.

Continue reading

‘There was a Ship,’ Quoth He

sea_of_poppiesSEA OF POPPIES
Amitav Ghosh
First published 2008

Let me tell you about buying this book.  After being provided with a review copy of the third in this Ibis trilogy, I sought the first two books.  I initially purchased them from the Book Depository, since despite its purchase by Amazon, it has served me well in the past, and given the size of the books, time was somewhat of the essence. Unfortunately, my order for the second book was cancelled after a few days and I was refunded.  The first book, though, was ostensibly sent in early March.  By the beginning of April, I had not received it.  So I contacted the Book Depository and received a swift refund for that too.  And I turned to Booktopia, which delivered both books promptly, albeit in rather strange jaffle-style packaging.  Surprise, surprise, John Murray is a trading name of Hachette, with whom Amazon and by extention the Book Depository have been having a well-publicised tiff*.

Book finally in my hands, I expected something of a dour book.  Nominated for the Man Booker Prize, Sea of Poppies is firmly targeted at a literary market.  I feared it would be a worthy†, possibly depressing novel about serious issues. But while this book is certainly about the slightly serious issue of the first Opium War, it is neither dour nor worthy. In fact it is frequently hilarious.

Continue reading

The Grand Sophy

THE GRAND SOPHYGrandSophy

Heyer, Georgette (The Book Club, edition 1951 (orig 1950), ISBN – n/a)

I was at a social event back in the 1990s and someone was reading a copy of The Grand Sophy.  Soon there was a collection of us standing around laughing and giggling in reminiscence of it’s amusing scenes. The boyfriend of one of the girls wandered over to see what we were talking about.

“Oh,” he said. “A romance book.” And he attempted to walk off. The poor man, he never understood till then exactly how offending a bunch of nerds can go down so very badly.  He was sat down and lectured for about two hours on the merit of Georgette Heyer and how, while romance was part of it, it was a genius comedy he was dissing out of hand. I believe I recall his feeble excuse was that his mother had some Georgette Heyers. We all then agreed his mother must have excellent taste in books. Continue reading

  • You might also like

    • The Blurred Line Between Life and Story

      Headline news 1858: Conrad Wernyhora and Carlotta Xanthea launch a rocket, by cannon, into space. By cannon! Can you imagine anything more majestic, more magnificent, more momentously transcendent, than space travel via cannon? The world of Radiance is not the world we know, bound by practical concepts of physics and … Continue reading