Crafting with Feminism: A Read-it-if Review…

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Today’s book is one that is quite timely given recent happenings in the US and certain behaviours and statements from a high-profile man whose name rhymes with “dump”, “rump” and “where the hell did you Americans find this chump?”.  You know who I mean.  We received a copy of Crafting with Feminism: 25 Girl-Powered Projects to Smash the Patriarchy by Bonnie Burton from the publisher via Netgalley and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

This is what a feminist crafter looks like! Wear your ideology on your sleeve by creating feminist merit badges (like “started an all-girl band” or “rocked roller derby”). Prove that the political is personal with DIY power panties (“No means no”). Craft great feminist hero finger puppets (Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Frida Kahlo) or googly-eyed tampon buddies. Fun sidebars provide background on (s)heroes of the feminist movement.

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Read it if:

*you’ve been looking for a simple, visible and slightly absurd way to stick it to the (random) man

*you’re hosting the next gathering of your Stitch and Bitch group and would also like to use up the last bits of bleach, glitter and fluffy fabric lying around in your craft drawer

*no one has ever described you as a shrinking violet

All in all, this is a bit of a silly book, with outlandish craft activities and a decent amount of tongue-in-cheek humour.  But really, if there are craft books out there exhorting us to craft with cat hair or knit one’s own lingerie, why the hell shouldn’t there be a book featuring tutorials on creating vagina-shaped tree ornaments?  Each to her own, I say.

Squarely aimed at the more “out-there” sort of feminist who is not afraid of body parts or inflammatory slogans, the book has step-by-step instructions on everything from felt merit badges (“Leg hair, don’t care” being my personal favourite), to stained glass candle decorations featuring strong female role-models (crafter’s own choice), and a huggable uterus body pillow, as well as the aforementioned vaginaments.  The crafts mostly seem to be aimed at beginners, with no crochet or knit projects included (which Mad Martha found quite interesting), using basic sewing and other techniques that don’t need a lot of practice or preparation beforehand.

Between each project there are full-page quotes from famous ladies of history and handy lists of feminist-themed movies, books, songs and holidays, as well as suggestions for how to host a fun feminist crafternoon.  Templates and information on supplies are listed throughout.

I don’t want to get bogged down in how truly feminist or otherwise the book is, but the projects clearly lean toward the sort of female-only feminism that excludes males from the conversation (and therefore from assisting in the fight for equality), which may be considered by some to be an outdated focus of the movement.  On the other hand, it could be considered a champion of the safe-space, in which females are allowed to claim their bodies, voices and means of expression in whatever form they please.

Or, you know, it could just be intended as a fun, slightly outrageous crafting book and maybe we’re all overthinking it.

As craft books go, I’ve certainly come across weirder offerings, and as Mad Martha has already started rifling through the fabric box to find something suitably shiny from which to create her own “Feminist KillJoy” sash, I think I can safely say that this book will find a home with fun-loving ladies of a subversive nature.

Until next time,

Bruce

Word Nerd: A Middle Grade Read-It-If Review…

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You know that wonderful feeling when you get a run of books that you’ve just really enjoyed reading?  Well I’ve had that feeling all this week.  Apart from yesterday’s Top Book of 2016 pick, I’ve got some other great reads coming up this week that gave me a cheery glow in the very pit of my stony heart.  Today’s book is one of those glow-makers.  We received our copy of Word Nerd by Susan Nielsen from the publisher via Netgalley and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Ambrose Bukowski is a twelve-year-old with a talent for mismatching his clothes, for saying the wrong thing at the worst possible time, and for words. In short, he’s a self-described nerd. Making friends is especially hard because he and his overprotective mother, Irene, have had to move so often. And when bullies at his latest school almost kill him by deliberately slipping a peanut into his sandwich to set off his allergy, it’s his mother who has the extreme reaction. From now on, Ambrose has to be home-schooled.

Then Ambrose strikes up an unlikely friendship with the landlord’s son, Cosmo, an ex-con who’s been in prison. They have nothing in common except for Scrabble. But a small deception grows out of control when Ambrose convinces a reluctant Cosmo to take him to a Scrabble club. Could this spell disaster for Ambrose?

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Read it if:

*you are a kitchen scrabble player looking for ways to step into the big leagues

*you can’t go past a good “dark horse” story

*you enjoy reading about (peanut free) baklava as much as you enjoy eating it

*you’ve ever made a friend that your parents considered to be a bad influence

*you tend to judge books (read: people) by their rotund, malodorous or otherwise unflattering covers

I’ve had Word Nerd on my Book Depository wishlist – you know, that list of 1000+ books that I will buy when I win the lotto – for quite a while so when I saw it come up on Netgalley I jumped at the chance to review it.  After all, how could I, a bona fide, dyed in the stone, word nerd pass up a book about word-nerdery, especially one aimed at a middle grade audience?

Clearly, I could not.

This is one of those middle grade reads that can be enjoyed by older readers mostly due to the fact that it takes place, for the most part, outside the trope-laden school setting.  Ambrose is home-schooled (by the time a few chapters have passed) due mostly to his mother’s overblown anxiety about his well-being and therefore the book is free from the stereotypical child characters one might usually find in books for this age group.  Instead, Word Nerd feels like a book for a grown up (or growing up) audience, as Ambrose is forced by necessity and circumstance to take a look at himself and decide what kind of person he wants to be.

The thing about this book that pleased me the most was the authenticity of the characterisation.  Ambrose is a genuine rendering of a twelve (nearly thirteen) year old boy, with all the misplaced confidence, anxiety, awkwardness, and interest in pubescent issues that being a twelve (nearly thirteen) year old boy entails.  The author doesn’t gloss over the grown-up issues that Ambrose is confronted with through his interactions with his upstairs neighbour, Cosmo – including, but not limited to, jail time and drug use – but neither are these gratuitously exploited.  Essentially, Ambrose reads like an unfeigned interpretation of a young boy attempting to make his own choices and emerge, flaws and all, from his mother’s protective shadow.

I knocked this one over in only a few sittings because the narrative was both absorbing and undemanding, and peppered with quirky but real-seeming characters.  I’d definitely recommend this for young readers of middle grade who can handle some grown-up issues, or for older readers looking for a charming and memorable pre-coming of age tale that is wordy in all the right places.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

Why I Went Back: A YA “Read it if” Review…

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Welcome to another Read-it-if review!  Today’s book will be a treat for those who enjoy a bit of David Almond-style magical realism mixed with myth and legend, or indeed for anyone who likes to know that someone is looking after the postal system properly.  Why I Went Back by James Clammer is a no-romance (hooray!), no-nonsense romp that masterfully blends ancient legend with modern first world problems (ie: not getting your mail on time). Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Aidan needs his bike to deliver all the mail his postman dad’s been hoarding since his mum was sectioned. But his bike’s just been stolen.
In the early morning, Aidan chases after the thieves, hellbent on getting it back. When he reaches the abandoned factory where they’ve stashed his bike, he has moments to grab it and escape. But he finds more than just stolen goods. There’s a mysterious prisoner chained to the floor.
This is the story of why Aidan goes back.
Recalling Alan Garner and Susan Cooper, Why I Went Back is a dark tale of magic, myth and undelivered mail.

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Read it if:

*you’ve ever had to cover for someone on the job when you are woefully unqualified (and unmotivated) to do so

*you’ve ever attempted to assist someone in something you thought would be a straightforward and simple task, only to find that it actually ends up taking over your life

*you’ve ever discovered an ancient, legendary being in an unexpected place and wondered what to do with him/her/it

* your mail could be delivered by a horde of unsightly and malodorous gnome-centaur crossbreeds for all you care, provided it gets to you in a timely and responsible fashion 

Comparisons to David Almond’s Skellig will be obvious after reading this book, given the whole “troubled boy discovers ancient being in an abandoned warehouse” plotline, but there is plenty to enjoy about Why I Went Back on its own merits.  For a start, while the plots might be similar in some ways, Clammer’s narrative is a lot edgier, featuring a young lad who isn’t afraid to get into a bit of trouble, provided it gets him where he needs to go.  Aidan is an immediately likeable character, in that while he does indulge in some dodgy behaviour to achieve certain ends, he also has insight into why he’s doing what he’s doing and takes on the responsiblity to make changes in his own life.

The book swings a bit between totally mundane problems, such as Aidan coping with a mother in a psychiatric ward and a father who has checked out of his own life, and problems of a more mystical variety, such as what to do with the strange old man Aidan discovers being held prisoner in a warehouse by a group of local thugs.  I found this to be quite a satisfying blend of story threads that kept the narrative moving and allowed Aidan’s story, and his friendship with Daniel, to be revealed in layers.

The ending neatly ties up the loose ends and provides a bit of hope for the future, using a juxtaposition of ancient magic and good old fashioned hard work.  I’d recommend this one for readers of YA looking for an edgy, sometimes dark, sometimes funny story with a believable male protagonist and a touch of the old magic to shake things up.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

A Non-Fiction Read-it-if Review: If You Find This Letter…

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Welcome to another Read-it-if review, this time featuring a memoir of sorts, which I received from the publisher via Netgalley.  I’m also submitting this one for the Nonfiction Reading Challenge hosted by The Introverted Reader.  I can’t remember whether I mentioned that I would be doing this challenge, but I signed up at Explorer level, which is 6-10 books.  If you’d like to find out more about the challenge, you can click on the challenge image at the top of this post.

But back to business.  Today’s book grew out of a blog that the author began in an effort to reconnect with herself and find some purpose in her life.  It’s called If You Find This Letter: One Girl’s Journey to Find Purpose Through Hundreds of Letters to Strangers and it’s by Hannah Brencher.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Fresh out of college, Hannah Brencher moved to New York, expecting her life to look like a scene from Sex and the City. Instead, she found a city full of people who knew where they were going and what they were doing and didn’t have time for a girl still trying to figure it all out. Lonely and depressed, she noticed a woman who looked like she felt the same way on the subway. Hannah did something strange–she wrote the woman a letter. She folded it, scribbled If you find this letter, it’s for you on the front and left it behind.

When she realized that it made her feel better, she started writing and leaving love notes all over the city–in doctor’s offices, in coat pockets, in library books, in bathroom stalls. Feeling crushed within a culture that only felt like connecting on a screen, she poured her heart out to complete strangers. She found solace in the idea that her words might brighten someone’s day.

Hannah’s project took on a life of its own when she made an offer on her blog: She would handwrite a note and mail it to anyone who wanted one. Overnight, her inbox exploded with requests from people all over the world. Nearly 400 handwritten letters later, she started the website, The World Needs More Love Letters, which quickly grew.

There is something about receiving a handwritten note that is so powerful in today’s digital era. If You Find This Letter chronicles Hannah’s attempts to bring more love into the world,and shows how she rediscovered her faith through the movement she started.

 if you find this letterRead it if:

* you like reading memoirs by people who have just barely cracked the quarter century in years on this planet

* you like wacky blog ideas that morph into meaningful projects in the real world

* you like your memoirs to deeply explore the author’s relationships and personal reflections

* you enjoy the idea of randomly leaving stuff behind for others to find (or as I like to call it, “guerrilla kindness” or “littering mindfully”)

It was for just this last reason that I picked up this book.  Having featured books about yarn-bombing on the blog before, I am clearly one of those creatures that gets a kick out of people secretly leaving some little treasure (be it letter, crocheted door knob cosy or book) for some unsuspecting passer-by to find and enjoy.  I was really hoping that this book would be something akin to a cross between yarn-bombing in letter format and the worldwide art and connection project begun by one man, known as PostSecret.  (If you don’t know what PostSecret is, please check it out. It’s worth a look, for certain).  Unfortunately, it read more like the developmentally typical learnings of a reasonably sheltered young woman in her twenties.  Not what I was hoping for, by any means.

The actual letter project, in which Hannah puts out the invitation for anyone who wants a handwritten love letter from her to apply via her website, really takes a back seat in this memoir to a whole bunch of other happenings in Hannah’s life.  I suspect that the idea was to show that she herself was reaching out to strangers in this way because of her own sense of disconnection, but a lot of the stuff that she talks about seemed to me to be pretty typical of anyone between the ages of about 18 and 30 who is trying to carve out an adult identity and some existential equilibrium.  I really wanted to read more about the letter project, and let that speak for itself, than find out about her involvement in a volunteer service project, and a whole bunch of Faith related personal reflection.

Did you notice that Faith-with-a-capital-F?  Yes, this is another blurb which I fear has mislead me and caused me to pick up a book that I probably would have passed on otherwise.  That last line in the blurb –  “If You Find This Letter chronicles Hannah’s attempts to bring more love into the world,and shows how she rediscovered her faith through the movement she started” – is not referring to her faith in humanity.  It’s her Faith, as in her personal relationship with God.  Now, I’ve mentioned before, that the fleshlings who own my shelf have a Christian leaning – they are even Catholics (of the rare non-lapsed variety), as is Hannah herself – so we have no objection to religious content per se in a book.  What really gets on my horns though, is when blurbs don’t make this clear.  If they said this was going to be a God book I could have made an informed decision.  But they didn’t.  So I got stuck wading through a whole lot of “Hannah returning home” (in the Catholic sense, not in the literal sense – in the literal sense, we get a nice little story about one Thanksgiving where Hannah is literally not allowed to return home. Not sure why it was included really), when I was really in the mood for “interesting social connection project”.

Now, don’t let my negativity bring you down.  Others have read this book and called it “inspiring” and “captivating”.  I would suggest reading it if it sounds interesting and make up your own mind.  But I suspect that not all blog projects need to be made into a book. At least, not a book in a memoir format.  For my (non-existent) money, I would have liked to have seen a lot more focus on the project and the benefits contained therein for not just the author, but some of the recipients of letters, and a bit less on the life-reflections of someone who seems to be a reasonably typical example of this particular age group.

Until next time,

Bruce

A YA Read-it-if Review (AND GIVEAWAY!) for Lovers of School Stories, Parallel Worlds and Lunacy: Belzhar…

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Welcome one and all to today’s Read-It-If; a nicely layered story that hit all the right notes in the correct order for me and at a comfortable volume for a memorable reading experience.  I received a copy of Belzhar  by Meg Wolitzer from Simon and Schuster Australia after lusting after its intriguing title and arresting cover for quite a little while.  I am also in possession of a sweet little paperback copy of Belzhar courtesy of Simon and Schuster that needs a new, loving home.  Australians who wish to apply for the privelege can enter using the rafflecopter link in this post.  Hurrah!

Now, let’s explore the strange and alluring experience that is Belzhar, shall we?
After the sudden loss of her first love Reeve, Jamaica (Jam) falls apart emotionally and is sent to spend a term at therapeutic boarding school, The Wooden Barn.  On being unexpectedly enrolled in the coveted Special Topics in English class, Jam meets four other teens – Sierra, Casy, Marc and Griffin – who are also dealing with traumatic life events that feature loss or grief.  The Special Topics class are furnished with a red leather journal and a copy of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, and are required to complete both as their task for the semester.  When Jam and the others write in their journals however, they are transported in their minds to a seemingly perfect place in which the traumatic events of their past never occured.  They name this place Belzhar, but as the end of their journals draws closer, the group begin to worry about what will happen once their journals are filled.  Will they choose to move on and leave Belzhar behind, or find a way to keep their perfect worlds open forever?

 

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Read it if:

* you like your contemporary school/romance/teen-angst reads to feature a mildly fantastical twist

* you like your fantastical twists to feature an even more intriguing twist of realism

* you are prepared to put up with an awful lot of pining and reminiscence on the part of the main character

* you’ve ever bought a note book with a beautiful cover because you are convinced that writing in it will induce some sort of magical power (I know I’m guilty of this one)

The first thing you’re going to notice when dipping into Belzhar is that Jam, the 15 year old main character, REALLY misses her boyfriend, English exchange student, Reeve.  Some people are going to find Jam’s ongoing desolation at his loss quite tedious in a very short period of time.  I was nearly one of those people – until I remembered that Wolitzer was writing a 15 year old character, and as anyone past their teenage years will know, 15 year olds have been known through the ages as liable to get hung up on certain issues, particularly when those issues involve a first love.  So while I did find Jam’s despair fairly annoying in parts, I felt that it was appropriate to the character’s age and situation, so I went with it.  Consider yourself duly warned.

To me, Belzhar was like the Narnia of the teen grief-and-loss set.  I appreciated the way that Wolitzer used familiar tropes such as the inspiring and enigmatic teacher and the teens’ passage into another world through an ordinary object in order to set (most of) the characters on the path from ignorance to insight.  While the ending of the story (in terms of the characters’ states of mind) is fairly predictable, there are a few twists before that ending that throw the fate of certain people into doubt and provide fresh insight for the reader into the earlier parts of the story.

The references to Sylvia Plath and her work will no doubt be a drawcard for some – not me, incidentally, as I found that story to be not so much depressing as woefully tedious – but Plath’s work is only really discussed in a perfunctory manner as something that the Special Topics class could relate to.  Although admittedly, as I’m not an expert on Plath I could well be missing some major nuance here.  If so, please excuse my ignorance and feel free to enlighten me!

While this wasn’t a groundbreaking novel in my opinion, there is plenty here that will pique the interest of those who are looking for a contemporary novel containing a slight flight of fancy and featuring teens working through a range of difficult life experiences.  Themes of friendship and emotional risk are highlighted and readers can make up their own minds about whether or not living in a perfect idyll created by one’s own psyche is a necessity or a hinderance when working through episodes of loss.

I would recommended Belzhar particularly for those at the younger end of the YA age bracket, with the caveat that older readers may be put off by the teen-ness of the main character.

Belzhar will be released in Australia on October 9th, but Australian readers can have a bash at winning a free copy using the rafflecopter link below.  Good luck!

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a Rafflecopter giveaway

Until next time,

Bruce

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A YA Read-it-if Review: Cooper Bartholomew is Dead…

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It’s back to some YA (well, closer to NA actually), teen drama goodness for today’s Read-it-if Review, with the cheerily titled Cooper Bartholomew is Dead by Rebecca James (Australian! Woot!).  I was kindly provided a copy of this intriguing tale of mystery and romance by Allen and Unwin in exchange for review.

The body of Cooper Bartholomew is found at the base of a cliff and all who knew him are shocked and devastated at Cooper’s tragic end, presumed to be suicide.  But what could possibly have caused good looking, charismatic, newly-in-love Cooper to end his life in such a way?  Told from multiple points of view and jumping between the weeks before Cooper’s death and the weeks after, the story of Cooper, his new girlfriend Libby, and old friends Claire and Sebastian unfolds to reveal some long-held secrets that might shed light on why Cooper died…and whether anything could have been done to prevent it.

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Read it if:

*you like a mystery that slowly unravels, leaving suspicion, doubts and a little bit of tangled yarn at the end

* you like your YA characters to be believable, rather than two-dimensional or stereotypical (or both)

*you’ve been waiting and waiting for a YA novel to feature the fates and fortunes of the post-high-school set in small town Australia

Straight off the bat, let me say how impressed I was with the overall experience of reading this book.  The plot is tight, the narrative style is interesting and well constructed and the characters – oh the characters! – are so believable it’s almost painful.  James has done an incredible job, in my opinion, of creating characters that represent pitch perfectly the range of vices and virtues that appear in all of us once school is over and done and we have to figure out who we’re going to be in this strange real world.  This was the greatest strength of the story for me and ultimately what kept me interested through the mushy romance bits between Cooper and Libby.  Well done Rebecca James *insert sound of stone paws clapping heartily here*

Another great bit about this reading experience is the narrative style that features multiple points of view and multiple timeframes.  Regular readers of this blog should know that I just love this writing style and once again it drew me into the story with short, engaging chapters introducing the characters and their relationships in a highly readable way.  In fact, the book opens with Cooper in his final moments pre-death and his surprisingly lucid musings are a great launching point to plunge (sorry, horrid pun in the circumstances) right into the tangled web of secrecy that has led to this point.

Regarding the plot and the elements of mystery surrounding Cooper’s seemingly happy life and strange and unexpected death, clues are thrown out fairly early for the keen-eyed reader but the whole situation is not revealed until the final few chapters, keeping the suspense high throughout.  I admit that I did have my suspicions about halfway through the book, and these turned out to be kinda right and kinda wrong, so in the end I was satisfied with both my level of sleuthery and the author’s level of tricksiness.

This book is going to appeal to a whole range of YA/NA fans – fans of standard contemporary romance, fans of mystery, fans of friendship dramas – and even if you aren’t a big YA fan, the writing and characterisation is strong enough to draw you in anyway, despite the age of the cast.  I expected that I would be fairly interested in this book, but it has far exceeded my expectations and I will certainly be keeping an eye out for James’ other work from now on.

Cooper Bartholomew is Dead is released in October.

Until next time,

Bruce

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Adult Fiction Read-It-If Review: Mr Wicker…

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Cheerio my pretties! Today I have an indie fantasy-paranormal-horror story for the grown-ups that features all manner of creepy goings-on.  I was initially drawn to it because of the raven on the cover (cool!) and the fact that it was set partly in a ghostly library (super-cool!) and partly in a psychiatric inpatient facility (count me in!).  I received a digital copy of today’s book, Mr Wicker by Maria Alexander from the publisher, Raw Screaming Dog Press (now there’s a name that gives you a good idea what sort of books they publish) in exchange for review – thanks!

Alicia Baum is experiencing a run of failures – her husband left her, her last book bombed in sales, and the bank is foreclosing on her house – and decides to end it all.  As she loses consciousness during her suicide attempt, Alicia finds herself inside a mysterious library with the sinister librarian, Mr Wicker, who informs her that his library holds a book containing Alicia’s lost memory – the one that is the cause of all her suffering to date.  Before she can take possession of the book, or move on into the (proper) hereafter, Alicia wakes to find herself in Bayford Psychiatric Hospital, under the control of the odious Dr Sark. 

Dr James Farron is a paediatric psychiatrist with a special interest in Alicia’s case.  Using funding for a research grant, Dr Farron is attempting to find out more about the mysterious Mr Wicker, a name that continually arises in the sleep-talk of children suffering trauma who are brought to the hospital.  Alicia is the first adult Dr Farron has ever encountered who has mentioned Mr Wicker, and he intends to find out why.

As the two cross paths in the hospital, danger is closing in from all sides, threatening to end Dr Farron’s career and Alicia’s life.  Unless Alicia can untangle the mystery of her missing memory, Mr Wicker may just open the door to some very old secrets indeed, that have the potential to change Alicia and Dr Farron forever.

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I’m going to do things a bit differently this time, as I tend to do when I feature books with some particularly sensitive or disturbing themes (and this book has a bit of both), so here is a “Don’t Read it if…” disclaimer for those who are faint of heart.

Don’t Read it if:

* you are in a fragile state of mind and the graphic description of a suicide attempt and violence against the female lead character is not something you want in your current reading experience

Now, onto the Read it if:

*you like your fantasy/horror stories to be raw, graphic and featuring more than a little violence, creepiness and smouldering sensuality

* you’ve ever been minding your own business and enjoying a quiet stroll in the park when out of the blue a large angry bird descends seemingly out of nowhere to chase, swoop and peck you … this point applies doubly if this has happened to you indoors

* when reading stories set in a psychiatric hospital, you prefer said hospital to employ practices more suited to a medieval torture chamber

*you believe fantasy/horror just isn’t fantasy/horror unless it takes a completely unexpected turn right in the middle of the story, preferably involving a little known ancient myth that features eternally repeating betrayal and murder

Mr Wicker was a lot more graphic in its horror and violence than the books that I usually read, but I suspect it will greatly appeal to those who regularly enjoy this genre.  Graphic descriptions aside though, the author manages to deliver a pretty complex storyline without losing control of any of the multiple plot threads.  Throughout the book, there’s a palpable sense of danger to Alicia, and the feeling that things aren’t what they seem.  A number of the hospital staff are less than professional, to say the least, and as the story unfolds the reader gets the idea that not only may Alicia be in danger from supernatural forces, but from some very human forces also.

Dr Farron is an instantly likeable, if somewhat stereotypical character, fulfilling the role of Alicia’s protector and champion when all around her seem to discount her experiences as the ravings of a madwoman.  The author manages to throw any stereotypes out the window with the introduction of a new and entirely unexpected (for me, anyway) plotline right in the middle of the book, that sheds light on the character of Mr Wicker and the reasons why he is so interested in Alicia herself.

Underlying all of this is Alicia’s missing memory and how this has contributed to her unraveling life.  This mystery is played out slowly, as Alicia dips into her family history in sessions with Dr Farron, but can’t quite grasp the memory that Mr Wicker guards so closely.  The inclusion of this personal psychological mystery as one of the major plotlines gives a nice break from all the other strangeness going on in the book and allows for a change of pace that I appreciated when it popped up every now and then.

Overall, I’d say that this book has a satisfying blend of fantasy themes, anticipated romance, family secrets, horror and mystery  and will appeal to those who are looking for a complex story with a lot of twists and turns.  And large, flapping birds appearing in odd places.  Mr Wicker is due for release on September 16th.

Until next time,

Bruce

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Adult Fiction Read-it-if Review: Alias Hook…

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Top of the Neverland to you all! Today I have a slightly unusual candidate for my fairy tale makeover series, in that the story being retold isn’t exactly a fairy tale. But it does have fairies in it. So that’s close enough for me.  I speak, of course, of Alias Hook by Lisa Jensen which tells the well-known story of Peter Pan from the point of view of the much-maligned Captain Hook, and does so in the most unexpected of ways.

I must admit firstly that I have never read, nor indeed watched, the story of Peter Pan, on account of the fact that Peter himself always struck me as a smug little git.  For that reason, I only have a vague knowledge of the original story, but this did not hinder my enjoyment of Alias Hook one jot.  In fact, I probably enjoyed it more, because I was already sympathetic to Hook’s viewpoint.  Anyway, let’s get on with it before I start to waffle.

James Benjamin Hookbridge was by all accounts a scoundrel of the highest order when he walked in the ordinary world.  However, after being mysteriously whisked away  with his ship and crew to a land ruled by a young, flying vagabond for centuries on end, it could only be said that Hookbridge, now the dastardly Captain Hook, is inwardly a broken man.  For years unnumbered, Hook has watched his crews brutally murdered by Pan and his Boys, while he himself is drawn, constantly and  unwillingly, into Pan’s violent and manipulative games.  But when a grown-up woman appears out of thin air on Hook’s ship, it is apparent that Pan may be losing control over his land of eternal youth.  Is it time for Hook himself to grow up? And can he throw off the shackles of his villainous past, or will he be trapped forever in the Neverland to suffer Pan’s twisted version of eternal life?

alias hookRead it if:

*you think Peter Pan is a smug little git

*you have ever been forced to play the same game with a toddler or small child ad nauseum, with no hope of escape in sight

*you’ve ever faked your own death in order to escape a repetitive and tedious social situation

*you quite like dressing up in fancy hats…preferably adorned with a feather or two

I was totally surprised by how cerebral this book turned out to be.  I was expecting something light, with a bit of parody; a cheeky protagonist with a “stickin’ it to the man (boy)” attitude, but this book was by turns dark, insightful, poignant and …well…dark again.  It really is a grown-up’s tale of redemption, focusing on the dilemma of how one might successfully change the habits of a lifetime (or several lifetimes, as the case may be).

As I mentioned, you really don’t need to know very much about the original Pan story to get into this book, as only the bare bones are used – the not-growing-up clause, the Wendys who mother the Boys – and I felt that this was a real strength as it allowed Hook to rule the story on his own terms, as it were.  To that end, there’s plenty of mindless violence – mindless in the sense that it is carried out mindlessly, not mindless in the sense of being gratuitous – a bit of rumpy-pumpy, at least one highly anti-social fairy and a whole bunch of soul-searching.  The addition of Stella (the aforementioned grown-up woman) is both the catalyst and the obstacle to Hook’s eventual redemption and bid for freedom.  The final epiloguey ending bit was both expected but fresh.  In fact, if I had to describe it in one word I’d say it was just darling.

(See what I did there? Geddit?!! Wait, the kids in the original Peter Pan have the surname Darling don’t they? I hope so, otherwise that joke is going to be a major flop).

Alias Hook had me dwelling on it days after I’d finished reading, which is the mark of a good read.  If you are looking for a book that you think will be reasonably familiar and predictable then this isn’t the book for you.  Alias Hook has a lot more going for it than your average “alternate point of view” retelling, so I suggest you set aside some quality reading time and delve into the one-part magic, two-parts torment experience that is Hook’s Neverland.

Alias Hook is published on July 8th and I received a digital copy from the publisher via Netgalley.

Until next time,

Bruce

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Adult Fiction ARC Read-it-if Review: Lost and Found…

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Morning all! I am so, so pleased to be bringing this book to you today.  I have adopted this state of heightened excitement because in this book I have found an Australian equivalent to one of my all time favourites, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce.  That book had all the things I love in a novel – old people, an obscure quest and dry humour.  The book I present to you today has all that and more – not just old people, but shouty, rude old people.  Not a simple obscure quest but an obscure quest involving a one-legged shop mannequin.  And not just dry humour, but…well, lots of dry humour.  I give you Lost and Found by Brooke Davis.  Double points for Australian authorage.

I was lucky enough to receive a digital copy of this title from Hachette Australia for review, but I have to go and buy it in hardback anyway now, and put it on the “special” shelf to be watched over by my book-guarding minions.

Lost and Found follows the (slightly tragicomical) story of Millie Bird, a seven-year-old with a preoccupation for dead things, a father who has recently become a dead thing, and a mother who has abandoned her in the underwear section of a department store.  We first meet Millie in said underwear department as she waits for her mother’s return under the watchful eye of Manny the hawaiian-shirt-wearing mannequin across the aisle. Partway into Millie’s eventful waiting, she meets Karl the touch typist, an octogenarian widower who spends his days sitting in the department store cafe, silently grieving his dear departed Evie.  Shortly after Millie escapes from the department store (and, simultaneously, from the social services) with the help of Karl, we are introduced to Agatha Pantha, a widow who has not left her house since her husband died seven years ago, and who fills her time with such productive measures as the keeping of a daily record of her physical signs of ageing, and the shouting of remarkably personal insults at passers-by from her lounge-room window.  As the social services close in, Agatha and Millie make an attempt to follow Millie’s mum, using an itinerary left behind in the house.  Along the way they join forces with Karl and together the three (well, technically four – Manny ends up along for the ride too) evade the law and try to find Millie a home. 

lost and found

Read it if:

* you’ve ever felt a real and personal connection to a shop mannequin (in any sort of attire)

* you hope to grow old disgracefully and take up a life of geriatric delinquency

* you like to ponder the big questions, such as “Where do parking inspectors go when they die?” and “Has my arm flab increased by more than a millimetre since yesterday?”

* you believe (as I do) that if we were all allowed to shout insulting things at other people when we are having a bad day (month/year/life) then navigating a path through everyday social situations would suddenly become a lot more interesting

Aaaaaahhhhhh.  That is the sound of contented sighing when, after reading only 2% of the Kindle version of this book, I knew that it and I were resonating on the same frequency.  This book is by turns delightful, sad, poignant, hilarious and a bit off-putting.  The off-putting bit relates to a reasonably graphic description of old-people sex, in case you’re wondering.  It is the book that I was hoping The Storied Life of AJ Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin was going to be, but whereas the characters and situations in that book annoyed me and seemed trite and contrived, the characters in Lost and Found just jumped off the page in a comfortable mix of idiosyncracies.

I could imagine that some readers might find Karl and Agatha (and especially Millie, in her precocious innocence) a bit contrived and annoying, but for me they were perfectly constructed and I just fell in love.  I loved Karl’s rebellious spirit and commitment to tagging public (and private!) property in popular 1980’s parlance.  I laughed my guts out at Agatha’s compulsion to shout the awkwardly anti-social obvious (“Assymetrical face!” “Stupid shoes!”) and I cheered inwardly at Millie’s determination to play the Angel of Existentialism by adopting the persona of Captain Funeral for her captive fellow train passengers.

While the characters embark on what feels like an epic journey, I knocked the book over in a couple of decent sittings because it was one of those stories that had me continually thinking, “I’ll just read one more chapter/to the next page break/until Agatha shouts something next”.  Inevitably, I was drawn ever-deeper into the increasingly complex (and somewhat ridiculous) web of deception and evasion of public officials that Karl, Agatha and Millie spin.  Like the book itself, the ending is at once poignant and light, inevitable and satisfying and one designed to keep the three main characters in the reader’s mind, while accepting that this too shall pass.

All in all, Lost and Found is a five star read has earned a place on my list of favourites.  As soon as someone takes the hint and buys me a hardback copy of Harold Fry, I will place these two side by side on my shelf as a tribute to humour in the midst of a finite existence.

Until next time (Reads too slow! Dried out eyeballs! Yawning at inappropriate moments!),

Bruce

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Adult Fiction Read-It-If Review: The Final Testimony of Raphael Ignatius Phoenix…

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Cheerio lads and lasses! Today I’ve got a very different reading experience to share with you – a sort of fictional/memoir/murder mystery/magical realism mash-up.  It’s The Final Testimony of Raphael Ignatius Phoenix by Paul Sussman.  I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley – thanks!

In this book we are introduced to the reasonably unlikeable Raphael Ignatius Phoenix (he of the initials R.I.P.), as begins a suicide note of truly monumental proportions.  You see, Raphael, at the age of almost-100 years, has decided that he has lived enough of this crazy journey called life, but before he goes, he wishes to regale us with the story of his life.  And quite a life it is too, for Raphael is a murderer, many times over.  He has bumped off irritating people from all walks of life and from all areas of his acquaintance.  And it is by this dubious achievement that he wishes to be remembered.  Alongside the stories of Raphael’s multiple murders is the story of his repeated, yet fleeting, interactions with his best friend (and only love) from childhood, Emily.   So let us join Raphael as he recounts his life’s adventures and attempts to take the gold medal for longest/largest/most elaborate suicide note ever written…provided he doesn’t run out of pens, of course.

final testimony raphaelRead it if:

* you can easily alight upon one or more person of your acquaintance that you could have happily bumped off, for each decade of your life so far

* you believe the penalty for being an irritating git should be death

* you could think of nothing more wickedly delightful than an attempt to turn twins, who are devoted to each other, against one other

* you are a fan of the tall tale

Let me be honest.  I found this book hard going.  The blurb held such promise.  I was intrigued to find out about multiple murders of the title character and was all set to enjoy the light-hearted manner in which they were recounted.  Unfortunately, the title character is a bit of an irritating git himself, so while I did enjoy the light-hearted tone and dry wit of the first few chapters, my interest started to wane after a bit.

Essentially, this book is divided into chapters with one murder (and usually one decade of Raphael’s life) explained in each chapter.  As I mentioned the early chapters – and particularly the recount of the first murder, the unfortunate Mrs Bunshop (if that is her real name) grabbed my attention and had me eagerly flipping pages.  But after repeated chapters of the same sort of format, it started to seem more difficult than it needed to be to wade through Raphael’s memoirs.  The very first line of the novel is this:

“This is going to be the longest suicide note in history.”

Well, he wasn’t lying there, so I suppose I can’t really complain that I hadn’t been warned about what lay ahead…but this book really felt looooooooong.  In between the murders, wherein many of the interesting bits lay, are long soliloquays about the actual writing of the note – the wheres, the hows, the difficulties, the successes.  To be perfectly honest, there’s only so many pages one can read about the anxiety that arises regarding the liklihood of running out of pens.

Despite my whinging, I didn’t completely hate this book.  It was just okay.  The chapter describing Raphael’s murder of the Albino Twins (yes, you read that correctly) had me compelled to find out how it would end.  I can honestly say it was the best chapter featuring Albino Twins and their cuddly toys that I have ever read.  And I mean that in a genuine, complimentary way.  The ending was also, if not a high point, something completely unexpected and had me considering what light it might throw on the preceding events.  (For interest’s sake, I decided that the ending came too far out of left field to really add much to the book.  Pessimistic, I know).

When all is said and done, I just think I was expecting something different from what this book turned out to be.  I suspect that there will be people that really love the book for its original premise and the cheeky nonchalance of Raphael, but it ended up being too much like hard work for me to really say I enjoyed it.

The Final Testimony of Raphael Ignatius Phoenix is due for release on May 22nd.

Until next time,

Bruce