Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Wilful Eye (Tales from the Tower) Edited by Nan McNab & Isobelle Carmody

First published in 2011 by Allen & Unwin

I wanted this book from the moment I heard about it – the concept of it is just fantastic, it had some of my favourite Australian authors rewriting fairytales, and it was described as dark and lush and bewitching and sensuous. I couldn’t wait to read it. The Wilful Eye doesn’t disappoint.
The six rewritten fairytales in this book are The Tinderbox; Rumpelstiltskin; The Ice Queen; Beauty and the Beast; Babes in the Wood and The Steadfast Tin Soldier. There are six more to come in the next book – if they are as lovely and clever and provocative as these six, then readers are really in for a treat.
Some of the stories did work better than others. Some kept most of the original settings and twisted them around a bit, or added darker elements to them. Some were full on re-imaginings. Martine Murray’s One Window and Margaret Mahy’s Wolf Night were two that took the heart and basic plot of the original stories and crafted completely new worlds and characters out of them. I did not enjoy Mahy’s as much as the others – maybe it is because I am not as familiar and attached to Babes in the Wood as the other stories, but something just didn’t click into place for me with this one, and I thought references to the original were too self-referential. I think I also enjoyed her writing style the least; I felt it jumped over the place a little with a lot of background info included that seemed to have little to do with the story. Still, she manages to create some good atmosphere and a genuine fear for the characters in ‘the Woodlands’.
Murray’s One Window, based on The Steadfast Tin Solider, took a while to grow on me; in fact I didn’t really like it to begin with. But it ended up being my favourite. References to the original are so subtly and cleverly done and none of the original’s heart is lost. Such pithy insights into people and the way we see the world; and huge, complex bubbles of emotion so succinctly captured in a single sentence – this is what I enjoy about her novels and other works, and it is once again on display here. Murray has a real knack for capturing the human experience in a few words, especially the outsider’s experience, and by the end her retelling had thoroughly won me over.
Richard Harland’s Heart of the Beast (Beauty and the Beast) and Isobelle Carmody’s Moth’s Tale (Rumpelstiltskin) are the stories that stick the closest to their originals. I enjoyed Moth’s Tale up until the ending – I know it’s a fairytale, but I struggle when things end so neatly and everyone gets what they want. Actually, overall I was a bit iffy about the endings these stories had. I felt they were sometimes weak, letting down these fantastic stories that so far had packed such a brilliant, hefty punch. Sometimes it felt like the author knew they were nearing the end of the word limit and so hastily tied everything up; sometimes it was like they just lost interest in what the guts of the story had been about and the ideas petered out; and then sometimes it was just so typically ‘happily ever after’. And I know these are fairytales. They’re meant to end like that. I know. But when the subject material has been taken and twisted and sensualised and deepened, this kind of ending doesn’t quite sit right. That is my only complaint.
I loved Beauty’s taming of the Beast in Harland’s story. There is a real sense of menace and some beautiful writing as they bring out the best in each other. Beauty and the Beast is one of my favourite fairytales (my other is The Little Mermaid – to come in the next book) so I’m glad Harland’s update was very fine.
Rosie Borella’s Eternity (The Ice Queen) confused me at times – I think perhaps there was too much metaphor and meaning packed into it – but I still found it clever and the snow-dusted landscapes chillingly lovely. This story is infused with this sense of the underworld and the other, and it makes for compelling reading.
Margo Lanagan’s Catastrophic Disruption of the Head (The Tinderbox) was the story I was most looking forward to reading, and it has her usual beautiful, lilting prose, her darkness, her wonderful distorted sense of imagination. Her writing is like this wondrous, terrible wasteland, and stepping into the worlds she creates is always such a rewarding experience.
Points also for the Afterwords given by each author, explaining how and why they wrote the story. This was almost as interesting as the stories themselves.
So basically, The Wilful Eye is an awesome idea brilliantly executed. And it shines a welcome light on short stories, which I am always grateful for. Can’t wait for the next volume.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Happy Easter


Regardless of whether you celebrate it or not, I wish everyone a lovely day.

And briefly, I am reading this wonderful collection over the Easter break, The Wilful Eye (Tales from the Tower), a beautiful volume of classic fairytales retold and reinterpreted by six Australian authors. I knew I had to have this as soon as I heard about it - what a great idea and am really enjoying it so far. Can't wait for the second volume. Will be writing a review shortly.

I have also added a new page to my blog, which basically concerns my own writing. I will be updating it with anything to do with my own writing. You can access it by the tab at the top of the page.

And R.I.P to my grandmother, who died today. Much love always XXX

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Winter's Shadow, by M.J. Hearle

First published by Pan Macmillan in June 2011

"Blake Duchamp
He's all that Winter Adams can think of. Ever since their fateful meeting at Pilgrim's Lament. Ever since he looked at her with those emerald eyes. Ever since he saved her life."

Sounds familiar, right? The usual paranormal romance set-up? Well, it is. I've read and reviewed so many in the past couple of years, they all kind of blur into the other. But great advance reviews and the Aussie/male author aspect made me pick this one up, and to Hearle's credit, I read it in a couple of days, which is indeed becoming a very rare thing for me to do!

So, Winter's Shadow. Chapter lengths are great - really incite you to read on, end on a high, aren't cluttered with too many things happening at once. I know this might be a weird thing to pick out, but it really enhances the reading experience. Hearle does some great scene setting, with some genuinely spooky moments (like Winter alone in Blake's house) and an undertone of creepiness that pervades the page. I know the word 'atmospheric' gets thrown around a lot, but it applies genuinely to Winter's Shadow.

I also enjoyed the mythological/historical take - there are some great ideas happening with the Skivers and Winter's ability to predict/see a person's life span through their eyes. I read Hearle is planning a sequel, so I hope he expands on this a little more, as it has fascinating potential.

Blake was the more interesting of the two main characters, and I actually really would have loved to read the book entirely from his perspective, or otherwise just cut his parts out. As it is, the story would still be fine and coherent without them.

Winter is okay, but I feel she is just a teeny bit like other paranormal romance heroines to really leave a mark. Sometimes I really just want these chicks to be stronger; in themselves and in the role they play in the relationship. I don't want them to surrender all of who they are to their love interest. And I also would have liked for Blake and Winter's relationship to develop further through actual interaction. There is of course a whole dimension added when there is a mythical or outside influence drawing two characters together, but to cement it, to enhance it, their still needs to be some face-to-face get-to-know-you time.

I also think a few show-don't-tell edits would have enhanced the compelling, creepy feel of the book.

But in general, Winter's Shadow is a strong addition to the para-YA fold, and a welcome effort from an Aussie. Hearle can more than hold his own against the Lauren Kate and Claudia Grays of this world (thank GOD!). A fun and fast read, and I hope it does well.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Secret of the Lonely Isles, by Joanne van Os

First published by Random House, 2011

I really wanted this book to be awesome, because I have a burning desire for just about every Australian kids or YA book to be a roaring success and excellent writing and awesomely mind-blowing. A few of them do end up being just that (and I inevitably end up raving about them on my blog). Others try valiantly to get there and almost do and I become quite fond of them. But then there are some that just prove disappointing on all accounts, and this is how I feel about The Secret of the Lonely Isles, Joanne Van Os' offering of a boy who goes on a sailing adventure with his Aunt to discover family secrets.
My feeling is that this was meant to be a tale of adventure aimed at children, except it lacks that feeling of excitement and danger. It feels by-the-numbers. It feels a little too simplistic and contrived. There is way too much set-up for too little pay off, and when ‘the adventure’ actually begins we are just about halfway through the book already, and by that time it feels like the author has already run out of ideas.
If this book was meant to be an adventure story, it should focus on the adventure – the thrill and hardship of sailing, that sense of secret and discovery, of the quickened pulse when you know that stakes have just got a whole lot higher. Adding in all the family problems at the beginning of the book does not bring much to the story, and once again it all just feels unoriginal and contrived – all the boxes have been ticked. In my opinion it would have been better to put them all on the boat to begin with and have the problems festering and causing tension and becoming claustrophobic within the confines of the boat. Having those first few chapters as just a basic info-dump of Jem’s family problems kind of feels like a cheap attempt at emotion-grabbing, and then it is all just resolved so simply and easily in a few pages at the end. This is not rewarding for the reader.
Also, writing dialogue/dialect exactly the way the characters sound and speak is annoying and hard to read. I didn’t enjoy and think there are ways around it so it isn’t so obvious to the reader. For me, the dialogue didn’t ring true to begin with – it seems to be aiming for something that it doesn’t quite reach.
I don’t think The Secret of the Lonely Isles is bad or the writing lazy, I just don’t think it quite achieved what it was trying to be – I think perhaps it just doesn’t understand its intended audience? Good potential, particularly for a school/educational readership, but I wouldn’t recommend.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Our Australian Girl

This new series, published by Penguin, has caught my eye. I really like the concept behind them and they sound like a good solid series for girls (late Primary readers). Also I think they should enjoy great success in schools.

My only nitpick is the girls on the covers. They look too modern - I really can't place them at the time period they're supposed to be from. I don't know if this an intentional marketing-type thing, but it kind of ruins the otherwise gorgeous front design. I know this is really finicky but to me, it makes quite a difference to how I feel about the book.

Has anyone read these? What do you think?

Wednesday, April 6, 2011


A quick post about all these AMAZING titles coming out soon or just released that I am very much looking forward to finally reading. I always feel like I am about one hundred steps behind with my reading – there is a pile of books beside my bed and just when I think I am getting somewhere along come a few more titles just released or brought to my attention that I know I simply cannot ignore.
It is very rare now that I have a spare few hours or an afternoon to just sloth around and read, and I really miss that! Reading a bit here and a bit there in-between other stuff I have to do is just not the same experience. That being said, I now know that I have cracked onto a real winner these days when I end up reading well into the night – I love this feeling, of just wanting more more more! And hopefully there might just be a bit of that going on with the titles below.
First, is The Mourning Emporium, sequel to Michelle Lovric’s The Undrowned Child, a book that I just loved to bits last year. If you want completely immersive worlds and quirktastic characters, these books are it.
 I saw a few days ago that Jon Mayhew has a new book out, The Demon Collector, next month. Really enjoyed Mortlock last year so keen to see what he can do with this one.
 Winter’s Shadow is an Aussie para-romance that's really got me interested, seeing that it is both Aussie and written by a male author and I’ve read some good advance reviews.
 The Last Werewolf is a title that keeps coming up in my workplace and whose seeming mishmash of genres has got me really intrigued.
 I loved the prose, style and voice of Ananda Braxton Smith’s Merrow, so can’t wait to step back into a similar world in her next book Tantony, released in May.
And even though it’s not released until July, I am so excited for Lost Voices, by Sarah Porter. Yes, of course it’s something to do with the mermaids. But I just love the sound of it and have been hanging out for months to get my hands on this.
Will be reviewing all these in the coming months, so hopefully they live up to my grand expectations!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Cicada Summer, by Kate Constable

First published by Allen & Unwin in 2009

Cicada Summer is a middle-grade fiction book that explores friendship, family, grief and personal growth. Eloise, who hasn’t spoken since her mother died, is left with her grandmother Mo while her dad goes off to organise plans to turn the derelict family mansion into a new, modern convention centre. But Eloise develops a bond with the new house, and finds herself transported into another time, where she meets a ghostly girl associated with the house’s past.
The first half of Cicada Summer is promising; the introduced themes have great potential, the characters are engaging, the setting has a wonderful ghostly/atmospheric feel to it. But somewhere along the way this book lost me a little bit – I just feel that the story didn’t really go anywhere; it didn’t grab me emotionally and all the conflict was resolved in a kind of by-the-numbers way. There was nothing unexpected. Basically, I felt like I’d read the story before and knew how it would end. I would have perhaps liked to see something more done with the whole time-travelling concept and maybe just for Constable to go a little deeper with it all – with the issues raised (death, immigration, land re-development, family issues, imagination) and even with the language itself. The second half just didn’t live up to the promise of the first.
I don’t really know what else to say – I just think it needed something else. Everything about it was just nice but there was no depth to the words that were skimming the surface. Passive. That’s the word. It lulls you in but after that there’s nowhere else to go.

Basically an easy read if you want to pass an afternoon. I would like to read a few of Kate Constable’s other books, just to see if it was just this book or her writing style.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Good Oil, by Laura Buzo

First Published in 2010, by Allen & Unwin

“Miss Amelia Hayes, Welcome to The Land of Dreams, I am the staff trainer. I will call you Grasshopper and you will call me Sensei. And I will give you the good oil. Right?”

15-year-old Amelia gets her first job at Woolworths and promptly gets more than angry customers and plastic bags of fruit and veg – she also gets an all-consuming, undeniable crush on 21-year-old Chris. They talk, laugh, argue and become great friends – but the six year age gap means it will never be anything more.

What I Loved About this Book:

Much like my favourite Aussie YA of last year, Raw Blue, this is a quiet, unassuming story, quite day-to-day, devoid of big events or revelations. But it’s kind of like you can feel it crawl inside of you and curl up, and then there is a delicious warmth that slowly seeps out and lulls you further and further in and then you just never want to let that little bundle of book-love go. Good Oil is a creeper, because the emotional havoc it wreaks doesn’t feel like much when it’s happening but then there will be a moment where, Wham, you know it’s got you good.

I loved both Amelia and Chris, and using both their voices to tell the story added so much to the story. There were a few times when I thought maybe Chris’ voice slipped out of authenticity, but for the most part he was spot on and his frustration and humour and self-deprecation were completely engaging and very powerful. I’ve said it before, but I think the uni-age is an area overlooked in YA, and yet as far as material goes it is an absolute goldmine. And so I LOVED reading about his utter bewilderment at what the hell he was supposed to be doing with his life, and understanding it, and wanting him to figure it out and be happy.

I will say this is more Amelia’s story than Chris’, and she was an absolute lovely protagonist: so tough and spirited and yet completely vulnerable and unsure. All her worries – about her family and appearance and schoolwork and small but yet significant things all felt so true and accurately realised, and I loved Buzo for bringing her to life.

Good Oil made me sad, but in a good way. It made me sad because it was so easy to recognise so many of the moments – like how Chris describes taking the road trip with his uni friends; the way Amelia agonises over making that first phone call to Chris; her first experiences with underage drinking and how a moment can feel so contained and yet so much more all-encompassing than it is; Chris’ family barbecues of many a Summer evening where you’re sitting in the hot seat all night, just waiting for all the Aunts and Uncles to start with the ‘so what’s next for you’ questions and you’re crapping your pants because HELL YOU JUST DON’T KNOW. Buzo just does them so recognisably and beautifully and I wanted to go back there to relive those moments that, although you don’t know it at the time, end up defining your life.

Like I said, this is a quiet book, lonely, but there is a warmth there and a generosity of emotion. I loved the moments with Amelia and her little sis Jess, and was also quite touched by the relationship between Chris and his sister Zoe. The characters that populate the aisles and check-outs of Woolworths are weird and wonderful and bring a lot of colour and interest to the pages. And can I just say, once again it is so great to read about your own experiences as told and understood by someone else. With Raw Blue it was the waitressing/kitchen work that I could laugh at because I understood it, and having also once worked in a supermaket myself, it was a similar experience with Good Oil. I think Buzo conveyed wonderfully the little world and hierarchy the staff inhabit, although I would have loved to hear her take on some of the customers!

Fabulous read. Another winner for Aussie YA.