Category Archives: Author Love

Book review: Idaho by Emily Ruskovich

I grabbed this book from netgalley for a review, y’all can read it in a week or so when it comes out.

 

This is a shocking book. The crime it’s based on will make you suck your breath in and clench your fists. It’s brutal and cruel and tragic.

But what is most shocking is the beautiful, eloquent, quiet way the story around the crime is rendered. This book is soft-paced, it builds (rising and falling like breath), it wrenches at your heart and it fills you with a longing that you can’t quite explain.

It’s the story of May and June, sisters born 3 years apart.

It’s the story of Ann who teaches piano, loves her husband, and can never quite escape the question of blame.

It’s the story of Jenny and Elizabeth, who find an awkward but enduring friendship in an ugly place.

This is a book about women, and about those people who women love. It starts on a mountain, with Wade felling trees to allow a helicopter to reach a pregnant Jenny if need be. Years later, another winter, Wade and Jenny drive their girls to the next mountain to collect firewood and it is here the unspeakable happens (literally – Ruskovich NEVER actually replays the moment itself, just those leading up to it and immediately after. It’s as if the act itself cannot be written because it’s too horrendous). Again, years pass, and Ann finds herself in the same truck, trying to uncover the truth of her husband’s past in order to save his future.

The story jumps between years and decades, going all the way to 2025, where Ann and Jenny – now old women, almost unrecognizable even to themselves – leave the mountain at last. The nonlinear narrative form adds to the story and also helps build a sense of Wade’s increasing dementia – even as the years are announced, it’s uncertain what will be uncovered, a fight between May and June over dolls, a man lost in the snow, Jenny adding to Elizabeth’s mural – these tiny acts add to a life (or to the loss of one) and slowly uncover the overall story, which spans three generations on the prairie and the mountain. There’s a sense of menace which is slightly offset by the gorgeous, ripe prose. This is an author who understands deeply what it is to be a woman, to love and be loved in return, to despair and be despaired of. Ruskovich’s grasp of family devotion is essential to the story. Her knowledge of the landscape shines (she was raised in northern Idaho), and she graciously allows us moments of pure grace amongst the horror (“May feels tired. Happy, and tired…She begins to do what she often does just before her eyes close. She decides to forget things”).

There are a few detours I didn’t like – I felt like the one legged boy’s story was a little out of place, and the bloodhound, and Adam. Not that they don’t belong there, and they add to the narrative, but it’s strange to jump to a male perspective for those particular chapters. I would have preferred the dog to be female, Eliot’s story to be told by Ivy (or Julia). Adam’s story….well, I guess that had to be told by Adam himself, but it’s strange and jarring to have male voices in a mostly-female narrative. And not in an interesting/good way.

But all in all, probably the second best novel I’ve read all year and just stunning. It’s one that will stay with me for a long time.

4.5/5

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Book Review: The Birdman’s Wife by Melissa Ashley (spoilers)

Note: I got this book as a netgalley advance copy and I’m exceedingly grateful for that.

Some of the books I get as advanced reading copies are nice. Some I can’t bear to finish. Some, I can’t put down and I want to shout about them from the rooftops. The Birdman’s Wife is one of the latter.

So while I know who the Goulds were, I have no more than a passing interest in ornithology and have never looked at their works. After reading this, I went and googled the lithographs and they are just as exquisite as the novel makes them sound. If you’re not a bird-lover, this book will make you interested in them. If you are, I imagine this book will absolutely enchant you.

It’s the story of Elizabeth Gould, a governess who meets and soon marries ornithologist John Gould, a curator and preserver at the Zoological Association of London. In 1830, John starts on a project to catalog and publish a collection of bird specimens from the Himalayas and Elizabeth agrees to do the illustration. After another four works (and six children, two of whom sadly don’t survive), Elizabeth, John and their eldest child Henry join Elizabeth’s brothers in Australia where they study and collect the local wildlife. Back in London two years (and another child) later, Elizabeth works on ‘Birds of Australia’, an epic work of 600 lithographic plates. This contribution to ornithology (including 328 new species) is what the Gould’s are most know for. Elizabeth then unfortunately dies of childbed fever shortly after the birth of her 8th child, in 1841.

That’s the basic premise of the book and outlined as such, looks stiff and boring.

Luckily, the prose is gorgeous, the flow fast paced and eager and the characters beautifully rendered. Ashley has done an amazing job of getting the reader to dive deep into Elizabeth’s world – not only do you go on her journeys with her, but you do so as an intimate friend. I felt like I was immersed in her life, following along as if Elizabeth herself was talking to me over tea (or a nice port), and the tragic ending caught me a little off guard.

But it’s not just a wonderfully written and easy to read story – it’s a very well researched work, with impeccable science to back it up. Ashley wrote the novel for her PhD, and spent four years doing the work, including becoming a volunteer taxidermist and avid birdwatcher. Science doesn’t make the book boring, instead it enriches it. I knew this was a first novel when I requested it, but Ashley writes as a master (which she indeed is, having received several awards and scholarships for her prose) and effortlessly integrates her research with her storytelling. She is currently (according to her website) researching a book on the “scandalously audacious life of a seventeenth-century French fairy tale writer” which I’m sure will be every bit as delicious as her debut.

I loved the setting of this book, early to mid 19th century Britain and Australia, and I loved even more when birds were mentioned that I knew about. I loved the diary style writing, including the daily ephemera of every day life and conversations with her husband. I loved that Ashley delves into the process of artwork, the vagaries of the muse and the excitement of new technology. I loved the dilemma of leaving her children behind, which is heartwrenching and real and beautifully written. I didn’t love that the book starts when she meets Gould, as I see that as taking some of Elizabeth’s extraordinary personhood away (although, it is called the Birdman’s Wife, so I guess it makes sense to start when she becomes that). I didn’t love that the book wasn’t a million pages longer (although I see the need to keep it under 400 pages). Also, goddammit, I didn’t love that she up and dies. It’s actually quite devastating, which shows Ashley’s skill as a writer – not only do you enter the world of the Gould’s, but you become friendly with them. You forgive John his never ending drive, seeing it as passion. You think fondly of Mary and Daisy, their devotion to Elizabeth. You look forward to seeing the children blossom and grow. And you come to love Elizabeth as a cherished friend, one whose untimely passing is deeply mourned.

To write a book based so heavily in a narrow branch of natural sciences where you still fall in love with the characters is surely the sign of an accomplished and amazing author – Melissa Ashley is certainly that.

5/5 stars

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Drowning Ruth

drowning ruth

This book came really highly recommended. It was a NY Times bestseller, an Oprah’s bookclub choice and a few people on my twitter feed had said it lived up to the hype. I read a few chapters one day and was a little disappointed – the suspense seemed heavy handed and the story was stunted by the fact that you’re never quite sure what time you are in.

Nevertheless, the next day I picked it up again and was delighted to discover that after a few awkward chapters at the beginning, the book blossoms into a sweet, melancholic story where the twist is rather inconsequential compared to your affection for the characters.

The story is about Amanda, who returns to the family home to convalesce after a series of unfortunate events at her nursing job. Mathilda, the adored younger sister, happily receives Amanda and the two raise Mathilda’s daughter Ruth on their island home while waiting for Mattie’s war-wounded husband Carl to return home. Then Mattie drowns under mysterious circumstances and Carl and Amanda are left to raise Ruth while dealing with the tragedy. The story flashes through to when Ruth is 11 and is ‘adopted’ by Imogene, a gregarious younger girl, and they soon become fast friends. Later, as teenagers, Ruth and Imogene are subjected to the affections of a vacationing Arthur Owen and Aunt Amanda seems determined that neither girl return his attentions.

The story builds and builds. It gets to where it doesn’t matter what happened to Mattie because it was so long ago, and yet the echoes of her life and death still touch the characters in unexpected ways. You begin to choose sides and then lament when you favourite characters inevitably make desperate decisions leading to tragic mistakes. I actually enjoyed the soft menace that seeps around the edges of the tale, making the idyllic landscape that makes up the setting of the story a little more bleak and dangerous than originally thought.

It’s not the kind of book I would normally pick up, but I’m glad I persevered – I finished it off in two sittings. Be sure to read the author’s note at the end of the book, it’s really enlightening to find out how Christina’s character’s lives took turns that where unexpected even to her.

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The Museum of Extraordinary Things – Alice Hoffman

I like Alice Hoffman’s books. I liked Practical Magic, it was sweet (and because I read it years after watching the film, it was nice to find it darker and richer and less kidman-ish). I LOVED the Dovekeepers, it’s one of those books that stays with you. Next up is her The Drowning Season. But the Museum of Extraordinary Things hit me really hard and I didn’t put it down until it was finished.

It’s the story of Cora, who was born with webbed fingers and spends her days swimming in an exhibit tank, pretending to be a mermaid in her father’s glorified freak show. She’s a gentle, empathetic girl who longs for a life she doesn’t understand. It’s also the story of Eddie, who has left his father and his faith and is looking for something to fill the loss he feels. Eddie photographs the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and finds himself tangled up in a mystery that only he can solve. Cora’s father has the very thing he’s looking for, but nothing leaves the Museum of Extraordinary things without the Professor’s leave, so Eddie and Cora must find a way to escape and somehow free the others who have been caught up in the Professor’s awful machinations.

Nothing about this book is straightforward. There are some twists that are obvious (like Coralie’s parentage) and some I didn’t see coming at all (like Coralie’s parentage). Intriguing, no? Eddie is such a likeable character, I just wanted to pat him on the head and feed him tea and biscuits until he felt better. You really get to see the internal struggle he has regarding his father’s actions in the past and how he responded to them. It’s also lovely to watch as the faith the other characters have in him proves true. Moses Levy is a character only really established through Eddie’s remembrances, yet despite his gruff manner, you can tell Moses loved and cherished his apprentice. Samuel Weiss is so assured that Eddie will find his missing daughter that you can tell Eddie’s estranged father has spoken well of his abilities to Samuel, and often. It’s these little clues that make Eddie’s frustration at his own inability bearable – you can tell in the end, everything will come up roses.

Cora’s character is a little less likeable, but I think it’s because I can’t sympathise as much with her quiet resentment and inaction. By the time she’s accidentally seen Eddie, Cora is full of resentment and defiance towards the Professor, but she does practically nothing about it. Even when she goes into the city to return Eddie’s camera equipment and ends up half naked, she is indignant at the idea that she is no longer a virgin – her goodness and obedience are absolute, even when her father becomes a monster. Compared with Juliet Block or Hannah Weiss, Cora is a wimp. Her brave stand against the fire in the end of the book is nothing more than chance – if she’d been more invested in her own escape, no one would have been near the fire anyway.

The book is really well put together – characters like Abraham Hochman come to the fore in brilliant twists of plot. Hochman I had written off as a charlatan, much as Eddie does, but but the end of the story you start to think he is more than he appears. So too Jacob Van der Beck, whose tragic tale I long to write a novel about (albeit with a slightly happier ending, especially for the wolf). After you have dismissed these characters as unimportant and uninvolved, Hoffman weaves them back in with surprising grace. Nothing is superfluous in this book, every thread is necessary and neatly tied. At 300 pages you should definitely try this (especially if you’ve never read Hoffman before – then move on the The Dovekeepers). The sense of menace and the hope of redemption will keep you reading until the wee hours, while the beauty and joy of the characters will make you smile long after you finish.

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April Reading List

Love in the Time of Global Warming – Francesca Lia Block

Children of Fire – Drew Karpshyn (so far, it’s a bit of a drag)

Scatter, Adapt and Remember – Annalee Newitz who writes for i09. I’ve been waiting for so long to get this!

The Bone Season – Samantha Shannon

Origin – Jessica Khoury

On Such a Full Sea – Chang-Rae Lee (this is interesting. Bit stagnant in places)

Still Life with Bread Crumbs – Anna Quindlen

The Weight of Blood – Laura McHugh (already finished because I couldn’t put it down. Review soon – I need to digest it a bit more)

LOTS to read for once! I have two weeks off uni with only one assignment due and only two weddings that I don’t have to edit (hurray) so lots of reading time 🙂 What’s on your list for April?

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Book Review: The Kingdoms of Dust by Amanda Downum

Hallelujah, after a long drought I finally found a fantasy novel I loved. I’ve been dying for something since I finished the Time Dancers (last in the Meq trilogy by Steve Cash and awesome) and no one seems to be writing anything. Or the Corona books buyer is slack and hates me.

So I grabbed this and it looked good and I got one chapter in and was completely hooked. The story revolves around Asheris, a jinni-human demon in love with the empress’s consort and constantly at risk from the church, and Isyllt, a death mage fleeing from her old life, her lost love and the sense of hopelessness that arises when she thinks about her future. The two-sometimes enemies, sometimes lovers- must survive long enough to cross the desert and trap an ancient force threatening to destroy the world*.

I really love when lead characters in fantasy are just normal people. Isyllt carries a black diamond to store the souls she harnesses, but she also sleeps with her body guard and Asheris because she’s lonely and she worries about not being a good guardian to her apprentice Moth, but not enough to actually change how she acts. Asheris is this brash and beautiful fire-winged thing, who longs for freedom one moment and immerses himself in the machinations of the court the next. The characters here become people you know, people you’d be friends with, so you find yourself a little worried for them when there are endless would-be assassins and a hungry manticore.

Another one i read in a single afternoon, Kingdoms is original and well constructed fantasy. I long to live in any of the empires and kingdoms Downum has brought to life. The names are more than my thick tongue can handle, but the prose is quick witted and elegant and while the book is part of a series (the necromancer chronicles) it serves perfectly as a stand alone as well. Except one is not going to be enough, do I suggest you buy them all.

Ps: the author, Amanda Downum is on twitter and is quite lovely.

*Ancient forces rarely do anything else.

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Book Review: Black Sea Twilight by Domnica Radulescu

I like books about misplaced histories. What happened in Romania under Ceausescu, the Armenian Genocide, India immediately after the British withdrew, Haiti after the revolution – all these events that happened and impacted thousands and have somehow been glossed over in history books and swept under the rug. Romania has always held a macabre fascination for me, I think mostly because I have lived all my life in Australia, where at most our political systems is laughable and at least we pay nothing for education and food is abundant. We are spoiled and fat and with the exception of what happened to the Aboriginal people during settlement, Australia has been lucky.

I don’t know enough to get into some political diatribe about Communism and security and nationalism and civil war and I liked that Black Sea Twilight doesn’t spend hours trying to negotiate the history of the Ceausescu dictatorship. Instead, it simply tells what was happening inside the country from the point of view of a young girl who is struggling to be an artist, struggling to be a daughter, a sister, a lover, a Romanian. As Nora juggles these roles, the story moves along at a frenetic pace. First Nora is fifteen and about to discover her passion for art and for the boy she has grown up alongside, a Muslim Turk named Gigi. When the pair rescue a melancholic and beautiful french tourist from drowning, Nora realizes that she must act in order to hold onto her loves and begins to paint the divine and grotesque images she has in her head. Life under Ceasescu is getting more and more unbearable, as Nora’s twin brother Valentin returns from Bucharest and Nora suffers septicemia after procuring an illegal abortion which brings her family and all those around her under government suspicion. When Nora, Gigi and Valentin all have their university applications knocked back after her and Gigi unwittingly overhear military secrets, Nora knows she must leave Romania and make her way to Paris where she can be free to live and love and make art.

After two years lost and alone in Istanbul, Nora finds herself in Paris once again saving the tragic Anushka from herself. She enters into the university of art and finds new friends, but she longs for the freedom of her beloved Gigi, to see her brother and family again. In discovering unspoken truths about her new friends – Anushka, the circus girl Didona who once broke her brother’s heart and the motherly Agadira – Nora finds herself learning more about herself, her art and what she is going to become. Finally the Romanian revolution overthrows the dictatorship and Nora is free to speak with her Mama and see her brother perform in concert. But so much has changed, not only within Nora herself, but with the country she fled and the love of her life who has been on his own hard journey. There is no going back, but what life are they going forward into?

This book doesn’t stop. Told in first person by Nora with dialogue both spoken and implied, this novel allows you not only into Nora’s life, but into her very soul. Colours and shapes and sensations come alive thanks to Radulescu’s beautiful and frenzied prose. Although in some instances it is difficult to keep track, this adds to the narrative – When Nora arrives in Istanbul, ill, suffering from amnesia and uncertain even of the language she is speaking, the scene and language picks you up and carries you on a bizarre carnival ride of emotion and longing and confusion and art. When Agadira and Nora are nursing Anushka through the ravages of heroin withdrawal, it seems as though time condenses into a long twilight with no sleep and no awake and no beginning and no end, which only serves to elaborate the desolation and suffering of Anushka and the desperation of her nurses. The tag line on this copy of the novel says it is “a spellbinding story of escape and self-discovery”. and I certainly found myself captivated, dizzied and gloried by it, enthralled by the sense of history and more than a little in love with Nora for all her strengths and weaknesses. I’m certainly on the look out for Radulescu’s other novel, Train to Trieste.

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