Friday, August 12, 2022

The Lost World


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This week we took a sharp detour from the world of feminist espionage and the traumatic degradation of women in Gilead to a much more childishly stimulating and exciting genre: the adventure novel. Off the shelf was plucked Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, which I have now devoured and rather enjoyed. 

In the sci-fi adventure style of Verne and Poe, The Lost World chronicles an expedition into South America to find the existence of a pocket of nature where dinosaurs and other Jurassic wonders still exist. The group is made up of Professor Challenger out to save his reputation as a zoologist, cynical Professor Summerlee only there to be proven wrong in his accusations against Challanger, Lord John Roxton a famous hunter on the chase of his life, and E. D. Malone a love-spurned journalist out to prove he can be romantic and adventurous. 

In the true style of classic adventure novels, the central cast of characters is made up of a group that really don’t work together, but somehow make a very entertaining adventuring party. Written as a chronicle or memoir from the point of view of Malone the journalist, the book begins as a sort of King Kong, Journey to the Centre of the Earth adventure, before quickly becoming something else entirely, as new and unpredicted adventures happen including the introduction of primitive human tribes living amongst the Jurassic monsters. 

Doyle very cleverly and interestingly explores how humankind’s life would have been if they had evolved and developed alongside dinosaurs and other extinct creatures, a fresh and fascinating take on the journey-to-the-new-world narrative and setting is apart from other stories like it.

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The prose is descriptive where it needs to be, simple, and personal with little opinions and observations about Malone’s fellow travellers being snidely and humorously slid into the text. And of course, it’s always nice to read a work from an author well known for a certain style and see them thrive in a different genre. 

The Lost World is a great example of fun afternoon literature that I quite enjoyed and would recommend to anyone who’s a fan of the adventure novel.

Author: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1912

Published: Hodder & Stoughton, 1912

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

The Testaments

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Sometimes finding your next book to read can be a challenge, sometimes even a chore. And if you’re like me, someone who constantly has to have a book on the go, there can be pressure and stress that comes with making decisions to continue in this relaxing pastime. 
Sometimes you know exactly what you want. And that’s great. I love when that happens. But sometimes you don’t, and you pick up something that you’re really not in the right mood for. This can go either way depending on how stubborn you are. And then sometimes you pick up a book that plays into a theme that is currently dominating your free time and interest, like my most recent pick. I’ve recently been listening to a few podcasts, namely Somebody You Love and The Big Sister Hotline, both of which are presented by women and explore the day-to-day experiences of women (mostly). So it really should come as no surprise that I picked up Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments as my next literary adventure. 

A sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments chronicles three stories from three central female protagonists: one in power in Gilead, one in privilege in Gilead, and one free from Gilead. Written as a confession and witness transcripts, the book gives us a wider look into Gilead and the overarching narrative is an exciting spy thriller (or feminist espionage) story that brings these three women together to change the corrupt and poisonous theocracy of their country. 
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Similar to The Handmaid’s Tale, this book paints an incredible and traumatic picture of a patriarchal regime with a subtle undercover noir story slithering along between the lines. The story is absolutely character driven: we’re given a complete history that leads all three heroines to their final destination of the beginning of Gilead’s fall and in true Atwood fashion, the exciting, climactic third act leaves us screaming for closure. Mercifully, the final chapter delivers the reader from anxious fretting and supplies the much looked for treat of a satisfying end. 

Written thirty-five years after The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments is an exciting way to close a chapter on fictional history (or dissuade it from becoming a future) filled with drama, suspense, and an intricate subterfuge plot line that is delightfully compelling.

Author: Margaret Atwood, 2019
Published: Chatto & Windus, an imprint of Vintage and part of Penguin Random House, 2019 

Sunday, July 24, 2022

The Book Thief


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Books are journeys. Stories are journeys. The basic narratives that we tell day-to-day are some sort of journey. It’s interesting, while most books take the reader on a narrative journey along with its characters, there are some that do that while simultaneously taking them on an emotional journey. I’ve just closed the cover on a book that I hadn’t thought about for years, decided to reread, and have been deeply thinking about nothing else for the past week: Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief

Told from the perspective of Death, the books tells the story of ten year-old Liesel Meminger who goes to live with foster parents in Munich in the midst of WWII. Before entering this new family and life she picks up a book, accidentally left half hidden in the snow. This simple act sparks a great love of books, words, and the odd bit of thievery. As her foster father teaches her to read, Liesel begins stealing books wherever they are to be found: Nazi bonfires, abandoned in rivers, and even in the Mayor’s wife's library. And soon the power of words is guiding Liesel through her struggles of adolescent life in a war-torn Germany. 

I remember really loving this book when I first read it as a 19/20 year old. I mean really loving it. And it’s funny, when I picked it up a decade later and started rereading it, I was turned off by the prose. I found it clich├ęd and pretentious, so much so that I could almost taste the bittersweet metallic tang that made me cringe. I thought I'd just grown out of it, my tastes having evolved since then. I’m a stubborn reader so I persevered because, ‘I’ve started now, I may as well finish.’ And I mentioned my feelings to my blind, literary-loving grandmother who then made me read a few sentences that I found cringing out loud. They sounded completely different, so much better. And I realised that there is something to the voice that reads in your head and the voice that reads out loud. If I listened to The Book Thief, I would probably fall in love with it all over again. 

In a way I have decided that this is a favourite that will remain on the shelf, because it made me go through this real emotional and philosophical journey about whether or not I thought it a good book. 

It’s a fucking great book! 

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Zusak’s story is simple; it’s the way in which he uses sensory descriptions like colour, taste, and smell to describe the world and characters that makes this book amazing. It’s engaging from the very first page, hugely accessible and compelling, before you know it you’ve gone through several chapters. What Zusak does with words is actually truly incredible, chronicling a simple life, but making it rich and aromatic through a few sensory sentences and creating a reading experience that is captivating and hugely pleasurable. In every free moment I had, my nose was buried in this book. 

Author: Markus Zusak, 2005

Published: Picador by Pan Macmillan Australia Pty Limited, 2005. 

Longevity: The Book Thief was adapted into a film of the same name in 2013.

Thursday, June 2, 2022

Remembering Babylon

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 I recently finished watching a rather fantastic show on iView called The Books That Made Us. Hosted by Claudia Karven, the show explores, dissects, and celebrates Australian literature and it really opened my eyes and made me realise just how little of my country’s own brilliant stuff I read. So now I have a rather lengthy list of titles and authors’ names and I making an active attempt to read more of the powerful gems that come from my own home. This week I discovered that I had a celebrated classic already on my shelf: David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon.

The book tells the story of Gemmy, a British urchin and castaway who is thrown overboard and ends up stranded and alone on the beaches of Queensland. He is taken in by a clan of Aborigines and for sixteen years lives awkwardly as one of them. His life changes again when he stumbles into the backyard of a family of Scottish immigrant farmers and they take him in. For a year Gemmy lives as an enigma amongst the white colonists, a flimsy bridge between the ‘civilised’ and ‘primitive’ worlds of men. 

Sitting just shy of two hundred pages, Remembering Babylon is a truly incredible use of language. Not only does Malouf creative this intensely rich, brutal, and beautiful world through his words, but language itself becomes the driving force of the narrative; what sparks change, fear, and growth in all the book’s characters. Through conversing with the white community, bits of Gemmy’s former life and trauma are revived as he remembers words that drag up images with them. A similar transformation happens to various townspeople as they become aware of their own true natures, or recognise the beauty and not the brutality of the bush that surrounds them as something to be embraced and understood rather than destroyed and rebuilt. 

The book is positively drowning in the central drama of identity within the colonial world and there are strong scenes of racism and social breakdown that will set minds whirring with messages and meanings. 

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It’s poetic, dramatic, and sometimes brutal and what is truly incredible about it is Malouf’s intense power with words. Honestly, I’m shaming myself trying to write what I feel about it. I cannot stress enough how breathtakingly rich and vibrant the world is in these pages and his power to describe and illustrate entire lives within so small a space is mind-blowing. What he does is otherworldly, it’s supernatural, it’s unbelievable magic!

Author: David Malouf, 1993

Published: First published in Great Britain by Chatto & Windus Ltd

Achievements: Winner of the 1996 International Impac Dublin Literary Award. Shortlisted for the 1993 Booker Prize.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

The Secret Commonwealth


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Well, I am glad to say that I am officially plague-free and well and truly re-immersed in the world of daemons and Dust that makes up Philip Pullman’s new trilogy: The Book of Dust. I have just closed the cover of the second instalment and I can’t wait to see what happens next!

Book two, The Secret Commonwealth, jumps ahead twenty years after the wet and dramatic events of La Belle Sauvage and ten years after the events of the His Dark Materials trilogy. Lyra Silvertongue and her daemon, Pantalaimon, are not getting along. Since having to separate in the land of the dead, their relationship has shifted and Lyra has changed. Now being impressed by sceptical literary theologians, Lyra seems to have lost the creativeness and impulsiveness of her youth and Pan wants it back. On top of this, a terrible war is raging in Central Asia, one that envelops them both when Pan witnesses a murder and Lyra learns the truth about some of the closest people in her life. 

While there is a lot going on in this book, with chapters following various protagonists including Lyra, Pan, Malcolm Polstead all grown up, and the villain Marcel Delamare, The Secret Commonwealth is just as gripping and exciting as its predecessor. The secret agent/spy narrative is still in full swing, made unique by Pullman’s continued depictions of the villainies of the Church, as well as other authoritative institutions, and the insertion of the magical/supernatural into the mix. The book continues to explore the conflicts between different methods of thinking and how they influence day-to-day lives, cleverly steering the reader this way and that with various protagonists going through changes and debates of perception. 

In this way the book most definitely leaves behind its younger readers and moves firmly into the realm of young adult fiction, as the simple binaries of good and evil are shattered with the fragments going everywhere and creating a confusing, but not un-navigable metropolis of narrative avenues and shades of grey. 

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It’s also very interesting to see our heroine take a bit of a battering –trigger warning: this is sometimes literal and some scenes of assault and sexual violence may be confronting for some readers. The curious, adventurous, and creative Lyra of the His Dark Materials trilogy has disappeared and immediately the readers are empathetic with Pan: no longer recognising this person. But Lyra’s first real adventure as an adult is one that promises to be full of change and growth and I am very keen to see how everything turns out. Just as much a story of identity as his other works are coming-of-age, The Secret Commonwealth succinctly depicts how even adults don't have everything figured out and are still prone and ripe for lessons and change. 

While I found the drastic jump in time a little hard to get into at first, I was quickly wrapped up completely in the events of The Secret Commonwealth and now eagerly await the third book.

Author: Philip Pullman, 2019

Published: David Fickling Books, Oxford, 2019

The Secret Commonwealth is the second instalment in Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust trilogy. 

Thursday, April 28, 2022

The Muddle-Headed Wombat


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So I am well and truly on a little bit of an Australian children’s classics binge at the moment, having just closed the cover on another sweet and delightfully illustrated collection of tales: Ruth Park’s The Muddle-Headed Wombat.

In this book of four adventures we are introduced to a lonely muddled-headed wombat that makes best friends with a dainty little mouse and a conceited tabby cat. Together they go on many adventures, including going to school, on holiday at the seaside, and enduring a great thunderstorm while stranded in a treehouse. A lot of mistakes, good intentions, and friendly resolutions ensue, making this a very sweet little book with good little lessons for its young audience. 

Originally, Wombat and his friends Mouse and Tabby Cat began their careers on a daily ABC children’s radio show. Indeed the stories, similar to those of the gum nut babies Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, lend themselves to oral storytelling, but transcribed into the written word, the characters and the adventures they go on do not lose any of their integrity or charisma that inspires emotional attachment from the readers. 

Ruth Park writes simply for an audience on the much younger side, however there is still something about these adorable characters and the way they are fleshed out that allows adults to also enjoy their adventures. Wombat’s adorable mispronunciations as well as silliness and sweet sincerity remind us of Winnie the Pooh and I particularly enjoyed the toying with gender pronouns that Park engages when talking about Mouse. Mouse is referred to as ‘it’ all the time aside from once where Park employs the adjective ‘ladylike’. However, Mouse’s sex is never actually revealed and so there’s a really lovely awareness of the fluidity of gender roles at play here, which was surprising in stories that were around during the 1960s.

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As the narratives and characters were fleshed out a lot better than Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, I definitely enjoyed this book better. It’s sweet, fun, and emotionally enthralling with good morals in behaviour being at the centre of its tales. 

Author: Ruth Park, 1962, 1964 & 1965

Illustrator: Noela Young

Published: Combined edition published by Angus & Robertson Publisher Australia, 1979

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Snugglepot and Cuddlepie


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Well and truly on the mend from my recent ailment, I’ve been making up for lost time concerning the ‘Australian children’s classics’. After finishing Babe –one of the sweetest little tales ever- I went totally bush and plucked and old copy of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie off the shelf. 

The book is made up of three separate tales chronicling three adventures of the gum nut baby foster-brothers Snugglepot and Cuddlepie. Beginning with their travelling from home to see a human, the gum nuts make all manner of friends and have all manner of adventures in which they escape from Mrs. Snake’s dungeon, live temporarily at the bottom of the sea, and rid the bush of the wicked Banksia men. 

While this is a very sweet little trilogy of tales unique to the Australian outback, it’s one of those children’s books that definitely works for a single age group. While I enjoyed the anthropomorphism of the flora and fauna that makes my home country so beautiful, the book itself is very much written for a younger audience. So, if you’re reading as an adult, it’s cute but rather simple and not particularly exciting. 

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While there is certainly a lot of drama and sinister events taking place, the prose hand waves away the seriousness of it all by using simple sentences with a nonchalant tone that, for me, doesn’t spark any real attachment to the characters or events. I believe this book would be better read out loud in the classic oral tradition of telling stories. 

Nevertheless it’s cute and it is regarded as an Australia children’s classic, so I am glad that I have read it.

Author: May Gibbs, 1940

Illustrator: May Gibbs

Published: Angus & Robertson Publishers, 1940