Hello and Welcome

My name is Gabriella and I’m a librarian, writer and voracious reader of anything I can get my hands on (which fits in nicely with the first two). I routinely read over twenty books each week, and often get asked why I don’t review more of them. Of course, many of those books are unmemorable, but every so often one stays in my mind. Some, I absolutely loved, some I hated (Chauvinists touting their rules of conquest shall not be named)  some I hated because I had loved the writer’s previous work and sat there thinking ‘what the hell happened?!?!?’, and others I didn’t like much to begin with but the more I thought about them, the more insightful I found them to be. ALL of those books I felt deserved more than a few lines on Facebook, so here I am. Welcome to the Black Swan Book Corner. Kick back, grab a tea (or coffee, if you’re that way inclined… blasphemer) and I hope you find something that intrigues you enough to read the book!

Advertisements

Flawed – Cecilia Ahern

In a world where members whose actions have deemed them ‘flawed’ (such as those whose business have failed or who broke laws to help their sick children or cheat on their spouses) are not deemed criminals, but branded and not able to enjoy the freedoms of being a ‘non-flawed’ member of society. In effect, this creates a lesser class of citizens despite not having broken any laws that is reminiscent of past decrees against women, Jews, Catholics etc. In one particularly scene, a ‘Perfect’ woman’s attitude swings from ‘how can I help you, dear’ to outrage at having to mildly inconvenience herself in order to save a Flawed man’s life; this is the ‘less than’ view the Perfect see the Flawed through.

Celestine North (whose name translates to ‘north star’, ie, guiding light – I assume that’s not a coincidence) witnesses an incident with a Flawed man that sets off a chain reaction with consequences that no-one could have forseen. It’s not until Celestine herself is branded as Flawed that she sees just how badly Flawed are treated and just how corrupt the so-called ‘justice’ system is.

I found it a fascinating insight to how the best of intentions (for example, wanting to exclude people who have proven untrustworthy to run big business, ie certain bankers) end up being the ruin of people who had done their best with circumstances under their control, and asks the age-old question of ‘who polices the police?’

Flawed is part of a duology, and while I’d recommend its sequel, PerfectPerfect in particular drags on (I, for one, had worked out how the love triangle would be resolved halfway through Flawed) – a good editor could have gotten it down to one book. There’s some great themes about how power corrupts and the road to hell being paved with good intentions. A discussion on bookclub led us to the conclusion that, if not set in Ireland, it is written from the perspective of an Irish writer (most of Ahern’s novels are Ireland-based) and this makes a lot of sense in the context of that country’s financial difficulties (and difficulties with the financially irresponsible) as well as with the Catholic Church, itself revealed to be quite corrupt and abusive in the last few years.

A very intriguing concept that I found quite believable, and could see a society so exploited by irresponsible and unethical people having had enough to going to far in the opposite direction towards intolerance of anything but unimpeachable actions.

Dorothy Must Die – Danielle Paige

Young Adult writer Danielle Paige brings a dark, steampunk element to the story of Dorothy Gale and The Wizard of Oz. White trash Kansas teen Amy Gumm finds herself swept away in a tornado to Oz, where she finds she only heard half the story. At some point, Dorothy, sick of the mundane life on Kansas after the technicolour magic of Oz, returns, is crowned princess, and becomes a power-hungry, magic-siphoning dictator(ess?) whose lust for power and magic has turned Oz into a miserable place. And it’s up to Amy to rectify the situation, ie, kill Dorothy.

Much of what we know from L Frank Baum’s beloved creation is turned on its head, as Glinda becomes a Perma-Smiling sociopath and the ‘wicked’ have become the resistance. The idea of Dorothy being a cruel tyrant initially seems unbelievable, but when members of the resistance explains, the idea of a nobody from nowheresville, Kansas wanting more for herself… and more…. and more… not only makes sense, but it makes you wonder if white trash Amy is just as susceptible to corruption as her predecessor.

Oh, and Dorothy’s sidekicks have become just as terrifying; the Lion King a monster who feeds on fear that could easily have come from the mind of Guillermo del Toro; Scarcrow has become a mad inventor to rival Jonathan Crane from Batman Begins. (And probably just as insane.) Tinman is relatively sane, but only compared to Scarecrow.

Dorothy Must Die is the first in a quadrilogy (plus nine digital novella prequels, from the looks of it explaining how characters such as the Scarecrow, Lion Man and Tinman went from the aw-shucks heroes of the 1939 film to their current incarnations) and so far, very well paced. I can definitely see this having enough story to make a trilogy, so watch this space for updates as to weather or not it deserved to be a quadrilogy.

The Paris Seamstress – Natasha Lester

I’m a fan of fellow Perth girl Natasha Lester, whose recent foray into historical fiction has shown a love for vintage glamour and strong women – just my cup of tea. She didn’t disappointed with her latest offering, The Paris Seamstress. It follows the lives of two women, Estella in Paris in 1940, a dress designer whose talents are wasted in ripping off big-name French designers like Chanel for American knock-off brands.

(There’s a hilarious scene where Estella meets a woman wearing what is clearly a Chanel knock-off, though everything that made it an exquisite dress has been modified into something, well, garishly American, and the American lady is well aware of it and treats Estella with appropriate disdain for calling her out on her cheap knock-off. What can I say, I have a soft spot for truth-tellers.)

It is also told from the perspective of Estella’s grand-daughter Fabienne, as her beloved grandmother, who created the iconic Stella line, is dying, leaving more questions than answers about her life in France and America during WWII. I’m generally not a fan of this split perspective, as it tends to spoil the story – well, duh, we know now that Estella ended up a ranging success with a happy family and lots of descendants – but Lester makes it work by piquing our interest, not so much in weather or not she made a success of herself, but how she did.

After cutting things too finely with the French resistance for her mother’s liking, Estella flees to America, where she meets an array of characters, including a doppelganger, Lena, and the story’s nemesis, Henry Shaw, who may or may not be insane, but seems to have found a new hobby in destroying Estella for little more than shits and giggles. If I have one criticism, it’s that Lester tends to write her antagonists in quite a two-dimensional way. There is nothing redeemable  sympathetic about Harry, and he comes across more as a sociopath than insane, which may have been Lester’s intention. I had this issue with Fitzgerald and Her Mother’s Secret, although not so much that it seriously detracted from my enjoyment of the book. And when I guessed the parentage of a character that was central to the book in Secret quite early on, I had no idea until said parent informed Estella in Seamstress.

Lester is clearly a fan of vintage fashion (in her author talks, she bemoans the responsibilities of an author in creating authenticity and having to travel to Paris to look at clothes – some people have all the luck!) and her love of glamour and attention to detail show in her exquisite descriptions of some of the clothes, including the abovementioned example with the knockoff Chanel. Like Lester, Estella is clearly a woman who knows her work, as demonstrated in her ability to get fired from fashion house after fashion house for being too opinionated about how awful said knockoffs look. Even though I knew who she ended up with thanks to Fabienne’s narrative, I was still hooked, wanting to know how she gets from bottom-of-the-ladder, talented-but–opinionated-designer constantly getting fired for her honesty to creator of an icon fashion line, how she ended up with one man when she was clearly in love with another and how much damage Harry Shaw will ultimately do before being vanquished. A thoroughly enjoyable read and one that kept me up past my bedtime because I had to know all the answer to those questions.

The Last Mrs Parrish – Liv Constantine

The Last Mrs Parrish follows the plotting of Amber Patterson, a woman of no importance who craves wealth and privilege, and the influence that comes with it. She schemes her way into the life of Daphne Parrish, who has everything Amber wants – that wealth, privilege and influence, not to mention devoted husband Jackson.

The lengths Amber goes to in order to make herself indispensable to both Parrishes is impressive in her ambitiousness, and makes you wonder why the hell Amber didn’t just go create her own successful business, since she certainly has the motivation, ambition and persistence for it. The efforts she goes to in creating plausible lies and twisting herself into pretzels to be the kind of person Daphne, and then Jackson, want could just have easily been invested in more productive pursuits that could have accomplished the same goals. I guess some people are just born rotten.

What makes The Last Mrs Parrish so intriguing is that halfway through, it switches to Daphne’s perspective, and everything we thought we knew from Amber’s perspective (admittedly, she’s not the most reliable of narratives) is blown out the water. This is a short review as I don’t want to give too much away, although the ending was highly satisfying. Let’s just say that everyone gets what they deserve… although most of the main cast don’t believe they deserved it.

The Travelling Cat Chronicles – Hiro Arikawa

Something tells me I’m going to like my new bookclub, having suggested Jane Harper’s Forces of Nature as well as this month’s offering, The Travelling Cat Chronicles (translated into English from its original Japanese). An enchanting book, it follows the travels of Nana, a stray cat adopted by Satoru. The novel is told from the perspective of Nana, a strong, wise, insightful cat who understands humanspeak and dogspeak as an absolute minimum of his linguistic abilities. Nana and Satoru are happy for a few years before Satoru takes them on a road trip, attempting to find a new home for Nana that never quite works out. Nana is Satoru’s and Satoru is Nana’s, a state of being as strong as any force of nature, like the waves of the sea that so frighten Nana at one point.

The story is peppered with Nana’s impressions of life, from the silver car bonnet he loves so much (always warm, even in winter – and this is a Japanese winter, not a Perth winter!) to the abovementioned ferocity of the sea. He is witty and insightful, stripping away any of humanity’s pretensions as well as our collective inability to say what we mean. He is honest about his nature as a hunter, and his descriptions of hunting birds, mice and cockroaches (anything smaller than him not fast enough to get away, really) feel oddly noble, as if he were more panther than stray cat. And I rather enjoyed his frank assertions of humanity’s hypocrisy when it comes to killing things.

Much like The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, part of what makes this book such an engaging read is the element of loss and tragedy in it, reminding us that love is love because of these things.

Force of Nature – Jane Harper

It’s difficult to write a novel where none of the characters are unlikeable, an yet the story is still engaging enough that you’re hanging on til the end. The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas was one such novel, and I was pleasantly surprise (after I was done loathing the characters) to discover another Australian author capable of such a feat.

Harper’s The Dry established Federal Detective Aaron Falk via his hometown in rural Australia, his history, his motivations, his demons. The books do not need to be read in order, but I would recommend it as Force of Nature makes passing references to the events if The Dry that help flesh out Falk.

The main story evolves around five women, all employees of BaileyTennant, a family accounting firm. Alice, Lauren, twins Beth and Bree and family member Jill Bailey all go into the woods in a team-building exercise for the ‘troubled’ employees; all but Alice come out, and all significantly worse for wear.

Naturally, sending ill-equipped staff who are already on tenterhooks out into the Australian bush goes about as well as you would expect it to, with basic mistakes being made from people who have limited-to-no experience in bushcraft. You know it’s not going to end well, and it speaks as much about BaileyTennant and its management as it does about the psyches of the five main women, none of women are particularly likeable. Beth, a recovering addict with a black mark that needs to be legally declared against her name is the immediate stand-out, although as time goes by, a lot of the shine goes off Bree, although I did find myself sympathising a little with her in terms of the forced interactions working with her sister engineered. It seemed incredibly problematic to have hired Beth, given her history with her sister (Bree was there first, the idea being that her stellar performance was a good idea to get a literal clone of her) and I wonder if this was an oversight of Harper’s or an intentional plot point, intended to demonstrate the poor management going on at BaileyTennant.

As the book goes on, it becomes clear that Jill, the so-called ‘team leader’ is ill equipped to handle the situation, either as a company boss or someone who can take control of a situation as things deteriorate. Alice quickly takes advantage of Jill’s poor leadership skills, although Alice herself lacks them; more aggressive than assertive, domineering than actually productive. Her actions are consistently selfish, using up resources for her own gain so when they’re actually needed, they’ve been used up.

The book switches back and forth between the women’s trials in the woods and the search and rescue efforts a few days later when four women have come back and Falk is on the case. Falk explores the antagonistic relationship Alice had between the four women, who all had a reason to, well… not exactly be sorry if something happened to her. As the book goes on, we see that all four women are deeply flawed, unlikeable even, although Alice and Beth are the initial contenders for ‘bad guy’. All five women bring a truckload of issues to what is a challenging situation to begin with, and all of them contribute to the terrifying circumstances they find themselves in, and worse, an utter lack of acknowledgement or remorse as to the havoc their actions have wreaked.

As I said earlier, it’s difficult to write a novel where all the main characters are unlikeable (this was a bookclub pick, and when discussing it with another member, she said she ‘had kinda hoped they would all die in the woods’.) And yet, I devoured it, wanting to know what happened and the consequences of five women who were weak or aggressive but never strong. The Dry was an engaging read and I had no idea who dunnit til they were named, but Force of Nature showed a sophomoric maturing of Harper as a writer, and an instalment I would highly recommend.

Behind Her Eyes – Sarah Pinborough

Wow, what a twisty ride!

Louise is a single mum stuck in a rut who goes out to a bar one night and meets a man, David. Sparks fly, they fool around, and ooops, turns out he’s her new, married boss. She then manages to become friends with David’s wife, Adele, while getting more deeply involved with David. You just know it’s not going to end well, and it’s hard to decide who you dislike more – the controlling David, the clingy Adele or the homewrecking Louise. All broad characterisations, of course, but no-one is hugely likeable, although I could sympathise with Louise, as a single mother whose baby daddy was disinterested in providing much maintenance. ‘The other woman’ trope doesn’t play well with me – both morally and because I don’t understand why women keep thinking it’s going to work out well for them – and Behind Her Eyes only does above average in that regard.

But…

The plot twists as Louise investigates first David’s and then Adele’s behaviour are edge-of-your-seat stuff, and just when you’ve worked out who is the good guy and who is the bad guy (relatively speaking – these are all nuanced, and deeply flawed characters) BAM, Pinborough hits you with the ending. One of the best twist endings I have read in the book and one that had me thinking about for days.

I’ve put this in ‘Family Issues’ because it’s centred about David and Adele’s marriage and Louise’s involvement with both of them, as well as her son, and I created a new ‘Thriller’ category. But this book really feels like it defies categorising.

The Boleyn King – Laura Anderson

The Boleyn King works on a basic premise: what if Anne Boleyn had a son? In 1536, after having given birth to a healthy daughter, Elizabeth, as well as having miscarried a son, Anne finally gives birth to a healthy baby boy. Christened Henry IX, but going by the name William, the book cuts forward to his seventeenth year, where he chastens under the wardship of his uncle Rochford (aka George Boleyn) and looks forward to ruling on his own as an adult. His father died when he was ten years old (around the same time Henry VII actually died) and the political landscape is vastly different. The Boleyns hold power through Anne’s marriage to Henry, and then through kinship to William, similar to the Woodvilles a century before. Though not as bitterly resented as the Woodvilles, Anne’s reputation as a homewrecker has never completely gone away, the Boleyns haven’t secure power as much as they would like, rumours still swirl about William’s parentage, and the monarchy has never been particularly stable.

Enter Minuette, a ward of Anne’s a central to the story. On rereading, I would have liked to see the book focus more on Henry’s three children – Mary, Elizabeth and William and the change’s William’s existence made to history as we know it – rather than Minuette’s life and the havoc her existence would cause via a love triangle. Still, that love triangle plays a major part in William’s characterisation, namely, that he inherited the best of his parent’s personality traits (their intellect, sensuality and drive) as well as the worst (entitlement, greed and cruelty).

Anne Boleyn is very much a secondary character, and Anderson’s interpretation of an Anne who enjoyed over a decade with Henry and then another decade as Dowager Queen and William’s mother and confidante, is quite a bland character compared to what we have learned of her from history books. Perhaps having secured her position by having a son, Anne mellowed somewhat? This is certainly Anderson’s take, although at one point in the book Minuette muses that, for all the friction that existed between two such strong-willed people as Anne and Henry, she had been much happier with such a man than she would have been with a less domineering one.

I would have liked to have seen more of Mary, who is somewhat sidelined to a religious extremist character, and on the rare occasion she shows up to court, she is pious and dull. Her antics off-page are far more interesting to when she comes to court. Nonetheless, it was interesting that she never backed down from her conviction that William did not have as good a claim as she did because her father had no claim to divorce her mother and marry Anne, an action that he never rectified after Catherine’s death. (In real-life, Henry married Jane Seymour after Catherine’s death, so there was no contention about the legitimacy of the marriage, or Edward’s claim to the throne.)

(Jane Grey is still around; she gets one mention as the potential bride of Guildford Dudley. I want to see Anderson and Alison Weir write that novel!)

The Boleyn King is part of a trilogy, followed by another trilogy that chronicles the life of William’s heir. To me, it was fairly obvious who William’s heir would be, although I won’t spoil it here. The further on in the six books it gets, the more implausible it gets (book four starts off with William’s heir having married, produced an heir and divorced because they no longer felt the love with their spouse – a very modern attitude, and one I don’t think would have flown in the sixteenth century). Nonetheless, The Boleyn King is a very interesting hypothetical about how much things would have changed had Anne Boleyn had born a son… and how much they would have stayed the same.

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane – Kate DiCamillo

What an utterly enchanting novel – there are clear comparisons to be made with Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit, although I am getting somewhat ahead of myself.

Edward Tulane is a china rabbit, well made, belonging to a spoilt-but-loving young girl, Abilene. He is self-aware, but non-sentient, so he is able to think and feel but not move of his own accord. Under Abilene’s care, he is a vain, self-absorbed creature, quick to judge ‘lesser’ toys such as dolls, not to mention the maid who doesn’t treat him with the dignity he deserve. Tragedy strikes, and he ends up being swept overboard one day, and so begins the miraculous journey that takes him full circle.

Edward spends years, and then decades, going from owner to owner (the word falls drastically short of doing justice to the relationship he has with them) including a fisherman, a hobo and a dirt-poor brother and sister, the latter of whom is terminally ill. Throughout the course of the book, he becomes more aware of others and, most notably , what it is to love – as well as to feel loss and grief. Though he remains unable to move of his own accord, he becomes more aware of the stories and lives of others, and I was totally drawn into the other character’s proclamations that it seemed as though Edward was listening and could hear, and understand, every word.

This is where the comparisons to The Velveteen Rabbit come in. Frankly, if DiCamillo were to say she hadn’t been influence by Williams, I wouldn’t believe her. But that’s not to say this is a rip-off of the earlier classic; rather, DiCamillo has taken the concepts of a child’s toy being self-aware and created her own story which is just as touching as Williams – and far more heartbreaking.

I’ll admit, I shed a tear or two at the end, something I didn’t do with Velveteen Rabbit. DiCamillo goes much further than Williams ever did with covering the grief and loss elements of what it is to love, and my heart broke for this fictional, china rabbit every time he lost someone. It has a happy ending, and I believe the ending would not have worked had Edward not endured the loss and heartbreak he did. But because of this, I would put it at a slightly higher reading level than Velveteen Rabbit. But like Rabbit, it is an enchanting story about what it is to be human, to care, to love and be loved – as well as to feel loss, grief and heartache.

The Extraordinary Life of Rebecca West – Lorna Gibb

Lorna Gibb’s biography The Extraordinary Life of Rebecca West is a fascinating portrayal of one of the world’s earliest feminist icons (excluding the outliers such as Eleanor of Aquitaine). Of course, I was familiar with who West was – particularly with the quote about doormats and prostitutes that she has been credited with – but Gibb’s account fleshed out a woman who was equal parts flawed and fascinating. But then, name me a sociopolitical icon who isn’t.

I was completely unaware of West’s relationship with (the married) HG Wells. This relationship – and the son that came from it, Anthony, the only child she would have – was a huge influence in her life. Reading about it in 2017 is both cringeworthy and hearthbreaking, to read of a woman whose life was largely put on hold for a married man who had no real intention of leaving his wife; even after Amy died, there was no serious interest formalizing his relationship with West, though he was happy to enjoy the benefits such a relationship brought him. It’s easy to see how such a relationship would have been so formative in the evolution of her thoughts and as a writer. I found it frustrating that West set such a stock by him, although she was hardly the first woman – even the first feminist icon (Ms Shelly, I’m looking at you) – to do so.

On reflection, the biography focuses largely on her domestic life and how it influenced her as a writer, although I think that’s true of a lot of figures; to bring up another feminist icon, reading Daddy, We Hardly Knew You gave me a much deeper understanding of Germaine Greer and what had motivated her own writing, and upon reading of Marx’s parasitical upbringing and lifestyle, it’s easier to see how he came up with the Communist Manfesto.

I have to admit, I am unfamiliar with West’s work – beyond the prostitutes and doormats quote which may or may not have been hers – but reading this book made me want to explore her ideas further. She lived well into her nineties – her son only outlived her by a few years – and faced a lot of rough times, some of her own doing, some as a result of the society she lived in at the time. It’s a shame she isn’t as well known as Wells, because it seems she contributed as least as many great ideas to our society as her more famous lover.