Thursday, 29 October 2015

Book Review

Hero by Belinda Crawford

(Pub: Odyssey Books, 2015)

Hero is a the debut novel of Australian author Belinda Crawford.  Crawford has created a fast paced science fiction story, set in a unique world that many adults and teens are going to love. 

The novel is set on the planet Jorn.  Humans have colonised this planet only to discover that a pollen on the planet is toxic to them.  The human population survives in cloud cities. 

Hero Regan is a young girl who is “special” – a title that she loathes. She hears voices and has been treated all her life as if she were mentally ill and in need of medicating.  Her mother keeps her away from the public and locked up on their estate with a bevy of minders. 

As a young teen, Hero objects strenuously to this and does everything in her power to make the lives of her minders miserable and escape. It helps that she is a bit of technological genius and can hack into their equivalent of computers with ease.  

When Hero finally convinces her mother to send her to school in Cumulus City, the real fun begins.  She’s not been taking her meds, the voices she hears return with a vengeance and soon her odd behaviour makes her the brunt of bullies and brings her to the attention of some very dangerous people.  Running for her life, Hero learns that she is part of an age old conspiracy begun by the founding colonists…

But I’m not going to give you spoilers!  You’ll have to read it...

In creating Hero, Crawford has tapped into a genuine teen voice.  Hero’s character, her attitudes, comments and actions make her seem real and this is one of the things that immediately stuck me about the book.  You’re not always going to like her and she has a lot to learn as the book progresses, but that’s part of making an interesting character.

Another of my favourite elements in Crawford’s novel is that of the companion / guardian animals.  The settlers have genetically modified a lot of the flora and fauna to aid their survival and the children each have their own animal companion.  Hero’s is a 600kg ruc-pard named Fink.  Fink is perfect - alternating between consoling friend and ice cream eating buddy to deadly protector.  (I want a ruc-pard!) 

Animals with such roles are something that appear repeatedly in fantasy novels and I think that dedicated fantasy fans will actually enjoy Hero even though it’s science fiction. On that note, I wouldn’t rate this as “hard” science fiction.  Crawford has made up a series of names and terminology, that I think most readers will find understandable rather than a barrier to reading. (Although having said that I do watch a lot of science fiction, rather than read it, so maybe my judgement is affected by this.)

Crawford’s writing is a perfect balance of description and action and the story set up is relatively quick and rollicks along once it gets going.  You are not going to fall asleep during long, lush, descriptive paragraphs waxing lyrical about the world she has made.  There is enough scene setting, description and atmospherics in her writing for the reader to clearly visualise the place as if it were a movie playing before them.  The action sequences - from illegal races with their companion animals, running from one group of peopel who want to kill her to another who want to capture her, to shoot outs, police chases, a AI bent on either helping them or destroying them and explosions throughout - place you right in the moment and race along holding you in the grip of this story right to the end.

The plot is not overly complicated. Thematically it deals with several deeper issues, beginning a teen’s need to experience the world, grow and make mistakes and learn on their own, the way we treat those who are designated mentally ill, the morality of a few individuals deciding the future of an entire race – individual freedoms vs the greater good.

The plot does twist and turn a little as the story progresses and leaves the reader with a final twist at the end leading on to the next book.

I’m pretty sure the wait for the next book will be worth it!

Five Stars.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Guest Feature

The Drago Tree by Isobel Blackthorn

(Pub: Odyssey Books, 2015)

The Drago Tree

Haunted by demons past and present, geologist Ann Salter seeks sanctuary on the exotic island of Lanzarote. There she meets charismatic author Richard Parry and indigenous potter Domingo and together they explore the island.

Ann’s encounters with the island’s hidden treasures becomes a journey deep inside herself as she struggles to understand who she was, who she is, and who she wants to be.

Set against a panoramic backdrop of dramatic island landscapes and Spanish colonial history, The Drago Tree is an intriguing tale of betrayal, conquest and love in all its forms.

“This beautifully constructed novel reveals the complexity we invite into our lives when we open our hearts to passion.” Robert Hillman, The Honey Thief 

Photo: Jalle F
The Machinations of Empire - Lanzarote and the Drago Tree by Isobel Blackthorn

The Drago Tree is a story of conquest, both of the protagonist, Ann, and the island of Lanzarote, a Canary Island off the Moroccan coast. Lanzarote provides a rich microcosmic example of the machinations of empire, its colonial history spanning 700 years from 1402, when Norman knight, Jean Bethencourt, claimed the island on behalf of the king of Castille.

I became fascinated with Lanzarote’s history as I worked the theme of conquest into the story of protagonist, Ann Salter, and her own tribulations. For me, Ann’s experiences were mirrored in the island’s history.  The more I worked with the theme, the more drawn I was to every single detail of it. In the end, I had a draft laden with information, the curse of every writer. Much of it was pastiche, and after I slaved away crafting nice sentences out of contemporaneous journal material written by a couple of priests, I had to cut it out of the draft.  What is left is the merest taste, as told by Ann, who reads all about the island before she arrives.

Here’s an extract that I was forced to delete:

‘In Europe, Empire’s unquenchable cupidity was sanctioned by Papal bulls, no land legitimately sovereign unless Christian. Ann’s teacher, Mr Badcock, was fond of telling his class of mostly disinterested teenagers that there is no greater evil on earth than in those who do evil in the name of good, especially when that good is God. Empire justifies its actions and righteous claims through adversary. No better adversary than another Empire. Ann wondered now how Mr Badcock managed to hold onto his job.

After colonial conquest, the biggest threat to beleaguered Lanzarote came from Algiers and Sale. Renegades from both cities were fuelled by a collective and vengeful hatred of the Spanish who were blithely conquering anywhere and everywhere they could. Ann imagined Mr Badcock, clapping his hands together with paraliptical relish.’

Photo: Jalle F

About the Author

Isobel Blackthorn was born in London and has lived in Spain, Lanzarote, (Canary Islands), and Australia. She’s been a teacher, market trader, project manager and PA to a literary agent. Isobel received her PhD in Social Ecology in 2006. She now lives in rural New South Wales where she follows her passions for social justice, philosophy, current affairs, books and art.

Isobel is the author of a collection of short stories, All Because of You (Ginninderra Press), and the novel, Asylum (Odyssey Books). Her writing has appeared in e-journals in Australia and the US. Her second novel, The Drago Tree, was released by Odyssey books on 1 October 2015.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Book Review

Know Your Enemy by Tasman Anderson

(Pub: Odyssey Books, 2015)

**I was provided with an ARC copy of this in exhange for an honest review**

This could be a hit with teens.  It has everything – action, adventure, high crime, the mob, a brooding bad boy, an intelligent (somewhat naive) heroine, a bunch of high school kids who have no idea what they’re in for.  It’s a recipe for madness – teens will probably think the best kind of madness.

I usually only read YA books that are epic, urban or paranormal fantasy, so reviewing this was a bit outside my comfort zone.  It’s set in the present day in what is meant to be a dead end town.  I really wasn’t sure if I’d like it, but by the end I found I enjoyed it and I can categorically say that most teen readers will love it.

The novel centres around Nicole who is finishing High School and dreaming of studying journalism at Murdoch University.  She is the smart girl – the good girl. Yet through a series of stupid choices, in order to fit in, winds up involved in criminal activities, which have dire consequences. Her life is irrevocably altered.

Anderson’s writing has a hint of Aussie vernacular but not so much that it won’t appeal internationally.  She has created a unique teen voice within Know Your Enemy.  I found the dialogue and character creation to be realistic, so much so that at times I found myself almost yelling at main character as I read- “Don’t be an idiot.” (This had about as much effect as saying the same thing to my teen nieces – nada.)

The set up for the major events is relatively quick, which is good. However,  I did initially find Nicole’s foray into crime to be a little too puerile for her age, but perhaps it’s appropriate given her character at this point has never done a thing wrong and this is her first attempt at being “badass.” The love interest in the novel is the mysterious Aiden.  I did think his character could have been developed a little more and a tiny more back history between Nic and Aiden woven in. 

What I did like is that the bad boy isn’t “transformed” by Nic’s love into a shining hero. He has his own twisted sense of morality and remains largely unrepentant for his actions.  Bravo to Anderson for not succumbing to the usual tripe of bad boy turns good.  (There are some good life lessons here – poor choices, lives altered irrevocably and “No, you won’t change him - leopards don’t change their spots, fall for the bad dude and you’ve got to be prepared for the consequences”– sheesh I’m feeling old!) 

Once you reach the car stealing sections of the book the pace ramps up and things go from bad to worse very quickly. (They still made poor choices and I still yelled at them though.)  This action packed section won me over. The ending was a little anti-climactic for me, but it does leave the story line open for another adventure.

You can tell by reading this that I became quite involved with the characters, despite the fact that the story wasn’t what I would usually choose.  That is a testament to Anderson’s writing and characters.  Sometimes the teen "voice" was just too real for me.

I think tween and YA teen readers are going to thoroughly enjoy this book.

Four stars.

Friday, 9 October 2015

Book Review

The Beast's Garden by Kate Forsyth

(Pub: Random House, 2015)

**I was provided with an ARC copy of this in exhange for an honest review**

This was the first Kate Forsyth novel that I’ve read (I should probably hang my head in shame at that) and I had high hopes for The Beast’s Garden.  Perhaps it was going into the novel with such high hopes that ultimately lead to my disappointment with it.  While there was much I enjoyed, I wasn’t completely engaged by it. 

I’m someone who loves fairy tale re-tellings – so why didn’t I fall head over heels for this? 

The relationship development between the Leo and Ava is limited.  They almost fall in love instantly – not quiet but almost.  Ava is young, just finishing school, when she meets Leo. She is courageous and innocent.  However, there were odd little phrases used to describe her feelings for him that jarred with me as being too puerile. They marry out of necessity, though the mutual attraction is there.  Once they were married, it seemed the relationship development within the novel took a back seat to the rest of the story.
I sometimes felt the novel was trying to do too much in one book and perhaps this is why the relationship aspect of the story became secondary to the other plot arcs.  However, those arcs are great and the secondary characters are wonderful - I loved them.  Not all Forsyth’s Germans are evil – many do what they can to work against the Nazi regime.  Forsyth’s research is excellent and she interweaves heart rending stories covering the variety of atrocities committed by the Nazi’s.

The writing is of course excellent and there is wonderful use of musical imagery in Ava’s POV to describe events around her.

However, it wasn’t until the end of the novel, during Ava’s rescue of Leo, where the writing actually got me turning the pages rapidly - so much so that I didn’t care about the feasibility of the rescue.

Was it a good read – yes?  Could it have been more – yes?

3 Stars

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Film Review



Directed by Justin Kurzel, Produced by Iain Canning, Emile Sherman, 

Laura Hastings-Smith

Screenplay by Todd Louiso, Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie

Starring: Michael Fassenbender, Marion Cotillard, David Thewlis, Sean Harris, Elizabeth Debicki, Jack Reynor, Paddy Considine

I had high hopes for this version of Macbeth as I'm a fan of actors Michael Fassenbender and Marion Cotllard. 

I've also seen many film adaptations of Macbeth and sadly this does not rank up there amongst my favourites.   I liked a great deal about this interpretation, but it was the performance of the lead actors that didn't appeal to me. 

Macbeth opens with the funeral of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth's child.  (The child is alluded to in Lady Macbeth's speech later in the play.)  I liked the idea of opening with this and the portrayal of their grief. It placed emphasis on an aspect of their relationship that other versions have not. 

Perhaps this emphasis is to make them appear as a couple mired in grief which contributes to their disastrous series of choices. Other reviewers have suggested that Macbeth is portrayed as a man who is suffering post traumatic stress due to constant brutal combat and this accounts for many of his actions.  Fassenbender's performance does lend some credence to this theory, but this did not alter my appreciation of their performances.

There were some minor deviations from the play, particularly regarding Malcolm, but they worked well in terms of giving a different emphasis to Macbeth's actions, and backed the notion of a PTSD affected Macbeth. The supernatural elements of the play are woven interestingly through this film and I loved this version of the witches.

The whole film has a suitably grim, dark, austere and primitive atmosphere, from the colour through to the landscape and sets.  All this worked, perhaps too well.

Fassenbender and Cotillard both seem, for the most part, to remain locked so firmly into the grimness that they exhibit only a couple of facial expression throughout. Lady Macbeth's speech were she says -

"Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,"

- is one which should be filled with passion, yet in this film it is not.  Nor is Macbeth's speech where he is supposed to agonise over whether to kill Duncan. 

As the film progresses, we do see glimpses of what could have been.  Cotillard is wonderful when Macduff's family are being murdered and when she "sleep" walks and exposes her guilty conscience.

From the death of Lady Macbeth onwards, Fassenbender's performance improves greatly and we start to see the passion, conflict and fatalistic resolution within Macbeth's character. 

I loved the final scene.

Two out five stars.