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review 2018-11-13 20:16
A powerful and poignant drama recommended to book clubs
The Swooping Magpie - Liza Perrat

I write this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team (author, check here if you are interested in getting your book reviewed) and was provided with an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

This is the fifth of Liza Perrat’s novels I read, so you won’t be surprised to hear that I am a fan. I have read her historical novels in The Bone Angel Series, and also The Silent Kookaburra, set, like this novel, in the 1970s. It seems that the author intends to write a new series of independent novels, set in Australia in the 1970s, reflecting the everyday lives and realities of women in the period, and this is the second one. All of the author’s novels have female protagonists and closely explore their subjectivities and how they adapt to their social circumstances in the different historical periods. They might be fictional but the pay close attention to details and are the result of careful research.

Here, the main character is Lindsay Townsend, who narrates the story in the first person, in three different time periods, the early 1970s, the early 1990s, and the final fragment, set in 2013. The first part, and the longest shows us, Lindsay, when she is about to become 16. She is (at least on the surface), a very confident girl, clever, pretty, with plenty of money, from a good family, although not all is at it seems. She seems to lead a charmed life, but her home life is rather sad, with a violent father more interested in keeping up appearances than in looking after his wife and daughter, and a mother hooked on pills and spending as much time as possible out of the house on her charity work. Despite all that, Lindsay is not a particularly sympathetic character, and I know that might be a problem for readers who are not that keen on first-person narratives, as placing you in the skin of a character you don’t like might make for an uncomfortable reading experience, even if it is for a very good reason. She is a typical teenager, overconfident, and a bit of a bully, showing no sympathy for anybody’s circumstances at the beginning of the book. She dismisses her peers, feeling superior to all of them, and, as usual at that age, she believes she knows better than anybody and is invincible. That lands her in a lot of trouble, as she falls for one of the teachers, with consequences that readers might guess but that, at the time, don’t cross her mind. At a time when society was far less tolerant of alternative families, and women’s liberation had not taken hold, Lindsay is faced with an impossible decision and is suddenly confronted with a reality miles away from her everyday life. Her intelligence (unfortunately not accompanied by common sense) and her stubbornness don’t provide her with any answers when confronted with a teenage pregnancy. Faced with hard work, and thrown in the middle of a group of girls from different walks of life and social classes, she discovers what she is really made off and learns a very bitter lesson.

Although Lindsay herself is not likeable, especially at the beginning of the story, when she goes to St. Mary’s we learn about the varied experiences of other girls in her same circumstances and it is impossible not to feel touched and care for them. We have girls from the rural outback, abused by relatives, others who are the children of immigrant families who have no means to look after their babies, and with Downey, the little aboriginal girl whose story is, perhaps, the most heart-wrenching because she is a child herself, we get a representation of the scale of the problem (and a pointed reminder of the aboriginal experience in Australia). This was not something that only happened to girls of a certain social class or ethnic origin. It happened to everybody.  Through the different timelines, we get to follow the historic and social changes that took place, how laws affected adopted children and their biological parents, and we also get a picture of the ongoing effect those events had on those women, the children, and their families. We have women who never want to learn what happened to their babies, others who try but cannot get any information, others who get reunited with their children many years later, some who suffer ongoing negative consequences from their experiences, whilst others manage to create new lives for themselves. But the wound of the loss is always present.

The author deals with the tragic topic skilfully. If at times some of the scenes seem to have come out of a horrific version of a fairy tale (there are characters who are like evil witches, and Lindsay and her friends confront tasks that would put Cinderella to shame), and the degree of corruption and conspiracy stretches the imagination, we only need to read the news and listen to personal accounts of women who have been in such situation to realise that, whatever the concessions to fiction, the writer has done her research and has managed to capture the thoughts and feelings of the many women affected by this issue.

The action is set in Australia, mostly in Wollongong, New South Wales, with some events taking place in Sidney and other areas of the country. I have always admired the author’s talent for recreating the locations of her stories and for making us experience them with all of our senses, submerging us in the smells, the sounds, the tastes (I don’t know some of the foods and labels included, but they do add to the feel of authenticity), the flora and fauna, the clothing, the music, and the language of the time. Although forced adoptions are a widespread problem and it has affected a number of other countries (we might not know its full scale yet), the realistic location (and the family connection and research the author refers to in the author’s note at the back of the book) makes it more immediate and real still.

The story is extremely well-written, with enough description, both of the place and of the period, to ground the action without making it drag, but although it manages to combine action and surprises with reflective passages, the strongest point of the novel is its exploration of the psychological effects of losing a child, especially in those circumstances. The author manages to capture the thoughts and feelings of the character and through her conversations; we also get some insight into the experiences of others. In the first part of the book we have a young girl, and we get to share her thought process, her hesitations, doubts, and we feel trapped with her by a situation she is not in control of, and even though we might not have much in common with her, we do empathise and get to see things from her point of view. We do suffer with her and her friends, and although we might not like everything she says or does, we appreciate her kindness and the way she gets to bond with the other girls at St. Mary’s. Lindsay lives through much heartache, and grows and changes as a result, but people reading this book need to be aware that there are disturbing scenes and the topic of adoptions and depression might hit close home for many.

This is another great novel and although it can be read simply as fiction, I would recommend it in particular to readers interested in adoptions, particularly forced adoptions, and the perspectives of the families involved. I think it would make for a great book club choice, as the subject is one that will interest many readers, and it will bring much discussion, and the author includes a detailed list of some of the resources she has used to research the topic, providing extra material for those interested. Personally, I felt more empathy for other characters than for Lindsay, but no matter how much or how little we like each individual who went through such experiences, this novel will give readers pause and make them reflect upon the horrors that have been enforced in the recent past in the name of morality and decency. A powerful and poignant novel, to add to the catalogue of an accomplished and talented writer.

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review 2018-08-15 02:35
My Magical Palace - DNF @ 30%
My Magical Palace - Mugdha Sadhwani,Samaresh,Kunal Mukherjee

This wasn't badly written. It just wasn't holding my attention. 

 

The storytelling device used just didn't work for me, for starters. The bulk of this book is Rahul telling his partner about growing up in India and how homophobic and traditional his family and everyone else around him was. The thing is I would have expected this conversation to have already happened since the characters had already been together for awhile at the start of the book. The trigger event for Rahul finally telling his story was ... overly dramatic, or at least it felt that way since we don't know this couple, and it was the first time this situation - Rahul's parents wanting him to meet a daughter of a friend to a possible arranged marriage - has come up, I thought Rahul's partner kind of flew off the handle. Especially since it's hardly like India has the monopoly on treating gays terribly, especially for the time period the flashback story is based in, which is the early 1970s.

 

As for the flashback story - can it be a flashback when it's the bulk of the story? - was very rambling and while it was nice to read about different customs and such, I just finally wanted Rahul to get to the point already. The writing is also very simple, which wasn't helping it any. It just wasn't hooking me in, to the point that I could put it down for several days and not think of it once. I was already skimming by around 25%, and I finally just skipped all the way to end to find out what the moral of the story was, and it was ... be true to yourself! Awwww!

 

There are good bones here, but it needs editing to tighten it up, and something to make me care about the present day stuff.

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review 2018-04-25 02:38
Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood (Audiobook)
Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood - Trevor Noah

Trevor Noah narrates his own autobiography with humor and passion. Even when he's describing things as crippling as apartheid, racism, and domestic abuse, he's able to relate the events in a way that not only educates the listener about the horrible cruelty that crippled a country under the laws of apartheid but also allows the listener to laugh - or cry - with him at the absurdity of some of the situations. 

 

As an American, I know very little about apartheid, except that Nelson Mendela helped bring it to an end and that it made Jim Crow look like a Sunday brunch. Trevor Noah explains the ways that the South African government, ruled by the minority white population, overcame the majority black population, split them up and took the power from them. He's able to convey the lessons he learned growing up in this system - which made his very existence as a half-white/half-black child a crime - and how his mother found ways to get around the system time and time again. 

 

In a lot of ways, there are many things here that many can relate to - your first pet, feeling left out of the crowd, struggling to make ends meet - but the constant presence of apartheid and its aftermath turns those things on their head. His observations on life, people, the power of language and empathy, and the laws that surround us and shape us are astute and timely, even today. Maybe even especially today. 

 

I wasn't sure what I was going to get with this story, and didn't realize that Noah was that guy from the Daily Show until after I finished it, but I enjoyed this a great deal, which is a weird thing to say about a book filled with such heavy topics.

 

“Nelson Mandela once said, 'If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.' He was so right. When you make the effort to speak someone else's language, even if it's just basic phrases here and there, you are saying to them, 'I understand that you have a culture and identity that exists beyond me. I see you as a human being.”

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review 2018-02-18 13:50
A Little Light Charming...
The Penguin Lessons: A True Story - Tom Michell

“Delightful and charming” was the cover description of this book, attributed to the Daily Mail, which to my mind is not a ringing endorsement. As adjectives go they seem….bland, like ‘inoffensive’ or ‘nice’. Still, set in the 1970’s, the author does successfully evoke a sense of other-worldliness, before technology shrunk the globe and ‘gap years’ made the pursuit of ‘adventure’ and ‘experience’ more…. ordinary. Moreover, by relating his experience of life in South America, in particular pre-Falklands conflict Argentina, there is a certain curiosity value. However, since Michell is relating time spent as a young master at an English boarding school in Buenos Aires, it does also, at times, smack of rather dated colonialism at work.


Undoubtedly what saves the book are the antics of a Magellan penguin, named Juan Salgado, which/whom the author rescues from an oil slick washed up on a beach at Punta del Este. This, we discover, is on the Uruguayan side of the mighty River Plate (Rio de la Plata) and so one of the funniest anecdotes tells the tale of the necessary border crossing. Of course, we humans seem to have a universal soft-spot for penguins, they are after all inherently funny in their permanent tuxedo get-up. Still, the experience also sealed the perception, among the locals, of Michell as another eccentric Englishman abroad.


Though the relationship the author builds with his feathered friend is quite touching, I couldn’t quite shake off a sense of déjá vu and then I recalled the 1960 novel “Ring of Bright Water”, in which the author (Gavin Maxwell) described how he brought an otter from Iraq and raised it in Scotland. Different species, different continent but the crux of the story is similar, man’s capacity for connecting with the wild and a means of lubricating the wheels of human interactions. A pleasant read, perhaps sometimes such light relief can be just what’s needed.

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review 2018-02-09 15:14
A wonderful memorial full of humour, pathos, and incredible cover art.
Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of '70s and '80s Horror Fiction - Grady Hendrix

Thanks to NetGalley and to Quirk Books for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

I love horror novels (and movies) although I don’t read the genre often enough (I’m not sure why, but as I review books that are submitted to some review blogs and to my own, perhaps horror authors don’t submit to these kinds of blogs and look for specialised reviewers). I have read several enthusiastic reviews of this book by some book reviewers who regularly read and review horror and I could not resist. It came very highly recommended, and it deserves all the praise.

I have not read any of the other books written by the author (and he writes fiction in the genre) but now I must admit I’m very curious. And, his collaborator, Will Errickson, has a wonderful blog that also talks about the genre (and includes plenty of cover art), that you must check: http://toomuchhorrorfiction.blogspot.co.uk/

This book is a labour of love. Of love for the genre and for a particularly fertile period of the genre (and the book follows the chronological rise and fall of those paperbacks, including brief histories of the most prolific writers, publishing companies, and subgenres) and for the cover art that is an intrinsic part of it. Although I got an ARC e-copy of the book, the many covers included in the book are gorgeous (yes, and many disgusting, disgustingly gorgeous or gorgeously disgusting) although you might recoil at some of them (but yes, many are glorious, daring, and incredibly imaginative). There is plenty of research behind the book, as the detailed credits at the back show, and the end note and acknowledgments explain, at least in part, what the process of creation of the book involved.

The book contains large doses of humour (it is difficult to talk about the plots and characters we find in some of the books without it) but it also cares deeply for the subject and there is a great underlying respect for the books, even for some whose descriptions makes one’s head spin. There is nothing too outrageous or bizarre to be included. From the better-known tomes (whose success gave rise to copycats and innumerable books trying to cash on the popular topics) like The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby to books I had never heard about, like George R. R. Martin’s Fevre Dreams or Dennis Wheatley’s The Devil Rides Out.  (I know I must read them, mea culpa).

I have been inspired by the book and I definitely must check some of these novels (I realised Richard Matheson had written I am Legend, The Legend of Hell House, and The Shrinking Man, and this last one’s film version is one of my all-time favourite sci-fi films).

Although the version I had is only an ARC copy and there might be some slight changes, I could not resist but share a few quotes:

Bears hate us, bats hate us, dogs and cats clearly hate us. Let’s face it, humans are delicious. In the eyes of the animals, we are walking pizzas, and the best thing is that we deliver ourselves.

In Brain Watch (1985), superpsychic powers are the result of splitting a doctor’s noggin into a quadruple brain, unlocking his ability to project illusion, become superstrong, and control the pigment of his skin to ensure a really great tan.

Rice gave vampires a voice. And then they wouldn’t shut up.

This is a book that I recommend to any lovers of the genre and to those who are curious about cover art and its recent evolution. Even if you don’t like horror and are not interested in reading the actual novels, this book is full of information about the paperback publishing business and how it evolved during those years (and we know that those who don’t remember the past…). 

The final words go to Will Errickson:

We can’t be certain that anyone is reading these books anymore. But we can hope. Because after all the monsters have flown away, hope is what’s left at the bottom of the box.

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