Review: Jack Jordan – Before Her Eyes

Before Her Eyes
Jack Jordan

Naomi Hannah has been blind since birth, abandoned in a bus shelter and brought up in a loving family. She’s always felt alone, but at least safe in her little town. When she stumbles across a body in an alley, and the murderer caresses her, it starts a chain of reactions that steadily get more sinister. Who is leaving her alive at each crime scene, and why?

This novel put the creepy factor up high right from the beginning and it only got worse (or better?)! This is a true psychological thriller that caused me to shiver and make sure I had a good grip on myself (and my stomach). Some of the passages when Naomi were alone almost took my breath away.

Oh, the ending was perfect! I read the novel at a frantic pace for about two hours straight, holding out for an ending that would be satisfying and amazing. And it was everything I could have hoped for. Even possibly more than I could have hoped for. Go read it for yourself already!

This could have simply been a thriller and I would have enjoyed it, but having a disabled, black woman as the protagonist warmed this novel up from another run of the mill (but very good) crime novel to a great one with a diverse range of characters. Her unique perspective put me literally into her shoes. However, I could have had more insight into Lisa as the eventual explanation of her character didn’t exactly ring true for me.

Having finished the novel I can say that it was a totally engrossing read. Since I’ve read it, and I know the thrilling ending now I don’t think I’d reread it. But I think that if you’re a psychological thriller lover you are going to really enjoy this novel. 4 stars from me.

Allen & Unwin | 12th September 2018 | AU$29.99 | paperback

Review: Geek Ink

Geek Ink

The World’s Smartest Tattoos for Rebels, Nerds, Scientists and Intellectuals! People don’t think of tattoo artists as ‘true’ artists, but it takes significant technique to do this level of detail on a living target.

It’s very difficult to review a book that is filled with images – you just need to see them for yourself. For example, there is an Escher tattoo and some visual puzzles that if the artist had gotten a tiny bit wrong, it would have been wreaked. There’s a kitten and a dinosaur, and you better believe every hair on that kitten is visible.

Some reviewers complain that not all of the tattoos are geeky, especially the plant and animal ones. Clearly, they have never met a scientist passionate about their work! I used to work with mosquitoes, and I can tell you that some of the people in my lab would KILL to get an ultra-realistic mozzie of this quality.

Speaking of killing, you’d probably have to kill someone if you wanted to get a tattoo by the 25 featured artists in the first half of the book. Some tattoos are weird and wonderful, some are just weird! This book reminds an aspiring tattoo owner to careful pick your artist before committing to an indelible ink.

I have a single tattoo of my own, and I’ve always wanted one or two more. I’m in the position where I’d like to have my old tattoo transformed into a dragon! This book had a couple of dragon designs, and I was particularly impressed by the watercolour designs. Most people see tattoos as black line art, but there is so much more out there to be drooled over!

One of the girls I went to high school with wanted to be a tattoo artist – she was a fantastic artist as it was. I’m not sure she ever got there, but Jaz, if you’re reading this, go get it sorted! Or maybe she can look through this first and read the fascinating stories of the artists that are featured – how they got into tattooing and their favourite works and techniques.

This could be a coffee table book, a Christmas present or just something to choose a tattoo from and pass it on. I promise that you won’t believe your eyes when you look at the talent in this book.

Allen & Unwin | 21st February 2018 | AU$32.99 | hardback

Guest Post: AJ Ponder on ‘The Subversive Act of Writing’

The Subversive Act of Writing

Originally this article was going to include the idea best covered by a quote attributed to Pablo Picasso “Good artists copy; great artists steal.” The subversive act of taking ideas from other sources and making them your own. But great writers are not only thieves, they tend to be rule breakers.

We all know some rules are made to be broken, because they were poorly thought out in the first place, but many great authors have overturned the window of what is acceptable in writing by figuring out when a previously sacred rule should be broken. Now I’m not one of the greats, but I do love breaking rules. The minute someone tells me one I’m already wondering how I can break it. It’s a mini act of rebellion against the fusty old English teachers who tried to teach me grammar. I revel to know they’ll be turning in their metaphorical graves the moment I start a sentence with a conjunction, or use a sentence fragment. And yet it’s something that great authors do. All the time.

Not so long ago, I was teaching a class of young writers, and some of them started telling one of the more experienced students, “Hey, you can’t do that, it’s against the rules…” Ugh. Writers have one job, and that’s to tell our story the best way we can.

There is nothing else.

That means looking at our toolbox and finding the right tools for the job – not throwing out the wrench—or in this case, the first person point of view because somebody told you to only write in tight third person. (That’s writing in third person, but tightly within the bounds of a character’s perspective.) If everyone followed that “rule” the unreliable narrator would never exist.

There are hundreds more rules writers are supposed to follow, like:

  • Don’t use passive sentences
  • Don’t use filter words
  • Don’t bore your reader
  • Show don’t tell
  • Have a likeable character
  • Write what you know
  • Don’t use adverbs
  • Use proper spelling and grammar
  • Don’t get to the end of your story and have it all be just a dream

Every single one of them will have exceptions.

A famous example of blatant rule breaking is Iain Banks’ story Feersum Endjinn. Iain wanted to tell a story about a nearly illiterate character, so he did the unthinkable, he made his readers wade through pages of phonetic writing. And it worked. Even though many people really hated the book because of this choice, I believe it was the best way of presenting that character.

Instead of wading through examples, which you can look up with the magic of the internet, I thought you might enjoy a quick writing exercise.

Choose a writing rule that you would never, ever break. (It doesn’t need to be from the list above.) Take a moment to mull over why the rule is so important.

Now, what would it take for you break to that rule? Can you think of a story, or a paragraph, in which the rule must be broken to truly work?

Once you’ve done this exercise—or if you’ve already done a variation of it—you have become a subversive writer. You’ve looked at the world, broken down its rules and taken another path. A path less travelled. Do not be surprised if you start to see the world differently. The rules you live with every day may start to seem poorly thought out, or even designed to oppress certain people.

One of my favourite authors, Ursula K. Le Guin said, “There is no more subversive act than the act of writing from a woman’s experience of life using a woman’s judgment.” I would expand that to include any person who has truly thought about rules, and how they should be broken to make something better.

So go on, break some rules—be subversive with your writing. It’s a lot of fun. And it’s freeing. If you check out my blurb for Quest, it’s pretty clear I’ve broken at least three popular rules, and that’s without knowing that it has in fact been written by an unreliable narrator. Seriously, unreliable narrators may be tricky, but they are the most fun.

Or, now that you know how subversive writing really is, don’t break any rules. What do I know about your story? When it comes to writing, there’s only one rule that I consider unbreakable: Tell your story the best way you can!

About A.J. Ponder

Sir Julius Vogel and NZSA award winning author, A.J. Ponder has a head full of monsters, and recklessly spills them out onto the written page. Beware dragons, dreadbeasts, taniwha, and small children—all are equally dangerous, and capable of treading on your heart – or tearing it, still beating, from your chest.

Blurb: Quest

Sylvalla escapes Avondale castle, and the life of a princess, in search of the adventure she’s always wanted.

Once found, adventure bites back.

Fortunately Sylvalla is not alone – Unfortunately, her new-found companions are less than heroic. Jonathan would rather make money. Dirk would rather live a long and happy life. And at 150, Old Capro would rather stop gallivanting about and harangue unsuspecting students about his glory days over a nice cup of tea.

Quest has everything, heroes, monsters, chases, escapes and a complete lack of true love.

Review: Rachel Caine – Ash and Quill

Ash and Quill
Rachel Caine

Jess and his friends have escaped from the Alexandrian Library’s clutches, but instead find themselves trapped in the Burner hot-spot of Philadelphia. With the Library, the Burners and Jess’s family to contend with will there be a clear winner despite the sacrifices to be made?

I’m not sure if I have commented on this before, but I’m not sure how I felt about the interspersed writings of the Archivist and his lackeys. Did I really learn anything new? What was their effect on the novel’s progress? (maybe these questions are left over from marking literature reviews…) Nevertheless the rest of the writing is fine and you barely realise that you are turning pages at a rapid rate.

I think maybe this novel isn’t going to be amazing for everyone, it didn’t have quite the suspense of the first two. There is only so much fantastic writing you can do around a workshop before it gets a little repetitive. That being said, Caine keeps the novel moving at a cracking pace right until the cliffhanger final chapter.

I don’t actually see the ending coming. Jess and Dario are making all these hints, and I just don’t get it! Also, I wasn’t convinced by Dario being a so-called dark thinker like Jess. The character development is not particularly convincing either, with Jess still impulsive risk taker and Scholar Wolfe the grumpy old man. But that’s fine! I’m ok with them being the same, because the action is plenty exciting.

I read this really excitedly when it arrived in the mail over a year ago, then neglected to review it. This time I reread the first two novels  Ink and Bone and Paper and Fire and then leaped into this beauty! How could I give anything about libraries or books anything less than 5 stars? I’ll be keeping this one on my shelf and waiting impatiently until I can share it with the younger readers in my life.

Allen & Unwin | 27th September 2018 | AU$16.99 | paperback

Review: Asia Mackay – Killing It

Killing It
Asia Mackay

Lex Tyler is ready to go back to work, adorable baby Gigi at her side. There’s only one small problem – her job is killing people off for Platform Eight, a division of Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Her newest assignment is to infiltrate a group of London’s elite mummies with Gigi in order to kill off a Russian patriot.

I read about half this novel while waiting for the action to begin. I’m sorry, I just don’t find it that entertaining that she forgot nipple pads, and whether breast milk has DNA in it. I continued reading after a month or two had passed and still felt underwhelmed. The ending promised to have a little more action in it, but in the end it felt rushed and unfinished. I needed significantly more shadowing throughout the novel to feel convinced about the betrayals…

The sexist language and swearing doesn’t add anything to the story, it just made me cringe in revulsion. I fully understand that being a ‘Rat’ would be dominated by men with crude language, but I’m also certain that I’d rather Lex showed a bit more restraint with her own language at home!

I really like the idea behind this novel which pokes fun at the problems women have at work after going back when they have had a baby. Lex meets them with ?style? and tries to smack preconceptions out of the boys’ heads. What could be worse than going back to killing after giving birth to a new life? This novel reminded me of The Thief of Light – the protagonist is a woman doing a man’s job better than him and paying the price for it.

I don’t understand why Lex is so relaxed about Will and Gigi being at home by themselves. If it’s so easy for her to break into houses better guarded than her own, wouldn’t she feel more anxious about hunting a Russian oligarch?

Anyway, this novel’s slow start/finish/entirety and crude conversations leads me to give it a 3 star rating. I’m certain I have read another novel similar to it, but better executed – does anyone else remember?

Allen & Unwin | 25th July 2018 | AU$29.99 | paperback

Review: Laura Purcell – The Corset

The Corset
Laura Purcell

Ruth is in prison for murder and is awaiting hanging. Dorothea is a well bred woman with a fascination for phrenology (skull physiology that predicts character traits). When Dorothea sets out to map Ruth’s skull she is forced to decide whether she believes in Ruth’s truthfulness or her own ‘scientific’ mind.

The detailed gore at the beginning of the novel was cringe worthy and my feeling was that it was unnecessary. The torture might have been intended to make things feel Gothic and gloomy, but instead I just felt revulsion. I also couldn’t work out why I should care about David and Thomas. What were the men’s purposes in this novel?

It’s such a pity. The cover of this book was such that I expected a peacock to feature. Instead this felt a little like symbolism gone wild. The corset! The corset! And in the end, is it even what she thought it was? The reader and Dotty seem to move towards believing in magic, but the ending makes you questions that – and not in a good way.

About halfway through this novel I thought to myself that the ending would make or break the novel. I didn’t know what would constitute a good ending, but I knew it needed one. The ending I received however was disappointing and unsatisfying and made no sense to me. Will she recover? Was Ruth actually hanged?

Other reviewers are saying this is historical fiction, and I’m saying it might be. But there are plenty of other sources of historical fiction that are better focused and with better endings. 2 stars from me because I finished it, but I wish I hadn’t done so because it left a bad taste in my mouth.

Bloomsbury | 1st November 2018 | AU$29.99 | paperback

Review: Lauren Chater – Well Read Cookies

Well Read Cookies
Lauren Chater

‘Beautiful biscuits inspired by great literature’. Blogger and author Lauren Chater has produced a book full of biscuits based on classic novels that have been her favorites across her life. Her mastery of writing and decorating is a true sight to behold!

The photos in this book are enough to make you drool and then go for a hunt in the freezer for a cookie (jam drop or choc chip? Yes please!). The discussion of the literature is also thoughtful and might introduce you to a couple of little known classics that might take your fancy. I only wish I was part of a book club so that I too could bake some amazing cookies in the theme of the book of the month.

I actually hate icing, because it tends to be overdone and too sweet. Icing also is usually on a biscuit that has no flavour of its own. But these cookies look really attractive with their icing and it almost makes me want to eat one. You never knew that so much detail could be put on a cookie!

Just in time for Christmas, this how-to biscuit book would make the perfect present for either someone who likes decorating, or someone who loves literature. I can see it being an excellent KK gift for someone (ok, probably a lady) who you don’t know very well. Who could turn down cookies, or refuse to admit that they hadn’t at least heard of some of the literature within?

Simon & Schuster | 1st November 2018 | AU$24.99 | hardback

Review: Kate van Hooft – We See the Stars

We See the Stars
Kate van Hooft

Simon doesn’t say much. Anything, really. He’s quiet and has to count colours in order to keep the angries in. When his new teacher shows interest in him, and he makes friends with the peculiar Cassie he begins to speak. But will he choose the right things to say?

The blurb promises that Simon will have to hunt for his teacher, but the majority of the novel is really about getting to know Simon and understand his relationship with the world. I actually really enjoyed Simon’s unique perspective. It’s exactly how I would imagine thoughts to be of a mildly autistic child (in my limited, and purely academic knowledge that is). I liked each of the small parts that came together to understand his worldview, and how he saw other people and imagined his insides reacting to different situations.

What ended up frustrating me was that there were many unresolved questions and perhaps too many character relationships. I like that it is all through Simon’s perspective and therefore it wouldn’t be appropriate to expose everything, but I would have liked to know if his mother was even still alive!

I didn’t understand the ending. Up to that point, I had been able to take all of Simon’s quirks in stride and work out what was the ‘real world’ or just fantasy. But the last couple of (negative number) chapters confused me and left me feeling incomplete and unsatisfied with this novel.

The majority of this novel deserves 4 stars for its compelling and unique reading, but the ending takes down the novel as a whole to 3 stars. Please author, please consider writing me a better ending. I didn’t find solutions to all the problems I saw. A similar novel was The Sign which had an equally disappointing ending.

Allen & Unwin | 27th July 2018 | AU$29.99 | paperback

Review: Bernard Schaffer – The Thief of Light

The Thief of Light
Bernard Schaffer

Carrie is a rookie cop determined to become a Detective. Imagine her delight when it looks like a serial killer is once again on the loose in her tiny township. Assisted by the grumpy Chief Bill Waylon and the tortured Jacob Rein, can Carrie find the killer in time?

I’m surprised they managed to catch the killer as they were so busy swearing at each other and cracking stupid jokes. I never got Carrie’s motivation for being a cop and her naivety and bright-eyed shine weren’t authentic. It seemed to me that there was a huge focus on the previous child serial killer, but I struggled to work out what the gory details really were.

It swapped unpredictably through the perspectives and I don’t get why that was useful. I didn’t get any additional insight from the Chief. The only one that was useful was from Rein, that dark tortured soul that the book’s worth rides on! Otherwise Carrie’s inauthentic babbling would have done the job.

It was tense but I lost hope early on. I fully expected more deaths to take place. 3 deaths wasn’t nearly enough. The ending was a let down. All that chasing and it turns out to be the 2nd person they tried. I expected more. I knew everyone would survive.

I just noticed that this is the first book in a series with Rein. I wouldn’t expect Rein to feature again – after all he’s lost an important appendage! I wouldn’t be averse to reading another novel by this author, I’m just not sure I can put up with Carrie being so bright and bubbly (and insensitive in her own way).

3 stars from me. If you’re looking for serial killers, try Find You in the Dark or the Kendra novels.

Penguin Random House | 20th August 2018 | AU$32.99 | paperback

Review: Christelle Dabos – A Winter’s Promise

A Winter’s Promise
Christelle Dabos

In a world that has been rent apart by a vengeful God, humans still exist on floating chucks of world – the ‘Arks’. Ophelia is from Anima, where the houses behave like their inhabitants and she can move through mirrors & read objects with a touch. Unexpectedly she is betrothed to Thorn from the Pole, a bleak icy wasteland with an implacable Court that is out to kill her.

Oh ouch! Those twists! Poor Ophelia. All I could think of was Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where the hapless Ophelia drowns herself. In comparison, this Ophelia is pretty spunky! I think she is quite brave for surviving in that toxic environment.

What else appealed to me about this novel? I enjoyed the plot line because I couldn’t predict what would happen next. That’s what’s good about this novel – it’s an entirely new world idea to me. Also I will always have a soft spot for people who can read objects.

Wow, reviewers are divided on this novel. Some label it derisive and misogynistic, others love it! I can see the opinions of both camps. To be clear, I read this novel in the English translation, and I am actually really keen to see the second novel translated. I’d even consider learning French to read it if I had no other choice.

That being said, I can certainly agree that Ophelia is mainly a pathetic creature who doesn’t stand up for herself at all. But it’s her role. Much as we all want women to stand up for themselves all the time, I don’t have a problem with a heroine that sneezes endlessly and feels lost. In a way it makes her more relatable. I look forward to some really solid character development in the second novel, otherwise I will be disappointed.

I’m giving this a 4 star review before I change my mind and give it 3 stars.

Text Publishing | 1st October 2018 | AU$22.99 | paperback