Monday, 19 September 2016

Book Review: Katherine of Aragon- The True Queen

Katherine of Aragon- The True Queen (Six Tudor Queens Book 1)
Alison Weir
Headline Publishing, 2016  (I own a copy, courtesy the publisher)

Ever since I read Philippa Gregory's novel The Constant Princess, Katherine of Aragon has been one of my most admired historical figures.  We all know some parts of the story of Henry the Eighth and his ill-fated six wives: divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.  But what we also know is that there are a lot of rumours about the time period which make for really interesting but really inaccurate dramas.  If anyone has ever seen The Tudors, that would be my case in point.

Tudor England was not just a haven of licentiousness and intrigue.  It was a highly political time, and also a time when religious belief was much more fervent than it is today.  Katherine of Aragon was sent to England to marry Arthur, Prince of Wales, who was the oldest son of the first Tudor King, Henry the VII and Queen Elizabeth of York, who was niece to the king he defeated to gain his crown-- Shakespeare's villain King Richard the third.  But not long after Katherine was wed to Arthur, he died of a sickness.  Katherine's family then planned to marry her to the second son, Henry, but political tides meant that she faced a long and uncomfortable wait before she could marry this boisterous and passionate prince who would one day be one of the most infamous kings in history.  She did eventually marry Henry but their union was not blessed with the sons which were of vital importance to securing the Tudor line.  Katherine and Henry had only one living child, a daughter who would become Queen Mary of England-- or Bloody Mary.  Henry, thanks to those at the court who would try to influence him, came to believe that the reason his marriage was not to be blessed with sons, was because his marriage to Katherine was offensive to God, citing a line from Leviticus which states that a man who marries his brother's wife will be cursed to have no living heirs.  He used this argument as the basis of his campaign to have Katherine put aside so that he could marry Anne Boleyn, and thanks to this process, he founded the Church of England with himself at the head, forcing England into a time of great religious persecution.

The history of this period is not little known, but it has been told in a myriad of ways and in varying degrees of truth, if such a thing can ever be uncovered.  It was therefore exciting to finally be hearing a version of the story told by historian, Alison Weir, who has written many factual accounts of English history, the Tudor period and the Wars of the Roses that came before it.

I enjoyed reading this massive volume immensely, but at times I did feel like the style of the storytelling, particularly in moments of exposition was a little closer to non fiction than to fiction.  This was particularly the case at the beginning of the book.  By the second part of the story I was racing along, caught up in what I was reading-- it was like revisiting an old friend.  Particularly considering so many of the more recent Philippa Gregory novels have not provided me with the excitement those early novels did, it was lovely to discover a new voice to add to this area of history I find so fascinating.  This is a long novel, but it needs to be so that you as the reader can get a real sense of how long and how hard Katherine fought to keep her conscience clear.  Though she was put aside by Henry the Eighth and ended her days in Kimbolton Castle, virtually in exile, I once read that she continued to make his shirts and to be a loyal wife to him even though he would not acknowledge her as such.  Weir makes the comment in her author's note that perhaps Katherine of Aragon is not the kind of feminist figure that we might look up to today, but for her time, she was quite remarkable.  As a woman, she had very limited influence over what happened to her, and she did what she could.  She looked up to her mother, Isabella of Castile, who was a formidable queen in her own right, and when Henry was in France waging war, it was Katherine who bolstered the forces at home to ward off invading Scots.  She was resourceful, loyal and virtuous, and if I were to be having a dinner party with any historical figures alive or dead, she would definitely get an invitation.

Katherine of Aragon is the subject of Phillipa Gregory's newest novel too, so I am reinvigorated to get my hands on a copy soon and spend more time in the Tudor period.  That should tide me over until March next year, when Goodreads tells me the next book in this series will come out, called Anne Boleyn: A King's Obsession.  

What have you been reading lately?

Monday, 5 September 2016

What Elimy Read in August

I don't know what it was about August, but almost everyone I spoke to was busy, busy, busy.  August saw me spending one entire weekend escaping into book after book to get away from all the stress of uni and work and everything in between.  Without any further ado, here is what I read in August.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by Jack Thorne, John Tiffany and JK Rowling

A lot has been said about the new 'Harry Potter' book, which isn't a book at all but a rehearsal edition of the script for the new play currently on in the UK.  There are a few problems with the play, but this came into my life at exactly the right time.  A lot of things were changing and I felt unstable-- it was just the ticket to be able to escape back into the familiar world of Harry Potter, even if some things were just a little bit off.

The Muse by Jessie Burton

I loved The Miniaturist, which came out a few years ago and told the story of an enchanted doll's house in Amsterdam in the 17th Century.  I was really looking forward to reading this follow up from Jessie Burton, who is a very talented author.  It's been a while since I read this one, but I remember enjoying it at the same time as being a little fed up with the long lost painting discovered in an old house plotline-- it's everywhere at the moment!!!  (And shows no signs of slowing down, because there's a new book by Bernard Schlink due out in November which has this plotline too!)  The two voices in this book complemented each other nicely, and I enjoyed following the story along.

The Lost Swimmer by Ann Turner

I borrowed this book from the library on a whim after seeing Ann Turner speak at the 2016 Perth Writers Festival.  Unfortunately, while I raced through this mystery, it just really didn't do anything for me.

The Windy Season by Sam Carmody

You can read my review of this book here.

Three Martini Lunch by Suzanne Rindell

The early reviews for this book said that it would do for publishing in the 1950s what Mad Men did for advertising.  I don't know about that, but I really liked reading about the journeys of the three characters in this book.  Miles, Eden and Cliff are all trying to make it in the publishing industry in New York, but it's a tough world and one mistake can end in endless tangles.  I loved The Other Typist when it came out a few years ago, and while this one was slower going, I would recommend it to anyone who loves reading about New York.

Carousel by Brendan Ritchie

What happens when four kids are shut inside Carousel shopping centre for 18 months, while outside the rest of Perth seems to have disappeared?  This debut YA novel by Perth writer/ filmmaker Brendan Ritchie explores a dystopian timeline for a quartet of young artists who must use their wits to find a way out of Perth's biggest shopping centre.

You can see me interviewing Kate McCaffrey and Brendan Ritchie this Wednesday (7th September) at Mattie Furphy House in Swanbourne.

Saving Jazz by Kate McCaffrey

An interesting counterpoint to McCaffrey's debut novel about cyber-bullying, Destroying Avalon, Saving Jazz explores what happens when you make a mistake and it goes viral on the internet.  Jasmine Lovely and her peers let their actions get a little out of hand at a party one night, and the aftershocks will disrupt Jazz's life in more ways than one.  Told in the form of a series of blog posts, this book explores the terrible night when it all went wrong, as well as the process of putting things back together.  I enjoyed this book, and it brought back fond memories of Destroying Avalon.

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

This was my book club book for the month, and actually a re-read (hooray!  I haven't been able to re-read anything for ages!)  This is the first Jackson Brodie mystery, but it's much more than a crime novel.  Kate Atkinson's prose demonstrates exactly why she is winning awards all over the place.  I loved this multi-faceted novel and it's wide-reaching cast of characters.

Bodies of Water by V H Leslie

I first heard about this novella through Jen Campbell's Youtube channel and I was excited when my local library ordered a copy in.  While the story had all the makings of an epic ghost story, unfortunately the execution just didn't match up.  This one wasn't for me.

That's all for this month! What have you been reading?  Leave me some recommendations in the comments below.

Until next month-- happy reading!

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Book review: The Windy Season by Sam Carmody

The Windy Season
Sam Carmody
Allen and Unwin, 2016 (I own a copy courtesy of the publisher)

When Elliot Darling goes missing from a small West Coast fishing town named Stark, his family face a long and uncertain wait to find out what happened to him.  Only his brother, Paul, seems to go on searching for Elliot, and this search sees Paul move to Stark.  There, he takes on work as a deckhand on his cousin's fishing boat, alongside a philosophical German named Michael.  The town itself is in decline, with families who have depended on fishing to make their livelihoods for generations now facing smaller and smaller hauls each time they go out.  At the pub each night, Paul is faced with surly, sometimes frightening men, hardened by the life in Stark.  This is a world where methamphetamine, bar fights and biker gangs are not out of the question...  Paul's coming of age against this backdrop is a plot worthy of early Tim Winton, but is written with a hopeful tone which makes The Windy Season a joy to read.

Paul is a fully-developed and original character.  It is through his interactions with people, particularly through his childhood memories of Elliot, that we begin to see a picture of his world, from his home and childhood in Cottesloe, to his conflicted feelings about his parents and particularly his father, right to the filthy and roiling deck of his cousin's boat, where Paul struggles to hold onto his stomach.  His relationship with backpacker, Kasia, reveals much about Paul's lack of experience in matters of the heart, and the lost way in which he wanders about the world without his brother to guide him.  Over the course of the book, Paul is forced to find out what kind of man he will be, if Elliot's brother is not to be the only way he will define himself.  It is not an easy journey for him to take.

The story is told through Paul's eyes, interspersed with short segments in first person, which show a gang of bikies slowly closing in on our main characters.  While I found the change of point of view from third to first person a little jarring, these segments did give some perspective on the novel and its events.  Without giving away any spoilers, I enjoyed what these interludes revealed, but I also think the novel could have worked perfectly fine if these sections were taken out.

All this aside, I devoured this book in a single sitting, hardly moving for the entire day after cracking its spine.  The writing was sharp and fresh, and it was easy to see why Carmody was shortlisted for this piece in the Australian/ Vogel award the year that the prize was won by Christine Piper for After Darkness.  If the two books are anything to judge the future of Australian writing by, we are in for exciting things indeed.

Saturday, 6 August 2016

What Elimy Read in July

July was an interesting reading month, one which saw me exploring different genres and formats.  I managed to read nine books in total, four of which were library books and one of which was an e-audiobook which I checked out using the Borrowbox program through my local library.  I was planning to make another video this month, but I just haven't felt up to it, so I figured it's best to get on with this wrap up and move on.  

The Things I Didn't Say by Kylie Fornasier

This #LoveOzYA title is about a young woman named Piper, who struggles with a condition called selective mutism.  This means that she finds it impossible to speak to anyone other than her family and closest friends.  After a big fight with her best friend Cassie, Piper changes schools and has to deal with being the 'weird' new girl.  She attracts the attention of charming golden-boy, West, and the two form a connection- all without Piper being able to say a word to him.  I enjoyed this book and it was a quick, sweet read, but at times I found the characters and their high school drama a little Americanised, even though the book is set in the NSW Blue Mountains.  I kept thinking about those early 2000s era teen movies- there's nothing wrong with those, but the depiction of Australian high school life just didn't ring true for me.  I also found the start to the book a little slow, and the build up to the big reveal about Piper's fight with her friend was all tension for no real payoff.  

Trinity by Conn Iggulden

This is the second novel in Iggulden's Wars of the Roses series and while I find the focus on military and political aspects a little hard to follow at times, I do enjoy reading about the time period.  It backs up my Philippa Gregory novel obsession nicely.  In fact, I have become so sucked into this world that I actually started working on a short story set in the Wars of the Roses this week.  Who knows if I will finish it, but that's a topic for another blog.  This novel focuses on the alliance between the Duke of York and the Earls of Salisbury and Warwick, and follows the battles of the war up until the point at which Margaret of Anjou has York's head mounted on the wall at Ludlow wearing a paper crown.  (And hey, that's not a spoiler because it really happened.)  I still don't know how I feel about Iggulden's manipulation of facts to ensure interesting characters appear at places they wouldn't have been in real life, but I really enjoy this series and I am keen to get my hands on Bloodline (book 3) and Ravenspur: Rise of the Tudors (book 4) soon.  I am taking a quick break from them for now because they take FOREVER for me to read and I really need to work on whittling down my enormous TBR pile.  

The Khufra Run by Jack Higgins

This was our book club book for this month... yeah, really.  Written under a pseudonym in the 1970s, it was the book which launched Jack Higgins' career as an action writer, and it has all the subtlety of an old James Bond film with none of the finesse.  A war-scarred Vietnam veteran and his heroin junkie friend are running a smuggling operation out of Ibiza when they fall afoul of a corrupt Algerian general.  A buck naked nun runs out in front of the protagonist's jeep and tells him about a lost treasure at the bottom of the Khufra marshes- which he must help her recover so she can donate all of it to a children's hospital.  Yeah.  Nah.  I'm not into this kind of book at all.  I was particularly annoyed by the proliferation of hot, sexually available women who all seemed to throw themselves at the protagonist whenever he met up with them.  What's the male version of a Mary Sue?  It was an interesting reading experiment, but I'm in no hurry to repeat it.  Good for a laugh at book club and not much more.  

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler

This is the third book released as part of the Hogarth Shakespeare project, whereby The Bard's plays are updated for a modern audience.  Vinegar Girl updates The Taming of the Shrew, and follows a young woman named Kate Battista, who is asked to marry her father's promising lab assistant so that he won't be deported.  It was a quick, charming read and I really enjoyed it.  If you're looking for serious depth, perhaps try a different Anne Tyler novel, but if you're after something really lovely to read in the garden on a sunny winter's day, this is it.  Plus it's got a stunning jacket, not that this should be a factor.  

Gillespie and I by Jane Harris

I picked up the recommendation for this book from a video posted by Simon of Savidge Reads.  He said something along the lines of "If you like historical fiction" you must read this book and so I immediately went searching.  It's set in Scotland around the time of the national exhibition, and follows a woman as she befriends and insinuates her way into the family of an up and coming artist named Ned Gillespie.  The narrative switches back and forth between the past and the present day (which is the 1930s for our elderly narrator) and as time goes on, we realise that perhaps she's more calculating than she seems.  This was a great recommendation, and was almost a perhaps amalgam of the increasingly popular psychological thriller ala The Girl on the Train and the historical genre I so adore.  

A Country Road, A Tree by Jo Baker

I am sure anyone who read Longbourn will have a special place in their hearts and on their bookshelves for Jo Baker.  When I found out, belatedly, that she'd had a new novel come out without much fanfare, I immediately requested a copy via my local library.  The novel follows Samuel Beckett, who would later become a great playwright, through Paris and the French countryside as he becomes involved with the resistance efforts during the second world war.  I worried that I would hate this novel, as a) I don't really understand Beckett plays (though I loved seeing Godot when Ian McKellan was in it) and b) there was no sense of whimsy to the premise the way there had been with Longbourn and The Mermaid's Child- no possibility for a magical plot twist.  However, I was so pleasantly surprised by this book.  I frequently had to stop and write down her arresting turns of phrase in my journal because the writing in this book is marvellous.  I recommend this to anyone, Beckett fan or no, and I am very keen for more from this wonderful author.  

The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler

This was the e-audiobook.  I listened to it on my drive to and from work last month.  It was nice to have a story read to me, but it's an incredibly slow way to read compared to my usual speed.  The story follows Simon, a librarian, who is sent an old, rare book by a mysterious antiquarian bookseller.  Simon begins to unravel a mystery which suggests all the women in his family-- circus mermaids and fortune tellers-- drown on a particular day in July. When his sister, Enola, announces she is coming home to see him in his house by the ocean, Simon realises he must reverse the curse before it is too late.  I really enjoyed this book, but I found having it read to me by some random American voice quite distracting, so I doubt I'll experiment with audiobooks too much more.  I kept thinking while I was listening "gee I wish I could follow along on paper."  This book ticked all the boxes for me- it had mermaids, circuses and libraries.  I think perhaps it would have felt a little more put together without the interference of the actor's voice but we might never know for sure now.

A Chinese Affair by Isabelle Li

I reviewed this collection earlier in the month and you can read my review here.  

Still Life with Teapot by Brigid Lowry

Very interesting book, this one.  You can read my review here.  

So that's what I read in July.  Have you read any of these titles?  Let me know what you thought in the comments below, or send me a tweet-- I'm on Twitter as @BatgirlElimy.  And if you have any awesome books you'd like to recommend, I'm always keen to hear them.  

Until next time, Happy Reading!


Friday, 15 July 2016

Book Review: A Chinese Affair by Isabelle Li

A Chinese Affair (Margaret River Press, 2016)
Isabelle Li
(I own a copy, courtesy agent)

Isabelle Li's short story collection, released this month by local powerhouse, Margaret River Press, introduces a new voice to a burgeoning Australian short fiction scene.  These sixteen stories follow characters who have some connection to China, and are navigating the cultural divide between Australia and China, and the temporal divide of past and present.  Li's writing is skillful, and she deftly changes voices, tenses, points of view and even formats to experiment with what her short fiction can do.  Characters often appear as the lead in one story, only to turn up in another role a few stories into the book, reinterpreted again and again from many different points of view.

The collection uses Chinese folklore and superstitions, as well as looking deeply into the role of language and translation.  One of the most prolific characters in the collection, Crystal, works as a translator and a writer, translating Chinese books for an English-speaking audience.  The literal and the exact meanings of words are played against one another to produce different meanings.  On another level, the absence of language is also used to create meaning in Crystal's world, and many of her stories hinge on secrets and on not telling.

There were moments where I was distracted from the true story because I was focused on trying to work out which of the characters had appeared in stories before, and I suppose I had some trouble working out whether all the characters were meant to be linked the way that they would be in a novel in short stories, but there were pieces in this book that really sang.  Highlights were the titular story, 'A Chinese Affair' , 'Pebbles and Flowers' and 'Lyrebird'.  It's certainly obvious that Isabelle Li can write, but there were one or two others in the collection that I didn't connect with quite as deeply.  This did not spoil my enjoyment of the overall book and I devoured the collection in a matter of days.

This is an accomplished collection which absorbs the reader into a rich space and transports them from China to Sydney and back again, over and over.  Isabelle Li will be a guest at the inaugural Australian Short Story Festival held in Perth October 21- 23 2016.