REVIEW: The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen (Review by Hayley Shephard)

the-queen-of-the-tearlingThe book world is abuzz with the publication of The Queen of the Tearling. Likened to Game of Thrones for its epic setting and brutal violence, it has poignant moments that are reminiscent of the era of Queen Elizabeth Ist, and tells the story of a burdened girl in a dystopian world. Is it any wonder why I couldn’t stop reading? And why Emma Watson has chosen to play the lead in the upcoming film, despite hinting that she would steer clear from another big budget adaptation?

Kelsea Glynn is 19, and after the death of her mother, has reached the age whereby she can take the throne, currently occupied by her uncle, who has brought destruction to the land of the Tearling under the influence of a nearby nation. Kelsea was placed away from the reach of evil as an infant and treated in her formative years as a future ruler who needs to survive to see that crown put on her and not her head on the floor. But will Kelsea grow to become the leader she was destined to be?

The book delves deeper into the mindset of someone who has always been beaten down and looked down upon by those who remember her Mother; a vain woman whose rule made Tearling ripe for the taking. Kelsea wants to change the lives of her people but her dreams remain unfulfilled, stopped by those who have only taken oaths to escort her to safety and no further.

Kelsea could be any one of us, but while we don’t have to try and survive and rule at the same time, many of us have to take things on the chin and accept that we can’t have everything we want, especially when it is at the expense of other things in life.

Johansen, Erika2

Author: Erika Johansen

Over the course of the book Kelsea battles against all odds to fight back against the overshadowing country of Mortmesme, which expects large and regular shipments of Tearling men and women of all different ages, a legacy from her Mother’s troubled rule. Kelsea is not strikingly beautiful like her mother, but within her there is a fight she never had. She also has a type of crystal, a crystal that makes her powerful and yet she fears the implications of using it.

Erika Johansen’s writing style is dense, full of riddles and puzzling stories. I was filled with questions. Who is her father? What is this crystal? Who is that ruling bitch from Mortmesme really?

Clearly I already need the second book, so I can start to see Kelsea grow and change into maybe not only a great leader, but a just one.

And I guess Emma Watson feels the same way.

Grab a copy of The Queen of the Tearling here

REVIEW: A War of Words by Hamish McDonald (Review by Justin Cahill)

A War of WordsBut for an accident of history, we would know very little about Charles Bavier. The chance delivery of his papers to the journalist Hamish McDonald saved him from oblivion. Even then, it was only after 20 years research that McDonald was able to shed more light on this extraordinary figure.

Born in Japan to a Swiss merchant and his lover in about 1888, Bavier was promptly deserted by his father, who left him with his Japanese mistress. Caught between two cultures at a time of increasing paranoia against the West, Bavier left Japan. He ended up in Australia where, anxious for military glory, he joined the Army and served at Gallipoli. There, his background and interest in military strategy did not endear himself to his commanding officers.

As the War’s irresolution played itself out twenty-five years later, Bavier was caught up in the shadowy propaganda battle against Japan. His task ? To persuade Japanese troops determined to die, by their own hand if necessary, to surrender. By chance, Bavier’s son, John, was also assigned this work. He enlisted in the Australian Army and carted recordings of his father’s exhortations to cease hostilities to the front at Bougainville and played them to Japanese troops.

Hamish McDonald

Hamish McDonald

As a result of these efforts, about 4000 Japanese surrendered. Ranged against the Pacific War’s heavy casualties, it was a drop in the bucket. Yet it was an important demonstration of the Allies’ commitment to political and personal freedom.

This unique book has stayed with me, throwing up questions long after being read. Of particular interest is McDonald’s account of the rise of fascism in Japan. All too often, we get the usual, shop-worn versions of the rise of Nazi Germany. Accounts of Japan’s struggle to find its place in the World, with its archaic Samurai code leading it to disaster, are rare. The sheer impunity with which its Imperialist faction assassinated its way to power makes Hitler’s Brown Shirts look distinctly amateur.

More poignantly, McDonald gives us a portrait of a ‘man alone’. How does such a man, cast off between Asia and Europe, make his way in life ? How does he survive when his worlds come brutally into conflict ? How does he build and sustain relationships ? This is not simply the story of a man caught up in unusual circumstances. It is a lesson in survival which offers a fresh, intriguing view of part of our national history.

Grab a copy of A War of Words here

Justin Cahill is an historian and solicitor, his university thesis being on the negotiations between the British and Chinese governments over the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997.

His current projects include completing the first history of European settlement in Australia and New Zealand told from the perspective of ordinary people.

He is a regular contributor to the Sydney Morning Herald’s ‘Heckler’ column.

REVIEW: Terms and Conditions by Robert Glancy (review by John Purcell)

Terms and Conditions was a publisher proof copy in a pile of publisher proof copies beside my bed.

I had been told that everyone at Bloomsbury Australia loved the book – which is only right since they were taking the trouble to publish it. They think it could be one of those surprise hits. They are going to back it with marketing. My first thought on hearing this pitch is, try Googling the title.

But I like the mob at Bloomsbury and take it home. I put it with the others.

I try not to think of this ever growing pile of proof copies as a burden. I try to think of it as a lucky dip.

I imagine myself a child again plunging my hand into a tub filled with wrapped presents. I’m hoping for a water pistol, but instead find a pair of socks. Good socks, school socks, a pair that would do the job well and would last, but socks all the same. I try again. I want a packet of throw downs, I get a compass. I know I shouldn’t grumble, the prizes I have won have their uses, they are practical and necessary. Good solid dependable things.

By the time I pulled out Terms and Conditions I was expecting a pair of Y-Fronts.

In the first chapter of Terms and Conditions the narrator, Frank, wakes in hospital, there has been an accident. He has amnesia. (God it is difficult to refrain from following this statement up with – he doesn’t remember a thing.) Thus we meet the two most important people in Frank’s life at the same time he does. His wife, Alice (Alice is my wife – allegedly) and his brother, Oscar. Frank works for Oscar at Shaw&Sons the law firm their grandfather founded. Note: In one of the finest ever uses of a footnote in the history of literature Frank reveals his true opinion of his brother. It made me snort.

Author Robert Glancy sets up his dark comedy over the next few chapters as Frank, a stranger to himself, tries to come to terms with the conditions of his life. It is easier than he thinks. He writes contracts for Oscar. He is married to Alice. He is very dull. But then his memory starts to return and this is where the novel takes off.

But is Terms and Conditions a very useful pair of Y-Fronts or is it something more exciting?

Comic timing rests upon structure. And this novel has been cleverly thought out. On every page there are enjoyable jabs aimed at the inanities of modern life. But it is the arrangement and delivery of the details of Frank’s life which increase the comic possibilities. Thankfully Glancy never overburdens his story with his direction. His characterisation saves him. Although the depiction of Frank’s wife Alice and her descent into corporate culture is so close to the truth I fear that those with no experience of corporate life may think the depiction fantastical.

Glancy delivers on the promise of the first half of the book, keeping a firm grip on his narrative right to the final lines. But is this the work of a talented artist or a competent craftsman? I think the answer lies in the relationship between Frank and his other brother, Malcolm, who has rejected a partnership in the family law firm and now lives a carefree life traveling the world. Malcolm emails Frank throughout the novel offering Frank (and us) an alternative perspective on life.

Terms and Conditions is a very funny book. At once a cautionary tale, a love story, a comedy of manners and a self-help book like no other. You will want to read it a second time. The fact that it is so funny doesn’t mean that it is lightweight. There is great meaning here, too. I put my hand into that lucky dip, my bedside pile of proofs, and was rewarded not with a pair of Y-Fronts but with a slingshot, the weapon of choice for those wanting to bring down something big.

Grab a copy of Terms & Conditions here

Terms & Conditions

by Robert Glancy

Frank has been in a car accident*. The doctor tells him he lost his spleen, but Frank believes he has lost more. He is missing memories – of those around him, of the history they share and of how he came to be in the crash. All he remembers is that he is a lawyer who specialises in small print**.

In the wake of the accident Frank begins to piece together his former life – and his former self. But the picture that emerges, of his marriage, his family and the career he has devoted years to, is not necessarily a pretty one. Could it be that the terms and conditions by which Frank has been living are not entirely in his favour***?

In the process of unravelling the knots into which his life has been tied, he learns that the devil really does live in the detail and that it’s never too late to rewrite your own destiny.

*apparently quite a serious one

**words that no one ever reads

*** and perhaps never have been

About the Author

Robert Glancy was born in Zambia and raised in Malawi. At fourteen he moved from Africa to Edinburgh then went on to study history at Cambridge. He currently lives in New Zealand with his wife and children.

Grab a copy of Terms & Conditions here

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FILM REVIEW: Ender’s Game (Review by Andrew Cattanach)

627BD7B7-B85C-17D8-400EB5034FA017A8It appeared to be an annual occurrence. Every year a new production of Orson Scott Card’s seminal sci-fi novel Ender’s Game would be announced, and within a few months it would be abandoned. The story was too internalised, the young cast too difficult to assemble, the special effects too difficult to produce.

But if this summer is remembered for anything, it will surely be the Golden Era of the Book to Film. And so, we have Ender’s Game: The Movie.

Ender’s Game boasts an incredible cast, with Hollywood royalty Harrison Ford, Ben Kingsley and Viola Davis joined by young heavyweights Asa Butterfield and Hailee Steinfeld, the child stars of Hugo and True Grit.

Having read the book recently, I was a little scared to see how the film would put everything together. The novel is a menagerie of themes and philosophies, musings on childhood, class systems, religion and warfare but to name a few. Finding a place for it all on the screen was always going to be a challenge, trying to give the film its own voice while placating millions of existing fans, skeptical about the film.

Somehow, the film manages to do both with aplomb. While fans of the novel will grimace at the small changes to make the film more palatable to the masses (Ender is 6 years old in the book, 16 years old in the movie), the film carries the same darkness, the same raw feelings that have made the novel one of Sci-Fi’s most celebrated works.

Harrison Ford actually acts in this movie, which is rare these days, while Ben Kingsley plays his mysterious character (Ender’s Game newbies will get a shock) with the sort of intensity we’ve come to expect. Viola Davis is wonderful as, let’s face it, she is in everything.

As for the tween stars, Asa Butterfield could be a little better and Hailee Steinfeld could be a little angrier, as the books demand. But in these criticisms we arrive at the heart of the story. What can we expect of children as they are asked to scale mountains? To save thousands or to make millions? What is talent? Is one born with it or is it installed into them?

The questions Card asked years ago when he first released Ender’s Game are the same questions the film will leave you pondering. And that, in a world of underwhelming adaptations, is a test most productions sadly fail.

Grab a copy of Ender’s Game and receive a free double pass to see the movie.
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Amanda Knox’s Memoir: Waiting To Be Heard – A Review from Andrew Cattanach

The Amanda Knox story remains one of the most curious events in recent legal history, appearing to come straight from the pages of the most ambitious thriller. Booktopia’s Andrew Cattanach reviews Amanda Knox’s memoir Waiting To Be Heard.

Here was Amanda Knox. A young, attractive American studying in Italy who had been found guilty of murdering her flatmate, Meredith Kercher. Her boyfriend and her employer, a local bar owner, her accomplices. Quite a story.

Needless to say, the press lapped it up. The prosecution got in on the mayhem too, argued many reasons for the violent crime ranging from a falling out over a cleaning roster to a sex game gone wrong.

Unlike many average-person-turned-infamous memoirs, Waiting to be Heard is incredibly interesting for two reasons.

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And The Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini – A Review from Booktopia’s Andrew Cattanach

Bestselling author Khaled Hosseini returns to our shelves with his hugely anticipated third novel. On the eve of its release, Booktopia’s Andrew Cattanach casts an eye over it.

Maya Angelou once said “The desire to reach for the stars is ambitious. The desire to reach hearts is wise”. Whether Khaled Hosseini has heard that sage advice is unlikely. That he shares the same view, however, is all but certain. His new novel And The Mountains Echoed shares the same heartbeat as his previous works, but instead of reaching for the stars he appears to have developed through regression, at least from an emotional standpoint. His latest offering, while boasting a globe hopping narrative and an array of multi-generational characters, is a measured, tender, and still powerful exploration of what makes us tick.

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Inferno by Dan Brown – A Review from Booktopia’s Andrew Cattanach

Booktopia’s Andrew Cattanach has thrown himself into Dan Brown’s latest blockbuster. Read what he thought of all the hype .

(Scroll to the bottom to see the three lucky people receiving copies signed by Dan Brown).

How peculiar a world that seems content to throw billions of dollars at Adam Sandler dressing up as a woman to play his twin sister, yet derides an author because they offer more substance than style.

As an author Dan Brown has made no secret of being an excellent maths teacher. Where other writers of similar ilk go on speaking tours and blog about their genius, Dan Brown has chosen a life away from his millions of fans. To the outsider he appears nearly embarrassed at the juggernaut he’s created, one of the few authors without the names “E.L” and “James” to constantly be a hot topic of mainstream media everywhere.

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Reflections On Middle Earth – Booktopia’s resident Tolkienist Christopher Cahill shares his thoughts on The Hobbit

To say that I’m a fan of the works of Professor J. R. R. Tolkien is an understatement. I’ll admit I was a little late to the party tree in embracing the world of Middle-Earth but after seeing the first trailer for The Fellowship of the Ring I was hooked.

I became a little obsessed. And when I say a little, I mean a lot. I purchased every book I could get my hands on and spent hours upon hours absorbing Tolkien’s works and history. The thought of becoming a Tolkien scholar crossed my mind a few times but I’m just not willing to learn Elvish. There are lines this nerd just won’t cross.

By the time The Return of the King had come into cinemas I had already grown a beard and my long hair was coming along nicely. I call these my Aragorn years. I also met the love of my life that year who, luckily for me, shared my interest in all things Tolkien. Our first date was watching The Return of the King. Our first overseas trip was to New Zealand so we could visit all the film locations. I was in nerd heaven.

That was almost nine years ago. I don’t have a beard or long hair anymore, I don’t smoke my pipe and my Tolkien library is a bit dusty. But I still love Tolkien’s books and have watched the films more times than I’ll admit to. Naturally I was eagerly anticipating the release of The Hobbit and my expectations were high. After almost nine long years of waiting we finally got to sit down and watch it in glorious 3D.

For me it was like coming home. Returning to Bag End accompanied by Howard Shore’s amazing score was a joyful experience and I loved every minute of it. Martin Freeman is perfect as the younger Bilbo Baggins; in fact all the casting is perfect. The Dwarves steal the show in parts and the return of some familiar faces is a welcome sight.

But for me the films biggest achievement is that it was fun to watch. It was the sense of joy that pulled me back into Middle-Earth and my very loud; walrus like laugh rang throughout the cinema. If I knew the words to the Dwarven songs I would have been singing along with a mug of ale in my hand.

The Hobbit is visually astounding and the 3D is the best I have seen yet.

There’s been some criticism of the films use of a higher frame rate, even people saying that it made them nauseous watching it. But seriously, were those people smoking pipe weed? I couldn’t fault it.

The other major controversy is that The Hobbit, hardly a long book, will be spilt into three films and there will be material added from Tolkien’s other books to flesh out the story. And while Peter Jackson and his merry band have once again taken some serious liberties with Tolkien’s work I feel it works well.

The films only fault is that it has no real ending and we have to wait another year before we get to see the continuation of Bilbo and the Dwarves’ journey. Thankfully Tolkien’s novel has been in print for seventy-five years so the impatient among us won’t have to wait.

The first thing I did when we got back home was dust off my illustrated edition of The Hobbit. I was back in Middle-Earth and the urge to grow my hair was high.

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Review: Gaysia: Adventures in the Queer East by Benjamin Law (Review by Catherine Horne)

I first became acquainted with Benjamin Law’s writing in the pages of frankie magazine several years ago and he has since become one of my favourite Australian writers. So when a copy of Gaysia: Adventures in the Queer East turned up at the Booktopia office I acted like a deranged fangirl and declared that I must – MUST! – review this book. And, unsurprisingly, my instincts were proven right. This book is an illuminating exploration of an issue that does not normally get a mention in discussions of Australia’s engagement with Asia, and Law provides some valuable insights into the nations he visits.

In Gaysia Law becomes our enthusiastic guide to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) experience in seven countries: Indonesia, Thailand, China, Japan, Malaysia, Myanmar and India. In each chapter Law generally focuses on one or two specific examples from the country at hand (for example, gay conversion therapies in Malaysia or a beauty pageant for transsexual women in Thailand), and uses this to explore the wider issues of gay acceptance in that country. This approach works well as Law is able to gain great insights from the people he interviews, and this makes for a very warm and engaging work. To his credit, Law does recognise that his approach does not encompass the totality of LGBT experience and he cannot provide a sweeping analysis of homosexuality in Asia. The work does not suffer because of this; the greatest strength of the book is its focus on personal stories as this provides an opportunity to engage with people who, for the most part, would have otherwise remained invisible to us.

Each nation Law takes us to throws up a different set of issues, and he makes clear the ways in which the social, cultural and political norms of a particular country influence the ways in which queer sexualities are perceived and experienced. For example, Law discovers that gay personalities are everywhere on Japanese television, but are expected to behave in a way which essentially renders them as figures of entertainment; they are drag queens with wicked senses of humour, or super-camp gay men with biting social critiques (basically think of the campest gay stereotype that you can, add a vat of glitter, and you’ve got what Law is describing here). While the visibility of certain types of queer identities is positive in that it at least shows a superficial acceptance of homosexuality, the absence of others, particularly lesbians, hints at a deeper lack of acceptance or understanding of LGBT issues in Japanese society.

In stark contrast to Japan is Myanmar, a country struggling with an exorbitantly high HIV infection rate for gay men (where they are 42 times more likely to contact HIV than their counterparts in any other country) and woefully inadequate resources to cope with the crisis. Further, the grinding poverty, lack of education and geographic isolation prevalent among Myanmar’s citizens means that many may never gain access to the life-saving drugs they need. The contrast between Japan and Myanmar not only demonstrates the varying challenges that people of different backgrounds in Asia face; it also gives the reader a valuable insight into the society and culture of each nation.

For me, Gaysia did not only provide a fascinating insight into the experiences of LGBT people in Asia, but into the broader social and cultural structures of each country. In the chapter on Malaysia, for example, Law provides a sense of the multiplicity of religions, their regional concentrations and the roles they play in Malaysian society. This ability to ground each chapter in a broader context really strengthens the work and provides yet another reason why this book is so valuable. Law recognises that in each country deeply ingrained historical, cultural and political factors influence the ways in which queer sexualities are regarded, as exemplified by gays and lesbians marrying each other to stave off parental pressure in China or the existence of a ‘third sex’ in Thailand. Law demonstrates the unique circumstances, and difficulties, that each nation’s gay population faces in their struggle to find a place in their societies.

Gaysia is an absolutely fascinating book, and I have gained so much from reading it. There are many heartbreaking stories of familial rejection, of hiding identity and, overwhelmingly, of feeling invisible. Yet there are also stories of resilience, happiness and love. Gaysia is a book with human experience at its core, and these stories are wonderfully brought to life through Law’s vivid documentation of his quest through the queer heart of Asia.

Review by Catherine Horne

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Review: The Twelve Rooms of the Nile by Enid Shomer (Review by Catherine Horne)

It may seem bizarre to imagine that Florence Nightingale provided the inspiration for Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, yet in The Twelve Rooms of the Nile we are invited to do just that.

Set in 1850, Enid Shomer’s debut novel imagines a blossoming relationship between Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert as they tour the ruins of Egypt. I should make clear that this is a work of fiction; although both Nightingale and Flaubert were in Egypt at the same time, there is no evidence that they ever even met, let alone formed the close bond they do in Shomer’s work. However, in this remarkable piece of alternate history, they find the impetus for their future successes in each other.

Shomer’s Nightingale is achingly unfulfilled and despairs that she will never fulfil what she sees as God’s calling for her. Although she loves her family dearly, she resents their expectation that she make a good marriage, that she be chaperoned at all times and that she always behave with docility. Indeed, there are many instances throughout the novel where she is (sometimes severely) chastised for her exuberance and determination. Nightingale finds an outlet for her unconventional ideas in Flaubert, and the relationship strengthens her resolve to defy the wishes of her family and forge a career in nursing.

Gustave Flaubert

Flaubert, meanwhile, is disillusioned by his early literary failures and devastated by the recent death of his sister. He tends to swing between periods of great despair and great desire, and subsequently many of Flaubert’s chapters are devoted to either depressive ruminations or lurid descriptions of sexual yearnings. Nightingale provides an interesting inspiration for Flaubert’s future literary endeavours as he finds her to be so remarkable that he resolves to focus his next work on a female protagonist. When considered in light of Flaubert’s own sensual proclivities it is possible to see how Nightingale could have provided the inspiration for Emma Bovary, and it is to Shomer’s credit that she develops this so cleverly.

Overall the characters are fascinating and well developed, however it is Shomer’s descriptions of the Egyptian landscape that are the strength of the novel. The dusty, arid landscape makes its wrath known upon the tourists and many times while reading I felt almost as if my own skin were caked in desert sand.

Florence Nightingale

Other scenes, such as one in a foul, mummy-strewn temple elicited a similarly visceral response. The point of this is not to turn anyone off reading the book, but rather to accentuate the immensely descriptive power that Shomer demonstrates in her writing.

Shomer’s Egypt is a land of crushing poverty and rampant disease, of cruel punishments and government corruption. It certainly holds immense beauty for its European visitors, however their awe is largely aimed at the dead civilisation of the Ancient Egyptians and rarely at nineteenth-Century Egyptian society (two major exceptions being the exotic food and, for Flaubert and his companion, particularly exquisite prostitutes). Shomer’s critical approach to the imperialist mentality of her European protagonists makes for a far stronger novel than if this was just left as a quaint aspect of the period setting. As such I found myself drawn into the burgeoning relationship between Nightingale and Flaubert while also considering the broader issues brought out in the novel, and this resulted in an immensely captivating and intellectually satisfying read.

Review by Catherine Horne

Click here to order The Twelve Rooms of the Nile from Booktopia,
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The Twelve Rooms of the Nile

by Enid Shomer


Before she became the nineteenth-century’s heroine, before he had written a word of Madame Bovary, Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert traveled up the Nile at the same time.

In reality, they never met. But in The Twelve Rooms of the Nile, they ignite a friendship marked by intelligence, humour, and a ravishing tenderness that will alter both their destinies.

On the surface, Nightingale and Flaubert have little in common. She is a woman with radical ideas about society and God, naive in the ways of men. He is a notorious womanizer, involved with innumerable prostitutes. But both are at painful crossroads in their lives and burn with unfulfilled ambition.

In Shomer’s deft hands, the two unlikely soulmates come together to share their darkest torments and fervent hopes. Brimming with adventure and the sparkling sensibilities of the two travelers, this mesmerizing debut novel offers a luminous combination of gorgeous prose and wild imagination, all of it coloured by the opulent tapestry of mid-nineteenth century Egypt.


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