Grab a cup of tea and enjoy the below reviews…
Review by Sarah McDuling: There are some books that must be smashed through in a single sitting, while others are best savoured over weeks or even months. I tend to smash more often than savour, and yet it took me over a month to finish Ken Follet’s latest epic, A Column of Fire.
If this sounds like a criticism, let me be clear … I loved stretching this book out over the past month, returning to the 16th Century again and again, enjoying the luxury of a slow, absorbing read. If I could have made this book last longer, I would have done it. I really didn’t want it to end and now that it’s over I’m honestly feeling a bit bereft.
Column of Fire is the third book in the Kingsbridge series. The first book, The Pillars of the Earth, introduced us to the fictional city of Kingsbridge in 12th century England, during the time of The Anarchy. It’s been over ten years since I read it, and it remains one of my favourite historical fictional novels of all time.
In the sequel, World Without End, we revisited Kingsbridge in the 14th Century during the time of the Black Death and The Hundred Years War. And now, with A Column of Fire, we’re back again! This time we return to Kingsbridge in the 16th Century, during the time of The Reformation.
Kingsbridge Cathedral is still standing and the people of Kingsbridge are living lives full of hardship and turbulence. Europe is in a state of upheaval with deep tension and hatred between Protestants and Catholics. When Elizabeth Tudor is crowned Queen, she must face constant threats and challenges to keep her throne – not the least of which is the danger posed by Mary Queen of Scots. Elizabeth must build a loyal network of trusted spies in order to protect herself.
Of course, amidst all this turmoil and religious strife, we have a pair of unlucky lovers whose story seems to perfectly mirror the struggles of the age. The romance between Ned Willard and Margery Fitzgerald is every bit as ill-fated, star-crossed and wonderfully angst-ridden as that of Jack and Aliena (The Pillars of the Earth) and Caris and Merthin (World Without End). Readers will suffer through heartache and anguish alongside Ned and Margrey, even as they find themselves caught up in a sweeping tale of European politics, international espionage, court intrigue and religious conflict.
The Kingsbridge series is epic in scope. Ken Follet combines meticulous historical research with vivid imagery and dramatic irony. The result is a highly emotive story that weaves together real historical figures with fictional characters and truly captures the spirit of an age. It is such a pleasure to sink into these books; you feel as though you have been transported to a brightly-painted and vividly detailed version of the past. A Column of Fire gives us a chapter of history, lit up in glorious detail and full of characters so vibrant they seem to leap off the page and into reality.
At 750 pages, A Column of Fire is a decadent feast of a book. I’m sure many readers will be tempted to gorge themselves, however, speaking as someone who tends to smash through books as quickly as possible – this one really is best savoured. A Column of Fire has reminded me how great it is to stop and smell the (fictional) roses. And now that I’ve finished it, I’m looking forward to a nice, leisurely re-read of the first two novels in the series.
Pillars of the Earth is being turned into a video game! Learn more in Episode 23 of BOOKED with Anastasia.
Modern and Contemporary Fiction
Review by Ben Hunter: This is a tender and moving novel that richly rewards the reader with language and honesty. I was won over from the outset, and everyone I’ve talked to about this book is incapable of faulting it. Moving elegantly from life to life, the economic prose inhabits the realms of kindness and loss that define us. The protagonist, Ellis, becomes completely tangible for the reader. I feel like I’ve sat down and had long conversations with him.
Please read Tin Man. Emotions will be stirred, sentences will be quoted, and this little yellow book will become a part of your life.
Review by Ben Hunter: In The Choke, Sophie Laguna showcases the tremendous empathy we know she’s capable of, as witnessed in her Miles Franklin-winning Eye of the Sheep.
Justine Lee has been abandoned by her mother and is visited infrequently by her violent and secretive father where she lives on her pop’s three acres by the shrinking banks of the Murray River. Voiceless in an unsafe and uncertain world, hers is the life of a girl who fell through the cracks. This is a heart-breaking read of uncompromising compassion and intimacy. I don’t think I’ve ever read a child’s perspective so fully realised in contemporary Australian fiction. A powerful achievement… Learn more.
PODCAST: Ben Hunter and Sarah McDuling chat with Sofie Laguna about The Choke. Listen here.
by Tim Rogers
Review by Ben Hunter: Detours is a gem of a book and here’s why you should read it. Detours is not a celebrity memoir. It has no ghostwriter, no laboured famous-name-droppings or manufactured moments of epiphany or scandal. It doesn’t have that glossy photo-paper bit in the middle for in case you get bored of actually reading the thing. Detours is a beautiful hardcover book rich in exacting observation and not-tortuously-whimsical reminiscence.
This book offers a marvellous reflection on Tim’s great passions – AFL, rock ‘n’ roll and Melbourne. Now I’m afraid to say that I’ve never kicked a Sherrin, blown an amp or had a number plate that declares itself the place to be, but still, I’m hooked on this stuff. I feel at home in Tim’s writing. He leaves the bravado behind and takes you on long walks through his life on and off the stage.
Detours is a book that lets you see through the eyes of a towering broken-nosed greyhair – a guy who passes through violent suburbs in velvet lapels and silk scarves, who checks the ceiling of every hotel room he stays in for stray slices of pizza, and who armours himself with slabs of beer and bears his soul to strangers. Detours is an Aussie treasure, the neatly-polished self portrait of a dandy drunkard wordsmith. Pick it up and you’ll see what I mean… Learn more.
PODCAST: Listen to Tim Rogers chat with Ben Hunter about Detours. Listen here.
Review by Ben Hunter: I demanded that people read The Anti-Cool Girl and I’ll do the same for this one. I met Rosie when she began press for this book and made a fumbling attempt to tell her how amazing she is. She took a copy aside for me, signed it to my girlfriend, and drew something for her that would be highly inappropriate for me to describe here, as with much of the contents of this memoir. What I can say is that it’s every bit as honest as The Anti-Cool Girl, while also being steeped in a whole new level of grief.
I can also tell you how fantastically funny this book is. Pleasantly surprised by the drawing she’d received from Rosie, my girlfriend sat up in bed to read it one night. First came a snicker, then a chortle, then a snort, and soon she was holding the book aside with that kind of relentless exhausting laughter that sounds like a child crying uncontrollably. She handed me the book and commanded me to read it aloud because she could no longer see the pages through her tears. I picked up where she left off. She had made it to page three… Learn more.
PODCAST: Booktopia’s John Purcell and Sarah McDuling chat with Rosie about her latest devastating, heartbreaking but brilliant book. Listen here.
Review by That Metal Man: “No way, get f*****d, f**k off!”
If these words strike meaning for you, then Blood, Sweat & Beers will not part your hands until you flip the final beer-sodden page. Blood, Sweat & Beers is part nostalgic journey, part historical journal for all who frequented this country’s seediest RSL clubs, pubs and nightclubs throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s. On stages across Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and beyond, bands comprised of hardened men drank their way to excess and fame while creating ear-shattering walls of deafening music, music that often sent punters running outside in sheer terror. (Rose Tattoo were the kings of clearing rooms.) If you lived that subculture, you’d remember that the dangerously loud sound levels were very real, with Billy Thorpe and The Aztecs, and years later Rose Tattoo and The Angels, building back lines of amplifiers that would put the likes of sound-decibel legends, Deep Purple, to shame. As someone who was there front and centre from the early 80s, I have the lack of hearing to prove it…
Blood, Sweat & Beers is a book of heroics, of bands battling their way to the top of the heap, some sustaining their dominance over pop charts around the world or closer to home, while others such as punk underground icons, X, collapsed into self-destruction and terrible personal tragedy.
The power of Blood, Sweat & Beers is that it’s extraordinarily well researched, with frank and often hilarious interviews interspersed with the author, Murray Engleheart’s own accounts of what it was like to witness, and survive, those formative years inside Australia’s seediest drinking establishments. (Remember the infamous Bondi Lifesaver, Chequers, or Mansel Room? You do? You’re in for a treat!)
If you’re at all fascinated by the The Aztecs (a band I knew nothing about beyond their existence until I read Blood, Sweat & Beers), The Angels or Rose Tattoo, then you’re in for the rollercoaster read of your life. If you care for none of those acts, prepare to be shocked by the countless offstage tales and the endless blood-soaked onstage hysterics! The everyday accounts of these bands feature prominently, with painfully candid interviews with band members including, but not limited to, the late Billy Thorpe, the iconic Brewster brothers from The Angels, Angry Anderson, and members of all these bands, past and present. What’s most interesting, though, is how these bands came to be, and how their lives did (or didn’t) change for the better (or for the worse), and the offshoot bands borne from the smoking embers of their mainstays.
Then there’s tales of blood, lots of it; stories from “the road” are both hilarious and terribly tragic. Take for example the infamous new year’s eve concert in 1979 performed in front of the steps of the Sydney Opera House, where Chris Bailey and Doc Neeson of The Angels were king-hit and knocked out cold with magnum champagne bottles thrown towards them from the drunken crowd. It was all captured on live TV and described in the book in excruciating detail from the band members who stood performing on stage that evening, the lucky ones dodging lethal missiles. (By the way, the whole incident can be viewed on YouTube.)… Read the full review here.
Crime and Thriller Fiction
by James Patterson and Candice Fox
Review by Sarah McDuling: Our Crime & Thriller book of the month is Fifty Fifty by Candice Fox and James Patterson – the second book in the highly addictive and super kickass Detective Harriet Blue series.
Given how much I loved Never Never (the first book in the series) and also the prequel novella, Black & Blue, I was a bit nervous about Fifty Fifty. Sometimes when a series starts out super strong it can be hard to maintain that same level of awesome in subsequent books.
I’m happy to say, I was worried for absolutely no reason! And really, I should have known better than to doubt the genius of this co-authoring dream team. James Patterson is, after all, a master storyteller, and literally every time Candice Fox writes a new book it becomes my new favourite thing! Every time.
Fifty Fifty sees Detective Harriet “Harry” Blue banished from the city after a dramatic incident of bad-assery gains her some unfortunate press during her brother’s trial. For those who need a reminder and for newcomers to the series, Harry’s brother, Sam, has been arrested and stands trial for multiple murders. Everyone believes Sam is the infamous Georges River Killer. Harry, however, is positive that her brother is innocent and is determined to prove it.
Unfortunately, before she can do anything to help Sam, Harry loses her temper in a rather spectacular way and finds herself banished to a small country town called Last Chance in western NSW. She is there to investigate a possible planned massacre and because she is Harry Blue, she soon finds herself up to her eyeballs in madness and mayhem.
My favourite thing about this series is definitely the main character, Harry Blue. A “wildcat cop” with iron fists, nerves of steel and a heart of gold, Harry is always ready with a knockout punch and a razor-sharp quip. Pretty much every line of dialogue she delivers in Fifty Fifty warrants a round of applause! She’s ferocious and bold, tough and smart, totally out of control most of the time and possibly a little bit sociopathic… but only when the situation really calls for it.
Fifty Fifty gives readers two mysteries to solve. Harry carries the main plot which involves the discovery of a diary outlining a town massacre. Harry arrives to find herself teamed up with an obnoxious ASIO agent who is exactly the kind of character you love to hate. Naturally, it doesn’t take long for fists to start flying.
Meanwhile, the other plot line follows Harry’s partner, Whitt, and her friend Tox Barnes (Tox from Black & Blue is back! Hooray!) who remain in Sydney to investigate the case of the Georges River Killer with hopes of clearing Sam’s name.
Fast-paced, action-packed, tightly plotted and bursting with crazy, explosive charm, Fifty Fifty is a great new addition to this wildly addictive series. And given the way this book ends, I suspect the next one will take Harry’s story to a whole new level! Eeeeeeeeeee! I need it now!!
PODCAST: Listen to Sarah McDuling chat with Candice Fox about Fifty Fifty.
Review by Tracey Mills: Cressida Cowell, author of the How To Train Your Dragon series, returns with an utterly engrossing new adventure full of wizards and warriors, giants and werewolves, sprites and magical spoons!
Adults and children alike fell completely in love with the How To Train Your Dragon series. Millions of books were published, the books were adapted in two separate TV series, and several short films and video games were created to tie-in with the books. Two blockbuster movies were also made, with the third instalment coming in 2019, so it would be hard to find a child who doesn’t know the series.
After so much success, I was a little sceptical picking up The Wizards of Once. Could Cressida Cowell possibly give us another series as good as How To Train Your Dragon? I had to find out. And guess what? I actually liked The Wizards of Once even more!
In this world, warriors and wizards are mortal enemies, witches have (possibly) been exterminated, and magical creatures are hunted by the warriors. The story opens with Wish, a warrior princess who is the opposite of your traditional princess, and Bodkin, her bodyguard who has the rather unfortunate habit of falling asleep in the face of danger. They embark on a forbidden adventure through the dark forest with a magical iron sword and spoon.
In the dark forest Wish and Bodkin encounter Xar, son of the King Enchanter, whose magic has not yet manifested. Xar and his band of magical creatures are on a mission to capture a witch so that Xar can take the witch’s magic for himself. As you would expect, nothing quite goes to plan and Wish and Xar find themselves having to work together to save both warriors and wizards alike!
Beautifully illustrated and utterly engrossing, The Wizards of Once is chock-full of adventure, magic, humour and a storyline that will have you hooked until the very last page.
Review by Tracey Mills: Lian Tanner, author of the phenomenal The Keepers and The Hidden series, returns with a brilliant fantasy-adventure series called The Rogues, beginning with Accidental Heroes. Set in the same world as The Keepers, but following different characters, the first book follows the adventures of Duckling and Pummel as the two get caught up in the schemes of Duckling’s grandfather, the devious Lord Rump.
Reading this book was so much fun! From the very first page, you are engrossed in the adventures of the clueless Pummel who is chosen by Duckling to be the stooge in her grandfather’s latest scheme. The scheme involves getting Pummel into the mysterious strong-hold of Berren – whose inhabitants are trapped in time by a magical spell – and installing Pummel as the companion to the Young Margrave. The scheme doesn’t quite go to plan so Duckling and Pummel must put aside their distrust of one another and work together to save not just the Young Margrave, but their own lives.
Full of magic and mayhem, this is a book that you will find hard to put down. There are engrossing characters, unlikely events… and did I mention the cat? I, for one, cannot wait to see what happens to Duckling and Pummel in book 2!
Young Adult Fiction
Review by Sarah McDuling: What happens when a girl who feels like she has nothing meets a girl who seems to have everything?
Because of You is a deeply touching and very poignant novel about an unlikely friendship between two girls in very different circumstances.
Tiny is trapped in a spiral of self-blame and feelings of isolation and hopelessness. She has been living on the streets for a year when she is offered a place at a homeless shelter. Meanwhile, Nola is doing community service at the same homeless shelter. She doesn’t have to worry about things like where to sleep or how to get her next meal, but that doesn’t mean her life is simple. She knows what it’s like to feel trapped and isolated.
When Tiny and Nola first cross paths, it seems impossible they could ever be friends. And yet, despite the prejudice and hostility that initially sets them apart, they soon form a friendship that will change both their lives.
Because of You is truly heartbreaking at times. Pip Harry confronts the issues of homelessness and life on the streets head on. She tells a story that is dark, gritty and painful, yet ultimately full of beauty and hope. This is a powerful book that stole my heart and brought tears of sorrow and joy to my eyes. Learn more.
Review by Sarah McDuling: This book is drenched in the most deliciously creepy atmosphere. Full of eerie mystery and dazzling horror, it thrums with a unique brand of strange magic. I just love it!
Alex comes from a long line of brujas but has always denied her own magical gift. In a misguided effort to rid herself of magic, she accidentally casts her family into a dangerous Limbo realm called Los Lagos. (Try to image a version of Wonderland crossed with Pan’s Labyrinth, with a dash of The Upside Down from Stranger Things, and you will have a pretty good idea of the phantasmagorically creepy nightmare that is Los Lagos.)
Determined to save her family, Alex embarks on a rescue mission accompanied by a mysterious (possibly evil?) boy called Nova. A glorious boatload of magical adventure ensues!
The world building in Labyrinth Lost is absolutely fantastic. For those who skipped Spanish class, the word “bruja” means witch/sorceress and author Zoraida Córdova has drawn inspiration from Latin American culture and mythology in creating this darkly enchanting tale of magic.
This book has everything. Magic, suspense, adventure, action, intrigue and horror. There are strong themes of family, sisterhood and identity. There is also an intriguing bisexual love triangle that does not really get off the ground in this first book – but I look forward to seeing it play out in future instalments.
Review by Tanaya Lowden: This is one of the most original YA books I’ve read in a long time. Everything from the world, to the plot, to the characters, felt refreshing. I feel as if it has been quite some time since there has been such a stand out YA dystopian, and quite honestly, I think this could be one of my favourite YA books of 2017.
The world that author Gregory Scott Katsoulis has created is so incredibly fascinating. Every word and gesture is copyrighted, patented or trademarked, meaning that to communicate, characters have to pay for the privilege. For example, the word ‘sorry’ is a flat ten dollars and requires a legal admission of guilt. Ads are everywhere, tailored to specific individuals, and there are scary historical laws that mean you could pay the price for someone in your family illegally downloading content from decades before. Everything about this world, albeit terrifying, is just so cool and interesting and I had a lot of fun reading about it.
The main character, Speth, decides to take a vow of silence rather than pay to communicate, an unexpected and defiant decision that creates tension in her society. You can feel her frustration with not being able to communicate properly, and you can appreciate her determination to stick to her commitment to silence, even when at times it causes her a lot of pain.
I think my favourite thing about this book was just how surprising it was. Every time I thought the book was going down a path of YA cliches it would turn around and go in a completely different direction. I loved it.
All Rights Reserved is the best YA dystopian in years – a must read for any YA fan! Learn more.
Review by Tanaya Lowden: It’s becoming quite common that YA books are part of series – duologies, trilogies, sagas. That’s why it’s always nice to come across a riveting and outstanding standalone. Daughter of the Burning City is exactly that and much, much more.
Part murder mystery, part magical fantasy, Daughter of the Burning City is the perfect hybrid of crime and fantasy. It’s dark, it’s gritty, it’s whimsical, and it’s incredibly imaginative.
Set in a travelling carnival, the book follows Sorina, a girl with no eyes with the rare talent of being an illusion worker. Her creations are incredibly realistic – they can be seen, touched, felt, and have their own distinct personalities. Each one has become her family. When one illusion is murdered, Sorina sets out to protect the rest of her family whilst hunting for an impossible killer.
I absolutely adored this book. Sorina was daring and strong, but also incredibly insecure and worrisome at times; she felt like a real person as opposed to a character on a page. I also adored Luca, Sorina’s love interest, and thought the development of their relationship was slow and sweet like anyone experiencing love for the first time.
Like any good murder mystery, this book will have you desperately trying to solve the crime, and what I particularly liked about Daughter of the Burning City is that I was surprised with the outcome. Although I picked up on a few clues throughout the book, none of them were exactly what I had been thinking!
Daughter of the Burning City is a stunning debut. Amanda Foody is going to be an author to watch out for, especially if her future novels are as compelling as this one. Learn more.
Review by John Purcell: I believe E.M. Forster has suffered from having had his novels turned into films. The films now take their place. However the depths of Howards End cannot be explored on screen.
I first read Howards End when I was eighteen. It surprises me when I think of it, because it is such an intelligent and mature work and I was such a fool. But it did stun me. I remember that. So much so that I declared it the best book ever written.
I have now read Howards End many times and am close to understanding what E.M. Forster is trying to teach me about love. I am not there yet. On my last reading I sensed his meaning but could not wrestle it into thought. It is something dark but not frightening. A hard truth that will help me become a better person. Or so I believe. I will read it again soon and hopefully I will finally grasp it.
Howards End is one of those rare things, a novel for adults.
About the Contributor
Anastasia Hadjidemetri is the former editor of The Booktopian and star of Booktopia's weekly YouTube show, Booked with Anastasia. A big reader and lover of books, Anastasia relishes the opportunity to bring you all the latest news from the world of books.