Book Review: The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova

It’s been 12 years since Elizabeth Kostova’s debut novel, The Historian, was first released. It was an instant best-seller, received with much acclaim. For me, it’s been one of those books I’ve picked up many times and yet never read. The same went for her second novel The Swan Thieves. Sometimes these books just pass you by, don’t they? Maybe it’s your mood when you’re in the book store, or where you are in life.  More often than not it’s simply a matter of time – a lack thereof.

Elizabeth’s latest release however, caught my eye almost immediately. The blurb suggested a mystery, a coming-of-age story and historical fiction, and this book is all of those.

The Shadow Land is the story of Alexandra Boyd, a young woman who travels to Bulgaria from the U.S. to come to terms with the loss of her brother in her early teens. Bulgaria fascinated them both as children, so Alexandra has lined up a job there teaching English. The day she arrives, mere moments after she’s been taken to a hotel from the airport, she helps an elderly couple into a taxi and inadvertently holds onto one of their bags.

Alexander discovers that the bag contains human ashes, which the couple was surely taking to bury somewhere. The only clues she has are a photograph she took, the name on the urn – Stoyan Lazarov – and an off-hand comment that they were travelling to a nearby monastery. She enlists the help of a grumpy young taxi driver who insists she call him Bobby. Like Stoyan, Bobby turns out to be so much more than what he seems at first.

Alexandra and Bobby embark on a journey that takes them across Bulgaria in search of a family whose lives had been so impacted by Bulgaria’s communist-era past that, decades later, they’re still running from it.

To be honest, before reading The Shadow Land, there wasn’t much I could tell you about Bulgaria, except that it was somewhere in Eastern Europe and was, for a period of time, a communist country allied with the Soviet Union. I have a vague memory of Bulgaria being involved in the Cold War from my International Politics unit during my university days. Something like that anyway.

The Shadow Land opened my eyes to the impact of communism more effectively than any university unit. It brought it to life for me through the eyes of Stoyan Lazarov and those he loved. Isn’t it just amazing the way fiction can do this? So many times in my life people have tried to tell me you can only truly learn from non-fiction, from text books, criticism and first-hand accounts. Fiction, they say, is just a story, an escape from reality. But fiction brings history to life in a way non-fiction often struggles to do. It brings depth, context and emotion to what could otherwise be dry facts spouted monotonously by a bored university professor.

I’m grateful to Elizabeth Kostova for bringing this aspect of history to life for me in a way that’s engaging, beautifully detailed and rich with emotion.  I’ll be going back to look at her other books now for sure.

Amanda x

 

On Books and Babies

So, as I’ve discovered recently, this whole new mother thing is damn hard. I’m actually writing this one handed while my little owl of a newborn, Sophie, has one of her marathon feeding sessions. Of which there are many. Very many. I’m surprised she hasn’t doubled in size already to be honest. I’m surprised there is anything left of me to be doubly honest.

I won’t bore you with the details of my plight, as I’m sure so many of you already know how strange and surreal this whole thing is, but I want to mention one small advantage of breast feeding. I didn’t consider this at all until a friend from work mentioned it, just before I went on leave. A great deal of the pain and frustration of learning to feed your baby can be diluted somewhat with a great book open in front of you. And when the time stretches into hours of your day and night, you can actually read a lot (when you’re not struggling to keep your eyes open at least). So, here’s what I’ve been reading:

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling, Illustrated by Jim Kay

I mention this edition in particular because it’s large and stays open when you lay it flat, which makes it a lot easier to read – hands free! Plus I read this one aloud, you’re never too young to hear Harry Potter after all. It’s been so nice to re-read this book, especially with the 20th anniversary being talked about so much. It makes me feel so old though! My mum bought me my first copy of HP as a gift for making it through year six camp (gosh I hated school camp) all those twenty years ago. She said the man in the book store told her it was a great read, and he was right (thank you booksellers, just thank you). I remember how in the following years the entire landscape of reading shifted. Suddenly it wasn’t such a nerdy thing to be a reader. I stood in those massive lines waiting with hundreds of kids to get the later books and finally felt like I was a part of something. I’d found my community. I’m sure there are plenty of people out there just like me, who have J. K. to thank for that.

I just had a thought – maybe Sophie’s taking so much time feeding because she wants to hear how it ends? What a smart cookie. Hehe.

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, illustrated by Inga Moore

I have this lined up because I’m getting close to the end of Harry Potter. It was one of my favourites growing up and I can’t wait to revisit it. This edition is a large hardback like Harry Potter above and has beautiful illustrations. I wonder how many other lovely classic editions I can justify buying for this purpose? Any suggestions?

Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne

Okay so I haven’t been reading this one as much – my husband has been reading it aloud to Sophie and me every now and then. He does the best Winnie-the-Pooh voice and his Eeyore is top notch. I actually missed the boat on this one in childhood, I’ve never read it. Turns out it’s hilarious! If you haven’t read it for yourself (or for your little ones) you definitely should! I am completely in love with the cleverness and complete uniqueness of the little stories.

The Hidden Hours by Sara Foster

I read this in hospital. It was the perfect light, entertaining read to distract from the shock of a newborn in special care and your entire body suddenly being the property of anyone and everyone. Jody has had plenty to say about Sara Foster over the past couple months and she’s entirely right.

The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova

I’m reading this late at night and I’m really enjoying it so far. Elizabeth Kostova wrote The Historian, which was hugely popular years ago. The Shadow Land is set in Bulgaria, which is interesting.  It’s a part coming-of-age story, part mystery. I love the detail in Kostova’s writing and I’m entirely absorbed in the story. I want to know how this all comes together. There will definitely be a review to follow of this one.

Anyway, please give me all your newborn advice, I’m more than happy to hear it all. And I’m even happier to hear your latest, greatest book recommendations!

Hope you’re all well.

Amanda x

Book Review: Red Sister by Mark Lawrence

Alright, we admit it – Jody and I are generally pretty sexist when it comes to books. We’re not sure why but we tend to lean towards female writers, probably because they more often have female lead characters who are easier to relate to. They’re just more familiar, more comforting. But recently, we both made an exception. We read about a book coming out by Mark Lawrence. His name was familiar to us because of his popular Broken Empire series. We’ve both often picked up the first book of that series, but never committed.

When we read about his latest book Red Sister though, the blurb sounded right up our alley. Jody found it first on iBooks and downloaded the sample. Then we we spotted it on a new release trolley in one of our local bookshops, waiting to be put on display. Never fear, where there’s a book we must read, there’s a way. We snuck up to that trolley and furtively slipped two copies off the stack. We were pretty impressed with our book-ninja moment. I’m sure they would have given them to us if we’d asked, but this was much more entertaining.

Red Sister is the story of Nona Grey, who’s accused of murder at eight years old but saved from the gallows by a sister from the Convent of Sweet Mercy. Nona soon discovers the girls who live at the convent come from various walks of life and are trained and tested to find their fit in one of four disciplines, the most infamous of which is Red. The girls who demonstrate their suitability for the Red discipline become trained assassins, skilled in armed and unarmed combat, feared and revered across the land. Nona must catch up quickly if she has any hope of surviving the rigorous training and education regime at the hands of the sisters, some of whom are downright merciless. Along the way she does manage to find moments of kindness and friendship, small lights in the grim, dark tunnel of her short life so far.

Nona is a likeable character right from the start. She’ll draw you into the book, then help you through some of the overwhelmingly violent scenes at the beginning. You’re immediately on her side, and her strength and courage keep you turning the pages. She’s a fighter who goes through a lot in the short time before her internment at the convent, and even more from then on.

The book incorporates flash-forwards every now and then which really make you wonder what’s going to happen to get the characters to that point. It’s a technique we’ve usually seen in suspense novels but it works here too. It can be a little confusing, but at the same time, completely engaging.

What really hooks you in though is Mark Lawrence’s incredibly descriptive writing. He’s built this world with so much rich detail and so much thought that it feels entirely credible. Combine that with a thoroughly well-planned story, and we can only hope it will be continued as a series.

Jody says “this book has now restored my faith in fantasy” and she’s right. It’s so much more than those flash-and-burn fantasy-romance books around at the moment. It’s like the difference between sitting down for a six-course degustation meal compared to a quick fast-food drive through.

If you like Robin Hobb and Trudi Canavan, or even Patrick Rothfuss – those long-form, epic fantasies – you’ll love this one. We sure did.

Jody & Amanda

Why it’s so darn hard to review suspense (but we really want to)

Right. So we know it’s been ages since our last review, but we’ve been busy dealing with some of those personal things that get in the way, like Amanda finding out she’s having a baby and Jody’s baby starting high-school.

Still, we have been reading, maybe even more than we did last year, but we’ve found ourselves in a bit of a sticky situation. We both like reading suspense. Thrillers, crime, whatever you want to call it, although we’d say our preference is more for the gentler, less gory kind. We’re all for the psychological, slow-burn read.

What we don’t like is giving spoilers. So we’re stuck. Do we write a long review and risk giving away too much information? We think not.

Instead, here’s a list of suspense novels we’ve read so far this year in brief:

Jody

Behind Closed Doors & The Breakdown by B.A.Paris: From the first page of both these books I was hooked! The storylines are both psychological suspense and both are fast-paced reads, great for a weekend away (if they don’t scare the bejesus out of you). Behind Closed Doors was quite hard to read in places, so keep that in mind. Overall, they’re both lighter suspense though. Both 5 stars.

Three Hours Late, Hush Little Bird and The Secrets in Silence by Nicole Trope: Aussie author Nicole Trope tends to deal with difficult topics and her books can be quite confronting. Hush Little Baby was particularly hard to read as it dealt with child abuse. I felt like I didn’t want to keep reading but at the same time I had to know how it ended. Nicole writes in a similar style to Caroline Overington so if you’re a Caroline Overington fan you’ll love these.

Hidden Hours by Sara Foster: I devoured all Sara’s previous books at the end of last year and she’s getting better and better! I’m sorry I’ve finished her latest book – I didn’t even pace myself! Normally if I know I’m going to enjoy a book I savour it, read it slowly, will it not to end – but not this one! I just had to know how it ended! I want everyone to know about her so you read her books because I think they’re amazing and she’s a bit of a hidden Aussie gem.

Amanda

The Girl in the Red Coat by Kate Hamer: a fast-paced read told from two perspectives – eight-year-old Carmel who’s been kidnapped by someone she believes to be her estranged grandfather, and her mother Beth, who has to find some way to live day-to-day with a Carmel-shaped hole in her life, all the while believing that she’s out there somewhere. It is not so much a thriller really – you as the reader know where Carmel is, you know what has happened to her. But you want a resolution for all of them. It’s mainly a story about grief, a little girl missing her mother, and a mother missing her little girl. Seeing each other everywhere and never quite connecting. 4 stars.

Storm and Grace by Kathryn Hamer: Australian author Kathryn Harmer has written six books, but this is the first I’ve read. It’s a strange story about male dominance and abuse, saved by the vivid descriptions of freediving and the curious world Heyman creates for her characters. I would love to talk to someone who has read this one! 3 stars.

See What I have Done by Sarah Schmidt: based on the true story of Lizzie Borden, accused of murdering her father and stepmother in 1892 and written by Sarah Schmidt, a new Aussie talent. Eerie and gothic, I read this book quickly over a day or so, finding the cast of characters compelling and oh-so-readable. I was left feeling like more could have been made of it though. 3 stars.

So there you have it. We’re back, and we’ve got other reviews on the boil so look out for them soon!

Hope you are all doing well and reading plenty.

Amanda & Jody

Book Review: Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin

About half way through this book I wasn’t sure what I would write when it came to reviewing it. Whether I even wanted to review it. There are so many books which we read and don’t review either because we don’t have time, or we just don’t have anything to say about it. We’ve never posted a review for a book we don’t like, not because we haven’t read boring books, but because why would we bother to share our dislike? What would we say? Reading is such a subjective thing, both Jody and I struggle regularly over books that are bestsellers, flaunted as the next great thing, the best thing you’ll read all year.

Sorry, tangent. The Swans of Fifth Avenue is an enjoyable enough read, but half way through I was thinking this is just another light, society novel where money and marriage is everything. The main character, Babe Paley, has been brought up as a society ‘swan’ and is the perfect wife to her detached, cheating husband. She plans his meals, dresses for dinner, puts on a face. Always, puts on a face. Smiling, smiling, while inside she battles low self-esteem and an inkling that maybe life shouldn’t be quite like this. She leads her friends like the 1950s style icon she is, but with a rare kindness and generosity – seen as a vulnerability by those around her.

Enter Truman Capote. The eccentric, narcissistic, eventual alcoholic who befriends and enthrals Babe Paley and her friends. Especially Babe, who finds Capote a confidant, a “True Heart”, a best friend. Someone who shares her vulnerabilities and seems to understand her. She opens her heart to him and Capote, the story teller, the infamous writer, does what comes naturally. He tells it to the world and Babe and her friends are betrayed.

The thing is – what really made me stop and think – is that there is a nice symmetry to this book. It’s a kind of non-fiction novel, in the same way Capote’s unfinished Answered Prayers was. The characters existed, the events seem largely constructed from well-documented happenings. The great Black and White Ball in the grand ballroom of the Plaza Hall thrown by Capote in 1966 is legendary. Capote and Paley’s friendship is well documented.

Perhaps it’s just that the idea of being and doing everything for your husband and never knowing your true self is entirely objectionable to my feminist sensibilities. Perhaps it just made me think, so much of their lives is just a face. Constructed, created. So how much of it was genuine? Did they die with no regrets or did they wish, just a little bit, they had lived for themselves more. Loved for themselves more?

This book made me think about the value of these women’s lives and how such bright sparks were dulled by the era they grew up in. How much society lost because they weren’t able to grow into their full potential. It made me wonder – has it changed that much? Aren’t we all still fighting for equality and respect? Maybe the brightest message in this book is that we should present a face to the world that is genuine, and embrace who we are, whoever it is that we want to be. So that the world understands more that there is no perfect face. We are unique and flawed and that is okay. In fact, that is awesome.

Any novel that makes you reflect on that is worthy, in my book.

Amanda x

On Australian Women Writers. You are amazing.

You may have read that Jody’s going through a bit of a reading slump at the moment. Fortunately, while she is struggling, I’m devouring some of the best books I’ve read this year. Say goodbye to slump days, and hello long train and plane trips to nowhere, I say! Isn’t it just the best feeling when you have a long stretch of time to fill ahead of you and the book you’re reading makes it go by in a flash?

What really impressed me about the books I’ve been inhaling is they’re all Australian… and they’re all written by women. I know we’ve waxed lyrical many times about the quality of literature in this country but it continues to amaze me. This year I’ve really grown into a passionate advocate of Australian writing, with good reason.

So, with that in mind I signed up Jody and I to the Australian Women Writers Challenge, whereby we challenge ourselves to read a certain amount of works written by Australian women. Child’s play I say. Why didn’t we do this months ago, Jody says? We’ve already read SO many without even noticing! Out of all of the beautiful, astonishing, incredible books we’ve blogged about this year, by my (rough) calculations, at least half have been by Australian women. Helen Garner, Peggy Frew, Cath Crowley, Emily Maguire, Anita Heiss, Fiona Wright, Liane Moriarty, Sofie Laguna, Inga Simpson – the list goes on and on and on. And that’s only the tip, there are so many more we’ve read but not had time to review.

Is it Australia’s isolation from the rest of the world that makes for such diversity and quality among our female writers? Is it our education system? Is it the passion we have for our culture? Is it courage? It takes great courage to pick up the proverbial pen and write in a country that has such richness in landscape and story, and yet has an “ingrained, unconscious bias” against female writers.

I do know this: I am so proud of the literature produced by women in this country. I know some argue it could be more diverse. I know some argue it could better reflect the society we live in. But if you ask me, it’s getting there – you just need to know where to look. And apologies to those blokes out there, but I look to women.

I look to women because I feel their empathy. I look to women because I feel their passion. I look to women because they, and their characters, are vibrant and fierce and funny and kind. I look to women because I think we need a louder voice in this country and I know that voice can be found in literature. In the delicate, curious, exploration of our past, in the ardent advocacy of a different, more all-encompassing future. When they write, I listen. What they write, I learn from. So please, from one reader, from many readers – write more, and know that we are listening.

Amanda x

 

My TBR pile and hitting a reading slump

Well, it’s about time I contributed some content to our blog. I’m sure Amanda is starting to think she’s all alone with no one to help. My problem is I haven’t read anything in a few weeks. I’m really struggling to get excited by a new book and it’s starting to bother me – a lot.

I have books on my shelf I’ve been waiting to read. Some of them I even bought as soon as they were released, but now for some reason they’re just not grabbing me. So, to help me get reading again I decided to share with everyone a selection of books on my TBR pile. There are some great new releases and some old favourites just waiting to be read, and I have no idea why I don’t want to right now. Is anyone else suffering reader’s block?

The Girl in the Glass Tower by Elizabeth Fremantle

I loved the cover of this book so much I had to have it. And when I saw it’s set in Tudor England I was ecstatic because that is one of my favourite time periods. It tells the story of Arbella Stuart, niece to Mary Queen of Queen of Scots and presumed successor to Elizabeth I. She’s been in isolation for most of her life but as we all know, those close to the crown are never safe! I always find it interesting when someone whose life is so strictly controlled suddenly goes against the grain. I am hoping that’s what happens anyway!

The Joyce Girl by Annabel Abbs

I have been watching this book pop up again and again on social media and the premise is fascinating. It’s set in the late 1920s in Paris and it’s about James Joyce’s daughter Lucia. From what I understand, this is a fiction based on the few details known about Lucia’s life, who almost disappeared from history. Despite her talent and ambition she leads a tumultuous life, one that sounds entirely gripping.

America’s First Daughter by Stephanie Dray & Laura Kamoie

Obviously I was going through a bit of an historical fiction phase with these ones! This novel is set in America during the 18th Century, in particular the period when Thomas Jefferson is the American Minister to France. The protagonists are his 15 year old daughter, Patsy, and Sally Hemings, a slave girl of the same age. It’s been compared to Gone with the Wind, which is a big call but in my mind that makes it a must read.

Thunderlord by Marion Zimmer Bradley & Deborah J. Ross

The Darkover series by Marion Zimmer Bradley is one of my all time favourite series. Seriously. I’m always trying to get Amanda to pick these up. I own and have read every book in the series and I’ve enjoyed every one. What makes Marion Zimmer Bradley’s books stand out from others is the depth and nuance of the characters and the way she makes the world of Darkover and the people come to life. Thunderlord is a brand-new novel in the Darkover universe, written by collaborator Deborah J. Ross. Read it! Please! Then you can tell me how good it is and I will be inspired to pick it up!

A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth

I’ve read A Suitable Boy twice in the space of 15 years and thought it was about time to read it again. For a while there I was sure it was going to be the one to get me out of my slump. Some people might find this book a challenge at over 1300 pages but I promise you it really doesn’t seem that long when you are reading it. It’s truly an epic family saga at it’s best – a love story – a story of newly independent India and how Lata’s destiny is intertwined with that of her country.

Last Woman Hanged by Caroline Overington

What do you know…another history book! Australian this time. I’m really going around the world here. Caroline Overington is one of my favourite Australian authors and I’ve read every book she’s written. I was also lucky enough to meet her at an author talk we held at the library. The Last Woman Hanged was a book Caroline spoke passionately about writing and one I know I will enjoy. It’s the story of Louisa Collins, who went through four trials in the 1880’s before being found guilty of killing both her husbands with arsenic. I will never tire of Australian history!

Elianne by Judy Nunn

I’ve read The Ghan and Beneath the Southern Cross by Judy Nunn and I enjoyed both. They’re light reads often with a bit of a serious undertone and this one is set on a sugar cane plantation in Queensland.

I have to admit this is only a small selection of the books at the top of my TBR pile. Surely I should be able to find one here to get me back reading again. If anyone has any suggestions to help me pick up a book again, I’m keen to hear them!

Jody