The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad has gathered a lot of attention recently after winning this year’s Pulitzer Prize. I had wanted to read it for a while and finally had the time to pick it up. For those who don’t already know this novel tells the story of Cora, a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia who finds herself agreeing to run away with another slave, Caesar. Escaping through the Underground Railroad which will take them away from their troubles to the free states up north. This novel follows just sore of Cora’s harrowing journey across America on the famed Underground Railroad trying to evade recapture back to her vicious owner.

 

This novel was a very quick and easy read. I managed to finish it in 24 hours not being able to tear my eyes away from Cora’s struggles. This is a heart-breaking but matter-of-fact story of America’s south pre-civicl war at the height of black slavery. This story starts in Africa with the capture of Cora’s grandmother and brings us to her journey.

 

Despite the win and rave reviews I noticed plenty of criticisms of this novel that ,though I understood, I felt were strengths or inevitabilities of the plot. One such criticism was the impersonal method of using third-person narration leading to not developing an attachment to Cora. In a way I liked that Whitehead did not resort to emotional manipulations or sentimentality to create a response. Personally I found the atrocities of the novel spoke for themselves weaving a dangerous and urgent vibe into the story. Readers also mentioned excessive and under-developed secondary characters but again, I feel it speaks to the nature of the novel. Times were so unpredictable and dangerous that Cora herself did not have time to develop lasting connections or meaningful relationships and so, therefore, the reader did not either. Lastly, others spoke of how the villains were not multidimensional but in all honesty how do you make cruel and vicious slavers multidimensional? Times back then were harsh and brutal. Whitehead only tells of the honesty of the situation with no embellishment or sugar-coating.

 

The majority of this review is debunking other criticisms of the book in an attempt to tempt all of you into giving it a go and looking past these critiques as plot devices that help tell this story. Cora is a beautiful protagonist and I enjoyed following her through her many horrors. My heart broke for her over and over again. There are twists and turns within this novel keeping the reader on their toes and barrelling towards what they hope is a happy ending. The Underground Railroad is well worth a read and I highly recommend picking it up and making your own mind. This was an insightful and touching novel that speaks to just one small portion of our brutal history as human beings. I give The Underground Railroad four trains bearing away slaves to safety.

 

 

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Understory – Inga Simpson

I came across Inga Simpson at Adelaide Writer’s Week. My interest was piqued after listening to her read an excerpt from her novel Where The Trees Were. I fell in love with that novel, have now devoured Understory and certainly plan to make my way through her first two novels. Understory is the tale of Simpson’s tree change from suburbia to a cottage in the forest and interweaves the stories of her life that shaped her path as a writer.

 

Part of what I love about Understory was that I found Simpson so relatable. All the anecdotes, the passing details are so familiar to my own life that I could;t help but feel comfortable in her world. Gardening in your undies, finishing the day with a beer, the love for wine, good food and solitude. It was all too easy to picture and immerse myself in. I also loved the continuous references to Lord of the Rings and in particular the Ents. I adore LotR and loved reading about the parallels she found in her life in the forest.

 

Understory is not just a memoir of Simpson’s life, but of the trees in the forest too. The reader visits the canopy, the middlestory and the understory. When reading this book be prepared with a device for googling images of the trees. While Simpson’s descriptions are vivid and beautiful I also enjoyed a visual representation. Each chapter within each part is the story of that tree, the reader learns all about it, where it fits in the forest and hear a story from Simpson’s life that relates back to that tree. This is not your typical memoir told in chronological order detailing life from infancy to present. This is something different, more personal, the reader understands just how intertwined Simpson’s life is with the forest.

 

If you are ecologically-minded I highly recommend picking up Understory. If you aren’t ecologically-minded I still recommend picking up Understory. I love the approach to life, the relationship with natures, the lessons learned all contained within this memoir and already know it is a book I will return to again and again over the years. In fact, I immediately went out and purchased Simpson’s first novel, Mr Wigg, before I had even finished reading Understory after reading about the inspiration and process of writing it.  I believe Simpson is becoming an important voice in Australian literature and highly recommend picking up something of hers if you have not yet. We can all do with a little reminder of just how much we influence our environment and what we can do to protect it. I give Understory four strong trees of the forest.

 

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The Queen of Whale Cay – Kate Summerscale

There is no better way to describe this novel than truth really is stranger than fiction. In fact I’m going to follow Margot from Project Lectito and say after reading this biography Joe Carstairs would most definitely be one of the five people dead or alive I would want to have dinner with. If, like I was, you are completely unaware who Joe Carstairs is firstly she was the fasted woman on the water in the 1920’s. Born to an American oil heiress and a British army caption, Joe was born Marion Barbara Carstairs and worked as a driver during WWI. Post-war she named herself Joe, dressed as a man and embarked on affairs with a host of actresses and young women while aspiring to be the fastest woman on water. Eventually she tired of the limelight and the fickle whims of the media and bought an island in the Bahamas to live on with the love of her life Lord Tod Wadley, a doll given to her by her girlfriend Ruth. On Whale Cay she built a thriving community, championed for the rights of the Bahamians and threw debaucherous parties.

 

Joe Carstairs was an enigma, a more fascinating person you will not find. From her childhood and relationship with her mother to her flair for the dramatics and practical jokes. To Lord Tod Wadley and her many girlfriends, to her lifelong generosity and passion for the local Bahaminans and mission to make them self-sufficient. Joe had many contrasting personality traits, both negative and positive in equal amounts but regardless she always meant well. All I can say really is read this book! To go into more detail is to spoil all these amazing stories for all you potential readers.

 

Summerscale’s writing and tone was a highlight of the book, apart from Carstair’s escapades of course. Her comments speculating on the psychology of Corsair’s actions were well-placed and not ver-done. There was not too much or too little detail. This biography engages the reader throughout. The photographs and other mages were a great addition to add to the readers experience. Overall, this was a great non-fiction read for a giggle and a unique story that if someone were to fictionalise would be thought to be over the top and too ridiculous. While many of Carstair’s actions were laughable and entertaining she had much more depth than one might initially assume. I give The Queen of Whale Cay four dolls to keep Lord Tod Wadley company.

 

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Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel

I just can’t seem to get enough of post-apocalyptic fiction and Station Eleven was no exception. One winter’s night a well-known actor dies on stage performing King Lear. Hours later the world as we know it collapses as a deadly flu pandemic breaks out killing those who come into contact with it. Twenty years later Kirsten is an actress performing Shakespeare with the Travelling Symphony when an encounter with a self-proclaimed prophet threatens to disrupt their delicate way of life in a world without electricity, medicine or modern comforts. As the story switches back and forth from past to present the threads of the story slowly come together.

 

One thing that struck me about this novel was that it seemed a little more hopeful than your average post-apocalyptic tale. Don’t get me wrong this story did’t shy away from the harsh realities of life without civilisation or sugarcoat anything but there was an undertone of hope or maybe just a lack of desolation? There are still a band of people dedicated to bringing some joy and beauty in a broken world that still remembers what they have lost and who would have thought Shakespeare is what the post-apocalyptic society wants?

 

I loved getting to know each of the characters across the novel and learning about their stories before and after the end of the world. The storyline shifts across several characters from the past to the present as the reader watches the pieces slowly fall into place, which I loved and savoured. Their lives tell as story of humanity and life and the constant shift of whims and desires. How do we keep humanity in times of emergency? This novel explores some of these ideas in a beautiful, simplistic manner. The prose was beautiful and the mood and tome were superb keeping the story flowing towards the climax.

 

My favourite chapter describes an incomplete list of all that has been lost in this post-apocalyptic world, which I found elegant and reflective. I haven’t come across a chapter like it in any other apocalyptic novel and thought it put so much into perspective, what life could be like should a similar disaster befall us. Some great concepts are also explore and touched upon within this story, such as is it worth remembering the past and all that has been lost or is it better to move forward and let the old ways slip away from the newer generation? So many thought provoking ideas flowed from these pages.

 

Overall, I would highly recommend this evocative and descriptive read. I found it a pleasure to read and devoured it in two evenings. Besides, how could I not fall in love with a novel that references one of my other favourite post-apocalyptic novels: The Passage. That being said, if you don’t typically read this kind of book I would urge you to give it a go as it is much more than just a post-apocalyptic story, it is literary and unique. I give Station Eleven four seahorses living in the Undersea.

 

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See What I Have Done – Sarah Schmidt

See What I Have Done is one of the most creepy reads for me so far this year. This novel is a fictional take on the infamous Lizzie Borden case. For those not familiar with the story Lizzie Borden was charged with the murders of her father and step-mother back in 1892 and was famously acquitted of both murders. Schmidt tells her version of what may have happened that fateful day.

 

The absolute highlight of this novel was the evocative writing. You feel as though you are right there with Lizzie and her family. This is not necessarily a happy thing. This is a brutal story that is stifling and leaves the reader feeling repulsed. This isn’t even necessarily in regards to the murders but the daily life within that house. It was creepy and gross and you wanted to look away but couldn’t help but continue. I would go as far as to say at times the writing almost feels like you are in a horror novel. The reader experiences this constant feeling of impending doom, a quiet menace within the pages. I found myself hooked and drawn in from the very beginning.

 

In all honesty there is minimal plot within this novel and most of it is pretty well expected from the beginning. There is, however, such detail within the characters and their nuances that you feel as though they are real people. Each of the characters we meet is vivid and layered. Lizzie was a terrifying character and incredibly addictive at the same time. She was intense, selfish and quite creepy. It is hard to imagine her as an adult, her behaviour is quite childlike and this sets the scene perfectly. Emma, Lizzie’s sister, was a fascinating character that as a rider you develop sympathy for. Two further characters narrate chapters of the book and are fascinating in their own unique ways.

 

I loved the slow build of the novel into the climax that we are all anticipating. The ending was perfect, the writing exemplary and I found a sense of gratification at the conclusion. If you want a novel that leaves you feeling creeped out and wanting to wash your hands after reading it, then this is the book for you. The tone and writing was perfection and one understands how Schmidt created such a vivid, whole character in Lizzie when you read how she came to write this novel (seriously, go look it up). I give See What I Have Done four of Lizzie’s pigeons.

 

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Startdust – Neil Gaiman

A short and sweet review for a short and sweet novel. Stardust tells the story of Tristan Thorn, a citizen of Wall, who falls in love with the ravishing Victoria Forester. To win his heart’s desire from her Tristan sets off into the world of Faerie to recover a fallen star for Victoria. What Tristan doesn’t count on is others who are pursuing this prize and ultimately what the star wants herself.

 

Stardust  can only be described as an adult fairytale. It is whimsical, unpredictable and loveable. I was charmed from the first few pages up until the very end. There are not a lot of in-depth details, nor to we get to know the characters on an up-close and personal level but given the tone of the novel this is not required, nor missed. Gaiman’s writing is, as always, a highlight. His way of writing fantasy leaves the reader wanting more and my next move is to listen to an audiobook of one of his novels to hear his voice tell the stories he so clearly loves.

 

There isn’t much more to say without going into plot detail and spoiling some of the fun. The characters are vivid and memorable. The story is fast-paced and timely, barely cracking two hundred pages. It is fun and unpredictable, a charming novel that all can enjoy. Do yourself a favour and read this book. I give Stardust four shooting stars.

 

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Six of Crows & Crooked Kingdom – Leigh Bardugo

I found myself at home and sick this week. When I am sick all I crave are comfort reads. For me a comfort read is something not too challenging that I can wrap myself up in, enter a different world with a bunch of loveable characters. This week I found myself purchasing Six of Crows to satisfy my craving. Rookie error, I did not purchase Crooked Kingdom at the same time and found myself racing back to the shops the very next day. For those of you not familiar with this duology, it has been described as Game of Thrones crossed with Ocean’s Eleven. Kaz Brekker, criminal mastermind of the Dregs gang has been offered a deal that can make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. The catch: break into a court that has never been breached and retrieve a hostage several nations are fighting to acquire. These novels follow Kaz and his chosen crew across an ocean to the Ice Court and back to claim their reward.

 

In all honesty I knew I was going to love these books from the second paragraph in with the sentence “…her eyes were brown – lovely, dreamy…melted chocolate brown? Rabbit fur brown?”. These books were funny. Laugh out loud funny. The prose, particularly between the six, was witty and quick and I loved every minute of it. I was surprised at how intelligent and well-put together these novels were for YA. I don’t mean anything against YA but often the fantasy genre is rife with cliches and predictability (not always a bad thing!) and this series had none. There was one twist that I saw coming and to be honest, you expected it knowing that there was two books in this series.

 

The characters were also a strong point of these novels. They were perfectly unique and in my opinion the best squad going (sorry Harry, Ron & Hermione). I loved each and every one of these characters. They all played their role, each one of them was flawed and had so much room for development. I don’t think I could even pick a favourite (maybe Jesper, but only by a fraction). What I loved about the way the book was written was how the story was told from each of their points of view across the two books. I loved this technique as it allows the reader to see so much more in the novel without having to resort to making the lone protagonist unusually and unrealistically perceptive, which happens a lot in these types of novels. It also allows you to get to know what  makes each character tick, what makes them unique.

 

I couldn’t praise these books enough. They are fast-paced with many twists and turns you don’t see coming and laugh out loud funny which balances the tension perfectly. The characters are to die for and so diverse! We have disabilities, mental insecurities and even a same-sex relationship. Also, quite touching, was learning that one of the characters disabilities comes from the author herself. Something she wrote into the books to show that we can all be our own hero, even if we are flawed. I would highly recommend both of these novels, particularly if you enjoy a good fantasy world. I give both Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom four crows, both cracking reads.

 

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