Katie, a thirties-something estate agent, loses her job and with it, her sense of purpose. Trapped in indecision and depression, she agrees to take on a project for her husband’s cousin: to resurrect a decrepit family farm house for eventual sale. Katie trained as an interior designer, and the break from London life coupled with a chance to flex her creative skills draws her out of her shell and into tentative action.
The farmhouse, naturally enough, is in the country. Despite country holidays as a child, Katie discovers that country life is as confronting and relentlessly demanding as her city existence. She faces the realities of farming and of nature. Animals are assets if they can be used for economic gain, and native wildlife such as foxes and rabbits are vermin which can be slaughtered at will.
Then, just as she rediscovers her appreciation of nature, she sees an albino vixen with her two albino cubs. Katie’s desire to protect the creatures, no matter the cost, consumes her.
Much more than a commentary on nature and humanity’s place in it, The Snow Fox Diaries slowly unpicks Katie’s uncertainties and confusions. The tiny (and not so tiny) cracks in her marriage resurface. Katie wants to resist societal expectations on women but she doesn’t dare say so. The loss of employment shattered her confidence. She calls herself ‘middle-aged’, but she’s not yet forty and children are still a possibility. This mindset shows that Katie thinks of herself as useless. Her time has come and gone.
Like the vixen held captive ‘for her own good’, Katie struggles to see a future for herself. Eventually Katie accepts the fundamental impermanence of life, a resolution that is much stronger than an easy happy-ever-after outcome.
Katie can be prickly, and recognises how difficult and whiny she can be. Her husband Ben is perhaps my favourite character. Katie’s city-accustomed eyes confront the impact of humans on the natural world. Secondary characters carry the refrains of the countryfolk giving a more balanced view.
The Snow Fox Diaries doesn’t beat you over the head with an environmental message, but opens up nature to view while telling an intriguing story of a marriage several-years-old. Reflections are inevitable.
In these days of lockdowns and revisiting old pastimes such as board games, knitting and baking, many of us* have been doing more reading. But are we enjoying our books?
*Well, not me, because I am a lifetime book addict and I can’t see how I could possibly do more reading. At least as long as eating and personal hygiene remain important.
How to be Happy with a Book PART ONE
I write books, and I love the fact that complete strangers read and review them – reviews are a kind of currency among authors. Most authors also read a lot, and a second aspect of my writing practice is book reviewing. To me, ‘book review’ = ‘book critique’ where ‘critique’ = ‘analysis and assessment of a book, including virtues and shortcomings’. In this series of posts, I want to talk more how to choose books better so that you spend more time reading books that suit you, and waste less time on the DNF* stories. This is about finding a book that makes YOU, dear reader, happy.
*DNF = Did Not Finish. A disappointment to the reader, and a cruel blow to any author…
As a reviewer, I see my task as working out which readers would like this book, and then telling them why. I don’t see the need to find fault, because I know that different readers like different things (gore, violence, swearing, romance, magic, philosophy, spirituality – you name it!). It’s a rare book, in my experience, that has nothing for anyone. I concentrate on finding out what’s good about this book, for which readers – hence the title of this series: how to be happy with a book.
As well as book reviews in print, there are also many online platforms to share our thoughts about books. Some readers check Goodreads reviews before they buy; others look at the Amazon scores. Authors sift through their reviews for good quotes to use on their book descriptions and some book bloggers check what everyone else thought about a particular book before they weigh in on one side or the other.
Reviews are not always positive, and authors are advised not to read reviews.* While it’s a fact that not every reader will love our books, we still like to see what others think.
*We do (read reviews of our books)
I read and review about 80 books a year. You might think that’s a lot, but it’s perhaps a quarter of the books I’d like to read each year. How do I choose the ones that will please me best?
Clare’s three criteria for being happy with a book:
Do I want to read this book? … cover, genre, look & feel, reputation
Is the book well written and appropriate to its genre? … writing quality, genre stylistics, expression, editing, production values
Was this book a success? … thoughts about plotline, characterisation, suspension of disbelief, resolution, afterglow
This post is Part One: choosing a book*
*I’m imagining that you have strolled into a bookshop or library, or you are scrolling online, just browsing for something to read. If you are looking for a specific author or title, you are way ahead.
First, look at the cover: The old adage that you can’t judge a book by its cover has lost most of its power now that book production is streamlined with access to high resolution images, huge banks of attractive fonts, and the growing language of cover art. You will know what kind of book it is by the look of the cover. For example, a cover that features the back view of a young woman walking away from us into a dark street will be a crime thriller. The cover with the hovering dragon will be a fantasy. The cover with the pretty blue and pink border around a scenic view will be a romance, and the cover with the little white cottage surrounded by a flower garden is probably a cosy mystery.
Add to this the helpful work of bookshop staff and librarians who shelve novels under genre categories*, and you should recognise immediately what kind of book you are looking at, even before you pick it up.
*Genres are often imposed by libraries and bookshops. Many authors, myself included, just write the next story that comes along. Then we have to propose that story to a publisher, who wants to know ‘what genre’? Good question!
You, dear reader, now have a decision to make. Do you like reading this genre? Perhaps you have never read anything in this genre and you’d like to try it. Are you going to pick up this book, turn it over and read the blurb? If the book looks promising so far, then onwards!
Next, read the blurb: The blurb is part of the cover. Often written by a marketing staffer, sometimes by a bemused author, the blurb conveys the essence of the book in a way meant to entice the reader. The relationship of the blurb to the contents is not fixed. The blurb is as accurate as the ad for your local pizza chain. Do they serve the best pizzas in your town? The answer will be different for each reader, or pizza eater as the case my be. The blurb is to ‘sell’ the book to you, not to summarise the story.
Then check out the inside: The look and feel of a book is important too, especially in physical books. The artwork, the paper weight, the font, the ink quality, the layout – all of these can have an effect on your reading experience. I find that the font and layout of e-books is important too, and the quality of the illustrations is paramount for graphic novels in electronic form. I would usually read the first paragraph too, to see if the style of writing is one I can easily engage with.
Reputation: Have you heard of this title? Heard of the author? Heard of the publisher? What about any recommendations printed on the cover or on the inside? What do these things tell you about this book – do you think you’re likely to agree with the puff statements? Maybe you’re looking for an Australian book, or a quick read, or an elevating challenge. You can usually discover quite a lot about a book without even reading its first page.
PART ONE SUMMARY:
So, we’ve had a look at the book and we should now be able to decide whether or not to give it a go. Remember, our goal is to have a happy reading experience. I don’t mind passing on a book that others rave about, if my reconnaissance tells me it’s not going to make me happy. After all, I can only do justice to 80 books a year!
Next time, I’ll look at Part Two: Is the book well written?
This story is based on what is (to non-Icelanders) a little-known piece of history: Turkish pirates raided Iceland in the 17th century to capture slaves – slaves for sale in the open markets.
Slavery was big business at the time. Many colonial powers were raiding Africa and any poorly-defended island or beach they could find to capture people for the slave market. Horrifying but true. Exploitation that was open and ‘fair game’ to the slave traders who thought nothing of capturing humans for sale. Slavery continues in many places and across many societies, and I wonder whether we are more civilised or less civilised than our predecessors just because we push it out of sight. But back to the book!
The evocation of Icelandic life is wonderful, and I was fully immersed in the characters (who are based on historical figures hinted at in old records) and their reactions to the raid. Asta, the preacher’s wife who is our main interest, is quite complex and not always as obedient and hard-working as she ‘could/should’ be, according to the standards of the village and the time. She is a bit of a dreamer, and that helps her survive the horrific events of the raid, the repulsive sea journey, birthing a child onboard, the slave market and her life in captivity (which is not as grim as it might have been).
There is a also a bit about the politics of Iceland and a fair bit about seafaring. I didn’t find the sea pirates very sympathetic although it is clear that we get many sides of the story. I didn’t quite feel Asta’s attraction to her captor, who had sold off her son and kept her young daughter in his harem, but the scenes of her inner struggles with her circumstances were intriguing.
A lot remains unresolved at the end of this story, but this is a great way into Icelandic history. Highly recommended.
Prepare to be entranced by this multi-layered, feisty story – a masterpiece of world-building on a complex and engaging scale.
Three women – Ali, Merindah, and Dee – and their three dragons live on different worlds. Each world is imperilled, and each woman can act to stave off the danger, but only at enormous cost to herself. Add to this the tiny but rather important fact that they all share the one soul, and you begin to realise the enormity of the challenge ahead of them. As in the best of quest adventures, there is also a time limit for them to reunite their divided existences.
This is intelligent high-fantasy-sci-fi-dystopian-‘hopepunk’ that defies categorisation as it cleverly employs and exploits elements of many genres. I also like the Australian influences, especially because the timelessness of the land and the richness of the indigenous cultural history are woven into the story so seamlessly.
The novel benefits enormously from foregrounding three complicated, strong and self-determined women, although of course I am (somewhat guiltily) just as in love with the dragons.
Oooh, did I mention there are DRAGONS? 🙂
There are multiple points of view and a few timelines for the reader to navigate, on top of the three struggling worlds that our three protagonists inhabit. Hang in for a little and you will be completely captured by this world.
This is the first of the Opal Dreaming Chronicles and it will be interesting to see how the author manages the combination and the threads of the plot in the next (and I hope a third). This is such a rich story that it deserves at least three books – and maybe more. I am reminded of Katharine Kerr and her Deverry series such as my favourite Daggerspell, where there are wonderful characters, manifold timelines, reincarnations galore, and – you guessed it – dragons! I think I have discovered a new favourite.
This is probably the best romantic story of the decade, and definitely the best of the year. I know it’s only April, but contenders have a lot to beat with this sassy, funny, thoughtful and brilliantly executed novel.
From the very first page, Pernille Hughes captivated me with her perfectly imangined and expressed ensemble cast. Jen (our heroine) has a boss who is a complete incarnation of the rich, entitled, beautifully coiffed business woman who ‘has it all’ (money, looks, great staff, children, show-off-able partner) but doesn’t actually understand the real life costs of her way of living on people who are less privileged. In a short, brilliantly witty scene, the author tells us all this without an excess word or a hint of judgement. It’s all there for the reader – we are trusted to suss out these characters and enter their ways of thinking and behaving. Brilliant! I thought, I’m going to love this book.
And from there it only gets better.
Jen is very engaging and her relationship with her sister Lydia provides a context and emotional depth that is too often missing in modern romance. Jen is REAL, and fully understandable, even if we don’t always agree with her choices … which of course she manages to repair by the end. Lydia is a wonderful, inspiring character (who really deserves a book of her own – I would definitely read it!). Jen’s other dedication – to her dream of a micro-brewery – is also a clever addition, giving her even more depth and purpose.
The scenes in Copenhagen are very grounded and charming, making me sigh with the remembered pleasure of my last visit there. I’m sure this book should entice many an English-speaking traveller to explore Denmark – maybe the Danish tourist board should hand it out at promotional events. If only we could all meet the perfect Dane. Ah, Yakob. Hamlet, you are SO old hat with your hand-wringing style of romance – poor Ophelia. Move over and let lucky (and deserving) Jen and Yakob get on with it.
All in all, this is a pleasure to read and wull brighten anyone’s day. Satisfying all the needs of the genre, Probably the Best Kiss also manages to deliver more depth and engagement than many in this mode. I will be looking out with great interest for this author’s next book.
Clarissa’s Warning is the best sort of read: apparently staid bank-teller-now-lottery-winner Claire Bennett buys a crumbling ruin on the stark, beautiful island of Fuerteventura. She has grand plans to restore the building’s glory, only to find that the ghosts of inhabitants past are apparently set against any such ideas.
Paranormal mystery spices the intrigue as Claire strives to bring her dream to reality. Despite the reluctance of the owner to sell, the dire warnings of her supernaturally-gifted aunt Clarissa, the superstitions of the local workment, the greed of the local council, the general unhelpfulness of the people in the neighbouring village, and the sheer scale of the project, our heroine buckles up for the long ride. Claire is a doer, and a brave one at that, and she spends much of the story relying on her own ingenuity and heart. Her unresolved grief over her mother’s death (when Claire was only seven) lends emotional depth and context to her experiences with the spirits of the place.
Are there ghosts – poltergeists who cause damage and mischief? Or is there a malign human involved? What of love interest Paco … is he too good to be real? The agreeable builder Mario – is he up to something? What about that reluctant former owner who had to ditch his plans to demolish the place? Is he the one scaring off the workmen and doing his best to terrify our Claire?
No spoilers here about the answer, but it is a very satisfying one. (I love the last line!) As well as this bounty of story, we are also treated to a divine immersion in the stern romance of the Canary Islands, and discover the interesting history of the Spanish dominion over the area. The house has its own special history, a fascinating one worthy of its own tale. I remember feeling just such a fascination many years ago on reading Norah Loft’s The House at Sunset, one of my all-time favourites.
Isobel Blackthorn has delivered in spades and I will be recommending this to so many of my reader-friends. A very enjoyable read!
This story has much to admire, and Hillman’s writing is beautiful – spare and striking. There is a marvellous clarity about the emotions and situations in this novel.
One cannot help but like Tom. He has a heart, albeit broken, of pure gold. Athough Hannah is rather more complicated, and our engagement with her is threaded through with an uncomfortable and aching pity, we heartily wish her well. Yes, she does seem a bit odd to Australian eyes. That is perfect evidence of Hillman’s masterly rendering of an exotic female character.
The arc of this story is perfectly composed, and the ending realised with suitable tenderness. I found myself feeling most desperately for the boy Peter.
I won’t include spoilers because there is quite a tale – actually quite a few tales – clasped inside this book, with a couple of the weightier storylines bending the main narrative a little out of shape. Some of the character and place names have also been given a cipher-like simplicity, as though they are claiming the archetypal status of an everyman, which sometimes brought me out of the storyline.
These are mere minor quibbles. Overall, this is a wonderful book.
Sub-titled ‘a short collection of experimental cyberpunk’, Maddison Stoff’s tales are strange and intriguing. Cyberpunk may not be quite the right term to use for this collection of fascinating short stories, because the motivations and situations feel all too humanly-real. The settings in near-future Australia are recognisably possible, even when they seem completely impossible.
I love the title ‘For We Are Young and Free‘, which is a line from the Australian National Anthem – it’s like invoking the Stars and Stripes, and used ironically to highlight the dissatisfaction and despair of the children of the future – or today’s children grown into a world too miserable to nurture them, a world completely at the mercy of neo-liberal, capitalist priorities. The scenarios which Stoff conjures – such as elixirs of youth for the baby-boomer elite, the tyranny of choice which enables cyber-control of humanity, the backbreaking reality of terra-forming another planet after un-terra-forming our own – are, like the best of dystopian sci-fi, firmly connected to current day reality. George Orwell wrote 1984 in 1948 … Stoff may just have written 2081 in 2018.
I’d actually like to see the vast majority of these stories worked up into novellas or novels, because the world-biulding, plot lines and characterisation could sustain it. Nice.
For readers of Steven Amsterdam, Emily St John Mandel, and Karen Heuler. And if you like Tim Winton’s more pessimistically whimsical tales, give this a try. You won’t be disappointed.
Voyage of the Dogsis a delightful space adventure that has many of the ingredients to ensure success. The cast of Barkonauts is varied in personality and physical attributes, but they all retain the most essential quality that dogs can offer – undying loyalty, selflessness, and love. We may be in the 22nd century, where both humans and dogs have been fitted with modifications to improve their inter-species communication, but the fundametal nobility of the dog shines through.
There are interesting comments on life and the interaction between humans and animals as we learn a bit of backstory from each of the space pups. Their ability to think independently is prized in this situation, but their pack love is strong. We also learn some interesting facts about space – sufficient to carry the plot without making us scratch our chins about how possible/impossible certain events would be. And anyway, it’s the 22nd century. Who can say?
This is a bit of a tear jerker, though not quite as dire as I feared when I realised that their spaceship is called the ‘Laika’.
Middle grade readers who love dogs OR space – but especially those who love dogs AND space – will thoroughly enjoy this wonderful book.
Those of us who are adults and still love dogs AND space love it too.