Lenny’s Book of Everything by Karen Foxlee

Published: 1st November 2018 (print)/1 February 2020 (audio) Goodreads badge
Allen & Unwin/Bolinda Publishing
Pages: 352/8 hrs and 56 mins
Narrator: Abbe Holmes
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Young Adult
★   ★   ★   ★ – 4 Stars

I knew my brother. I knew when he talked too much about Timothy his imaginary pet eagle. He was scared.
‘Whatever you do,’ I said to Davey on the walk to school, ‘Do not tell people about your eagle. Do not tell Miss Schweitzer about your eagle.’
He looked crestfallen. His shoulders slumped. He looked to make sure Timothy hadn’t fallen off.

Lenny, small and sharp, has a younger brother Davey who won’t stop growing – and at seven is as tall as a man. Raised by their single mother, who works two jobs and is made almost entirely out of worries, they have food and a roof over their heads, but not much else.

The bright spot every week is the arrival of the latest issue of Burrell’s Build-It-at-Home Encyclopaedia. Through the encyclopaedia, Lenny and Davey experience the wonders of the world – beetles, birds, quasars, quartz – and dream about a life of freedom and adventure, visiting places like Saskatchewan and Yellowknife, and the gleaming lakes of the Northwest Territories. But as her brother’s health deteriorates, Lenny comes to accept the inevitable truth; Davey will never make it to Great Bear Lake.

This was so highly praised I feared it was a Literature book that won the awards but was dull to read. Thankfully this wasn’t the case and instead it is a sweet and heartbreaking story set in the 1970s filled with sibling love and a love of information. There is a strong chance this book will break your heart but it will also fill you with love and admiration, you’ll become so consumed by these two siblings that everything in their lives becomes of vital importance to you.

Foxlee’s narrative is so beautifully written. It’s profound and magical and it captures so many feelings and emotions that are eloquent but never feel pretentious. The themes of loss and heartbreak are clear, but love and support are evident throughout as well. Lenny’s life is one where she tries so hard to be the big sister and the extra grown up her family needs but so often Foxlee shows she is also a little girl herself and with so much uncertainty around her, her own strength and determination doesn’t always have the reach required.

It was fascinating to see how Davey’s condition was dealt with and managed in the 1970s. It was also a wonderful look through Lenny’s eyes at her life with her brother and their life as a family. Lenny’s protectiveness of her younger brother, even when no one knew quite what was wrong, was so sweet. No matter what was going on with Davey he was still her little brother and she had to help and guide him through the world. You also feel the fierce pride and love Lenny’s mother had for her children, the way she advocates for them, not only with Davey’s condition, but in regards to the encyclopaedias as well. I loved how Foxlee uses the encyclopaedias as a focal point throughout and how it piques the children’s interests and passions. She beautifully captures the anticipation of the upcoming edition and highlights its importance in their lives.

Holmes does a fantastic job with the audiobook. She captures the childlike innocence of the children but also Lenny’s determination to be strong and brave for her mother and brother. I found myself completely absorbed in this story about Lenny and Davey and their discovery and fascinating with the subjects of each new edition of the encylocpaedia. This is a beautiful story and one that stays with you even after you’ve put it down.

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The Quiche of Death (#1) by M.C. Beaton

Published: 7th March 2006 (print)/5th July 2012 (audio) Goodreads badge
St. Martin’s Paperbacks/Bolinda Audio
Pages: 246/6 hrs and 25 mins
Narrator: Penelope Keith
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Mystery
★   ★   ★ – 3 Stars

Agatha has moved to a picture-book English village and wants to get in the swing. So she buys herself a quiche for the village quiche-making contest and is more than alarmed when it kills a judge. Hot on the trail of the poisoner, Agatha is fearless, all the while unaware, that she’s become the next victim….

I quite enjoyed this book. Agatha comes to the village from her big city job and Beaton provides all the explanations and justifications about why it’s possible. The problem being Agatha has built up in her mind what this kind of life would look like not understanding her own personality doesn’t quite fit in.

Agatha’s personality clashes with the gentler folk in the village but her own determination and insecurities push back and she gets herself into village life as she tries to live the life she’s always dreamt about. Entering the competition to try and assimilate but with no baking skills whatsoever she enters a bought quiche which cause more trouble and exposes Agatha’s fraud at the same time.

In a way you feel sorry for her, but other times you can see she only has herself to blame. The fact Beaton points out that prior to arriving at Carsely Agatha never had any friends is meant to make you sympathise with her, but also demonstrating her behaviour and interactions with other people it’s understandable why.

It’s a cosy mystery with a few rough edges. Agatha herself has a few rough edges herself as she smokes, drinks, swears and descents upon this quite village with her brashness and controlling nature. Coming from a world where money talks she uses that to solve her problems and her effect on the village is immediate.

The mystery itself was quite good, there are clues and secrets and it blends in with getting to know these new characters so the two work side by side. Keith does a good job as narrator, she has unique voices for the different characters and you can tell who’s going to be a reoccurring character. The story is a quick read but it didn’t feel incomplete, you get a sense of who the characters are and who Agatha is. Being the start of the series there are plenty of future stories to expand upon all the characters we have met and to delve further into the Carsely life.

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Sword in the Stars (#2) by Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy

Published: 7th April 2020 (print)/ 7th Apr 2020 (audio) Goodreads badge
Rock the Boat/Bolinda audio
Pages: 355/10 Hours 48 min
Narrator: Lauren Fortgang
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Young Adult
★   ★   ★   ★   ★  – 5 Stars

In this epic sequel to Once & Future, to save the future, Ari and her Rainbow knights pull off a heist…thousands of years in the past.

Ari Helix may have won her battle against the tyrannical Mercer corporation, but the larger war has just begun. Ari and her cursed wizard Merlin must travel back in time to the unenlightened Middle Ages and steal the King Arthur’s Grail—the very definition of impossible.

It’s imperative that the time travellers not skew the timeline and alter the course of history. Coming face-to-face with the original Arthurian legend could produce a ripple effect that changes everything. Somehow Merlin forgot that the past can be even more dangerous than the future…

After the first book I was expecting a lot from this sequel and a lot of answers and it certainly delivers. The old problems and new problems, as well as the world threatening and personal issues all coincide as each character makes their move through history and plays their roles.

Once again the creativity these authors show with creating a whole new, fantastically complex and stunning story but entwined seamlessly into the established Arthurian myth is something to marvel. These rich, flawed characters are in depth and unique and their complicated relationships with one another are never trivialised.

The diversity of the characters are highlighted further as they step into the past and I loved how the characters manage and reflect on their surroundings as a result. There’s conversations, so casual and important at the same time about identity. Coming from the future, even our future, it shows how far their society has come that this is such an everyday thing it isn’t even a big deal. Discussions about pronouns and having to be misgendered in the middle ages with the danger of hiding gender for protection – female and nonbinary knights are a hurdle but one that isn’t brushed over as a minor inconvenience. The characters talk openly about how it feels awful to be misgendered all day and how it wears them down. Capetta and McCarthy use the characters to remind us how whitewashed and male dominated this story has become over the centuries and how the middle ages were a lot more diverse than what has been told, even with the constraints of misogyny and sexism.

One of the things I loved, and it’s something that didn’t need to be included but I am so glad it did, was how the story breaks the fourth wall in a way with wonderful references to how the Arthurian legend has survived. Completely in narrative but the references are real with in jokes about the various versions of the legend told and retold throughout history in TV shows, movies, and other various books and retellings.

There’s so much contained within this story and it all works so well. There’s heart-warming romance, suspense and tension, action and drama all within a story of magic, time travel, space, and capitalism. I would love nothing more than to read more about this world and these characters but I also love that it’s confined to two books because those two books pack a punch I don’t know if I could handle another.

The conclusion is positively amazing. The way it fills in details and gaps, answers questions you didn’t even know were being asked and becomes a fabulous rich and complicated set of circumstances makes it the perfect story. This is the Arthurian retelling I didn’t know I needed but it one I will absolutely cherish.

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Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw

Published:  20th October 1994 (print)/1st August 2009 (audio) Goodreads badge
Dover Publications/Naxos Audio
Pages: 82/2 hrs and 36 minutes
Narrator: Anton Lesser, Lucy Whybrow, Geoffrey Palmer and cast
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Play
★   ★   ★ – 3 Stars

Professor Henry Higgins, a linguistic expert, takes on a bet that he can transform an awkward cockney flower seller into a refined young lady simply by polishing her manners and changing the way she speaks. In the process of convincing society that his creation is a mysterious royal figure, the Professor also falls in love with his elegant handiwork.

I adore the movie My Fair Lady which is the film version of this play and I loved that now having finally read the play on which it is based that it is virtually the exact same story. The main differences are the play brushes over a few scenes which are expanded in more detail in the film that might have only been a passing reference. This doesn’t take anything away from the play it was a curious observance, but from a production point of view it makes sense to limit your set locations.

Another comforting and familiar piece is Henry is just as much of a pig, even though Shaw has Henry admit he’s like that, and have other characters point out his issues, I can’t understand why he is so horrible. His selfishness and arrogance still make me want to punch him in the face.

Other than that, I do love this story a lot. It is also a great play to experience as an audio because I got the different voice actors in my ear and while I had their voices I could picture Rex Harrison in my mind. I loved how the different accents and components of the story came to life it was like I was listening to the movie.

One of the parts that always resounded with me was when Eliza asks Henry what she is meant to do with herself now he’s finished with her. She has been made into a lady without a skillset to actually work in society as a “proper lady” and she is deemed too posh to return to where she’s come from. I felt it trapped Eliza into becoming reliant on Henry. Not to say they couldn’t remain friends, but he’s rebuilt her into someone she doesn’t know how to be and expects her to manage.

Which brings me to something I will never understand, where the romance element comes from in this play. I can maybe see Henry falling for Eliza and becoming reliant on her because he laments missing her, in his own way, and after all that time together you would grow accustomed to one another, but this I would not class as romance, even in 1927. Henry is too much of a pig and abusive for Eliza to want to be with him, she says so enough times. Good company and companionship might be the best they can give one another, with Colonial Pickering popping over occasionally as a third friend.

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The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Published: 1st April 1998 (print)/2nd June 2011 (audio) Goodreads badge
Anchor Books/Random House
Pages: 314/10 hours 23 minutes
Narrator: Joanna David
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Classic
★   ★   ★   ★   ★  – 5 Stars

Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before, when she lived and made love with her husband, Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now…

I’m glad I finally read this and it’s clear this is a classic for a reason and stands the test of time because the issues it touches on are ongoing and remain as important as they did in the 80s. I was drawn in by this story and I’m glad it lives up to its reputation, I was equally fascinated and mortified by so much throughout this book I have no doubt that was Atwood’s intention.

It is a powerful move to make Offred remember her life before. It would have been easier to have this society be this way for so long no one really remembers the before times, but having it in living memory of someone relatively young is a beautifully horrifying choice and makes this so much more powerful. This is always seen as a dystopian story but the events fall so close to being possible it’s unsettling. It’s not quite in the dystopian world of nuclear fallout or environmental collapse, it is a construction of society and men and at times relatively close to reality it’s not too far to imagine it actually happening.

Atwood doesn’t need to infodump on us about what happen in full chronological details. She weaves information and history through Offred’s flashback’s and natural story. It never felt like we were being explained things, but at the same time what we don’t get told is also part of the fun. You can see it unfolding and the clues coming together, while still remaining in the dark about so much. I loved the inclusion of the Japanese tourists. It reminded me of a post I had seen on Tumblr about what the rest of the world is doing while the United States is having its dystopian dramas in all these books and movies. It’s little details like this that help shape the world Offred is living and the society that has been formed.

The audiobook was an amazing experience, especially given the ending and Moss did such a great job in telling this story. She was very good at putting contempt and distain into her voice, she was also skilled at incorporating a natural voice for Offred: fluid, casual offhanded remarks if they had just come to her, uncertainty and worry. I felt like I was listening to this woman’s story.

Atwood lets you create your own conclusions, better or worse about what happened. There is hope but there is also a sense of acceptance and leaving it to the reader is a powerful move. I actually loved not having answers. I won’t spoil what is and what isn’t told, but it was a great way to stay within the narrator’s world, and not to provide easy answers for the readers. It played into the emotional mindset of Offred, and to have it make sense as the story she was telling, not an outside view for us to know everything. Her story no doubt is for those who already know a lot, this is her own experience, retelling her story through what has happened, the reader picks up snippets here and there but the broader tale is known and meant to be understood by the fictional players which is a brilliant move.

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