Beauty in Thorns by Kate Forsyth

Published: 3 July 2017 (print)/ August 2017 (audio) Goodreads badge
Publisher:
 Vintage Australia/Wavesound Audio
Pages: 464/19 hours
Narrator: Juliette Burton
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Historical Fiction
★   ★   ★   ★   ★  – 5 Stars

The Pre-Raphaelites were determined to liberate art and love from the shackles of convention. 

Ned Burne-Jones had never had a painting lesson and his family wanted him to be a parson. Only young Georgie Macdonald – the daughter of a Methodist minister – understood. She put aside her own dreams to support him, only to be confronted by many years of gossip and scandal.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti was smitten with his favourite model, Lizzie Siddal. She wanted to be an artist herself, but was seduced by the irresistible lure of laudanum. 

William Morris fell head-over-heels for a ‘stunner’ from the slums, Janey Burden. Discovered by Ned, married to William, she embarked on a passionate affair with Gabriel that led inexorably to tragedy.

Margot Burne-Jones had become her father’s muse. He painted her as Briar Rose, the focus of his most renowned series of paintings, based on the fairy-tale that haunted him all his life. Yet Margot longed to be awakened to love. 

Bringing to life the dramatic true story of love, obsession and heartbreak that lies behind the Victorian era’s most famous paintings, Beauty in Thorns is the story of awakenings of all kinds.

Once again Forsyth has written a beautiful book that is filled with beauty, history, and heartache. I had been looking forward to reading this book and it certainly didn’t disappoint. The lives of the Pre-Raphaelites is tragic and inspiring, and to be swept up into their world was a vivid adventure.

This retelling of Sleeping Beauty explores the life of the famous artists who called themselves the Pre-Raphaelites. It was an area of history and art I knew little to nothing about but discovering their story thorugh this book was delightful.

Forsyth brings their stories to life with such detail and expression, and I marvelled at how these characters are more than character, they are people from history who contributed to the world and who brought their art and passion to the public.

What I found absolutely marvellous is that I could look up the halls of the Oxford Union Debating Chamber and see the murals in their completion whilst listening to the story about their creation. Seeing the completed works of these historical figures and putting real faces to the names is a delight that historical fiction can bring, especially when Forsyth does such a wonderful job keeping it as close to historically accurate as possible, with her own fairy tale mastery woven through.

The narration shifts between all of the character offering up a rounded perspective of their experiences and characters. The passion of Rossetti and the tragedy of Lizzie, as well as the brilliant and fascinating men and women who surrounded them is fascinating to read about. The story moves slowly but not dully, the exploration of character and the creation of art is fulfilling. With multiple characters to explore Forsyth balances their introductions and their voices very well, each having depth and complications that make you understand who they are and who they were.

I was fascinated about how so many known people from history connected to these characters, Kipling and Bernard Shaw all connect with these artists and Forsyth has blended their stories together beautifully. This is a wonderful skill I have noticed in all of Forsyth’s books. She seamlessly includes a range of information into the story that act like natural conversation and narrative without ever falling into the exposition chunk trap, which makes for a wonderful read but also help define the period and inform readers of the historical aspects of the story. Details about the movements of characters and filling in events that occur during the skipped time fall into place. I often got caught up in the story that when a character mentions people passed away years ago or were married for a certain amount of years I realised how much time had passed and it amazed me that it felt so right to just go on this journey with these character across their entire lives.

Forsyth covers numerous decades over the lives of these artists and their families. Even in the short space of reading this book I felt nostalgic, as these great figures entered their older age and they themselves were reminiscing about their youth. I recalled the chapters when they were young and carefree. I felt like I had gone on this journey with these artists and I empathised with them and pitied them.

When characters like Georgie and Ned reminisce about being young I thought back to the chapters where they were so carefree and idealistic, painting the mural and found myself becoming wistful sad and nostalgic alongside them. It hadn’t been 30 years for me, but I had been on this journey of their lives and seen their struggles and achievements and I wanted to mourn for them and celebrate them in a small way.

Burton does a wonderful job narrating the audiobook. I could picture everything with Forsyth’s words and Burton distinguishes these characters and brings their personalities off the page. Listening to the audio also gave the sensation of storytelling, I was being told a story about these grand artists from long ago and I loved listening to Burton tell me about their lives.

I implore you to look up their artwork when you have finished reading this book, I loved that I could see the finished product of a piece I’d only read about, or see the models that Forsyth describes in her story. It is a benefit of historical fiction and with a wonderful historical fairytale as beautiful as this it was a delight to relive it in a new way.

You can purchase Beauty in Thorns via the following

QBD | Booktopia | Book Depository

Angus and Robinson | Dymocks

Fishpond | Amazon Aust | Amazon | Audible

Does my Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah

Published: 1st August 2005Goodreads badge
Publisher:
 Pan Australia
Pages: 293
Format: Paperback
Genre: Young Adult
★   ★   ★  – 3 Stars

The slide opened and I heard a gentle, kind voice: What is your confession, my child? 
I was stuffed. The Priest would declare me a heretic; my parents would call me a traitor… 
The Priest asked me again: What is your confession, my child? 
I’m Muslim. I whispered.

Welcome to my world. I’m Amal Abdel-Hakim, a seventeen year-old Australian-Palestinian-Muslim still trying to come to grips with my various identity hyphens.

It’s hard enough being cool as a teenager when being one issue behind the latest Cosmo is enough to disqualify you from the in-group. Try wearing a veil on your head and practicing the bum’s up position at lunchtime and you know you’re in for a tough time at school.

Luckily my friends support me, although they’ve got a few troubles of their own. Simone, blonde, gorgeous and overweight – she’s got serious image issues, and Leila’s really intelligent but her parents are more interested in her getting a marriage certificate than her high school certificate!

I thought I would like this more. I didn’t dislike it, but it wasn’t the amazing book people made it out to be. It felt clunky and uneventful, and while there are great moments that shine through, the moments that falter stand out more.

The dialogue was…awkward. Conversations didn’t feel natural and Abdel-Fattah uses a lot of them to explain everyone’s back stories or Amal to educate the character (or us) about various topics and situations. They never seem to talk about anything else. The language was stilted and while what they are saying is valid and important, it doesn’t sit comfortably in the story. I don’t mind being told these things, but I think a more seamless inclusion was needed. This includes the excessive amount of metaphors and examples used, I understood that Amal wearing the veil sparked a need to educate the people around her but I felt overloaded with them.

I enjoyed the parts where Amal talks about why she wants to wear the veil and why it is important to her. I loved that I got to dislike the principal because of her own opinions and prejudices, no matter how subtle they were. And I liked Amal not putting up with anyone’s ignorance or preconception; her confusion, real or mocking, over why there is a problem at all is wonderful.

What was weird was being late reading this, it feels so old but it wasn’t at the time of course. I did not realise this was published in 2005, I thought it was the early twenty tweens, not the mid-2000s. The benefit of this however was I did enjoy reliving 2002 when Big Brother and Craig David were hot topics of discussion, I even think a bum bag reference was made which was fun.

It wasn’t all bad. There are some good moments like Amal’s frustration of being the token Muslim and I enjoyed getting to read about Muslim practice and faith. But it remained an average book, one I couldn’t connect with and whose clunky writing never let me fall into the story completely.

You can purchase Does My Head Look Big in This via the following

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Angus and Robinson | Dymocks | Wordery

Fishpond | Amazon Aust | Amazon | Audible

The Women in Black by Madeleine St John

Published: 30th March 2009 (print)/10 September 2012 (audio) Goodreads badge
Publisher:
 Text Publishing/Bolinda Audio
Pages: 233/5 hours 56 minutes
Narrator: Deidre Rubenstein
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Fiction
★   ★  – 2 Stars

Sydney in the late 1950s. On the second floor of the famous F.G. Goode department store, in Ladies’ Cocktail Frocks, the women in black are girding themselves for the Christmas rush. Lisa is the new Sales Assistant (Temporary). Across the floor and beyond the arch, she is about to meet the glamorous Continental refugee, Magda, guardian of the rose-pink cave of Model Gowns. With the lightest touch and the most tender of comic instincts, Madeleine St John conjures a vanished summer of innocence. The Women in Black is a classic.

This is a curious book. It was a decent read, the characters were all unique in their own way and yet have the wonderful conformity of the 1950s, and the era comes to life with St John’s words. I am caught between liking it and thinking it was just ok. Somewhere in the 2.5 star field because somehow I couldn’t give it a three.

If I stopped listening I found myself forgetting I was reading it at all. There was nothing in the story to get me back into it, and yet I didn’t hate it while I read it. I wasn’t bored per se, it’s just that nothing happens. I think it was the final third or even further when something happened that I finally got into it, and even then it’s not much. I think that was more the ending coming to a head so it felt conclusive.

This is a novel that is character driven, certainly more so than plot. I certainly have nothing against character driven novels, I think though that enjoyment comes from having characters that interest you so you want to read about their lives. I enjoyed Magda, and Lisa was endearing, but so few others piqued my interest. I felt two or three of these women took centre stage and felt more real than others which may have had something to do with it.

I did love the writing style. St John’s words are elegant and natural without being formal or unnecessarily complicated. The language puts you into this era and it separates the characters from one another with ease, almost so you don’t even notice it. This is emphasised by Rubenstein’s narration. Her use of voices and tone brought this story to life and highlighted St John’s beautiful words. There is slight humour but not enough to be a distraction, and the conversations are often humorous simply for their stark contrasts to modern times. This language was also why I enjoyed the ending. St John concludes this novel with style and it was a seamless ending that suited the characters she had created. There was a heartfelt sentimentality that gave extra meaning to all that had come before it, all through the characters she uses to bring this story together.

Oddly enough, I also found the obituary at the end of my audiobook quite enjoyable. I enjoyed listening about St John and her life from someone who knew her. It was interesting too because I learnt that the book was actually published in 1993. I was impressed because St John captures the language and the feel of the 50s remarkably well. It didn’t feel forced or over the top and there was class and charm in her words that she managed to recreate the era remarkably well.

I will be interested in the movie now (retitled Ladies in Black) because I would like to see how they portray this, if not for the story, but to see these wonderful cocktail frocks for myself.

You can purchase The Women in Black via the following

QBD | Booktopia | Book Depository

Angus and Robinson | Dymocks

Fishpond | Amazon Aust | Amazon | Audible

It’s Hard to Love A Tiger by Anna Pignataro

Published: 1st June 2018Goodreads badge
Publisher:
 Scholastic Australia
Illustrator: Anna Pignataro
Pages: 24
Format: Hardcover Picture Book
★   ★   ★   ★  – 4 Stars

I wish I had a tiger, a tiger from the zoo. 

A tiger of my own to love-a tiger just like you. 

A funny rhyming story about a little girl and a troublesome (but lovable) tiger.

Once more I have picked up a picture book because the front cover was too cute to ignore. I wasn’t disappointed either because this is a fun story told through rhyme, coupled with creative illustrations. Pignataro’s illustrations are a mixture of drawn and painted, and vary from full page detail to simple images on white.

I loved the poetic verse the story is written in. It flows wonderfully if you read it as a whole, and nothing is lost if the story is read at a slower pace either, each stanza matches the picture which is spread across a double page. Pignataro’s rhymes are clever and make sense in context, nothing too fanciful happens to make a rhyme work which makes the reading flow naturally and seamlessly. The formatting of the words also play into how you read the story and it helps with tone and pacing, especially when reading it aloud.

It’s one of those wonderfully absurd books that never explain why the young girl has the tiger, just that loving a tiger is hard because of all the mischief they get up to. I loved how the girl treats the tiger. Her complaints start just because he growls when you put a ribbon in his hair, and he takes up all the room on the bed. But then it gets more fun as he also is bad at ballet, and slurps when he eats, and huffs and pouts when he’s in the naughty chair.

I had not read any of Pignataro’s books before this but I may just have to track down some more because this one was just all kinds of adorable.

You can purchase I Wish I Had A Tiger via the following

Booktopia | Book Depository

Angus & Robertson | Fishpond | Dymocks

QBD | Amazon Aust | Amazon

Three Wishes by Liane Moriarty

Published: 24th June 2014 (print)/11 September 2015 (audio) Goodreads badge
Publisher:
 Harper Perennial /Bolinda Audio
Pages: 356/1 Disc (13 hours 50 minutes)
Narrator: Caroline Lee
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Fiction
★   ★  – 2 Stars

Lyn, Cat, and Gemma Kettle, beautiful thirty-three-year-old triplets, seem to attract attention everywhere they go. Whenever they’re together, laughter, drama, and mayhem seem to follow. But apart, each is very much her own woman, dealing with her own share of ups and downs. Lyn has organized her life into one big checklist, juggling the many balls of work, marriage, and motherhood with expert precision, but is she as together as her datebook would have her seem? Cat has just learned a startling secret about her marriage — can she bring another life into her very precarious world? And can free-spirited Gemma, who bolts every time a relationship hits the six-month mark, ever hope to find lasting love? In this wise, witty, hilarious new novel, we follow the Kettle sisters through their thirty-third-year, as they struggle to survive their divorced parents’ dating each other, their technologically savvy grandmother, a cheating husband, champagne hangovers, and the fabulous, frustrating 

I was trying to decide whether I disliked this book because it was Moriarty’s first and she hadn’t honed her craft yet, or whether it just didn’t gel with me. I’m going with the latter because as I’ve said in previous reviews, my enjoyment of her books is often a coin toss so there is no way to tell which way I’ll go come the end of it.

I didn’t sit through it hating it, I didn’t get bored in it or think it was unrealistic or too idealistic. I’m not entirely sure what it was. I liked some parts, I understood the story Moriarty was trying to tell, and yet I got to the end of it and felt unsatisfied.

I think one key reason was that when we finally get to Moriarty’s Reveal™, I recall thinking “is that it?” It was so anticlimactic that I think if it hadn’t have been built up to be such a big deal it would have been ok, but the way the story builds this Event to be I felt the payout should have been better.

Maybe I am not getting into the emotional journey and tribulations of these characters. I read it, I understood it, but I wasn’t quite so moved by it to the extent I was meant to be. I think I was meant to be more shocked, or more surprised by this surprise because of the journey Moriarty’s been taking me on so far. And yet, no. It was obvious in a way, once I recovered from my anticlimactic disappointment. I did feel empathy for the characters, what they go through individually is terrible and I can see how it affects them, but in terms of this coinciding with other events in the novel I think it doesn’t quite land.

Separately, each of the triplet’s story was well told. Moriarty explores their emotional story and their inner thoughts so we can understand where they’re coming from and who they are as people. One thing Moriarty does well is give her characters a distinguishing voice and there is a great honesty to them. Each of these girls had their own voice, one which reflected who they are and Moriarty makes them real. This was enhanced by the audio because Lee did a great job expressing each character in a believable way.

The random Nanna Kettle story felt out of place. I don’t know why it was included, I thought maybe it would end up linking to Kat,  but when it didn’t I still don’t know why it was included. It wasn’t like we were really that invested in Nanna Kettle, she had such a minor part to play she almost didn’t need to be there. One thing I did enjoy was the way Moriarty included the small anecdotes from outsiders on the Kettle family and their lives. It gave a nice side view of them without it needing to be included in the main narration. Each observation suits the moment in the story perfectly, and there’s even a few that break your heart a little.

There are few big subjects in this book but within the structure of Moriarty’s writing they are impactful, but not overwhelming. Each of these women have such different lives, but when they come together they collapse into the sibling mentality which was done well. Gemma somehow manages to have the baby sister vibe, despite them all being the same age. I think it is her lack of emotional maturity that brings this across, and Lyn is very much the big sister.

There is humour and a few surprises that Moriarty works with, and the depth she gives to all of her characters adds to their believability. Side characters have complicated stories and entwined together with the main cast. It rings true like a Moriarty story but it was one that just didn’t wow me.

You can purchase Three Wishes via the following

Booktopia | Book Depository Audible

Amazon | Amazon Aust | Wordery

Angus & Robertson | Dymocks

 Fishpond | QBD

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