Book review: The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

Queen of the Tearling cover imageThe Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen, Random House, Available now.

The Queen of the Tearling arrived on my doorstep in some simple but elegant little packaging, with warm grey tissue paper wrapping tied in a red bow, a little card attached with the title and author. The accompanying marketing blurb was nicely printed on a creamy laid paper with a satisfying weight¹. What book blogger could resist such presentation? (Not this one, I’m a sucker for the pretty).

Now, this is all very well and good, and reminds me how lucky I am to blog about books (well, reminds me why I put the time in to blog about books) but like the accompanying hype about this new title (It’s going to be made into a movie! Emma Watson loves it! And the Harry Potter films producer is producing it so lightning will strike twice!) it’s just pleasant frippery around the edges. The proof is in the reading.

The Queen of the Tearling delivers to a large extent on that, being a story with some of the best sort of characters and a gradually revealed backstory and universe that promises big things. Kelsea Glynn is heir to the throne of Tearling and has been in hiding since she was a baby. The book opens with the Queen’s Guard arriving at her modest foster parent’s home to escort her back to her castle to take her rightful place as Queen, as her mother has died. Along the way she learns many horrific and hard-to-hear truths about the state of play in Tearling, and the relationship with neighbouring Mortmesne and its ruler, The Red Queen (definite shades of the Red Woman from Game of Thrones), and The Queen of the Tearling is mostly taken up with this “beginning to be a queen” tale. Yes, it’s the first in a series.

I enjoyed many things about this part of the tale. The characters are fantastic; the likeable, worthy and intelligent Kelsea, her head guard The Mace, a solid and virtuous warrior, and the crazed Red Queen. These are just a few of the universe of characters that Johansen is beginning to create and clearly this is her strength. She also gives us plenty of hints and slow reveals about just where the Tearling universe is, an Earth-but-not-Earth, with talk of Europe and the Continent and the New World. I’m very keen to learn more about that.

There are also some things about the book that don’t work, with two main gripes from me. The tone is a little weird at times and this sense of dissonance meant there where times I struggled to stay engaged by it. Moments where the characters and writing screamed “young adult” were suddenly broken when the characters and writing screamed “you might wanna read this yourself before you give it to your young adult” and that made it hard to get a handle on who exactly the book is aimed at. This might not be a major issue for the average reader but tone is so important, and one of the reasons why editors are similarly important.

There were also some things that frustrated me about Kelsea as a character, she’s strong and intelligent, and I fervently hope that Johansen isn’t going to turn her personal story into “ugly duckling becomes a swan”. Some of the comments about her appearance and, yes, the news that Emma Watson is signed to play her in the movie, do worry me that rather than concentrating on the aspect of her journey into being a leader, we’ll be subjected to a standard “girl leader must be beautiful” story. The book doesn’t need it, so I do hope not.

So does this live up to the aforementioned edge-frippery hype? Not entirely but it’s still a very good read, one which will gain plenty of fans, including me. I’m definitely looking forward to finding out more and staying a part of the intriguing Tearling world.

¹ Yes, all right, I’m a paper geek.

Book Watch, New Zealand Herald on Sunday – 13 July 2014

The Martian

By Andy Weir, Random House

This science-fiction adventure thriller is up there with the best in edge-of-your-seat reads, combining imagination, science and a healthy dose of humour. Mark Watney is a botanist and astronaut stranded on Mars, left alone to survive on the Red Planet because of a mixture of bad luck and catastrophe. Will he make it back to Earth? It’s no surprise that a movie adaptation is already in the works.

Sand

By Hugh Howey, Random House

A new world and a new story from Howey, the best-selling writer of the Wool trilogy. The author’s strength is his prodigious imagination and he makes use of it again with Sand, combining apocalyptic vision with a story of family and survival. Like Wool this is a highly enjoyable read; I became so immersed I could practically feel the grit and wind.

Purgatory

By Rosetta Allen, Penguin

A fantastic new book from a talented New Zealand author, Purgatory is based on the 1865 Otahuhu murders. Exploring ideas of spirituality, colonial dispossession and the dehumanising effects of poverty and alcohol, the story moves between Ireland and New Zealand, and between bereavement and redemption. Allen’s expressive story-telling will appeal to readers looking for the best home-grown narratives.

At War with Satan

By Steff Metal,  Grymm & Epic Publishing

Another homegrown author but with a completely different focus, At War with Satan is a fantasy tale in the best tradition of Terry Pratchett and Robert Rankin, with a lot of heavy metal thrown in. Plenty of puns and gentle jokes at the expense of various musical genres keep this a fast and furious read. The author’s love of the subject matter is infectious, making the war between heaven and hell anything but grim.

My Book Watch column for 13 July 2014, courtesy of the New Zealand Herald on Sunday.

scan of printed Book Watch column

Three Quick Reviews

Here’s some quick looks at other books which have passed before my eyes recently.

 WellywoodStyling Wellywood by Kate O’Keefe, available on Amazon

Jess has returned home to Wellington from her big OE in London, and is going into business as a personal stylist with her best friend Morgan. Throw in a bit of snobbery, two good looking men and a sad back story, and some “hi-jinks with a message” should ensue.

Styling Wellywood has a promising premise but it just doesn’t deliver. The main character is seriously unlikeable, and the overall storyline is too predictable to really deliver any punch. Do young NZers really suffer this level of cultural cringe anymore? Unfortunately this book just wasn’t to my liking.

Dating Westerners cover imageDating Westerners: tips for the new rich of the developing by Richard Meros, Lawrence and Gibson

A dating guide for the nouveau riche of the developing world, looking to “break into” the West via love. Truly. Dating Westerners is alternately hilarious and completely weird, which pretty much sums up the entirety so far of Richard Meros’ publishing portfolio.

Dating Westerners is the book rejected for funding by Reactive/Creative New Zealand (both the application and rejection letter can be seen in $30 Meat Pack). Put air quotes wherever you see fit in that sentence.

Seriously, I don’t know what more to say!

The Possession of Silver cover imageThe Possession of Silver by Corey Leigh, available on Amazon

A hybrid fantasy/pirate novel for kids and young adults, The Possession of Silver follows our eponymous hero and budding pirate, Silver, in a hunt for treasure on a very strange island.

The tone of this book is a little odd, not always hitting the mark and jumping around a little too often to be entirely convincing to its target audience. However it’s pulled along by a quick and original plot, with enough surprises to keep me reading to the end.

Review: Glory Days magazine

Glory Days magazine coverGlory Days vintage lifestyle magazine, issue 6, $16.90

One of the things I love about Twitter is the random way I meet interesting people and find out about interesting things, such as Glory Days magazine. A retweet led me to their Twitter account, I asked if they’d be interested in being reviewed on my blog.. and here we are!

Glory Days is a vintage lifestyle magazine, in this particular issue (6) sixties style. It has a great aesthetic, enhanced by the art design, the choice of paper (a satisfying weight and with a fair amount of recycled content, if I’m not mistaken), and the advertising (I kid you not, every vintage shop in the country must be in there).

The articles are eclectic which is real strength, covering art, society, fashion, music, cars, militaria, crafting and more, and I really like that – I like that the editors aren’t just picking the bits of nostalgia they like but they’re actually exploring an era and what it meant to the New Zealanders who lived in that era. That’s the other thing I really liked about Glory Days, it has a strong New Zealand focus. Too often our impression of vintage and history is through an American or English lens, and the experience of our own country comes a distant third.

If you’re interested in vintage, design, nostalgia and New Zealand in general then you’re sure to enjoy Glory Days and I’d highly recommend you take the time to seek it out or grab a copy online.

Book Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian cover imageThe Martian by Andy Weir, Del Rey (Random House), ISBN 9780091956448, RRP $36.99, Available now.

The most unsurprising thing about The Martian is that Ridley Scott is currently in negotiation to direct a movie adaptation starring Matt Damon (MATT DAMON). The most surprising thing is that while this is indeed ripe for a movie adaptation starring Matt Damon and directed by Ridley Scott, it’s also a white knuckle read that manages to combine science with a large dose of humour.

The story in The Martian centres around Mark Watney, botanist, astronaut, a modern-day MacGyver, and man alone on Mars. Due to a combination of technological breakdown, bad weather and being hit by an antenna Watney is left behind on Mars when the rest of his crew has to escape a massive windstorm. Will he stay alive? Will he have enough food to last until the next mission? Will he make contact with earth? Look, I’m making it sound quite melodramatic but actually I really enjoyed The Martian!

Weir wins over his reader (me) with the above-mentioned solid combination of hardcore science and good, old-fashioned laughs.

That means I’ll have to transport 9.2 cubic meters of Martian soil into the Hab. I can get maybe one-tenth of a cubic meter in through the airlock at a time, and it’ll be backbreaking work to collect it. But in the end, if everything goes to plan, I’ll have 92 square meters of crop-able soil.

Hell yeah I’m a botanist! Fear my botany powers!

Our main character is hugely likeable and it’s easy to become completely vested in Watney’s story and his trials and tribulations. Weir’s strength is the science stuff on Mars and the amazing problem-solving abilities of his main character, and I did wish he’d just concentrated on that story and not felt the need to move focus around. Though he does take some well-aimed shots at NASA and government organisations in general.

Mark, some answers to your earlier questions:

No, we will not tell our Botany Team to “Go fuck themselves.” …

The Cubs finished the season at the bottom of the NL Central.

The data transfer rate just isn’t good enough for the size of music files, even in compressed formats. So your request for “Anything, oh God, ANYTHING but Disco” is denied. Enjoy your boogie fever.

I have to admit, it was hard not to read The Martian and think this is just made to be a movie. But this is solid sci-fi and it would be damn interesting (for the first 10 minutes) to find out if the science holds up. Weir certainly writes with authority and complete believability in that regard. On the other hand when he tries to get more into the characters heads it’s pretty once over lightly. All I’m saying is, don’t read it for the deep character analysis.

Do read it for the fun.

It’s true, you know. In space, no one can hear you scream like a little girl.

Book Watch, New Zealand Herald on Sunday – 18 May 2014

Engines of Empathy

By Paul Mannering, Paper Road Press

Is New Zealand the speculative fiction capital of the world? This book from new independent publisher Paper Road Press is evidence that we might just be. Witty and fun, with a highly original premise, the author takes us on a journey with Charlotte Pudding, in a world that might be our future or a parallel universe. Charlotte has secrets even she doesn’t know about and now she needs to find out what they are before the dark corporate forces shadowing her do.

Eeny Meeny

By MJ Arlidge, Penguin

The thriller genre is fairly well-worn so it’s nice to come across a new twist, such as the one in Eeny Meeny. Someone is kidnapping pairs of people and forcing them to make a choice: kill or be killed. Detective Inspector Helen Grace is investigating but is she also a target? A suitably macabre and gripping writer, MJ Arlidge knows how to hold a reader’s attention.

Creeks and Kitchens: A Memoir

By Maurice Gee, Bridget Williams Books

Newly released in paperback, this delightful short piece of Gee’s takes us back to the West Auckland of his childhood. It’s a world that will be familiar to many New Zealanders and completely foreign to some. Gee also reveals many of his influences and the connections between his memories and some of his more well-known books. An absolute delight to read.

Boy, Snow, Bird

By Helen Oyeyemi, Picador

Boy, Snow, Bird opens with Boy, a neglected and abused young woman who runs away from big city New York to smalltown Massachusetts, eventually becoming stepmother to the angelic Snow. The birth of her own child, Bird, brings a surprising secret into the open, one that leads to Snow’s banishment from her family home. Oyeyemi weaves elements of both myth and fairytale with stark social American reality in a book that is in equal measures sad and beautiful.

Scan of Book Watch column 18 May 2014