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 – 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

Narcoleptic Hooker by Emma Janson

Narcoleptic Hooker by Emma Janson cover image

Narcoleptic Hooker by Emma Janson, Zharmae Publishing, Release date May 5, 2014, Buy direct from the publisher.

One of the perks(?) of being a book blogger is you get all sorts of wonderful and weird and unsolicited approaches from various writers and publishers – and when you’ve been doing this for a while you get approaches from all over the world too. Some I know are not going to be my cup of tea but I do try to remain relatively open-minded and also honest about the fact I am not exactly prolific in my reviewing these days.

So, I have to admit when I recieved an email from Zharmae Publishing about a book called Narcoleptic Hooker it was that title which immediately got my attention. My first thought, however, was not “Oh I’m going to love is”, it was more “I’ve got to see what this is about and then I’m going to pass it over”. And I don’t do many (if any) of these blog tour type things, but dang it, you have to start somewhere. And I’m starting with Narcoleptic Hooker.

The author story also got my attention. Emma Janson is a US Army soldier who’s served in Afghanistan and Iraq, and activist, she writes books about sex, and she has twins. How could you NOT want her as a friend? The woman sounds like a blast.

Now, to the book itself – this is not exactly a book for the conservative at heart but I think most of those readers will establish that straight away. Narcoleptic Hooker is the story of Penelope Fortunata, the prostitute with narcolepsy who eradicated crime in Las Vegas. We start in 2054 and Penny (sorry Pen) takes us back to when she was running (well, sort of) with the Mob, and how she got to where she is.

Look, here’s my honest opinion: This is a FUN read. It is literally page turning; Penelope and her best friend Kimchi are hilarious, smart and highly enjoyable characters, and finding out where they’re going and what’s going to happen to them became my mission for a couple of days. I did find the overall premise of this utopian future Las Vegas to be almost unecessary, to be honest. Like the author was looking for a reason to write this story.

Honey, if you want to write a damned story about a narcoleptic Vegas hooker, then you write a damned story about a narcoleptic Vegas hooker.

And yes, it’s sexy and crude and occasionally sexist and you couldn’t describe the writing as polished. But did I mention the fun? If that sounds like you then grab a copy – better yet enter below to win a copy!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Book review: Wake by Elizabeth Knox

Cover image of WakeWake by Elizabeth Knox, Victoria University Press, ISBN9780864737700, RRP $35

I have to confess: I have a huge reader and blogger crush on Elizabeth Knox. Not only has she given me some amazing and mind-blowing reads (Black Oxen, The Vintner’s Luck, the Dreamhunter series), she’s accomplished at that literary/genre/audience hopping trick AND she’s amazingly accessible and generous on social media.

Do I sound starstruck? I can’t help it. Elizabeth Knox is awesome. When I grow up I want to be exactly like her.

Anyway: Wake. Wake follows a small group of characters – people who survive a mysterious and sudden affliction that descends on their very localised area of Tasman Bay. The affliction turns the bulk of the population into crazed killers, singlemindedly and relentlessly focussed on harming themselves and others. The afflicted who survive this initial violence then also die suddenly. The unafflicted survivors find themselves locked in to the town by something entirely unexplainable. Locked in with literally hundreds of dead bodies, other people who they don’t know (and maybe can’t trust), and with no way of contacting or being contacted by the outside world.

The reader’s journey mirrors the characters’; the immediate and shocking horror of the story’s beginning followed by the slightly numb “come down” and then the dawning reality of the practicalities of the situation they find themselves in.

The beauty of Knox’s novel is not only is the story absolutely compelling from a plot point of view (zombies! gore! blood! love! mystery! childhood trauma! mental imbalance!) but the writing is absolutely bloody gorgeous.

It wasn’t his thought. It was malicious and perverted and savage and clever, and had come as a soundless whisper from the centre of his skull as if there was something inside him, something that wasn’t him, stirring like a hatchling in an egg.

Knox’s world is full of language, full of beautiful words, even when describing the most basest and hideous circumstances.

In a nearby house a window shattered. An old man slumped through it, skewering his throat on the shards left in the frame. He moved only feebly while his blood unfolded like a concertinaed red banner down the weatherboard wall.

In Wake, Knox takes us from inhuman all the way back to human. It’s not fun or easy but it is very, very exceptional.

I think I saved the best read of 2013 for the end.

The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett

The Bookman's Tale cover image

The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett, Text Publishing, ISBN 9781922079336, RRP $37, Available 26 June.

Billed as “a novel of obsession” and “a tale for book lovers”, The Bookman’s Tale should be a delight for anyone who loves history, books and good writing.

I say “should”, because sadly it’s not.

Insert REALLY SAD FACE here.


The Bookman’s Tale followers Peter Byerly, antiquarian bookseller who’s deeply mired in grief for his late wife, Amanda. Peter opens a book in a musty bookshop, only to discover a watercolour miniature bearing a startling resemblance to his late wife. From there we’re on a murder mystery journey that takes in Shakespeare (and the old “Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare” conspiracy), book forgery, Victorian art and a really, really idealised woman.

Here’s my list of things what I wished weren’t part of this book:

  1. Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare. Shakespeare at all. The Shakespearean age passages in particular have no air of authenticity. Instead they read like an Elizabethan name-dropper. Oh look there’s young upstart Shakespeare! There’s Robert Cotton! There’s Christopher Marlowe! And they’re all drinking ale and whoring and writing and almost saying “fie”.¹ Also: sonnets! Hilarious! It’s all way too obviously winky-winky, history comes together, for me to enjoy. Bah.
  2. Murder mystery. The butler did it in the kitchen with the candlestick. Or not, but you’ll feel like that at the end, everything is just so nicely wrapped up. And so conveniently it feels like the ending to an hour mystery drama. Bah.
  3. Idealised woman. Maybe I am heartless and unromantic but Amanda (dead wife) is only seen through Peter (on account of the deadness) and in her eyes she is the most beautiful, most angelic, most sexy, most intelligent, most rich woman you’ll ever meet. And not in the least oiky, irritating and privileged. She hangs on his every word, loves it when he watches her from afar for weeks in a library and she has monogrammed stationery. At college, in the ’80s she wears:

…in place of the unofficial uniform of jeans and a T-shirt, an impeccably tailored black suit, with pleated trousers and a crisp white blouse.

No, not irritating at all.

Sigh. I think lots of people will like The Bookman’s Tale, especially if they don’t think too hard about it. Unfortunately I found it too trite and too convenient.

¹Bugger. Just found this:

Fie on you, then fie.