Enemy Women by Paulette Jiles

EW HarpI stumbled across this American Civil War novel and was enticed by its lovely cover (the horse one). Reserve it at the local library and when it arrives it has the Fourth Estate UK 2002 cover of made-up soulful woman, wistfully staring down emphasising the so-called love element. Did they actually read the book? Yes, our heroine, Adair Colley, after her father is attacked and taken away by Union militia, after her house burnt down, after she and her young sisters join the trail of refugees, and after she’s wrongly accused of collaboration and hauled away to prison, having to leave her sisters to their fate – yes, only then, after all that, does she find herself attracted to her Union interrogator who just wants to leave the war behind and make a new life out West.

But no sooner do our erstwhile lovers declare their feelings, than Adair has to escape the prison before being hanged, while her lover, Major Neumann, is sent to join a fighting unit. Adair is on the run again, and believing her father is dead, she intends, as a fugitive, to make her way back to the remains of the family farm.Enemy Women orig cover

This is a dark, dark story where murderous militia roam the land attacking and looting farms, raping and murdering. Adair’s one true love (and, yes, I know that should be Neumann!) is for the horse Whiskey that her father bought her just before he was arrested: she will do almost anything for Whiskey who was stolen, along with anything else of value, from their farm. Horse stealing and trading was a lucrative business and Adair stumbles on the stolen Whisky. She steals him back and girl and horse go on an epic, dangerous journey. But it’s not pretty, it’s frightening, gory and some parts I just couldn’t read.

Adair is a wonderful character: wilful, resourceful, strange, and Jiles’ portrayal of a nightmarish, but also stunningly beautiful, Missouri is fairly amazing. Apparently the role of the militias was swept under the carpet after the Union victory and Jiles did years of research to bring us this tale. The violence was way too graphic for me but I guess part of what the author wanted to do was bring it into the light. So, beware the romantic cover – the later cover with dramatic horse and rider gives a better indication of what the novel is really like. It’s a rollicking, wild, absorbing read.

Top books 2015

A_Thousand_AcresIt’s probably a bit late in the day for this but here goes. Of course I loved all seven of the Harry Potters as I unabashedly admit here – they will always have a place in my heart. Nevertheless, my top read for 2015 was Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres. I had heard of this book, first published in 1991, so I bought a secondhand copy that, unfortunately had Michelle Pfeiffer and Jessica Lange in a schmaltzy embrace on the cover, so I put it aside (I seem to have missed ‘winner of the Pulitzer prize’ at the top). For some reason I picked it up early last year. I was sucked in to this muscular family saga immediately. She’s such a great writer – her characters might, at first glance, look like all-American mid-west people, but they are anything but – they seethe with ambition, jealously, violence, lust. With resonances of King Lear (a father who decides to leave the running of the rich family acreage to his three daughters) it zings with tension and betrayal. Smiley is Book-cover-Wildwriting a new family saga trilogy starting with Some Luck and Early Warning. They are big books so I’m leaving a bit of space before I tackle them.

My second favourite book for the year was Wild: Lost and Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed. Some readers might be put off by the ‘self-help’ implications of the title but this is an extremely cleverly-written book. Just how Strayed can make a story of walking by herself through the wilderness for a couple of months so compelling, to my way of thinking, is a masterclass in non-fiction writing. By the end, you’ve really gone on that body-breaking trip with her: she’s an everywoman of her time. I did cry when she came to the end of the trail and the story.

Thoughts on Harry Potter covers

HP French DeathlyThe French editions have very evocative covers – take the one for The Deathly Hallows. A title that always sounded funny to me, although beautifully sad. Apparently hallow means:

1.  to make holy; sanctify; consecrate.

2. Obsolete to honour as holy.

Perhaps the French title is more accurate: et les reliques de la mort.

On this cover Harry stares out pensively to the sea as he does when he is at Bill and Fleur’s cliff top house, Shell Cottage, and wrestling with his own destiny.

On the new Bloomsbury cover below, they concentrate on the final fight between Voldemort and Harry and, strangely make Harry look quite young, although he is 17 in this book. The covers have ravishing colours and are very dynamic but they manage to keep the cartoonish element of the original covers.

The Telegraph (UK) newspaper has a comparison between the old and new covers, which is quite interesting.New deathly Hallows

I also love the French cover for the first book. The bemused, but also hopeful, expression on the faces of Harry, Hermione and Ron kitted up in their robes and witches’ hats. Interestingly the French weren’t too squeamish to highlight the witch/wizard aspect with related paraphernalia. Remember the brouhaha in the US about the supernatural elements? The original Scholastic (US) edition cover for The Sorcerer’s Stone did include Harry riding his broomstick but in a fairly understated way where the broomstick in question could easily be a BMX bike. I could only find a small thumbnail of this cover but you can make him out zooming into a tower at Hogwarts, tiny cape flying ans wearing jeans and a sweater.


Two women, two bags, two books

I spotted theses two new-release books in a bookshop. Do great minds think alike, or is there just so much you can do with the “woman’s torso” school of bookcover design? It’s not as if the subject matter of the novels is similar either, except that they are focused on women. One is contemporary and the other set in 1948.


Under the Influence
Jacqueline Lunn
Random House Australia

Eve, now 34 and a concert cellist living in London, returns to an Australian country town for the funeral of her old school friend, Meg. As Eve and Sarah, also a school friend, face their friend Meg’s death, they must also face the past and the secret the three women shared.


The Sparrows of Edward Street
Elizabeth Stead

It’s 1948 and Hanora Sparrow and her teenage daughters, Aria and Rosy, have fallen on tough times.  With little more than the suitcases they carry and a few pounds between them, they must move to a housing commission camp on the outskirts of Sydney.

Analysis of wings

I borrowed a copy of Karen Foxlee’s Anatomy of Wings from the library a while ago and enjoyed this coming of age story a lot. I scanned the cover of the trade paperback as part of a number of books whose covers featured parts of women and girls’ bodies (see under ‘covers’ category).

As A of W was published in 2007, I thought I’d check whether, the author had published a follow up book to her debut. As far as I can tell she hasn’t published anything new, but I did notice some new covers for her book.

It’s always heartening when an Australian novel, especially a debut one, has a shelf life and I was pleased to note University of Queensland Press has reissued A of W. It is also interesting to note that they have put out teachers’ notes for it for senior students so the novel must be on a curriculum somewhere.

My research (such as it is) has also revealed that the novel is also published in the UK and the US.

What a great thing for Karen Foxlee, especially as A of W is set in small town Australia (Mt Isa) and, despite being beautifully written and a bit mysterious in a Lovely Bones kind of way, is also pretty hard-hitting re sex and violence.

Foxlee’s talent has certainly been recognised. She won the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for Best Emerging Author and used this award to work on her manuscript for A of W. She also won the 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Best First Book South East Asia and Pacific Region) and the Dobbie Award.

It’s quite interesting to work out what the designers are doing with the covers. Obviously the new UQP cover (top) is aimed at that high school/YA market but I think it misrepresents the book somewhat. For some reason, it looks to me like the cover to something by Isabel Allende. On the other hand, the ‘this is serious’ literature vibe, suits a school text.

The old UQP cover (second from top) appealed to an older female readership. It’s quite evocative – I like the feel of dry grass in a summer backyard and going around in bare feet but it suggests the narrator, who’s ten, is much younger.

On the whole I think UK book designers (third) are much closer to the Australian sensibility than the US ones. Here the UK design goes for a prairie-like look (don’t think Mt Isa has wheat fields but I could be wrong). However, they’ve got the age right of the girl and the idea that she’s on the cusp between childhood and adolescence. Plus they’ve got two suggestions of ‘wings’. The kite and the strange feathery sky suggestive of angel’s wings.

The US cover (bottom) is in the ‘body parts’ style and the ‘realism’ of the photography would be more in keeping with a non-fiction book here. They also have the female figure as much older – she probably represents the narrator’s older, troubled, sister, Beth. The clouds below her feet remind me of the film version of Lovely Bones. I’m sure that’s not accidental given the immense success of that book in the US.

On the Jellicoe Road

For some reason I read Melina Marchetta’s Looking for Alibrandi when it came out in 1992, YA in a contemporary Australian setting not really being my thing, and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Although the book, and the film that followed it, were very successful, it took Marchetta 11 years for her next book Saving Francesca to be published. This was followed by On the Jellicoe Road in 2006. I noticed this book because I was attracted to the cover. Something about it reminded me of country towns with big shady trees, gravel roads and empty school playgrounds. I spent two years of my senior schooling at Leeton in the Riverina and I have a nostalgic pang for the flat land, ­­­big skies and swimming in the Murrumbidgee. I hadn’t twigged until I finally got around to reading On the Jellicoe Road that the book is set in that area.

Nostalgia aside, I loved On the Jellicoe Road. The novel has a complex structure set around a mystery that resolves itself slowly through the eyes of our heroine, seventeen year old Taylor Markham. Marchetta’s brilliance is to make the reader totally accept Taylor’s viewpoint. It’s hard to describe the plot without giving away details that would make the unravelling of the mystery less satisfying. Suffice to say it deals with a modern day group of teenagers, some from a boarding school, some from the town and some from a group of cadets who camp there every year. The various groups are involved in a territory war every summer. Taylor is head of her ‘house’ at the school and she has to lead the school’s group against the townies and cadets. The enclosed nature of the ‘wars’ and the lack of adult interference is expertly handled by Marchetta but we soon find out the wars are a backdrop to Taylor discovering things about her past that for unknown reasons are being kept from her. The pleasure of the novel is all in the unfolding, and in the development of the relationship of the teenagers (or should I say young adults?), Marchetta’s forte. There are really two stories in one – what happens to five friends after a tragedy twenty years before and how this interweaves with the present day characters. I found this relationship cryptic to begin with – it was brave of Marchetta to just go with the story, confident her YA readers will follow Taylor and be patient enough to let the scenario play out at its own pace.

I was surprised, given the many awards Marchetta has garnered, that in Australia On the Jellicoe Road has only won a category of the 2008 WA young readers award. Last year she won the US Michael Printz Award for excellence in young adult literature, an award associated with the American Library Association. Why, I wonder, is Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones categorised as literary fiction, and short-listed for the Miles Franklin Award, and On the Jellicoe Road relegated to YA? Could it be that Silvey’s book has a male protagonist and overtly references literary classics?

Apropos of the cover I loved so much, the B format cover makes the book look like a soft relationships novel for teenage girls and has none of the sense of place and intrigue of the first cover. As a point of contrast, on the cover for Marchetta’s latest book, The Piper’s Son, the publisher has gone 180 degrees the other way – a monochrome photo of a young man walking down a depressing looking inner-city street. It shouts ‘take me seriously’. I checked just in case the book was categorised as adult fiction. But no, despite the protagonist being in his late teens or early twenties, it’s still YA according to Penguin.

What are they thinking?

I read and loved the YA novel A Brief History of Montmaray and a main motivation in buying the book was it’s lovely cover that captured something of a love of reading and the solitariness and yearning for freedom of teenagehood. Imagine my horror when I saw the sequel in my local bookshop – The FitzOsbornes in Exile. Okay I haven’t read this sequel yet but the cover looks like something for a non-fiction book. The post next to the girl looks like some sort of farm implement and her hunched-over pose suggests she’s exhausted (the book description says “Sophie’s dreams of making her debut in shimmering ballgowns …” hmm nothing about toiling on a farm!). The publishers have also rebadged the first book to have the same look. This effort is a bit better. At least it has our heroine looking out over the sea but it’s still not a patch on the original cover.

The same thing has happened to The Prophecy of the Sisters by Michelle Zinks. The first cover was evocative and caught my eye and luckily the tale was as spooky as the cover. Now they have rebadged this book to be in keeping with the sequel Guardian of the Gate. These later covers are just ghastly. I refuse to read anything with a cover like that which is a pity because I’d really like to read the sequel. I’m sure the publishers are attempting to position these books in the vampire/zombie/horror teen fiction market when Zinks’ books are much better than that and have cross-over potential.

The Last Brother

I’d like share the lovely cover for Nathacha Appanah’s novel The last Brother. Appanah is from Mauritius but now lives and writes in France. The Last Brother is a tale of the friendship of two boys: Raj, a native of Mauritius, and David a young Jewish boy incarcerated on the island after a group of refugees fleeing Europe in 1945 are interned there. Appanah beautifully evokes the lushness of the island but also the harshness of life for both of the boys. The story is framed by the older Raj who looks back with guilt on what occurred on the island. There is poignancy in the portrait of Raj as a boy, not quite aware of what is going on, and who is the victim of a violent father. But I never bought his love for David whom he befriends when he spends time in the prison hospital (Raj’s father works as a prison guard). David is never a fully realised character – his main attribute being his blonde fly-away hair and uncoordinated body. Appanah suggests that David is a substitute brother to Raj after Raj’s other brothers are killed in a flash flood (hence David is really the “last brother”) but I thought the relationship was forced. Nevertheless this is a short, fable-like book, and gives a rich sense of another life. I bought the book on the strength of the wonderfully evocative dust jacket which I’ve framed. Does that count as vandalism against a book? It still has the underneath plain green hard cover …

Oranges are the fruit

At least for Barbara Kingsolver whose latest novel The Lacuna has won the 2010 Orange Prize for fiction by women. The prize is awarded to “the woman who, in the opinion of the judges, has written the best, eligible full-length novel in English”.

The prize website says “excellence, originality and accessibility in women’s writing from throughout the world” are the criteria and the winner receives £30,000.

The judges say they chose The Lacuna because “it is a book of breathtaking scale and shattering moments of poignancy.”

As I recall the reviews of The Lacuna were not wholeheartedly favourable with the Guardian’s reviewer Alice O’Keeffe being typical. She writes the “lack of a convincing narrator leaves The Lacuna rather rootless. While The Poisonwood Bible was equally ambitious in scope, it kept its focus small and tight… in The Lacuna, Kingsolver allows history to dictate the characters, rather than the other way around”.

Obviously the Orange Prize judges disagreed.

Like a lot of other readers, I loved The Poisonwood Bible which is set in the Congo. It is consistently up there on the “favourite reads” lists but something about the hotchpotch nature of The Lacuna and the device of gaps in knowledge and the use of notebooks turned me off.

I also doggedly tried to read Kingsolver’s last non-fiction book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle about her family trying to survive on only locally produced food and goods in rural Virginia. Books about making do under constraints I love but something about the hokey Americanism, the one-big-happy-familyness, forced me to give up before I was half way through.

I quite like the cover for The Lacuna but what does it signify? It reminded me of the cover for Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood (which I didn’t like – the cover, I enjoyed the book) with its entwining flowers, leaves and vines. Perhaps these author’s names sell their books alone and any obvious representational graphic on the cover would only get in the way??