Book review: Brothers of the Knife, Dan Rabarts

Review of Dan Rabarts’ Brothers of the Knife, a rollicking fantasy with an unlikely hero.

Akmenos is the disappointment of his hatching, with no sorcery or battle skills to make his parents proud. The son of Bane, head of the Emperor’s sorcerous Hornung Coven, is a cook in the castle kitchens, a role suiting his aptitudes and interests.

Dropped suddenly into deep political machinations and named as a Prince’s murderer, Akmenos flees, with only the tools of his trade, and few supplies. What follows in Dan Rabarts’ Brothers of the Knife is unstoppable adventure for this unlikely hero, who really just wants a good cup of tea and for life to return to normal.

While the novel on the whole is light-hearted, there’s a few pointed looks at privilege, and the unseen benefits of being part of a ruling class. Akmenos is always quipping, but gets on with trying to do good on his journey. It has the punny heart of a Pratchett book, and misses no steps in a rollicking good adventure.

There is some detailed world building, which is the hardest part of writing novels in a fantasy world. Dan has kept this to a minimum but the narrative calls for multiple explorations of the realm. The pace kept the reader from exploring too deeply, and I wonder if those parts of the world will feature more heavily in later books.

It’s a refreshing change in fantasy to have a character who just is, not black and white, not a soldier or a savant, and not predestined for greatness. Akmenos is an any man, with a nose for the finer flavours of life.

Brothers of the Knife is Dan Rabart’s first solo novel in the Children of Bane series, and recommended for adult to mature young adult readers. Dan also has an impressive back catalogue of fiction if you’re intrigued, which you can find out more about at

Book review: The Stonor Eagles, William Horwood

William Horwood was already a favourite, but this novel has elevated him once more in my eyes.

James MacAskill Stonor, the baby of his family, is the straw that broke the camel’s back in his parent’s unusual marriage. The Stonor Eagles follows Jim as he navigates life from an idyllic but unhappy childhood in Deal, Devon, to a complex adult life, explored through his work as an artist. His greatest achievement is the Eagle series, built on mythological stories of the endangered sea eagle, first told to him by his broken father, who carries guilt for the destruction of the last breeding pair on his home of Skye, and embellished on by the artist.

The three arcs–of the artist, the art, and the eagles–are tied tightly in an elegantly interwoven narrative. There are many places where you don’t see the parallels coming in each arc until they are upon you.

Horwood manages an exquisite damning of man and progress, of broken families and dreams, but leaves the reader on a note of hope. A gentle reminder that you can come home again.

The Stonor Eagles is literary in feel and scope, but the plight of the eagles strikes a deeply fantastic tone to the story. I would highly recommend this to anyone who cares about what we do to the planet, or enjoys a good redemption story. William Horwood was already a favourite, but this novel has elevated him once more in my eyes.

Goodreads reading challenge

I don’t normally measure the numbers of books I read in a year, though I do try to review those I do read written by my local community and friends.

This year I’ve decided to participate in the Goodreads Reading Challenge. I’ve set a modest (for me) challenge of 50, and I’m about 3 into that now.

I’m also going to try and post reviews for all of them but not going to hold myself to it, particularly for significantly older releases.

The challenge is a great way to encourage reading, and even better if you review. Hot tip: authors love it when you leave a review, regardless of how you felt about the book. It’s also a great way to pay forward that book you got on loan from a friend, or for minimal royalties from the library.

I’m curious: how many books to you read in a year? And what’s on your list for 2019?

Good books: a power beyond measure

Late last year, when at a writing retreat, I picked up some second-hand books at a little bookshop cafe called Brunch Cafe. (Side note: a lovely place to stop in The Dandenongs, breathe in the books, browse with delight for your bookshelf and palate.)

My holiday plans included lofty ideas of reading them all, and I lugged them with me to every part of my meandering holiday.

Last week, I finally started on The Stonor Eagles by William Horwood. I’m a big fan of his Duncton Woods books, and I honestly cannot rave enough about the spectacular yet horrifying reflection they hold up to society and religion (think Animal Farm, but about trials of heretics across the history of Europe).

To my delight, I discovered a sweet little love note between the books pages, its writer and receiver forever a mystery.

The Stonor Eagles simultaneously reminds me why I want to be a writer and how far I have to go (Hi imposter. Thanks for stopping by; there’s the door!). With one page and one scene, Horwood riled my misanthropic heart with the merest description of the human desecration of the sea eagles of Skye.

How these symbols on the thinnest, pulped slice of a dead tree can transport you half way across the globe in an instant, have you weep for beings that exist only in the hearts and imaginations of the writer and readers.

This is what great writing does. And it’s a power beyond measure.

The unspoken divide: books & comics

My love of books and story started before I could really read; my parents tell me that I could happily entertain myself for hours as a little tacker.

As with many of us with a love of reading, this began with picture books, learning many of the basic rules of language: cadence and intonation, grammar and pronunciation.

Long and short: I have always thought of myself as a reader. But when I call myself that, I see weighty tomes, hundreds of pages and not an illustration in sight.

I’ve never thought of myself as someone with an interest in comics.

Anime for sure–I’ve been obsessed with AstroBoy for as long as I can remember, and Sailor Moon and Miyazaki’s work since my teens–but if you asked me about comics, I’d say not really.

Until this weekend, encouraged by a friend to attend an event at All Star Comics in Melbourne, I would not have said that I read comics. And I would have been lying to myself.

As I wandered around waiting (briefly) for my friend, I looked at the shelves, for names I knew, thinking idly that it seems silly that we don’t have more comics cross-over with spec-fic authors. I saw an author or two I knew, many titles I had read about on social media, and kept thinking about why the two mediums are so divided.

A little voice in my head, trying to be heard, made me think of my love of anime as television, and of X-men. A little more gently, it nudged me to think about how I consume graphic works, largely as graphic novels.

Then I remembered buying the boxed set of Nausicaä, the gifts from people I love from Serenity and Hark A Vagrant properties. To Asterix and Obelix, and The Adventures of Tintin. And more recent (to me) discoveries of Sandman and others.

Lastly, I thought about the last decade of reading webcomics like Bunny, Questionable Content, XKCD and Ctrl+Alt+Del. Of my new loves from Minna Sundberg, A RedTail’s Dream and Stand Still, Stay Silent.

Over the last decade switched-on loved ones have been trying to get me to bridge that gap and recognise the other reading love in my life, and it’s taken me this long to understand.

It might be related to internalised worries about being thought a fake geek girl. It might be a prejudice, an elitism I’ve picked up against “picture books”. All I know is that it’s been silent and unconscious and held me back from a whole other world of stories that I could have loved.

Whatever the reason, today I acknowledge my own obtuseness, and accept that being a reader for me means a love of stories in all their many and varied forms. That perhaps I am indeed a comics reader.

My comic book haul

For anyone interested, the event I attended today was a meet and greet with Katie O’Neill for the All Star Women’s Comic Book Club. Katie writes and illustrates delightful LGBTQI-friendly comics, but to spruik my particular favourite, the whimsical The Tea Dragon Society. Highly recommended.

Post-book depression

Frequently, when I finish a book I enjoyed, or a series of them, I suffer what feels to me like a depressive state. Dragged from that world, populated by characters I could rely on and places vividly expressed in my head, adjusting to the often mundane, gritty and imperfect world is a challenge.

It seems that it depends on how you view books. Are they a gateway to knowledge? Escapism? Easy entertainment? If I answer it for myself, it was immersion. Being somewhere else, someone else.

I was a kid always with my head in a book. My home was always safe, I was always loved and cared for. There were bullies, times of maladjustment and loneliness too, but not on-going ostracism to build this need for a book into something innate. This melancholia, present before I could even spell the word or describe it.

There’s two reasons I can see for it in my case. A book will never reject you. It can disappoint you, be unsatisfying but never specifically make you feel insufficient. Having read it can connect you to others, though I can probably count on one hand the close friends I remember discussing books, particularly formative books with.

The second is you can be the best version on yourself. You inhabit someone’s psyche, a moment in time. You can stand up to injustice, dare to take on the evil, hold someone who you feel deeply for when they cry, and yes, love a little. A great author can make you feel everything.

Their words can take you to places you want to go to but have never been without that cultural disconnect, the jet lag, the biting insects, or soggy socks and bone deep fatigue. There’s no work or cleaning or ablutions. No one needing anything from you.

Regardless of what drives you to disappear into a narrative world, the broken, flawed but very real life seems a disappointment. And the next book is unappealing for a time: it’s not the right world. You can’t know what is between those covers.

Short of waiting, and wallowing, the only answer I’ve found is time, letting the echoes of that previous novel fade before you can begin that new journey.

Until then, I’ll wait over here with my disappointment and personal grey cloud. Just until I am ready to start, all over again.

Review of I, Claudius

Seldom do I have books physically thrust at me, as recommendations to be read. “You need to read this.” (Paraphrased; Mark is much more eloquent than this small statement suggests.)

Now, Mark has a much more intricate palate when it comes to fiction than I do, but he’s a great friend and his love of literature was enough to encourage me to give it a go. I still did look a little askance at Robert Graves’ I, Claudius, even though the times of the Roman Empire are of exceptional interest to me.

At first, the dry tone of our narrator, the intricacy of the families and the royal lineage that the author was trying to reconcile for the reader was a bit much. But slowly, he grows on you, this detached and outcast chronicler, until you enjoy his voice and dry observation. And as the narrative progresses, the level of detail and the backstory of the family becomes necessary for understanding the bigger picture.

Claudius hovers at the edge of the action, out of the firing line, documenting from the safety of the sidelines. It’s ringside seats for political intrigue from megalomaniacs devolving into psychotic episodes, rigorously documented by intrepid historian. It’s dynasties and betrayal and death–all of the best parts of a historical novel combined. The intricate knowledge of the family tree and relationships, as well as languages and the settings and outcomes of Roman campaigns, is also suggestive of extensive research on the subject.

Robert Graves has a superb command of voice, creating this unique character, who we understand little to begin, and who with every passing chapter becomes more real and dearer to the reader. It’s a great example of what a writer who allows his character to have a voice and to tell the story in their own way.

I, Claudius is an excellent example of literary fiction done in the correct way–unique voice, distanced from today’s speech, and well-researched. Highly recommended for people who enjoy historic fact with their fiction, and a generally excellent read.

10 books that stay with you

There’s a bit of a fun meme running around Facebook at the moment, and I thought I would share the 10 books that have stayed with me and why (in no particular order). I cheated a little bit; there’s a couple of series in there.

I was tagged by fellow authors Jodi Cleghorn and Caitlin McColl, as well as Nicola Brodie, Natalie Ruus and Rogelio Llovit, fellow bookworms and friends.

1. The Time Traveller’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger
You only have to say scruffy librarian, and you have me. But I think it’s the beautiful interplay between Henry DeTamble and the love of his life, Clare Abershire, no matter her age, that I like best. And the question, do they love because of his visiting her, or because they were destined to fall in love eventually. Imagining that we could naturally travel through time though, piques my interest.

2. The Book Thief, Markus Zusack
It’s about a girl who comes to love books and the written word, and narrated by Death. What’s not to love? Given to me by Carol, my ex’s mother and a teacher, as one of her favourites, and I have loved it.

3. My Sister’s Keeper, Jodi Picoult
This was the first Jodi Picoult I read and firmly cemented her as one of my favourite writers. This question of how much a child born to provide for a sick sibling, the ethics and dynamic of a family unit with one sick child; it’s a beautiful novel. I read this when I was studying genetics and ethics, and it was beautifully timed for me, though there are protections in place for children brought into the world for this reason. I so enjoy the investigation of ethics and interpersonal dynamics that Picoult does remarkably well.

4. American Gods, Neil Gaiman
Another recommendation by a dear friend, the world and mythos that Gaiman built blew me away. Gaiman’s worlds are so vivid and they get under your skin, even as you wonder if you can relate to the characters.

5. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
Elizabeth, I believe, is my favourite heroine of all the books I’ve ever read. She’s so smart and determined, and so ready to think and act outside of societal expectations to her; even if at the end of the book she chooses love.

6. The Pagan Series, by Catherine Jinks
I don’t think that before I read this series that I thought you could write a character with so much vivacity and life that they could leap off the page. But Pagan, the Arab Christian orphan boy, a first person narrator, working with a French aristocratic Templar, and his acerbic wit kill me every time.

7. Dune series, Frank Herbert
Herbert’s rich worlds and characters who survived and went on captured my imagination. I think this was the first science fiction I truly loved, and unlike many others, I adored all 6 original books. I don’t believe I’ve read any of the ones written by Herbert’s son.

8. Anne of Green Gables, L.M. Montgomery
Anne is what my heart always longed to be; outspoken yet kind and personable; able to bounce back so wonderfully from mistakes. I visited Prince Edward Island last year as a pilgrimage to my girlhood and this very girl.

9. Looking for Alibrandi, Melina Marchetta
I’m pretty pleased to have two female Aussie authors on this list. Looking for Alibrandi perfectly captures for me the angst of being a teenager, of figuring out who you are in relation to your family and the world around you, and what waking up to your body and all those hormones is like. It’s about the friendships forged in the caldera of high school and the struggle to face your future. Marchetta captures the social dance and explores this time through the eyes of a self-depreciatingly funny protagonist. Thinking about it, a lot of the reasons I like Looking for Alibrandi are the same as the reasons I liked Catherine Jinks’ Pagan series; a different world and a prickly but endearing main character. I’ve never fallen in love with characters like I did with these two authors and I could read their work over and over, even today. I still cry every time John Barton dies.

10. Wild Swans, Jung Chang
A story of mothers and daughters in times of turbulence and hardship, and how each strove to make their own place in the world. I think I read this during my teenage years when, as most mothers and daughters do, I had times of frustration and it felt like misunderstanding. But inevitably, our lives are woven together and it helped me think of my mother in her own personhood and helped me relate.

There’s a bunch of others that are important to me, that 10 is too small a list for: CS Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe series; Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit; The Solitaire Mystery, Jostein Gardener; The Magic Faraway Tree, Enid Blyton; 1984, George Orwell; V for Vendetta, Alan Moore; Sing Me Home, Jodi Picoult.

Love to hear which books stayed with you.

Spring adventures in Canada: Part 4

Kindred spirits


Prince Edward Island was our next destination, a place I have dreamt of visiting since I was a preteen and top of my list for my stay in Canada. I loved Lucy Maud Montgomery’s books and always wanted to find Anne Shirley on that island. We stayed in a lovely little hotel on a little inlet, but I dreamed of staying in one of the weatherboard homesteads. The soils are definitely rusty red and striking, and remind me of Phillip Island, a small island not far from Norfolk Island. There’s a lot of appropriately weathered docks with shacks, and in some places lines and lines of oyster farms. We had our first lobster of the trip here, fresh from the sea. Scallops and haddock too. The taste of such fresh seafood was incomparable to what most of us pick up from our local fishmonger.Green Gables as it is today

20130617-IMG_8018-120130617-IMG_8014-1First item on the agenda: visit Green Gables. The state made a park of the house that inspired Anne Shirley’s Green Gables. It was well preserved and I could feel the love of a thousand fans (and even perhaps the little girl that Montgomery was) around that house. She obviously drew a lot of inspiration from the people around her as the house belonged to her cousins and it is said her grandparents were a bit of a model for the Matthew and Marilla. They had preserved two of the areas around the house that Montgomery had described in the Anne of Green Gables series, but disappointingly only as much as they absolutely needed to. We could see the golf course (and hear the teeing off) from Lovers Lane and heard trucks in the Haunted Woods, which spoilt the atmosphere a little. We went to the site of her grandparents house, and it was enchanting walking up the quiet lane to the wooded house site. All that remains of the house are the foundations and a charming little well, where people throw shiny coins to wish.

   Haunted wood    Lovers lane

You might be interested to know that any business on the island is entitled to call upon the Anne of Green Gables name for free; it is only those businesses off-island that have to pay a licensing fee.

Charlottetown, the capital, was a redbrick town that has maintained its small town feel. The outskirts are filled with industrial areas and warehouse style supermarkets. We found out that one of the musicals, Anne and Gilbert, based on the Anne books, was playing on my birthday but disappointingly was sold out.

Our hosts recommended a trip to Brackley Beach, which was romantically windswept and mostly unoccupied. Definitely worth a visit if you’re wanting golden sands against dark blue oceans. It was a little cold to swim then though.

20130618-IMG_1213-1On the day of my birthday, Duncan, Phoebe and I took a ride on Confederation Trail, which used to be the tracks of the island’s unnecessary steam engine. It’s a good story that steam engine: the island thought they ought to have one, as they had them on the mainland, but it bankrupted the council, so they had to join the federation of Canadian states, as opposed to what they were originally planning. It was a long time since I had been on a good ride like that, but I think I did alright. In the background of the flower photos above and below, you can see the colour of the tilled land and roads.


While on the island, don’t forget to try Cows ice-cream. You can get the ice-cream elsewhere, but it’s one of the tastiest and largest exports from Prince Edward Island. Plus, they have nerdy and funny t-shirts in the stores, so there’s entertainment too.

I have to say that Green Gables was my highlight. I’ve always felt that Lucy Maud Montgomery was a kindred spirit because I loved her books so much. I was humbled and teary at being in a place I’d dreamed of all my life. I even re-read the books, and some others, and felt that despair of being left out when I finished them. I left a little posy on her grave and thanked her for the joy she has brought me over the years.


To read about our journey, start from the beginning, or you can go on to Cape Breton.

Glorious libraries


Ah! The glory of libraries. All of those books in one place. So much knowledge, so many stories. It is the dream of readers everywhere to possess a library anywhere near half as extensive as this. Many libraries lack an artistic flair in architecture.

This beautiful building however, so elegant in the afternoon sunshine, is the Vancouver Central Public Library. It has 7 floors of books. There is a First Peoples storyteller and a writer in residence, the staff are mobile, and will meet you on any floor. In the Children’s Library on the bottom floor, there’s a vibrant dragon hanging.

Imagination has taken flight in that external curving section; many movies have been filmed in the glassed in halls. It’s closed to the public, very sadly.

The sculpture at the front of the building also tickles my fancy.


I also have a soft spot for the State Library of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia. That beautiful building was founded in 1854, with the idea that it would be ‘the people’s university’. How wonderful is the altruism of that sentiment.  The La Trobe reading room (the one in the photograph below) celebrated her centenary this year.

Melbourne State Library; Melbourne Melbourne State Library; Melbourne

What I love about the State Library is that it has a wonderful collection of old books. It starts with some of the early illustrated books, mostly religious texts, and looks all the way up to pop culture covers and fiction. It also showcases drafts of famous works.

Each of these libraries has embraced more than just the printed word. There are interactive displays, such as games rooms and image galleries, and many activities to bring people into the library. They are attempting to place themselves at the centre of our communities, and I think this progressiveness is the way that libraries will retain their relevance. For the large role that they play in most lives and their availability to the economically or socially disadvantaged, I think it’s so important that we celebrate these gorgeous buildings and excellent organisations.

Which is your favourite library in those that you’ve encountered thus far and why?