Review: Not Just Lucky

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Not Just Lucky: Why women do the work but don’t take the credit by Jamila Rizvi
Published by Viking Press on 3 July 2017
Pages: 303
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased
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Australian women are suffering from a crisis of confidence about work. Accustomed to being overlooked and undervalued, even when women do get to the top, they explain their success away as ‘luck’. But it’s not. Not Just Lucky exposes the structural and cultural disadvantages that rob women of their confidence – often without them even realising it. Drawing on case studies, detailed research and her own experience in politics and media, Jamila Rizvi is the warm, witty and wise friend you’ve been waiting for. She’ll give you everything you need to start fighting for your own success and for a more inclusive, equal workplace for all. (She’ll also bring the red wine.) This unashamedly feminist career manifesto is for women who worry they’ll look greedy if they ask for more money. It’s for women who dream big but dread the tough conversations. It’s for women who get nervous, stressed and worried, and seem to overthink just about everything. It will help you realise that you’re not just lucky. You’re brilliant.

This is a book that has been out for awhile, but I’ve only just gotten around to reading (it’s been sitting on my bedside table for at least three months. I left it there in the hopes that I’d be inspired to pick up a book and actually read, for I have been in a reading slump of late). To be honest, I’d never heard of Jamila Rizvi before picking up this book, but some of my favourite media personalities – Zoë Foster Blake, Clementine Ford, Rosie Waterland – were telling me to read the book. So I read the book (eventually). If you are highly susceptible to endorsements (as I am), it also has Julia ‘I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man’ Gillard and Lisa Wilkinson (rightfully) singing its praises.

Rizvi specifically states in the introduction, ‘the entirety of this book might not apply to you… take from it what is helpful and applicable to your life and leave the rest of someone else.’ I think that Not Just Lucky will be most beneficial to recent graduates and women who are just starting out in their careers. While Rizvi acknowledges that a lack of confidence and doubting yourself is not a trait exclusive to women, she does focus on the gendered nature of our society and how that impacts the workforce. There was a lot of information about the challenges women face in the workforce, the root of these problems, and how women can navigate the workplace and build relationships with other women.

The tone of the book is quite conversational, as if you were sitting down to afternoon tea with a good friend. There’s a quality about it that’s very readable, and Rizvi managed to hold my attention even while breaking down statistics and studies to explain inequality in the workplace. If you are looking for a feminist manifesto that seeks to change the system, this book is not for you. Rizvi gives women tools to survive the system and work it to their advantage. She points out that traditional workplaces were built for men, and encourages women to network with other women and to pull one another up. It was refreshing to read a feminist work that focused on the collective rather than the individual. One of my favourite parts of the book was when she talked about Ian Chubb amplifying her voice as a student at ANU, and the idea of ‘sponsoring’ other women in their careers.

Not Just Lucky is a written pep talk that reminds you that you didn’t get to where you are by luck – you got there through hard work. No one should diminish that, not even you.

★★★★☆

Review: Leah on the Offbeat

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Leah on the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli
Published by Penguin Random House on 30 April 2018
Pages: 339
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased
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When it comes to drumming, Leah Burke is usually on beat – but real life isn’t always so rhythmic. An anomaly in her friend group, she’s the only child of a young, single mum, and her life is decidedly less privileged. And even though her mum knows she’s bisexual, she hasn’t mustered the courage to tell her friends – not even her openly gay BFF, Simon.

So Leah really doesn’t know what to do when her rock-solid friend group starts to fracture in unexpected ways. With prom and college on the horizon, tensions are running high. It’s hard for Leah to strike the right note while the people she loves are fighting-especially when she realises she might love one of them more than she ever intended.

I went and saw Daniel Sloss at the Sydney Comedy Festival on Saturday night, and as I had some time to kill before the show, I stopped in at Better Read Than Dead and found this gem on the shelves. All sources point to its official publication date being 30 April, although the bookseller working said it had been out for a week (we were discussing how it felt like a book that was being published later in the year). I liked Leah on the Offbeat much more than The Upside of Unrequitedalthough I wasn’t quite as enamoured with it as I was with Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda; I think because Leah is a sharper-edged, more polarising character than Simon.

“I’m basically your resident fat Slytherin Rory Gilmore.”

Leah is a delight to read. She’s brash and unashamedly herself – she knows who she is, even if she doesn’t want to share every aspect of who she is with those around her. Albertalli is great at dialogue, characterisation, and building relationships and all of these elements really shine in Leah on the Offbeat. She doesn’t define herself by a romantic relationship, she doesn’t feel insecure about herself because she’s overweight, and she strives for perfection in all that she does. It was eye-opening to ‘watch’ Leah put herself down because her drumming/artwork wasn’t technically perfect. She really is her own worst enemy and is abrasive with herself as she is with other people. It hurt to see Leah acutely aware of the fact that she and her mother are poor and so she therefore can’t afford the luxuries that her friends don’t even think about.

“I’m the Draco from some shitty Drarry fic that the author abandoned after four chapters.”

Albertalli never intended for Leah or her love interest to be bisexual, that was a non-canon ship that was popular in fan fiction (the dedication of the book reads ‘for the readers who knew something was up, even when I didn’t’) and eventually turned into a book… and it feels that way. Other reviewers have commented that Albertalli basically committed character assassination and let fans’ wishes drive the story. I can’t really comment on it because I haven’t reread Simon and can’t say for sure how the characters have changed to make this book work. However, I can say that Leah doesn’t really say anything that Simon didn’t, and narratively, it’s just too similar. Structurally, Simon is the stronger book – while Simon had conflict because of Martin, and kept the reader hooked because of the mystery surrounding Blue, Leah only really had any conflict because of… Leah? It’s hard to review this book without giving away the ending because the plot is simply Leah and her love interest realising that they’re bisexual.  Leah had a problem with her love interest coming out as ‘lowkey bi’… so that threw a spanner in the works. It was very frustrating to feel like the story was just going around in circles because Leah doesn’t look at anything from anyone else’s point of view.

Leah on the Offbeat is a feel-good story (and a slew of pop culture references) that will warm your heart while still tackling serious issues like racism and sexuality. Albertalli is a skilled YA author and while Leah is not as strong as her debut novel, I do highly recommend it.

★★★★☆

 

Review: Those Other Women by Nicola Moriarty

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Those Other Women by Nicola Moriarty
Published by HarperCollins Australia on 19 March 2018
Pages: 
448
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased
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Poppy’s world has tipped sideways: the husband who never wanted children has betrayed her with her broody best friend.

At least Annalise is on her side. Poppy’s new friend is determined to celebrate their freedom from kids so together they create a Facebook group to meet up with like-minded women, and perhaps vent a little about smug mums and their privileges at work. Meanwhile Frankie would love a night out, away from her darlings – she’s not had one in years – and she’s sick of being judged by women at the office and stay-at-home mums.

When Poppy and Annalise’s group takes off and frustrated members start confronting mums like Frankie in the real world. Cafes become battlegrounds, playgrounds become war zones and offices have never been so divided. A rivalry that was once harmless fun is spiralling out of control. Because one of their members is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. And she has an agenda of her own .

I love the Moriarty sisters (they even have their own shelf on my GoodReads page!). They all have their own distinct voice and style of writing, yet they complement one another well. While Nicola’s writing is probably closer to that of Liane’s than Jaclyn’s, it shares the whimsy that permeates Jaclyn’s writing.

I did enjoy the fact that first and foremost, this is a story about women. It’s about the ways in which women build each other up, and tear each other down. We create these relationships and networks and can pull each other up, but we also judge one another harshly for not living up to our own expectations (when we all prioritise things differently!).  I also liked that Nicola managed to capture the fact that, while the Internet is basically where human decency goes to die, it’s also where some magical things can happen.

It’s been great to see Nicola’s growth as a writer since her debut, Free-Falling. She’s always been great at characterisation and dialogue, but I definitely feel like she gets even better with every book. She managed to create characters who were realistic – who weren’t always likeable, but who you rooted for anyway; who felt like a friend or a co-worker. They were perfectly shaded with bits of grey, but never seemed to grate on me (a criticism that I had with her earlier work). The book opens on Poppy discovering that her husband has cheated on her with her (now-pregnant) best friend, and while I’m not sure that it worked as an opening scene, it does make you feel sympathetic towards Poppy and establish characterisation quickly.

Being from the area that the story is set, it was nice to be able to visualise everything as I was reading. The setting kind of hang around in the background, present but not overwhelming. The book is well-paced, although perhaps a little slow in the beginning, and while I did figure out who the double agent was fairly quickly, I did not see Annalise’s back story coming. Without giving anything away, I would’ve liked to see the heavier aspects of the story to have a little depth added to them, as they seemed to be handled a little quickly and wrapped up neatly. They didn’t really seem to impact the characters and I never felt like there was any risk for them. The ending was a little treacly, but I appreciated the overall message it sent – we’re all doing our best, and we should hold each other up and celebrate our differences, rather than hold one another to an impossible set of standards.

All in all, a quick read that most Liane Moriarty fans would enjoy.

★★★★☆

 

 

 

Throwback Thursday: Fray

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Fray by Joss Whedon
Published by Dark Horse Books on 9 December 2003
Pages: 216
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased
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Hundreds of years in the future, Manhattan has become a deadly slum, run by mutant crime-lords and disinterested cops. Stuck in the middle is a young girl who thought she had no future, but learns she has a great destiny. In a world so poisoned that it doesn’t notice the monsters on its streets, how can a street kid like Fray unite a fallen city against a demonic plot to consume mankind? Joss Whedon, the celebrated creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, brings his vision to the future in this unique tale. As inventive in the comics medium as in that of television of film, Whedon spins a complex tale of a skilled thief coming of age without the help of friends or family, guided only by a demonic Watcher.

I’m a huge Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan, and Fray has long been on a list of books I want to read. I’m not hugely familiar with graphic novels, but Fray has definitely made me curious for more. It’s got everything you come to expect from Joss: sharp, witty dialogue; interesting characters; a well-developed mythology. Fray was written during the final seasons of Buffy, so it slots in nicely with the show’s lore. That said, you don’t need to watch Buffy to understand Fray. Joss does a nice job of writing in the Slayer backstory so that readers unfamiliar with the show can pick up the general conceit. As usual, you can’t read this book without getting your heart broken (I still haven’t forgiven Joss for Wash), so readers beware. If I had to compare Melaka to a Slayer Buffy fans would recognise, it would definitely be Faith, but she truly is her own Slayer. It’s very interesting watching Mel struggle with becoming the Slayer – her journey is very different to Buffy’s.

There are a whole cast of new characters to love! Aside from Mel, there’s her demon ‘Watcher,’ Urkonn (you do meet Mel’s actual Watcher, erm, briefly). He has his own agenda, and is very much a character with shades of grey. There’s also Loo, who appears to fill a Dawn-like role. She’s a young girl who lives in Mel’s neighbourhood, missing an arm and blind in one eye, but who loves and admires Mel and has a very sister-like relationship with her. She appears to be the only person Mel cares for, and watching that relationship play out is beautiful. Mel has a twin brother, Harth, who died four years ago (and you get to watch that backstory happen in all it’s cool-toned glory), and a sister, Erin, who’s a police officer (they’re not really on speaking terms). If Mel’s boss, Gunther, is any indication, demons now freely move around humans and nobody seems too bothered by it. Vampires (now called lurks) are just viewed as blood-drinking weirdos. Haddyn is no Sunnydale, but there’s still a ring of familiarity to it.

The pencil work, the colouring, the inking – all have been done fantastically and as much as I praise Joss’ writing, it would be nothing without the work of Karl Moline, Andy Owens, Dave Stewart and Michelle Madsen. The detail that Moline puts into the drawings is insane! As another reviewer pointed out, you can see Melaka mature between issues. The storyline is essentially the same one used time and again in Buffy, but what Joss does with it is mind-blowing.

It’s interesting watching the Slayer story move to book-form, and I’ll be definitely checking out the Buffyverse comic books in the future.

Review: The Sun and Her Flowers

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The Sun and Her Flowers by Rupi Kaur
Published by Simon and Schuster on 3 October 2017
Pages: 255
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased

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From Rupi Kaur, the bestselling author of Milk and Honey, comes her long-awaited second collection of poetry. Illustrated by Kaur, The Sun and Her Flowers is a journey of wilting, falling, rooting, rising and blooming. It is a celebration of love in all its forms.

Hello, friends! Long time, no review. I was a bit burnt out by the end of 2017, and decided to take a much-needed break from blogging. Today is something a little bit different from what I usually read – some poetry! I really liked Kaur’s first collection of poetry, Milk and Honey, although in hindsight that had less to do with the writing itself and more to do with the topics the writing touched on. Much like Lang Leav, Kaur is the perfect poet for the digital age: she writes poetry that is Instagrammable, that wraps everything up in a neat line or two. Teenagers will most probably enjoy it – and I would definitely recommend it as a means of introducing a younger reader to poetry – much in the same way The Bell Jar has been held up as an emblem of teenage angst since the book’s publication. However, I don’t really feel that there’s any depth to Kaur’s poetry, nor do I think she really adds anything new or original to the genre in general.

“i even tried to bury myself alive
but the dirt recoiled
you have already rotted it said
there is nothing left for me to do
– self-hate”

Take this review with a pinch of salt: I know nothing about poetry (although I recently purchased a volume of Emily Dickinson’s Complete Poems in an effort to fix that). When that time of year rolled around where we had poetry as a unit of study in English, I died a little on the inside. I felt like it took too long to get to the point and nobody seemed to agree on what a poem meant. I didn’t have that problem with Kaur’s poetry. Her poetry came across as one-dimensional. There was also no balance – the poems were either three pages long or three lines long, there was no in between. I realise that Kaur is an Instagram poet, but I wanted more depth to her poetry.

I feel like Kaur should’ve wowed me with this collection – it deals with immigration, mental health, self-care. These are big topics, but it feels like Kaur only scratches the surface of them. It’s almost as if she’s trying to create a body of work that speaks for a group of people, when it would’ve been better to write them from personal experience. I feel like she has no distinctive voice – her poetry reminds me a lot of Warsan Shire’s, another poet, except not as developed and well-executed. You don’t need to look very far on the Internet to find criticism of Kaur, who will list a number of poets whose style she has been accused of copying or outright plagiarism claims. A lot of the collection feel quite similar to the poems in Milk and Honey, and I would’ve liked to see Kaur expand upon the topics she covers. I really enjoyed the poems about Kaur’s family, particularly her mother.

Though simple and occasionally unoriginal, this is a decent volume of poetry, and I would recommend it to people looking to get into poetry.

★★★☆☆

Review: The Strays

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The Strays by Emily Bitto
Published by Affirm Press November 2015
Pages: 290
Format: Hardcover
Source: Purchased
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On her first day at a new school, Lily befriends one of the daughters of infamous avant-garde painter Evan Trentham. He and his wife are trying to escape the stifling conservatism of 1930s Australia by inviting other like-minded artists to live and work at their family home. Lily becomes infatuated with this wild, makeshift family and longs to truly be a part of it.

As the years pass, Lily observes the way the lives of these artists come to reflect the same themes as their art: Faustian bargains and spectacular falls from grace. Yet it’s not Evan, but his own daughters, who pay the price for his radicalism.

The Strays is an engrossing story of ambition, sacrifice and compromised loyalties from an exciting new talent.

I didn’t really know too much about this book going into it. My lecturer for Book Publishing and Marketing brought it into class last year for a class exercise, and I was intrigued by the discussion around it, so I went out a bought a copy… it then sat on my shelf for about a year. It was surprisingly good! I was expecting literary fiction – as that’s what a lot of people have been categorising it as – but I don’t know if I would call it that. The prose is sumptuous though, at times it’s hard to believe this is a debut novel.

Set during the 1930s and ’40s in Melbourne, The Strays takes inspiration from the Heide Circle, a group of modernist painters led by John and Sunday Reed, who dominated the Australian art scene from the 1930s-50s. The Strays is focuses on three young sisters – Beatrice, Eva and Heloise, and the price they paid for their parents’ bohemian lifestyle.

There is no intimacy as great as that between young girls. Even between lovers, who cross boundaries we are accustomed to thinking of as at the furthest territories of closeness, there is a constant awareness of separateness, the wonder at the fact that the loved one is distinct, whole, with a past and a mind housed behind the eyes we gaze into that exist, inviolate, without us. It is the lack of such wonder that reveals the depth of intimacy in that first chaste trial marriage between girls.

Narrating from 1985, Lily recalls her intense friendship with Eva, whose parents have created their own community by taking in wayward artists who have fallen on hard times. As Lily’s parents encounter financial strife due to the Depression, Lily becomes another stray taken in by Helena and Evan Trentham. Lily comes to think of herself as an honorary Trentham, but when a scandal breaks out at the commune, she is banished as well – much to her surprise and disappointment.

Ultimately, this book is about female relationships. Childhood relationships – the way in which they dominate your life; filled with confidences, unwavering support, and trust – and the relationship between mother and daughter – both good mother/daughter relationships, and absolutely terrible ones. It’s heartbreaking to watch Eva and Lily’s friendship crack under the strain of emotional neglect, but for Eva and Heloise, they lose most of their close relationships. Everything Lily ever wanted from the Trenthams, she seemed to get later on in life with her daughter and partner.

I would’ve liked to see greater attention paid to the world building (for lack of better term) – aside from mentions of the Depression and the strain it was putting on Lily’s family, this book really could’ve been set in the present day. The end of the book was set in the ’80s, and it was here that you really got a sense of time and place. There were little details that were thrown in here and there to remind you. I also found the ending to be a little anti-climactic, albeit fitting for a book that is focused on female relationships. However, there was something really compelling about this book – I started reading it on the train ride to work and finished it during my lunch break.

Overall, a memorable and engrossing read.

Review: Feedback

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Feedback by Mira Grant
Published by Orbit on 11 October 2016
Pages: 469
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased
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The year was 2014. We had cured cancer. We had beat the common cold. But in doing so we unleashed something horrifying and unstoppable. The infection spread leaving those afflicted with a single uncontrollable impulse: FEED.

Now, twenty years after the Rising, a team of scrappy underdog reporters relentlessly pursue the truth while competing against the superstar Masons, surrounded by the infected, and facing more insidious forces working in the shadows.

Feed captured my imagination in a way I didn’t think possible. As someone who has absolutely zero interest in zombies, I didn’t expect to so wholeheartedly love a book set in a world filled with the walking dead. However, what made it so unique was the fact that everybody was used to living in an environment where they could be attacked and put down at any second. It focused on what happened after the zombie apocalypse, not during. To relive that experience from a different perspective… it intrigued me, so it didn’t take much convincing to pick up Feedback.

Feedback focuses on the team of bloggers who are covering the Democratic governor Susan Kilburn’s campaign: Ben, Aislinn (Ash), Audrey, and Mat. Once again, there’s a similar distribution of roles – Newsie (Ben), Irwin (Ash), Fictional (Audrey), and Techie (and also make-up blogger? Mat). Their relationships are a lot more convoluted than the Masons (which, after that third book, I didn’t think possible). Ash narrates the story – although once again, there are those blog posts from various characters at the beginning of each chapter – and she’s a fun narrator. I liked that a point was made into the showmanship of journalists in this brave new world – the fact that they create personas to cultivate a following. There are slight differences to the on-camera Ash and the Ash we see with her blogging team. I also really enjoyed the fact that we got to see the Masons in a less-than-flattering light. When they were the heroes of the story, we kind of glossed over their flaws. This time, they’re being highlighted.

Ash is Irish, and I have to admit that at times she felt like a bit of an Irish stereotype. Her turns of phrase didn’t always feel authentic, and sometimes it felt like an American imagining what an Irish person would be like. It was frustrating to have a character that came across as that inauthentic, and it would’ve helped the character a lot of Grant had had an Irish beta reader (if she did have one, they definitely didn’t do their job). This wasn’t just a problem with Ash, though. The characterisation just wasn’t as strong as it was in the other books.

Speaking of inauthentic, the fact that Mat was genderfluid felt shoe-horned in. As someone who is left-leaning in her politics and agrees with what Grant was saying about genderfluid individuals, I just felt like someone was preaching at me. When it comes to diversity, it should be something that’s treated as a non-issue. A character should be ‘the genderfluid character,’ they should be a character who just so happens to be genderfluid, and that definitely didn’t happen here. I honestly couldn’t tell you anything about Mat, other than that they were genderfluid. So much focus was placed on the characterisation, it took away from the plot of the story.

The main problem with this book is that it relies too much on the previous three. It’s advertised as being a new entry-point into the series, but if I were coming into this without reading the first three books, I would be utterly confused. There’s very little world-building, and I think that it’s assumed that the reader will have already read them. I was also left scratching my head a few times – certain events in the book were pretty big, and the Masons would’ve had to know about them. However, if they’d known about them, it would’ve changed the entire course of the story. No matter how badly either team wanted a scoop, ONE OF THEM would’ve had to reach out at some point, right? It’s life and death, guys.

Finally, because this gang was focused on figuring out a conspiracy theory that had already been solved… there wasn’t a whole lot of tension happening. When the story strayed from the original story, it was good. When the story unveiled events that we hadn’t been previously told, the stakes felt high. But ultimately, it led to… nothing. I wanted to love this, I really did. I just ended up with a bunch of lukewarm feelings about it.

★★★☆☆

Review: The Woman Who Fooled the World

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The Woman Who Fooled the World: Belle Gibson’s Cancer Con by Beau Donelly and Nick Toscano
Published by Scribe Publications on 13 November 2017
Pages: 322
Format: Paperback
Source:  Purchased
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Belle Gibson convinced the world she had healed herself from terminal brain cancer with a healthy diet. She built a global business based upon her claims. There was just one problem: she’d never had cancer.

In 2015, journalists uncovered the truth: this hero of the wellness world, with over 200,000 followers, international book deals, and a best-selling smartphone app, was a fraud. She had lied about having cancer — to her family and friends, to her business partners and publishers, and to the hundreds of thousands of people, including genuine cancer survivors, who were inspired by her Instagram posts.

Written by the same multi-award-winning journalists who uncovered the details of Gibson’s lies, The Woman Who Fooled the World tracks the 23-year-old’s rise to fame and fall from grace. Told through interviews with the people who know her best, it unravels the mystery and motivation behind this deception and follows the public reaction to a scandal that made headlines around the world.

The Woman Who Fooled the World explores the lure of alternative cancer treatments, the cottage industry flourishing behind the wellness and ‘clean eating’ movements, and the power of social media. It documents the devastating impact this con had on Gibson’s fans and on people suffering from cancer. Ultimately, it answers not just how, but why, Gibson was able to fool so many.

Beau Donelly and Nick Toscano first broke the Belle Gibson story back in 2015. I was fascinated by it: a woman who was my age, had all these accolades, who was validated by so many people – in some cases, very powerful people – had become one of the most infamous con artists.

I didn’t hear about Belle Gibson until Donelly and Toscano originally broke the story of her company, The Whole Pantry, ‘fundraising’ for charity and the charities never receiving the money. At the time, I really felt for her victims: as hard as I found it to believe that healthy eating and clean living could cure cancer (if that was all it took, oncologists would be getting their patients to do it), I’m sure if I had been told I had cancer, I would be desperate to try anything. Belle Gibson preyed on cancer patients and their families. In the process, she destroyed careers at Penguin, the largest book publisher in the world, and Apple, arguably the largest company in the world, because nobody thought to fact check her story. However, I also began to feel sorry for her. The internet is where human decency goes to die, and it was just one massive pile on. I could only imagine how terrifying it must be to receive multiple death threats. This book covers the whole sordid affair: from Belle’s humble beginnings in Launceston and childhood in Brisbane to her ‘diagnosis’ in Perth and eventual move to Melbourne.

For the most part, this new breed of wellness gurus is white and female, young and attractive, engaging, and media-savvy. Some are yoga teachers, or personal trainers, or martial-arts instructors, but scant few have any qualifications that equip them to give health advice. What they do have is an Instagram account.

Donelly and Toscano link Gibson’s success  to society’s obsession with consumerism and the rise of greater access to information (and, in turn, the spread of misinformation). They point out that the ‘wellness’ industry is dominated by well-off white women with an Instagram account and absolutely zero qualifications. As a sort of B-story, they look at Jessica Ainscough, the ‘wellness warrior.’ Ainscough was diagnosed with cancer at 22 and decided coffee enemas would cure the problem. She’s now dead. As is her mother, who was diagnosed with breast cancer and believed in the same alternative treatments as Ainscough. If you’d like to know more about Ainscough’s story, Donelly and Toscano reference a piece written by Sam de Brito that’s well worth your time. Donelly and Toscano don’t go too hard on Ainscough for peddling alternative therapies as a cure for cancer – most probably because she did have cancer, and she genuinely believed in these therapies until it was too late (Ainscough would eventually turn to chemotherapy in her last few months). Donelly and Toscano also talk critically about who put people like Gibson and Ainscough in a position to talk about ‘alternative’ therapies and – at least in Gibson’s case – peddle their lies to hundreds of thousands of people: the media, who gave credibility and a sense of legitimacy to Gibson’s story.

The part that got me most was where Gibson’s mother, Natalie del Ballo, was introduced. Gibson’s dysfunctional childhood is perhaps the only true part of her story, and her mother comes across as a gold digger out to mine everything she can from her daughter’s sudden infamy. It broke my heart a little, and made me wonder if Gibson had ever had some hope of being a well-adjusted adult.

Donelly and Toscano’s book is a stunning, fast-paced expose of The Whole Pantry. Positing larger questions of the dissemination of (mis)information and the ethics of the health and beauty industry, it is a fascinating look at the rise and fall of Gibson and her empire that will give you faith in the power of long form journalism. A must read.

★★★★★

Archive: Emma

I originally posted this review on 31 December 2014 on What Kim Read Next (Blogspot) and have reposted it here.

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Emma by Alexander McCall Smith
Published by Borough Press on 6 November 2014
Pages: 361
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased
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Sometimes it takes time to discover who you really are. And for Emma Woodhouse the journey is only just beginning. After graduating, Emma returns home to Norfolk, where she plans to set up a design business. But that summer, as Emma begins to match-make various friends and neighbours, some important lessons about life and relationships await her…

Jane Austen’s Emma is a finely crafted novel. Clues are carefully woven throughout the story, so that the astute reader can pick up on the mystery of the novel. McCall Smith’s Emma lacks the finesse of the original. I had really high hopes for The Austen Project, but after reading Val McDermid’s take on Northanger Abbey and McCall Smith’s take on Emma, I think that it’s safe to say that this project is not for me. There really is no author like Austen, and these retellings are quite weak. Maybe I’ve been especially hard on this one because Emma Woodhouse is my favourite Austen heroine, but I was immensely disappointed with McCall Smith’s offering.

In order to modernise an adaptation, you need to follow the general plot of the original, while making changes that both update it to a modern setting and make sense within the original narrative. It’s what made Clueless such a great modernisation of Emma and Bridget Jones’s Diary an interesting take on Pride and Prejudice.

The original Emma is an incredibly sheltered young woman, who is wealthier and therefore social superior than almost every individual in Highbury. She has no equal in Highbury, and literally befriends Harriet so she would have somebody to walk with. This Emma is unlikeable, selfish and nasty. It’s kind of implied that the only reason Emma befriends Harriet is because she is overwhelmed by her beauty… to the point that Emma wonders if she is gay. The original Emma was upfront with Harriet about Elton’s proposal and takes her share of the blame – this Emma spins a web of lies in order to come out completely blameless. Emma is also supposed to be clueless in regards to Elton’s true character, only realising the littleness of his character after his proposal – but here, Emma is completely aware of it the entire time! Similarly, my favourite part of the original Emma is the mystery surrounding Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill – this is similarly downplayed. Frank Churchill is an overgrown child, Jane Fairfax, while accomplished, has none of the goodness of the original, and both manage to be unlikeable in the little page-time they have.

Harriet is even thicker than the original, so I was very surprised when [SPOILER ALERT!] she managed to hide the fact that she’d been dating Robert Martin the entire time from Emma. Knightley barely features in the book, which makes one wonder when Emma had time to fall in love with the man. Their interactions are reduced to Knightley chatting to Emma on his way out the door. The original Miss Taylor was Emma’s friend and mother figure as well as governess, this Miss Taylor is entirely responsible for Emma’s disgusting personality.

The first quarter of the book is filled with descriptions of Emma’s early life, which means that the first quarter of the book is more tedious than the rest. It does nothing to advance the plot, nor provide any real insight into Emma’s character, except to add to the perception that she’s a horrible human being. This novel is about half as long as the original, but it took me twice as long to read, and the entire time I was checking how many pages I had until the end. If you want to get into Austen, read her novels. The Austen Project is just a very pale imitation.

★★☆☆☆

Review: The City of Brass

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The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty
Published by HarperVoyager on 14 November 2017
Pages: 544
Format: Hardcover
Source: Purchased
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Among the bustling markets of eighteenth century Cairo, the city’s outcasts eke out a living swindling rich Ottoman nobles and foreign invaders alike.

But alongside this new world the old stories linger. Tales of djinn and spirits. Of cities hidden among the swirling sands of the desert, full of enchantment, desire and riches. Where magic pours down every street, hanging in the air like dust.

Many wish their lives could be filled with such wonder, but not Nahri. She knows the trades she uses to get by are just tricks and sleights of hand: there’s nothing magical about them. She only wishes to one day leave Cairo, but as the saying goes…

Be careful what you wish for.

I still don’t know how I found out about this book – an ad banner on Books and Publishing? A recommendation on GoodReads? All I know is I saw it somewhere on the Internet and bought it from the Book Depository immediately. I’m so glad I did, in a year filled with some STELLAR books, this one stands out.

This book is a good example of what an exciting genre new adult fiction can be – dealing with more serious issues than young adult fiction, but not quite as mature themes as typical ‘adult’ fiction (which is a varied and wide-ranging genre, and hard to pin down). It is one of the few fantasies I’ve read that has taken from Muslim/Islamic traditions and that is set in Africa – Egypt, to be exact (yes, I know that Egypt is a transcontinental country, but it’s considered a regional power in Africa, don’t @ me). Early on in the story, there are mentions of Napoleon and French occupation, which would place this story somewhere between 1797 and 1801.

The human world – which is incredibly important to the story – seems to sit alongside the magical world, which is populated with different creatures whose abilities vary according to their element (fire, water, earth, or air). The magical beings are split into tribes, and the shafits – halfbloods – kind of get treated like the Rohingya refugees of Myanmar, or the Stolen Generation. They are treated horribly: they are arrested for crimes they didn’t commit, their children are taken away and sold into slavery, they live in poverty, and are denied access to medical treatment, food… the list goes on. Ultimately, this is a story about oppression and persecution, and it mirrors what we see in the real world around us.

The story is told from two perspectives, something I normally can’t stand… but this worked. Our heroine, Nahri, is about 20 (she can’t be sure), and makes a living as a street healer, con artist, and thief. While she is hired to cleanse and heal people at Zar ceremonies, where she also leads prayers to banish ifrits, she finds the idea of magic preposterous… until she accidentally summons a daeva. We also see the story from Ali’s perspective. He is the King’s second son, destined to live unmarried and celibate, lest there be too many heirs for the throne. He’s extremely religious and his personality is quite… rigid. I really loved watching the friendship between the two blossom, because both characters are so self-righteous and have to learn to compromise. There are some great characters in here, but nobody is painted as being all good or all bad – they are all shades of grey, and it serves as a reminder of how dangerous it can be to hero worship someone and believe that they are anything more than a person.

If you’re looking for more diversity in your fantasy, pick this book up! It is a powerful debut novel, and one of the greatest debuts I’ve ever read – wonderfully plotted, exceptional prose, strong characters, and representation! Please show publishers that stories about characters of colour are just as marketable, digestible, and wanted as stories about white characters. Show this book the love and hype it deserves, and add it to your TBR pile.

Recommended for: fans of N.K. Jemesin’s Dreamblood duology

★★★★★