Book Review: The Man with the Dancing Eyes by Sophie Dahl

the-man-with-the-dancing-eyes-1‘In the golden half-light of a midsummer’s evening, the sort where any kind of magic can occur, and often does, in the midst of a party held in a wild and rambling garden, stood Pierre, teetering on highly unsuitable heels, surrounded by a symphony of overripe roses.’
On that midsummer evening, Pierre, the daughter of a bumbling botanist and a ravishing Italian soprano, sweet and shy and gangly as a baby giraffe, meets a man with dancing eyes.
Alas, in the midst of a glorious affair, an indiscretion is committed and Pierre flees to New York. But forgetting her beloved proves far harder than she imagines.
Magical, bittersweet, and utterly charming, Sophie Dahl’s debut is an old-fashioned romance for a modern-day world.

The plot of ‘The Man with the Dancing Eyes’ is quite simple: Boy meets Girl, Boy screws up, Girl runs away to Major City (in this case New York). Will Boy win back Girl? Take a guess. The plot is very predictable, but Sophie Dahl has a very beautiful style that is highlighted by the easy storyline. ‘The Man with the Dancing Eyes’ is filled with lovely phrases like the one provided in the blurb, and there is a subtle humour in many of Dahl’s most romantic or heartbreaking scenes:

‘As day poured through the bedroom window, Pierre opened her eyes to see seven tiny men singing madrigals on the deck of the Glimmety Glammety. Her beloved appeared at the bedroom door.
“I’m mad about you,” he proclaimed.
“Lucky, lucky me” she said.
He later won a sweeping victory at Scrabble which made her cross and distinctly ungracious.’

While the beautiful turns of phrase beguiled me, the lack of character development or relatable characters was annoying. Pierre works at a bookshop and lives in a houseboat, but can somehow afford Christian Louboutin heels and flights to New York. Presumably her Soprano mother and Botanist father help to subsidise this. When in New York, she lives off the generosity of a friend of her mother’s and a job modelling for an artist. When money is tight they go to China Town to buy fans and slippers. Pierre never really changes as a character – she doesn’t find a purpose or inner strength and if anything appears to become more vapid and clueless than she was at the beginning of the novella. Despite the problems in the relationship before her boyfriend’s ‘indiscretion (the nature of which is never explained) at the close of the book none of this is resolved and they simply state that they love each other and can’t stop.

Wacky seahorses on parade make reading even more enjoyable.

As a result of the lack of character development, the fantastic illustrations by Annie Morris felt more like candy to distract the reader from the novella’s flaws rather than added value to a story. Line drawing and watercolours are the primary techniques, and they flow beautifully with the narrative. My one issue is that the character Blue is always drawn with bare breasts, for no comprehensible reason. In a world where the female form is already over sexualised, and many feminist artists retaliate by portraying women’s breasts in art for political reasons, having a character drawn with her tits out makes me confused and wary. It felt like the author and artist were making an attempt at being edgy by ‘daring’ to have nudity.

Overall, ‘The Man with the Dancing Eyes’ resembles its main character Pierre – a thing of beauty, but with little depth. This novella is fun to read and the illustrations are both gorgeous and quirky, but it isn’t a story that stays with you for weeks after you close the final pages.



Book Review: The Mistress of Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

the-mistress-of-spicesTilo, an immigrant from India, runs a spice shop in Oakland, California. While she supplies the ingredients for curries and kormas, she also helps her customers to gain a more precious commodity: whatever they most desire. For Tilo is a Mistress of Spices, a priestess of the most magical powers of spices.
Through those who visit and revisit her shop, she catches glimpses of the local Indian expatriate community. To each, Tilo dispenses wisdom and the appropriate spice, for the restoration of sight, the cleansing of evil, the pain of rejection. But when a lonely American ventures into the store, a troubled Tilo cannot find the correct spice, for he arouses in her a forbidden desire – which if she follows will destroy her magical powers.

I was initially dubious about ‘The Mistress of Spices’ – the blurb didn’t quite pull me in and I was unsure if the plot would focus on the magic of the spices or the romance between Tilo and the lonely American. By the end of the first chapter I was hooked – Divakaruni’s poetic and unique writing style is perfect for portraying the mystic nature and humanity of Tilo’s story. ‘The Mistress of Spices’ opens with Tilo’s early life as a prophetic child who is spoilt and feared by her family and village as a result of her power, in an unspecified time period in India. Until she travels to the Island and undertakes training Tilo is a loose cannon who unwittingly brings chaos wherever she goes. Even after completing her training, Tilo’s desire to help her customers leads her to rebel against the conditions of her power, which usually results in circumstances becoming worse instead of improving. I really loved that despite her good intentions Tilo’s magic with the spices is unpredictable and frequently works against her wishes. When she tries to control it, the result is often worse and the effects snowball to affect more of her unknowing customers. This is a step away from the usual portrayals of a protagonist being an all powerful magic user once fully trained. Tilo’s errors were both refreshing and relatable.

I do wish that Tilo’s time on the island and the magic of the spices were more fully explained. Tilo’s training at the Island is told in flashbacks, and usually related to an event that has occurred or will occur soon in the narrative. This is a shift from the linear narrative that was used until this point in the book. It felt like this technique was chosen so that the magic of the spices didn’t have to be explained. I’m confused at the decision – I feel that the flashbacks are either used to increase the sense of mystery, or to hide that Divakaruni didn’t fully develop the magical concepts she uses in the novel. Undeveloped magic laws are a pet peeve of mine and I wasn’t pleased to have questions about Tilo’s magic at the close of the book.

With that said, ‘The Mistress of Spices’ definitely focuses more on Tilo’s magic and relationships with her customers than on her romance with the lonely American named Raven. The relationship is never really developed, and Raven is used more as a representation of Tilo’s secret need to rebel than as a genuine love interest. I found it hard to believe that Tilo would choose Raven over the laws of the spices, as the relationship quickly showed flaws that Tilo herself identified to the audience.

Overall, ‘The Mistress of Spices’ was an engaging and enchanting novel, and I was completely charmed by rebellious but good hearted Tilo. If you’re looking for an epic romance then this book probably isn’t for you, but I recommend picking ‘The Mistress of Spices’ up if you’re in need of a little magic to while away an afternoon.


Book Review: My Own Story by Emmeline Pankhurst

my-own-storyEmmeline Pankhurst grew up all too aware of the prevailing attitude of the day: that men were considered superior to women. When she was just fourteen she attended her first suffrage meeting, and returned home a confirmed suffragist. Throughout the course of her career she endured humiliation, prison, hunger strikes and the repeated frustration of her aims by men in power, but she rose to become the guiding light of the Suffragette movement. This is the story, in Pankhurst’s own words, of her struggle for equality.

‘My Own Story’ was very readable, and Emmeline Pankhurst is a very convincing narrator. While her glowing descriptions of her fellow suffragettes/martyrs were sickening at times, her sassy comments about politicians and legal systems of the time were quite simply amazing. She also managed to explain political and legal systems and procedures without boring me to tears, which I consider an incredible feat. Admittedly at times she came off as a little pompous. She often wrote of the glorious crowds and supporters that her and her fellow suffragettes’ speeches and marches brought, especially after the women began to be arrested. I think Pankhurst underestimated the sheer entertainment value that these processions offered to the public. I often found myself thinking a good portion of these supporters were actually spectators who found the sight of middle class women rioting and being arrested entertaining.

Despite the engaging writing style, I don’t find this account completely reliable. Pankhurst frequently contradicts herself. She first states that Hunger Strikes in prison were a form of protest that they the women were being treated as common criminals, rather than the political prisoners that militant suffragettes believed themselves to be.  Later in the narrative, when the Cat & Mouse Act was passed, she then claims that Hunger Strikes were employed as a means to avoid jail time. Pankhurst speaks scornfully of the Act, which was designed to enforce prisoners who need medical treatment to resume their sentence when they were well. It was a deliberate counterattack against the Hunger Strikes, and while it was not effective I’d say it’s a hundred times more humane than Force Feeding.

While I completely understand the frustration that led the suffragettes to militancy, I cannot fully condone it. There was definite sexist and unfair treatment of suffragettes in the early days of militancy compared to men who committed similar or worse acts while protesting their rights to vote and other matters. However, it reached a point where the suffragettes were damaging their cause and their reputation by destroying the property of the voting public. I’m pretty sure that if the militants had stuck to heckling and damaging the Liberals by-elections they would have reached a result sooner.

Pankhurst is a very arresting author, and I have a far better understanding of the Suffragette Movement as a result of ‘My Own Story’. While at times I found her narrative unreliable, I think that can be said of any autobiography, especially a political one. At the time of publishing ‘My Own Story’ women were still fighting for the right to vote, and Pankhurst was attempting to explain the frustration of militants and the importance of Votes for Women. I may not agree with the methods of herself and her followers, but they were brave women and for that they have my respect.


Book Review: The Secret Countess by Eva Ibbotson

the-secret-countess ST PETERSBURG, 1917
Anna’s world is under threat. The eighteen-year-old countess has lived in luxury all her life, but revolution is tearing Russia apart – and her family must escape…
LONDON, 1919
Now penniless, Anna is working as a servant for the aristocratic Westerholmes. But as she falls in love with the young earl it becomes harder to keep her true identity a secret…

The Eva Ibbotson romances were some of my favourite books as a teenager. They combined my interest in history with my then idyllic notions of love. ‘The Secret Countess’ was the one I read the most – I’m surprised my copy held up so well.

‘The Secret Countess’ really showcases Eva Ibbotson’s talent for writing likeable characters, especially making ridiculous characters seem completely credible. All of the residents of Mersham are hilarious misfits. Rupert’s widowed mother who sends her staff to deliver messages from loved ones beyond the grave to people in the village, and Proom the stately butler who buried her badly knitted socks in the garden to spare soldiers from them are just two of a whole cast of awesome people. The main character Anna Grazinsky is practically a Mary Sue, but her quirks are so giggle worthy that she is the only Mary Sue I’ve ever enjoyed reading. Her habit of curtseying deeply to her superiors makes me laugh every time, as did her interactions with the snobbish mastiff Baskerville.

The relationship between Rupert and Anna is also well written: Ibbotson does an excellent job showing their growing attachment even as they both try to prevent that attachment from occurring. The growing distance between Rupert and his fiancée Muriel is used as a good foil to this, as the two learn more about each other and both come to realise that their marriage of convenience will not be a happy one. Neither party wishes to end the arrangement, and Proom’s inventive solution is both hilarious and supremely effective.

Despite Ibbotson’s talent for characterisation, I can no longer reconcile myself to the character of Uncle Sebastien. I have no objection to his being a veritable hermit in his set of rooms. I quite like the fact that he is a skilled musician who was never able to pursue a career because of his perceived status in life. What makes me seethe is the fact that his penchant for groping the maids is portrayed as a harmless quirk instead of predatory and disgusting. The maids actually defend him whenever someone reacts negatively to his actions, which honestly makes my skin crawl. This book is aimed at young women: it should not be telling them that their being touched without consent is okay.

As a teenager I loved the romanticised historical setting, but on every reread it irks me a little more. Other than brief mentions of anarchists, Ibbotson glosses over Russia’s near century of military and civil unrest before the Revolution. Instead, she describes the final years of Tsarist rule as prosperous and peaceful, and blames the First World War for the fall of the aristocracy. The Grazinskys and other Russian émigrés are described as innocent victims of irrationally angry peasants who rose up with no warning, instead of the beneficiaries of a system that exploited others to provide them with their jewels and palaces.

Despite its flaws, I still enjoy reading ‘The Secret Countess’. Eva Ibbotson has a true gift for character description and comedy, and I’ll always keep my copy to reread as a guilty pleasure.




Book Review: Lion; a Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley

lionWhen Saroo Brierley used Google Earth to find his long-lost home town half a world away, he made global headlines.
Saroo had become lost on a train in India at the age of five. Not knowing the name of his family or where he was from, he survived for weeks on the streets of Kolkata, before being taken into an orphanage and adopted by a couple in Australia.
Despite being happy in his new family, Saroo always wondered about his origins. He spent hours staring at the map of India on his bedroom wall. When he was a young man the advent of Google Earth led him to pore over satellite images of the country for landmarks he recognised. And one day, after years of searching, he miraculously found what he was looking for. Then he set off on a journey to find his mother.

I don’t think I’ve ever said this before in my life, but this was a book that would be better portrayed as a movie. Most of my reasoning behind this is that a lot of the scenes need a soundtrack to make them more exciting. I loved the story of Saroo’s quest to find his family, but there is only so much any author can do to make endlessly searching Google Earth interesting. Admittedly, the description of his Google Earth trek only lasted a few paragraphs and was interspersed with paragraphs of other events, but my eyes still glazed over and I had to focus on focusing. It was a lot more fun in the movie trailer when there was fast paced music and the perspective zoomed through the Indian country side. Or maybe I just suck at visualising written geography.

With that said, I found Saroo’s story to be incredibly captivating and moving. While there wasn’t the side-splitting humour of Anh Do’s ‘The Happiest Refugee’, there was a quiet humour in Saroo’s recollections. The only part that threw me into embarrassingly loud whoops was the reveal that Saroo had pronounced his name wrong first to the Indian police and forever after, and was in fact originally named Sheru. This fact is more heartbreaking than hilarious, but the slow build up and dry wit brought humour to the tragedy.

What I enjoyed the most about ‘Lion’ was the insights it gave me into so many aspects of both India and overseas adoptions. ‘Lion’ deals with some pretty heavy stuff – Saroo was a five year old living on the streets of Calcutta and barely escaped physical and sexual abuse numerous times. As someone who has never experienced extreme hardship, it’s very easy for me to compartmentalise the emotional advertisements from charities like World Vision. Reading memoirs like Saroo’s allow me to empathise more, and I’m so grateful to people like him for sharing their stories and helping me to understand.

I’d definitely recommend ‘Lion: A Long Way Home’ to someone who enjoys a good memoir, or is looking to while away a quiet afternoon. I’m actually looking forward to watching the film adaption, as I’m keen to see if I’m correct about Saroo’s story being naturally suited to a movie structure.



Book Review: Moonshadow – Eye of the Beast by Simon Higgins

Moonshadow is the youngest agent of the Grey Light Order. As spies for the Shogun, the order must stop fanatical lords re-igniting civil war. Moon’s first mission: use his unusual powers to steal the plans for a foreign secret weapon that could forever change the way battles are fought. His lurking enemies: a legendary assassin, rogue samurai and perhaps most dangerous of all…a mysterious, beautiful girl.
Secret allies. Advanced sword skills. Unique powers. And courage. Will it be enough to save the world?

I first read Moonshadow: Eye of the Beast when I was around 14. I was just getting into anime at that point, so I rapidly devoured the book and loved it for the cool ninjas and the historical Japanese background. I could never find the sequel until this year, when I unearthed an American edition in an op shop. I was amazingly excited until I realized that I could recall very little about what happened in the Eye of the Beast. I knew there was a young ninja called Moonshadow and a rival girl-ninja. That was it. Naturally, a reread was required and while I intend to read the sequel (I’ve waited nearly a decade after all), I need to accept that I am too old for this series.

I still love the cool ninjas and historical settings. The more generalised ninja skills are explained realistically, and the magical techniques are varied and interesting. I also loved that every technique has to be developed – these people weren’t born being able to discern the future or to see through animals’ eyes but instead had to work to develop this skill. At times I found this version of the Edo Period to be romanticised, I can appreciate the skilled way that Simon Higgins blended fact and fiction to create a version of historical Japan in which Moonshadow and the Grey Light Order can exist realistically. What I couldn’t appreciate was the exposition. Using flashback scenes to introduce or develop characters is a major peeve of mine, and the technique is used to develop all of Moonshadow’s mentors. Eye of the Beast opened with Moonshadow’s final test and graduation from training, so flashbacks were the easiest way of developing both him and his mentors while maintaining the pace of the story. I would’ve found it far more engaging if the perspective shifted more often from Moonshadow’s perspective to key characters that needed development, such as Heron and Eagle. While the perspective does shift a few times within the story, it is tacked onto the end of chapters and used to foreshadow events surrounding Moonshadow. The foreshadowing was unnecessary, and served only to make the predictable YA plot more predictable. That and the lack of true character development made the book seem very one dimensional and clichéd.

All in all, while I’d definitely recommend this book to a 12 year old who is interested in ninjas/martial arts/Japan, I’d hesitate to lend it to an adult with similar interests. Eye of the Beast suits its audience, but I didn’t find it to be one of the YA books that can enthral both adults and children alike.


Review: Sun Bum Sunscreen & Lip Balm

Price: Sunscreen 17.99 AUD; Lip Balm 4.99 AUD

Seeing Sun Bum at my local pharmacist was pretty exciting. Their cruelty free status was quite clear and the prices were relatively affordable. The packaging was also appealing because it was adorable and easy to use. The little monkey is cute and the squeeze bottle means that I can get every last drop of product out. The texture of said product isn’t too thick, which is exactly what I was going for. It applies nicely on my arms and legs, and for the review’s sake I tried it on my face. Don’t do this if you have oily skin. It will just mix with the oil on your face, refuse to hold makeup, and the day will end in acne and tears. When applied to the body, the sunscreen set after about 20 minutes and I didn’t notice I was wearing it, except for the occasional whiffs of coconut throughout the day. That’s right, Sun Bum is scented. I sure wish they’d put that on the cute packaging. I wore the sunscreen to walk/chase dogs around an outdoor pen for 5 hours, and by the end of the day I found I was ever so slightly pink in some places where I had applied. This was gone the next day, and I don’t know if it was mild sunburn or just flushed skin. Either way, from now on I’ll be reapplying this sunscreen every 3-4 hours to be sure that I am maximising my sun protection.

This sunscreen isn’t The One, and I don’t think I’ll repurchase once the bottle is empty. For me the coconut scent is incredibly off putting – I don’t like coconut, and now I have to coordinate any scent I wear with the sunscreen. I also don’t like having to reapply as that means waiting indoors for 20 minutes waiting for the sunscreen to sink in again. I did like the lightweight feel and would use this as sun protection travelling to and from an indoor job if it didn’t also involve walking around in a coconut cloud.

While the sunscreen was disappointing, it wasn’t nearly as much of a letdown as the lip balm. The lip balm is incredibly heat sensitive. I used it when the temperature was in the low end of 20 C and the balm was already incredibly soft to touch. When I applied it to my lips the balm melted very quickly and as such the pleasant pink grapefruit scent became a decidedly unpleasant grapefruit taste invading every crevice of my mouth. Even when I wiped the balm off the taste lingered for hours. I couldn’t keep it on for long enough to be able to comment on the moisturising or sun protective qualities of this product. I’m sure that putting it in the fridge would firm it up, but a day wear lip balm that needs refrigeration is of absolutely no use to me, or anyone else for that matter.