Month: December 2021

Book review – The Lost Storyteller, by Amanda Block

Title: The Lost Storyteller

Author: Amanda Block

Publisher: Hodder Studio/Hachette, 2021; RRP: $32.99

The author

Amanda Block achieved an MA in creative writing in Edinburgh after moving there in 2007 from her home in Devon. She still resides in Edinburgh where, before writing this book, she worked as a ghostwriter, editor, and tutor. She has had work shortlisted in the Bridport Prize and the Mslexia Short Story Competition. Her work is influenced by myths and fairy tales, which inspire her own stories. The Lost Storyteller is her first novel.

The book

Rebecca Chase works in an office in an unfulfilling job when a journalist, Elliot Bailey, arrives asking questions about her past and that of her family. Initially unwilling to engage with Elliot, Rebecca sends him away, professing no knowledge in response to his questions about her father’s whereabouts. Her father, Leo Sampson, had left when Rebecca was a small child and she had not seen him for years. Leo had been a famous children’s TV entertainer and Elliot was writing a ‘where are they now’ story for his publication.

Soon after this, Rebecca attends a family function with her mother, aunt, uncle, and grandmother. At this event her grandmother secretly gives Rebecca a book that her father had left her years earlier, two years after they had last seen him. The book is a series of seven fairy tales Leo had written for her as a child.

After her initial reluctance to engage with Elliot, Rebecca teams up with him to discover what happened to her father, and in the process uncovers a range of family secrets. The stories in the book Leo had written are instrumental in the progress of the story. The idea of structuring the story around a series of fairy tales, with their symbolism and degree of familiarity of characters, is interesting.

Books based on fairytales


Initially Rebecca appears somewhat weak and insipid; she’s stuck in a job that she finds tedious, with co-workers that tend to annoy her, and she’s overpowered by her forceful mother. Throughout the story her character develops by degrees, and she ends up making some much-needed changes in her life. The search for her father has its ups and downs, as do her interactions with Elliot. However, the inevitable happens, even if in a formulaic way, and from a less than promising start their relationship develops.

Despite one or two plot holes, and an early flagging of what had happened to her father, the story reaches a satisfying conclusion. The author handles some delicate issues sensitively and compassionately, and family relationships change and develop. Rebecca ends up in a much better place than she was at the beginning of the novel, and with a much more promising future.

Reviewed by: Elisabeth Bridson, November 2021

Ballarat Writers inc. Book Review Group

Book review – Portal to Liberty, by A.J. Elksnis

Title: Portal to Liberty: Enter Portal 1

Author: A.J. Elksnis

Publisher: MoshPit Publishing, 2021

A.J. Elksnis is a Ballarat author who is deeply interested in sustainability and this concern is vividly apparent in Portal to Liberty, his first novel, where humanity has left an Earth no longer able to sustain life due to environmental degradation. He also practises what he preaches, living off the grid using solar panels and batteries to power his home. He is a fan of popular culture and this is reflected in how he has chosen to tell this story.

The author has constructed an ambitious and compelling scenario including augmented humans created to perform particular functions, aliens sharing superior technology, time and space travel, and parallel universes amongst which are an ominous  present-day Melbourne and a world ruled by a Blood Queen. The characters are thinly drawn, almost two dimensional, with a strong popular culture flavour. Reading Portal to Liberty was almost like watching a movie. Many of the characters come across as figures from a pop culture version of science fiction generally, with shades of the genres ecofiction or climate fiction (cli-fi). Scientific information works hand in hand with imagined worlds, action and characters (human and otherwise), to ground the narrative amid the fantastic and the gung ho.  

The underlying premise balances a Utopian ideal in the Universal Community (UC), established after the Great Migration from Earth, against the military dictatorship of General Dennis Conroy. Conroy is the leader of those cast out of the UC for rejecting its brave new system of taxation of the rich to provide for all. With his private army and automated units (AMs, created to take on many tasks performed by humans, including military duties), he now rules the newly created Corporate Office of Government (COG) on Silica, the planet to which they were exiled. The battle between Conroy’s forces and those of the UC spans time and space and is filled with nonstop action and movement. Elksnis uses this conflict to introduce treatises on social justice and sustainability.

He also taps the familiar SF trope of what makes a human, human, as the augmented human Lana develops an identity beyond her programming and cloned origins under the tutelage of Professor Peter O’Conner, her creator, and his team of scientists. The cloned Lana’s personality is developed by the team feeding their own life experiences into her as she grows, and she is subjected to genetic changes ‘improving’ on her basic human form.

Want more cyborgs, robots and AIs? Try this list

@ the best sci-fi books (2015)

Professor O’Conner’s team are part of the UC forces at the forefront of the battle against Conroy, whose ambitions threaten not just the UC but numerous other worlds throughout time and space.

There is some unevenness in the quality of the writing and there were moments where I lost sense of where I was in the story as a whole due to the complexity and breakneck speed of the narrative, but as a fan of ecofiction and science fiction I kept reading, and as I did my reading became easier and I remained drawn in.

The basic theme, protection of our planet, is a timely and important one, and in using a pop culture, action-filled framework, Elksnis has found an imaginative way to explore this. Portal to Liberty is the first part of a series and, with a little extra attention to editing, I look forward to where he goes next.

Reviewed by: Rhonda Cotsell, December 2021

Ballarat Writers Inc. Book Review Group

Review copy supplied by the author

Book review – A Handsome Letter, by Sara L Keating

Name: A Handsome Letter, A memoir of love unexpected

Author: Sara L Keating

Publisher: Publicious Book Publishing, 2021, RRP: $29.99

A Handsome Letter, A memoir of love unexpected is an account of an unlikely love story between two people, one living in Australia and the other in China.  ‘Was it their destiny to fall in love? Although suitably matched as the dragon and the rat in the Chinese Zodiac, they had a dilemma. Sara was born too early, and Zhang Jianlong was born late — 27 years too late.’

Sara L Keating tells a true story of her attraction to a Chinese man she met when she attended Hubei University as a Mandarin language exchange student. Prior to going to China, Sara ended her long-term marriage. She was a mother and grandmother at the time. 

Zhang Jianlong, known as Paolo in the memoir, met Harry, Sara’s co-student in China, at a local post office and struck up a friendship with them. He took them to his hometown where the three stayed briefly with Paola’s family. When Sara was leaving to return to Australia, Paola asked her if she would write to him. Paola completed his university studies and was job seeking, a task that was difficult.

It was through a series of letters and phone calls Sara and Paolo built up a strong if not confusing attachment to each other. The correspondence forms the backdrop to the memoir and contains engaging and moving reflections on the dilemma the two faced.

When Sara returned to China, their attraction to each other intensified. Paola was unable to tell his family about Sara and culturally the two were at risk of being ostracised or even dealt with by local authorities because they were living together. The age difference between them was a significant factor that weaved its uncertainty on the relationship from the beginning.

This memoir is beautifully written. Sara Keating writes with honesty and sincerity, taking the reader on a painful journey of impossible love. Impossible, but not without fervent desire and genuine yearning against all odds. It’s this very aspect that makes the story both engaging and yet agonisingly poignant.

Great romance stories out of China

@ the world of chinese

China comes alive in this memoir. The colour and the greyness, the freezing winters, the hot airless nights, the smells and aromas, the spicy food, the noise, the complex languages and the fascinating people. There’s a dense richness of cultural ideology, superstitions and beliefs that the author has cleverly woven through this book. Sara L Keating is a true observer of community life.

This is a story to read without judgement, to walk in the shoes of the two people involved. Both have good intentions and want the best for each other. This memoir is a reminder that true love does not always conquer societal attitudes and that happy endings are sometimes only the outcomes of fairy tales. It is also a reminder that special love isn’t always forever, but it can bring immense joy for a brief time.

Sara L Keating is the pen name chosen by Anna Yang.  Anna lives in Toowoomba, Queensland.

Reviewed by: Heather Whitford Roche

Ballarat Writers Inc Book Review Group, November 2021

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