The Dangers of Truffle Hunting

Saucy romance about food, wine and photography

Content warning: sex scenes

I have had this ARC sitting on my to-read shelf since I got it from Harry Hartog…gosh, about 5 years ago? I’m making a big effort to get through my reading backlog, and because of the title, I always felt like this was the right book to read in winter.

Image is of an advance reading copy of “The Dangers of Truffle Hunting” by Sunni Overend. The paperback book is standing upright between a champagne bottle and a bowl of cake mixture on a kitchen bench. A shirtless man stands behind it with a flour handprint on him. There are cloves scattered around, a red apple cut in half and two cinnamon sticks.

“The Dangers of Truffle Hunting” by Sunni Overend is a romance novel about Kit, a young woman who has just secured a job as a food photographer for a highly regarded lifestyle magazine with a slick and minimalist style. Kit is engaged to successful if somewhat uptight furniture designer and is about to start planning a big wedding at her family’s vineyard. However, when she visits her family to hear about her father’s new venture, she meets the farmhand Raph and is inspired to start taking much more creative, suggestive photographs. As the tension between her own creativity and desire begins to clash against the path that her work, her fiancé and even her own mother have set out for her, Kit must decide what kind of life she really wants to lead.

This is a fun and very readable romp that I absolutely whipped through. The perfect blend of idyll and serendipity with just the right amount of drama, I was up late at night flipping pages to get to that ending. Overend writes about food with the same sensuality that is drawn from Kit. This book is full of cozy and evocative scenes choosing wines in cellars, making pastry and even participating in cooking classes in France. Although not wildly surprising, there was a good twist later in the story to keep things interesting. Overend writes eroticism well and there are plenty of creative scenes to warm readers up on cold winter nights.

It probably should be said that this book is pure romantic fantasy, so even though it is written with realism in mind, there are enough coincidences, privileges and special opportunities that you’ll have to suspend some considerable disbelief. There are also a couple of scenes that felt a little superfluous. Also, I know it was the point of the book but Kit’s fiancé was so unbelievably boring, every scene with him in it made my eyes roll.

A spicy food-lover’s fantasy with not many truffles but nevertheless a quick and enjoyable to read.

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A Master of Djinn

Queer steampunk fantasy mystery set in early 1900s Egypt

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher.

Image is of a digital book cover of “A Master of Djinn” by P. Djèlí Clark. The cover is of a silhouetted figure climbing ascending a staircase in an ornate building with blue and gold designs and cogs and gears hanging from the glass ceiling.

“A Master of Djinn” by P. Djèlí Clark is a fantasy mystery novel with steampunk elements set in an alternate Cairo, Egypt in 1912. After the barrier between our world and the magical world was removed half a century earlier, countries have been trying to manage the influx of magical beings. In Egypt, where Djinn now live amongst people, Fatima is the youngest woman who works at the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities. Fuelled by confidence and a snappy style of dress, a new mystery soon has Fatma stumped. After members of a secret British society are murdered by someone claiming to be the very man they worship, Fatima must solve the crime before the tension in the city boils over and and all is lost. Meanwhile, she has an unwanted new partner at work and her hot and cold girlfriend is more than who she seems.

This is a fun novel that reimagines Cairo at the turn of the century in a new light. The introduction of magic and Djinn in the world shifts the international power dynamic and in Clark’s Egypt, the British have withdrawn early and colonialism is becoming a distant memory. Djinn and the mysterious Angels bring with them new technologies, which Clark shows off to great effect during some of the action scenes. Fatma is a great, imperfect character whose brilliance is tempered by her vanity and her stubbornness. I really enjoyed Fatma’s new partner Hadia, and their interactions were a really good comment on how scarcity of opportunity for women (or people who belong to any marginalised group) can force unfair competition, but also how valuable mentorship and camaraderie can be. I also really liked the romance. Clark explores what it means to come from more than one background, and how critical trust and safety is in a relationship. The Djinns as well were really well done and I thought Clark brought a lot of complexity and humanity to these new citizens of Cairo.

I think something to keep in mind is that the characters refer to events earlier one quite often, and I though perhaps he was setting the story up for a prequel. It turns out, he has actually written a short story set in the same world. While I don’t think you need to have read it to enjoy this story, given how often it is referred to it might help. Although set in a steampunk fantasy world, this is at heart a mystery and I probably would have liked it to be a little, well, mysterious. Clark introduces several red herrings and plenty of action, but ultimately I guessed the twist early.

A fast-paced and enjoyable novel with a lot of interesting social commentary if not a particularly surprising ending.

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Duncton Wood

Animal fantasy about power, religion and moles

Content warning: sexual assault, religious themes, rape apologism, violence

When I was growing up, animal fantasy was one of my favourite book genres. Some of my absolute favourites included “Watership Down” and “Black Beauty“. It is a broad genre, with plenty of books out there, but one that I have not explored very much as an adult. I picked this book up at a Lifeline Book Fair quite some time ago and it has been sitting on my shelf with a small collection of other animal fantasy novels that I haven’t gotten around to reading. The cover is extremely autumnal and very in season, and I thought it was high time I gave this genre another go.

Image is of “Duncton Wood” by William Horwood. The paperback book is sitting on a bed of autumn leaves in reds, yellows and browns. The cover has two moles sitting on autumn leaves themselves with trees and a standing stone in the distance.

“Duncton Wood” by William Horwood is an animal fantasy novel about two moles: Rebecca and Bracken. Born at a similar time in the declining system of burrows called Duncton Wood, Bracken and Rebecca’s upbringing couldn’t be more different. Bullied by his siblings but with a flair for exploration, Bracken leaves his unhappy burrow early and forges his own path. Rebecca on the other hand is the cherished daughter of Mandrake, an enormous mole from a far away system who has taken control of the Duncton moles. Mandrake suppresses the moles’ spiritual beliefs and encourages violence, and outright bans the ritual of visiting the revered Stone in midsummer. Between them, Rebecca and Bracken must rebel against Mandrake and help the Duncton Moles regain their faith.

This is an epic and sprawling story that follows the lives of Rebecca and Bracken as they mature and overcome physical and spiritual adversity. From the outset, Rebecca and Bracken are identified as star-crossed lovers, and Horwood spends a significant amount of the book navigating their complex yet inevitable relationship. I think Horwood’s real strength is nature writing, and his descriptions of the English countryside and changes of the seasons are very beautiful.

However, there were so very many problems with this book. While there is nothing wrong with this, a cursory glance at the cover would not indicate to a reader just how strong the religious overtones of this book are. An enormous proportion of this book is about moles finding and maintaining their faith in the Stone, and meeting other moles from other systems to talk about their own Stones. The overwhelming message in this book is that discarding spiritual traditions is bad, however it was never really made clear in the book what the social decline in Duncton was caused by. For example, the traditions were not replaced by technology, and Mandrake didn’t exactly fill the moral void.

Speaking of moral voids, I cannot in good conscience write about this book without mentioning the sexual assault. Essentially one mole rapes another mole in a horrific breach of trust and an enormous proportion of the book is spent trying to understand the perpetrator mole’s background and circumstances that lead to his violent and controlling behaviour. The perpetrator then commits unthinkable violence against children. However, despite this, the survivor spends a large amount of time empathising with the perpetrator and even later coming to think of the rape almost fondly. Reading these parts of the book honestly felt pretty gross and overshadowed the better elements.

Although I was really interested in reading about Horwood’s mole culture, ultimately it felt underdeveloped and contradictory. For example, some mole systems have books, but Horwood fails to explain how the books are made and how their language was written. This was such a missed opportunity in worldbuilding, and also raised questions of why there were no other technological developments. The emotional development of the characters was also quite superficial. Moles love and show reverence for each other almost immediately without any real reason. Horwood could have leaned into a more realistic explanation (moles like the smell or body language of other moles) or a more character-driven explanation, but mostly moles just made snap judgements about one another for no apparent reason.

I also thought it was a bit anglocentric that the Siabod (Welsh) moles had to speak English, but the English moles didn’t know or bother to learn Welsh and regularly described the language as harsh. The older moles constantly lamented that they did not have the words to explain what they meant, and the dialogue between the moles frequently didn’t say much at all. Harwood’s own language felt quite repetitive, and he mentioned the terms ‘peace’ and ‘love’ over and over and over.

A slow burn with strong religious themes and some very questionable narrative decisions, I would think twice before reading this.

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We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Gothic novel about two sisters in a mysterious manor

I needed a new audiobook to listen to when I was doing training for my hike in Tasmania, and I had made a shortlist of books that were around 5 hours long which seems to be the sweet spot for my attention span. I had heard of this one before but had no idea what it was about. It looked a bit spooky and I was keen to try something a bit different.

Image is of the audiobook cover of “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” by Shirley Jackson. The cover is a black and white artwork of two blonde girls and a black cat with townspeople behind them in a style that looks similar to linocut printing

“We Have Always Lived in the Castle” by Shirley Jackson and narrated by Bernadette Dunne is a gothic novel about an 18 year old girl known as Merricat who lives in the Blackwood family manor with her sister Constance and her uncle Julian. Constance never leaves the house and its grounds and Uncle Julian is a wheelchair user, so it is up to Merricat to walk into town each week to shop for groceries. Although the people in the village serve her and let her take library books home without ever expecting her to return them, they are also openly hostile towards her. Nevertheless, Thefamily shares a quiet life with Merricat playing with her cat Jonas, Constance working in her garden and Uncle Julian working on his book about the family’s recent history. However, when their cousin Charles turns up the manor, their peaceful existence is thrown into disarray.

This is a delightfully unsettling book that keeps you guessing the whole time. Merricat is a captivating narrator who is utterly unreliable and who appears both younger and older than her actual age. I really enjoyed the way Jackson maintains the sense of uncertainty throughout the book with characters saying contradicting things about what happened to the Blackwood family that are never truly resolved. Merricat’s use of magic and superstition contributes to the mysterious atmosphere and undermine’s the reader’s understanding of what is real and what is not. Dunne was an excellent narrator who captures Merricat’s apparent innocence perfectly.

A fascinating book that kept me thinking and wondering long after it had finished, and a really good option if you’re in the mood for something eerie.

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The House in the Cerulean Sea

Queer urban fantasy romance

This was the set book for my most recent fantasy book club. Although I hadn’t heard of this author prior to reading the book, the author has had a number of books published recently and is generating quite a bit of hype for his novels.

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Image is of a digital book cover of “The House in the Cerulean Sea” by TJ Klune. The cover is of a two storey redbrick house perched precariously on a blocky, stylised cliff face over blue ocean with a sunrise behind.

“The House in the Cerulean Sea” by TJ Klune is a queer romantic urban fantasy novel about a public servant called Linus who works as a case worker for the Department in Charge of Magical Youth. Linus spends his days in a toxic workplace writing reports about the compliance of special orphanages with child welfare standards and his evenings alone listening to records with a cat who doesn’t particularly like him. Linus’ life is lonely but predictable, and he is always careful to maintain clear boundaries between work and home. However, when he is called to attend a meeting with Extremely Upper Management, Linus soon finds himself auditing an institution so secret even he has never heard of it. He travels to Marsyas Island Orphanage and meets the enigmatic Arthur Parnassus and the peculiar children he is responsible for. As Linus gets to know them, it becomes harder and harder to remain objective.

The book club member who picked this book also picked “The Rook“, and it has been really interesting reading another example of a subgenre that I’m going to call bureaucratic fantasy. Most fantasy novels focus on war and overcoming evil, and it is kind of a nice change to read about the less exciting practicalities of how magic might be regulated in a more real world setting. It was also really refreshing to read a romance novel that gently unfolds without anything especially bad happening. This is a sweet novel with a strong message of belonging. Klune manages to maintain a sense of tension without ever causing the characters too much discomfort, which is honestly kind of a relief during these times. The kids were really fun and I particularly enjoyed Chauncey and his big dreams of becoming a bellhop.

There were only two things that jarred with me a little. One was that Linus’ world didn’t really have a clear, consistent internal logic. There are a mishmash of magical beings that seem to derive from different mythologies and belief systems without any of those belief systems actually being incorporated into the story. It’s not often that I would be calling for more exposition, but I did feel that the magic was more of a nod to the canon rather than well thought out itself. The other was that while I appreciated the sweetness of the story, there were a number of scenes that were just too saccharine for my liking.

A light-hearted story that is not particularly challenging but is satisfying nonetheless.

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Where the Fruit Falls

Family saga novel about racism, Aboriginal identity and intergenerational trauma

Content warning: racism

2020 was not a great year for authors. Usually when an author publishes a book, especially with a well-resourced publisher, the author has the opportunity to promote the book through events such as interviews, panels and readings. For many authors last year, social distancing, lockdowns and curfews meant that promoting books in person simply was not possible. This book was published last year and although I saw a lot of discussion about it on social media, unfortunately I don’t think it got anything like the publicity that it deserved. I bought a copy and it is a beautiful book with a striking design including gold foil on the cover. I haven’t been very active on here recently, but this is my next book to review, and given that today is the first day of Reconciliation Week, it is an ideal time to boost an Aboriginal author.

Image is of “Where the Fruit Falls” by Karen Wyld. The softcover book is sitting between three pink lady apples and three potatoes. The cover is red with a winding blue river in the background and the silhouette of a tree in the foreground with apples picked out in gold foil.

“Where the Fruit Falls” by Karen Wyld is a family saga set in Australia in the mid-1900s. After the end of a family chapter, Brigid, a young woman with a white mother and an Aboriginal father who was killed in action, leaves her grandmother’s apple orchard to make her own way. Following a willy wagtail, Brigid finds her way to lost kin to have her twin babies on country and to gradually make peace with her identity. However, in a changing world, her daughters must face their own challenges and survive the prejudices levelled against them for the colour of their skin.

When I’m reading, I usually take notes of my impressions of the book and things I liked or didn’t like. For this book, the only note I wrote was this: “This story feels like a pebble that has rolled up and down a beach, over and over. It may not be the same shape as the original stone, but it is still the same stone; just smoother and a nice weight in your hand”. This book feels like a story that has been told over and over, perfected a little more with each retelling. Some people have described this book as magic realism, however Wyld elaborates a little more on how she considers it a literary device rather than a genre and how she inserts fractures in her her writing to draw the reader’s attention. Embellished in some parts, abridged in others, this story flows with a familiar rhythm.

However, this is by no means a typical story. Wyld makes some fearless narrative decisions that are devastating in their impact and reverberate throughout the whole novel. Brigid is a complex character who struggles to break free from the lessons she was taught about her skin colour and her worth as a child. Through her daughters Tori and Maggie, Wyld explores the stark difference in how people are treated based on their appearance and the assumptions made about their connection to country and culture. Although Wyld never refers to any particular region or city, this book has a really strong sense of place and I really enjoyed seeing the land through Brigid’s eyes and the city through the twins’.

A beautifully constructed and heartbreaking story. Not just this week but every week, I implore you to follow, support and listen to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers to learn about and empathise with this country’s history and the continuing impacts of colonialism, and this book is an excellent place to start.

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The Northern Reach

Family saga set in Maine, USA

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher.

Image is of a digital book cover of “The Northern Reach” by W. S. Winslow

“The Northern Reach” by W. S. Winslow is a family saga set in and around the small fictional coastal town of Wellbridge in Maine, USA. Spanning about 100 years and the four intersecting Lawson, Baines, Moody and Martin families, traumas echo through the generations against the dramatic Maine coastline.

This was a really readable novel with an exceptionally strong sense of place. Winslow has a real strength for characterisation and each point of view character has a unique and distinct voice. I really enjoyed Liliane, the sophisticated French woman who finds herself widowed in unwelcoming Wellbridge. I also really liked the sisters Coralene, Marlene and Earlene and the subtleties in their relationships and Winslow’s hints of infidelity. Winslow also thoughtfully and sensitively explores family trauma and how they impact not just the immediate generation but the subsequent generations afterwards. The moody coastal atmosphere is also complemented by some ghostly visitors.

The only thing that was a bit challenging about this book was keeping track of all the families. Winslow helped a lot by providing a full family tree at the beginning of the book and then specific branches throughout, however reading an eBook did make it a little hard to flip back to the diagrams.

An immersive and insightful novel about the complexities of families, relationships and small towns.

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A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Austere Academy

Children’s book series about three hapless orphans

I am still enjoying reading this series and watching the corresponding TV adaptation, and I was looking for a snappy read to curl up in front of the heater with now the evenings are getting colder. If you haven’t read this series before, I would recommend starting at the beginning.

Image is of the book “The Austere Academy” by Lemony Snicket. The hardcover book is sitting inside an open notebook where the letters V.F.D. are written diagonally next to a pen. A tape measure snakes around the book and the notebook.

“The Austere Academy” by Lemony Snicket is the fifth book of 13 in the “A Series of Unfortunate Events” collection. After the Baudelaire children Violet, Klaus and Sunny barely escape the events of the previous book unscathed, they are sent to a boarding school called Prufrock Preparatory School. Any hope that finally their luck may change is dashed when Vice Principal Nero advises that because they don’t have a guardian, they will be living in a small, crab and fungus-infested shack. The only upside is that they have finally made some friends: the two Quagmire triplets Isadora and Duncan. However, when a new sports teacher called Coach Genghis starts at the school, things begin to look very dire.

I think that this is my favourite book in the series so far. There is some subtle but noticeable character development. The Baudelaires have started to lose faith in the adults around them and for the first time, do not sound the alarm when they realise a new scheme is afoot to steal their inheritance. Instead, they cut to the chase and start making their own plans. I also really enjoyed that Sunny has started occasionally saying actual words that Snicket doesn’t need to interpret.

Interestingly, I actually liked the plot of this book better than I did the corresponding TV series episodes. The TV adaptation attempted to soften the situation by introducing some additional benevolent characters, and I felt that the Baudelaires’ lack of hope in the book made the ending much more tragic.

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Honeycomb

Novel of original and interrelated fairytales

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher.

Image is of a digital book cover of “Honeycomb” by Joanne M. Harris and illustrated by Charles Vess. The cover (which will be the cover for the Australian edition) is powder blue with text and a stencil design of roses, vines, honeycomb and bees in bronze.

“Honeycomb” by Joanne M. Harris and illustrated by Charles Vess is a novel made up of original fairytales. Many of the chapters are distinct stories in the form of fables and parables, however most of them connect to an overarching story arc featuring the Lacewing King, a handsome yet selfish man who wanders through his kingdom ruling over the Silken Folk doing as he pleases. Nevertheless, as time passes and the number of his enemies grows larger, the Lacewing King’s self-interested lifestyle becomes unsustainable.

I have been a fan of Joanne M. Harris (styled as Joanne Harris for her non-fantasy fiction) for a really long time, and as early as 2012 I was reading her #storytime vignettes on Twitter (which have now been removed and collected into this book). I was even inspired to make the little painting below. The stories in this book make for hard-hitting, unsettling chapters that all contribute towards the overarching story of the Lacewing King. Harris conjures a captivating and uncomfortable world made of insects and excess, the same world that was touched upon in her previous book. Some of the fables in this book have clear underlying morals and are told in a similar style to “Animal Farm“. Harris writes particularly about the perils of following the crowd and placing too much faith in self-proclaimed leaders and self-important loudmouths. However, it is the journey of the Lacewing King that I was the most invested in. I really liked how Harris shows the repercussions of indifference over generations, but how also people can change their worldview. There are also stories that initially don’t appear to be related to the main story that Harris masterfully weaves in later.

The Lacewing King Page 1
Image is a watercolour illustration with a bee telling a story to three larvae against a background of yellow hexagons.

While individually I found each fairytale very readable, I did find it hard to settle into this book. I found myself reading one story then setting the book down. I think that although the structure of the book lent itself to this kind of story, it ultimately did feel quite interrupted.

A thought-provoking and refreshing approach to the fairytale genre.

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The Bone Shard Daughter

Fantasy novel about a crumbling island empire

It has been a while since my fantasy book club has met, though I hosted one a couple of months ago for a book I read quite some time ago, and by coincidence the title of this book was quite similar to the last one I reviewed.

Image is of a digital book cover of “The Bone Shard Daughter” by Andrea Stewart. The cover is of a terraced city, waves, ships and a large key stylised as marble carvings.

“The Bone Shard Daughter” by Andrea Stewart is a fantasy novel and the first novel in “The Drowning Empire” series. The book is about an empire of islands ruled by a reclusive emperor who maintains peace and order remotely through the use of beings called constructs. In the emperor’s palace, his daughter Lin competes for her father’s favour by learning bone shard magic to unlock secrets and her birth right as heir. Meanwhile, Jovis, an Imperial navigator turned renegade, is sailing through the archipelago in search of a boat with blue sails. Pursuing a particular heroic goal, Jovis must decide whether he doggedly continues his quest or whether he reluctantly accepts the other opportunities for heroism he is faced with.

Although I was a bit slow starting this book before book club, once I began reading I couldn’t stop. It is a gripping story with an uncomfortable and brilliant magical premise. Stewart asks the reader to consider what price it is reasonable for an empire to ask its citizens to pay for security, and when that price becomes too high. Jovis is one of those great characters with a tough, efficient exterior and a sentimental interior and I loved his chapters with his peculiar animal sidekick Mephi. Lin is a strategic and courageous character whose missing memory creates a sense of mystery and intrigue. I really liked the way that Stewart places her characters in situations where their decisions have life or death consequences, and some of those situations are heart-breaking. There are lots of complex storylines woven through this book that intersect and intertwine in surprising ways.

This book lingered with me for a long time after I finished it and I can’t wait to read the rest of the series when it comes out.

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