The Power

Content warning: gender, sexuality, sexual assault

A lot of people have been talking about this book. Friends, bookshops, Obama. It was the most recent book for the feminist fantasy book club I’m in, so naturally I had to give it a go.

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“The Power” by Naomi Alderman is speculative fiction about what would happen if women worldwide suddenly discovered that they had the power to create electricity. This new ability drastically shifts the global power balance between men and women. The story follows the journey of four main characters. There is Roxy, the plucky English girl with huge power whose family is embedded in the criminal underground. There is Allie, an American girl who escapes her abusive adopted family and finds a calling. There is Margot, the ambitious American politician and mother. Then, there is Tunde, the Nigerian journalist who watches and tells the world what he sees.

This book could have been fantastic. It had all the elements for an incredibly interesting and creative story. I really liked the way that Alderman conceived the way that the power worked. I liked the touch of the archaeological interludes with illustrations and artefacts. I liked the diverse cast of characters. Probably my favourite part about this book was the characters. I found Roxy and Allie’s friendship fascinating, and at times actually quite romantic, and was disappointed when Alderman decided to keep it strictly platonic. I found the tension between Margot and her daughter Jocelyn whose own power was faulty to be really interesting, and I would have liked to have seen more on that. Tunde was a great male lens through which to experience the changing world.

It was fast-paced and Alderman is an engaging writer, but ultimately this book is really a series of missed opportunities.

First of all, Alderman’s vision of a world turned upside down by providing women with physical power felt so limited. Alderman suggests that if this were to happen, the result would basically be a mirror image of the world today. Women would start to be responsible for all the crimes that men today are responsible for. Men would be afraid to walk alone at night. Women hungry for power would ascend political ranks purely for self-interest. Surprisingly, I found this world vision much harder to believe than the idea that women would suddenly develop the ability to shock other people. I can see how Alderman wanted to throw gender inequality into sharp relief but the result was that it made inequality seem like it was a question of physical strength rather than a question of thousands of years of social and cultural attitudes. It would have been much more interesting to depict a world that was fundamentally different to ours rather than a world that was simply the reverse.

Then, of course, were the missed opportunities. Here you have a book about gender, all the women have the power to give electric shocks, all of the men don’t, you then have a female character whose power is faulty and you have a male character who is able to use the power and you don’t write about the LGBTIQ implications that that might have?! I couldn’t believe that Alderman didn’t take the obvious next step and comment on, at a bare minimum, the implications for intersex people in her new world. None of the women seemed to be queer. There were no trans characters. It’s 2018, we all know that sex, gender and sexuality aren’t black and white and I couldn’t believe that Alderman didn’t say anything about Margot’s daughter Jocelyn’s difficulty with her power and the implications that that might have had on her sex or her gender identity.

The other thing I couldn’t understand either is how you can apparently have swathes of women rampaging across the world having (sometimes non-consensual) sex with men but have absolutely no discussion whatsoever of pregnancy, children and motherhood (except in relation to the mothers or existing motherhood of the main characters). There was so much focus on the power as the singular biological difference that completely governed behaviour, yet no focus on the actual biological difference between the male and female sexes that arguably does have the biggest impact on our lives: the ability to have children. I just couldn’t understand how this consideration was absent on the narrative and the only time children were mentioned in this story it was utterly abhorrent.

Instead, the story focuses on Middle-Eastern war, American politics and British gangs. Alderman clearly views the Middle East and South Asia as the worst places in the world for women, and so she makes them equally the worst places in the world for men. I think this choice, and in particular the scene in India, really showed a lack of imagination and sensitivity.

There is so much going on in this book, despite some of the missed opportunities I listed above, and one thing that I felt I could have done without was the voice in Allie/Eve’s head. The somewhat motherly, sassy voice that encourages Allie’s rise to spiritual power, I really didn’t think it added much at all. If it was designed as a mechanism to make Allie seem like an unreliable narrator by suggesting that she experienced auditory hallucinations, it could have been done much more realistically and sensitively towards people who do experience that particular mental health issue (especially given Allie’s trauma). If it truly was intended to be a spiritual voice, I don’t think it achieved that either.

Anyway, I could continue but this review has really gotten quite long. I think that this is probably going to be a pretty divisive book. Some people are going to enjoy it, and some will be annoyed by it. For me, I think if you have such a good idea, why not be brave and push the boundaries a bit?

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Saga Volume 8

I’ve been reading the “Saga” series for some time now, and have been reviewing them as they come out on this blog. If you’re not up to date, you might want to go back a step or two so you aren’t dealing with spoilers.

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“Saga Volume 8” by Brian K. Vaughan and illustrated by Fiona Staples picks up where the previous volume of the graphic novel series left off. Hazel’s mother Alana, who is pregnant with a second forbidden mixed-race baby that has died in utero, visits a town on a remote planet called Abortion Town with Prince Robot IV pretending that the child is theirs. When they are refused entry, Alana and Marko have to put their faith in the “doctor” in the Badlands who may be able to help.

I’ve said in previous reviews that I’ve been enjoying these comics a bit less, and I think part of the problem is that each one has a lot of hard-hitting social issues that are tackled but there isn’t a lot of overarching narrative. I felt like this one tackled the tricky issues of abortion and transgender identity in an interesting way. As always, the animal side-kicks are on point. However, it’s really hard to see where this is going. Are we just going to be following Hazel’s entire childhood, or are we going to actually get to Hazel as an adult? Is this a comment on the broader socio-political issues of Alana and Marko’s respective planets?

Am I enjoying this as much as I did at the beginning? No, honestly, I’m not. Will I keep reading them? Definitely yes.

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Letting Go

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

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“Letting Go” by Maria Thompson Corley is a sprawling long-distance romance novel. Cecile is a young Canadian woman who wins a place in Juliard in New York City in the USA to study classical piano. Langston is a young Canadian man who is studying to be a teacher in his home town while washing dishes in a restaurant. When Cecile and Langston meet by chance when Cecile is on a rare trip home, their connection is instantaneous. They find that they have a lot in common: their family difficulties, their academic interests, their cultural heritage, their ambition. When Cecile returns to New York they are able to bridge the distance with letters, but are letters enough to bridge everything else?

This was an incredibly refreshing book. I’ve read a few books since I started this blog that deal with race in America, but I don’t think I’ve ever read a book like this. Maybe the closest was “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings“. This is, at its heart, a book about black excellence. This is not a historical novel of slavery or even a more novel of migration. The characters in this book aren’t poor, uneducated, downtrodden or disadvantaged. Cecile and Langston are smart, articulate and proud of their West Indian heritage. They have road trips and goals and family support and holidays and are both very relateable characters.

This is not to say that Corley shies away from discussing race: not at all. However, Corley explores race in a much more subtle, everyday and modern way, through Cecile breaking stereotypes by being a black pianist, conversations at university between black students debating politics and philosophies and in intimate relationships where interracial couples negotiate respect. Cecile is the key narrator in this book, and I think that worked really well to get across some incredibly honest insights into what it can be like for a woman struggling to find a social group, balancing sexual desire against religious beliefs and finding herself trapped in a toxic relationship. Corley has a sophisticated and flexible writing style and easily moves between diary entries, letters and prose to tell this story.

I think the only thing I had a bit of trouble with was that this book is a bit of a slow burn. It is a romance that slowly builds and unfurls over many years. However, I think that this is actually a really important book to read because this book fosters such a deep sense of empathy. Not just for Cecile and Langston because of their race, but because of their experiences, their relationships, their families, the effects that drugs and abandonment and religion and love have had on their lives.

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The Lucky Galah

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of Harry Hartog. As soon as I saw the title, and read the blurb, I was sold.

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“The Lucky Galah” by Tracy Sorensen is a historical novel set in Western Australia that is partly told from the perspective of a galah called Lucky. In 1964, a man called Evan Johnson drives across Australia with his wife Linda and daughter Johanna to work on a coastal tracking station ahead of the 1969 moon landing. They move into a new purpose-built house next to the Kelly family, a seamstress and fisherman with plenty of daughters. Marjorie and Linda become friends after the birth of Marjorie’s fifth child, and Johanna finds herself with an instant pack of friends. However, through the eyes of the Kellys’ pet galah, things aren’t as hunky dory in the Johnson family as they may seem.

This is a pretty delightful debut novel and I have to say, I was absolutely in love with Lucky the galah as a narrator. I adored Lucky’s perspective of the world, the way that Sorensen wove in facts about birds through Lucky and the relationship between Lucky and Lizzie. I really enjoyed the balance between bird behaviour and a knowledgeable narrator, and I thought it was a great way to foster empathy for a non-human narrator. I also really liked Lizzie, and I think my favourite parts of the books were the interactions between this unlikely pair. Lizzie was a great example of how an Aboriginal character can be depicted in a respectful and interesting way, and I would have liked a lot more Lizzie airtime. Essentially though, there are a lot of similarities between this book and the great classic Aussie film “The Dish” so if you enjoyed that take on a very particular time in Australia’s history and the interaction between scientists and the salt of the earth.

However, there were a couple of things that I wasn’t quite as enamoured with. I wasn’t particularly interested in Evan and Linda’s story, and the ending in that regard was ambiguous where I felt like Sorensen could have taken a bit of a stronger stance either way and made a bit more of a point. I also felt like the relationship between Marjorie and Linda could have been hashed out a bit more. Sorensen did explore some issues around class difference, but this again felt unresolved at the end and I thought there was scope for Linda to have reconciled those differences. Finally, the transmissions from the dish to Lucky I found to be maybe a little too experimental. I can see how they were a useful mechanism for keeping Lucky as the narrator but keeping the story focused on the Johnsons and the Kellys. However, I think I would have almost preferred a more linear narrative but all just through Lucky’s eyes. Maybe there were just a few too many things vying for attention.

To be honest, I think Lucky was a brilliant character and I would have loved an entire book from Lucky’s perspective. As it is, this was still a strong and interesting novel that wove in many different issues around an exciting part of Australia’s history and I think most people will enjoy this quirky debut.

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Filed under Advanced Reading Copies, Australian Books, Book Reviews, Historical Fiction

Burial Rites

Hannah Kent has been causing a stir in the Australian literary scene recently, and after hearing the news that her debut novel is being turned into a film I figured I had better see what all the fuss was about. When I finished this book, the breath caught in my throat when I read this line in the acknowledgements:

And last, but never lease: thank you to Angharad, for never doubting, and for fortifying me every day, every hour.

Now, obviously this thank you was not intended for me personally, but another Angharad. However, it’s so rare to see my name in print that I was all aflutter after reading it!

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“Burial Rites” by Hannah Kent is a historical fiction novel based on a true story about a woman called Agnes sentenced to death for the murder of a man. While waiting for the sentence to be carried out, she is sent to live out her final days with the family of District Officer Jón Jónsson. Although a significant improvement on her previous location, and although Agnes sleeps with the family in the baðstofa, the welcome from the District Officer’s wife Margrét and especially her younger daughter Lauga is icy. Agnes is permitted religious counsel by the District Commissioner, and she nominates an inexperienced Assistant Reverend who is known as Tóti. As Agnes gradually tells the story of how she came to be accused of murder, Tóti, Margrét and Margrét’s older daughter Steina begin to warm to her.

This is a dark and engrossing story that I was hooked on from beginning to end. Kent has a visceral writing style and this book is like a triad of beautiful landscapes, deep dialogue and unflinching descriptions of what human bodies must do to survive. The picture Kent paints of 1800s Iceland is a bleak one with food shortages, illness and unsafe housing all competing to claim lives. I really enjoyed the way that Kent wove in observations about Icelandic culture without distracting the reader from the story. Agnes is an ambiguous but engaging character, though I think my favourite character would have to be Margrét.

I think the part about this book I enjoyed the least was probably Agnes’ retelling of what happened with Natan Ketilsson, the man she was convicted of murdering. I think that warm but cloying tension of the Jónsson family was fascinating to me, but as Agnes recounts what life was like living with Natan, I felt disengaged somehow. Whether it was because this part of the story relied too much either too much on recorded facts or too much on fictionalisation, I’m not sure.

Interestingly, Agnes’ trial is set to be reheard nearly 200 years afterwards applying modern justice principles. It is certainly a story that fascinated Iceland, and this book was a story that fascinated me. I’m very eager to see what the film is like and to read more of Kent’s work.

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A Pocketful of Crows

I have been a fan of Joanne Harris‘ work for a very long time, so I was very surprised when I first found out about this book by seeing its gorgeous cover in a bookshop. It’s a beautiful hardcover edition with a black dust jacket and gold detail. This was my first read of 2018 and because I have already lent it out, today’s photograph is a guest photo by my friend Annie.

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“A Pocketful of Crows” by Joanne Harris is a fantasy novella about a wild girl with nut brown skin, crow wing hair and no name who runs with the deer and flies with the hawk and hunts with the vixen. However, when she meets a young human man and falls desperately in love with him, she allows herself to be tamed and named. Turning her back on her people, the Travelling Folk, she despairs when nature begins to turns its back on her and the man she sacrificed everything for is not as true as he promised.

This is truly an exquisite book. Drawing heavily on English and Scottish folklore, this book is dark and light in all the right places. The wild girl is an incredible character and although her ways are both enchanting and feral to the human reader, Harris forces us to empathise with her the entire way. I was absolutely captivated with this book and raced through the vivid prose and illustrations in a day.

Another thing I really liked was the signature complex way in which Harris depicts women. The wild girl defies the social conventions of the humans and the Travelling Folk, but is nevertheless bound by the consequences of her actions. I also enjoyed the way Harris explored the tension between fetishisation of the “exotic” and white beauty ideals.

There really isn’t much more to say about this book – it really does speak for itself. My only regret is that I didn’t realise it was coming out sooner.

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Terra Nullius

I’m doing something a little bit different today and I’m reviewing out of sequence. This was not the book that I read after “Joe Cinque’s Consolation“. This is a book that I read just this week, and I think that today, 26 January, is the right day to review it. I’ve just come home from a rally and I’m ready to dive in.

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This photo was taken at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy during the Invasion Day march on 26 January 2018 and this artwork is from one of the box planters there.

“Terra Nullius” by Noongar woman and author Claire G. Coleman is a novel set deep in the bush. Jacky, a Native, has absconded from the Settler farm he works on as an unpaid servant and is running for his life. Sister Bagra runs her school for Natives with an iron fist, but word of her approach to discipline has reached the Church and a senior representative is on his way to investigate. Esperance is a free Native, evading the Settlers with her Grandfather and community by moving camp deeper and deeper into the desert. However, the constant moving is taking its toll and Esperance fears that the Settlers will eventually catch up with them.

Honestly, the less I say about this book the better. This is really one of those kinds of books where you should really dive in cold and experience it fresh. Coleman is a wildly creative and clever writer, and this book is brilliantly crafted and exceptionally well-researched. Coleman draws upon the massacres and the Frontier Wars, as well as colonial accounts of invasion, settlement and occupation to create a story both familiar and unique.

This is a book that facilitates deep empathy and I feel like on this day, if there is any book you should pick up and read, give this one a try.

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