Palpasa Café

Literary novel about the Nepalese civil war

One of my favourite things to do when I go to the Lifeline Bookfair (or Book Lovers Lane) is to browse the international section and look for books from countries that I’ve never read literature from before. One of these times, I came across this book, and I had certainly never read anything from Nepal before. It is quite a short novel and perfect for my Short Stack Reading Challenge.

Photo is of “Palpasa Café” by Narayan Wagle. The paperback book is resting on a wooden table next to a blue patterned cup and saucer filled with coffee beans. A paintbrush and pen are leaning against the book. The cover is lime green with a dark photograph of a figure standing on a hill overlooking smoggy mountains.

“Palpasa Café” by Narayan Wagle is a literary novel set in Nepal during the civil war. The novel opens with Narayan waiting to meet with his friend Drishya, who is the main character of his book, at a café. When Drishya doesn’t arrive, he finds out that he has been abducted by so-called security personnel. The story then begins in Chapter 1 from Drishya’s perspective. Drishya is a Nepalese artist who, while travelling in Goa, meets a mysterious and compelling young woman called Palpasa in who makes documentaries. When he returns to Nepal, he works in his studio in Kathmandu but cannot avoid the impact of the civil war. A visit from an old friend inspires him to visit the western hill villages where he grew up and see what Nepal is really like.

This is a great example of literary realism, taking it to the point where the author is himself a character in the novel writing a book about the protagonist. Drishya is a complex character who oscillates between overconfidence in his art and insecurity, and his journey back to his roots to understand his country and himself is transformative. The scenes in the hills are the most evocative and beautiful in the book. However, until Drishya reaches the western hill villages, the impact of the civil war is indirect and abstract. Wagle’s initial subtlety in exploring the effects of the conflict means that when it is finally experienced by Drishya face-on, it is even more significant to both Drishya and the reader.

You don’t need to be a historian to understand the emotional impact of war, but I did feel at times that I did not have the requisite knowledge to understand the different sides to the Nepalese civil war and the things that were driving the conflict. I think it’s a good reminder that while it’s really important to read widely and diversely, and many books have universal themes that speak to humanity generally, but that books are not always written for me as the audience and sometimes I need to do a bit more work to understand the nuance of what is going on.

A creative and authentic novel that explores many facets of Nepal throughout the civil war.

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Encounters: an Anthology of Australian Speculative Fiction

Collection of Australian speculative fiction short stories

Last year I attended my first ever Conflux, the annual Canberra speculative fiction conference. I was thrilled to present on three panels: From Paper to Screen, Sentient Flora and Fauna and Write What You Know. It was a great event and I got to see some incredible speakers including Shelley Parker-Chan. There was also a market which included a lot of secondhand books available, and this is one I picked up. I was looking for my next book in my Short Stack Reading Challenge and this was it.

Photo is of “Encounters: an Anthology of Australian Speculative Fiction” edited by Maxine McArthur and Donna Maree Hanson. The paperback book is resting on top of a program that says “Conflux 16: Natcon 60: Visions of…” and a blue lanyard with “Conflux 2022: Visions of Time, Angharad”. The cover is of the faces of two people and a simian figure, with stars, a moon and cosmic dust in the background.

“Encounters: an Anthology of Australian Speculative Fiction” edited by Maxine McArthur and Donna Maree Hanson is a collection of 22 short stories ranging across science fiction, fantasy, horror and everything in between.

While overall the stories were pretty good, there were some standouts. Although I don’t often go for vampire stories, there was something about The Flatmate from Hell by Dirk Flintheart that was very enjoyable. Una, the One by Frankie Seymour was an interesting take on the question about whether or not it is ever possible to have environmental harmony with humans. Sleeping With Monsters by Michael Barry had quickfire twist after quickfire twist, challenging our assumptions at every turn. I also really liked Guarding the Mound by Kaaron Warren, which dealt with questions of legacy and the connection between past and future. Finally, I really liked Happy Faces for Happy Families by Gillian Polack which used time travel to unpack complex issues about childhood illness.

While there were quite a few stories I enjoyed, like any anthology, there are often going to be some that don’t resonate. I think that perhaps a clear theme might have made the anthology feel a bit more united. Also, there were a few moments where I had to remember that the book published in 2004, because some of the language, including around race, is a bit out of date.

An interesting and diverse collection of short stories.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Fantasy, Horror, Science Fiction, Short Stories

Agatha: The Real Life of Agatha Christie

Biographical graphic novel about famous crime fiction novelist

I picked up this book at a Lifeline Bookfair, I think. I haven’t read much of Agatha Christie, but a lot of my family members enjoy her work, especially her books about the Belgian detective Poirot. A graphic novel sub-genre I’ve enjoyed previously is graphic novel biographies with one of the best being “Anne Frank: The Anne Frank House Graphic Biography” which includes the incredible story of her father Otto Frank. I must have picked this one up some time ago, and decided to read it during my Short Stack Reading Challenge. I actually had a lot of trouble getting the right photograph for this review. I’ve been in the UK and Belgium, and tried to take photos at a library hotel, a comic book museum and even a comic-themed hotel. I’m not really happy with any of them (and was disappointed I didn’t see any Poirot statutes or anything in Brussels) so I’ll just include them all and be done with it.

Photo is of “Agatha: The Real Life of Agatha Christie” by Anne Martinetti, Guillaume Lebeau and Alexandre Franc, and translated by Edward Gauvin. The paperback book is resting in front of windows made of carved stone. The cover is of a red-haired woman looking out at a city nightscape with a pen to her mouth. There are searchlights in the sky.

“Agatha: The Real Life of Agatha Christie” by Anne Martinetti, Guillaume Lebeau and Alexandre Franc, and translated from French by Edward Gauvin is a biographical graphic novel about the famous crime fiction author Agatha Christie. The story opens with Agatha’s mysterious disappearance in 1926 and the grilling of her husband by police. The story then turns to Agatha’s childhood to follow the journey of how she became a bestselling writer and the events that led up to her disappearance, discovery and life afterwards.

Photo is of “Agatha: The Real Life of Agatha Christie”. The paperback book is sitting below a striped wall with illustrated photoframes that have cartoon portraits inside.

This is an interesting presentation of a biography that takes some creative liberties to share Agatha’s story in a unique way. The art style, while simple, is easy to follow and captures the mood and key details of the era Agatha lived in. Agatha’s life is depicted as colourful and rich, full of inspiration for her stories. The authors made the interesting narrative choice to have Agatha converse with her character Poirot throughout the book: sometimes seeking creative and emotional support, sometimes using him as a soundboard, and sometimes arguing with him about his own character arc.

Photo is of “Agatha: The Real Life of Agatha Christie”. In the background are comic books, out of focus, suspended from a ceiling.

I think while in many ways it is an original way to tell a story, I wasn’t sure that Agatha and Poirot’s conversations always added to the overall story. I appreciate what the authors were trying to achieve but I felt that their characterisation of Poirot, someone very invested in his own story, didn’t really match with Agatha’s own characterisation. The simplicity of the art style and the limited colour palette did make it difficult at times to distinguish between the characters.

A quaint and engaging way to present a biography and one that has inspired me to read more of Agatha Christie’s work.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Graphic Novels, Non Fiction


Graphic novel about the Syrian refugee crisis

I picked up a copy of this book ages ago from Canty’s Bookshop. Back in December (yes, I am still very behind on reviews!) I was raiding my bookshelves for suitable books for my Short Stack Reading Challenge and this little graphic novel was definitely on the list.

Photo is of “Zenobia” by Morten Dürr and Lars Horneman. The hardcover book is resting on wrinkled beige fabric that looks like it could be sand or waves. The cover is of a young girl facing away towards a destroyed city street in purple and apricot shades.

“Zenobia” by Morten Dürr and Lars Horneman is a graphic novel about a young girl called Amina from Syria who is on a crowded boat which is hit by a large wave. As she falls into the ocean, she thinks about her life before the boat, when her parents didn’t come back from buying ingredients for dolmas.

This is a quiet graphic novel that without direct reference or depiction of violence, explores the human impact of the Syrian civil war. Although Amina is the main character and point of view of the book, her voice is almost entirely internal and the situation is almost entirely outside her control, resulting in the very strong sense that she is voiceless and powerless. Dürr and Horneman draw parallels throughout Amina’s journey with text and imagery, with themes like salt, being lost and Zenobia, a Syrian heroine, connecting past and present.

I appreciate that this is a graphic novel that is suitable for younger audiences, and can help children to make sense of a very fraught and complex situation. However, while reading it, I did wonder if perhaps in making it so accessible, a little too much nuance was lost, including in relation to Amina’s true experience of living through conflict. I think a good counterpoint about conflict in and migration from the Middle East is “Persepolis“, written and illustrated by an Iranian author.

An easy read about a challenging topic for all ages that at times feels a little over-simplified.

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Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time

Illustrated fantasy book about a society with sentient dinosaurs

I absolutely love graphic novels and illustrated stories, but somehow I missed this book which came out when I was a young kid. I picked up a copy from the Lifeline Bookfair quite some time ago, and everyone I have mentioned it to has been full of happy nostalgia. When I was picking out books for last year’s Short Stack Reading Challenge, I added this one to the list and was thrilled to finally get a chance to read it.

Photo is of “Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time” by James Gurney. The hardcover book is in front of the rear right foot of a large triceratops statue that is bigger than the frame. The cover has illustrations of people riding dinosaurs on it.

“Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time” by James Gurney is an illustrated fantasy story about an explorer and biologist called Arthur Denison and his son William. Told as though Gurney has discovered a forgotten sketchbook, the story follows Arthur and William after they are washed ashore on a strange land when their ship sank at sea. They soon discover that the land is inhabited by both people and dinosaurs who coexist peacefully. Over time, Arthur and Will explore the new land and its inhabitants and adjust to their new life in Dinotopia.

This is a beautifully illustrated, whimsical book that was a delight from beginning to end. Arthur’s perspective as a naturalist was an inspired way to tell the story as the reader uncovers new facets of Dinotopia at the same time Arthur does. The story is told in the style of a journal with the text accompanied by exquisite paintings of Gurney’s imagined society. The detail is sublime with all kinds of imagined elements for how such a cooperative society might operate such as botany, technology, culture, sports, transport, architecture, written language, clothing and more. The human inhabitants of the world are descendants of castaways or recent castaways themselves, resulting in a very pluralistic and tolerant community.

Some may critique the lack of conflict in this book, which flows in an even pace along what I have previously described as a “where we went and what we did there” trajectory but honestly the writing was so lovely, the illustrations so quaint and the worldbuilding so novel that I was willing to forgive just about anything and enjoy the peaceful ride.

An absolutely lovely book full of wonder and beauty and I’m looking forward to reading more in the series.

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Petualangan Anak Indonesia (Indonesian Children’s Adventure)

Perhatian: ulasan buku ini akan ditulis dalam Bahasa Indonesia dulu, dan Bahasa Inggris berikut.

Note: this book review will be written first in Bahasa Indonesia, then English afterwards.

Buku anak tentang empat anak Indonesia dan petualangannya

Lebih dari 13 tahun yang lalu, saya pindah ke Indonesia untuk berkuliah untuk enam bulan di Universitas Gadjah Mada di Yogyakarata, Jawa. Pada waktu itu saya bertemu banyak teman baik Indonesia maupun Australia, termasuk penulis ini. Pada tahun 2012, kami bertemu lagi di peristiwa waktu bukunya diterbit dan saya memintanya untuk menandatangani buku saya. Walaupun saya bisa berbicara Bahasa Indonesia, saya sedikit takut membaca buku Indonesia karena kosa kata saya masih rendah. Tahun lalu, saya membaca dan mengulas “Cantik Itu Luka“. Susah sekali membacanya tetapi saya sudah sedikit lebih berani dan siap mencoba buku Bahasa Indonesia lain.

Foto ini menunjukkan “Petualangan Anak Indonesia” ditulis oleh Nicholas Mark dan ilustrasi oleh Bambang Shakuntala. Bukunya di atas kain batik di samping kotak batik. Di dalam kotak ada obyek emas bentuknya gunungan wayang. Sampul buku ada gambar empat anak, tiga monyet, tiga peri dan satu garuda.

“Petualangan Anak Indonesia” ditulis oleh Nicholas Mark dan ilustrasi oleh Bambang Shakuntala adalah buku anak yang berisi tiga kisah. Kisah pertama berjudul Wayan dan Kutukan Hutan Monyet Ubud terletak di pulau Bali. Wayan harus membantu monyet-monyet hutan mengalahkan makhluk-makhluk jahat. Kisah kedua berjudul Mutia dan Keajaiban Pulau Emas terletak di Sumatera Barat. Mutia coba membantu wanita tua, akan tetapi wanita tua ada rencana jahat dan Mutia yang berani harus membantu mahkluk lain. Kisah ketiga berjudul Nanda & Dani Membongkar Rahasia Yogyakarta terletak di Jawa. Kakak beradik Nanda dan Dani harus berjalan di bawah tanah dari Gunung Merapi ke kota Yogyakarta lewat gang rahasia untuk melindungi kotanya.

Buku ini sangat menyenangkan. Mark menulis tentang empat anak Indonesia dari budaya and daerah beda tetapi mereka semua anak berani. Buku ini termasuk makhluk mitos Indonesia dan lingkungan, budaya, gedung dan makanan khas Bali, Sumatera Barat dan Jawa. Ilustrasinya hebat dengan banyak detail cerdas.

Buku ini cocok untuk baik anak Indonesia maupun orang asing yang mau berlatih Bahasa Indonesia.

Children’s book about four Indonesian children and their adventures

Over 13 years ago, I moved to Indonesia to study for six months at Universitas Gadjah Mada in Yogyakarta, Java. During that time I made lots of Indonesian and Australian friends, including this author. In 2012, we met again at an event when his book was published and I asked him to sign my book. Although I can speak Indonesian, I am a bit afraid of reading Indonesian books because my vocabulary is still low. Last year, I read and reviewed “Beauty is a Wound“. It was really difficult to read it but I’m not a bit braver and ready to try other books in Indonesian.

Image is of “Indonesian Children’s Adventure” by Nicholas Mark with illustrations by Bambang Shakuntala. The book is on top of batik fabric next to a batik box. Inside the box is a gold object in the shape of a mountain puppet. The book cover has a picture of four children, three monkeys, three fairies and a garuda.

“Indonesian Children’s Adventure” by Nicholas Mark with illustrations by Bambang Shakuntala is a children’s book which contains three stories. The first story titled Wayan and the Curse of the Ubud Monkey Forest is set in the island of Bali. Wayan has to help the monkeys of the forest defeat evil creatures. The second story titled Mutia and the Miracle of Gold Island is set in West Sumatra. Mutia tries to help an old woman, but the old woman has an evil plan and brave Mutia has to help other creatures. The third story titled Nanda & Dani Uncover the Secret of Yogyakarta is set in Java. Brother and sister Nanda and Dani have to travel underground from Mount Merapi to the city of Yogyakarta through secret tunnels to protect the city.

This book was very enjoyable. Mark writes about four Indonesian children from different cultures and regions however they are all brave kids. This book includes Indonesian mythological creatures and environments, cultures, buildings and food representative of Bali, West Sumatra and Java. The illustrations are great with lots of clever details.

This book is suitable for both Indonesian children and foreigners who want to practise their Indonesian language.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Children's Books, Signed Books

The Picture Bride

Historical fiction about Korean women who move to the USA to marry unseen husbands

Content warning: family violence, racism

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

Image is of “The Picture Bride” by Lee Geum-yi and translated by An Seonjae. The eBook cover is of a watercolour-style painting young woman in traditional Korean clothing including a white long-sleeved jacket and full navy skirt who is standing against a railing. Her hair is tied back in a loose bun at the nape of her neck. She looks out over a bay with blue ocean and ships.

“The Picture Bride” by Lee Geum-yi and translated by An Seonjae is a historical fiction novel about a young Korean woman called Willow whose relatively well-to-do family is thrown into poverty after her father is killed by the Japanese. When her best friend Hongju shamefully returns back to her family shortly after getting married, the two young women decide to move to Hawai’i to become picture brides: marrying men that they have only ever seen through a photograph. Willow and Hongju expect their husbands to be young and wealthy, and that they will have opportunities like Willow’s dream to return to school. However, when they arrive in Hawai’i, their prospective husbands are not at all what they expect and they find that they have been significantly misled about their new living situation. They will have to rely on each other and friendships with other women to make their way in this new country.

This is a heartfelt, well-researched novel about hope and disappointment. Lee writes convincingly about her characters who are pushed to become picture brides by the impact of Japanese rule over Korea and entrenched patriarchal ideas. Hawai’i was a really interesting setting for this book, and there were lots of layers of colonialism, racism and political tension, not just between Korean and Japanese people, but experienced by them in Hawai’i, itself colonised by the United States of America. There was plenty of character development, and I found the nuance of the relationships in this book really engaging. Willow’s friendships are impacted by religious beliefs, political allegiances, classism and racism yet it is the strength of her female friendships that carries her through difficult times.

I think that while may aspects of the book were interesting, the pacing wasn’t always even and there were some parts of the book that felt like they dragged a little more than others. I think with historical fiction it is always a challenge to decide what to include and what to exclude; what is essential to setting the scene and furthering the plot, and what is not.

A compelling story about a unique historical phenomenon.

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Filed under Advanced Reading Copies, Book Reviews, eBooks, Historical Fiction

Iron Bard Ballisto

Humorous comic about a musical barbarian superhero

I can’t remember exactly where I bought this comic from, but I think it was potentially from the creator himself at one of the Free Comic Book Days at Impact Comics pre-COVID. It looked fun and I’m always keen to support local authors and artists. It has been sitting on my shelf far too long and I pulled it out for the Short Stack Reading Challenge.

Photo is of “Iron Bard Ballisto” by Ben Hutchings. The comicbook is resting on top of sheet music and two black and one white vinyl records. Above the comicbook is a black, sparkly ukulele.

“Iron Bard Ballisto” by Ben Hutchings is a comic about an barbarian minstrel called Iron Bard Ballisto who infiltrates the multi-story building of a mysterious company called ZND. Using unlikely weapons like plectrums, vinyl records and actual song, Iron Bard Ballisto nullifies the enemies to crash the boardroom and save Tasmania.

This is a surreal, amusing story with lots of fun throwaway lines and ridiculous battle scenes. Hutchings is very creative with his use of music as a weapon, and pushes the theme to the extreme. The art style was both dynamic yet understated with a limited colour palette of blues and whites. I also really liked that there was some sheet music on the back which was fun to try out on my electric piano.

I think the only thing missing for me was clear motivations. Iron Bard Ballisto is understandably a bit wild but it wasn’t quite set out exactly why a body positive bra solutions business was harming the Tasmanian rainforest. Perhaps a bit more exposition would have been helpful (even if was as silly as the rest of the story).

A fun, ridiculous comic that was quick and easy to read.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Graphic Novels

Blacksad: They All Fall Down Part One

Detective noir graphic novel about corruption and conspiracy in New York City

Content warning: murder, sexual harassment

I have been blogging here for 8 years and I cannot believe that this is the first time I am reviewing a book from this series. I think that’s a testament to how much I love this series that I have been waiting over 8 years for the next installment. It came out last year and I was so excited to read it, I knew that it was going to be the first book for my Short Stack Reading Challenge for December.

Photo is of “Blacksad: They All Fall Down Part One” by Juan Díaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido. The hardcover graphic novel is resting on a chain between two metal gates. In the background is a construction site with a large orange crane against a sunset. The cover is of an anthropomorphic black cat in an olive green suit holding a gun. Beside him is an anthropomorphic brown weasel in a cap and leather jacket. In the background an eagle-like figure stands on a metal platform in front of a large bridge with cranes on top and a city nightscape in the distance.

“Blacksad: They All Fall Down Part One” by Juan Díaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido is the fourth volume in the “Blacksad” detective noir graphic novel series. The story is about John Blacksad, a black cat private eye who becomes involved in trying to prevent the assassination of Kenneth Clarke, the president of the Transport Workers Union. Clarke, a bat, is a keen advocate for public transport workers while the city is being brutally transformed by a construction magnate, a peregrine falcon called Solomon. However, Solomon’s reach is longer than Blacksad could even imagined and between a Shakespeare in the Park troupe, journalists, underground mechanics, the bourgeoise and the mob, a blackmailed gull brings everything crashing down.

All of the books in the “Blacksad” series are wonderfully intricate and complex, and this is no exception. Díaz Canales once again tackles hard-hitting social issues that, while set in the 1950s, nevertheless resonate with the modern reader in the battle for public space and a city’s soul. Guarnido’s illustrations feel especially urban in this graphic novel, highlighting iconic scenes, styles and even artworks from the New York cityscape without ever feeling stereotypical. He captures the crushing of crowds without ever losing detail or perspective, and the sense of place is cemented with fashion and technology from the times.

Another excellent chapter in the “Blacksad” series and I fervently hope it’s not 8 more years before we see “Part Two” translated.

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Tempests and Slaughter

Prequel to Tamora Pierce’s fantasy series “Immortals”

Content warning: slavery

I was an avid reader of this author’s books when I was young, especially the “Song of the Lioness” and “The Immortals“. A few years ago I was interested to see that a new prequel series for “The Immortals”, but I hadn’t gotten around to reading it. My fantasy book club is full of Tamora Pierce fans (in fact, one of our questions to join our group is about Tamora Pierce!) so I decided to nominate this book for our next meeting.

Image is of “Tempests and Slaughter” by Tamora Pierce. The eBook cover is dark grey with a blue feather dipped in gold coloured liquid that is dripping. The title is in matching gold dripping text.

“Tempests and Slaughter” by Tamora Pierce is a young adult fantasy novel and the first in the “The Numair Chronicles”, a prequel series to “The Immortals”. The story is about a young boy called Arram Draper, the son of a merchant, who is accepted as the youngest student at the Imperial University of Carthak. Ambitious and talented, Arram struggles to control his immense power and when he is accelerated through his studies, he struggles even more to navigate the politics of the older students and the mages who teach them. When he makes friends with Ozorne, the “leftover prince”, and the underestimated Varice, the merchant’s son is set on a path to becoming the most powerful mage in the kingdom and enmeshed in political intrigue.

This is gently paced book that explores the magic and worldbuilding of the Tortall world in even greater depth. Pierce has always been an inclusive writer, and this book is even more so. The story follows the typical magic school format, however the school is novel in that classes are individualised and students progress at their own pace. I really enjoyed how Pierce links the skills and self-restraint Arram learns connect with elements of the plot, and I especially enjoyed the chapters where he was working with animals. Pierce revisits locations throughout the city as Arram ages and matures, and together with Arram the reader begins to view the city and the kingdom with a more critical eye.

It has been a long time since I read “The Immortals”, so it did feel like I was re-entering the world with fresh eyes. One thing I struggled with a bit with this book was to identify who the intended audience was: older fans of Pierce’s works, or readers of young adult fiction today. Pierce wove in a lot of elements into this story: magic, murder mystery, political intrigue, and social issues (including class and slavery), and sometimes the complexity meant that the focus felt a little blurred.

An enjoyable story that steadily unfurls and lays the foundations for “The Immortals”.

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