New York flapper suffragette murder mystery
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publicist.
“Relative Fortunes” by Marlowe Benn is a murder mystery novel set in 1920s New York. The book follows Julia Kidd, a young woman in her mid-20s who has arrived in the city to sort out her father’s will and pursue her dreams of being a boutique publisher. In between dealing with her maddening half-brother, she spends her time socialising with her friend Glennis. However, when Glennis’ suffragette sister is found dead, Julia finds herself in the middle of a life-changing wager: prove Naomi’s death was a murder, or forfeit her inheritance.
There were a lot of things I enjoyed about this book. I really liked Benn’s research into some of the things an unmarried woman in her mid-20s would get up to in the Roaring Twenties and some of the barriers she would encounter. I felt that the tension between Julia and her brother Philip was very well done, and the repartee between them was particularly scintillating. I also liked how Julia’s own attitude to the suffragette movement changed throughout the course of the book as she found that her own independence was not something that could be taken for granted.
I think that probably the part about this book I enjoyed the least was the murder mystery. No spoilers of course, but I felt like some of the twists in the story, while exploring some real life issues, felt a little melodramatic. I wasn’t quite sure that the motive fitted the act.
Nevertheless, I understand that this is to be the first of a series, and I would be interested in reading another Julia Kidd novel – if only to find out what happens next.
Collection of 50 true short stories
A couple of years ago, I was juggling (arguably) too many book clubs. Membership of one particular book club was made up of colleagues, and when one particular meeting fell around Indigenous Literacy Day, I thought it would be a good idea to run a bit of a Great Book Swap. The idea is pretty straightforward: bring books and gold coins, and for every gold coin you pay, you get a book and the coins go to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation. I ended up picking this book, but unfortunately the attendee who “donated” it didn’t realise that it was a permanent donation. I agreed to return it once I’d finished it, but unfortunately it fell a bit by the wayside. After introducing a new “system” where all my unread books are in a stack looming threateningly over me, I managed to finally get to it.
“The Moth: This is a True Story” edited by Catherine Burns is a collection of 50 true short stories adapted from spoken word performances. I hadn’t heard of The Moth prior to reading this book. Essentially, The Moth is a particular type of live event where storytellers with a really good story about something true from their own lives tell it to a live audience. The stories are loosely arranged by theme and range in topic from travel, medicine, parentage, medicine and just about everything in between.
Needless to say, there are some very compelling stories in this collection. I think my favourite, and the one that stayed with me the most, was A View of the Earth by astronaut Michael Massimino. I also really enjoyed Mission to India by infectious disease specialist Dr George Lombardi, Notes on an Exorcism by Andrew Solomon about a particular experience with depression, and LOL by delightfully well-meaning father Adam Gopnik. Some were heartbreaking, like Bicycle Safety on Essex by journalist Richard Price who witnesses racism in action and Angel by Darryl ‘DMC’ McDaniels who finds out the truth of his identity. Still others were downright illuminating like Impeachment Day by Joe Lockhart, Elevator ER by Jon Levin and The Prince and I by Jillian Lauren.
I think like every collection of stories, there are always going to be some that speak to you more than others. While most were pretty enjoyable, interesting or illuminating there were a couple that irked me. One in particular was by a man who trained monkeys in a laboratory, and just about every single part of the premise of his story I disagreed with.
A fascinating and diverse collection of stories made all the more engaging because they are all true.
French crime thriller about three linked people
Content warning: child abuse, trafficking
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.
“Broken Humanity” by Karine Vivier and translated by Kirsty Olivant is a crime thriller about three people who are linked by the disappearance of a little girl. Alice is a young girl whose life changed forever when her mother brought home a new partner. Now, instead of going to school, she must help her stepdad by befriending children and bringing them to his van, or else languish in a locked cellar. Judith had just planned on leaving her daughter in the car for five minutes while she went into the shop, and when she comes out after getting stuck at the checkout to find her daughter gone, she can’t stop blaming herself. Denis Papin has been released from prison and is trying to start a new, understated life despite being convicted of a terrible crime. However, when a little girl goes missing, he is suddenly a prime suspect.
This is a well-written, well-translated book that speeds along at a cracking pace. I often get asked to review crime thrillers and I blanch when they are 400 or 500 pages long because I know they are not going to be a quick read. This is a very quick read, and I am so, so appreciative of that. Even though it is a short, snappy book, Vivier covers a lot of different themes. I think that the most interesting of these is the theme of blame, and how we blame ourselves as well as others. Blame is something that permeates the stories of each of the main characters.
The critical thing for a good thriller is making sure that plot is watertight. I think that Vivier has all the elements there, and the story starts off strong, but I think that some of the later chapters lose the threads a little and miss some opportunities for that incredible dramatic thriller ending that readers hang out for.
A very easy read that touches on some difficult and interesting themes.
Retelling of Norwegian fairy tale
Our feminist fantasy book club rolled around again, and this time we were tackling a reinterpretation of a Norwegian fairy tale. I hadn’t heard of this one before, but given how cold it is in Canberra right now, it seemed a very appropriate winter choice. Our host put together a wonderful Winter Solstice feast on the night and we discussed the book in earnest.
“Echo North” by Joanna Ruth Meyer is a fantasy novel that reimagines the Norwegian fairy tale “East of the Sun and West of the Moon“. The story follows Echo Alkaev, a young woman with a facial difference who lives with her father, a bookseller, and her brother. When her father remarries, and then disappears, Echo is heartbroken. However, when she finds him near death in the forest months later, Echo is given a choice by a talking wolf: live with him for a year in exchange for her father’s safety. Echo agrees, and soon finds herself in a strange and shifting underground castle that requires magical care. She eventually discovers the library, an enchanted room that allows her to enter books through mirrors. There, she meets new friends and begins to unravel the secrets of the castle and the wolf.
This is a creative story that borrows elements from the original fairy tale but combines them with enough new ideas to really make it a unique tale. Everyone in the book club agreed that the magical library with mirrors that allowed you to step into books was a stroke of genius and we all really, really wanted one. Meyer explored some interesting themes including the way people treat Echo because of the way she looks, friendship, honesty and perseverance. There were also some interesting twists in this story that kept it engaging.
Winter solstice feast
Where this story falls down a little is the plot. Although Meyer has lots of interesting ideas when it comes to magic and place, I felt that a lot of the narrative choices didn’t quite hit the mark. There were a lot of loose threads that I felt could have been tied together a little more neatly, like the stepmother, the witch, the north wind and Hal. I also wasn’t super happy with Echo as a character. I appreciate this is a fairy tale, but the idea that if you love someone ardently enough everything will work out really needs to be thrown into the bin. Fate hangs on whether Echo can prove her love enough, but I think that it was Echo who needed her community, her father and later her lover to prove to her that they could love her enough. I also felt that Echo was woefully unprepared for her trip north, and there was a scene where she sells her winter coat and then continues on through the snow. I didn’t believe that she would survive for a second.
An inventive story that, while enjoyable enough to read, probably needed a little reworking to tighten the plot and give poor Echo the love and survival skills she deserved to have a true adventure.
Historical fiction about twins on either side of a war
Content warning: child abuse
This book is one of the rare occasions where I saw the movie (or at least part of it) before I read the book. When I saw a copy in the translated literature section of the Lifeline Book Fair, I thought I would see how it compared.
“The Twins” by Tessa de Loo and translated by Ruth Levitt is a Dutch novel about twin sisters Anna and Lotte who, upon their father’s death, are separated from one another. Lotte, recovering from tuberculosis, is sent to live with progressive and educated family in the better climate of the Netherlands. However Anna, naturally more robust, is kept in Germany with much poorer relatives to help them with their farm. Living through either side of the war and apart almost 70 years, the sisters meet by chance as old women at a health resort in Spa. With so much between them to catch up on, both wonder if they can ever bridge the divide.
I think that the premise of this story is an interesting one, and the sisters are a clever way to explore the nuance and different perspectives of the war. Although Anna grows up among Nazis, she is at a significant disadvantage in other ways to Lotte including suffering physical abuse, emotional abuse and neglect at the hands of her aunt and uncle. Lotte’s ability to influence politics is, accordingly, extremely limited and de Loo uses her perspective to explore the idea that it is the collective, rather than individuals, who are responsible for travesties such as World War II.
While this is an interesting and stimulating premise, unfortunately this book suffered when it came to readability. The rigid structure of the two sisters taking turns to recount parts of their lives felt artificial, and the stories dragged. As it is translated from Dutch, it is hard to say whether it is a better read in its original language. I found Anna’s story more compelling than Lotte’s, but both were a bit of a slog. I don’t think it would be fair to suggest that this book is sympathetic to the Nazis. Rather, it sheds a light on some of the economic drivers behind fascist ideology. However, I did feel like it was written in a way to be more sympathetic towards Anna’s German perspective.
A challenging read with a unique concept, but ultimately I think the film was better.
Multicultural fantasy reinterpretation of King Arthur mythology
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.
“Kingdom Cold” by Brittni Chenelle is a medieval fantasy novel about Charlotte, a princess, who at 16 years old is betrothed to a prince from a far away kingdom called Vires. When she first meets Prince Young, Charlotte will do anything within her power to sabotage the engagement. However, when her kingdom is invaded and she must flee for her life, Charlotte’s life changes forever.
This is a diverse reimagination of a classic mythology that. Chenelle explores gender roles, love, differences in culture and differences in faith against the backdrop of war and violence. Charlotte is a spirited princess who starts out prissy and dependent and who, by the end of the book, develops into someone much more strong. I quite enjoyed the character of Young and felt that he was a good counterweight to the story.
I think one thing that I struggled a little with this book is the sense of place. Charlotte’s kingdom feels very small geographically, and the invasion itself small in scale. I understand that Chenelle is writing in American English, but given that the characters are broadly European, African and Asian in ethnicity, I think I would have liked to have seen a little more diversity in language as well as a better sense of distance and geography. I also struggled with the character Milly, Charlotte’s handmaid, and felt that she didn’t really get a fair shake of the stick in this story.
A story that explores themes of romance between cultures and courage in the moment, fans of Arthurian legend may find an intriguing retelling.
Queer military fiction set during World War II
Content warning: war
I received an advance reading copy of this book courtesy of Harry Hartog, but I would have bought a copy anyway because I know the author through his work with the ACT Writers’ Centre. Although not ordinarily a genre I would choose, I was willing to put my own feelings about war aside to give this book a chance.
“Bodies of Men” by Nigel Featherstone is a war novel set in Egypt about two Australian men. William is a young corporal who, almost immediately after arriving in Alexandria, is caught in a skirmish with some Italian soldiers and is saved by another young man called James. Recognising him as his long lost childhood friend, the opportunity to reunite properly is lost when James is suddenly absent without leave and William is unceremoniously sent out into the desert to supervise training at an army depot. When William does find James recovering from injuries in a mysterious family’s house, the connection is undeniable. However, with constant patrols through Alexandria, rumours flying about what happened to the Italians taken prisoner, differences in class and the Hillens keeping their own secrets, William and James will have to decide how much they are willing to risk for a forbidden love.
I accidentally visited the Australian War Memorial during the Last Post ceremony
As I intimated earlier, I don’t generally like war novels but I really liked this one. Featherstone has seamlessly blended in-depth research and knowledge with a thorough understanding of human connection and chemistry. One of the things that my friend and I keep records of every year on our book list is how many books we read include queer content. However, while I make an effort to read books by LGBTIQA+ authors and including queer content, it is rare that I find a book that depicts intimacy like this. Featherstone has a knack for finding the beauty in something that is rarely conceived of as beautiful or valuable outside its usefulness: the male body.
I think that the only part of this book that I had difficulty with was the role of the Hillen family. On one hand, the secretive European family brought an extra dimension to the war and the context in which William and James were fighting. Their house was like an oasis in the heat. On the other hand, the refuge they provided to William and James did at times feel a bit like a deus ex machina and did not always seem, from an outsider’s perspective, like a fair exchange.
Nevertheless, this is a fresh and poignant story that builds on the tradition of military fiction and reinterprets it with a historical perspective that certainly existed but has rarely been told.