Children’s book series about three hapless orphans
I was getting towards the end of 2020 and my reading goals, I thought I might tackle some of the books on my to-read pile. I have been reading this series for some time, and have been very much enjoying reading the book and then immediately watching the corresponding episode in the TV adaptation. If you haven’t read this series before, you should probably start with the first book.
“The Miserable Mill” by Lemony Snicket is the fourth book of 13 in the “A Series of Unfortunate Events” collection. After the events of the previous book, the three Baudelaire children Violet, Klaus and Sunny appear to have run out of distant relatives and are this time sent to live at a place called Lucky Smells Lumbermill and, it soon turns out, to work there as well. The work and living conditions are enough to contend with by themselves, however when Klaus’ glasses are broken and he has to go to the sinister optometrist nearby, Violet and Sunny must work together to help their brother back to his usual self.
I do think that this series is improving with time, and I enjoyed seeing the children break out of their usual roles of inventor, reader and chewer to solve the problems they are faced with. Unlike the previous books, this book tackles some broader social issues like workplace conditions, minimum wage and exploitation.
However, the TV series continues to draw out much more sophisticated themes without fundamentally changing the story and the episodes that adapt this particular book was excellent. The TV series has introduced significantly more overarching elements to the plot and in these episodes lead the viewer to draw a particular conclusion that was shattered in a spectacular and heart-wrenching way . Without significantly changing the plot, the TV adaptation also reframed business partners Charles and Sir as a couple and explored an unequal distribution of labour in their relationship.
Non-fiction book about the history and psychology of swimming
I came across this book on Twitter a few months ago when the author ran a contest for World Swim Day. I didn’t win, but I was intrigued by the book. I don’t think I have ever been tempted by any book remotely resembling sports biography, but this book hooked me. I was a keen swimmer as a kid and every year trained for months in the lead-up to the inter-school swimming carnival in my local area. I’m a strong swimmer, if not a particularly fast swimmer, and after years of not winning any ribbons in high school I was thrilled to get 2nd place in a race in my last ever swimming carnival. Over the years since then, I’ve come back to the pool again and again and I can still easily swim 1km. A couple of years ago my partner bought me a set of swimming headphones and I even have an aquatic-themed playlist I listen to when I swim. There’s something that draws me to the water, and I was interested to see what drew other people as well. I saw that it was available as an audiobook, so I bought a copy to listen to.
“Why We Swim” by Bonnie Tsui and narrated by Angie Kane is a non-fiction book that blends memoir, journalism and anthropology to explore what it is that draws us to the water. Tsui provides a brief overview of swimming throughout human history using a few modern day examples, and then interviews extreme swimmers including a man who survived freezing Icelandic waters, a woman who smashed international distance swimming records while training to regain mobility and a man who started a swimming school for beginners in a war zone. Alongside this, Tsui shares her own experience as a swimmer and how the joy of swimming connects her with her family.
Tsui is a spirited writer who curates remarkable stories of swimmers who defy the limits. I particularly enjoyed the story of Guðlaugur and the speculation about prisoners who escaped Alcatraz by swimming. I was also fascinated by the history of different strokes and the different types of swimming that emerged through Samurai culture in Japan. The exclusivity of swimming and swimming clubs in relation to gender, race and class in the United Kingdom was also very interesting. There was recently a controversy here in Australia very recently about a women’s swimming pool in Sydney that stated in its policy that only transwomen who have undergone gender reassignment surgery would be able to use the pool. The policy didn’t go into detail about how exactly staff would be checking this, but understandably there was considerable community concern and the Association responsible for managing the Ladies’ Baths has updated their website in response.
In addition to some of the social issues surrounding swimming, Tsui spends quite a bit of the latter part of the book on research about the impact that swimming has on our bodies, and the physical, emotional and social benefits of swimming which really resonated with me. I also found Tsui’s reflections on her own family’s experiences with swimming really touching, especially how the skill and affinity for swimming is being passed on to her own children. Kane was a clear narrator who was easy to listen to.
While this book certainly explores swimming around the world, it definitely has an American focus and a particular interest in exceptionalism. I was probably a little less engaged with the story of a swim school for beginners in Baghdad set up by an American soldier and stories about record-breaking swims than I was some of the others. I was really fascinated by some of Tsui’s writing about human swimming ability and physiology that makes us suitable for swimming, and although it is certainly an extremely contentious theory, I was surprised she didn’t mention the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis just for interest’s sake.
A thought-provoking book that has reignited my enthusiasm for swimming and inspired me to look into distance swimming here in Australia.
Young adult fantasy series about another world of gods and Vikings
Content warning: racism, homophobia, child sexual abuse
When I was a kid, I was a massive “Animorphs” fan. I spent all my pocket money on a Scholastic subscription which, every month, delivered two books, a newsletter and a poster. I faithfully waited each month for the next delivery and collected nearly 30 books in the series. Although I was hooked on the books, I noticed the quality of the subscription had dropped over time and I had started receiving photocopies of newsletters I had received in earlier parcels and some arrived with no poster at all. Disappointed, I asked my mum to cancel the subscription. However, I was still desperate to read the books. In my home town, my primary school was right next to the town library and my siblings and I would often wait there for a short while after school while for one of our parents to collect us. We were all pretty quiet kids, and the librarian Yvonne was more than happy for us to browse and borrow books. She and I struck up a pretty good rapport, and she was soon ordering in each new “Animorphs” book in specially for me as soon as they were published. Many years later, I am still tying to finish my own collection though I have since found out that a large proportion of the books were ghostwritten. I knew that around the same time, the author had published another series but for some reason or another I never read it. When I came across a copy at the Lifeline Book Fair, I thought I would give it a try. It’s taken me a while to muster up enthusiasm though because this is honestly one of the ugliest cover designs I have ever seen. Not even the gold foil can redeem it.
“Search for Senna” by K. A. Applegate is the first book in the “Everworld” series, a young adult speculative fiction series. The story is narrated by David, a pretty typical American teenager with a kind of unusual girlfriend called Senna. One evening he humours her and promises that when the time comes, he would save her. However when he and some classmates find themselves drawn to the lake, something terrible happens and the world turns inside out. He and the three others find themselves in a terrible place with no sign of Senna and no way to get home.
This is a much more mature book than the “Animorphs” series and I was really surprised at how progressive it was considering it was published over 20 years ago. Early in the book, African-American character Jalil talks about police bias against black men. Applegate also touches on homophobia and alludes to the abuse of a boy at a summer camp. I understand that she uses a similar style to her previous series: an ensemble cast with each book told from a different character’s perspective. This story focuses mostly on David’s experiences and emotional struggles, particularly in the wake of his parents’ divorce. Despite having fantasy elements, the book also blends science fiction themes and reminds me quite a lot of “Stargate” with its alternative explanation for ancient gods and the people who worshipped them.
Although I liked the characterisation, I did find the premise and plot a little uninspiring. Norse mythology is and continues to be a very popular theme in fantasy and I have been finding it a bit hard to muster up enthusiasm for Loki et al. While David felt quite fleshed out as the point of view character, I didn’t feel particularly connected to any of the other characters which wasn’t helped by David being the new kid and not knowing them well himself. Although Christopher and April had clear connections to Senna, it wasn’t really explained what Jalil had to do with anything. Despite some of his astute if caustic observations about inequality and the general situation, he in particular did not feel very well-rounded.
A hard-hitting, action-packed series for a slightly older audience, I’m not sure I’m hooked enough to read the second and I’m not sure my bookshelf aesthetics would cope.
Eco-fiction novel about a naturalist approach to an increasingly urbanised world
Content warning: domestic violence
I received a copy of this e-book courtesy of the author.
“Togwotee Passage” by L. G. Cullens is an eco-fiction novel about a boy called Calan who grows up in an abusive household in Wyoming, USA. After his father’s violence comes to a head, Calan goes to live with his aunt, uncle and two cousins on a ranch. For the most part, Calan enjoys his new rural life. He befriends an older Shoshone boy called Derek, and together they trek through the wilderness putting their survival skills to the test. However, once Calan’s mercurial cousin Brent begins taking over the family farm, Calan finds himself again adrift.
This is an interesting bildungsroman about finding solace in nature and trying to reconcile the desire for a sustainable lifestyle in an increasingly modernised world. Calan’s challenging upbringing leaves room for deep philosophical thought about humanity’s role in the natural world and the ways in which we interact with our environment. Calan’s views are further honed by his experiences as an adult, including fighting in the Vietnam War and working for a big city corporation, and I liked how Cullens used Calan’s dialogue to show how he changes and grows more sophisticated. There are some heartbreaking points in this story where Calan’s resilience is truly put to the test, and he is forced to rely on his chosen family. I also felt that as a character, despite his troubled childhood, Calan was very aware of his privilege as a white man and the discrimination experienced by his Shoshone friends. I particularly enjoyed the later chapters with Calan’s two beautiful Alaskan Malamutes. Cullens’s realist style is is complemented by his own digital illustrations which showcase the beautiful Wyoming flora and fauna and demonstrate a considerable artistic sensibility.
I understand from his biography and website that Cullens drew considerably on his own experience with Shoshone culture in writing this book, and he includes a lot of Shoshone language and spirituality in the text. I think I would have liked to have seen some more acknowledgement of his Shoshone friends who shared their culture with him, and Shoshone sources in the endnotes. Protecting indigenous intellectual property continues to be a contentious area, and I think these small changes would be a great starting point. There were also a couple of stylistic decisions that I wasn’t quite sure about. One was the occasionally overly-wordy dialogue that felt at odds with Cullens’ otherwise accessible and succinct prose, and the other was a handful of chapters later in the book that departed suddenly from third person to first person perspective.
A thought-provoking and poignant story about finding a path between two worlds.
Gosh I had a hard time finding this book. I was eagerly awaiting its release after reading the two other books (here and here) in this series of fairytale retellings, and I must have gone to five or six different bookshops before a staffmember managed to dig out their single copy from the back. As baffling as this is, I was thrilled to finally get a copy. Like the other books in the series, the cover design is a stunning cream with copper detail.
“Orfeia” by Joanne M. Harris is a fantasy novella inspired by British folklore. Unlike the other books in this collection, this story is set in modern-day London. The story follows Fay Orr who has recently lost her adult daughter to suicide. Struggling to find meaning in her otherwise empty life, Fay takes up running through the city at night to escape her despair. One night, she comes across a crack in a paving stone and somehow slips through it into another world. What she finds there is an opportunity to retrieve her daughter and bring her back to life. However, Fay must ask herself is she willing to risk what little she has left to lose to complete a seemingly impossible quest.
This is a chill-inducing story that draws on the way folklore evolves and changes through generations for its structure. Harris puts an initial story to the reader, and the book goes on to explore what is gained and lost by changing the story to achieve an alternative ending. A correct ending. Harris also flips elements of traditional folktales to create a fresh story where nothing is quite what it seems. Fay is a determined and desperate protagonist who leaps at the chance to rewrite her story. However, the impact of erasing history and therefore memory challenges the reader to consider whether, without our memories, we truly remain the same person. Like the previous books, like all fairy tales, this story has a dark, unsettling undercurrent. Harris leaves enough to the imagination for us as readers to fill in the cracks with an even darker colour.
An uneasy tale about love and loss, I cannot wait for Harris’ next book in this collection.
This is the sixth year I’ve been reviewing books on this blog, and in an effort to focus on something positive coming out of 2020, I’m inspired to start a new tradition of summarising the best books I’ve read and reviewed, the most popular reviews of the year and a wrap-up of the reading challenges I participated in.
2020 brought significantly more visitors to this blog than previous years, so a big welcome to you all and thank you so much for taking the time to read my reviews.
Best Reads of 2020
My favourite books of the year fell into 4 main genres: literary fiction, fantasy, non-fiction and science fiction.
Even though it was a difficult year for authors, there was some excellent Australian fiction that came out in 2020: “The Yield” by Tara June Winch, winner of the 2020 Miles Franklin Literary Award and a very creative novel that tackles the intergenerational trauma of colonialism and the Stolen Generation policy, and “Stone Sky Gold Mountain” by Mirandi Riwoe, a historical fiction novel about two Chinese siblings seeking their fortune in Far North Queensland’s gold rush.
Joint winner of the 2019 Booker Prize “Girl, Woman, Other” by Bernardine Evaristo was a fantastic novel that had me in tears. I still think it was a cop-out not to award the Booker Prize to Evaristo outright.
Despite not being able to make it to the gym for a significant part of the year, I did get through quite a few audiobooks while participating in my new hobby: mowing the lawn. Something I have learned is that a good narrator really makes the audiobook, and Aoife McMahon’s narration of “Normal People” by Sally Rooney was just superb. This book generated a lot of discussion, controversy and even a TV series, and I thoroughly enjoyed the audiobook. Hazem Shammas’ narration of “The Lebs” by Michael Mohammed Ahmad was also excellent and brought the world of teenage boys in early 2000s Sydney to life.
Juliet Marillier continues to impress me with her “Warrior Bards” series and both “The Harp of Kings” and “A Dance with Fate” got glowing reviews from me. Marillier continues to tackle difficult issues and write beautiful romance against a magical medieval Irish backdrop.
Newcomer Emily Tesh had me hooked on her queer fantasy novella “Silver in the Wood” and I absolutely cannot wait to read the next one.
Some very well-known authors have come back in full force: Philip Pullman’s second “The Book of Dust” novel “The Secret Commonwealth” was a textbook example of how to pace a novel well and Susanna Clarke has returned from a prolonged hiatus with the eerie and beautiful novel “Piranesi” which had me hooked from start to finish.
I read an array of non-fiction books this year, and one of my favourites was “Queerberra“, a photobook produced and edited by Victoria Firth-Smith with photography by Jane Duong showcasing the divere LGBTIQA+ people of Canberra.
Another book that has shifted my world-view for the better is “Talkin’ Up to the White Woman: Indigenous Women and Feminism” by Aileen Moreton-Robinson. This incredibly important text on (the lack of) intersectionalism in Australian feminism has been re-released this year in a special 20th edition with a new foreword by Moreton-Robinson and it is an absolute must-read.
While overseas travel is unfortunately off the table for the foreseeable future, “Singapore, very old tree” curated by Zhao Renhui was a great way to explore Singapore’s arboreal heritage from the comfort of my own home. A beautiful collection of stories and photographs about what the trees of Singapore mean to the people who love them.
Jasper Fforde continues to amuse and delight in his fascinating speculative fiction novel “The Constant Rabbit” about state-sanctioned discrimination which felt like it was written for me personally, and which had me laughing aloud during a time where laughter was in dire need.
Most Popular Reviews of 2020
Fantasy, children’s books, non-fiction and (surprisingly, given how infrequently I review it!) erotica were among the most popular genres I reviewed this year, and the top 10 most viewed reviews were:
I wasn’t very good at keeping up with my little star chart throughout the year, but I chipped away at my to-read shelves this year and churned through 21 books. I set my goal as one blue star for every 10 books read, and a red star for every new favourite.
Finally, I did the Year of the Asian Reading Challenge. My goal was to get to the Malayan Tapir level (my favourite animal!) which was to read between 21 – 30 books by Asian authors. I am thrilled to have made 22 books, and to proudly display the Malayan Tapir badge.
So that is 2020 in books for me! Thanks so much to everyone who has visited the blog and left comments. I can’t wait to see what 2021 brings us to read. I hope you all have a safe and happy new year and I will see you soon with plenty more book reviews.
Translated poetry collections from Indonesia and the Philippines
Content warning: sexual themes, sexism, violence
A couple of months ago, I came across a Kickstarter campaign for two translated chapbooks on Twitter that really caught my eye. I have been doing The Quiet Pond‘s Year of the Asian Reading Challenge, but the majority of the books I have been reading have been novels. I don’t read a lot of poetry, but I was very interested in supporting this project. Since there are two separate chapbooks, I’ll review them both separately within this post.
Deviant Disciples: Indonesian Women Poets
“Deviant Disciples: Indonesian Women Poets” edited by Intan Paramaditha is a collection of poems by Indonesian writers Toeti Heraty, Dorothea Rosa Herliany, Zubaidah Djohar, Shinta Febriany and Hanna Fransisca translated by Tiffany Tsao, Norman Erikson Pasaribu and Eliza Vitri Handayani.
Paramaditha introduces the collection against the backdrop of the Balinese tale of Calon Arang and the idea of the subversive woman. The poems are concerned with sexuality, controlling the female body and how public morality encroaches on the private life. The women in the poems conduct rebellions in their own ways: navigating the spaces between mythology and social expectations to express their sexuality and inhabit their own bodies, sometimes at great risk to their own personal safety.
In Herliany’s poems Marriage of the Knife, Marriage of the Bodiless Whore and Sinta’s Elegy, she explores the danger and violence of prioritising female desire, reveling in the perceived darkness of succumbing to sex alone or with hypocritical and pathetic lovers. Febriany’s poems Open Body and Nightmare from the State consider how bodies are policed by friends, the state and even our own spirituality. In Djohar’s poems Siti Khalwat: An Excerpt and Here on the Land of 7000 Skirts, I, gendered violence is real and present and it is women who must accept punishment for the consequences of male desire. Heraty’s poems Entreating the Goddess Durga and A Middle Aged Ballad delve into the psyche of middle-aged women defying the roles set for them, speculating on the way these roles grow into gossip, rumour and folklore. Fransisca’s poems are concerned with Chinese-Indonesian women’s bodies specifically, objectified and reduced to their parts for consumption through labour or sex.
This is a fantastic, diverse collection of poetry that provides an excellent sample of some of the rich, evocative writing from Indonesia. Having lived in Indonesia and studied Bahasa Indonesia for many years, I am again inspired to read more Indonesian literature.
Pa-Liwanag (To the Light): Writings by Filipinas in Translation
“Pa-Liwanag (To the Light): Writings by Filipinas in Translations” compiled by Gantala Press is a collection of poetry by women from the Philippines. There are 27 different contributors acknowledged in this chapbook, so I won’t list them all here, but the contributors come from an incredibly diverse range of ethnic, linguistic, gender, sexuality, class and age backgrounds. Gantala press “is an independent, volunteer-run, feminist small press/literary collective” and sourced the poetry included in the collection from across the archipelago.
Some of the major themes that permeate this collection are motherhood, grief, state-sanctioned violence, poverty and forced disappearance and I’ll just mention some of the poems that particularly struck me. Kaisa Aquino’s poem Mother and her Ghosts Left Hanging in the Yard is a frisson-inducing poem about a mother whose husband is no longer there with beautiful nocturnal and domestic imagery. Liberty A. Notarte-Balanquit’s three poems Switch, A Gift of Suspicion and Birth are succinct reflections on the trauma and bargaining associated with motherhood. Miriam Villanueva’s Sister and Brother is a vignette about a sister who stands in for her mother who must leave the home to provide for the family. Pasig Jail by Melanie dela Cruz is a heartwrending account of exploited workers punished for trying to assert their rights in a corrupt system. A poem attributed to Organisasyon dagiti Nakurapay nga Umili ti Syudad We, the Poor reads like a prayer, a protest chant or even a working song. Abbey Pangilinan, Mixkaela Villalon and Ica Fernandez’ prose Hens in the Cull: Women in the Time of Tokhang uses chickens as a compelling metaphor for women under the Duterte Administration, particularly with respect to the instinct of mother hens to protect their brood.
This is a raw, challenging and heartbreaking collection full of as much love as it is hardship. The introduction of this chapbook states “[c]ompared to other Asian or Southeast Asian countries, the Philippines does not really engage in translation – whether of foreign books to local languages, of local books to another local language, or local books to foreign languages. This book is our response to that gap”. An incredibly important collection that certainly achieves the goal of sharing a feminist Filipina experience.
Romance novel about escaping domestic violence and findinga new life
Content warning: domestic violence
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.
“Wild Horses on the Salt” by Anne Montgomery is a romance novel about Becca, a lawyer fleeing her abusive husband. She finds herself on a property in Arizona, USA that belongs to an old friend of her aunt’s who uses it as a guest house. Physically and emotionally bruised, it takes Becca time to open up about what has happened to her. The more she learns about the beautiful country she has found herself in and the environmental issues that threaten it, including the contentious mustangs, the more she begins to feel at ease among her new friends. Especially the handsome Noah. However, her husband is not about to let her go so easily, and Becca soon finds the safety of her new life under threat.
This is an interesting novel that sensitively approaches the issue of domestic violence. Montgomery explores the factors that can leave someone vulnerable to controlling relationships as well as the stigma, financial control and physical danger that make it so difficult to leave. From the outside, Becca is an intelligent, beautiful and successful woman and I think that books like these carry the important message that domestic violence can happen to anyone. This is a well-researched book, and Montgomery brings the Arizona landscape to life through the lens of Becca’s rediscovered passion for art.
However, there were some points in the book where Montgomery’s enthusiasm for description slowed the plot down a bit. The parts of the book that follow the journey of an unlikely pair, a stallion and a sheep, were interesting but I felt that thematically they could have been connected better to the main story as either a well-timed plot device or a clearer metaphor for Becca’s own journey.
A good approach to the difficult topic of domestic violence.
Speculative fiction about an England where rabbits are anthropomorphic
Content warning: discrimination, disability
I’ve mentioned this author a couple of times on here previously: once when I saw him speak at an event and got my book signed, and when I reviewed one of his books. I really enjoyed hearing him speak about writing funny books, and he is one of the few authors who makes me laugh aloud. While we are all waiting eagerly for a sequel to his novel “Shades of Grey”, I was thrilled to see that he had a new release this year and even more thrilled that it appeared to be about rabbits. I don’t think anyone would be surprised to know that I love rabbits and without even reading the blurb this book had considerable appeal to me.
“The Constant Rabbit” by Jasper Fforde is a speculative fiction novel about an alternative England with anthropomorphic rabbits. For over 50 years, rabbits have been able to walk upright, speak, have jobs, start families and have become the target of considerable discrimination. Public servant Peter Knox works in a seemingly innocuous job and lives an unassuming life with his daughter in a small village. However, when two rabbits and their children move in next door, Peter must confront his past and his own role in the anti-rabbit policy to force England’s rabbits to move to a MegaWarren in Wales.
I was absolutely the perfect audience for this book and I enjoyed it from start to finish. This was a really amusing book that had me laughing aloud at multiple points. However, it is also a really clever book and the rabbits are a fantastic allegory for racial politics in the UK today. Fforde presses the reader to consider the whole spectrum of bigotry from failing to speak out against discriminatory jokes all the way to outright violence and vilification. It was also really interesting to see how Fforde interwove typical British politeness with conservative, exclusionary views. Peter was an excellent, complex character who struggles to reconcile his own progressive views with the system he implicitly supports through his work. The interactions between himself, Constance Rabbit and her husband were among the funniest parts of the book. I also really liked the way Fforde wrote about disability focusing on individuals and accessibility rather than the particulars of the disability itself. Fforde also leaves plenty to the imagination when it came to how rabbits became anthropomorphic, though I loved the interlude of an alternative history for the Big Merino in Goulburn.
This was a thoroughly enjoyable and extremely relevant book and I cannot wait to see what Fforde comes up with next.
This book was released this year, and I had seen it mentioned a few times on social media, so when I came across it while scrolling for my next audiobook, I thought I would give this one a go.
“A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing” by Jessie Tu and narrated by Aileen Huynh is a novel about a violinist called Jena who once was famous as a child prodigy. Now in her early 20s, her life in Sydney is consumed with rehearsals, auditions and hookups. As her ambition for music reignites, Jena is forced to confront what happened to make her career come crashing down in her late teens. For Jena, the violin is everything, but it is not enough to keep the deepest feelings of loneliness at bay. As her liaisons grow more and more complicated, Jena struggles to balance her dreams, her friendships and her lovers.
This is compelling book that attempts to answer a question I have certainly found myself wondering from time to time: what happens to child prodigies when they grow up? Through Jena, Tu explores the ways in which talent, work ethic and family support each influenced Jena’s success and downfall. Tu also examines how the lack of meaningful emotional connection as a child has impacted Jena’s relationships as an adult, resulting in messy, overlapping friendships and casual sex. Although Jena seems to yearn for close friendships, she also can’t seem to avoid self-destruction and choosing the gratification of feeling wanted in a fleeting sexual encounter over friends. However Tu challenges the reader to consider whether the standard by which we judge Jena’s behaviour would be equally applied to the men she sleeps with. Tu also explores the sexism in classical music: in the music written, the music selected and the people who gatekeep it.
I thought that the narrative decision of sending Jena to New York to confront her demons and the limitations of her talent was very clever, and it was this part of the book where Jena undergoes the most introspection about her past and the possibilities for her future. I also liked how Tu explores themes of race, countering stereotypes in a subversive way and subtly comparing Jena’s experience as Asian in Australia with her experience in New York. Despite her perfectionist approach to music, Jena’s personal life is largely an unmitigated disaster and she is often selfish and blunt, making a litany of poor decisions. Her ruthless ambition and frank descriptions of her sexual encounters are a far cry from the stereotype of Asian women as meek and unassuming. Huynh narrates the story with a flat, deadpan style that initially I found a little disconcerting but quickly warmed to. I felt that it actually captured Jena’s way of viewing the world well, and helped to translate Jena’s lack of emotional connection into the lived experience of loneliness.
I think that the part of the book that I found the hardest to reconcile was Jena’s affair with Mark, an older wealthy white man who is in a relationship with another woman. Tu leans uncomfortably into the cliche of seeking validation from sleeping with an unavailable man, and we have to watch Jena overlook Mark’s racist and sexist comments, and increasingly violent, dominating behaviour in bed. Conversely, a character that I really would have liked to have seen more of was an artist Jena meets called Val. There were a few points in the book where I thought that Tu might be hinting that Jena’s desire to be Val’s friend might translate into the intimacy she had been unable to find elsewhere, but unfortunately Val remained a relatively minor character.
There is plenty more I could go into, especially about motherhood, but I’ll wrap it up to say that this was a raw, challenging and fresh book that left me with plenty to think about.