The Bone Ships

Swashbuckling adventure fantasy novel

Content warning: disability, facial difference, child sacrifice

This was the most recent set book for my fantasy book club, and was another one that I hadn’t heard of before. I was a bit slack again and only managed to get through about a fifth before the meeting, but I quickly finished it shortly afterwards.

The Bone Ships (The Tide Child, #1) by R.J. Barker

“The Bone Ships” by RJ Barker is a seafaring fantasy adventure novel and the first in a series called “The Tide Child Trilogy”. In an archipelago called the Hundred Isles, battles are fought, won and lost at sea aboard ships made of the bones of long extinct leviathans. When Joron Twiner finds himself banished to a black ship called the Tide Child and ironically elected as shipmother, he sinks into despair and leaves the ship and crew to rot while he drinks himself into a stupor. However, when the famous Lucky Meas Gilbryn finds herself in the same plight, she quickly usurps him and appoints him her second in command. Despite her reduced political situation, she quickly restores order and confides in him her true mission: to stop the wars once and for all.

This is an interesting and creative novel that draws on the canon of seafaring fiction. The Hundred Isles is a brutal place, and Barker invites the reader to consider a world where power is vested in women who have survived childbirth and produced unblemished children and where people born with disabilities, facial differences or mothers who die in childbirth are all but shunned. The fantasy elements supplement rather than dominate the story, and I really enjoyed the character of the Gullaime whose extraordinary power to harness the wind and difficult temperament must be navigated by Joron through kindness. I was also very interested in the concept of the corpselights; lights made of the souls of firstborn children sacrificed to the Hag goddess that indicate a ship’s health. Barker was a little circumspect about this idea and I wonder if it will be explained further in later books.

Although I enjoyed the book, I think my enjoyment really kicked in after the Gullaime was introduced. Lucky Meas spends a lot of time training her crew and teaching them to operate different parts of the ship which was not of particular interest to me. Some of the political aspects of the book felt a little murky with a lot of things seeming to happen offstage without much rationale. While overall Barker is a clear and compelling author, I did feel that for a fantasy novel set in a completely different world, he drew quite a lot on words from other languages set in this world such as Italian which was a bit of a missed worldbuilding opportunity. It is quite a grim book with lots of people dying in gruesome ways in a world that appears to place little value on individual life.

A very readable and engaging book for lovers of ships, adventure and fantasy alike. If you are like me and enjoy stories about animals and magical creatures, then the Gullaime might win you over as well.

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The Yield

Literary novel about Wiradjuri connection to family, Country and culture

Content warning: missing child, Stolen Generation, racism, colonialism, eating disorder, sexual assault

This novel won the 2020 Miles Franklin Literary Award, so it was already on my radar. I bought it a couple of months ago, but was inspired to make it my next book by the recent IndigenousX #BlakBookChallenge.

“The Yield” by Tara June Winch is a literary novel about a fictional place called Massacre Plains. The story is told from three point of view characters: Aboriginal man Albert Gondiwindi, his granddaughter August Gondiwindi and Reverend Ferdinand Greenleaf. Albert has found out that he does not have long to live, and spends his last living days recording the language of his ancestors in a dictionary that uses vignettes from his life to explain the words and their meaning. Shortly afterwards, August finds out her Poppy has died and returns home from the UK for his funeral after many years of estrangement. Things in Massacre Plains are both exactly the same and completely different as she reconnects with her Nana, cousin, aunties and an old flame. In 1915, Reverend Greenleaf pens a letter to the British Society of Ethnography to tell the truth about what happened in the Mission he established in Massacre Plains.

This is a brilliantly crafted novel that combines three narrative techniques to create a compelling and multifaceted story. Albert’s dictionary in particular was such a unique way of storytelling. Albert, who was taken from his family as a child and placed in a Boys’ Home, is visited by his ancestors who lead him through time to gently and patiently teach him the language and culture that would have otherwise been lost to him. His chapters are all the more poignant because they cast into relief how much was stolen from Aboriginal people through colonial violence and racism, making the knowledge bestowed by his ancestors critical. Greenleaf’s chapters are also interesting because they provide the dramatic irony of someone who genuinely believes that they are doing the best for the people in their care, but who is ultimately contributing to their loss of culture and who is powerless to protect them, especially the women, from slavery and sexual violence perpetrated by settlers.

Although less avant-garde in structure than the other chapters, August’s story is no less compelling. When she returns to the home her grandparents raised her in, she struggles to make sense of Prosperous House’s painful memories and the plans for it to be repossessed by a mining company. August’s chapters are in some ways the most heartrending. August has to confront the old trauma of losing her sister Jedda, who went missing when they were young, and face the new trauma of being displaced from her home. These traumas take their toll on August, who throughout her life has struggled with disordered eating. Her journey to the city with her aunty to visit the museum and see her people’s artefacts showed how painful it is that so much Aboriginal history is not even accessible to the people whose heritage it is. Through this experience Winch touches on the idea of repatriation, consistent with the strong theme of returning home that underpins this novel.

Finally, I also really enjoyed reading the Author’s Note and Acknowledgements which provide plenty of recommendations for further reading, some historical context for the compilation of Wiradjuri language and a little bit of insight into Winch’s own research, writing process and family. Winch is a fantastic writer and this is an excellent and original novel committed to truth-telling and full of heart.

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Virgins

Novella prequel to the “Outlander” series

Content warning: sexual assault, sex work

After having no positive COVID-19 cases in my city for over 3 months, I have accepted that I really have no excuse for not returning to the gym. It has been a bit surreal, to be honest. I’m santitising all the equipment before and after use, and I’m jogging to and from the gym to reduce my time in the space. However, it has been really good to be able to increase how much time I’m listening to audiobooks for (though I have to say, I seem to have a neverending amount of mowing to do). After my last audiobook, I thought I would try something a bit shorter this time. While I have mentioned her books previously, I actually haven’t reviewed any of this author’s books on my blog before. This is wild to me because I am a huge fan of the TV adaptation of this series and watch it religiously every season, and have been reading these books since I was a teen. The most recent book was published in 2014, and the author has been busily working on the 9th book of the series since then. I had this on my Audible wishlist and it was blessedly short, and kept me busy for two gym sessions and a run.

Virgins cover art

“Virgins” by Diana Gabaldon is a historical fiction novella and prequel to her “Outlander” series set in France in the 1700s. Two young Scots, Jamie and Ian, are reunited when Jamie joins a band of mercenaries in rural France. Jamie, beset with physical and emotional wounds following an incident with the English back in Scotland, takes a while to open up to his best friend about what really happened. Meanwhile, a simple job to escort a priceless treasure and a young woman safely to Paris soon goes awry.

This is a quick novella that shares a brief insight into the life of Jamie Fraser before he meets Claire in the main series. Although Jamie is traumatised, badly injured, over-confident and very naive, we see glimmers of the man that he will become later in the series. Jamie and Ian’s friendship is a given in the “Outlander” series, so it was interesting to see a little more of the interplay between the two and to see Jamie occasionally being less than generous with his best friend, bragging about his superior education. A large part of the plot centres on a femme fatale archetype which was titillating if not surprising.

I think if you haven’t read any of the other books in the series, I probably wouldn’t recommend you start with this one. While there are no spoilers, there are a lot of nods to character development and history that I think would make a lot more sense to a reader with more context. “Dragonfly in Amber” is largely set in France, and I think it makes for interesting reading to reflect on Jamie’s first experiences there knowing what happened later on than vice versa. There was a graphic sexual assault scene in this book that was pretty confronting as I was jogging along to the gym alone in the evening, and while I think that the scene was certainly historically plausible and Gabaldon does revisit the incident later in the book to mete out some justice, it was pretty shocking hearing the assault being rationalised due to the victims occupation as a sex worker.

This is a quick, easy book to read (or listen to) and I think my suspicions that I need audiobooks to be quick and easy have been proved once again. A good choice for an “Outlander” fan looking for something to tide them over until the next book and season.

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A Dance with Fate

Historical Celtic fantasy novel 

Content warning: family violence, disability

This is the second novel in this series, so if you haven’t read the first novel yet I’d recommend checking out my review here first. I was so excited to see the second book come out so soon after the first and rushed to buy it.

“A Dance with Fate” by Juliet Marillier is the second book in the historical fantasy series “The Warrior Bards” that picks up shortly after the events of the first book. Former rivals Liobhan and Dau have become comrades after their challenging undercover mission, but are still eager to compete for recognition as warriors on Swan Island. However, when the evenly matched pair spar together in a display bout, an accident and a head injury causes Dau to lose his vision. Word is sent to his estranged family who demand payment, and Liobhan accompanies Dau to his home at a grim place called Oakhill. Despite his disability, Dau is no longer the frightened boy his brothers tormented and he must face his old demons if he and Liobhan are to uncover the truth of what has been happening at Oakhill. Meanwhile, Liobhan’s brother Brocc struggles to adjust to his new life in the Otherworld. The Crow Folk who so threatened the Fair Folk have begun turning up horrifically maimed and his wife and queen Eirne has grown distant. A journey to save a friend’s life brings him more than he bargained for.

My girl Pepper also wanted to get involved in being a book model

While I often find myself struggling with sequels in fantasy series, Marillier has the singular skill of making her sequels even better than the first book and this is no exception. This is a captivating and challenging tale about power and justice. Despite all his character growth in the previous book, and adjusting to his newfound confidence, Dau finds himself in a position of extreme vulnerability back in his family home where he was subjected to extreme and repeated abuse by his brothers. Marillier often writes about disability, and in this case again writes sensitively and compellingly about Dau’s grief at losing his vision, the adjustments the characters make to assist him and his gradual acceptance of his new circumstances. I also love the way that Marillier writes romance and how gentle and full of equal parts trust and passion relationships emerge.

But Tabasco is the one who matches Liobhan’s hair the best

One theme that shone through this book was the healing power of dogs. One of Dau’s childhood traumas involves his dog Snow, and the lies his brothers told about what really happened weigh heavily on Dau. However, through the dogs we meet in this book, we learn how deeply Dau cares for animals and how much they bring joy and meaning to his life, even when he is at his darkest. My own dog Pepper has been attacked several times by dogs, something that I know Juliet Marillier has also experienced, yet the generosity with which she writes about dogs in this book – especially dogs with poor training and unkind treatment – is honestly heartwarming. Where we were struck by the tragedy of what happened to Snow in the previous book, this book feels like a reconciliation for both Dau and reader.

In the previous book, I did find Brocc’s story a little less engaging, but in this book I was absolutely hooked. Marillier fleshes out the Otherworld and Brocc’s relationship with Eirne. I felt that Brocc underwent a lot of character development in this book, coming to terms with his own mixed ancestry, navigating honesty and expectations with his new wife, and trying to decide his own morals in relation to the Crow Folk. The Otherworld characters, old and new, were very interesting and I simply adored True.

This book had me in tears more than once and I cannot wait for the next installment.

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Singapore, very old tree

A collection of photographs and stories about the trees of Singapore

I first came across this project on Tumblr (remember Tumblr?) where I followed this great Singaporean bookshop called BooksActually that sadly this year transitioned to a fully online store. I spent a lot of time in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore growing up, and this celebration of South-East Asian trees and history really resonated with me. I ordered this beautiful pack that included a book, postcards and a poster back in 2016 but, like many of my books, it sat on my shelf waiting for the right time. After chatting to a friend online recently about banyan trees and thinking about how long it will likely be before I can go back to South-East Asia again, I figured now was the right time to read this book.

This photo was taken at the National Arboretum’s National Bonsai and Penjing Collection, and this particular Bonsai is a fig

“Singapore, very old tree” curated by Zhao Renhui is a collection of stories and photographs about trees in Singapore. The collection is inspired by a postcard dated 1904 and titled “Singapore. (very old tree)” with an enormous tree towering over a small figure. The photographs and accompanying stories highlight the relationship between individual Singaporeans and individual trees, and weave in themes of history, urban planning, environmentalism and horticulture. The contributors are represent a diverse cross-section of genders, race, age and class in Singaporean society united by a love for the trees that have given them shade, fruit, peace and comfort.

This is a beautiful project and book that I am so, so glad that I supported. It features 30 different trees, and the photographs are edited in a way inspired by the techniques used in the original postcard. The introduction to this project was really helpful to provide some political context for this project and Singapore’s own identity as a Garden City. However, this project also includes the real tension between maintaining this arboreal identity and the pressures of development, and the times where protests have saved trees through compromise. Many of the trees featured in this book are banyan trees, a species of fig that is great not only in size but in spiritual significance.

This is a beautiful collaboration and while the first edition of this project is now sold out, you can now order the second edition online. If you are looking for something incredibly soothing and beautiful to take your time over, I cannot recommend this project enough.

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The Good Girl of Chinatown

Memoir about burlesque dancing in Shanghai

Content warning: racism, drug use, family violence

Three years ago I went to an event at Muse Bookstore where I saw this author speak about her new memoir. Even though it was a great talk and I was interested enough to buy a copy of the book for the author to sign, for one reason or another, this book has waited very patiently on my bookshelf since then for its turn. This year I have been making a bit more of an effort to get through my to-read shelves, and it was high time I read this book.

“The Good Girl of Chinatown” by Jenevieve Chang is a memoir about her experiences as a burlesque dancer in Shanghai, China in the late 2000s. After moving to the UK from Sydney to study dance, Jenevieve marries a man of Nigerian heritage called Femi. Although she envies his close-knit family, living with three generations under the one roof eventually becomes too much, and the couple jump at a job opportunity for Femi as a yoga teacher in Shanghai. Despite her family being from China, Jenevieve struggles to find a place in the performing arts scene in a city looking for Western faces. She mixes instead with an eclectic mix of “expats“. Her marriage slowly unravelling, when an opportunity comes up to star as a showgirl in a vaudeville, Jenevieve jumps at the chance. Cecil’s dreams of a club called Chinatown are intoxicating, and it’s easy to overlook some of the issues with payment, venues and transparency in the beginning. However, when things begin to really fall apart, Jenevieve is forced to face up to who she is beneath the costumes and performance and the traumas that ripple through generations of her family.

As I have mentioned many times on this blog, memoir is a genre that I often struggle with. However, this was an excellent memoir. Chang is a natural storyteller blending hard truths and entertainment on every page. The structure of this book was very effective using three key perspectives: Chang in the first person, Jenevieve as a child in the third person and fictionalised accounts of family history. I think it is a really courageous thing to write about your family, and although Chang provides plenty of empathy and cultural and historical context, she does not shy away from writing about the impact of corporal punishment on her family. One of the most powerful parts of this book, after having learned as a reader about Chang’s grandparents being exiled to Taiwan after the fall of Kuomintang in 1949 and Chang’s own estrangement from her parents, was her connection with family who still live in China.

However, Chang’s experience as a burlesque dancer and “Chinatown Girl” was also riveting reading. Cecil is the classic charming con artist, winning supporters over with his plans for Chinatown as the next great thing while quickly succumbing to greed and siphoning invested money instead of paying staff and contractors. Despite little to no pay, the performers are whisked along on a journey of late nights, flowing champagne and many creative differences. There was a particularly striking part of the book where many of the performers are taking an experimental drug that just seems to be available all the time, and it is strongly suggested that whoever is providing it is using the performers as guinea pigs. A big turning point in the book is Chang’s realisation that the Chinatown concept is a nostalgic colonial fiction that bares no resemblance to her family’s experience of 20th century China.

This is a captivating memoir and a testimony to Chang’s flexibility as an artist. In a time where the possibility of Australians travelling to and living in Shanghai in the near future is extremely low, and anti-Asian racism is on the rise, this is an important book as well as a great read.

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Over the Woodward Wall

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher. I think it is worth noting that this book is a companion novel to Seanan McGuire’s book “Middlegame” and (though I have not read it) this book is in fact a fictional book mentioned in the original novel, now brought to life by the author under a pseudonym. While it is a standalone, there may be things that readers of McGuire’s book may have picked up on that went over my head.

“Over the Woodward Wall” by A. Deborah Parker is a fantasy novel about two children, Avery and Zib, who despite living on the same street have never met one another. One day on their way to different schools, Avery and Zib each must take a detour which finds them standing side by side before a wall blocking the street. Without even noticing each other, they both climb the wall and find themselves in a peculiar world called the Up and Under with no clear way to return home.

This is an unsettling book that draws upon fantasy and science fiction canon to produce something quite different. Parker is a clever yet oblique writer and the books is narrated in the third person with the omniscient narrator switching between describing the events and feelings experienced by the characters and providing broader commentary about their lives. Despite being a book about children, I don’t think that this is a book for children. Parker spends a lot of time considering the impacts of different parenting styles on the straight-laced Avery and the carefree Zib, and how that affects their ability to make their way through not only the Up and Under, but life generally. Zib and Avery meet several unusual characters along the way and struggle not only to assess who is friend and who is foe, but to manage a blossoming friendship between two such different perspectives.

I have heard a few people compare this book to “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz“, presumably because of the superficial resemblance between the books because each has a road to be followed. However, I found the premise more similar to “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” with the well-known playing card royalty replaced by queens and kings affiliated with more mysterious and sinister Tarot suits. The improbable road reminded me a lot of the “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and the infinite improbability drive. However, while there are glimpses of wonder, this book has a much darker tone than these predecessors and while it is certainly surreal and quirky, it doesn’t have the same amount of humour.

This is a compelling and cryptic book that ends on a grim note which makes me feel that Parker is probably not done yet with this story, and I’m curious to see what happens next.

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The Buru Quartet (Tetralogi Buru)

Content warning: colonialism, racism

This series was given to me as a 21st birthday present by some family friends, and I must admit that was a very long time ago. They were no longer banned in Indonesia, and although I was nevertheless a little nervous about it, I decided to take them with me when I studied in Java for a year. I definitely finished the first book and had at the very least begun the second, but while I was over there, my third book went missing. It took some time of scouring op shops and the Lifeline Book Fair before I finally found another copy in this set. It’s a beautiful set, and it’s been gathering dust on my shelf far too long. Some relevance to research I’ve been doing recently and the Year of the Asian Reading Challenge finally encouraged me to give this series another go. I also found out that last year the first book was adapted into a really great and well-cast film which is currently on Netflix.

“The Buru Quartet” by Pramoedya Ananta Toer and translated from Bahasa Indonesia by Max Lane is a series of four historical novels called “This Earth of Mankind” (Manusia Bumi), “Child of All Nations” (Anak Semua Bangsa), “Footsteps” (Jejak Langkah) and “House of Glass” (Rumah Kaca). The series is largely about Minke, a young Native Javanese man of significant family standing who, at the end of the 19th century, is permitted to study at the HBS – a secondary school typically reserved for students of Dutch or Eurasian (Indo) heritage. One day, an Indo classmate invites him to visit another Indo friend at his family’s home. Despite being on of the most educated Natives in Java, Minke is struck by the impressive Nyai Ontosoroh, a Javanese woman who is both concubine to a Dutch man and single-handedly managing his estate and business without ever having been formally educated. Minke is also struck by Nyai’s beautiful Indo daughter Anneleis. Growing close to this unusual family sets Minke on a new path of enlightenment and understanding about the true nature of colonialism. Already a published writer, Minke begins to write about his observations of inequality under colonial rule. When he experiences an unthinkable tragedy, he focuses his attention on how to wake a sleepy Java and navigate the subtleties of class and culture to bring a national awareness to his readers.

I cannot stress enough how excellent this series is. In it’s own right, it is a masterpiece of historical fiction combining meticulous research, characterisation (my absolute favourite character was Darsam the bodyguard) and political insight. However, I cannot write about this series without mentioning the circumstances around how it came to be published. Not unlike the historical figure Tirto Adhi Soerjo upon which his books are based upon, Toer was imprisoned under the Suharto regime and forbidden from having any writing materials on an island called Buru which became the novels’ namesake. Toer, who had spent many years researching this story before his personal library was burned, recited the story of Minke to his fellow prisoners and was eventually able to write it down. After release, Toer published his books himself where they were subsequently banned for nearly 20 years in Indonesia despite being available to great acclaim around the world. The fact that they exist at all is a veritable miracle and it is a privilege to be able to read them in Lane’s well-considered and nuanced translation.

There are so many things that I could write about these books, but I think that I’ll limit it to two key things: it’s brilliance as a piece of historical fiction, and how well it has stood up to the test of time. If this is the result of a narrated story after a library’s worth of research was destroyed, I cannot fathom what this book would have been like had Toer not gone through so much hardship in writing it. The book is crammed full of cultural references from the Dutch East Indies at the end of the 1800s and early 1900s. Toer refers heavily to literature, art and music of the times, Native and European alike, bringing the story alive with context and colour. Toer helps the reader to understand the extremely complicated social hierarchies made up of traditional Javanese feudalism, white supremacy imported by the Dutch, emerging roles for educated and elite Javanese within the colonial bureaucracy and the uncertain position of Indos and Chinese people. Language is extremely political, and Toer introduces the reader to the concept of Malay as an egalitarian language through Minke’s initial internalised prejudices about Dutch and reluctance to write in his native Javanese. I was fascinated by the way in which Toer leads Minke to nationalistic ideas by referring to news of political movements in the Philippines and China through conversations with Dutch friends because news in the Indies was so suppressed by the colonial regime. Lane did an admirable job of capturing this nuance and providing informative yet unobtrusive notes, commentary and a dictionary in each book to help readers to understand some of this cultural context.

I think one of the most delightful and surprising things about this series is its progressiveness given it was published in the 1980s. Toer is without a doubt a feminist and the women in his books are fierce, intelligent and determined. A cornerstone of these novels is the lack of rights over children and property under Dutch colonial law that nyai have as compared with their Dutch masters. Minke is a lover of women and throughout the novels has a number of wives and lovers of all ethnicities. Each is adroit, beautiful, capable and brave and unlike his compatriots, Minke refuses to have more than one wife at a time. However, it is the issue of racism that is at the heart of this book. Minke, whose nickname is itself a distortion of a racial slur, observes racial inequality in the home, in the street and in the courts. His own education is limited by both his race and the availability of further education in the Indies and his only option is a medical school though his heart lies in writing. He observes stolen land, debt bondage and Javanese women traded to Dutch men for position and money. He observes the hierarchical nature of traditional Javanese society and how that hierarchy was exploited by the Dutch to place themselves firmly at the top. He observes how the riches of the Indies are extracted and exported with no financial benefit to his people. Eventually, Minke’s observations begin to be published and people begin to listen.

There is so much more I could write about this series, including the emergence of organisations, Toer’s handling of mental illness and the troubled policeman Pangemanann. However, I’ll stop here and just say that there is only one thing I regret about reading it which is that I didn’t read it sooner. I hope one day I can read it again in Bahasa Indonesia.

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Beloved

Historical fiction about a mother’s trauma in the wake of slavery

Content warning: slavery, racism, infanticide

Last year, the renowned author Toni Morrison sadly died. She was the recipient of countless awards for her work including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993 (a display of which I was able to see when I visited the Nobel Prize Museum last year).

I have only read one of Morrison’s novels, “The Bluest Eye” and I had been debating for a while which of her books I would read next. I found out that many of her novels are available as audiobooks narrated by Morrison herself, and despite this year being a bit shaky for my gym/audiobook routine, I had been doing a bit of running and lawnmowing in lieu of the gym, and decided that I would listen to this one next.

Beloved cover art

“Beloved” by written and narrated by Toni Morrison is a historical fiction novel set in Ohio, USA just after the American Civil War. Sethe, an African American woman and former slave, lives in a haunted house with her 18 year old daughter Denver. The presence in the house is furious, chasing off Sethe’s two sons, and the mother and daughter live an isolated life together. However when Paul D, another former slave from the plantation Sethe escaped, arrives, he challenges the spirit and encourages Sethe and Denver to leave the house. He takes them to a fair, but when they return, they find a girl waiting at the doorstep. The girl, who calls herself Beloved, Sethe believes is her daughter who was killed as a baby.

This is a complex, subtle novel narrated beautifully by Morrison herself. She has a soft, breathy yet expressive voice with each sentence punctuated for excellent dramatic effect and the characters each brought to life. Sethe is a particularly interest character who, up until this point, appears to have been operating on two parallel levels. When Beloved manifests at the house at 124, and Paul D arrives with his questions and memories of the plantation, the two layers of Sethe’s psyche are unable to continue to exist separately. Denver, also initially drawn to Beloved, is the perfect lens through which to observe the changes in Sethe as a result of Beloved’s arrival and goes through significant character development herself. This book is a critical exploration of the multifaceted traumas caused by slavery, and the interplay between memory and identity.

I will admit that despite Morrison’s beautiful narration, this wasn’t a great book for me to listen to as an audiobook. I do have some difficulties with listening comprehension sometimes, and I think the subtlety and the cleverness of this book meant that each time I started daydreaming, I missed a critical part of the book. However, it was captivating enough that I think I would like to reread it in text so if I do, I will come back and update this review.

An excellent and provocative piece of fiction that I would very much like to revisit.

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Stone Sky Gold Mountain

Historical fiction about Chinese siblings during the Queensland gold rush

Content warning: racism, mental illness, sex work

When I heard this book was coming out, I was really excited. I absolutely loved the author’s first book “The Fish Girl” and was really looking forward to this release. Unfortunately, this book came out around the same time as the pandemic starting which meant that lots of authors missed out on the usual author events and publicity that accompany a new release. However, one advantage of everyone going remote is that I didn’t have to worry about travelling for an event, I was able to sign up and livestream. The cover is really pretty – my photo doesn’t quite do it justice but it has little flecks of gold foil in the lettering.

“Stone Sky Gold Mountain” by Mirandi Riwoe is a historical fiction novel about two siblings, Ying and Lai Yue, who have travelled from China to Far North Queensland to seek their fortune on the gold fields. Older brother Lai Yue takes responsibility for saving the little gold they find, purchasing supplies and making decisions. However, when Ying, disguised as a boy, begins to weaken from the hard labour and lack of food, the siblings eventually must move to Maytown to seek more stable employment. With Ying settled in as a shop assistant, Lai Yue takes a job with a team of men headed for a sheep station and the siblings must each make their own way in this strange and hostile country.

This was a fantastic book. Riwoe is a phenomenal writer and in a full-length novel really stretches her muscles to bring to life an era from somewhere that is now nothing more than a ghost town. Ying is a curious, resourceful and flexible character who quickly adapts to her role as shop boy. Enjoying the freedom that a male disguise buys her, she pushes boundaries and befriends a white woman called Meriem – another point of view character. I really found myself cheering Ying on and enjoying her delight in the world and her adventurous spirit playing different roles. Meriem is a complex character who has run from her past to work as a housekeeper for a sex worker. Riwoe does an exceptional job of examining Meriem’s initial prejudices against Chinese people and sensitively handles the stigma and allure of sex work in the Maytown community.

However, I think the real masterpiece of this book is Lai Yue. Laden with the responsibility as the older brother, Lai Yue buckles under the weight. I was initially reminded of the older brother Seita in the film “Grave of the Fireflies“, with Lai Yue initially hoarding the gold they find away instead of using it to buy food Ying so desperately needs. However, as the book progresses, we learn that there is a lot more going on with Lai Yue. Riwoe’s exploration of how mental illness and self-esteem are intertwined is heartbreaking, and initial frustration with Lai Yue quickly makes way to empathy. Riwoe also doesn’t shy away from the many types of racism experienced during this period of history. Unflinchingly, she depicts Chinese people participating in brutal acts of violence against Aboriginal people while back in town, Chinese people themselves are victims of racist attacks and discrimination. At a time when people of Asian heritage are increasingly experiencing racism, it is an important and timely reminder that racism is a part of our history and that we can and must do better.

This is a rich, touching novel and I honestly could continue to wax lyrical about it but instead I very much recommend you read for yourself this critical and necessary contribution to Australian historical fiction.

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