Category Archives: Advanced Reading Copies

Siracusa

Thriller about marriage and infidelity on an Italian holiday

Content warning: child grooming

After recently moving house, it has come to my attention that my to-read pile is too big. In my heart, I already knew this, but in unpacking and repacking my shelves I have had to face the reality of the situation. In 2020 I had a go at The Quiet Pond’s #StartOnYourShelfathon challenge and managed to get through 21 books languishing on my shelf (which was over a quarter of my books read for the year). This year, I’m trying a new challenge: The Mount TBR Reading Challenge. I am not doing very well so far! It has been a busy and challenging year so far but I have finally had a bit of time to try to get back in the swing of reading. I was looking for some inspiration to help me choose my next book and this book caught my eye after reading about the Siracusa Principles recently for work. I can’t quite remember where this book came from (perhaps an ARC from Harry Hartog?) but it will hopefully be the first of many form my to-read list.

Image is of “Siracusa” by Delia Ephron. The paperback book is resting on a wooden board next to a selection of antipasti including olives, mushrooms, artichokes, bocconcini and stuffed capsicum. Behind the board a wine glass rests on its side with the dregs of red wine still inside.

“Siracusa” by Delia Ephron is a thriller novel about two couples who decide to holiday together in Italy. When Journalist Lizzie and renowned writer Michael find out their friends Finn, Taylor and their daughter Snow are going to be in Europe at the same time, they organise a trip together in Siracusa, Italy. However, as the book progresses it becomes clear that the trip may not have been as innocent as it initially seemed.

This novel was told from the perspective of each of the adult characters, with Lizzie, Michael, Finn and Taylor each offering their take and thoughts on the events of the trip. Ephron is a clear writer and draws on the seascape and architecture of the city to underpin the growing tension in the novel between and among the two couples. Although she didn’t get any point-of-view chapters, by far the most compelling character is Snow. There seems to be an inexplicable discrepancy between how the characters talk about her and the things that she does and this, I believe, is the most interesting thing about the book.

However, ultimately I felt the book frustrating and hard to finish. All four characters are inherently unlikeable, and it is a strange position to be in when you find yourself spitefully hoping that characters cheat on each other. I’m not sure the structure of four points of view worked; even though it is a relatively short book, the chapters seemed to drag the same dirt over and over. I also didn’t find the voices distinct enough from one another to be truly compelling or to provide unique insight into the ill-fated trip. There was something quite uncomfortable about the way Michael and 10-year-old Snow interacted with each other. While all the characters applaud Michael for the “special attention” that he gives to Snow, the way their discussions are described (including, at one point, as a “flirtation”) just felt ick to be honest.

A novel with plenty of the pieces of a compelling story but perhaps not the right.

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Burnt Out

Contemporary fiction about bushfires and unexpected fame

I received a copy of this courtesy of the publisher.

Image is of “Burnt Out” by Victoria Brookman. The eBook cover is sky blue with a hand holding a match that has a woman’s face wearing sunglasses in the flame.

“Burnt Out” by Victoria Brookman is a novel about a young woman called Cali who is on the brink. She is on the brink of losing her marriage, losing her publisher, losing her cat and losing her home to bushfires. When disaster strikes, Cali’s impassioned plea to the government to take action against climate change goes viral and she finds herself offered the chance of a lifetime: a writer’s retreat at a billionaire’s pool house right on Sydney Harbour. Her patron Arlo is as handsome as he is wealthy, and with a brand new book idea, it seems as though Cali has landed on her feet. However, soon her situation begins to feel like a gilded cage and Cali begins to second-guess her creative decisions and long for for the peace and friendship she left behind in the Blue Mountains.

I obviously did not read the description of this book closely enough because when I first started reading it, I thought it was a non-fiction book about burnout, chronic work-related stress that I can definitely relate to. I was, therefore, a bit surprised to find that it was a general fiction novel with a touch of romance. I went to the Blue Mountains last year to support my husband run an ultramarathon, and the year before to stay with a friend, and I thought that Brookman wrote beautifully and convincingly about the terror of having a bushfire at your doorstep. When I went to visit in winter 2020, it was pretty shocking seeing how close the fires got to my friend’s house and the slightly monstrous sight of gumtrees furred with new leaf growth all over their trunks and branches. I felt that Brookman really captured the altitude and the culture of the Blue Mountains and the juxtaposition between the alpine region and the city of Sydney so nearby.

Image is of a burnt gumtree stump that has new growth with trees in the background furred with leaves all over their branches.

However, this book didn’t have the hot romance of “The Dangers of Truffle Hunting” with its equally unrealistic creative opportunities or or the deep contemplation of “Hare’s Fur” also set in the Blue Mountains. While there were moments in the book that were powerful, I found myself frustrated with Cali’s character. I felt that she made some ethical decisions that I was just not on board with, and her slight guilt wasn’t enough to dissuade her and there ultimately were no consequences for her actions. My favourite character in the book was Cali’s neighbour Spike, but he really got the short end of the stick in my opinion and was way too cool about it. In fact, several of the people within Cali’s orbit got the short end of the stick except for Cali’s whose main talent appeared to be ranting about climate change (without any qualifications whatsoever) after being plied with a couple of glasses of champagne.

An easy to read novel centred on the hard-hitting topic of bushfires and climate change, but that was lacking the kind of morality and characters that I was hoping for.

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Devotion

Queer historical fiction about Prussian immigrants to South Australia

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

Image is of “Devotion” by Hannah Kent. The eBook cover is light grey with a dark grey, banksia-shaped shadow and white, long-stemmed plant.

“Devotion” by Hannah Kent is a historical fiction novel set initially in Prussia in 1836. Hanne, her twin brother and her parents live in an Old Lutheran community. Hanne has always struggled to fit in with the other teenaged girls and the expectations of her mother, and prefers instead to spend time in nature. However when Hanne meets Thea, the daughter of a new family who joined the community, her whole world changes and suddenly she doesn’t feel so alone. When the community flees religious persecution for the colony of South Australia, Hanne and Thea’s bond is put to the ultimate test.

Kent is a beautiful writer and this book shows off her prowess bringing the diverse and untold stories of women in history to life. I found this to be a really relatable story, and Kent expertly captured the mutual love and frustration of mother-daughter relationships and how faith is interwoven in the community’s daily life. The connection between Hanne and Thea was both gentle and electric, and watching their friendship and relationship bloom was the highlight of the book. There were some elements of magic realism and spirituality that were interesting as well, with Hanne’s affinity for listening to nature underpinning and enriching a lot of the events that unfold.

It is a little hard to review this book because something incredibly significant and life-changing happens in the middle of the book which I can’t really mention without spoiling the story. Suffice to say that while it was creatively courageous, I’m not sure it added to the overall plot and I think I might have preferred it if Kent had taken another direction.

A unique story with plenty of depth, plenty of emotion and plenty of heart.

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Noor

Africanfuturism novel about human augmentation

Content warning: war, disability, harassment

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

Image is of “Noor” by Nnedi Okorafor. The eBook cover is of a young woman with dark skin and twist braided hair tied up in a bun. She is wearing a cowrie shell choker necklace and a jewel on her forehead. She is bathed in golden light.

“Noor” by Nnedi Okorafor is an Africanfuturism science fiction novel about a young Igbo woman called AO who has a number of cybernetic augmentations to assist her due to her disabilities. AO works as a successful mechanic in Nigeria’s capital city Abuja however not everyone accepts her for who she is. When she retaliates after being harassed by a group of men in the market, she finds herself on the run. Joining forces with a young Fulani herdsman called DNA, they find themselves heading towards a perpetual sandstorm in the desert seeking refuge and answers. Between them, they discover a national conspiracy and the untapped abilities that are their only hope of stopping it.

This was a fast-paced book in a reimagined Nigera that examines pressing social issues through a science fiction lens. I really liked the way Okorafor handled the stigma surrounding disability, and the complex relationship AO has with her augmentations, where they came from and the cause of her disabilities. The book really tackles capitalism and the consequences of giving too many rights and too much power to corporations. AO is a really strong character with a streak of recklessness and a clear idea of what she wants. I thought DNA, with his softer yet still courageous personality, was a good counterpoint.

There were some rather surreal moments in the book, such as when AO and DNA met a white yogi in the middle of a sandstorm. I will be honest and say that I think there were a lot of commentaries about Nigerian society and politics that I did not have the background to fully appreciate, especially the herder-farmer conflicts. I think that Okorafor was nevertheless generous enough with her writing to help any reader understand the broad factors at play.

A multifaceted story at breakneck speed that tackles critical social issues through creative technology.

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Blue-Skinned Gods

Novel set in India about a boy believed to be an incarnation of Vishnu

Content warning: suicide, family violence

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

Image is of “Blue-Skinned Gods” by SJ Sindu. The eBook cover is blue with stylised lips, nose, eyes and eyebrows in gold.

“Blue-Skinned Gods” by SJ Sindu is a novel about a young boy called Kalki who lives in an ashram with his parents and his aunt, uncle and cousin Lakshman who is also his best friend. Kalki was born with blue skin and his father trains him as a spiritual healer. People come from far and wide to receive blessings from Kalki, believing he is the 10th human incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu. To prove his divinity, Kalki must past three tests. However, as Lakshman begins to doubt his authenticity, and his home life begins to deteriorate, Kalki finds himself asking whether he is truly a god, and if he isn’t, then who is he?

This was a fascinating book about power, belief and control in the context of a family. Sindu takes the real phenomenon of children with facial differences and genetic diversity being worshipped as gods by their communities and explores what the reality of such a life might be like. This is at times a very challenging book thematically, because the power Kalki’s father (‘Ayya’) has over the household is almost unshakeable. Sindu provides a realistic insight into how family violence can gradually escalate, how dangerous coercive control and emotional abuse can be and how difficult it can be to escape. Tied into this is the ashram itself as not only a place for locals to pay respects and seek blessings from Kalki as Vishnu’s avatar, but as a commercial spiritual retreat attracting international visitors and generating income as a result.

Kalki is an innocent, open-hearted character who, despite living in such a restrictive environment, demonstrates a huge capacity to love and accept people for who they are. Sindu introduces lots of diverse characters including the lovely Kalyani, a transgender girl, and later the many types of people Kalki meets in New York. I really liked how Sindu explores Kalki’s sexuality without ever pinning him down to a single label. Kalki’s relative innocence and lack of worldliness leaves him vulnerable to exploitation, and his attempts to understand more about his identity and make sense of his past are underwhelming as a result. Going back to Sindu’s focus on spirituality, I really liked that she examines the human desire to believe in different contexts and how tied belief can be to a tangible personality. Without giving too much away, one of my favourite parts of the book was Sindu turning an adoption stereotype on its head.

While I liked almost everything about this book, I think the ending was the only part where I felt a little let down. For almost the entire book, Sindu had left the reader with a measure of uncertainty about Kalki’s identity, and I think I would have found a slightly more ambiguous ending more satisfying.

A creative and surprising story that tackles some difficult issues and challenges preconceptions about identity, faith and family.

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Unsettled Ground

Family drama novel about parents, poverty and isolation

Content warning: themes of control, parental death

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. This is actually the second book I have read by this author and I was looking forward to it.

Image is of the eBook cover of “Unsettled Ground” by Claire Fuller. The cover is a collection of colour flowers and fruit against a black background that on closer inspection appear to be wilting and rotting.

“Unsettled Ground” by Claire Fuller is a novel about twins Jeanie and Julius who unusually, at age 51, still live at home with their mother Dot in a small rural cottage in England. However when their mother suddenly dies, Dot’s carefully balanced, hand to mouth existence begins to crumble around them. The twins begin to realise just exactly how many secrets their mother was keeping from them, and how much she was keeping them from the rest of the world.

This is a disquieting novel that really resonated with me. When I was 18 years old, I lived in the West Midlands in the UK for about 6 months with relatives in a rural area, and Fuller really captured that village setting perfectly. Fuller unpacks in an incredibly realistic way how unnavigable society is for people who are disadvantaged, and examines in close detail the practicalities of life without access to a car, running water or electricity. I thought that Fuller handled writing about literacy difficulties especially well, and watching the recent TV documentary “Lost for Words” shortly afterwards helped me see just how accurately Fuller captured the stigma around lack of literacy but also the workarounds people develop to get by. The other thing I really liked about this book is the relentlessness of the life administration, even and especially in death, and how Dot doing everything for her children really left them unequipped to cope. Fuller pushes this scenario to its extreme, exploring each individual vulnerability to its limit while still remaining well within the realm of possibility.

While the setup for this book was extremely engaging, I’m not sure that in the end it landed. Fuller tiptoes around Dot’s character, and while I appreciate leaving some things to the imagination, there is never really much speculation about why she limited her children’s interaction with the outside world so much. Throughout the book, Jeanie and Julius learn more about their mother’s personal life through those closest to her, but never really why she had absolute control over the way the home was run and made absolutely no contingency plans whatsoever. Of course I accept that this happens all the time in real life, but in many ways Dot was the most interesting character in the book and we got only the faintest spectre. I also appreciate that people fall between the cracks, and it is hard to know what truly goes on in someone’s home. That being said, none of Dot’s friends seemed to think it was particularly strange that her two adult children in their 50s lived at home with her and had next to no life skills whatsoever.

Fuller proves again that she is a master of exploring the intricate and disturbing minutiae of an isolated life and if the ending is not full of drama, the journey certainly is.

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Under the Whispering Door

Queer romance novel about life, death and what lies between

Content warning: death

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

Image is of the eBook cover of “Under the Whispering Door” by TJ Klune. The cover has a house with colourful storeys stacked precariously on top of one another, with a little scooter next to it. In the background is a stylised forest with a silhouette of a large deer.

“Under the Whispering Door” BY TJ Klune is a queer speculative fiction romance novel about a man called Wallace who has died. A lawyer by trade, Wallace’s initial instinct is to try to negotiate with the reaper who has been assigned to him about how to get back to his old life. However, when he finds himself at a strange tea shop run by a man called Hugo, Wallace begins to realise that while his old life was actually not that fulfilling, he is not quite ready to cross over.

Coincidentally, I have been reading a few books that grapple with the afterlife and the question of what lies beyond. This was overall a very enjoyable one. Klune is excellent at a slow-burn romance, and in that respect it is as delicate as the other book of his I’ve read. Wallace is the quintessential corporate lawyer but somehow Klune’s take on his character development feels fresh and original. This book radiates with warmth, and I enjoyed the tenderness that developed between Wallace, Hugo, reaper Mei, Hugo’s grandfather Nelson and, of course, a ghost dog called Apollo. I also liked how Klune set out the many rules of how the crossing over process is supposed to work, and promptly begins breaking them with wild abandon. I am very passionate about improving bad rules, and lots of bad rules are improved in this book.

One of the only things that frustrated me about this book was how frequently the characters say that Mei is an excellent (albeit inexperienced) reaper, when everything in the plot appears to suggest otherwise. I found her maddeningly vague, the few dead people she brought to the teashop seemed extremely unhappy about it and she seemed extremely quick to lose her temper with anyone who didn’t live in the teashop. The budding romance suffered a little for a bit too much tell and not quite enough show. Apart from being a device for adding tension, the reason why Mei was able to touch ghosts but not Hugo was never really explained. In fact there seemed to be a lot of inconsistencies about what ghosts could and couldn’t do, especially when it came to Apollo the dog.

Nevertheless, an enjoyable and sweet story about finding the biggest joy in the smallest pockets of life.

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The Cabinet

Surreal novel about human evolution and Korean society

Content warning: fatphobia

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

Image is of the eBook cover of “The Cabinet” by Un-su Kim and translated by Sean Lin Halbert. The cover has an image of a chameleon holding onto a black branch, stylised with different textures including images of cabinets. The cover has a pale pink background, and the text is enclosed in boxes with a black cat peeking over the top.

“The Cabinet” by Un-su Kim and translated by Sean Lin Halbert is a surreal novel about a young man called Mr Kong who works in a dull office job in Korea. One day, out of boredom, he discovers a locked cabinet and when he finally manages to unlock it becomes obsessed with reading the files of people with strange bodies and abilities known as “symptomers”. As Mr Kong becomes more and more involved in their difficult and sometimes annoying lives, he must decide what his ethical obligations are for this possible new species of human.

As I have mentioned on here previously, I am always very interested in biopunk and books that examine the possibilities of genetics and human evolution. Mr Kong spends a considerable amount of time musing on how the symptomers represent the next dominant species and one that will overtake humanity as we know it. I enjoyed the individual vignettes of the individuals who contact him, and Mr Kong’s rather exasperated role as a sort of social worker for these people trying to help solve their impossible situations. I felt that the writing (including Halbert’s translation) was very smooth and captured a sense of corporate absurdism which was both amusing and eminently relatable. I enjoyed Mr Kong’s character development, especially in relation to his ostracised colleague and examining fatphobia and neurodiversity in Korean society and workplaces.

I think where things fell down a bit for me was a lack of internal logic within Kim’s worldbuilding. While individually the case studies of symptomers were interesting, such as the man with a gingko tree growing out of his finger and a people who would disappear and reappear much later into the future, Kim’s explanations for how genetics could cause these things to happen were all but absent. He hints at experimental interference, but I guess for someone who is a bit of a science fiction aficionado, I think I was looking for at least a little bit of effort towards an explanation. Even something as convenient as a “chrono-impairment” genetic disorder or having a new X-gene. I appreciate that this book is less science fiction and more surrealism and social commentary, but I think a bit more consistency to try to link how someone with a lizard in their mouth could possibly be connected with someone who sleeps for years at a time would have helped. I think that ultimately it read more like a collection of short stories tied loosely together by Mr Kong’s observations about corporate culture and inclusivity, and thus lacked cohesion.

A creative and thought-provoking novel that was enjoyable to read even if it at times felt disjointed.

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She Who Became the Sun

Queer Imperial Chinese fantasy about ambition and power

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the author. I also received a paperback copy of this book from Paperchain Bookstore‘s recent VIP science fiction and fantasy After Dark event which came with a signed bookplate. It was a really fun event with some local fantasy authors, however I have to say it is dangerous having a bookshop open with wines on offer because it turns out a little loss of inhibition means buying a lot more books!

Image is of “She Who Became the Sun” by Shelley Parker-Chan. The paperback book is resting on a black tangzhuang-style men’s jacket with white lining. The cover is ombre yellow and orange with a dark orange Chinese dragon and black text.

“She Who Became the Sun” by Shelley Parker-Chan is a fantasy novel set in Imperial China. The story is told from two perspectives: an orphaned girl who appropriates her brother Zhu Chongba’s identity in pursuit of the great destiny he was promised and a eunuch called Ouyang whose loyalty to the Mongols who adopted him is undermined by his vow to avenge his family.

This is an epic novel that explores the idea of fate, and how much our lives are predetermined and how much our determination can shape our lives. Zhu was a fascinating character who refreshingly pursues ambition using wits, willpower and an impeccable sense of timing. Parker-Chan challenges the reader to consider gender identity from very unique perspectives: being forced to assume a gender to survive, and having your sex stolen from you without your consent. I really liked that in this book, ambition trumps everything and I felt that this made the character’s motivations really refreshing. Parker-Chan’s characters are surprising in their ruthlessness and I enjoyed how they used hardship as a springboard to greatness, no matter the moral implications. The magic in this book is really understated and Parker-Chan did an excellent job maintaining ambiguity about who is responsible for fate and who grants the power to conjure light.

I am actually a bit reluctant to write much more about this book because it is such a journey. A ground-breaking addition to the fantasy genre, and I cannot way for part 2 of this duology.

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The Boy from the Mish

Queer young adult fiction set in a rural Aboriginal community

Content warning: alcohol, intergenerational trauma, sex

I received this advance reading copy from the publisher.

Image is of “The Boy from the Mish” by Gary Lonesborough. The paperback book is in front of sketches and concept designs of an Aboriginal graphic novel character. The cover is of two young Aboriginal men wearing white paint on their faces.

“The Boy from the Mish” by Gary Lonesborough is a young adult novel about Jackson, a 17 year old young Aboriginal man who lives in a rural Aboriginal community near the coast called the Mish. Although Jackson is having troubles with his girlfriend and deciding whether he will return to school for year 12, his life exists more or less in a balance. However, when his aunty comes for Christmas with Tomas, a boy from the city she is fostering, Jackson’s world is turned upside down.

This is an incredibly important book with a fresh and unique take on the young adult genre. Although books that are queer and Aboriginal are becoming more common, this book really engages with what it means to be queer in an Aboriginal community, unpacking masculinity and the importance of culture in navigating identity. Jackson and Tomas are great characters who show some of the diversity of experiences among Aboriginal teenagers. Lonesborough writes frankly about sex and the physical side of exploring sexuality and learning about how bodies work.

There are some really powerful scenes in this book, and some challenging scenes and conversations that deal with racism, police, domestic violence, the care system and intergenerational trauma. Relations between the people at the Mish and those in town are clearly tense at times, and I thought that Jackson’s approach to dealing with these problems was an interesting way to explore both queer stereotypes and stereotypes about Aboriginal men. There is plenty of romantic tension in this book, and I really liked how Lonesborough explores consent, sexuality and respect. I also really liked how Lonesborough highlights the importance of art and how creating art together – either a large traditional piece or a graphic novel – or even working on individual artworks at the same time is a bonding experience.

One thing that stood out to me a lot about this book compared to other young adult novels was how much drinking there was. Certainly there is drinking and parties in other books in the genre, and certainly there was drinking and parties when I was that age – especially around Christmas, but I was surprised at how many of the events in this book involved alcohol. Far be it for me to moralise about alcohol, but I will admit I was a bit taken aback at how ubiquitous it was in this story.

A necessary book that brings queer and Aboriginal perspectives to the forefront and relevance to the young adult genre.

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