Category Archives: Book Reviews

Knee Deep

Young adult novel about Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and voodoo

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

Image result for knee deep karol ann hoeffner
Image is of a city street flooded with a girl floating in a small dinghy on top

“Knee Deep” by Karol Hoeffner is a young adult novel about a 16 year old white girl called Camille who lives a slightly off-beat life as the daughter of owners of a bar in New Orleans. Exposed to a very diverse range of people in the French Quarter, Camille’s first love is for her handsome next door neighbour, an 18 year old young black man called Antwone. Already facing the not inconsequential obstacles of an interracial romance and Antwone’s current girlfriend, Camille’s crush is truly put to the test by Hurricane Katrina. When Antwone goes missing, Camille turns to voodoo magic to return her love to her. However, her dogged pursuit in a city of chaos puts more than just her dreams of a relationship at risk.

This is a readable and creative novel that resonates as a historical and cultural touchstone. Although of course in Australia we all saw the reports of Hurricane Katrina on the news, and have watched TV shows that reference the struggles to rebuild, it is hard to imagine what it was really like being there during such a challenging and tumultuous time. Hoeffner has a compelling writing style that reminded me a bit of Daniel Woodrell in his book “Kiss Kiss”. Camille is a really interesting character who makes a number of ethically suspect and selfish decisions, and Hoeffner fosters a strong sense of dramatic irony around her crush and exactly how requited it actually is.

I think the only part of this book that got under my skin was that Hoeffner did take some creative liberties with elements of the story. For example, although the hurricane happened in 2005, Hoeffner describes her characters posting on Facebook several times even though the social media service wasn’t open to public access until late 2006.

A unique and historically relevant book that showcases New Orleans culture and challenges the reader with ethical questions.

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Filed under Advanced Reading Copies, Book Reviews, eBooks, Fantasy, Magic Realism, Young Adult

The Empire of Gold

Middle Eastern-inspired fantasy novel

Even though I have absolutely adored this series so far, I have put off reading this book since it came out mid-year last year. This wasn’t because of a reluctance to read the book: I couldn’t wait! However, I had found out too late about this magnificent special hardcover edition of the series. Knowing that without paying $500+ for the rare set that comes up on eBay the beautiful editions wouldn’t be mine (unless you, dear reader, would like to surprise me!), I became paralysed with indecision about what to settle for instead. Unable to buy a copy that I wouldn’t be happy with, I finally decided to just by the eBook and hope that I can find a great set to buy later. If you haven’t read this series yet, I recommend you start with my review of the first book to avoid spoilers.

Image result for empire of gold
Image is of a doorway with a silhouette of a city of minarets on a red sky background

“The Empire of Gold” by S. A. Chakraborty is the third and final book in the fantasy series “The Daevabad Trilogy”. The book picks up immediately after the previous book ended with the death of the king and Nahri’s mother taking over the city. After throwing themselves into Daevabad’s lake, Nahri and Ali suddenly find themselves safe in Nahri’s old home Cairo, far away from the violence they left behind in the djinn city. Unsure who has survived the sacking of the city, Nahri and Ali find a brief reprieve in the rhythms and bustle of the human world. However, as Ali’s peculiar marid powers grow, and Nahri’s powers disappear, they must decide what to do about Suleiman’s Seal. Meanwhile, Dara serves Nahri’s mother Manizheh as she seeks to restore order in a Daevabad without magic. As Manizheh’s methods of control grow more and more extreme, Dara must consider how much of his reputation as the Scourge is him, and how much it is the will of others.

This was a fantastic finale to a fantastic series. Chakraborty excels at tension and I was hooked on every single page. I really enjoyed that the story visited familiar places as well as new places, and I felt that the scenes in Cairo were a great counterbalance for the destruction in Daevabad and the novelty of Ta Ntry. Chakraborty uses this book to explore the mysterious marid and I really enjoyed how she played with the idea of becoming both more and less god-like. The timing of this book was also exquisite. Many of the questions left unanswered by the previous books are answered, and there was one very small but very powerful moment in the book where Nahri’s realisation had me in tears. However, Chakraborty leaves plenty to the imagination and elements of the book are left tantalisingly open-ended.

This book was so enjoyable, I barely have a criticism to make. I think the only thing that snagged at me was that the dialogue occasionally felt a little too modern and casual for the setting which meant that while it was often very fun and funny, the illusion was sometimes broken.

Overall a brilliant ending to a series that I cannot recommend enough.

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Phosphorescence: On awe, wonder & things that sustain you when the world goes dark

Part self-help book, part memoir about finding your inner glow

Content warning: cancer

I think it’s pretty obvious why I picked up this book: it is breathtaking. The unique hardcover design is covered in subtle, intricate silver foil and it is truly eye-catching when you walk past it in a bookshop as I did. I saw Julia Baird speak some years ago about her biography of Queen Victoria, but I haven’t yet managed to tackle that very large book. However, this book seemed much more manageable and I think we can all agree we need a bit of brightening up.

“Phosphorescence: On awe, wonder & things that sustain you when the world goes dark” by Julia Baird is a non-fiction book that blends memoir with self-help. Drawing on her own experiences in the wake of a cancer diagnosis, Baird considers what it is that nurtures us during challenging times and how we can foster our own phosphorescence. Baird divides her book into four main sections that loosely deal with our physical environment, our identity, friendship and finding hope.

There are a lot of thought-provoking ideas in this book. Baird incorporates snippets of various philosophies and research to support the things that she does in her life that she finds helpful. I enjoyed the earlier chapters about nature the most, especially about the physical phenomenon of phosphorescence. Reading Baird’s account of swimming at Manly Beach has made me want to get into distance swimming even more and Baird’s awe for cuttlefish was nice to read around the same time as I watched “My Octopus Teacher“. Baird is a spirited writer who beautifully captures the awe nature inspires in us. I was also quite interested in reading about the movement within the Anglican Church to allow women to be ministers and how instead of accepting the idea, the patriarchs doubled down on including women.

However, for a lot of the book, I didn’t feel very engaged. I think the book that I was hoping for was something more like “H is for Hawk” with phosphorescence in the natural world as more of a central theme. I’ve always been captivated by things that glow, and some of my happiest memories are seeing unexpected fireflies at dusk and swimming with bioluminscent plankton, so I was expecting a blend of memoir and natural history. Unfortunately, this book only touches briefly on this phenomenon and the majority of the book is about Baird’s experiences living in New York, surviving cancer and, directly and indirectly, her religion. Without a clear central theme, it did feel a bit more like a collection of Baird’s essays and ruminations vaguely organised by theme. This book actually reminded me a lot of Leigh Sales’ “Any Ordinary Day“, except rather than forensically trying to figure out why events happen in anyone’s lives, Baird is more concerned with sharing the details of little decisions she has made to try to make sense of her own life. She also included two chapters that were letters to her own children which, while I appreciate the sentiment, I’m not sure really aligned with the rest of the book. I also felt that the audience this book is written for was quite a narrow one, and Baird doesn’t really acknowledge that a lot of her experiences are the result of significant privilege.

A book that will certainly cheer you up sitting on your bookshelf, but could have used more glowing jellyfish.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Non Fiction, Pretty Books

The Sleeper and the Spindle

Fairytale retelling of Sleeping Beauty

I don’t usually read books by the same author so close together, but after I listened to “Anansi Boys” recently, I saw that this book had been adapted into a radio play as well. I just really enjoy radio plays and it was only available for a short time, so I thought: you know what, I’m just going to listen to it.

Promotional image from BBC Radio 4’s adaptation of “The Sleeper and the Spindle” by Neil Gaiman. The image is a monochrome photograph of a white woman with pinned up blonde hair wearing a loose sparkly top.

“The Sleeper and the Spindle” by Neil Gaiman is a retelling of the classic fairy tale “Sleeping Beauty“. Gaiman’s twist is that the main character in his retelling is not a prince but rather a young queen (voiced by Gwendoline Christie) who, upon hearing of a dark enchantment, postpones her wedding and accompanies the band of dwarves who brought the message on a quest to break the curse.

This is a very quick production that was easy to listen to. I thought that there were some clever elements to this story that subtly wove together another well-known fairy tale and turned some gender stereotypes on their heads. There was a particularly amusing scene with the queen’s husband-to-be who is extremely disappointed that the wedding will have to be postponed (something I can relate to!). I also really enjoyed the narration from Ralph Ineson who voiced the First Dwarf. Ineson has a particularly iconic voice, and he really shone through in this role.

While there were a lot of fun elements to this book, there was a prolonged zombie-style scene that irked me a bit (zombies in general annoy me). I also felt that after the climax, the ending itself fell a bit flat and could have been punchier, twistier or more subversive.

An enjoyable retelling and adaptation that Gaiman could have leaned into a bit more.

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Filed under Audiobooks, Book Reviews, Fantasy

No Matter Our Wreckage

Memoir about online grooming and inter-generational trauma

Content warning: online grooming, child sexual abuse, emotional abuse, trauma, death, grief

2020 was not a good year for book releases. During the before-times, when someone has a book published, you could reasonably expect that they would do some local events and, if they were lucky, some interstate events to discuss the book, sell the book and meet readers to have their copies signed. Unfortunately for writers, in these uncertain times book events are often limited or cancelled altogether by social distancing restrictions. Some authors flexibly promoted their book through livestream events, but they are tricky to set up and you don’t have the opportunity to sell copies at the door. Although restrictions had eased in September last year, my at-the-time undiagnosed voice issues meant that I was reluctant to attend even the smallest events. I ended up buying a copy of this book by paying the author via PayPal and collecting my signed copy from her letterbox.

Image is of “No Matter Our Wreckage” by Gemma Carey, an indigo paperback book with pink and turquoise writing positioned in front of several envelopes in matching colours.

“No Matter Our Wreckage” by Gemma Carey is a memoir about the death of Gemma’s mother and about being groomed online and sexually abused as a child. Although aware of the abuse, Gemma’s mother never spoke to her about it and Gemma was left to take the extraordinary action of reporting the abuser to police alone at the age of 16. In the wake of her mother’s death, Gemma asks herself the question she was never able to ask her mother directly: why didn’t her mother stop the abuse? Using her skills honed in her career as an academic, Gemma forensically researches her family history to find answers to why her otherwise privileged upbringing left her so vulnerable to and unprotected against abuse.

This is a fearless book. To write so frankly about your experiences, let alone about your family, takes guts and Carey has guts in spades. Growing up in a family where things were kept secret, Carey’s decision to throw open the doors and air out her family’s trauma is not just an act of defiance against a culture of silence but a commitment to breaking a cycle. Similarly to Caroline Baum, Carey explores how a seemingly well-to-do family can nevertheless foster an unshakable sense of loneliness in the context of inter-generational trauma. Just before I read this book, I had watched a TV series called “Patrick Melrose” which is about a man addicted to drugs who struggles to deal with being sexually abused as a child. The series is excellently done, and the character Patrick is played by a compelling Benedict Cumberbatch, but the part I couldn’t understand was why Patrick’s mother didn’t protect him from the abuse. Carey’s book answers this question. Although the chapters about Carey’s research into her own family’s secrets are incredibly confronting, what she finds goes a long way towards better understanding her mother and making peace with what was left unsaid before death.

One of the most interesting parts of this memoir was Carey’s writing about the abuser. As easy as it is to assume that an abuser is an obviously scary stereotypical bad guy, the reality is that abusers are often otherwise ordinary and unimpressive people who use extreme manipulation as a tool over time to get what they want. Carey provides a nuanced, objective view of a man whose life and already poor mental health are made even worse by his actions. Comparing her own life trajectory to his, Carey examines how factors other than class can leave a person vulnerable to abuse. From a legal perspective, Carey’s case is very interesting as one of the earliest matters prosecuted in Australia involving the use of the internet to groom a child, and provides a first-hand perspective about one of the dangers of being online. It was also really interesting to compare Carey’s experience of the court system with author Bri Lee‘s experience, including the abuser’s rationale for pleading the way he did.

This is a challenging book that refuses to simplify serious issues and instead faces them head-on in all their complexity.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Non Fiction

Remote Control

Africanfuturism science fiction about a radioactive girl

Note: Since publishing this review I have been advised that the author prefers the term “Africanfuturism” to describe her work, and more information about the nuance and differences between “Afrofuturism” and “Africanfuturism” is available via her blog.

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher. I have read a previous book by this author, and I was really excited to read more of her work. The cover design is exceptional. It is so evocative and really captures the heart of this book.

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Image is of a girl glowing green with hoop earrings, a bald head and a shea tree superimposed over her face

“Remote Control” by Nnedi Okorafor is a science fiction novella about a teenage girl known as Sankofa. Wandering from town to town in a Ghana in the not-too-distant future, the people she visits scramble to meet her every whim from excellent food to new clothes to her favourite: room temperature Fanta. In exchange, Sankofa doesn’t kill them with her mysterious green glow. As the book progresses, more about Sankofa and how she came to possess her unusual abilities is revealed.

This is a fantastic book with an excellent sense of place. I absolutely love how Okorafor writes science fiction, blending African culture with technology to explore interesting ideas about humanity. Sankofa is a great character whose innocence is gradually replaced with ruthlessness in her quest for survival. I loved her fox sidekick Movenpick. Okorafor leaves plenty of room for interpretation and explores themes of technology, religion, corruption, superstition and violence. The writing itself is just exquisite. Like in her book “Binti”, Okorafor’s descriptions are so tactile: she transports you beneath Sankofa’s shea tree and into her shoes as she journeys across the Ghanaian landscape.

This is a quick and impactful book that will leave you breathless, and I cannot wait to read more of Okorafor’s work. There is nobody writing science fiction like this.

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A Betrayal in Winter

Fantasy novel about a deadly tradition for the crown

This is the sequel to “A Shadow in Summer“, so if you haven’t started the series yet, I recommend you start there. I actually had a really difficult time finding a copy of the sequel because the original paperbacks were out of print, and all that was available was these editions combining two books in one. It has been sitting on my shelf for several years now, and I decided in an effort to chip away at my to-read shelf, I would tackle it.

Image is of the paperback book “Shadow and Betrayal”, which includes both “A Shadow in Summer” and “A Betrayal in Winter” by Daniel Abraham. The book is resting on a pink and white marble chessboard with one white king and one pink king.

“A Betrayal in Winter” by Daniel Abraham is the second book in the “Long Price Quartet” fantasy series. The story picks up over 12 years after the events of the previous book. Disgraced poet Maati has returned to the village of the Dai-kvo after failing in his mission to bind an andat, an idea made corporeal. When news of his estranged friend Otah’s royal family reaches the Dai-kvo, Maati is called upon to find him and determine whether Otah really was responsible for the murder of his own brother in a bid to take over the Machi throne as per tradition of the Khaiem. However, when Maati arrives in the city of Machi, it appears that there is a much more sinister plot afoot – one that could undermine the security of Machi, and the Cities of the Khaiem.

Abraham is an excellent fantasy writer, and this book is full of just as much intrigue and world-building as the previous on. I really enjoyed reading more about Khaiem culture, such as the use of poses to convey emotion and money being issued in lengths rather than coins. Although a lot of the character are male, Abraham explores the extreme conclusion of what it means for women who have no options in society apart from marriage and motherhood. I really enjoyed the juxtaposition between Maati and the young poet Cehmai who successfully completed a binding with an andat, and seeing the alternative life Maati may have had.

There is quite a lot of politics in this book which slowed things down for me a little, but I think if you really enjoy political books that discuss lines of succession, diplomatic relations and the major influences seemingly minor characters for have, then this book will be very enjoyable. I really liked seeing another andat in play, but I felt like the book could have used a little more magic.

An enjoyable read, and I will definitely be reading the next book in the series.

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Machine

Science fiction space opera

Content warning: disability (chronic pain)

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publicist. It is part of the broader “White Space” series and takes place in the same universe shortly after the events of “Ancestral Night“. However, it is a different story with different characters and I don’t think there would be significant spoilers if you started with this book.

Machine (White Space, #2) by Elizabeth Bear
Image is of a person floating in space beside a ring-like space station

“Machine” by Elizabeth Bear is a science fiction novel and the second novel in her “White Space” series. The story begins shortly after the previous novel, but this time follows new character Dr Jens, a trauma doctor who travels through space medical on rescue missions on an ambulance ship operated by an Artificial Intelligence known as Sally. When she and crew mate Tsosie board a ship from another era called Big Rock Candy Mountain and docked with a ship belonging to an alien species from a different atmosphere, they initially grapple with how to possibly transport the survivors safetly to the multi-species space station hospital known as Core General. However, when Dr Jens is tasked with finding out what happened to the mysterious survivors, she uncovers far more than she bargained for.

This is a compelling book that explores fresh aspects of Bear’s intergalactic society called the Synarche and the way humanity has come to exist within its social and technological parameters. Bear reintroduces the idea of using technology to suppress and control emotions and builds on the theme of human augmentation through Dr Jens’ exoskeleton which allows her to move while minimising the impact on her chronic pain syndrome. I really liked how Bear contrasted modern humans’ perspectives about ‘tuning’ emotions and how out of control ancient humans must have been against Dr Jens’ actual meeting with someone from that era. I also enjoyed how Bear explored a different space profession, and the kind of training and personality traits you need to have to be basically a cosmic paramedic. I don’t think that I have ever before read a fiction book before that tackles the issue of chronic pain.I found it to be a nuanced and interesting characterisation that focused more on the experience of living with chronic pain rather than the cause. Again, I enjoyed the aliens and I enjoyed learning more about Cheeirilaq’s species and how different species with different survival requirements can co-exist on the same station.

However, like the previous book, I found this one about a fifth too long. It is a nearly 500 page book and by about 400 pages I felt like the story should have wrapped up. I also found the relationships in this book a bit frustrating. A brief five minute conversation with one character, for example, was enough to forge an almost unbreakable emotional bond and I think Bear relies a bit too heavily on telling the reader about relationships rather than showing. Like the previous book, a lot of the book is the protagonist’s own thoughts and although I appreciate the series is concerned with aspects of the human psyche, I think that that the strongest scenes were dialogue between characters rather than Dr Jens ruminating on the same things over and over.

Ultimately, I did enjoy this book more than the previous one and found Dr Jens a more relatable and interesting character. A creative take on the genre, this book is worth a read if you enjoy spaces operas and human augmentation.

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Anansi Boys

Urban fantasy about the son of a god

I have actually already read this book, and back before I stopped using the star review mechanism on Goodreads, I gave this a 3 star review. I remember not being as impressed with this book as I was with other works by the author. However, when I saw that there was a BBC radio adaptation available to listen to online, I thought I would give it another try.

Promotional image from BBC Radio 4’s adaptation of “Anansi Boys” by Neil Gaiman. The image has three black men, one black woman and one white man illuminated by coloured stage lighting.

“Anansi Boys” by Neil Gaiman, adapted by Dirk Maggs and directed and produced by Allegra McIlroy for BBC Radio 4 is a radio play about a young black man called Fat Charlie (voiced by Jacob Anderson) who is living a mediocre life in London when he finds out his charismatic father Mr Nancy (voiced by Lenny Henry) has died in Florida, USA. After just catching the end of the funeral, Charlie finds out that not only was his father was much more than he seemed, but that he has a twin brother. After whispering to a spider that he wouldn’t mind meeting him, his brother Spider (voiced by Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) arrives at his London flat and turns his life upside down.

I enjoyed this adaptation far more than I did the original novel. Gaiman likes to write about the theme of seemingly ordinary men who get swept up in extraordinary events, and I remember finding the parts of the book highlighting Charlie’s humdrum existence and reticent personality a bit dull. However, the voice acting in this adaptation is excellent and the actors infuse the characters with depth and subtlety that I felt was missing in the original. Anderson makes Charlie a much more relatable character and lets Charlie’s disappointments and difficulties with self-esteem and assertiveness rise through the dialogue. Stewart-Jarrett was excellent as Spider, and captured the Anansi charm and charisma perfectly.

I think a major question that arises through work like this is about stories and who should be able to tell them. Gaiman is very interested in writing about historical gods in contemporary settings, and this book slots within his “American Gods” universe. However, this book is about Anansi, a god and character from West African, Carribean and African American folklore. Given the #OwnVoices movement, I did a bit more reading about the background of “Anansi Boys”, and Lenny Henry has done some great interviews (written and spoken) about his own involvement in the original creative process behind Gaiman’s story. The advantage of this adaptation is that there are so many black voice actors, and while the writer, adaptor and director are all white, it was really nice to learn about Henry’s significant input into the novel.

A really fantastic production that was even more enjoyable than the original book.

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Hollowpox: The Hunt for Morrigan Crow

Third book in children’s fantasy series “Nevermoor”

Content warning: pandemic

If you haven’t yet read the first two books in this series, I would skip this review and go to the beginning.

Image is of a paperback copy of “Hollowpox: The Hunt of Morrigan Crow” placed next to a black and white Koolie dog with a red and purple face mask and a small bottle of hand sanitiser

“Hollowpox: The Hunt for Morrigan Crow” by Jessica Townsend is the third book in the children’s fantasy series “Nevermoor”. In her second year as a scholar at the exclusive Wundrous Society, Morrigan is finally permitted to study the so-called Wretched Arts of the Accomplished Wundersmith. She eagerly jumps into her lessons, keen to master her new abilities. However, only able to watch records and without the guidance of a teacher, Morrigan’s progress is frustratingly slow. Meanwhile, a mysterious illness has struck Nevermoor throwing the city in chaos. Worse, it only seems to affect Wunimals, taking away their ability to reason and leaving only their most basic animal instincts. Morrigan is suddenly under even more pressure to master her abilities to save Nevermoor and her Wunimal friends.

This is a series that is getting better and better as it progresses. Townsend explores a plethora of social issues in this book from stigma and discrimination to diplomatic relations. Where I found the magic a bit chaotic and confusing in the first book, Townsend has settled into the story and created a great structure for Morrigan to progress through her education mastering different skills. I’m really enjoying the dynamics of her friends in Unit 919, and some of the personalities are really starting to develop in interesting and amusing ways. There were also some really lovely new characters like Sofia. However, the highlight of this book was without a doubt the visit to the Gobleian Library. Without spoiling anything about it, it was a wild couple of chapters that really captured the spirit of Nevermoor. Unlike some authors, Townsend has also introduced with little fanfare a same-sex relationship which was a nice addition.

I think my only warning is that if you’re a bit exhausted hearing about public health issues, then a book about a disease that races through a city sending society into panic might not be the book for you right now. I think from a kid’s perspective, this would be a good lens to consider some of the human rights issues that arise as a result of trying to protect individuals from the unknown, but in that respect it may be a bit heavy and too close to home for some.

A cracking read that has really hit its stride, I am looking forward to the next book in the series.

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