Category Archives: eBooks

Honeycomb

Novel of original and interrelated fairytales

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

Image is of a digital book cover of “Honeycomb” by Joanne M. Harris and illustrated by Charles Vess. The cover (which will be the cover for the Australian edition) is powder blue with text and a stencil design of roses, vines, honeycomb and bees in bronze.

“Honeycomb” by Joanne M. Harris and illustrated by Charles Vess is a novel made up of original fairytales. Many of the chapters are distinct stories in the form of fables and parables, however most of them connect to an overarching story arc featuring the Lacewing King, a handsome yet selfish man who wanders through his kingdom ruling over the Silken Folk doing as he pleases. Nevertheless, as time passes and the number of his enemies grows larger, the Lacewing King’s self-interested lifestyle becomes unsustainable.

I have been a fan of Joanne M. Harris (styled as Joanne Harris for her non-fantasy fiction) for a really long time, and as early as 2012 I was reading her #storytime vignettes on Twitter (which have now been removed and collected into this book). I was even inspired to make the little painting below. The stories in this book make for hard-hitting, unsettling chapters that all contribute towards the overarching story of the Lacewing King. Harris conjures a captivating and uncomfortable world made of insects and excess, the same world that was touched upon in her previous book. Some of the fables in this book have clear underlying morals and are told in a similar style to “Animal Farm“. Harris writes particularly about the perils of following the crowd and placing too much faith in self-proclaimed leaders and self-important loudmouths. However, it is the journey of the Lacewing King that I was the most invested in. I really liked how Harris shows the repercussions of indifference over generations, but how also people can change their worldview. There are also stories that initially don’t appear to be related to the main story that Harris masterfully weaves in later.

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Image is a watercolour illustration with a bee telling a story to three larvae against a background of yellow hexagons.

While individually I found each fairytale very readable, I did find it hard to settle into this book. I found myself reading one story then setting the book down. I think that although the structure of the book lent itself to this kind of story, it ultimately did feel quite interrupted.

A thought-provoking and refreshing approach to the fairytale genre.

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The Bone Shard Daughter

Fantasy novel about a crumbling island empire

It has been a while since my fantasy book club has met, though I hosted one a couple of months ago for a book I read quite some time ago, and by coincidence the title of this book was quite similar to the last one I reviewed.

Image is of a digital book cover of “The Bone Shard Daughter” by Andrea Stewart. The cover is of a terraced city, waves, ships and a large key stylised as marble carvings.

“The Bone Shard Daughter” by Andrea Stewart is a fantasy novel and the first novel in “The Drowning Empire” series. The book is about an empire of islands ruled by a reclusive emperor who maintains peace and order remotely through the use of beings called constructs. In the emperor’s palace, his daughter Lin competes for her father’s favour by learning bone shard magic to unlock secrets and her birth right as heir. Meanwhile, Jovis, an Imperial navigator turned renegade, is sailing through the archipelago in search of a boat with blue sails. Pursuing a particular heroic goal, Jovis must decide whether he doggedly continues his quest or whether he reluctantly accepts the other opportunities for heroism he is faced with.

Although I was a bit slow starting this book before book club, once I began reading I couldn’t stop. It is a gripping story with an uncomfortable and brilliant magical premise. Stewart asks the reader to consider what price it is reasonable for an empire to ask its citizens to pay for security, and when that price becomes too high. Jovis is one of those great characters with a tough, efficient exterior and a sentimental interior and I loved his chapters with his peculiar animal sidekick Mephi. Lin is a strategic and courageous character whose missing memory creates a sense of mystery and intrigue. I really liked the way that Stewart places her characters in situations where their decisions have life or death consequences, and some of those situations are heart-breaking. There are lots of complex storylines woven through this book that intersect and intertwine in surprising ways.

This book lingered with me for a long time after I finished it and I can’t wait to read the rest of the series when it comes out.

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Growing Up Disabled in Australia

Non-fiction anthology of essays and memoir by people who grew up disabled in Australia

Note: in this review I used the terms disabled person and person with a disability interchangeably to reflect that some people prefer person-first language and some people prefer identity-first language

Content warning: bullying

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher. I was really excited to receive a copy of this book because I had read another book in the excellent “Growing Up” series. I also read the editor’s memoir and was very confident that this was going to be a well-curated collection.

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Image is of a digital book cover of “Growing Up Disabled in Australia” edited by Carly Findlay. The cover is white text on a background of blocky paint strokes in pink, yellow and turquoise.

“Growing Up Disabled in Australia” edited by Carly Findlay is an anthology of short autobiographies by 47 disabled people. The contributors, who come from an incredibly diverse range of backgrounds and cultures, have a very diverse range of disabilities and perspectives. There are some well-known people including Senator Jordan Steele-John, and plenty of people who are not so well known but whose stories are just as important.

This is a really well-rounded collection that showcases the myriad of experiences people with disability have in this country. Disabilities can affect mobility, senses, learning, mental health, chronic health and cognitive ability. They can be caused by genetics, illnesses or injuries. Something that I think a lot of people don’t consider is that people may have more than one disability, and I thought that Dion Beasley’s piece To Lake Nash and Back about growing up Aboriginal, Deaf and with muscular dystrophy in the Northern Territory surrounded by love, family and dogs particularly captured this intersectional experience and the importance of accessibility and community. C. B. Mako uses free verse poetry in December Three to succinctly how a person with two disabilities who is also a carer, a parent and a member of the migrant community can be excluded from all of those identities.

This book is full of exceptional creativity and I really enjoyed the variety of styles each piece was presented in. Kerry-ann Messengers two poems ‘Life Goes On’ and ‘The Blue Rose’ explored the depth of emotional reaction, positive and negative, that people have towards her as a person with Down Syndrome. Tim Slade’s poem A Body’s Civil War explores the sense of destabilisation living with auto-immune conditions where your body attacks itself. I really loved Sarah Firth’s comic Drawing My Way which gave a practical example of alternative ways information can be presented to assist people with learning disabilities like dyslexia.

Although there each contributor’s experience is unique, nuanced and impacted by other factors such as race, gender, class and cultural background, there were common themes that wove their way through the book. I was surprised at how many contributors wrote about the significance of animals, particularly dogs, in staving off feelings of isolation and loneliness (though I particularly enjoyed Iman Shaanu’s subversive piece Blurred Lines where she writes “For the record, I hate dogs and would prefer a guide cat if that was a thing”). Hippotherapy by Alistair Baldwin was a particularly wry piece about the ubiquitous experience of horse-riding as an activity for disabled kids. At a time when everyone is talking about vaccinations, it was really poignant to read about two contributors, Gayle Kennedy and Fran Henke, who each wrote about the lasting impact of contracting polio, a disease that has been eradicated in Australia through vaccination programs but that continues to affect people of older generations.

However two of the common themes that were the hardest to read about were bullying and lack of accessibility. Jessica Newman-Marshall’s piece Dressing to Survive describes the cruel judgment and bullying she received as a person with a disability that affects not just mobility but causes her to have a very low BMI in a world that constantly scrutinises women for their weight. Kath Duncan, writes in Born Special about the prejudice and bullying she experienced growing up with missing limbs and reclaiming the word ‘Freak’ for herself.

However not everyone with a disability is bullied. Belinda Downes, in writing about her facial difference and disability in Having a Voice, reflects on how it is not her appearance that has made things most difficult for her, but rather people in her life deciding on her behalf what is best for her in terms of corrective surgery and accessibility needs. In Forever Fixing, El Gibbs writes about living with the chronic skin condition psoriasis and how learning about the social model of disability helped her to find a community and see barriers to access, rather than herself, as the problem.

There are a multitude of other things that I could write about this book, but I will finish off to say that this is an incredibly important work that highlights the fact that there is no single disabled experience and that the biggest barriers for people with disabilities are systemic.

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Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters

Post-gender biopunk science fiction novel

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

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Image is of a digital book cover of “Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters” by Aimee Ogden. The cover is of a silhouette of a person standing underwater on the launch-pad of a vehicle.

“Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters” by Aimee Ogden is a science fiction novella about a woman called Atuale whose village has been overwhelmed by a disease. Having undergone gene-editing to live with her husband and his technology-resistant people on land, Atuale must return to the sea to seek a favour from the one they call the World Witch. However, the World Witch is one of many Sea-Clan people Atuale left behind and even though they have a new form, their history remains unchanged. It soon becomes clear that the only way to find a cure is to leave the planet. Faced with an intimate journey through space with the World Witch to seek assistance from other, more technologically advanced human races, Atuale must decide which betrayals she can live with.

I absolutely love this genre, and Ogden’s style and themes reminds me a lot of one of my favourite authors, Vonda N. McIntyre. Ogden hints at a huge post-human diaspora of which we see only the smallest glimpse through Atuale’s limited gaze. Atuale is a fascinating character who discards the limits of one civilisation for those of another. What she lacks in education and understanding of the broader galaxy, she makes up for in courage and determination. The World Witch is also a great character, and I enjoyed the exploration of alternative biology and the genetic ability to change one’s gender.

This is a quick book, and one that I think could have used a slightly slower pace. I felt that the tension between Atuale and the World Witch, particularly their past history, was a little rushed and I would have liked to be strung along a little more. While I liked that we see the world (and the universe) through Atuale’s na├»ve perspective, I also felt like the worldbuilding could have been a little more comprehensive. This is not to say that I wanted every single detail about altered human lives in the far reaches of the galaxy, but I wanted the sense that that detail did exist – even if we couldn’t see it.

A very easy and enjoyable read that needed just a bit more suspense.

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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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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.

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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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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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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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Togwotee Passage

Eco-fiction novel about a naturalist approach to an increasingly urbanised world

Content warning: domestic violence

I received a copy of this e-book courtesy of the author.

Togwotee Passage

“Togwotee Passage” by L. G. Cullens is an eco-fiction novel about a boy called Calan who grows up in an abusive household in Wyoming, USA. After his father’s violence comes to a head, Calan goes to live with his aunt, uncle and two cousins on a ranch. For the most part, Calan enjoys his new rural life. He befriends an older Shoshone boy called Derek, and together they trek through the wilderness putting their survival skills to the test. However, once Calan’s mercurial cousin Brent begins taking over the family farm, Calan finds himself again adrift.

This is an interesting bildungsroman about finding solace in nature and trying to reconcile the desire for a sustainable lifestyle in an increasingly modernised world. Calan’s challenging upbringing leaves room for deep philosophical thought about humanity’s role in the natural world and the ways in which we interact with our environment. Calan’s views are further honed by his experiences as an adult, including fighting in the Vietnam War and working for a big city corporation, and I liked how Cullens used Calan’s dialogue to show how he changes and grows more sophisticated. There are some heartbreaking points in this story where Calan’s resilience is truly put to the test, and he is forced to rely on his chosen family. I also felt that as a character, despite his troubled childhood, Calan was very aware of his privilege as a white man and the discrimination experienced by his Shoshone friends. I particularly enjoyed the later chapters with Calan’s two beautiful Alaskan Malamutes. Cullens’s realist style is is complemented by his own digital illustrations which showcase the beautiful Wyoming flora and fauna and demonstrate a considerable artistic sensibility.

I understand from his biography and website that Cullens drew considerably on his own experience with Shoshone culture in writing this book, and he includes a lot of Shoshone language and spirituality in the text. I think I would have liked to have seen some more acknowledgement of his Shoshone friends who shared their culture with him, and Shoshone sources in the endnotes. Protecting indigenous intellectual property continues to be a contentious area, and I think these small changes would be a great starting point. There were also a couple of stylistic decisions that I wasn’t quite sure about. One was the occasionally overly-wordy dialogue that felt at odds with Cullens’ otherwise accessible and succinct prose, and the other was a handful of chapters later in the book that departed suddenly from third person to first person perspective.

A thought-provoking and poignant story about finding a path between two worlds.

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To Hold Up the Sky

Collection of science fiction short stories

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher, and I was really excited to read it. I have read the first book in this author’s trilogy previously, and have been meaning to read more of his work, so this is the perfect interlude.

“To Hold Up the Sky” by Cixin Liu and translated by multiple translators is a collection of science fiction stories set primarily in China. There are 11 stories in the collection set in the past, present, future, on earth and in the furthermost reaches of outer space.

Liu is a very creative writer who is contributing significantly to the genre of hard science fiction. Using quite a classic science fiction style, he explores fascinating ideas about maths, science and humanity through a Chinese lens. Science fiction is a genre dominated by Western-, and particularly American-, centric ideas and reading stories about alien encounters, time travel and the future of humanity from a non-Western perspective is unbelievably refreshing. Although all the stories contained in this collection are vastly different in subject-matter, I felt that they were all connected by the theme of trying to reconcile the macro with the micro. Liu also explores a number of real-world issues in his books such as industrialism, government surveillance and control, poverty, war and environmental issues. He writes confidently and creatively about physics and mathematical concepts, assisted significantly by his background in computer engineering.

I really enjoyed the first story The Village Teacher which was about the different a small piece of information and fortuitous timing can make to the survival of an entire race. I also enjoyed The Time Migration, a new take on the idea of remaining in stasis to re-emerge in a new era, and The Thinker which was as much about platonic love as it was about finding a pattern in the stars. However, I think Contraction was the one that really stuck with me in a brilliant yet disturbing way.

Although I enjoyed a lot of the stories, there were some that felt a little slower than others. Even though it had some interesting concepts around humans being raised as farm animals for an alien race, Cloud of Poems didn’t really capture me overall. Full-Spectrum Barrage Jamming was very heavy on military tactics, something that I find a bit hard in sci-fi, and even though it had some fascinating ideas about the impact of predicting the future on society, Mirror took a really long time to get there.

A thought-provoking collection that is a must for sci-fi fans.

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