Gothic fantasy novel about identity, ethics and murder
Content warning: sexual assault, gendered violence, facial difference, suicide
I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher.
“The Bone Orchard” by Sara A. Mueller is a gothic fantasy novel set predominantly in a brothel called Orchard House in the land of Borenguard. Mistress of the house is Charm who manages the other young women she has created: boneghosts called Shame, Justice, Desire, Pride and Pain. Throughout the week Orchard House is open to Borenguard’s elite who do business, socialise and enjoy the company of Charm’s young women. Except, that is, on Tuesdays when Orchard House is closed and Charm fulfils her duties as the mistress of the Emperor. However when Charm is summoned to the Emperor’s palace and asked to solve an unthinkable mystery, it soon becomes clear that there is more than just Orchard House and the empire at stake. Sometimes, Charm is not actually Charm; sometimes she is the Lady. With the mindlock that keeps Charm and many other denizens of Borenguard under strict control loosened, the Lady is no longer relegated to the backseat. The careful management Charm has over Orchard House is beginning to fray and the Lady and the boneghosts have their own ideas about what to do next.
This is a book with a really interesting premise with a strong focus on character and worldbuilding. Unlike many fantasy novels, the world remains quite small with only Pain venturing out regularly from Orchard House. Mueller instead focuses on the intricate relationships between Charm and her boneghosts, and the people who visit them in Orchard House. I think the most compelling thing about this book is the self-actualisation of the boneghosts and how Charm reacts to them developing their own feelings and desires that do not always align with hers. There are lots of examples of unexpected relationships and friendships in this book and Mueller has a particular strength in fleshing out alliances and enmities. I also really enjoyed the descriptions of each of the boneghosts and some of my favourite moments in the book are the quiet observation of their interactions with one another. I found it really interesting that each of them has a disability or facial difference of some kind and how Mueller explains this as part of the plot.
While many parts of the book were very compelling, there were some parts that felt muddier. Magic is something to be strictly controlled in this world, and what happens to those with certain magical abilities is a pivotal part of the story. However, when it came to understanding exactly how Charm and the Lady’s magic worked, I felt that Mueller skipped over the detail somewhat which left the scenes in the laboratory perplexing rather than mysterious. The creation of the boneghosts is really the heart and soul of this story and I was left feeling like I had plenty of what but only some why and not nearly enough how. I also found the murder mystery plot to be a little underwhelming. This is really a fantasy novel with some court intrigue rather than a crime or mystery novel, and any suspense about who the perpetrator is was thoroughly diluted by a backdrop of somewhat incomprehensible war and a lack of viable red herrings.
An enjoyable and thought-provoking book with plenty of questions about morality and individuality.
Content warning: family violence, coercive control, physical abuse, sexual assault, disability, trauma
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher.
“To the Sea” by Nikki Crutchley is a crime thriller novel about Ana and her family who live on a coastal New Zealand property they call Iluka. At 18 years old, all Ana has ever known is the house, pine plantation and cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. In her family, everyone has a role to play: Ana and her mother Anahita manage the housework, her grandfather Hurley builds furniture, her uncle Dylan looks after the land and her aunt Marina organises artist retreats to supplement the family’s otherwise self-sufficient existence. Everything they need is at Iluka and there is no reason for Ana to ever leave. However, when she meets a man on the beach one day who seems to know who she is, and photographer Nikau on an artist retreat takes an interest in her family, Ana begins to ask herself questions like why she has no father. As the narrative shifts between Ana and her mother Anahita 20 years earlier, the answers to Ana’s questions grow more and more deadly.
This was a dark and tense book that showed how insidious and entrenched gender roles and violence can become in a family. Crutchley juxtaposes the sinister events of the books against an beautiful if unforgiving landscape, and I especially enjoyed her descriptions of the harsh coastline. It is a bit strange to write this, but there was considerable creativity in cruel ‘punishments’ meted out by Ana’s grandfather and some of the scenes feel etched into my memory. At the heart of this story is control, and as the book progresses it is gradually revealed why Hurley and, by extension, Anahita, are so obsessed with controlling everything and everyone in Iluka. This book is an excellent reminder of how two siblings who grow up in the same family can have radically different experiences. The different ways that Dylan and Anahita relate to their father highlights the diversity in how abuse and control can play out, even under the same roof. Crutchley prompts to the reader to think about the meaning of safety and how far is too far to keep a family ‘safe’.
Although overall this is a strong novel, there were some parts that did not feel as strong as others. Some of Ana and Anahita’s chapters probably weren’t necessary to the plot and could have been pared back to quicken the pace of the book. I also thought that some of the peripheral characters like Nikau felt a bit less developed. While I appreciate we were getting the story largely through Ana’s eyes, I think some of the later events would have felt more significant if the characters were more fleshed out. There was also a reveal at one point about a character’s identity which I had guessed way, way earlier in the book and I wasn’t sure that story arc added much either (except perhaps to reinforce the idea that people are awful and the outside world should be shut out completely).
A tense and well-written book that explores in depths the dynamics of an insular family.
Modern fairy tale novella inspired by rural Australia
It has been a bit of a topsy turvy year, and I’ve noticed that one thing that hasn’t been as regular lately as in years gone past is book clubs. However, after the second half of last year grinding to a halt due to new and emerging COVID-19 variants, my fantasy book club finally managed to meet to discuss a book in February.
“Flyaway” by Kathleen Jennings is a modern fairy tale novella set in rural district in Australia called Inglewell. There are several plotlines interwoven together with interludes of different background stories and tales about the region, but the main story is about a young woman called Bettina who lives with her mother in a town called Runagate. Bettina’s mother is very concerned about keeping up appearances, and Bettina does as she is told: looking after the garden, dressing appropriately and avoiding undesirable neighbours. However, when a young man called Gary accuses her of being a coward, and she receives a mysterious note, Bettina decides to disobey her mother and try to find her missing brothers and learn what happened to their father.
For a short book, this is a surprisingly complex and intricate story with many layers. Jennings is a writer of considerable subtlety, and many seemingly innocuous events or characters become incredibly significant later on in the story. I really loved some of the little side stories, and my favourites were Linda’s Story: Turncoat and Gwenda’s Story: The School in the Wilderness. They really added to the overall plot while giving the reader interesting background information, and while getting the balance right can be challenging, I think Jennings struck a good balance. Jennings also did something that I haven’t seen many white fantasy authors in Australia do: she did an acknowledgement of country in the acknowledgements section of the book and recommended some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors that readers may also wish to read. I think settlers writing fantasy based in Australia will always be a bit fraught, but acknowledging traditional stories and knowledge in some way seems like a really good step.
However, there were points at which where I thought the stories did get a little tangled. We spent a long time at book club discussing this book not because of how much we liked it or the themes that it engaged, but because we all found it challenging to determine exactly what happened in the book. I felt like the two scenes that were the most obfuscating were when ‘Jack’ goes to help Uncle Davy retrieve some bottles, and the final showdown at the end. I have gone back several times to puzzle out what happened and while I think that Jennings should be commended for her cleverness, you don’t want to be so clever as to be confusing.
A short book with surprising depth and enjoyable worldbuilding; Inglewell definitely leaves the reader with a lingering sense of unease.
Literary body horror novel about women at university
Content warning: bullying, sex slavery, horror
Ages ago I requested this book on Netgalley not because I love rabbits, but because the description was really intriguing. Unfortunately it was in my early days of the platform and I didn’t realise you had to download books within a certain timeframe and I didn’t get a chance to read and review it. However, I have remained intrigued by this book ever since and eventually I caved and bought a copy for my Kobo.
“Bunny” by Mona Awad is a literary body horror novel about a young woman called Samantha Mackey who has won a prestigious scholarship to study creative writing at Warren University in New England, USA. There are four other students in the cohort, a clique who call each other ‘Bunny’ as a term of endearment. She and her only friend Ava privately make fun of the Bunnies, and Samantha has even come up with a special nickname for each: Cupcake, Creepy Doll, Vignette and the Duchess. However, one day the Bunnies invite Samantha to their Smut Salon, and slowly and seemingly despite her better judgment, Samantha is brought into the fold. With Ava all but forgotten, the Bunnies show her how they really use their creativity and Samantha has to decide where she draws the line.
This was an incredibly refreshing book and I am so glad that I went and bought a copy. Awad wrote with an exquisitely twisted clarity, shifting tones easily between Samantha before the Bunnies and Samantha after. Warren University is like an parallel universe where everything is a little darker, a little more dangerous and a little more possible. A big theme of this book is loneliness and isolation, and Samantha’s difficulty connecting with people was cleverly written. The characters are erudite and mysterious, and Awad seamlessly weaves in modern social issues into their conversations. There was a lot of interesting commentary about university culture, and the banality of academic privilege juxtaposed against the surreal events of the book was, in my view, far more captivating than other books set in universities I’ve read recently. There is an excellent twist to this book and I won’t spoil it by saying anything more, but while I had some guesses, I did not come close to appreciating the full story. I also really enjoyed Awad’s commitment to the rabbit theme with subtle references throughout the book.
There was only one very minor thing about this book that I found a bit difficult and that was keeping track of the Bunnies themselves. Of the four Bunnies Creepy Doll (Kira) was probably the most distinct, and while I appreciate that they were supposed to be a bit of an amorphous blur, it was a bit hard at times to tell who was who.
I honestly was so inspired by this book that I went and made a playlist to try to capture its very particular atmosphere. This book has such a unique flavour, it really got under my skin and I am so glad I went out of my way to buy it.
Contemporary fiction about bushfires and unexpected fame
I received a copy of this courtesy of the publisher.
“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.
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.
Queer historical fiction about Prussian immigrants to South Australia
I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher.
“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.
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher.
“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.
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.
“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.
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.
Queer romance novel about life, death and what lies between
Content warning: death
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher.
“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.