Category Archives: eBooks

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 difference 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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The Sea

Speculative fiction novella about humanity’s connection with the ocean

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

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“The Sea” by Sophie Jupillat Posey is a speculative fiction novella about a man called Amos who wakes in the morning drenched in saltwater after disturbing dreams about the sea. Somewhat of a misanthrope, Amos spends most of his time alone. However, when he reconnects with his estranged sister and attends his nephew’s birthday party, he realises that he is not the only one in the family with this unusual connection to the ocean.

This is a story with an original premise that invites the reader to imagine a physical embodiment of the sea to explore the harm humanity is inflicting on the marine environment. Amos undergoes a considerable amount character development in this short novella evolving from someone apathetic about the world to someone passionate about a single cause. Jupillat Posey writes vividly and takes her concept to the extreme and envisions a world completely renewed.

Although Amos changes significantly towards the end of the book, he is a difficult character to empathise with. His disdain for those around him is challenging to read at times, and I did find myself wondering why he was chosen over others, including his nephew, to experience this journey.

A thought-provoking book about pressing environmental issues and isolation.

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The Factory Witches of Lowell

Historical fantasy about industrial action in America

Content warning: slavery

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

“The Factory Witches of Lowell” by C. S. Malerich is a historical fantasy novella set in Massachussets, USA in the 19th century and is a fictionalised account of the Lowell Mill Girls. When management increases the rent of the women who work in textile factories without increasing their wages, the women organise themselves and agree to go on strike. With the help of Mrs Hanson, who runs one of the boardinghouses, and the guidance of ailing Hannah Pickering who has a gift for seeing, the women cast a spell to ensure they all stick to the strike until their demands are met. However, when management counter their action, the women realise they are going to have to take more drastic measures.

This is a light-hearted story that transforms a historical event into a subtle fantasy novella just one step shy of magic realism. The magic is sparse yet effective. Although dealing with serious issues including women’s rights and workers’ rights, Malerich has a humorous and gentle style that makes this book very quick and readable. Judith Whittier is a strong character and a strong leader, and I really enjoyed the banter between her and Hannah. I thought the romance in this book was done well, and was a good counterbalance to the industrial action afoot in the town. There is a point in the book where Mrs Hanson’s loyalties come into question, and I had my heart in my mouth wondering what was going to happen next.

I think that the only issue I had was that this book does at times border on an irreverent tone. The reader is thrown headlong into a very limited point in time, and I felt that the terrible working conditions of the women were downplayed somewhat, and the resolution seemed too simple, given the historical context. Malerich, I think in an effort to acknowledge that slavery was still in place during this time, refers to Hannah’s ability to see a physical embodiment of being enslaved. This was handled in an unfortunately dehumanising way, and became more about furthering Hannah’s story rather than a comment on slavery itself.

A light, enjoyable read that perhaps occasionally made too light of some things.

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Seduced into Darkness

Memoir about abuse of power by a psychiatrist

Content warning: sexual abuse, mental health, suicide attempts

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

Seduced Into Darkness, Transcending My Psychiatrist's Sexual Abuse by Carrie  Ishee | 9781948749480 | Booktopia

“Seduced into Darkness” by Carrie T. Ishee is a memoir about being sexually abused by a psychiatrist. After becoming depressed following a break up with a boyfriend while at university, normally outgoing and studious Carrie is referred to psychiatrist Dr Anthony Romano for treatment. Soon after she begins seeing him, Dr Romano begins to push the doctor-patient boundaries, asking Carrie questions about her sexuality and inviting her to “sessions” outside the practice. Before long, Dr Romano has distanced Carrie from her otherwise tight-knit family and started a sexual relationship with her with questionable consent. When Carrie finally finds the strength to cut emotional and professional ties with him, she spirals into depression again. She is finally hospitalised after two suicide attempts and it is there, under the care of other doctors, that she is finally able to confront what happened to her and find a way forward.

This is a disturbing story about the imbalance of power between doctor and patient and how that power can be abused. I initially agreed to review this book because the subject matter is of considerable professional interest to me, but it is a very compelling story in its own right. Ishee’s personal, academic and professional experience in mental health make her a very well-rounded storyteller and she sheds light on both the strengths and weaknesses of mental health support. I was really interested in the legal proceedings that arose as a result of Ishee’s experience and the disconnect between civil law outcomes and regulation of the medical profession. Even though Carrie was able to sue Dr Romano for the harm he caused her, he did not receive significant professional sanctions and was able to continue commencing relationships with other vulnerable patients.

Throughout this book, Ishee seeks to find meaning in her experiences and the strength to start a new life following her passions: art and mental health. Ishee is clearly a very spiritual person who, throughout her life, has turned to higher powers for guidance and support. Given this, I completely understand the desire to find a framework or metaphor to encapsulate the trauma she went through. However, from a narrative point of view, I’m not sure that the Greek myth of Persephone added much to Ishee’s story which was already powerful in its own right.

An impactful first-person account of the damage that can be done through inappropriate and abusive relationships with medical practitioners.

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In the Realm of Ash and Sorrow

Magic realism historical fiction novel set in WWII Hiroshima

Content warning: war

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

“In the Realm of Ash and Sorrow” by Kenneth W. Harmon is a historical fiction novel about an American bombadier called Micah whose plane is shot down over Hiroshima, Japan during WWII. Although Micah dies, his spirit remains in Hiroshima. He becomes attached to a young Japanese woman called Kiyomi and follows her to her workplace and to her home with her in-laws and daughter. As he slowly learns about his new existence from other ghosts, he grows more and more attached to Kiyomi. With the knowledge that Hiroshima will soon be under attack, Micah must try to find a way to communicate with Kiyomi and warn her before it is too late.

Despite some very graphic scenes, this is for the most part a gentle novel about love and overcoming differences. Remaining in Japan after his death gives Micah a new perspective on the country and people he previously believed were his enemies. Harmon uses dream-like states as a way for his living and dead characters to communicate, and explores ideas about what the afterlife may be like. Kiyomi is an interesting character who is trapped by traditional family obligations, and I thought that her daughter Ai was characterised well too. I thought that the parts of the book set in Hiroshima were the strongest, and I particularly enjoyed Micah’s conversations with an American-Japanese man.

While for the most part I enjoyed the beginning of the story, there were a few elements that I found frustrating. Even death doesn’t appear to prevent Micah from following a woman around (including in the bathroom) who has made it clear that the attention is unwanted. I also think it’s important to note that most of the book is about Kiyomi and her own life and experiences, but that this is not an #OwnVoices book. While Harmon clearly did a significant amount of research for this novel, I actually would have liked to have read more about this process in an afterword. I did feel that the way he sprinkled Japanese language through the book was a little jarring. I also felt that the second half of the novel, which was much more ethereal than the first half, felt muddied and unclear. It was hard to understand how much was inspired by Japanese culture and how much was Harmon’s imagination.

An experimental novel that had some interesting ideas and research but did feel confused at times.

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Over the Woodward Wall

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

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

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

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

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

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The Philosopher’s Daughters

Historical fiction about two English sisters drawn to the outback

Content warning: racism, colonialism, sexual assault

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author. I previously reviewed one of her books which I quite enjoyed, so I was looking forward to seeing her work in another genre.

“The Philosopher’s Daughters” by Alison Booth is a historical fiction novel about two sisters, Harriet and Sarah, who are brought up by their father in London in the late 1800s. Musical Sarah accompanies her father to a meeting about women’s suffrage where she meets Henry, a friend of a friend, who has returned from working in New South Wales. When they marry and move overseas to the colony on an extended honeymoon, artistic Harriet remains to assist their father with his work. However, when the unthinkable happens, Harriet finds herself adrift, she decides to join her sister and see if she can capture the light Sarah keeps writing about on canvas.

This is a gentle, flowing novel that carries the reader from a relatively privileged, intellectual life in London to a rather idyllic, if physically demanding, experience in the Northern Territory. Despite being raised in the same household, Sarah and Harriet have quite different takes on women’s empowerment and Booth uses the sisters to examine how there is no one correct way to practise feminism. While Harriet is practical and a fierce advocate in her own right, it is Sarah who finds adjusting to horse riding, hot weather and even wielding a revolver. However, although independent and forthright, the sisters are not invincible and I thought that Booth was convincing and sensitive in the way that she handled the aftermath of a sexual assault.

I enjoyed Booth’s use of art and music to help forge connections between the characters, and how the change in lifestyle, climate and landscape necessitates flexibility in new instruments and artistic styles. Booth also does not shy away from examining some of the violent and racist practices and policies of the colonies, tackling issues from forcing Aboriginal sportsmen to play cricket with sticks all the way to massacres. Stockman Mick was an interesting character whose education and experience set him apart from the other Aboriginal characters in the book, and through Mick, Booth explores questions of legal identity, stereotypes and even stigma around interracial relationships.

I think a lot of white Australians, who did not learn about the realities of the Terra Nullius myth, the Frontier Wars and the Stolen Generation until recently, are currently finding themselves having to grapple with their ancestors’ history and participation in colonialism. This novel is a good example of trying to make sense of what happened and write about early allies to feminism and racial equality in the beginnings of a colonised Australia. This was a really interesting book to read having recently read “Talkin’ Up to the White Woman“, a thesis on Indigenous women and feminism, especially because this book is very concerned with the beginnings of feminism as we know it.

Reading this novel with Moreton-Robinson’s words in my mind, I think there were two things missing from Booth’s book. The first is a critical assessment of Sarah and Harriet’s role as white women perpetuating the subjugation of Aboriginal women, including Bella and Daisy. There is no real explanation in this book of how the two women become housemaids, whether they are paid wages and how their land has been appropriated for white profit. I felt that there was less nuance in Bella and Daisy’s characters than, for example, Mick’s. I think this could have been rectified by the second thing which was missing: consultation with Aboriginal people.

While Booth’s book is very well-researched, using a number of contemporary sources, family history and observations from her own travels around the Northern Territory, one thing conspicuously absent from the acknowledgements section are any Aboriginal academics or writers. There is no shortage of Aboriginal academics, and I think that given what we know about bias, erasure and self-serving lies in colonial texts, it is critical that when we write about Aboriginal people, we include Aboriginal perspectives.

Nevertheless, this is an enjoyable, easy read that will appeal to historical fiction buffs.

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The Bird King

Historical fantasy novel about the fall of the Emirate of Granada

This was the the latest set book for my fantasy book club, and I did attend this time (albeit with lots of typing out my thoughts on my phone). I had not heard of this book before but the premise was interesting, and I did manage to finish most of it before the book club.

“The Bird King” by G. Willow Wilson is a historical fantasy novel set just before the downfall of the Emirate of Granada. The book is about Fatima, a slave and concubine to the last sultan for whom the palace is a gilded cage. Although well-fed and well-cared for compared to the rest of the declining nation, the walls of the palace chafe against Fatima and it is only in her friend Hassan, a mapmaker, that she finds solace. However, Hassan’s ability to make imagined places reality with his maps draws the attention of representatives from the new Spanish monarchy. When his life is placed in danger, he and Fatima flee the palace. With nothing but themselves, a jinn and faith in half a story about an island ruled by the Bird King, Fatima and Hassan must outrun the Spanish Inquisition.

This book started out really strong with a very unique premise. Fatima is a compelling character who, despite her official status as a court slave and concubine, is very smart, spirited and doted upon by the sultan and his mother. However, despite her relatively luxurious lifestyle, there are constant small reminders of her true position in the palace – including that her relationship with the sultan is only ever on his terms. I really liked the way that Wilson posed two possible lives for Fatima: a life of certainty and comfort, possibly as the mother of a sultan’s sons, but a life never truly her own; and a life of uncertainty but with the freedom to live and die on her own terms.

I also really liked the relationship between Fatima and Lady Aisha, and the complexities, parallels and empathy between the two. Vikram the jinn was another great character who slowly revealed himself to become one of Fatima’s greatest allies. Hassan’s ability to recreate reality through his maps was such an interesting and original magical ability and Wilson really explored it well throughout the book.

However, I felt like the second half of the book started to unravel a bit compared to how compelling the first half was. Although the antagonist Luz was a deeply ominous presence early in the novel, I felt like (without giving too much away) her character’s arc was a little confusing and ultimately a little convenient. I didn’t think the sailor-cum-monk Gwennec added a lot to the story either, and was one of many new characters who were introduced very late into the story and therefore hard to form a connection with. While Fatima and Hassan’s friendship was for the most part incredibly beautifully written, I did feel a bit like it would have been even more powerful had it been strictly platonic on both sides the entire time. The final chapters of the book felt very muddy, and I think perhaps if the final battle was going to be the focus of the book, it would have been better to spend more time getting to know its location than on how they got there in the first place.

A refreshingly original story with a lot of great elements and writing that unfortunately lost a bit of steam towards the end.

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Dreams of Fire

Queer urban fantasy about friendship and revenge

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

Dreams of Fire by Christian Cura

“Dreams of Fire” by Christian Cura is an urban fantasy novel about a woman called Kara who works as an artist in Washington DC, USA. Kara is enjoying a lot of success with a great new apartment, an assistant at work and even the possibility of an upcoming exhibition. However, Kara has a secret: she is able to use magic. When she fights alongside an intriguing woman called Selene hired as security at a party, Kara forms a connection and soon begins to share some of her difficult past on their dates. However, a plot underway at a magical prison in Canada means that Kara’s past might be catching up with her sooner than she thinks.

This is an action-packed novel that imagines a world with mystics living alongside people unable to wield magic. Kara and Selene’s romance is very sweet and wholesome, and was a unique and clever way to deal with exposition with Kara revealing more about herself as the couple grow closer. There is a diverse cast of characters, and Cura’s magical world seems very international. I really enjoyed how easily Cura wrote in a same sex relationship into the book. Cura had a very clear vision for the story, and the way magic is wielded was carefully explained and consistent. I enjoyed the discussions several characters had about the morality of magic, and how it is the users of magic rather than the magic itself which determines whether it is good or bad.

Cura has a very descriptive style of writing and there were a lot of details about characters’ appearances, wafting aromas and beers being tilted towards lips that could have been pared back to streamline the story. I also would have liked the system of governance fleshed out a little. Enforcers seemed to be both magical police officers and corrections officers, and it wasn’t clear how the Council existed alongside typical non-magic forms of government. The prison itself seemed to mirror the prison-industrial complex associated with the USA, and despite the huge population of the prison (ranging from 1,500 to 6,000 detainees), it was unclear what kind of court heard and decided all these cases. One of the characters considers that if detainees don’t want to be in prison, they shouldn’t commit crimes, but I would have liked to know more about what the socioeconomic driving factors may have been for mystics to turn to crime.

An intriguing debut novel that would likely make a good comic or film adaptation.

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