Category Archives: General Fiction

The Joy Luck Club

Intergenerational Chinese family drama about mothers and their daughters

This is one of those modern classics that I had never gotten around to reading. I think I picked up a copy at the Canberra Lifeline Book Fair , gathering dust, waiting for me to read it. Well, with the end of the year looming and me not nearly close enough to my 80th book, its slender spine beckoned and finally it was this book’s turn.

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“The Joy Luck Club” by Amy Tan is an intergererational family drama about four Chinese mothers and four of their daughters. Jing-Mei, An-Mei, Lindo and Ying-Ying all found their way to San Francisco in the 1940s and became close yet competitive friends over mahjong, food and gossip. However, while the mothers hold on to many of the old ways while keeping elements of their pasts secret, they have each become disconnected from their daughters who have been raised American. The books is divided into four parts, two of which focus on the mothers’ stories and two of which focus on the daughters’.

This is a rich story for such a short book. There is a real need for diverse stories, and Tan does an excellent job of taking eight women from similar backgrounds and showing just how diverse their experiences can be. I particularly enjoyed reading about the transition from traditional life as young women to being mothers in a new country.

It is a difficult task to conjure eight unique voices, and for the most part I think that Tan achieves it. However, because it is quite a short story and the point of view characters change so quickly, it was a little hard to keep track of who was who. Part of that difficulty is that the mothers themselves all changed quite a lot from when they were young and there weren’t always obvious connections between their past and present selves.

An important novel on the migrant experience, that is full of depth if occasionally a little muddy.

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The Joy Luck Club

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The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches (La petite fille qui aimait trop les allumettes)

Dark French Canadian novella about an isolated family

Content warning: death, neglect, numerous other things not mentioned in the review

So it was getting close to the end of the year, and my Goodreads 2018 Reading Challenge was stretching out in front of me looking mightily unattainable. I blame this book. To give myself a running chance at reaching my goal of 80 books, I decided to start aiming for shorter books. This one I think I must have picked up in the international literature section of the Lifeline Book Fair. It had a small spine. It would do.

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“The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches” by Gaétan Soucy and translated from the French by Sheila Fischman is a Canadian novella about a very isolated family. The unnamed narrator, one of two siblings, is awoken one morning with the discovery that their father is dead. Suddenly freed from the authoritarian existence he imposed upon them, the narrator decides to venture out to a nearby town to see about purchasing a coffin. However, upon arrival the narrator is faced with the revelation that their lives are not nearly as ordinary as they had thought.

This is a very short, intense book that juxtaposes flowery and archaic language with shocking revelations about the state of this family. Soucy uses the narrator’s extremely idiosyncratic way of speaking to obfuscate what is really going on, and piece by piece unveils the true nature of what has been happening on this isolated property through the narrator’s observations of other people’s reactions. It’s a very clever narrative structure, and an ingenious way to explore how what is horrifying to some can become normalised to others. An example of this is how the siblings treat their father’s body. They are both largely unphased by the death and the circumstances around it, and are surprisingly cavalier about arranging for his burial. The reasons for why they are both so desensitised to, and seemingly unaware of the significance of, his death slowly emerge as the story progresses.

Although this is a rich and layered book, it is not necessarily an easy one to read. I think that Fischman did a good job on the translation, but on a first read, a lot of the narrator’s thoughts and observations, as go over your head. I understand that it is meant to be a sort of anamorphosis, but in terms of readability, it is very dense and it’s easy to miss things. I think I also sometimes am a bit wearied with trauma being used as a plot device. A lot of books do it, sure, but I think I am started to get a bit frustrated with traumatic events being used as a ‘big reveal’. I would not consider this particular book to be misery lit. In fact, I think that it is a very literary noir novella. However, it is very heavy going thematically and becomes incredibly dark for such a short book.

A beautiful, intelligent and disturbing story that was delivered a lot for a $3 novella I picked up at the Lifeline Book Fair.

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The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches

 

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(Adults Only) The Veiled Woman

Literary erotica by classic author

Content warning: sexual themes

A friend of mine has been introducing me to some feminist classics recently and bought me a copy of this book. I of course had heard of the author, probably most memorably through Jewel’s track “Morning Song“, which actually would be quite a nice accompaniment to this book. However, I have never read any of her work before, so again, thank you Kendall for continuing to expand my literary horizons.

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“The Veiled Woman” by Anaïs Nin is a small collection of erotic short stories. There are four stories in total and each one features young, accomplished characters who find an opportunity to explore their secret fantasies.

The interesting thing about this book is that although it is without a doubt intended to be erotic, it is incredibly literary. Nin writes with a delicate subtlety, relying on suggestion and inference to quickly build tension. Three of the stories are told from the perspective of women and one from the perspective of a man. The stories are quite playful, some with an unexpected twist or turn. Nin explores lesbian sex (Mandra), anonymous sex (Linda), voyeurism (Marianne) and power play, often placing one (or more) woman in a position of control and highlighting the strength and importance of female sexual desire. The stories were originally written in the 1940s and Nin without a doubt can be credited as a trailblazer for women in this genre. All of the encounters are very much consensual and the women are all very active participants.

It is a bit hard to critique erotica because it is a genre, like horror, that is designed to elicit a particular response. I think something can be well-written, but not necessarily good erotica, or vice versa. Of course, there is plenty of erotica out there that is poorly written and bad erotica (which, interestingly, seems to be awarded almost exclusively to men – though reading and writing erotica is of course very gendered). Although Nin is clearly an exceptional writer, and although these stories are obviously intended to be erotica, Nin lingers on the social detail of the stories and like your average novel, sex seems to be almost more a part of the story rather than the point. I think any erotic story needs to be a balance of the physical and the psychological. Nin’s stories in this collection perhaps teeter a little far on the side of psychological and could have done with a bit more lingering on the physical.

A book that was certainly incredibly risque for its time with exceptional writing, what it perhaps lacks in sexiness it definitely makes up for in compelling characters and scenarios. A very short book that is worth a read just for the historical value.

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The Veiled Woman

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A Perfect Marriage

Domestic noir novel about the aftermath of an abusive relationship

Content warning: domestic violence

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

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“A Perfect Marriage” by Alison Booth is a domestic noir novel about a woman called Sally whose secret is preventing her from moving on from her dark past. Busy with her teenage daughter Charlie and her career as a geneticist, Sally decides to attend a conference in Spain. After a chance meeting on the flight over promises something more than just a professional relationship, Sally finds herself forced to confront her previous marriage and come clean with everyone she loves about how it really ended.

This is a subtle novel that delicately and sensitively explores the issue of domestic violence. A lot of stories explore the trauma of living through domestic violence, but I feel that far fewer examine the aftermath and the impact felt many years afterwards. Sally is a relatable character who really brings the truth that anyone can be a victim of domestic violence to the forefront. As a reader, you find yourself cheering for Sally and celebrating each little win.

I think the only thing that some people may have difficulty with in reading this novel is that it is a quiet book. It’s a slow burn that doesn’t have a lot of highs and lows, but rather matches the more ordinary rhythms of real life.

A very honest interpretation of a serious and sadly all too common scenario, this is a thoughtful and easy-to-read book.

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Crazy Rich Asians

Singaporean romantic comedy that pokes fun at the ridiculously wealthy

I had heard of this book a while ago, and meant to read it for one of my book clubs but didn’t quite get around to it. Then they made it into a film, and I thought – now’s the time. My mum had a copy and kindly lent it to me.

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“Crazy Rich Asians” by Kevin Kwan is a romantic comedy novel set among the upper echelons of Singaporean society. When American academic Rachel Chu is invited to a wedding in Singapore by her boyfriend Nicholas, she thinks that it’s going to be a low-key, romantic trip where she finally gets to meet his family. However, Nick hasn’t been completely upfront with Rachel about just how wealthy, and snobby, his family can be.

This book is a self-indulgent romp. Kwan has a very funny, irreverent style of writing and has a real talent for capturing conversation and dialogue. He flexibly swaps between Rachel’s perspective, catty conversations and frenzied texting and seasons his novel with lush descriptions of almost imaginable wealth and opulence. Having been to a few extravagant weddings in Singapore and Indonesia, I have to say that some of his descriptions were not that exaggerated. I really enjoyed how Kwan explored some of the nuance of how people throughout the Chinese diaspora view one another, and how arbitrary and exclusionary class lines can be.

However, as fun and gossipy as this novel is, the main plot, which is told from the perspective of Rachel, does at times feel like its sole purpose was to facilitate Kwan’s anthropological study of the Singapore elite. She is a useful lens to examine these families and their behaviour, but from the first chapter to the last chapter Rachel does not change much at all and while there is no shortage of drama, it does feel like it comes at the expense of character development.

Nevertheless, it’s a very enjoyable book and one that would make a great holiday read.

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Crazy Rich Asians

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The Road to Vermilion Lake

Romance novel set against the backdrop of a beautiful lake

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

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“The Road to Vermilion Lake” by Vic Cavalli is a romantic novel about Thomas, a first aid attendant and blaster’s assistant who is working on an enormous development project alongside a beautiful lake. Every time Thomas hears an explosion, he’s reminded of his ex-girlfriend, the gorgeous Sally, the first woman he ever kissed. However, his life becomes complicated when he meets Johnny, Sally’s sister and an architect on the lake development project. As he starts to fall for Johnny, Thomas wonders if he can grow to be the man she deserves and whether he can ever truly move on from Sally.

This novel is quite unusual in that it is purely romance, but told wholly from the perspective of a male character. Romance is typically considered a feminine genre, so it was a bit refreshing to read a romance novel where it’s a man who is angsting over what he says and does to make a relationship work. I thought Cavalli did a good job exploring the emotions around a new relationship and the transition from carefree young man to responsible, driven adult.

There were a lot of interesting elements to this story, but one thing that I thought was a shame was a missed opportunity to link two of these elements together. Without giving too much away, there was a character that Thomas’ friend met and a character in Johnny and Sally’s life that could have been connected and I did feel like it would have been brilliant to connect the two and have a bit more depth to the characters’ backstories.

An easy read and a gentle novel about the personal development and compromise required to make a relationship work.

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The Road to Vermilion Lake

 

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Surrogate: A Novel

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

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“Surrogate: A Novel” by Tracy Crisp is a story about a young nurse called Rachael who is asked to house-sit by a doctor from her hospital that she is loosely acquainted with. Dr Cate and her handsome husband Drum have plans to adopt a baby overseas. However when things don’t work out and they return home early, they first ask Rachael to stay and then the ask her to consider a much, much bigger proposition.

This is an evocative and unsettling story that explores the issue of surrogacy by pushing the boundaries of relationships. Crisp is a thoughtful writer who captures the day to day lives of Rachael, who is going through the confusing process of surrogacy, and her mother Mary, who went through something similar as a young woman. I thought Crisp’s real strength was exploring imperfect relationships and the reasons why people keep secrets from one another. The interplay between Cate, Rachael and Drum was particularly engaging.

I think probably the only thing I struggled with in this story was the role of Mick. Mick is Rachael’s father’s best friend, and Rachael is infatuated with him, but I just didn’t quite see how this part fit into the rest of the story. Mick seems to be a bit of a bridge between Mary’s past and Rachael’s present, but I’m not sure the foundations are quite strong enough to hold up that particular plot-line.

Anyway, this is an interesting novel that deeply explores the theme of giving up a child through the lens of ordinary people.

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Surrogate

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