Category Archives: General Fiction

Dead Man Dreaming

Novel about coming to terms with a genetic illness

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

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“Dead Man Dreaming” by Uday Mukerji is a novel about a man called David who is going through the final interviews for a prestigious position at a Canadian hospital as a heart surgeon. However, when the panel ask him a question about whether or not he has Huntington’s Disease, David is taken by surprise. Suddenly he is forced to confront the possibility that, like his father, he has Huntington’s Disease and impact it could have on his career, relationship and desire to have children. David’s drastic life changes as a result have him seeking and finding fulfilment in new places.

Mukerji is a clear, realistic writer with believable characters and premise. This is an interesting book that raises a number of pertinent ethical questions: is it reasonable to ask people about their genetic information during a job interview where hereditary conditions may impact performance? is it reasonable to encourage, or even require, people to undergo genetic testing prior to having children? These are questions that David himself ponders as he comes to terms with taking his own genetic test. Mukerji also asks the reader about openness in relationships, and the extent to which we need to make time to communicate with our partners and be honest with them.

The only thing that I found a bit challenging was that Mukerji relies heavily on David’s thoughts as a narrative device, and a not insignificant proportion of the book is David going over events and conversations again and again and mulling over his own worries. While this is probably a very accurate depiction of what it would be like for a real person in David’s situation, there were times where I felt the book needed a little more plot or conversation to help propel the story along.

A well-written story that explores issues arising from testing for hereditary conditions from a number of angles.

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Girl, Woman, Other

Contemporary novel about the diversity of black experiences in the UK

I heard about this book because it was somewhat controversially the joint winner of the 2019 Booker Prize, together with Margaret Atwood’s “The Testaments“. I read Atwood’s book first because (pre-COVID) she was touring Australia and I very luckily got some tickets to see her speak, so I wanted to make sure I read the book first. However, I have been really looking forward to reading this one and after buying it, it has been very high on my priority list.

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“Girl, Woman, Other” by Bernadine Evaristo is a novel about 12 different people who live in the UK and whose lives are interconnected, including in some ways more subtle than others. At the heart of the story is Amma, a playwright whose radical black sapphic production is opening at the Royal National Theatre in London. With The Last Amazon of Dahomey as the backdrop, we meet each of the 12 characters one by one and learn about their lives and their unique experience of being part of the African diaspora in Britain.

This is an exceptional book and I am going to go right ahead and say that it is a crime that it wasn’t awarded the Booker Prize outright. Evaristo is a phenomenal writer and this book was simply superb. The novel has a unique, flowing style reminiscent of free-verse poetry with no full stops, rigid sentences or capitalised first letters. Although Evaristo keeps up this style throughout the book, each character has a clearly distinct voice. I particularly enjoyed how well Evaristo is able to write the same events but through the vastly different lenses of her characters. All the stories were compelling, but it was Grace’s story in particular that had me in tears. I also really loved that Evaristo explores different types of black experience in earlier eras, including Britain’s role in and profit from the trans-Atlantic slave trade. There were some parts of the more contemporary stories, especially Carole’s, that reminded me quite a lot of “Swing Time” in theme, particularly in terms of place and issues of class and racism. However, this book achieves what I felt “Swing Time” did not: a sense of cohesiveness.

I don’t really have any criticism of this book at all except to note that it is fairly long, about 450 pages, and it is not the kind of book that you want to whip through. I actually recommend tackling each character’s story in a single session then putting the book down to digest before beginning the next.

An excellent book that thoroughly deserved to win the Booker Prize alone.

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Red Dirt Talking

Mystery novel about field research in an Aboriginal community

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

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“Red Dirt Talking” by Jacqueline Wright is a novel about Annie, a recent anthropology graduate who receives a grant and ethical permission to research massacres for her master’s thesis in a remote Western Australian Aboriginal community called Yindi. In her late 30s with plenty of personal issues left behind in Perth, Annie is eager to get started with her research and ignores Mick, the community project officer, when he advises her to take things slowly. When the connections she starts to build in Yindi take her research in a different direction, she finds herself in the middle of a child’s disappearance.

This is a very rich, considered novel that unflinchingly explores the hubris of academia and the disconnect between urban and remote Australia. It is hardly surprising that it was longlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2013.  Annie is a fascinating, idealistic character who, despite the dysfunction in her own personal life, is convinced that interviewing Aboriginal people is going to solve all their problems. Wright does an excellent job of lancing Annie’s presumptions about both the magnitude and the nature of her own importance. I also think that academic failure and practical difficulties following research plans that are scrupulously checked by supervisors and approved by ethical committees is a really interesting concept to unpack. Quite a few years ago, I conducted field research in Indonesia for my own master’s thesis and the cringe-worthy mistakes I made and dead ends I hit helped me really empathise with parts of Annie’s story.

I also felt that Wright did a really good job critiquing Annie’s white saviour complex. The extent to which white authors should be writing about the stories of people of colour is something which is being debated hotly, most recently through discussion of the novel “American Dirt” and the #OwnVoices movement. However, I think that Wright struck a good balance with this book because of her obvious research, lived experience and, most importantly, consultation with Aboriginal elders and authors. Wright effectively used the perspectives of lots of different types of characters to explore white attitudes to Aboriginal people and the lingering impacts of massacres, deaths in custody and the Stolen Generations on Aboriginal people. Maggot in particular was an interesting character who, as the garbage collector, collects snippets of gossip as he drives around Ransom, the town closest to Yindi. Through Maggot’s eyes, we get to see the people that Annie has met through a different, sometimes more sinister light. Wright is a very flexible writer who convincingly captures the essence of the many characters.

This is a good book, but it is not always an easy read. Wright packs in a lot of information in a relatively short novel, and there is a broad cast of characters, some with more than one name, that can take some time to get your head around. I also felt that all the threads that had been so carefully laid down by Wright did get a little tangled right at the very end.

An enjoyable, engaging novel that explores different points of view, tackles important issues and is worth the work.

Image of Castor the Sloth, looking through a telescope. #StartOnYourShelfathon The Quiet Pond.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, General Fiction, Mystery/Thriller

Picture Perfect

Novel about love, family violence and belonging

Content warning: family violence

As I’ve mentioned previously, while everything is still under varying degrees of lockdown, I’ve had to find other suitable opportunities to listen to audiobooks that involve some kind of exercise. My solution: yard work. I’ve been trying to stick to shorter audiobooks to make it easier to pay attention, and this one came up when searching. Although this author is very popular and often a bit divisive, I have enjoyed a number of her books over the years, so I thought I would use an Audible credit on this book.

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“Picture Perfect” by Jodi Picoult and narrated by Megan Dodds is a novel about a woman who is found in a graveyard suffering from amnesia. She is taken to hospital by Will Flying Horse, who has moved to Los Angeles to work as a police officer. While Cassie recovers, pieces of her memory come back and she discovers that her real life is actually like something out of a fairytale. However, like most fairytales, there is a dark undercurrent and it will take all of Cassie’s strength to be her own hero.

Listening to this book, I was actually struck by how similar the story was to another book I read recently. Like “The Brave“, this story is about a woman who marries a movie star, who experiences domestic violence and who finds salvation in the arms of a biracial Native American man. Picoult’s novel was written 15 years earlier and I think hers is the better novel. Cassie is an anthropologist; educated, articulate and adventurous, she certainly doesn’t seem like the kind of person likely to be affected by family violence. However, the whole world falls for Alex Rivers’ charm and the acting skills he brings to the screen are just as effective at home. I felt like Picoult did a very convincing job of exploring the cyclic nature of family violence, and acknowledged that family violence does not discriminate and can happen in any type of family. Cassie is one of the three point of view characters, but unlike Nicholas Evans’ novel, it is her perspective that is put front and centre. I think I actually preferred this exploration of domestic violence to Liane Moriarty’s “Big Little Lies“.

I am no expert on Lakota culture, but the novel felt much better researched in this regard as compared with “The Brave”, and Will’s character seemed far more well-rounded than Evans’ character Cal. Instead of being little more than a literary device, Will experiences his own struggles with his biracial identity, racism in the police force and frustration with Cassie’s situation. The narration of this book was quite good, and Dodds has a drawling, contemplative voice that lends itself to many of the reminiscing chapters. Unusually, some of these chapters had a bit of music backing which helped distinguish between past and present.

This is one of Picoult’s earliest novels, and I think it is fair to say that her storytelling has improved considerably over the years. The plot of this book was a little meandering, and I think that in trying to fully explore each character’s background, character and motives, something of the tension in the novel was lost. I am so used to Picoult’s hard-hitting, fearless plot twists that I was quite surprised that this novel petered out on a rather positive note.

A thoughtful book that was ahead of its time in discussing family violence, but not quite as punchy as Picoult’s later books.

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Normal People

Irish novel about love, communication and trying to fit in

Content warning: mental health, domestic violence

Now that I have discovered that, for me, less is more when it comes to audiobooks, I was intrigued to see this one offered for free on Audible last month. I’d heard about it, and one of the cover designs is quite memorable with the people inside the anchovy tin, but I didn’t know much about it. It was a quite achievable 7.5 hours long, and, regrettably, was the last book I started before the gyms closed.

Normal People cover art

“Normal People” by Sally Rooney and narrated by Aoife McMahon is a novel about two teenagers, Marianne and Connell, who go to the same school in a small Irish town. Connell, though quiet, is popular at school while Marianne has no friends. Connell’s mother cleans Marianne’s mother, and although he and Marianne have never spoken at school, they begin to chat when he comes over to collect his mother after work. When they find themselves drawn together, they agree to keep things secret from everyone else at school. However, despite the magnetism between them, the secrecy makes their relationship uncertain. When they later cross paths at university, they click and become friends again, but changes in social standing and shortcomings in communication undermine the security they long to find in each other.

This was an absolutely stunning novel. I was absolutely hooked on every sentence. When the gyms had to close, I was desperate to find something active to do so I could keep listening and I ended up tackling the wilderness that had become our lawns. I found myself laughing aloud and my jaw actually dropping more times than I could count while listening to this book. Rooney has an absolute gift for exploring the tension, vulnerability and misunderstanding that can occur between two people. For a book that is ostensibly just about two people, there was not a dull moment. McMahon was a fantastic narrator and captured the tone of each character perfectly.

By getting to know each other more and more deeply over the years, Connell and Marianne slowly reveal their own secret struggles with mental illness and domestic violence to each other and become each other’s biggest support. However, Rooney is unmerciful in exploring how as humans we can fail one another, and how sometimes the only way to make amends is to grow as a person and succeed the next time. Rooney also provides some interesting commentary on class. She examines how class differences can complicate relationships, asking whether those complications are not insurmountable, and noting that wealth doesn’t guarantee happiness protect against abuse.

This book was just fantastic. I’ve already been recommending it to friends. Even more exciting, just weeks after I read it, I found out that a TV adaptation is coming out that started YESTERDAY. If you want to read something really good, this is really good.

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The Brave

Family drama about love, loss and courage

Content warning: domestic violence, bullying, war, mental health 

“The Horse Whisperer” was, I think, the first book I read as a kid that was specifically geared for adults. I quite innocently read it because I was extremely into horses and thought it had something to do with this guy Monty Roberts, an actual horse whisperer, who I had read about. Although the book starts out with a girl not too much older than I was and her problems following a horse-riding accident, it quickly turned into another kind of story. While it hadn’t been the kind of book I was expecting, I enjoyed it a lot and even went to go see the Robert Redford and young Scarlet Johansson film adaptation with my best friend (also horse-mad). His debut novel, the author wrote two more that I really enjoyed and then a fourth that I wasn’t so crash hot on. I actually hadn’t even realised he had written a fifth until I came across it at the Lifeline Book Fair. This is another book that has gathered dust on my shelf for a long time, and during these times of isolation, I’m trying to do something about my ridiculous to-read piles. Yes, that plural is correct.

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“The Brave” by Nicholas Evans is a novel about an eight year old boy called Tommy whose parents send him to boarding school. A sensitive kid who still struggles with wetting the bed, Tommy is passionate about playing cowboys and Indians and watching his heroes in Westerns on TV. However, at the boarding school, he soon finds himself the target of merciless bullying and the few allies he makes are tenuous at best. After writing to his sister Diane about the horrible experience, the truth is revealed to Tommy about his identity, and soon he finds himself moving to Hollywood and meeting the actors who are his idols. Nearly fifty years later, Tom is a writer living in the USA struggling not to compare himself to his more successful peers. When his son, estranged after deciding to enlist in the armed forces, is charged with murder during an overseas deployment, Tom must try to repair their broken relationship by facing what happened in Hollywood.

Evans is an incredibly readable writer and with smooth prose that is engaging without being too challenging. He tackles a lot of different issues in this book including bullying, domestic violence, identity, war, state-sanctioned violence, mental health and family. I thought that the scenes early in the book where young Tommy is experiencing the brutality of British boarding school were particularly effective and reminiscent of Roald Dahl’s autobiographical book “Boy“. Although Evans is an English writer, the way he writes about America is always very compelling. This is true of this book especially, which at heart is about a man who comes to the USA as a young boy and makes it his home.

Although a relatively easy read, this isn’t my favourite of Evans’ books. Evans usually constructs his novels around an interesting job: horse whisperer, firefighter, even wolf biologist. He also has a keen interest in the physical environment and natural beauty of the USA. While I get that this book is comparing the fantasy of Western film and TV with the reality of Hollywood, particularly the dark underbelly of the entertainment industry, I just didn’t find the book as effective as his previous efforts. The twists I felt you could sense a mile away. The parallels between Tom’s experiences and his son’s experiences didn’t feel as strong as they could have been. Finally, the ending felt just a little too tidy.

An easy read that addresses some important social issues, but ultimately not as hard-hitting as some of his other novels.

Image of Castor the Sloth, looking through a telescope. #StartOnYourShelfathon The Quiet Pond.

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Braised Pork

Surreal novella about a young Beijing widow

Back in the good old days, before social distancing, I used to go to the gym and listen to audiobooks to inspire me to keep going back. After my last few experiments, I thought perhaps 10+ hours of audiobook was a little long for my limited attention span and memory, so I thought I would try something a little shorter. On Audible, you can set the search terms for books of particular lengths, so I browsed some of the shorter ones (4 – 6 hours). This one was just over 5 hours, and sounded perfect.

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“Braised Port” by An Yu and narrated by Vera Chok is a surreal novella about a young woman called Jia Jia whose husband dies unexpectedly while taking a bath. Childless, largely locked out of his will and without the structure of her traditional marriage, Jia Jia is left with their apartment and a small allowance. As she slowly starts to venture out into the world seeking a new independence through her art, Jia Jia begins to be plagued by realistic dreams of a watery world and the image of the fish man drawing her husband left on the bathroom slink. Eventually, after her attempt at a new romance falls flat, Jia Jia decides to retrace her husband’s last trip to Tibet to try to discover the significance of the fish man.

This is an unusual, dreamlike story the pacing of which mirrors Jia Jia’s own meandering life. I really enjoyed Yu’s writing style. She has some striking imagery that really stayed with me. There was one particular scene where she refers to Jia Jia’s hair as looking like a stroke of calligraphy, and there are quite a few similar turns of phrase throughout. This is an original story with a unique point of view. Jia Jia is an intriguing character who, after having lived her whole life doing what she’s told, suddenly finds herself cut adrift. Although she finds a new purpose searching for the meaning of the fish man, there is still the sense that she is struggling to find her independence from men, be it her belated husband, her father, her lover or even a fellow traveller. Yu explores some interesting nuances of class in Beijing, in particular Jia Jia’s new status as a widow with limited financial resources. Chok is an excellent narrator with a clipped accent and matter-of-fact style that lends itself perfectly to the story.

Although it is a short read, this is a complex story that incorporates a lot of themes, elements and locations. While many of the scenes were themselves steeped with meaning, the story didn’t always feel as though it had a strong central thread to connect them together. I think the part that I struggled with the most was the significance of the watery world and the fish man. I’m not quite sure if I had tuned out while I was doing stretches at the gym or whether the story was deliberately left open-ended, but it felt like despite the several small revelations, the final picture was still kind of indecipherable.

A fascinating debut that perhaps leaves the reader with more questions than answers, I’m looking forward to seeing what Yu writes next.

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Filed under Audiobooks, Book Reviews, General Fiction, Magic Realism, Novella

Yocandra

Cuban novella about sex, love and politics

I’m always on the lookout for world literature, and this one caught my eye at the Lifeline Book Fair some time ago. It’s a compact little book, and just the thing for me trying to race to meet my reading goal for 2019. I was also delighted to find the original receipt for the book which was bought from Smith’s Alternative Bookshop, before it changed hands to become a cafe, bar and live music venue.

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“Yocandra” by Zoé Valdés and translated by Sabina Cienfuegos is a novella about a young girl born minutes after Labour Day in 1959, the beginning of the Cuban revolution. Named Patria by her father, patriotically inspired by the fatherland, she later changes her name to Yocandra. Sexually precocious, she marries and divorces young, embracing instead a bohemian life of writing, alternating lovers and living under Cuba’s authoritarian socialist republic regime.

This is a fascinating and spirited book that explores the life of a liberated woman in a restrictive regime. Valdés is a fearless writer who surprises the reader with her candid descriptions. Yocandra’s world is one of contradictions, where sex is a metaphor for politics and love is a game. Self-invention is everything, and everyone has a pseudonym – chosen or assumed. The four main players in Yocandra’s sphere are her ex-husband and current lover the Traitor, her other lover the Nihilist, her best friend the Gusana and her friend and exile the Lynx – each an archetype of Cuba that she loves in her own way. Editor-in-chief for a literary magazine, Yocandra’s life is one of contradictions where she is surrounded by economic poverty but intellectual wealth. I love how Yocandra grapples with her feelings for Cuba, her island prison, and how her efforts to keep her lovers in the dark about one another hilariously come undone.

However, this is a complex book and if, like me, you are not very familiar with Cuba’s political history, you may find that on the first read quite a lot of it goes over your head. Valdés goes out of her way to shock the reader with some of Yocandra’s sexual exploits, and as a short book, I feel that some of the character building suffers a little from brevity.

Nevertheless, this is a clever and unique book that will keep you on your toes and show you a side to Cuba you never knew about.

 

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Hare’s Fur

Novel about family, trust and ceramics

I picked this book up at Muse one day while having a browse of the bookshop. It’s not secret I love rabbits, and although this book isn’t about any lagomorphs, it still piqued my interest. I have a soft spot for books about ceramics anyway, and I hadn’t heard of this local author before, so I bought myself a copy.

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“Hare’s Fur” by Trevor Shearston is a novel about Russell, a potter who lives alone in the Blue Mountains. Grieving the death of his wife only months previously, Russell continues with his work throwing his beautiful bottles, teapots and plates and glazing them with his signature glaze using ore from a secret place near his home. One day while collecting ore, he finds three children camped out in a cave. Although still raw from his loss, as he learns about their story, Russell must decide how much he can open his heart to the siblings.

This is a quiet, subtle novel with a strong sense of place. Shearston writes beautifully about the art of pottery and leads the reader gently into an understanding of this craft, the skill required and the value of excellent ceramics. I thought Shearston handled the issue of class, one of the main themes in this book, very well. Although not wealthy per se, Russell is an educated, accomplished man who mostly socialises with peers from the art world. His life of routine and contemplation is starkly juxtaposed against the disrupted lives of three kids who have grown up in poverty and are facing the prospect of foster care. The social observation rounds out the reader’s understanding of the Blue Mountains region as a place not only of scenic beauty that attracts tourists and artists alike, but also a place with pockets of disadvantage.

While the strength of this novel is its mood, it is a slow burn so if you’re looking for action or suspense, it might not be for you. This story unfolds slowly and gently with a focus on characters rather than plot.

An enjoyable and insightful novel, perfect for a weekend read.

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The Swan Book

Speculative fiction novel about an Aboriginal woman and her swans

Content warning: sexual assault

I’ve mentioned previously on this blog that I’ve started listening to audio books as a means of motivating myself to go to the gym. I’m still fine-tuning how exactly I select which books to listen to, but certainly the quality of the narrator is something I’ve realised is important to me. I have been trying to read more books by Aboriginal authors, and although I had heard of this author, I hadn’t actually read any of her work. I was scrolling through the categories on Audible and this book jumped out at me. I listened to the narrator in the sample, and immediately knew I wanted to hear more.

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“The Swan Book” by Alexis Write and narrated by Jacqui Katona is a speculative fiction novel about an Australia in the not too distant future. The story is about a young woman called Oblivia Ethylene who does not speak and whose story begins when she was found living in a tree. Taken in by a climate migrant Bella Donna, Oblivia lives on a swamp inside a rusted out hull in the middle of a military-run Aboriginal camp in Australia’s far north, and they are visited often by the overbearing Harbour Master.

Black Swan

A photo I took a while back of black swans on Lake Burley Griffin, Canberra 

However, as time passes, it becomes clear that Oblivia is not a reliable narrator, and her life actually began before she was found in a tree. We learn that Oblivia was gang raped, outcast from her family and deeply traumatised by the experience. Oblivia forms a deep connection with swans that come to Swamp Lake, later renamed Swan Lake, inspired by Bella Donna’s own love for the white swans of her homeland. After Bella Donna dies, Oblivia is visited by the newly sworn-in first Aboriginal President of Australia, Warren Finch who informs her that she is his promised bride. As Oblivia is forced to follow him to the Southern cities, she is in turn followed by the ghosts of her past and confronted by new ghosts in her future.

This is a deeply rich and complex novel that tackles a number of issues through a unique perspective such as trauma, the Intervention and climate change. I was struck by how many of the issues and predictions Wright made seem even more pressing now, only 7 years after publication. Oblivia is a fascinating character who appears both more aware and more naive than she first seems. Wright is a natural storyteller with a patient style, slowly unfurling each new piece of information and examining it from several perspectives before laying it down carefully before you. Nothing is rushed in this novel, yet at the end I found myself still unsure about so many elements of the plot. How much was real, how much was Oblivia’s fantasy, and how much was something in between? I’m still not certain what happened to the Genies or to Warren Finch, and whether Oblivia saw herself on TV or an impostor.

I absolutely must comment though on the narration of this book. Jacqui Katona was a superb narrator who captured the spirit of the novel completely. She has a soft, slightly cracked voice that reminds me of dust picked up by a desert wind. I loved listening to Katona speak in language, and she had a great knack for capturing the voices of the different characters, the matter-of-factness of the narration generally and even singing refrains from some of the songs referenced in the book.

Although Katona brought this book to life, I did at times find it a bit challenging to listen to. It’s no secret to anyone who has met me that I’m not the best at processing what I hear, but I did find this book at times maybe a little complex to concentrate on while I was also trying to count reps at the gym. Although Wright revisits pieces of the story several times, I did at times find myself asking whether a certain part was supposed to be ambiguous, or whether I had just missed something while I was trying to set the speed on the cross-trainer.

A captivating, intricate and extremely relevant book that Katona impeccably narrates.

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