Category Archives: General Fiction

Emma

Classic Jane Austen romance novel

Content warning: child grooming

I have read some, but not all, of Austen. I saw the trailer for this adaptation that came out last year and it looked fun. I can’t remember exactly when but I picked up a copy of the book from the Lifeline Book Fair, it was sitting on my shelf, and since I like to read books before I watch the movie, I thought I’d better get to it.

Image is of “Emma” by Jane Austen. The paperback book is resting in the corner of a wicker basket that also has a green teapot, scones, a purple and white napkin, a purple Jane Austen’s House Museum bookmark, a bundle of lavender and a small bowl of plum jam.

“Emma” by Jane Austen is a romance novel whose eponymous heroine Miss Emma Woodhouse is a wealthy young woman who lives with her eccentric hypochondriac father in a large home in the bustling English village of Highbury. With her mother dead and her sister married and moved out, when Emma’s old governess Miss Taylor marries as well, Emma finds herself the undisputed mistress of the house and in need of entertainment. Buoyed by the success of matchmaking Miss Taylor with the eminently suitable Mr Weston, Emma turns her sights to other potential matches. She befriends a pretty young girl of unknown parentage and decides to orchestrate a match with the energetic vicar Mr Elton. Ignoring the warnings of family friend Mr Knightly, the older brother of her sister’s husband, Emma’s plans begin to go awry when it becomes quite clear that people, including herself, will follow their own hearts.

This is a clever novel with a likeable protagonist who is as flawed and human as she is beautiful and wealthy. Emma’s unique position as the mistress of Hartfield with a father who is reluctant go out or get involved in anything affords her a considerable amount of freedom compared to other women during the same era. I really liked how Austen tempered Emma by making her good at piano yet envious of her sometime rival Jane, and mostly kind but a little cruel towards Jane’s warm-hearted but a little overbearing aunt Miss Bates. Emma undergoes significant character development and there are some fun twists in the story.

This book was written just over 200 years ago, so it is unsurprising that there are some elements that don’t really stack up against today’s standards. This may be a slight spoiler but I think the most obvious example of this is the age difference between Emma and her ultimate love interest. The suggestion that he has been waiting since she was a young girl to grow up sufficiently did have a bit of a grooming vibe to it even if nothing untoward happens. Even though some of Emma’s views about class are tested by the other characters, and there is some sympathy for characters who have fallen somewhat in station, this is ultimately a story about a stratified society and people marrying appropriately for their class.

However, I think probably the most difficult thing about this book is that it is, unfortunately, quite a slow story. The romance is a very quiet burn, the characters aren’t all that colourful and it was a bit of a slog in the end. I quite enjoyed the adaptation because it brought a bit of colour and drama to the story, even though it too was a little slow.

An interesting and character-driven novel that admittedly took a bit of work to get through.

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The Dangers of Truffle Hunting

Saucy romance about food, wine and photography

Content warning: sex scenes

I have had this ARC sitting on my to-read shelf since I got it from Harry Hartog…gosh, about 5 years ago? I’m making a big effort to get through my reading backlog, and because of the title, I always felt like this was the right book to read in winter.

Image is of an advance reading copy of “The Dangers of Truffle Hunting” by Sunni Overend. The paperback book is standing upright between a champagne bottle and a bowl of cake mixture on a kitchen bench. A shirtless man stands behind it with a flour handprint on him. There are cloves scattered around, a red apple cut in half and two cinnamon sticks.

“The Dangers of Truffle Hunting” by Sunni Overend is a romance novel about Kit, a young woman who has just secured a job as a food photographer for a highly regarded lifestyle magazine with a slick and minimalist style. Kit is engaged to successful if somewhat uptight furniture designer and is about to start planning a big wedding at her family’s vineyard. However, when she visits her family to hear about her father’s new venture, she meets the farmhand Raph and is inspired to start taking much more creative, suggestive photographs. As the tension between her own creativity and desire begins to clash against the path that her work, her fiancé and even her own mother have set out for her, Kit must decide what kind of life she really wants to lead.

This is a fun and very readable romp that I absolutely whipped through. The perfect blend of idyll and serendipity with just the right amount of drama, I was up late at night flipping pages to get to that ending. Overend writes about food with the same sensuality that is drawn from Kit. This book is full of cozy and evocative scenes choosing wines in cellars, making pastry and even participating in cooking classes in France. Although not wildly surprising, there was a good twist later in the story to keep things interesting. Overend writes eroticism well and there are plenty of creative scenes to warm readers up on cold winter nights.

It probably should be said that this book is pure romantic fantasy, so even though it is written with realism in mind, there are enough coincidences, privileges and special opportunities that you’ll have to suspend some considerable disbelief. There are also a couple of scenes that felt a little superfluous. Also, I know it was the point of the book but Kit’s fiancé was so unbelievably boring, every scene with him in it made my eyes roll.

A spicy food-lover’s fantasy with not many truffles but nevertheless a quick and enjoyable to read.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, General Fiction

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Gothic novel about two sisters in a mysterious manor

I needed a new audiobook to listen to when I was doing training for my hike in Tasmania, and I had made a shortlist of books that were around 5 hours long which seems to be the sweet spot for my attention span. I had heard of this one before but had no idea what it was about. It looked a bit spooky and I was keen to try something a bit different.

Image is of the audiobook cover of “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” by Shirley Jackson. The cover is a black and white artwork of two blonde girls and a black cat with townspeople behind them in a style that looks similar to linocut printing

“We Have Always Lived in the Castle” by Shirley Jackson and narrated by Bernadette Dunne is a gothic novel about an 18 year old girl known as Merricat who lives in the Blackwood family manor with her sister Constance and her uncle Julian. Constance never leaves the house and its grounds and Uncle Julian is a wheelchair user, so it is up to Merricat to walk into town each week to shop for groceries. Although the people in the village serve her and let her take library books home without ever expecting her to return them, they are also openly hostile towards her. Nevertheless, Thefamily shares a quiet life with Merricat playing with her cat Jonas, Constance working in her garden and Uncle Julian working on his book about the family’s recent history. However, when their cousin Charles turns up the manor, their peaceful existence is thrown into disarray.

This is a delightfully unsettling book that keeps you guessing the whole time. Merricat is a captivating narrator who is utterly unreliable and who appears both younger and older than her actual age. I really enjoyed the way Jackson maintains the sense of uncertainty throughout the book with characters saying contradicting things about what happened to the Blackwood family that are never truly resolved. Merricat’s use of magic and superstition contributes to the mysterious atmosphere and undermine’s the reader’s understanding of what is real and what is not. Dunne was an excellent narrator who captures Merricat’s apparent innocence perfectly.

A fascinating book that kept me thinking and wondering long after it had finished, and a really good option if you’re in the mood for something eerie.

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Filed under Audiobooks, Book Reviews, General Fiction, Horror, Mystery/Thriller

Where the Fruit Falls

Family saga novel about racism, Aboriginal identity and intergenerational trauma

Content warning: racism

2020 was not a great year for authors. Usually when an author publishes a book, especially with a well-resourced publisher, the author has the opportunity to promote the book through events such as interviews, panels and readings. For many authors last year, social distancing, lockdowns and curfews meant that promoting books in person simply was not possible. This book was published last year and although I saw a lot of discussion about it on social media, unfortunately I don’t think it got anything like the publicity that it deserved. I bought a copy and it is a beautiful book with a striking design including gold foil on the cover. I haven’t been very active on here recently, but this is my next book to review, and given that today is the first day of Reconciliation Week, it is an ideal time to boost an Aboriginal author.

Image is of “Where the Fruit Falls” by Karen Wyld. The softcover book is sitting between three pink lady apples and three potatoes. The cover is red with a winding blue river in the background and the silhouette of a tree in the foreground with apples picked out in gold foil.

“Where the Fruit Falls” by Karen Wyld is a family saga set in Australia in the mid-1900s. After the end of a family chapter, Brigid, a young woman with a white mother and an Aboriginal father who was killed in action, leaves her grandmother’s apple orchard to make her own way. Following a willy wagtail, Brigid finds her way to lost kin to have her twin babies on country and to gradually make peace with her identity. However, in a changing world, her daughters must face their own challenges and survive the prejudices levelled against them for the colour of their skin.

When I’m reading, I usually take notes of my impressions of the book and things I liked or didn’t like. For this book, the only note I wrote was this: “This story feels like a pebble that has rolled up and down a beach, over and over. It may not be the same shape as the original stone, but it is still the same stone; just smoother and a nice weight in your hand”. This book feels like a story that has been told over and over, perfected a little more with each retelling. Some people have described this book as magic realism, however Wyld elaborates a little more on how she considers it a literary device rather than a genre and how she inserts fractures in her her writing to draw the reader’s attention. Embellished in some parts, abridged in others, this story flows with a familiar rhythm.

However, this is by no means a typical story. Wyld makes some fearless narrative decisions that are devastating in their impact and reverberate throughout the whole novel. Brigid is a complex character who struggles to break free from the lessons she was taught about her skin colour and her worth as a child. Through her daughters Tori and Maggie, Wyld explores the stark difference in how people are treated based on their appearance and the assumptions made about their connection to country and culture. Although Wyld never refers to any particular region or city, this book has a really strong sense of place and I really enjoyed seeing the land through Brigid’s eyes and the city through the twins’.

A beautifully constructed and heartbreaking story. Not just this week but every week, I implore you to follow, support and listen to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers to learn about and empathise with this country’s history and the continuing impacts of colonialism, and this book is an excellent place to start.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, General Fiction, Magic Realism

The Northern Reach

Family saga set in Maine, USA

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

Image is of a digital book cover of “The Northern Reach” by W. S. Winslow

“The Northern Reach” by W. S. Winslow is a family saga set in and around the small fictional coastal town of Wellbridge in Maine, USA. Spanning about 100 years and the four intersecting Lawson, Baines, Moody and Martin families, traumas echo through the generations against the dramatic Maine coastline.

This was a really readable novel with an exceptionally strong sense of place. Winslow has a real strength for characterisation and each point of view character has a unique and distinct voice. I really enjoyed Liliane, the sophisticated French woman who finds herself widowed in unwelcoming Wellbridge. I also really liked the sisters Coralene, Marlene and Earlene and the subtleties in their relationships and Winslow’s hints of infidelity. Winslow also thoughtfully and sensitively explores family trauma and how they impact not just the immediate generation but the subsequent generations afterwards. The moody coastal atmosphere is also complemented by some ghostly visitors.

The only thing that was a bit challenging about this book was keeping track of all the families. Winslow helped a lot by providing a full family tree at the beginning of the book and then specific branches throughout, however reading an eBook did make it a little hard to flip back to the diagrams.

An immersive and insightful novel about the complexities of families, relationships and small towns.

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The Love Virus

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

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Image is of a digital book cover of “The Love Virus” by Eleni Cay. The cover is pink text against a pink and beige background of vertical computer code.

“The Love Virus” by Eleni Cay is a verse novel about a young woman called Katie whose life is turned upside down when she is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). Casting aside her studies at Oxford University and her fiancé, Katie struggles to adjust to her loss of mobility and requiring significant personal care while in hospital. However, in some chapters, Katie is on a retreat in a country called Andratalia. With two bickering travellers accompanying her, Katie tours this hot land and meets some of the curious locals. As the book progresses, the two realities converge and Katie must find her own path forward.

This is an original book, told in long form poetry, with some science fiction themes. Cay draws on her own experiences of MS and the strongest parts of the book are the visceral scenes of Katie having to relinquish control over her body to those caring for her. Katie’s friends, family and fiancé all respond in different ways to her diagnosis, and there are some really important messages in this book about consent and inspiration porn. Cay explores what an alternative variant of MS could mean, amplifying the uncertainty, fear and hope around experimental treatments for chronic conditions. I found the poetic style very readable, and the story had a dreamy flow to it.

I think that the part I struggled the most with were the scenes in Andratalia. The majority of the text in these chapters is the dialogue between Katie’s two travel companions bickering over their competing philosophies. While the purpose of this journey becomes clear later in the story, I was a little disappointed to see Cay falling back on old stereotypes to describe the local people of Andratalia. Given the book hints at themes such as global conspiracy, genetic engineering and experimental medication, I felt that perhaps Andratalia would have been more interesting as a futuristic tech haven rather than a tropical paradise.

This is a really creative book in both theme and in form that blends lived experience with fiction to consider life and love with MS.

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Filed under Book Reviews, General Fiction, Poetry, Science Fiction

Heart of Darkness

Novella about colonisation in the Congo

I was in the market for a new audiobook, and had made a shortlist of books that were both not too long and that I hadn’t read before. It was plum season, and I wanted something to listen to while I was outside picking plums. Audible had made a bit of a song and dance about the narrator of this book, and of course I had heard of it before, so I thought I would give it a go.

Image is of a digital book cover of “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad, performed by Kenneth Branagh. The cover is simply some palm fronds against a black background.

“Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad and narrated by Kenneth Branagh is a novella about a young man called Charles Marlow who manages to wangle his way into a job captaining a steamboat for an ivory trading company in Africa. On his journey to the station where the steamboat is moored, Marlow finds that he is following in the footsteps of a man called Mr Kurtz whose increasing success in the ivory trade and other pursuits appears to be accompanied by a deteriorating attitude towards the local African tribes. After significant setbacks, Marlow arrives at Kurtz’ station and is confronted by the full extent of Kurtz’ actions.

I think that the most significant and important thing about this book is that it is a critique and frank depiction of the horrors of colonisation in Africa. Given that it was published over 120 years ago, I was impressed at Conrad’s acknowledgement of (at least some of) the harm caused by colonisation and the theft of resources by Europeans in Africa.

However, I have to admit, I was just not that engaged in this book and even though it was only a few hours long, I frequently found myself tuning out and missed large swathes of the book. Branagh’s narration was maybe a little too soothing or something. I think that it’s also really important to note that while Conrad was clearly ahead of his time, this book describes significant violence against African people and does include some condescending attitudes towards African people. I don’t think that I can say it better than Kittitian-Brittish novelist Caryl Phillips who wrote, following an interview with Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe:

…to the African reader the price of Conrad’s eloquent denunciation of colonisation is the recycling of racist notions of the “dark” continent and her people. Those of us who are not from Africa may be prepared to pay this price, but this price is far too high for Achebe. However lofty Conrad’s mission, he has, in keeping with times past and present, compromised African humanity in order to examine the European psyche.

An important and certainly well-studied piece of literature that serves as a reminder of how important it is to centre Africian voices.

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Filed under Audiobooks, Book Reviews, Classics, General Fiction, Novella

Wild Horses on the Salt

Romance novel about escaping domestic violence and finding a new life

Content warning: domestic violence

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

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“Wild Horses on the Salt” by Anne Montgomery is a romance novel about Becca, a lawyer fleeing her abusive husband. She finds herself on a property in Arizona, USA that belongs to an old friend of her aunt’s who uses it as a guest house. Physically and emotionally bruised, it takes Becca time to open up about what has happened to her. The more she learns about the beautiful country she has found herself in and the environmental issues that threaten it, including the contentious mustangs, the more she begins to feel at ease among her new friends. Especially the handsome Noah. However, her husband is not about to let her go so easily, and Becca soon finds the safety of her new life under threat.

This is an interesting novel that sensitively approaches the issue of domestic violence. Montgomery explores the factors that can leave someone vulnerable to controlling relationships as well as the stigma, financial control and physical danger that make it so difficult to leave. From the outside, Becca is an intelligent, beautiful and successful woman and I think that books like these carry the important message that domestic violence can happen to anyone. This is a well-researched book, and Montgomery brings the Arizona landscape to life through the lens of Becca’s rediscovered passion for art.

However, there were some points in the book where Montgomery’s enthusiasm for description slowed the plot down a bit. The parts of the book that follow the journey of an unlikely pair, a stallion and a sheep, were interesting but I felt that thematically they could have been connected better to the main story as either a well-timed plot device or a clearer metaphor for Becca’s own journey.

A good approach to the difficult topic of domestic violence.

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A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing

Novel about a child prodigy all grown up

Content warning: sexual themes

This book was released this year, and I had seen it mentioned a few times on social media, so when I came across it while scrolling for my next audiobook, I thought I would give this one a go.

A Lonely Girl Is a Dangerous Thing cover art

“A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing” by Jessie Tu and narrated by Aileen Huynh is a novel about a violinist called Jena who once was famous as a child prodigy. Now in her early 20s, her life in Sydney is consumed with rehearsals, auditions and hookups. As her ambition for music reignites, Jena is forced to confront what happened to make her career come crashing down in her late teens. For Jena, the violin is everything, but it is not enough to keep the deepest feelings of loneliness at bay. As her liaisons grow more and more complicated, Jena struggles to balance her dreams, her friendships and her lovers.

This is compelling book that attempts to answer a question I have certainly found myself wondering from time to time: what happens to child prodigies when they grow up? Through Jena, Tu explores the ways in which talent, work ethic and family support each influenced Jena’s success and downfall. Tu also examines how the lack of meaningful emotional connection as a child has impacted Jena’s relationships as an adult, resulting in messy, overlapping friendships and casual sex. Although Jena seems to yearn for close friendships, she also can’t seem to avoid self-destruction and choosing the gratification of feeling wanted in a fleeting sexual encounter over friends. However Tu challenges the reader to consider whether the standard by which we judge Jena’s behaviour would be equally applied to the men she sleeps with. Tu also explores the sexism in classical music: in the music written, the music selected and the people who gatekeep it.

I thought that the narrative decision of sending Jena to New York to confront her demons and the limitations of her talent was very clever, and it was this part of the book where Jena undergoes the most introspection about her past and the possibilities for her future. I also liked how Tu explores themes of race, countering stereotypes in a subversive way and subtly comparing Jena’s experience as Asian in Australia with her experience in New York. Despite her perfectionist approach to music, Jena’s personal life is largely an unmitigated disaster and she is often selfish and blunt, making a litany of poor decisions. Her ruthless ambition and frank descriptions of her sexual encounters are a far cry from the stereotype of Asian women as meek and unassuming. Huynh narrates the story with a flat, deadpan style that initially I found a little disconcerting but quickly warmed to. I felt that it actually captured Jena’s way of viewing the world well, and helped to translate Jena’s lack of emotional connection into the lived experience of loneliness.

I think that the part of the book that I found the hardest to reconcile was Jena’s affair with Mark, an older wealthy white man who is in a relationship with another woman. Tu leans uncomfortably into the cliche of seeking validation from sleeping with an unavailable man, and we have to watch Jena overlook Mark’s racist and sexist comments, and increasingly violent, dominating behaviour in bed. Conversely, a character that I really would have liked to have seen more of was an artist Jena meets called Val. There were a few points in the book where I thought that Tu might be hinting that Jena’s desire to be Val’s friend might translate into the intimacy she had been unable to find elsewhere, but unfortunately Val remained a relatively minor character.

There is plenty more I could go into, especially about motherhood, but I’ll wrap it up to say that this was a raw, challenging and fresh book that left me with plenty to think about.

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The Book of Gold Leaves

Literary novel about love and conflict in Kashmir

Content warning: war

I picked up this book at a Lifeline Book Fair some time ago, and I was so excited it was back on this weekend after a long, COVID-19 hiatus. When I selected this book from the bookshelf, there was no doubt why I had chosen it at the book fair in the first place. The cover is stunning. There is a great little story at the end of the book where the author explains that the design is actually a photograph of his great-grandfather’s own painting – a tradition passed down from father and son. The book is embossed, and the floral designs just feel lovely to touch.

Image is of “The Book of Gold Leaves” by Mirza Waheed. The paperback book is gold with embossed, stylised floral art in reds and greens on the front. The book is pictured on a wooden board with rice and curry in ceramic dishes and two paint brushes.

“The Book of Gold Leaves” by Mirza Waheed is a literary novel set in the disputed area of Kashmir. The book is about two young people: Faiz, an artist who paints papier-mâché boxes, and Roohi, a university graduate who dreams of romance and gazes out her bedroom window. When Roohi one day spots Faiz near the shrine by her home, she contrives a plan to meet him through old school connections and by navigating proper decorum. While their connection is undeniable, after Faiz witnesses several very personal instances of violence, he is compelled to leave his terrorised city to train as part of an armed militia. Divided by distance and differing religions, can their love survive?

This is a beautifully written book that juxtaposes a classic love story against the slow erosion of freedoms that comes from living in a place experiencing conflict. The gradual takeover of a local girls’ school by the military was a heartbreaking metaphor not only for the loss of rights gained in the past, but for the loss of a future. Waheed imagines an armoured vehicle called the Zaal that literally catches people in nets and disappears them, morphing into a horrifying urban legend within the already terrified community. Waheed also juxtaposes the gentle artist Faiz, who dreams of painting a masterpiece inspired by a painting of Omar Khayyám, against how easily he trains to use assault rifles and make bombs in nearby Pakistan. Faiz walks a tightrope between his obligations to the militia and his desire for a peaceful, loving life with Roohi and Waheed does an excellent job of capturing this tension.

The only additional thing I will say is that Waheed is such an evocative writer and uses so much imagery that multiple times I found myself off on a daydream tangent thinking about ideas he introduces. This is a thoughtful book that requires some time to ponder about, but which has a lot to teach a willing reader.

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Filed under Book Reviews, General Fiction, Pretty Books