Category Archives: General Fiction

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.

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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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Tin Man

Novel about love, loss and living a life

Another find from the Lifeline Book Fair, I picked up this book because of its striking yellow and blue cover, and bought it because of the author. I read Sarah Winman’s “When God was a Rabbit” shortly after it came out, and I remember being very struck by the book at the time. I actually have her second book on my shelf to read as well, but I decided to tackle this one next.

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My partner very kindly modeled for me

“Tin Man” by Sarah Winman is a novel set in an industrial UK town from the 1950s to 1990s about two men, Ellis and Michael. In the first half of the book, the narrative flits between past and present, and we learn that Ellis is mourning the death of his wife Annie. However, as his moves through the motions of trying to keep going, his thoughts keep drifting back to the past and his mother, his father and his best friend Michael, who moved to their town when he was 12. The second part of the book is told from the perspective of Michael, whose journals shed light on the intensity of his friendship with Ellis and the hardship of being a gay man in London during the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

This book isn’t very long, not much longer than a novella, yet Winman crams entire lives between these pages. She is without a doubt a beautiful writer and excels in her relationships, capturing their complexity and fluidity over time. Ellis and Michael are great contrasting characters and Winman is able to shift narrative perspective completely, examining events through two different experiences. I think I particularly enjoyed the character of Ellis, who Winman depicts as a very young soul who struggles to find a sense of self among the strong personalities in his life. She picked a clever title for this book, referencing both the career Ellis is stuck in as well as his emotional state. I also really enjoyed Ellis’ mother Dora. The opening chapter about the story of how she came to possess a painting was enthralling in its banality about a raffle ticket at a community centre, and I, perhaps like Ellis, found myself wishing that there was more of her in the novel.

This is a surprisingly difficult book to review, especially without revealing too much of the story. I completely understand Winman’s message, and how constrained so many people felt (and still feel) by society when it came to loving who they love. However, the theme of same-sex love being sidelined for heterosexual love when one charactergrows out of it” is a theme I’ve come across many times in very well-known works such as “Brideshead Revisited”, “the Color Purple” and even the “Tales of the Otori” series. Perhaps it would have been better if the character of Annie had been fleshed out a little more, but of all the characters in the story, she remains the most mysterious. Everyone seems to automatically adore her, but we as readers don’t really get much opportunity to understand why.

An intricate novel that I think will touch many people, even if it tackles some familiar themes.

 

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The Testaments

Sequel to “The Handmaid’s Tale”

This book hardly needs an introduction. Everyone has been talking about Margaret Atwood since her prize-winning novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” was made into a television series and commenting at length about the extent to which the story mirrors current events today. The original novel ends rather abruptly, but with the TV series now renewed for a fourth season, it has gone far beyond the ambit of the original novel. So when Margaret Atwood announced that 34 years after the original novel she would be publishing a sequel, there was a huge amount of interest. The interest was compounded when she (somewhat controversially) was awarded the Booker Prize for the new novel jointly with author Bernadine Evaristo. I have a fraught relationship with Margaret Atwood’s writing. Some of her books like “Cat’s Eye” and “The Blind Assassin” I would name among my favourite novels of all time. Others, like “The Heart Goes Last” and “The Robber Bride” left me lukewarm. Buying this eBook left me feeling a bit apprehensive, but with tickets to see her speak in Canberra just next month, I knew I had to read her new book.

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“The Testaments” by Margaret Atwood is a dystopian novel set approximately 15 years after the events of her acclaimed novel “The Handmaid’s Tale”. There are three point of view characters: Lydia, Agnes and Daisy. Lydia is an Aunt: a high-ranking woman governing and implementing laws about women in Gilead, the nation formerly known as the USA. Agnes is an adopted daughter of a Commander in Gilead who escapes an arranged marriage by agreeing to become a Supplicant: a future Aunt. Daisy, also an adopted daughter, lives in Canada. However when her parents are victims of a terrorist attack, Daisy learns her true identity and become essential to Mayday: an underground resistance movement.

“The Handmaid’s Tale” ended on a cliffhanger, and for those readers who were desperate to know what happens next, to Gilead as much as to Offred, this book certainly answers those questions. Atwood is at her strongest in Lydia’s flashbacks to her arrest when the government was overthrown and Gilead was first established. I felt like the scenes where successful, “immoral” women were detained inside the stadium were realistic, compelling and deeply disturbing. I also felt that Atwood was asking the reader an important question: can the means always justify the ends? The idea of Supplicants to be a interesting form of subversion.

However, this is a bit of a tricky book to review. In some ways, we are living in a time of sequels, prequels, retellings and reboots. There seems to be a chronic inability to leave things to the reader’s imagination. I’m not going to go into depth about a related pet peeve of mine: unnecessarily verbose fantasy novels, but it’s a similar problem. The books I’m enjoying the most right now are those that leave me wanting more. Apart from exploring what it means to be a Supplicant, I wasn’t sold on Agnes’ story and Daisy’s story, while certainly the most action-packed, seemed chaotic and the plan to infiltrate Gilead felt flimsy. Maybe ultimately it was a question of scale. In a classic fantasy or science fiction novel, I would happily suspend my disbelief that a nobody becomes a chosen hero who saves the day mostly through luck and timing. For a story that purports to be a realistic alternative future, it was hard to be convinced. Neither Agnes nor Daisy were particularly compelling characters, and I found myself mostly looking forward to Lydia’s chapters hoping for more flashbacks.

I haven’t read Evaristo’s novel, the other winner of the 2019 Booker Prize, but I am a little surprised that this was a joint winner. For fans of the TV series and original novel, this will fill in plenty of gaps and show old characters in new light. However, I think that “The Handmaid’s Tale’ was excellent as a standalone novel and while this sequel is fine, it was not necessary.

 

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If Cats Disappeared from the World

Japanese magic realism novel about death and the little things

I had noticed this little book a while ago in a bookshop. It has a striking cover, a ink black cat with eyes embellished with gold foil that makes it look like it’s staring right at you. I noticed it, but didn’t buy it. Then one day I was checking my street library, and a copy was sitting right inside. Of course I had to read it.

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Thank you to my colleague Ingrid and her obliging cat Callie for these great photos

“If Cats Disappeared from the World” by Genki Kawamura and translated by Eric Selland is a Japanese magic realism novel about an unnamed postman who is diagnosed with stage 4 brain cancer. Distraught, the narrator is offered a deal by the Devil, who appears as his doppelganger, as a way to prolong his life. For every additional day the narrator chooses to live, the Devil will remove an item from the world. The first item seems simple: telephones. However reminiscing about his ex-girlfriend and their relationship which was conducted primarily over the telephone, leads the narrator to reconnect with her one last time. The next item, television, also becomes problematic. When the Devil proposes cats, the narrator is faced with making Cabbage, the cat he inherited from his mother and who has suddenly started speaking, disappear.

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This is an unusual little novel with an intriguing premise: how much of the world can you remove before life isn’t worth living? I quite enjoyed the story of an ordinary man, with an ordinary job, who is faced with the reality of his unremarkable life just before his untimely death. I liked how the author explored the way that the narrator had allowed himself to become isolated, and how he had lost contact with those most important to him and how ultimately, in the wake of his mother’s death, he had himself become lost.

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It’s difficult to review a book when you like the idea but not the execution. I want to say something first about the translation, because it’s not clear how much of my criticism is due to the translation, and how much is due to the writing itself. I think that Kawamura has a relaxed, minimalist narrative style that Selland has adapted into a modern American tone. While occasionally drawing on global elements at points in the story such as Christian iconography, the Devil’s choice of attire and his travels with his ex-girlfriend overseas, there is not a very strong sense of place in this book.

While I understand that the narrator is meant to be a generic everyman, with nothing distinctive about his life except his feelings and relationships, I struggled to find a foothold while reading. I think that overall, Kawamura probably spent a little bit too long spelling out exactly what the author was thinking and feeling at any given time, and not really enough on fleshing out the novel’s strength: exploring the idea of what would happen if things started disappearing from the world. Maybe that would be the difference between magic realism and science fiction, but I think I would have preferred Kawamura to have committed more fully to his concept and spent less time the exposition of a backstory that I wasn’t invested in.

An interesting concept that felt like it needed colouring in.

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Opioid, Indiana

Novel about disadvantage and coming of age

Content warning: drugs, mental illness, suicide

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

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“Opioid, Indiana” by Brian Allen Carr is a novel about 17 year old Riggle who ends up living with his uncle in a rural Indiana town in Trump’s America after his parents have died. When Riggle is accused of having a marijuana vape pen, he is suspended from school for 5 days. Careful to conserve his mobile phone data and avoid his uncle’s wrath, Riggle tries to think of what to do for the week. However, when his uncle’s girlfriend tells him that his uncle is missing, he realises that if they can’t come up with the $800 rent that’s due, they’re going to have nowhere to live. So starts 5 days of Riggle looking for his uncle, finding work, meeting locals and chatting with Remote, a shadow puppet his mother introduced him to who explained how the days of the week got their name.

This is an engrossing book that explores a number of issues that continue to impact disadvantaged rural areas under the leadership of President Donald Trump. Poverty, drug addiction, grief, depression, suicide, lack of job opportunity, lack of housing security, mental illness, gun violence, school shootings and Confederate flags all take their toll on Riggle. However, I found him to be a really warm and interesting character despite the significant amount of hardship he had endured, not least of which was losing both his parents.

Very few books about orphans deal with the trauma of parents dying in a meaningful way, and I felt that Carr’s use of Remote as both a comforting remnant of childhood as well as a lens through which Riggle sees the world as inspired. Other things that his mother taught him, such as making an omelette, end up opening doors for Riggle that he didn’t even know were there. I also thought that Carr introduced an intriguing bit of unreliability into Riggle’s story when he begins to notice people making a particular shape with their hands that looks like Remote, suggesting that Riggle is unconsciously seeking meaning in a world that makes no sense.

There are a lot of themes woven through this book, and one that I think I would have like a little more developed is Riggle’s friendship with Bennet. Bennet, an easygoing biracial character with a loving yet strict mother, draws out an sense of intimacy from Riggle. However, given how important friendships are during times of difficulty, and given the distance from Riggle’s only other friend, I think I would have liked to have seen this friendship developed a little more.

A well-constructed and unique novel, I’m surprised it hasn’t received more acclaim.

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Malibu Motel

Cautionary tale about a lottery-winner’s fall from grace

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

“Malibu Motel” by Chaunceton Bird is a novel styled as being based on the true story of a lottery-winner. The story follows Caish Calloway, living the high life in California happily spending their winnings on partying, property and cars and investing in ventures that go nowhere. When Caish hears about a particular opportunity, they are quick to invest and when the returns are good, Caish invests more. If it sounds too good to be true, it is, and Caish soon finds themselves with only a few million of their winnings left. Enough for most people to live on for the rest of their lives, Caish is in denial and refuses to abandon their life as a high-flier. Convinced that another win is just around the corner, Caish soon begins a slow slide into chaos, bringing many people down along with them.

This is a really interesting story about a unique but not impossible premise: how do you live your life after you win the lottery? Bird creates a character full of hubris who sees the win not as luck but as destiny and something that was earned through hard work and perseverance. However, Caish’s overconfidence and entitlement is ultimately their downfall and Bird explores how capitalism, materialism and even religion play a part in Caish’s undoing. One thing that Bird really excelled at was dramatic irony, and the audience can see Caish’s mistakes coming a mile a way. Bird also explores the mental gymnastics Caish performs to absolve themselves of any personal responsibility for their failings whatsoever. Anyone reading this will immediately be reminded of a Caish that they know. I really enjoyed that Bird added to the mystery and the universality of the story by withholding many of the personal attributes of his characters, in particular gender.

Without giving too much away, at the end of the book there are copies of official documents with identifiable information redacted. Initially I was a bit uncomfortable with them included, because I felt that it may have crossed the line into invading someone’s privacy by sharing such intimate information. However, I since read that Bird’s inspiration was actually another person which I think explains the strength of Caish’s characterisation. I think unfortunately in this case the thing that let the book down the most was the proof-reading.

Like a train wreck you can’t look away from, this is an immersive book about human folly that should absolutely be read while listening to this song.

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The Ice Palace

Norwegian literary novel about a missing schoolgirl

Content warning: missing child

While on my trip to Northern Europe, I wanted to read a book from every country I visited. This book is hailed as a Norwegian classic, and I was keen to try something a bit different to Scandi Noir.

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“The Ice Palace” by Tarjei Vesaas and translated by Elizabeth Rokkan is a literary novel about a young girl called Siss who meets a new girl in school just as winter is setting in at her small Norwegian town – freezing the river solid. Although Unn is much more reserved than popular Siss, Siss is nevertheless drawn to her and the two girls spend an intimate evening playing together. The next day, after Unn skips school to explore a frozen waterfall, the town bands together to try and find her. One of the last to see her, Siss is grilled for answers as to where she may be. While Unn remains missing, Siss is also at risk of being lost.

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Icicles on traditional houses just outside Oslo, Norway

This is a beautiful, eerie novel that explores the intense yet fragile nature of the friendship of young girls. I don’t like to compare books too much, but it reminded me of “Picnic at Hanging Rock” and “Cat’s Eye” by Margaret Atwood. It had a similar dreamy quality juxtaposed against the sharp clarity of friendship, made all the more dramatic by the captivating yet deadly winter landscape. The opening scenes of the book with the cracking sounds of the ice in the darkness and the frozen beauty of the waterfall was mesmerising. This is quite a short book, almost a novella, and I am still haunted by it. Vesaas knows exactly how much information to give to the reader, and exactly how much to withhold. I also thought that he provides the reader with an incredible insight into the life-shattering and unresolved grief that comes with knowing someone who has gone missing.

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A waterfall on our way to Aurlandsfjord and Nærøyfjord

This was an excellent, haunting book that is an ideal novel for travelling through the spectacular scenery of Norway.

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