Fictional podcast about a death at a mysterious girl’s school
Content warning: bullying, suicide
The time had come to choose my next running audiobook. I was flicking through the options and came across this: a fictional podcast. I really enjoy fictional podcasts and I’ve listened to more over the years than I have reviewed on this blog because I’m never quite sure if they count as books. I actually find fictional podcasts (or radio plays) easier to listen to than audiobooks: I think the extra sound editing and production makes the story more immersive, and the voice actors make the characters more distinct. Anyway, maybe I should review more fictional podcasts but in the meantime, let’s start with this one.
“The Orchard” by Mike Jones and Mike Cowap is a fictional podcast about a detective and single dad called Adam Durwood who is about to resign from the force. His last case is to investigate the unusual death of a teenage boy by the orchard of an exclusive all girls’ school. His superiors are eager to write it off as a suicide but Detective Durwood is not convinced. He questions students and staff but their responses are confounding; hinting at the school’s secret history. As impartial as Detective Durwood thinks he is, something about the case is pulling him in and while he is distracted, something is pulling his daughter away from him.
This was a really eerie, well-scripted story with exceptional voice acting. There was a surprisingly stellar cast of characters, with Eric Bana as Adam Durwood, Magda Szubanski as Barbara and Gary Sweet as DI Simes. Bana in particular was a standout and captured the nuance of dogged detective and struggling dad perfectly. Each episode was only about 20 minutes or so, which was a pretty ideal length for a short run. There was quite a sinister vibe and I found this podcast really quite creepy to listen to when I was running by myself at night after work. The story covered a range of issues, and I thought one of the most compelling elements was the impact something like a catastrophic car crash can have on a family, the way we process grief and what you would do to get your family back.
As enjoyable as the podcast was, the closer I got to the ending the less convinced I was with the plot direction. I thought that there had been some really strong groundwork around the school, secret societies and the way alumni connections can be used to propel students towards success. However, the final reveal in the story took a completely different path that I found less interesting and much less convincing.
An enjoyable story with a great cast that didn’t quite land the ending.
Quite some time ago I started collecting these beautiful Penguin by Hand editions. There were six books written by women published with embossed covers inspired by different types of craft. I have three in my collection (so far) but have only reviewed “The Help” and “The Postmistress“. This book is just as beautiful as the others with a gorgeous tactile embossed design inspired by cross-stitch. I actually can’t believe it has been over five years since I last reviewed a book in this series. I feel like I have picked this one up and put it with a handful of books to read on several trips, but it has never made it to the top of the pile until now.
“The Forty Rules of Love” by Elif Shafak is a novel within a novel. The first story is about a mother called Ella who lives with her husband and three children. Her days are mostly spent on housework and preparing elaborate meals for her family. Despite being in the family home day in, day out, her family seem to be drifting away from her and her life feels meaningless. However, when she gets a part-time job reading for a literary agency, suddenly everything changes. The first book she is asked to read, the novel within this novel, is called Sweet Blasphemy by an author called A. Z. Zahara. This, on the other hand, is a historical fiction story set in today’s Iran in the mid-1200s about a Persian poet called Shams who befriends and becomes the spiritual instructor of an Islamic scholar known as Rumi. At the beginning of the story, we learn that Shams had a pivotal impact on Rumi’s poetry and that he was murdered. As Ella reads the story of Shams and Rumi, she begins to feel more and more inspired by love and decides to email the author.
I am no expert in poetry, but this book has just reaffirmed to me the strength of Iran and Persia‘s poetry tradition. My favourite parts of the books were by far the Sweet Blasphemy chapters. Shafak uses a range of characters to examine different parts of Persian society: a novice, a beggar, an alcoholic, a sex worker, Rumi, members of his household and even the person who killed Shams. There was an incredible magnetism between Shams and Rumi and even if their relationship was strictly platonic, it certainly felt very romantic. I also really enjoyed Shams’ rules and how each rule tied into the theme of each chapter. It was also a fascinating history of the origin of whirling dervishes.
I did find, however, that I was much less invested in Ella’s story. Somehow compared to the historical significance of Shams and Rumi and the mark they made on poetry and religion, Ella’s difficulties with her family, love life and career just weren’t as engaging. I could see that her story did serve to bring modern relevance to Shams and Rumi, but I’m not sure it was enough to keep me compelled.
A beautifully written novel, especially Shams and Rumi’s story, but a little unevenly paced.
A couple of years ago I listened to a book by this author and I thoroughly enjoyed it. A couple of months ago, I saw a trailer of a TV series adapting another of her novels. So when I was choosing my next audiobook to listen to while running, I thought I would try it out.
“Conversations with Friends” by Sally Rooney and narrated by Aoife McMahon is a novel set in contemporary Ireland about a young university student called Frances who is also a poet. She performs her poems together with her best friend and ex-girlfriend Bobbi. After their performance is noticed by renowned writer Melissa, she invites them to her home to be photographed for a feature article. There, they meet Melissa’s husband, an actor called Nick. As the novel progresses, Frances and Nick are drawn to each other, and the interplay between the four characters becomes more and more complicated.
While sometimes it can be difficult to discern pace listening to an audiobook, this is a slow-paced book that explores the power dynamics between emerging and established figures in the literary world. Outwardly quiet and composed, Frances has a tumultuous inner life where she is constantly evaluating and weighing up her complex and fraught relationships. Frances obscures her family life and financial situation from her new community and remains acutely aware of class differences.
I have to say, I did not enjoy this book nearly as much as “Normal People”. The magnetism and impeccable tension between Marianne and Connell was absent in this novel; replaced instead with awkwardness, repressed feelings and many, many things left unsaid. There are a lot of parallels between this story and “Normal People”: isolated young university student, a sexual relationship devoid of commitment, a summer trip to France (replaced with Croatia in the TV show). While the novel is hyperaware of Frances’ inability to confide in others and discomfort navigating all these complex relationships, it does nothing to get the reader onside. Despite McMahon’s excellent narration, there was no humour in this book. I didn’t feel invested in these characters or sympathetic to their lives. I didn’t feel like I learned anything or got a unique perspective. At the end of the novel, I was indifferent to Frances and who she might have a relationship with.
I have tried watching a few episodes of the TV adaptation, and I just couldn’t get into that either. I think, ultimately, this was not as engaging a story and ultimately I was left feeling disappointed.
Content warning: family violence, child abuse, racism
I first saw this debut novel being promoted on Twitter back in 2020 when author events were being cancelled left, right and centre. Now that we are starting to resume some in-person events here in Australia, I was very keen to go back to Asia Bookroom’s Book Group. Members can nominate books and volunteer to lead the discussion and I proposed this book. Unfortunately I missed the previous meeting but I was excited to prepare to present the book and facilitate a discussion. There is a lot going on in this book, so I will adapt my presentation to inform the review below to highlight some of the many themes and stylistic choices as well as to share my own thoughts.
“Bestiary” by K-Ming Chang is about three generations of women in a family: Grandmother, Mother and Daughter. Grandmother moved from Taiwan to Arkansas, USA with her second husband and two youngest daughters (including Mother), leaving her three eldest daughters behind. Years later, Mother has her own children including Daughter and her brother. The book goes back and forth between perspectives and stories of the three, linking them together with their shared history, shared heritage and shared experience as migrants in America. After becoming obsessed with digging holes in her backyard, Daughter begins to receive letters from the ground written by Grandmother to each of her daughters, sharing stories about their family history and revealing what happened to her four aunties.
This is a rich and complex book that is surprising and original at every turn. The book is divided up into chapters, each told from either Grandmother’s, Mother’s and Daughter’s perspective. Some of Grandmother’s chapters are told in the form of translated letters, with annotations by Daughter and her girlfriend Ben. There are parables, poetry, family histories and first person accounts all drawing on oral storytelling traditions and leaning into extreme subjectivity bordering on unreliable narration. I really felt that this book transcended what we would usually consider ‘magic realism’ and arrived squarely in surrealism. Chang certainly drew on plenty of examples of mythology and brought them to life in a literal way. I felt that the style and the structure were both chaotic in a complimentary way, and both served to highlight and obscure what was happening with the family.
I think one of my favourite parts of the book was Daughter and Ben’s relationship, and how parallels are drawn between that and Grandmother’s Grandfather (the pirate and his lover) and even Grandmother. I really liked how mythology and queerness are woven together, especially with children being created from queer love in quite fantastical ways. Chang said of writing queer relationships in her interview with LitHub:
they are transformed by each other, that they are literally alchemizing each other. I wanted their desire to feel fully embodied and sometimes even mythic, world-defining, almost supernatural, completely defying any definitions of what’s real or possible. Everything they want is possible. Their relationship felt like pure potential to me—while I was writing Ben in particular, there was this sense of rebellion and irreverence and redefining the rules she’s been given. Their desire is literally magic, and I wanted to channel that hunger. It felt so liberating to write them into the past and the future, to write them in a way that felt boundless.
I think one of the most striking (and honestly quite shocking) things about this book was the role bodily functions played in the story-telling. In addition to her characters frequently creating water (by spitting and urinating) like they enter water (lakes, rivers, the sea), Chang also writes a lot about digesting. The holes that Daughter and her brother dig in the yard consume offerings and vomit up letters from Grandmother. In an interview with the Rumpus, Chang says that she grew up talking openly about bodily functions and that she likes to balance the beautiful with the grotesque. She said something interesting about deciding what is clean and unclean is often a question of class. She also talked about how stories are told through the mouth, and so too is everything processed by the body. Stylistically, the way Chang engaged with bodily functions reminded me a lot of “The English Class” by Ouyang Yu, which was the first Asia Bookroom Book Group I attended.
Family violence is a significant part of the book and hand-in-hand with this is abandonment. In many ways the family is fractured and at times there are even threats with knives and thoughts of how to best defend oneself from violent family members. I think family violence ties very closely with the intergenerational trauma experienced by the family, not just because of the war and the occupation of Taiwan (set out with far more clarity in “Green Island“!) but also as immigrants in the USA. There were some very compelling moments of Mother and Daughter experiencing racism in schools. I also wondered if the surrealism style was a way to cope with some of the things that happened; treating trauma “irreverently” (like Chang says in an interview) and focusing on seemingly trivial things rather than the bigger, more traumatic memories.
As you may have extrapolated, this was not an easy book to read. As a reader, you have to put in a lot of time and thought into understanding this book and the things Chang is trying to convey. There are so many layers of metaphor, parable and surrealism that at times it is hard to know what should be taken literally and what should be taken with a grain of salt.
A challenging and at times confusing book full of colourful stories interlaced with beautiful poetic writing.
Thriller about marriage and infidelity on an Italian holiday
Content warning: child grooming
After recently moving house, it has come to my attention that my to-read pile is too big. In my heart, I already knew this, but in unpacking and repacking my shelves I have had to face the reality of the situation. In 2020 I had a go at The Quiet Pond’s #StartOnYourShelfathon challenge and managed to get through 21 books languishing on my shelf (which was over a quarter of my books read for the year). This year, I’m trying a new challenge: The Mount TBR Reading Challenge. I am not doing very well so far! It has been a busy and challenging year so far but I have finally had a bit of time to try to get back in the swing of reading. I was looking for some inspiration to help me choose my next book and this book caught my eye after reading about the Siracusa Principles recently for work. I can’t quite remember where this book came from (perhaps an ARC from Harry Hartog?) but it will hopefully be the first of many form my to-read list.
“Siracusa” by Delia Ephron is a thriller novel about two couples who decide to holiday together in Italy. When Journalist Lizzie and renowned writer Michael find out their friends Finn, Taylor and their daughter Snow are going to be in Europe at the same time, they organise a trip together in Siracusa, Italy. However, as the book progresses it becomes clear that the trip may not have been as innocent as it initially seemed.
This novel was told from the perspective of each of the adult characters, with Lizzie, Michael, Finn and Taylor each offering their take and thoughts on the events of the trip. Ephron is a clear writer and draws on the seascape and architecture of the city to underpin the growing tension in the novel between and among the two couples. Although she didn’t get any point-of-view chapters, by far the most compelling character is Snow. There seems to be an inexplicable discrepancy between how the characters talk about her and the things that she does and this, I believe, is the most interesting thing about the book.
However, ultimately I felt the book frustrating and hard to finish. All four characters are inherently unlikeable, and it is a strange position to be in when you find yourself spitefully hoping that characters cheat on each other. I’m not sure the structure of four points of view worked; even though it is a relatively short book, the chapters seemed to drag the same dirt over and over. I also didn’t find the voices distinct enough from one another to be truly compelling or to provide unique insight into the ill-fated trip. There was something quite uncomfortable about the way Michael and 10-year-old Snow interacted with each other. While all the characters applaud Michael for the “special attention” that he gives to Snow, the way their discussions are described (including, at one point, as a “flirtation”) just felt ick to be honest.
A novel with plenty of the pieces of a compelling story but perhaps not the right.
Literary body horror novel about women at university
Content warning: bullying, sex slavery, horror
Ages ago I requested this book on Netgalley not because I love rabbits, but because the description was really intriguing. Unfortunately it was in my early days of the platform and I didn’t realise you had to download books within a certain timeframe and I didn’t get a chance to read and review it. However, I have remained intrigued by this book ever since and eventually I caved and bought a copy for my Kobo.
“Bunny” by Mona Awad is a literary body horror novel about a young woman called Samantha Mackey who has won a prestigious scholarship to study creative writing at Warren University in New England, USA. There are four other students in the cohort, a clique who call each other ‘Bunny’ as a term of endearment. She and her only friend Ava privately make fun of the Bunnies, and Samantha has even come up with a special nickname for each: Cupcake, Creepy Doll, Vignette and the Duchess. However, one day the Bunnies invite Samantha to their Smut Salon, and slowly and seemingly despite her better judgment, Samantha is brought into the fold. With Ava all but forgotten, the Bunnies show her how they really use their creativity and Samantha has to decide where she draws the line.
This was an incredibly refreshing book and I am so glad that I went and bought a copy. Awad wrote with an exquisitely twisted clarity, shifting tones easily between Samantha before the Bunnies and Samantha after. Warren University is like an parallel universe where everything is a little darker, a little more dangerous and a little more possible. A big theme of this book is loneliness and isolation, and Samantha’s difficulty connecting with people was cleverly written. The characters are erudite and mysterious, and Awad seamlessly weaves in modern social issues into their conversations. There was a lot of interesting commentary about university culture, and the banality of academic privilege juxtaposed against the surreal events of the book was, in my view, far more captivating than other books set in universities I’ve read recently. There is an excellent twist to this book and I won’t spoil it by saying anything more, but while I had some guesses, I did not come close to appreciating the full story. I also really enjoyed Awad’s commitment to the rabbit theme with subtle references throughout the book.
There was only one very minor thing about this book that I found a bit difficult and that was keeping track of the Bunnies themselves. Of the four Bunnies Creepy Doll (Kira) was probably the most distinct, and while I appreciate that they were supposed to be a bit of an amorphous blur, it was a bit hard at times to tell who was who.
I honestly was so inspired by this book that I went and made a playlist to try to capture its very particular atmosphere. This book has such a unique flavour, it really got under my skin and I am so glad I went out of my way to buy it.
Spiritual historical fiction novel about multiple generations of an Aboriginal family
Content warning: racism, segregation, sexual assault
I heard about this book when it was first published in 2020, and it was longlisted for the Stella Prize and shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards (Indigenous Writing) and the Indie Book Awards (Debut Fiction). I picked up a copy some time back from the National Library of Australia and I’ve been looking forward to reading it for a while.
“Song of the Crocodile” by Nardi Simpson is a historical fiction novel interwoven with spirituality. The story opens with Margaret, an Aboriginal woman who works at a hospital in a country town called Darmoor laundry for pay and caring for otherwise neglected Aboriginal patients for free. When she loses her job through injustice, it is but one of a long series of injustices that are inflicted upon her family directly and indirectly by the white settlers of Darnmoor including her daughter Celie, her granddaughter Mili and her great-grandsons Paddy and Yarrie. Meanwhile, a sinister and ancient force lurks beneath the town, emboldened by plans to change the course of one of the town’s rivers. It is up to Jakybird, a songman created from a piece of his mother’s hair, to gather together spirits and ancestors to sing the monster Garriya back to where it came from.
This is a beautiful and complex novel that explores the bonds of family, and the violence of colonialism, from every angle. Simpson’s strength is character development and she excels at depicting the irreparable and cumulative damage inflicted upon each generation of the family by white supremacy. The characters themselves were very interesting, and I enjoyed the earthiness of Celie, the otherworldliness of Mili with her reflective eyes and the pain and self-hatred of Paddy counterbalanced by the love of his brother Yarrie. Simpson honours traditional storytelling and it is through Jakybird and the duty he is charged with that we try to make sense of the ongoing and evolving harm perpetuated by colonialism.
A challenging book full of heart and truth-telling and one that stayed with me for quite some time after I finished it.
Contemporary fiction about bushfires and unexpected fame
I received a copy of this courtesy of the publisher.
“Burnt Out” by Victoria Brookman is a novel about a young woman called Cali who is on the brink. She is on the brink of losing her marriage, losing her publisher, losing her cat and losing her home to bushfires. When disaster strikes, Cali’s impassioned plea to the government to take action against climate change goes viral and she finds herself offered the chance of a lifetime: a writer’s retreat at a billionaire’s pool house right on Sydney Harbour. Her patron Arlo is as handsome as he is wealthy, and with a brand new book idea, it seems as though Cali has landed on her feet. However, soon her situation begins to feel like a gilded cage and Cali begins to second-guess her creative decisions and long for for the peace and friendship she left behind in the Blue Mountains.
I obviously did not read the description of this book closely enough because when I first started reading it, I thought it was a non-fiction book about burnout, chronic work-related stress that I can definitely relate to. I was, therefore, a bit surprised to find that it was a general fiction novel with a touch of romance. I went to the Blue Mountains last year to support my husband run an ultramarathon, and the year before to stay with a friend, and I thought that Brookman wrote beautifully and convincingly about the terror of having a bushfire at your doorstep. When I went to visit in winter 2020, it was pretty shocking seeing how close the fires got to my friend’s house and the slightly monstrous sight of gumtrees furred with new leaf growth all over their trunks and branches. I felt that Brookman really captured the altitude and the culture of the Blue Mountains and the juxtaposition between the alpine region and the city of Sydney so nearby.
However, this book didn’t have the hot romance of “The Dangers of Truffle Hunting” with its equally unrealistic creative opportunities or or the deep contemplation of “Hare’s Fur” also set in the Blue Mountains. While there were moments in the book that were powerful, I found myself frustrated with Cali’s character. I felt that she made some ethical decisions that I was just not on board with, and her slight guilt wasn’t enough to dissuade her and there ultimately were no consequences for her actions. My favourite character in the book was Cali’s neighbour Spike, but he really got the short end of the stick in my opinion and was way too cool about it. In fact, several of the people within Cali’s orbit got the short end of the stick except for Cali’s whose main talent appeared to be ranting about climate change (without any qualifications whatsoever) after being plied with a couple of glasses of champagne.
An easy to read novel centred on the hard-hitting topic of bushfires and climate change, but that was lacking the kind of morality and characters that I was hoping for.
Novel about social isolation and finding your place
Content warning: child neglect, family violence, sexual violence
This book had generated quite a bit of hype following its release and I had a few people recommend it to me. The audiobook met my parameters (not too long) and after making a deal with my husband last year to go running 3 times a week, I have had plenty of opportunity to listen to audiobooks. Around the time I bought this audiobook, I stumbled across this rather damning 2019 article that (in addition to containing spoilers about the book) revisits some historic claims about the author’s ex-husband and his son while working as conservationists in Africa.
“Where the Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens and narrated by Cassandra Campbell is a historical novel about a young girl called Kya who grows up in marshlands in North Carolina in the 1950s. The novel alternates between Kya’s early life and a murder investigation nearly 20 years later. When she is 6 years old, Kya’s mother leaves her and her siblings to the care of her abusive father. One by one her siblings leave, until it is just Kya and her old man together in the shack on the edge of the marsh. For a time, the two of them begin to form a bond and her father quits drinking and takes an interest in teaching her how to fish in his boat. However, when a letter arrives that illiterate Kya is unable to read, things change for the worse and soon Kya is all alone in the marsh. As the years pass, her few interactions with the people of the nearby town Barkley Cove are cruel and exclusionary, and soon she realises that she can only rely on herself. However, when her brother’s old friend Tate strikes up a friendship with her, she is unsure whether she will be able to open her heart and trust someone again. Meanwhile, in the late 1960s, local police investigate the suspected murder of local star footballer Chase.
This is a compelling book full of the pain and loneliness of a young girl abandoned by her family, and the delicate hope she has that someone might be able to love her. Kya’s repeated rejection by her parents, her siblings, her town and her lovers is heartrending. Owens counteracts Kya’s extreme isolation with the solace she draws from the natural environment around her and the very few friendships she cultivates among the locals. I’m not sure if there is a word for nostalgia for something you’ve never experienced (if there is, please comment!) but there is something quite compelling to me reading about natural sciences in the mid-20th century. I think perhaps the romanticism of going to remote places to observe the world around you and contribute to the knowledge of humanity. Anyway, Owens certainly captures the salve the wilderness can be to the modern world. I also really enjoyed Campbell’s narration. There were elements of her style that actually reminded me of Moira Rose from the TV series “Schitt’s Creek“; something about the vowels and the clipped enunciation.
However, there were a lot of elements of this book that I found either trite or unrealistic. One of them was Kya learning to read. I think having read books like “A Fortunate Life“, and reading the far more realistic depiction of illiteracy in “Unsettled Ground“, I wasn’t quite sold on Kya taking to reading and writing so quickly being taught by Tate. Absolutely people can improve and gain literacy as teenagers and adults, but it is not the breeze that Owens makes it out to be and I cannot recommend enough the SBS TV series “Lost for Words“. I also found the murder mystery/court trial portion of the book far less engaging than Kya’s experiences growing up, and I found myself tuning out until the story jumped back in time. I also wasn’t sure about the Jumpin’ narrative arc: Kya’s friendship with the African-American owner of a petrol store (gas station for American readers). It just felt very tropey to me, and like a lot of these types of stories, Jumpin’ seemed to just be there as a plot device to solve problems for Kya in a very one-sided friendship.
A listenable story with lots of points of interest, but with some parts that were either dull, questionable or both.
Literary novella about friendship between two African American girls
Content warning: encouraging suicide, trauma
At the end of last year, I was deep into my Short Stack Reading Challenge and this book was in my pile. I can’t quite work out where it came from. A second-hand bookstore? The Lifeline Book Fair? Borrowed? It doesn’t have any prices on it to give any hints. I’m wondering if perhaps it just arrived in my street library one day. Anyway, I have read a few books by this author, and this one won the 1993 Novel Prize for Literature, so I was keen to check it out.
“Sula” by Toni Morrison is a novella about two African American girls called Sula and Nel who grow up together in a poor black neighbourhood called The Bottom in Ohio, USA. Although inseparable, Sula and Nel have vastly different home lives. Sula lives with her sensual mother Hannah and magnetic grandmother Eva, with a stream of men, boarders and children coming through the house. Nel, on the other hand, has a much more straight-laced upbringing with her mother Helene who was in turn raised by her strict Catholic grandmother. The book starts in 1919 with each chapter a subsequent year, with sometimes one year passing and sometimes several, until 1965.
This is a deeply complex and at times almost surreal book with incredibly strong feminist themes. Morrison explores the intense and fraught relationships that develop between mothers and daughters, between grandmothers and granddaughters and between friends. I really liked how she tested the different types of love with betrayals, resentments and blame on both sides. Sula and Nel’s different approaches to men and relationships proves almost fatal to their friendship and it takes time and understanding before what was lost can even begin to be reconciled. The book has an interesting perspective because despite being set in America and The Bottom developing as a community in the wake of emancipation, the only mention of white America is at the very beginning of the story. Morrison provides some historical context to the segregated community and opens the novella by describing plans to turn the neighbourhood into a golf course.
I found that Eva and Shadrack were the two most fascinating characters, and despite their respective disabilities and trauma serve as the truthtellers of this story. A provocative character with lapses of indecency and his introduction of National Suicide Day which encourages rather than prevents suicide, WWI veteren Shadrack is nevertheless tolerated and accepted by The Bottom. He provides an interesting counterpoint to the main story as well as a unique lens through which to observe Sula who later becomes a similar type of outcast. Eva also appears to see right through Sula and Nel, and despite her own very idiosyncratic life and questionable decisions, passes easy on those around her. She is especially scathing of bystander apathy and those who “watch”. She proves that on the other hand, there is nothing she isn’t willing to do for herself, her home and her children – even if her ethics appear somewhat misguided.
An intricate novella with some very unique characters that still feels fresh nearly 40 years after publication.