Content warning: sexual assault, gender violence, family violence
I must have picked up a copy of this book from the Lifeline Book Fair some time back. I love to look at the different books in the literature section and see if I can find books from other countries, and this one clearly caught my eye because of the vibrant cover. I picked it out to read for my Short Stack Reading Challenge in December.
“Buxton Spice” by Oonya Kempadoo is a bildungsroman about Lula, a young girl who lives in a fictional town called Tamarind Grove in Guyana. She and her friends play innocently among the trees, along the river and in the rooms in her family’s sprawling house. However, on the cusp of puberty they are becoming more aware of their sexuality and, at the same time, more aware of the political tensions in their racially diverse town and the types of violence women face in Tamarind Grove.
This was a very readable book and I loved how Kempadoo wove through Guyanese Creole in such a fluid and evocative way. Lula and her friends were a clever lens through with to observe Guyana’s post-independence era in the 1970s. As the book progresses, Lula becomes more and more aware of the ethnic differences between her family and others and Tamarind Grove and her father’s leftist leanings and progressive, vegetarian lifestyle become more and more dangerous. I also thought that Kempadoo explored class in a really interesting way and how it intersected with race and religion. There were some very provocative scenes in this book, and the author finds a captivating balance between illuminating violence and maintaining the Lula’s inherent playfulness.
A lively and spirited story that was as educational as it was enjoyable to read.
Novel about friendship, sex and betrayal living in a university residential college
Content warning: sexual violence, relationship power imbalance, possible suicide
I have been doing significantly more running recently, so I have been getting through audiobooks a little more quickly than usual. I have seen this book being recommended and when I saw it was available as an audiobook, I got a copy without even finding out what it was about.
“Love & Virtue” by Diana Reid and narrated by Emma Leonard is a novel set in a university residential college in Sydney. Scholarship student Michaela arrives in Sydney for her first year of university to live at the women-only Fairfax College. From Canberra, Michaela is a little set apart from her much wealthier friends from Sydney private schools. However, she throws herself into O-Week and campus drinking culture and soon makes friends with confident and opinionated Eve who lives in the room next door. They party together and have deep conversations about things like philosophy, misogyny and privilege. However, when their friendship is shattered by betrayals on both sides, Michaela finds herself having to reckon with the events of the past year and the harsh reality of campus life.
This is a fresh and authentic exposé of what it is like in the microcosm of a residential college in prestigious Australian university. Nearly 15 years ago I moved into a residential college myself and I was surprised at how much of the ritual and culture (except, of course, the ubiquitousness of social media now) still rings true. Drawing on her own experiences as a recent graduate, Reid’s story realistically explores the brittle friendships that form in these environments and the competitiveness and elitism among students. Toxic cultures on university campuses has been increasingly the subject of media storms with my alma mater (an elitist term right there) no exception. In her book, Reid explores the events that lead up to Fairfax’s own media storm and how the stripping of Michaela’s agency is almost worse than the trauma she can barely remember. The reader is asked to consider the morality of writing and publishing a story that is not your own, and the inevitable loss of control associated with either remaining anonymous or coming forward in a #MeToo moment.
At the same time, Reid explores the taboo of a student/professor relationship; slowly wearing away the gloss and power of an older man until what is left is just a man, banal in his mediocrity. I liked that Michaela was not a perfect character. She makes some ethically questionable decisions herself in both her studies and her relationship, and Reid captures the complexity of an 18 year old oscillating between extreme youth and mature intelligence very well. Leonard’s narration initially had a bit of a newsreader vibe to it but after only a chapter or two she found her stride and I found her very compelling with a bit of wry humour to her voice.
While I related a lot to Michaela’s shock of an essay mark in the 60s after coming from high school, I didn’t find the parts of the book about her studies, her quest for constructive feedback and her conversations about philosophy with other characters as interesting. I completely understand that the author was drawing on her own studies, but whereas the conversations with Eve about privilege were dissected internally by Michaela as either extremely insightful or downright hypocritical, the musings on philosophy did not really serve to move the plot or character development in the same way and felt more contrived. I found myself tuning out during Michaela’s conversations with the professor, and while her early conversations admitting her ignorance were believable, her intellectual sparring only a matter of weeks or months later seemed less so.
I think the pacing was not quite there either. Michaela puts an enormous amount of significance on a handful of individual events and courses, and seems to have an equally enormous amount of spare time where not a great deal was happening. I felt like either the sense that university is a blur of classes, working, studying, partying and meeting people could have been better captured, or a lot of the long conversations that weren’t contributing much to the overall plot could have been cut back.
I am enjoying reading books about ambition at all costs, and I thought that this book captured modern campus culture, what it means to be a victim and the spectrum of privilege well.
Novel set in India about a boy believed to be an incarnation of Vishnu
Content warning: suicide, family violence
I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher.
“Blue-Skinned Gods” by SJ Sindu is a novel about a young boy called Kalki who lives in an ashram with his parents and his aunt, uncle and cousin Lakshman who is also his best friend. Kalki was born with blue skin and his father trains him as a spiritual healer. People come from far and wide to receive blessings from Kalki, believing he is the 10th human incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu. To prove his divinity, Kalki must past three tests. However, as Lakshman begins to doubt his authenticity, and his home life begins to deteriorate, Kalki finds himself asking whether he is truly a god, and if he isn’t, then who is he?
This was a fascinating book about power, belief and control in the context of a family. Sindu takes the real phenomenon of children with facial differences and genetic diversity being worshipped as gods by their communities and explores what the reality of such a life might be like. This is at times a very challenging book thematically, because the power Kalki’s father (‘Ayya’) has over the household is almost unshakeable. Sindu provides a realistic insight into how family violence can gradually escalate, how dangerous coercive control and emotional abuse can be and how difficult it can be to escape. Tied into this is the ashram itself as not only a place for locals to pay respects and seek blessings from Kalki as Vishnu’s avatar, but as a commercial spiritual retreat attracting international visitors and generating income as a result.
Kalki is an innocent, open-hearted character who, despite living in such a restrictive environment, demonstrates a huge capacity to love and accept people for who they are. Sindu introduces lots of diverse characters including the lovely Kalyani, a transgender girl, and later the many types of people Kalki meets in New York. I really liked how Sindu explores Kalki’s sexuality without ever pinning him down to a single label. Kalki’s relative innocence and lack of worldliness leaves him vulnerable to exploitation, and his attempts to understand more about his identity and make sense of his past are underwhelming as a result. Going back to Sindu’s focus on spirituality, I really liked that she examines the human desire to believe in different contexts and how tied belief can be to a tangible personality. Without giving too much away, one of my favourite parts of the book was Sindu turning an adoption stereotype on its head.
While I liked almost everything about this book, I think the ending was the only part where I felt a little let down. For almost the entire book, Sindu had left the reader with a measure of uncertainty about Kalki’s identity, and I think I would have found a slightly more ambiguous ending more satisfying.
A creative and surprising story that tackles some difficult issues and challenges preconceptions about identity, faith and family.
Queer literary romance about identity and growing up
Content warning: sexual themes, reference to abuse
While looking for audiobooks that fit my strict criteria (9 hours or less), I came across this one. I had heard many, many things about this book because it was adapted into a film starring Timothée Chalamet who everyone is constantly talking about for some reason. I was really keen to see the film, but I decided to listen to the book first.
“Call Me By Your Name” by André Aciman and narrated by Armie Hammer is a Bildungsromanabout Elio, a 17 year old Jewish Italian-American boy whose parents have a house in Italy. Every summer, Elio must give up his room to a university student invited by his academic father to stay for 6 weeks. This particular summer, in the mid-1980s, the student invited is Oliver. Eminently cool in his seeming indifference, Elio is surprised to find himself extremely attracted to older Oliver. As Elio fantasises more and more vividly about Oliver, he begins to question what this means for his own sexuality and whether the erotic tension between them is truly unrequited.
This is an exquisitely written novel that is as much a love letter to the male form as it is an exploration of a young man’s transition into adulthood. Aciman’s prose is some of the most beautiful and compelling I have come across in a long time. He captures perfectly that teenage obsessiveness, where you get sucked into the vortex of every single detail of every single interaction. Where the time spent thinking about experiences that have or could happen is almost more intoxicating than the reality. The film was a great adaption, but it is a challenge to put on screen prose that takes place largely in the protagonist’s mind – especially when that prose is so captivating in its apparent raw honesty. This book is full of layers and layers of depth, and I found myself wondering whether the names Elio and Oliver were intentionally chosen because of how many letters they shared.
I think this story, in both book and film format, has become iconic. It inspired Lil Nas X’s song “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” and Sufjan Steven wrote a song specifically for the film that is just magical. The European summer setting is of itself so enticing, where intellectualism and hedonism intertwine in a sublime way. There are some iconic scenes in this book, and one of my favourites is where Elio’s father speaks to him about his friendship with Oliver. That conversation is such a fantastic template for a parent supporting their child’s sexuality, though I found myself wondering if part of the reason Elio’s father had such great empathy was the suggestion that he himself had experienced something similar.
I also have to say something about the narration, which was done by Hammer who actually played Oliver in the film adaptation. He did a phenomenal job narrating this book; and although the book is told from Elio’s perspective, Hammer’s familiarity with the subject matter brings a noticeable intimacy to an already very intimate book. He has a clipped, deep American voice that was very easy to listen to. However, I cannot laude his performance without mentioning the abuse allegations that have been made about him over the past year. I didn’t know about this at the time I listened to the audiobook or watched the film, and in fact it was only in reading more about the actors that I read about the allegations.
While the accusations levelled against the narrator may dissuade you from listening to the audiobook, I cannot recommend Aciman’s novel enough. I understand that he has written a follow up novel called “Find Me” and I am definitely going to read it.
Mystery thriller novel about a water diviner who finds a lost girl
Content warning: kidnapping, sexual assault, Alzheimer’s disease
I picked up this book at the Lifeline Book Fair for one reason and one reason only: the tinted edges. Like many of the books I have been reviewing recently, this is another one that has languished on my to-read pile. So between all the fantasy, the books turned into adaptations and the other books with tinted edges, I decided it was time to read this one.
“The Diviner’s Tale” by Bradford Morrow is a mystery thriller novel about a woman called Cassandra who, between teaching classes in remedial reading and Greek myths and raising her twin boys as a single parent, has followed in her father’s footsteps as a water diviner. One day while dowsing land for a property, Cassandra sees the body of a young girl hanged from a tree. When she alerts the authorities, including her old friend and local sheriff Niles, and returns to the location the girl, all traces of her is gone. Cassandra is under a lot of stress with family challenges, and initially people think she must have imagined it. However, when a different girl emerges from the woods after being reported missing, Cassandra must acknowledge the visions that she has had since she was young, and face the traumas of her past before they catch up with her.
This was a readable, character-driven book that has a really strong sense of place. From Upstate New York to Mount Desert Island, Maine, Morrow engages deeply with the landscape and using Cassandra’s skills as a diviner to explore the geology and flora of the area was a unique way to do it. I liked the tension within Cassandra and her dad Nep between belief in the artform of dowsing and worry that they are nevertheless frauds. Cassandra of course is named after the Cassandra of Greek mythology, and while this isn’t the first modern day interpretation of Cassandra’s prophecies I’ve read, it was well done. I thought that his depiction of a parent living with Alzheimer’s disease was done well, and I loved Cassandra’s relationship with her twin boys, and their relationship in turn with their grandparents. I also liked that her kids Morgan and Jonah began to develop their own identities as the book progressed.
However, this is a dark book and the elements of her past that Cassandra tries to forget are very confronting. While thinking back on this book, it occurred to me that overwhelmingly Cassandra’s relationships were with men: her father, her sons, her ex-lovers and her friends. Her relationship with her mother is a little tense, and while I appreciated that she had a reputation for being a bit eccentric, I think perhaps I would have liked more women in this book (aside from Cassandra herself) than mothers and victims.
A well-written book that is hard-going thematically at parts.
A couple of people had recommended this book to me, and when I saw it was available as an audiobook and less than 9 hours long (and therefore within my attention span), I decided to try it out. I was a little bit skeptical because the title and premise reminded me a lot of Audrey Niffenegger’s excellent graphic novel “The Night Bookmobile“. However, without examining it too closely, I chose it as my next running book.
“The Midnight Library” by Matt Haig and narrated by Carey Mulligan is a speculative fiction novel about a woman in her 30s called Nora whose life is falling apart. She’s lonely, she’s just lost her job and her cat has died. All her family are either dead or estranged. All her dreams of success have fallen by the wayside, and she can no longer think of any reasons to live and just wants the pain to end. However, after Nora completes suicide, she finds that things have not, in fact, ended. Instead, she has arrived in an enormous library full of books of all the alternate lives she could have had. Forced to closely examine all of her biggest regrets, are these other lives really better than the life she has chosen to leave behind?
Coincidentally, this is the third relatively new-release book I have read recently that uses speculative fiction to explore what happens after you die. Here is the first and here is the second, and I think this one is probably my favourite of them. This is a compelling book that gives an honest account of mental health, depression and the things that can lead to someone thinking about suicide. Haig skilfully and realistically conjures Nora’s alternative lives; and even her lives of dazzling success, wild adventure and complete contentment are grounded in the realm of possibility.
One of the things I liked the most about this book is how Nora’s mental health struggles were subtly woven into each possible life: emerging in different ways and requiring different treatment but nevertheless one of the constants. Haig uses trauma and grief to highlight how mental health can suddenly deteriorate, and that seeking help when you need it is crucial. While overall uplifting, this book is at no point overly saccharine or unrealistic about recovering from mental illness. Haig is honest with the readers about the work it takes to live with and live through depression. However, I liked that he took the time to write about the small positive ways you impact the world around you and that “success” comes in many forms. Mulligan was an excellent narrator and made Nora relatable and believable. I was a bit shocked however to learn that not everyone pronounces the word lichen the same!
While I enjoyed this book, there were a few points of logic that didn’t quite make sense to me. The first was in relation to the other Noras whose lives Nora stepped into. Via another character, Haig explains that the other Nora is simply absent and then returns with amnesia about what happened. Assuming both Noras are equally real, I think that the ethics of simply erasing someone temporarily, even if it’s another iteration of yourself, weren’t really adequately examined. I thought that Haig could have perhaps suggested something else instead, such as that the replaced Nora went to her own midnight library. I also felt that Haig several times suggested that Nora’s decision to pursue a particular career to extreme success necessarily had a negative impact on someone in her life, like a price that had to be paid, and I wasn’t sure that always had to be the case. I could nit-pick a few other examples, but I doubt anyone else is interested in quantum ethics and the experience of time and memories in a fictional scenario.
A well-written book with well-executed concept, it definitely leaves you thinking and gives you some great conversation starters to ask your friends.
Family drama novel about parents, poverty and isolation
Content warning: themes of control, parental death
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. This is actually the second book I have read by this author and I was looking forward to it.
Image is of the eBook cover of “Unsettled Ground” by Claire Fuller. The cover is a collection of colour flowers and fruit against a black background that on closer inspection appear to be wilting and rotting.
“Unsettled Ground” by Claire Fuller is a novel about twins Jeanie and Julius who unusually, at age 51, still live at home with their mother Dot in a small rural cottage in England. However when their mother suddenly dies, Dot’s carefully balanced, hand to mouth existence begins to crumble around them. The twins begin to realise just exactly how many secrets their mother was keeping from them, and how much she was keeping them from the rest of the world.
This is a disquieting novel that really resonated with me. When I was 18 years old, I lived in the West Midlands in the UK for about 6 months with relatives in a rural area, and Fuller really captured that village setting perfectly. Fuller unpacks in an incredibly realistic way how unnavigable society is for people who are disadvantaged, and examines in close detail the practicalities of life without access to a car, running water or electricity. I thought that Fuller handled writing about literacy difficulties especially well, and watching the recent TV documentary “Lost for Words” shortly afterwards helped me see just how accurately Fuller captured the stigma around lack of literacy but also the workarounds people develop to get by. The other thing I really liked about this book is the relentlessness of the life administration, even and especially in death, and how Dot doing everything for her children really left them unequipped to cope. Fuller pushes this scenario to its extreme, exploring each individual vulnerability to its limit while still remaining well within the realm of possibility.
While the setup for this book was extremely engaging, I’m not sure that in the end it landed. Fuller tiptoes around Dot’s character, and while I appreciate leaving some things to the imagination, there is never really much speculation about why she limited her children’s interaction with the outside world so much. Throughout the book, Jeanie and Julius learn more about their mother’s personal life through those closest to her, but never really why she had absolute control over the way the home was run and made absolutely no contingency plans whatsoever. Of course I accept that this happens all the time in real life, but in many ways Dot was the most interesting character in the book and we got only the faintest spectre. I also appreciate that people fall between the cracks, and it is hard to know what truly goes on in someone’s home. That being said, none of Dot’s friends seemed to think it was particularly strange that her two adult children in their 50s lived at home with her and had next to no life skills whatsoever.
Fuller proves again that she is a master of exploring the intricate and disturbing minutiae of an isolated life and if the ending is not full of drama, the journey certainly is.
Low-key thriller novel about an unconventional health retreat
Content warning: suicide, mental health
I received a copy of this book ages ago courtesy of Harry Hartog. I have been on a real adaptation kick recently so when I heard that a TV adaptation was being released, and given my very real lockdown attempt to finally get on top of my to-read shelf, I was inspired to finally read it.
“Nine Perfect Strangers” by Liane Moriarty is a low key thriller novel about 9 people who sign up for a wellness retreat at a place called Tranquillum House on a property in rural Australia. A bestselling novelist, a couple with relationship issues, parents and their adult child, a mother, a lawyer and a cynical man everyone seems to recognise each find themselves hoping to change their lives for the better. The charismatic Masha, director of the program and supported by her staff Yao and Delilah, is eager to lead each person on a personalised 10-day journey of wellness and healing towards a new life. However, after the first few days it becomes apparent that Masha’s methods are unorthodox, illegal and potentially deadly.
This was a very readable book with Moriarty’s signature character-driven style. The book changed focus from character to character, but was primarily told from Frances the writer’s perspective who was particularly endearing. Moriarty really teased out each character’s personality and traumas, and even though his family’s story was one of the more challenging ones, I really enjoyed the character of Napoleon and how Moriarty unpacked his nerdy cheeriness to expose the pain beneath. I also thought Ben and Jessica had a really interesting dynamic, and Moriarty explores how a drastic change in life circumstances can impact a relationship and different perspectives on cosmetic surgery. I thought she really captured the spirit of the wellness tourism industry with just the right amount of foreboding to keep things interesting. I really felt that Moriarty must have spent quite a bit of time researching, because the way she wrote about certain elements of the book was very realistic. The tension between the projected confidence about finding the answers to a fulfilling life and the self-doubt that affects us all was done really well, and Masha’s hubris was something to behold.
As readable and amusing as it is, this book is a little bit extra and there were a few parts where the drama felt a little excessive. While I really enjoyed Moriarty’s descriptions of Tranquillum House, there was maybe a little too much celebration of the colonial project and the house’s convict history and no recognition of traditional owners of the land. Seeing the modern timber and glass building in the (American) adaptation of the book, I felt that perhaps it was the better setting. The ending was maybe a little too drawn out and neat, but in these times far be it for me to begrudge a happy ending.
A spirited and enjoyable read with a good dose of histrionics and a very tidy resolution. While the TV series is maybe a little too Americanised and a little melodramatic, so far it seems well-cast and fun enough to watch.
Dark mystery about a wealthy Chinese-Indonesian family
Content warning: family violence, racial violence
When I first heard about this book, I knew immediately that it was a book I wanted to read. I lived in Indonesia for 5 years when I was very young, and another year for university, but have not read nearly as much fiction by Indonesian authors or set in Indonesia as I would like. I was already familiar with this author from her translation work, and after a bit of trouble finding a physical copy of the book (it has been republished in America under a different title), I found out that it was available as an audiobook. I was training for a run with one of my dogs (that we ended up not being able to go to anyway), and it was the perfect length and topic for my next listen.
“Under Your Wings” (published in the USA as “The Majesties”) by Tiffany Tsao and narrated by Nancy Wu is a mystery novel about a young woman called Gwendolyn Sulinado who is the sole survivor of a mass murder. As she lies in hospital on the brink of death, she reflects on her life and upbringing and tries to piece together what caused her twin sister Estella to poison her entire wealthy Chinese-Indonesian family.
This was a very enjoyable book for me and had lots of elements to hook me and keep me hooked. I have been lucky enough to attend some enormous Chinese weddings in South-East Asia and have experienced first hand some of the opulence that comes along with them, and I loved Tsao’s casual yet compelling descriptions of the wealth enjoyed by Gwendolyn’s family. While at university, I wrote a paper on the racism experienced by Chinese-Indonesians, particularly during the May 1998 riots, and I thought Tsao’s novel explored this historic racial tension from a unique and insightful point of view. Tsao acknowledges the privilege enjoyed by the Sulinados and other families in similar positions, and the necessary political deals and exploitation that leads to such extreme wealth. Tsao also acknowledges the tension between pribumi and Chinese-Indonesians goes two ways as discovered by Gwendolyn when exploring her family’s history.
Tsao also examines the issue of intermarriage between powerful families and how money, prestige and reputation are sometimes put before the safety and wellbeing of individual family members. One of my favourite parts of the book, however, was reading about Gwendolyn’s work mixing genetic engineering (something I love to read about), her passion for entomology and fashion to create beautiful dynamic garments. Wu was a perfect narrator for this story and her ear for accents captured the nuance of Chinese-Indonesians not only of different genders and ages, but who had studied in Australia as compared to the USA.
I think probably the only thing that I wasn’t completely sure about was the twist at the end. Without giving anything away and not to say that the ending didn’t fit the narrative, I felt that the story was already so delicate and complex, I didn’t think that it needed one more final reveal to make its point.
A beautifully written and beautifully narrated book that had me from the get-go.
Content warning: family violence, child abuse, animal abuse, emotional abuse
I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher. I actually read some of this author’s work when I was a teen and particularly enjoyed her biopunk novels, though this one is a significantly different genre.
“Shelter” by Catherine Jinks is a thriller novel set outside a small country town in rural Australia. Meg is a middle-aged woman who lives alone in a small property. A survivor of family violence herself, she agrees to take in a young woman called Nerine and her two small children and let them hide out for a while. Despite the secrecy, remoteness and lack of reception, Nerine is adamant that her violent ex while find a way to track them down. As more and more strange things happen, Meg begins to wonder if it is her own ex-husband they should be worried about and how safe her hideaway really is.
This is a tense read and Jinks really demonstrates her prowess at setting pace and a sense of place. Meg is a believable character who is at once capable and independent yet ultimately very vulnerable. The scars left on her psyche by her ex-husband grow more and more evident as the pressure in the book continues, and I felt that Jinks really captured the long-term harm that being in an abusive relationship can have on you and how insidious emotional abuse in particular can be. Throughout this book, Meg second-guesses herself and her hesitation and lack of faith in herself ultimately impacts the way other people treat her and leaves her open to further exploitation. Heartbreakingly, I felt that Jinks wrote about how abusive families can impact children very authentically and the scenes with Ana were particularly compelling and upsetting.
However, this is not a feel good story and ultimately the ending felt very unsatisfactory. I appreciate the point I believe Jinks was trying to make about the justice system and how an emotional abuser can continue to indirectly cause you harm long after the relationship has ended. However, as the climax of the books unfolds and the impact of what happened becomes clear, I found it a little hard to suspend my disbelief. I know that Jinks has likely been inspired by (slight spoiler if you click through) this case, but I think that the Epilogue just felt a bit off to me. As I finished the book, I had a bitter taste in my mouth and I’m not sure Meg got a fair shake of the stick. Perhaps that was Jinks’ intention.
A complex, challenging and deeply uncomfortable novel that explores emotional abuse from a fresh and disturbing perspective.