Category Archives: General Fiction

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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Impeccable Petunia

Novellas about the life and times of an artistic chicken

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

Big thank you to my colleague Kez for these fantastic photos

“Impeccable Petunia Part I: Claws, Paws, Feathers and Jaws” and “Impeccable Petunia Part II: The Two Tails” by Katie Christine and illustrated by Jonathan Edward are two parts in a series about a young backyard chicken called Petunia. Low on the pecking order which is determined by breed, size and ferocity, Petunia instead spends her time tending to a little corner of the yard. When her talents for colour and arrangement are spotted by the woman who lives in the house, Petunia is privileged to be invited inside to oversee the interior decorating. However, while Petunia is busy with her new vocation, the politics of the hen house are soon overshadowed by a much more deadly threat.

These two books are quirky tales told in the style of animal stories. Christine is a descriptive writer who shines a new perspective on the everyday detail of an average backyard. I enjoyed the chicken politics the most and I very much enjoyed the enigmatic cat Macy, whose character is developed further in the second book. The second, longer, book goes off campus and Petunia experiences more adventures in a dangerous, urban setting.

One of the things I struggled with a bit about this book was the pacing. I think occasionally Christine got caught up in the detail of the physical environment at the expense of what was happening in the plot, and occasionally it was a bit hard to follow what was going on.

An original story that makes you think that those ladies in your backyard may have more complex lives than you ever imagined.

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Milkman

Man Booker Prize-winning novel 

Man Booker Prize winners always seem to be a bit of a mixed bag for me. Some I love, some not so much. I’ve read quite a few of them, and even tried to join in on the Man Booker 50 Challenge last year (with poor success). Of course, since last year, the prize is now known as the Booker Prize after a bit of a funding reshuffle. Anyway, this book won the 2018 Man Booker Prize and apart from being the first author from Northern Ireland to win the prestigious award, she has also been very frank about her financial situation following finishing her novel. It has a striking cover and after picking up a copy a while back from the National Library of Australia’s bookshop, I finally got around to reading it.

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“Milkman” by Anna Burns is a novel told by an unnamed narrator, in an unnamed town, in an unnamed country. The narrator, referred to variously as middle sister, daughter, sister-in-law and maybe-girlfriend, lives in a town with what is described as “political problems”. Rife with gossip, the people in the town are constantly examining each other for signs of who is a renouncer and who is an informer. The narrator tries to keep her head down, looking after her wee sisters, reading books, jogging through the park, meeting up with her maybe-boyfriend. However, when she is the one people are gossiping about and she starts to attract the attention of a man known only as Milkman, the narrator finds keeping her head down is not as easy as she thought.

This is a complex, intricate novel inspired by The Troubles in Northern Ireland, but universal to any political conflict. The book has a thoughtful, idiosyncratic style with the narrator carefully using pseudonyms and scrupulously describing concepts and events in abstract and often over-complicated ways. Burns is an intelligent writer who, through her unique storytelling, unpacks the tension of living through political instability as well issues specific to being a young woman. Although to the reader, the narrator doesn’t seem so unusual, her hobbies and behaviour are subject to intense scrutiny by her mother, her family and her community. Her seemingly innocuous hobbies of book-reading and jogging are judged by those around her, not so much because they themselves care, but because they are worried what everyone else will think. However, at the heart of the story is the way the narrator is followed by Milkman and his associates, and the way that everyone in the community assumes that it is her fault.

However, this is not an easy book to read. It took me a really long time to get through this book and the writing style, as unique as it is, it is at times very difficult to immerse yourself in. I think there was a point, maybe three quarters of the way through, where I finally clicked with the book. However, that is a long slog for a reader. As insightful and intelligent as this book is, you have to work really hard to get to the end of it, and I think that this would affect the accessibility of this book to a lot of people. 

A perceptive, original and highly intellectual book, that I think a lot of people might find a bit hard to get into.

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