Category Archives: General Fiction

An American Marriage

Domestic drama about institutional racism

Content warning: racism, sexual assault

I first heard about this book when I saw the author speak at the opening event of last year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival. She told the most amazing story of how her book came to be, and after the event I ran to the foyer to try to get a copy for her to sign. Unfortunately, for reasons unclear to me, they weren’t doing book-signings so I have had to make do with an unsigned copy. With a jolt of inspiration, while I was writing this review, I decided to go on Spotify and see if anyone had made a playlist, and would you believe it? Someone had. Thank you to the Free Black Woman’s Library LA. 

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“An American Marriage” by Tayari Jones is an American literary fiction novel about Roy and Celestial, a couple settling into marriage and emerging success. Roy is making a name for himself in business while Celestial’s hand-crafted dolls are starting to sell for a significant amount of money. However, while staying in a motel while visiting Roy’s parents in a small town in Louisiana, Roy is arrested and accused of raping a white woman. Sentenced to 12 years in jail, he and Celestial write to each other while he tries to have his conviction overturned. However, the chemistry and fire that sustained them doesn’t seem to translate in the letters, and it gradually becomes less certain that when Roy gets out, there will be a marriage left waiting for him.

This is a wonderfully subtle book about a very real issue and the devastating impact that incarceration has on individuals and their families. Jones has an incredible sense of empathy, and is utterly convincing in exploring each of her character’s perspectives. For a book that was apparently inspired by an overheard conversation, you can certainly tell that Jones is a people-watcher and perceptively draws from each character their own voice, thoughts, desires, dreams, anxieties and observations about the characters around them. As the book progresses, and an additional layer of complexity is added with Andre’s point of view, Tayari’s flexibility as a writer shines through.

I honestly cannot get enough of books like this. Although Jones certainly does address issues of race in modern America, like “Letting Go” by Maria Thompson Corley, this is not a book about stereotypes and disadvantage but rather about the pursuit of love and excellence – black excellence – and the barriers that still remain in American society regardless of class.

As much as I enjoyed this book, I’m not sure that it will be for everyone. It moves with a quiet intensity that mirrors the way life feels: with some highs, and some lows, but mostly with a relentlessness as things unfurl in ways that you can never guess in advance but can always see in hindsight. This is a book that demands that you put yourself in another’s shoes, and walk these lives yourself. It’s an easy read linguistically, but it is not an easy read emotionally.

This is an excellent book about love, hubris and making the best of the life that you have. I can’t wait to see what else Jones publishes.

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I Do Not Come To You By Chance

Novel about Nigerian email scams

Unlike the title suggests, this book did come to me by chance. I am almost certain that I found it in my street library. As I’ve mentioned many times before, it is an ongoing goal of mine to read more diversely. Nigeria has a very long tradition of literary culture, and this is not actually my first Nigerian novel. However, it has such a unique theme that I was really taken by it when it popped up one day and I decided I’d probably better give it a read.

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“I Do Not Come To You By Chance” by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani is a novel set in Nigeria by a young university graduate called Kingsley. Known as Kings to his friends and family, he is the oldest son in his family, the opara, and with a brand new engineering degree he expects to walk into a job. However, despite his parents’ insistence that education is the key to success, the job market in Nigeria suggests otherwise. When the family faces financial ruin, Kings is forced to seek help from his wealthy but somewhat morally bankrupt uncle, the flashy Cash Daddy. Despite his parents’ condemnation of Cash Daddy’s business practices, Kings is tempted by the business of email scams.

This was a fascinating book that took something that is often nothing more than the derisive phrase “Nigerian prince scam” and uncovered the humanity behind a real phenomenon. Nwaubani compares the many different classes of Nigeria, both the different levels of wealth as well as the many different levels of poverty. She also goes into compelling detail about the mechanisms of how the 419 scams actually work and the kinds of people who attempt, succeed at and fall prey to. Nwaubani shows great skills in character development and the Kings that we meet at the beginning of the book subtly shifts into a very different Kings by the end. I also really enjoyed watching his siblings grow up and the ripple effect Kings’ decisions have on his family.

I think that although I loved the premise and that Nwaubani’s writing was very strong, the moral dilemma seemed a little drawn out. It seems strange to say this because I’m not that much of a romance fan, but I think that this book could have used a little more romantic intrigue. I completely understand that Kings’ focus is on money and his career, but I felt that he went from childish infatuation to hiring sex workers very quickly and there wasn’t much of a middle ground. Nevertheless, I think that this book could have used a little more emotional drama to balance out the moral drama.

A very interesting book that I enjoyed and look forward to leaving in my street library for someone else to read.

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Like Water for Chocolate

Mexican magic-realism romance

This is one of those books that everyone seems to nod knowingly when you mention its name. The title just rolls off young tongue when you say it, and is so evocative. I always thought it referred to the craving for water you often feel after eating chocolate. However, I later found out that it actually refers to a Spanish phrase meaning emotions almost boiling over, referring to how hot chocolate is made in Mexico. After watching the film adaptation of the book, I managed to somewhere find an incredibly battered copy of the book. The copy was so battered, it is literally the first book I think I’ve ever seen with an actual bookworm. Nevertheless, I was very ready to read it.

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My attempt at making one of the book’s recipes, cream fritters,. I think I under-cooked the custard, or under-beat the egg white, but anyway I only managed to fry up three of them before everything essentially disintegrated, so if any colleagues are reading this, I was going to bring this into work, but be grateful that I didn’t! Also, after the fiasco of trying to fry a fourth fritter, there was no chance I was going to attempt the complicated syrup recipe in the book (more egg white) so I just went went with golden syrup. They tasted OK in the end, like very rich eggy pancakes, but a far cry I’m sure from what Esquivel had in mind.

“Like Water for Chocolate: A Novel in Monthly Instalments with Recipes, Romances and Home Remedies” by Laura Esquivel and translated by Carol and Thomas Christensen is a Mexican magic-realism romance novel. The story follows Tita, the youngest of three daughters in the De La Garza family, who falls in love with a man called Pedro. However, as the youngest daughter, Tita is forbidden to marry by her mother who instead forces Tita to look after her until she dies. In an interesting twist of logic, Pedro decides to instead marry her sister Rosaura in order to remain close to Tita. However, confined by her duties and relegated to the kitchen cooking the most sumptuous meals, it isn’t long before Tita’s emotions start to seep out.

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My first book worm!

This book is simply delightful. I have a real soft spot for books that have recipes in them, and this entire book is peppered with traditional, hearty Mexican recipes. Real soul food. I love how intertwined Tita’s cooking was with her emotions, and I loved the subtlety of the magic that sweeps through the house whenever Tita becomes emotional. I also loved the story of Gertrudis, the middle sister, who is a beacon of sexual liberation and girl power. It’s a wild tale, with increasingly outrageous and unlikely events, and it is immensely fun to read. I really enjoyed Esquivel’s writing, and there is a tongue-in-cheek aspect to it throughout the entire novel.

I think that there were just a few things that were a bit annoying about this book. I found the interlude where Tita leaves the manor in a great state of depression to be really quite tedious, and the characters that were briefly introduced at that point to be pretty beige (although an interesting insight into the ethnic diversity of Mexico). I also wasn’t that sold on Pedro either, who seemed to be throughout the story an irredeemable idiot.

Nevertheless, a magical Mexican romp that will leave you in a state of incredulity. Definitely worth a read if you want something that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

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Like Water For Chocolate

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Filed under Book Reviews, Cookbooks, General Fiction, Magic Realism

Too Much Lip

Aboriginal family comedy-drama about love, land and luck

A new book club has started up at my work so of course I’m in the thick of it. We put together a list of critically-acclaimed and diverse books and encouraged people to choose whichever books piqued their interest from the list. Although this author’s work has been published extensively, I hadn’t heard of her before. I have been making a real effort to read more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors, so I thought I would start with this one.

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“Too Much Lip” by Melissa Lucashenko is a family drama about a woman called Kerry, on the run from police, who drops in to see her dying grandfather before fleeing across the border. When she arrives, her brother Ken is on edge, her mother Pretty Mary is a mess, and her nephew Donny won’t speak to anyone. Her girlfriend is in jail and she’s just met a dugai man who is very keen on her. The family’s beloved river is in danger, her backpack is missing and to top it off Kerry can’t keep her bloody mouth shut.

This is a necessary book that brings to life a dysfunctional but completely relatable family. Lucashenko has a real talent for realism and the small town of Durrongo and the Salter family are effortless to imagine. Piece by piece, she unpacks the family’s dynamics to uncover not only past traumas but to uncover a way forward. Kerry is a great point of view character through which Lucashenko explores the themes of power, racism and morality. Morally ambiguous herself, Kerry dances a fine line in almost every action she takes, seemingly pulled in several directions by respect for family, culture, money and doing what’s right. I thought Lucashenko did a really brilliant job of building empathy for the family while still being critical of their less-than-savoury actions.

Although I really enjoyed Lucashenko’s writing, characterisation and exploration of themes, I think the one thing I struggled with a bit was the plot. I completely get that part of the comedy was the outrageous actions and coincidences and everything being a bit extra, but there were a couple of parts in the story, particularly towards the end, that I would have liked a little more subtlety. I felt that Lucashenko already engaged the reader enough with the way she tackled real-life issues and wrote her characters, and some of the mayhem at the end of the book felt a bit superfluous.

Whichever way you look at it, this book is definitely a reality check. If you’re looking for an Aussie family drama about the kind of family that doesn’t get written about so often, this is a great book to try.

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Too Much Lip – Amazon Australia

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The Joy Luck Club

Intergenerational Chinese family drama about mothers and their daughters

This is one of those modern classics that I had never gotten around to reading. I think I picked up a copy at the Canberra Lifeline Book Fair , gathering dust, waiting for me to read it. Well, with the end of the year looming and me not nearly close enough to my 80th book, its slender spine beckoned and finally it was this book’s turn.

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“The Joy Luck Club” by Amy Tan is an intergererational family drama about four Chinese mothers and four of their daughters. Jing-Mei, An-Mei, Lindo and Ying-Ying all found their way to San Francisco in the 1940s and became close yet competitive friends over mahjong, food and gossip. However, while the mothers hold on to many of the old ways while keeping elements of their pasts secret, they have each become disconnected from their daughters who have been raised American. The books is divided into four parts, two of which focus on the mothers’ stories and two of which focus on the daughters’.

This is a rich story for such a short book. There is a real need for diverse stories, and Tan does an excellent job of taking eight women from similar backgrounds and showing just how diverse their experiences can be. I particularly enjoyed reading about the transition from traditional life as young women to being mothers in a new country.

It is a difficult task to conjure eight unique voices, and for the most part I think that Tan achieves it. However, because it is quite a short story and the point of view characters change so quickly, it was a little hard to keep track of who was who. Part of that difficulty is that the mothers themselves all changed quite a lot from when they were young and there weren’t always obvious connections between their past and present selves.

An important novel on the migrant experience, that is full of depth if occasionally a little muddy.

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The Joy Luck Club

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The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches (La petite fille qui aimait trop les allumettes)

Dark French Canadian novella about an isolated family

Content warning: death, neglect, numerous other things not mentioned in the review

So it was getting close to the end of the year, and my Goodreads 2018 Reading Challenge was stretching out in front of me looking mightily unattainable. I blame this book. To give myself a running chance at reaching my goal of 80 books, I decided to start aiming for shorter books. This one I think I must have picked up in the international literature section of the Lifeline Book Fair. It had a small spine. It would do.

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“The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches” by Gaétan Soucy and translated from the French by Sheila Fischman is a Canadian novella about a very isolated family. The unnamed narrator, one of two siblings, is awoken one morning with the discovery that their father is dead. Suddenly freed from the authoritarian existence he imposed upon them, the narrator decides to venture out to a nearby town to see about purchasing a coffin. However, upon arrival the narrator is faced with the revelation that their lives are not nearly as ordinary as they had thought.

This is a very short, intense book that juxtaposes flowery and archaic language with shocking revelations about the state of this family. Soucy uses the narrator’s extremely idiosyncratic way of speaking to obfuscate what is really going on, and piece by piece unveils the true nature of what has been happening on this isolated property through the narrator’s observations of other people’s reactions. It’s a very clever narrative structure, and an ingenious way to explore how what is horrifying to some can become normalised to others. An example of this is how the siblings treat their father’s body. They are both largely unphased by the death and the circumstances around it, and are surprisingly cavalier about arranging for his burial. The reasons for why they are both so desensitised to, and seemingly unaware of the significance of, his death slowly emerge as the story progresses.

Although this is a rich and layered book, it is not necessarily an easy one to read. I think that Fischman did a good job on the translation, but on a first read, a lot of the narrator’s thoughts and observations, as go over your head. I understand that it is meant to be a sort of anamorphosis, but in terms of readability, it is very dense and it’s easy to miss things. I think I also sometimes am a bit wearied with trauma being used as a plot device. A lot of books do it, sure, but I think I am started to get a bit frustrated with traumatic events being used as a ‘big reveal’. I would not consider this particular book to be misery lit. In fact, I think that it is a very literary noir novella. However, it is very heavy going thematically and becomes incredibly dark for such a short book.

A beautiful, intelligent and disturbing story that was delivered a lot for a $3 novella I picked up at the Lifeline Book Fair.

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(Adults Only) The Veiled Woman

Literary erotica by classic author

Content warning: sexual themes

A friend of mine has been introducing me to some feminist classics recently and bought me a copy of this book. I of course had heard of the author, probably most memorably through Jewel’s track “Morning Song“, which actually would be quite a nice accompaniment to this book. However, I have never read any of her work before, so again, thank you Kendall for continuing to expand my literary horizons.

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“The Veiled Woman” by Anaïs Nin is a small collection of erotic short stories. There are four stories in total and each one features young, accomplished characters who find an opportunity to explore their secret fantasies.

The interesting thing about this book is that although it is without a doubt intended to be erotic, it is incredibly literary. Nin writes with a delicate subtlety, relying on suggestion and inference to quickly build tension. Three of the stories are told from the perspective of women and one from the perspective of a man. The stories are quite playful, some with an unexpected twist or turn. Nin explores lesbian sex (Mandra), anonymous sex (Linda), voyeurism (Marianne) and power play, often placing one (or more) woman in a position of control and highlighting the strength and importance of female sexual desire. The stories were originally written in the 1940s and Nin without a doubt can be credited as a trailblazer for women in this genre. All of the encounters are very much consensual and the women are all very active participants.

It is a bit hard to critique erotica because it is a genre, like horror, that is designed to elicit a particular response. I think something can be well-written, but not necessarily good erotica, or vice versa. Of course, there is plenty of erotica out there that is poorly written and bad erotica (which, interestingly, seems to be awarded almost exclusively to men – though reading and writing erotica is of course very gendered). Although Nin is clearly an exceptional writer, and although these stories are obviously intended to be erotica, Nin lingers on the social detail of the stories and like your average novel, sex seems to be almost more a part of the story rather than the point. I think any erotic story needs to be a balance of the physical and the psychological. Nin’s stories in this collection perhaps teeter a little far on the side of psychological and could have done with a bit more lingering on the physical.

A book that was certainly incredibly risque for its time with exceptional writing, what it perhaps lacks in sexiness it definitely makes up for in compelling characters and scenarios. A very short book that is worth a read just for the historical value.

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