Category Archives: Novella

Buxton Spice

Coming of age novella set in Guyana

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.

Image is of “Buxton Spice” by Oonya Kempadoo. The paperback book is balancing on a plum tree branch overhanging a brown corrugated fence. The branch has several reddish plums that are almost ripe and there is a large praying mantis next to them. The cover is of a very magnified yellow and red hibiscus flower.

“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.

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Filed under Book Reviews, General Fiction, Historical Fiction, Novella

Drowned Country

Queer fantasy novella about love and forgiveness

I was thrilled to launch my Short Stack Reading Challenge in December, and it was so successful I actually have quite a backlog of reviews. I was especially looking forward to this book which is a sequel to “Silver in the Wood” which I adored. Publication was a bit delayed because of COVID-19 but I ordered a copy as soon as I could. If you haven’t read the first book yet, please note there will be inadvertent spoilers.

Image is of “Drowned Country” by Emily Tesh. The paperback book is resting in front of a plant with long, thin leaves and another plant with a strange bulbous red stalk. The cover is of an island with a ruin on it, with the land extending into an olive green sea like a blade.

“Drowned Country” by Emily Tesh is a sequel to her novella “Silver in the Wood”. Some years have passed since the events of the previous book, and Henry Silver has sunk into a deep, grimy depression. His enthusiasm for an adventurous life as the Wild Man of Greenhollow has waned and he struggles to fill the days with the same careful routine that Tobias Finch did. When his mother calls on him to require his assistance dealing with a dangerous creature, Silver reluctantly agrees. However, when he reaches the coastal town of Rothport, he finds much more than he bargained for.

I was so happy to step back into Tesh’s world with these beloved characters. In this story, we get much more of Silver’s perspective and insight into some of the immaturity and indecision behind his signature charm and wit. There are some very funny moments in the book, and plenty of melodrama. The relationship between Silver and his mother is complicated and amusing. I also enjoyed Tesh’s exploration of relationships and working through guilt, trust and communication. Seeing Finch’s taciturn nature from the outside was frustrating but I finally had a bit more empathy for all the other characters.

I think that while I enjoyed revisiting this setting, the murkiness of the atmosphere spilled over a little into the plot. Tesh plays with parallel worlds and liminal spaces, stepping into another realm that was reminiscent of the dead city of Charn in “The Magician’s Nephew” by C. S. Lewis. However, I didn’t quite feel the same cohesiveness as I did in the first book. Tesh flickers the narrative back and forth in time to unveil what happened between Silver and Finch, but this time around I didn’t feel as invested. I love novellas but it was almost like the book needed a bit more exposition for the reader to understand how everything fit (or didn’t fit) together.

A fun, tangled book that I liked; just not as much as the first one.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Fantasy, Novella

An Irish Country Yuletide

A Christmas-themed novella from the Irish Country series

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. It has been a couple of years since I reviewed a Christmas-themed book, and I thought I would save this review for the first day of December and, incidentally, my inaugural Short Stack Reading Challenge. While I read this a little too early to count for my stack, this might be some festive inspiration for yours.

Image is of the eBook cover of “An Irish Country Yuletide” by Patrick Taylor. The cover looks like an oil painting of a window with holy and a candle in a warm foreground, and carol singers and a snowy village outside in cooler tones.

“An Irish Country Yuletide” by Patrick Taylor is a novella set in the “Irish Country” series about Dr Fingal Flahertie O’Reilly who has a general practice in the small Irish village of Ballybucklebo. Everyone in the village is getting ready for Christmas, and settling in to enjoy the traditions of the season. However, illnesses take no holidays, and between all the festivities, it is up to O’Reilly to make sure his patients and their families can celebrate as well.

This is an easy, cosy read that transports you to an idyllic Irish world in the mid-1960s. I had never read any of the other books in the series, but there was plenty of light exposition from Taylor to make sure any reader could slide into this book and quickly get up to speed. It is also an easy book from an emotional standpoint. Usually I don’t go for books that are overly saccharine but I think, during these difficult times, it is relaxing to read a book where things just work out, and no problem goes unsolved. O’Reilly is a sentimental old fellow, and between fulfilling his Christmas responsibilities, he takes the time to reflect on how far he has come with the people he loves. Then there was the huge bonus of Taylor including recipes! I have mentioned on here many, many times how much I love recipes in fiction. Unfortunately I didn’t get around to trying any out, but I very much appreciated that they were there.

Although perhaps all the loose ends are tied up a little too neatly in a bow, this book is nevertheless brimming with Christmas cheer and if you are looking to immerse yourself in a picturesque winter setting, then this is a lovely, low investment book to try.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Historical Fiction, Novella

Short Stack Reading Challenge

It is getting towards that time when I start scrambling to meet the reading challenges I have set myself for the year. There are so many great challenges out there, but one challenge that I have been unofficially setting myself in an attempt to meet my annual reading goal is to read as many short books as I can during the month of December.

This year, I am making it official.

Image text: Tinted Edges: Judging books by their covers. 2021 Short Stack Reading Challenge.
Image description: a stack of pancakes with butter on the top.

Sometimes less is more, and to celebrate the smaller books I am launching the inaugural Short Stack Reading Challenge.

Rules

Very simple!

  1. The challenge runs from 1 December 2021 to 31 December 2021.
  2. The goal is to read as many novellas or short books as you can during that time.
  3. Each book you read earns you a pancake.
  4. Build your stack of pancakes from a short stack to a tall stack!
  5. Share your progress on social media with the hashtag #ShortStackReadingChallenge or leave a comment below!

Transparent pancake image files are available to download here. I look forward to seeing how high your pancake stacks get!

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Filed under Novella

The White Book

A meditation on grief and the colour white

Content warning: death of a child

I first read a book by this author five years ago and I have been so eager to read more of her work ever since. I actually presented on this book for the Asia Bookroom‘s book club, so when I saw this book listed on this year’s reading list, I put it directly in my diary and made sure I was there. It’s a really great book club full of really knowledgeable, thoughtful people and as always I had a wonderful time and learned a lot.

Image is of “The White Book” by Han Kang. The paper back book is resting on white lace fabric surrounded by white paper, a small white bowl of uncooked rice and two white dog paws. The cover is completely white with black text in English and Korean.

“The White Book” by Han Kang and translated by Deborah Smith almost defies being placed in a genre but I think perhaps it falls somewhere between creative non-fiction, fictionalised autobiography and experimental writing. Broken into micro-essays each centred on a different white thing, the book reflects on how trauma echoes through a city destroyed by war decades on and how family trauma similarly echoes across a lifetime.

This is an excellent book that is utterly mesmerising. The structure forces you as a reader to take your time and savour each part but it is at the same time completely readable. Kan is a writer of exceptional talent and not a single word in this book is superfluous. Smith, who is also the founder of Tilted Axis Press, should also be commended for her translation. Some of these micro-chapters are absolutely haunting and although this book is only of novella length, there was no shortage of themes to discuss during the book club. One of the most poignant parts for me was the narrator’s reflection that after the loss of her childhood dog, she was so afraid of getting close to another dog and risking that grief again that she wouldn’t even pat one. Similarly, the reverberated pain of the narrator’s older sister dying shortly after birth affects her own willingness to have children. The other harrowing thoughts that occupy the narrator’s mind include the guilt of having lived, and whether, had her sister survived, she would have been born at all. Although never mentioned by name, Warsaw in winter provides a bleak backdrop but also a blank canvas against which the narrator meditates on the colour white and all the things in her life it symbolises. The book ends with multiple white pages, and I thought that was an excellent touch.

I think the only thing that didn’t quite work with this book was, actually, not the writing. There are black and white photographs interspersed throughout the book of the author interacting with white objects. I didn’t mind the photography per se, but I didn’t feel like the design within the book itself worked well. For example, one image was spread across two pages but the book binding didn’t allow for the whole image to be seen which made it lose a lot of impact.

However, this is without a doubt a beautiful book at the cutting edge of literature and that cuts right to the heart of our humanity.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Novella

Heart of Darkness

Novella about colonisation in the Congo

I was in the market for a new audiobook, and had made a shortlist of books that were both not too long and that I hadn’t read before. It was plum season, and I wanted something to listen to while I was outside picking plums. Audible had made a bit of a song and dance about the narrator of this book, and of course I had heard of it before, so I thought I would give it a go.

Image is of a digital book cover of “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad, performed by Kenneth Branagh. The cover is simply some palm fronds against a black background.

“Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad and narrated by Kenneth Branagh is a novella about a young man called Charles Marlow who manages to wangle his way into a job captaining a steamboat for an ivory trading company in Africa. On his journey to the station where the steamboat is moored, Marlow finds that he is following in the footsteps of a man called Mr Kurtz whose increasing success in the ivory trade and other pursuits appears to be accompanied by a deteriorating attitude towards the local African tribes. After significant setbacks, Marlow arrives at Kurtz’ station and is confronted by the full extent of Kurtz’ actions.

I think that the most significant and important thing about this book is that it is a critique and frank depiction of the horrors of colonisation in Africa. Given that it was published over 120 years ago, I was impressed at Conrad’s acknowledgement of (at least some of) the harm caused by colonisation and the theft of resources by Europeans in Africa.

However, I have to admit, I was just not that engaged in this book and even though it was only a few hours long, I frequently found myself tuning out and missed large swathes of the book. Branagh’s narration was maybe a little too soothing or something. I think that it’s also really important to note that while Conrad was clearly ahead of his time, this book describes significant violence against African people and does include some condescending attitudes towards African people. I don’t think that I can say it better than Kittitian-Brittish novelist Caryl Phillips who wrote, following an interview with Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe:

…to the African reader the price of Conrad’s eloquent denunciation of colonisation is the recycling of racist notions of the “dark” continent and her people. Those of us who are not from Africa may be prepared to pay this price, but this price is far too high for Achebe. However lofty Conrad’s mission, he has, in keeping with times past and present, compromised African humanity in order to examine the European psyche.

An important and certainly well-studied piece of literature that serves as a reminder of how important it is to centre Africian voices.

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Filed under Audiobooks, Book Reviews, Classics, General Fiction, Novella

Orfeia

Novella inspired by British folklore

Content warning: suicide

Gosh I had a hard time finding this book. I was eagerly awaiting its release after reading the two other books (here and here) in this series of fairytale retellings, and I must have gone to five or six different bookshops before a staffmember managed to dig out their single copy from the back. As baffling as this is, I was thrilled to finally get a copy. Like the other books in the series, the cover design is a stunning cream with copper detail.

Image is of “Orfeia” by “Joanne M. Harris”, a hardcover book in cream and copper resting on a blue backpack with a notebook and pencil beside it and a concrete path and grass beneath it.

“Orfeia” by Joanne M. Harris is a fantasy novella inspired by British folklore. Unlike the other books in this collection, this story is set in modern-day London. The story follows Fay Orr who has recently lost her adult daughter to suicide. Struggling to find meaning in her otherwise empty life, Fay takes up running through the city at night to escape her despair. One night, she comes across a crack in a paving stone and somehow slips through it into another world. What she finds there is an opportunity to retrieve her daughter and bring her back to life. However, Fay must ask herself is she willing to risk what little she has left to lose to complete a seemingly impossible quest.

This is a chill-inducing story that draws on the way folklore evolves and changes through generations for its structure. Harris puts an initial story to the reader, and the book goes on to explore what is gained and lost by changing the story to achieve an alternative ending. A correct ending. Harris also flips elements of traditional folktales to create a fresh story where nothing is quite what it seems. Fay is a determined and desperate protagonist who leaps at the chance to rewrite her story. However, the impact of erasing history and therefore memory challenges the reader to consider whether, without our memories, we truly remain the same person. Like the previous books, like all fairy tales, this story has a dark, unsettling undercurrent. Harris leaves enough to the imagination for us as readers to fill in the cracks with an even darker colour.

An uneasy tale about love and loss, I cannot wait for Harris’ next book in this collection.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Fantasy, Novella, Pretty Books

In the Vanishers’ Palace

Vietnamese-inspired queer fantasy novella

It was my turn to host the feminist fantasy book club I’m in, but alas: social distancing. I had chosen this book after coming across a list of Asian-inspired fantasy and this one looked particularly interesting. However, until basically this past weekend, having guests over was basically illegal and that meant that book club was suspended indefinitely. Except, I really wanted to have book club and was missing all my friends, so I decided to host a virtual book club. Three members put their hand up for a DIY dinner pack, and I had a great time foraging for ingredients and containers to put together the bare bones of a two-ish course meal that just needed wet ingredients and cooking. The menu: rice paper rolls, pho and spiked Vientamese coffee. The evening was pretty successful! While there were some technical difficulties early on, and limits to how many could be in the video chat at once, and some mysterious reverberation, it was a great night and I loved seeing what everyone cooked.

In the Vanishers' Palace by Aliette de Bodard

“In the Vanisher’s Palace” by Aliette de Bodard is a fantasy novella retelling of the classic fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast“. The story is about Yên, a young woman who lives in a traditional village governed by strict rules and hierarchies. Unless part of the social elite, a villager is only tolerated as long as they remain useful. Yên, an aspiring academic but yet to pass the requisite exams, instead teaches children and helps her mother, the village healer. When Yên’s friend, the daughter of a village elder, is infected by a plague, Yên’s mother summons an ancient dragon called Vu Côn to save her life. However, in this broken world, nothing comes for free, and the village agrees to give Yên to the dragon to pay the debt. Yên is whisked away to a strange palace where Vu Côn sets her the task of teaching her two spirited children. Once there, Yên marvels at the mysterious and deadly palace and slowly grows closer to Vu Côn. However, with the threat of the plague looming closer and secrets threatening to erupt, the least of Yên’s worries is a broken heart.

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My DIY dinner pack

This is a unique story that takes the general elements of “Beauty and the Beast” and reimagines them in a completely different setting. de Bodard is quite a lyrical writer with a keen interest in language and words, and fuses fantasy and science fiction elements to create the palace that is Vu Côn’s home. One room seems to contain a magical library whereas another contains extremely modern technology, and I enjoyed de Bodard’s interplay between modern and ancient.

Rhiannon's cooking

My friend Rhiannon’s cooking

This is certainly an incredibly inclusive book and aside from queer romance, there are non-binary characters, diverse examples of female leadership and the book itself clearly draws on de Bodard’s own Vietnamese heritage.

However, I wouldn’t say that this would be my first recommendation for a book during the coronavirus crisis. This is quite a dark book, and Yên’s is a world ravaged by illnesses left by the mysterious Vanishers with those who fall ill facing banishment or worse. Given the current times, it was a little hard to want to pick this up to relax after a day spent reading the news.

My cooking

My attempt

In a similar way to “The Black Tides of Heaven“, I felt that de Bodard raced through this story a little and that the concept of the Vanishers could have been fleshed out a little, or at least hinted at a bit more strongly, than simply the ruins left behind. I also felt that the romantic aspect of the book was a little hurried, and some of the subtlety could have been teased out a little further.

Vietnamese Coffee

My spiked Vietnamese coffee

Nevertheless, this is a quick and spirited read that is an original retelling of a classic fairy tale.

Spike's cooking

And, last but not least, Spike using up some of the noodles for lunch the following day

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Filed under Book Reviews, eBooks, Fantasy, Novella, Science Fiction

Braised Pork

Surreal novella about a young Beijing widow

Back in the good old days, before social distancing, I used to go to the gym and listen to audiobooks to inspire me to keep going back. After my last few experiments, I thought perhaps 10+ hours of audiobook was a little long for my limited attention span and memory, so I thought I would try something a little shorter. On Audible, you can set the search terms for books of particular lengths, so I browsed some of the shorter ones (4 – 6 hours). This one was just over 5 hours, and sounded perfect.

Braised Pork cover art

“Braised Port” by An Yu and narrated by Vera Chok is a surreal novella about a young woman called Jia Jia whose husband dies unexpectedly while taking a bath. Childless, largely locked out of his will and without the structure of her traditional marriage, Jia Jia is left with their apartment and a small allowance. As she slowly starts to venture out into the world seeking a new independence through her art, Jia Jia begins to be plagued by realistic dreams of a watery world and the image of the fish man drawing her husband left on the bathroom slink. Eventually, after her attempt at a new romance falls flat, Jia Jia decides to retrace her husband’s last trip to Tibet to try to discover the significance of the fish man.

This is an unusual, dreamlike story the pacing of which mirrors Jia Jia’s own meandering life. I really enjoyed Yu’s writing style. She has some striking imagery that really stayed with me. There was one particular scene where she refers to Jia Jia’s hair as looking like a stroke of calligraphy, and there are quite a few similar turns of phrase throughout. This is an original story with a unique point of view. Jia Jia is an intriguing character who, after having lived her whole life doing what she’s told, suddenly finds herself cut adrift. Although she finds a new purpose searching for the meaning of the fish man, there is still the sense that she is struggling to find her independence from men, be it her belated husband, her father, her lover or even a fellow traveller. Yu explores some interesting nuances of class in Beijing, in particular Jia Jia’s new status as a widow with limited financial resources. Chok is an excellent narrator with a clipped accent and matter-of-fact style that lends itself perfectly to the story.

Although it is a short read, this is a complex story that incorporates a lot of themes, elements and locations. While many of the scenes were themselves steeped with meaning, the story didn’t always feel as though it had a strong central thread to connect them together. I think the part that I struggled with the most was the significance of the watery world and the fish man. I’m not quite sure if I had tuned out while I was doing stretches at the gym or whether the story was deliberately left open-ended, but it felt like despite the several small revelations, the final picture was still kind of indecipherable.

A fascinating debut that perhaps leaves the reader with more questions than answers, I’m looking forward to seeing what Yu writes next.

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Filed under Audiobooks, Book Reviews, General Fiction, Magic Realism, Novella

Into Bones Like Oil

Horror novel about searching for and escaping the dead

Giveaway details at the bottom of the review

This is a very special book because it was one of the several lots that I won earlier this year in the #AuthorsforFireys Twitter auctions to raise money for the Australian bushfires. I know the multiple award-winning Canberra author, whose books I have reviewed previously and who has been a guest on the Lost the Plot Podcast, and the pack she was offering was a very exciting one. She was offering a copy of her book together with an interactive, multi-sensory experience for the reader to enjoy while reading the book. After I won, we met up shortly afterwards on another very stormy day (which seems to be a theme!) and had the exchange over drinks. I couldn’t wait to set everything up so I could spend a Sunday evening savouring the book and all the items that came with it.

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“Into Bones Like Oil” by Kaaron Warren is a horror novella about a woman called Dora who arrives at The Anglesea, an old boarding house by the coast. The house is run by the friendly but unsettling Roy, and is full of many other guests, some of whom Dora only sees glimpses of at breakfast. It’s a short walk to the beach and an old shipwreck. At first, Dora feels that the guests appear to be all connected by the fact that they are escaping something. Many of them sleep for days without emerging from their rooms. However, the longer she stays at The Anglesea, the more she grows to realise that people don’t seem to ever leave The Anglesea, and neither did the ship’s passengers.

This is an incredible eerie story about guilt and greed, and how those made vulnerable by pain can easily be exploited by others. Dora is a great character, and the more we learn about her past, the more we understand how she ended up at a place like The Anglesea. Although it is a novella, there is plenty packed in and Warren’s writing is complex and insightful. This book seeps into you and lingers long after you finish reading.

Warren is an incredibly vivid writer, and this book really lends itself to enjoying alongside a sensory pack. If you want to make your own pack, here is what you will need:

  • Page 1 – key
  • Page 3 – clock & battery
  • Page 4 – a seashell (to listen to)
  • Page 8 – a scarf
  • Page 15 – a glass and a shot of vodka
  • Page 31 – paints
  • Page 32 – curry
  • Page 48 – striped shirt & Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds Nocturama CD
  • Page 52 – Cheezles
  • Page 65 – soap
  • Page 69 – perfume
  • Page 72 – baked beans
  • Page 74 – girls’ brush

I had so much fun setting up the pack and working through it. I arranged everything clockwise in a circle. I managed to get stuck on the second item, the clock and battery, because I couldn’t quite get the battery in, but managed to wedge it in using the key. When I listened to the seashell, the effect was slightly spoiled by a jet flying over at exactly that moment, but I waited until it passed and tried again. I was a bit of a wuss with the peach-flavoured vodka, and had to mix it with lemonade after the first taste. The paints were great fun, and I was inspired to do a little painting.

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Unfortunately, because I had set everything up at once, by the time I got to the curry at page 32 it was a little lukewarm, but that was easily fixed in the microwave. Also, hilariously, the Dove brand soap had seeped into some of the other items, especially the fabric ones, so everything smelled very clean. The perfume was a really nice touch. I don’t wear much perfume, but there is something very evocative about it.

Anyway, this was an deeply unsettling book that was made all the more immersive with the sensory pack, and both are a testament to Warren’s creativity.

To pay this great experience forward, I will restock the sensory pack and give it to the first person who contacts me via Facebook, Twitter or Instagram with proof of purchase of “Into Bones Like Oil”. Open to Canberrans only, and I will drop it off in a contactless way at a location of your choosing. 

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Horror, Novella, Signed Books