Category Archives: Novella

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

Silver in the Wood

Exquisite queer fantasy novella

My friend received this book as a gift from her partner, and was absolutely raving about it, so agreed to lend it to me. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but it has a beautifully evocative cover and it is quite short, so I was optimistic.

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“Silver in the Wood” by Emily Tesh is a fantasy novella about a wild man rumoured to live in the woods called Greenhollow. On closer inspection, the wild name has a name: Tobias. He lives in harmony with the forest he is bound to, alone save his cat and local dryads. However, one day a young man arrives at Tobias’ cottage and with cheerful optimism throws his quiet life into disarray.

This is an absolutely lovely book that had me hooked from the beginning. Tesh is a beautiful writer who has a gift for knowing how much to give the reader, and how much to keep back. Tobias and Henry are great characters, and this book glitters with its earthy, understated magic. Although it is a quick read, it is full of surprises, and takes some classic folklore themes into some unexpected places.

There isn’t much to fault this book on. Perhaps the only thing is that towards the end of the story, there is a bit of a break in the narrative which felt a little jarring compared to the dreamy pace of the rest of the book. However, it made complete sense for the plot, so really it’s hardly a fault.

This is an incredibly enjoyable, refreshing and succinct story that was an absolute delight to read.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Fantasy, Novella

Binti

Himba-inspired afrofuturism

My feminist fantasy book club has been in full swing, and we deviated a little for our most recent book and tried a Hugo-award winning science fiction novella instead.

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“Binti” by Nnedi Okorafor is an eponymous science fiction novella about a young Himba woman who defies her close-knit family’s wishes and runs away to accept an offer as the first Himba person to study at an intergalactic university. Although far from her family, Binti proudly displays her distinct culture with her very visible otjize. However, when the ship is boarded by a hostile alien race, it is Binti’s unique culture that may be salvation.

This is a quick, intense novella that throws you headlong into Binti’s world. Okorafor pulls together all the classic elements of science fiction with space travel, aliens with tentacles, futurism and social commentary. Okorafor is a spirited writer, and this is an incredibly quick read. There are lots of pockets of technological ingenuity scattered throughout the book, and I love Okorafor’s approach to Afrofuturism and how it pays homage to traditional culture while weaving it seamlessly with science and space travel.

I think the only difficulty, which is one I have experienced with novellas before, is that because the story is so quick, it’s a little bit hard to get attached to the characters. There is an incident that happens about halfway through the book, and Binti refers to the impact of it several times afterwards, but the affected characters were introduced so briefly it is a little hard to empathise.

Nevertheless, this is a creative, enjoyable story that you will whip through in no time.

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Crocoite

Fictionella about lost rocks and finding your heritage

A while ago I caught wind of a very intriguing project: a collection of fictionellas, each constructed around one of forty rocks missing from a rock board found in a tip shop in Tasmania. This project resonated a lot with me. I come from a family of geophysicists, and while I am not overly passionate about minerals, my father did buy me a little rock board of my own from Tasmania which I have kept since I was very small (and have only lost two rocks). Anyway, while I am not passionate about rocks I certainly am about books so when the campaign started, I knew I had to order one.

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“Crocoite” by Margaret Woodward is a fictionella about a young woman called H who decides to retrace the steps of Tasmanian prospectors past and search for crocoite and the remnants of a lost town. H’s exploration in the chapters Wood and Prospect is interrupted by correspondence from a certain F Heazlewood in the 1870s that makes up the chapter Trace. The the book is interspersed with black and white photography, most particularly at the end of the last chapter Wood where H reflects on her heritage.

This is an intriguing little book that appears to tread a fine line between fact and fiction. It is certainly a celebration of the natural beauty of the Tasmanian landscape, but with more depth than average. Having grown up among people interested in the minerals exposed to the air and hidden beneath our feet, I found it to be a warm story that gentle examines questions of history, identity, place and heritage. I also enjoyed the idiosyncratic font that links certain letters together (which, I have discovered, is called ligature).

As this is a fictionella, and necessarily short in length as well as scope, there are of course limits to what can be included. However, I think that for other books in the series, I would like to see some discussion (especially by the people themselves) of the Aboriginal Tasmanian experience and how some of those stories could be woven into the Lost Rocks project.

A lovely little book that is part of a fascinating project, I’m keen to collect more. They are all limited print though and I believe this one may already be sold out, so don’t delay if you want to get one.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Novella

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.

buy the book from The Book Depository, free delivery

 

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Filed under Book Reviews, General Fiction, Novella

The Black Tides of Heaven

Genderqueer non-Western fantasy by a Singaporean author

It was my turn to pick a book for my feminist fantasy book club, and after we’d read quite a few lengthy stories, I decided to go for a novella. I checked out the shortlists from the 2018 Hugo Awards, and this book looked the most interesting.

“The Black Tides of Heaven” by JY Yang is a fantasy novella, is the first in a trilogy of silkpunk novellas called the “Tensorate” series. It begins with twins Mokoya and Akeha, children of the Protector, who grow up in the Grand Monastery in the Protectorate after given away by their mother as newborns to settle a debt. Raised genderfree like all children of the Protectorate, the twins are especially close. However, as their gifts develop, the reach adulthood and politics shift, the twins find that their once unbreakable bond pulled to its limits.

This is a really interesting novella with a setting that I absolutely adored. The magic system, the Slack, was intriguing and the twins were a great way to explore the limits of different kinds of powers. The premise of children being raised genderfree was really interesting as well, as well as the ability for children to affirm their gender as adults.  Yang has a sparse but compelling style of writing and it was so refreshing to read fantasy set somewhere that wasn’t based on medieval Europe. I was so excited to cook some themed food for my book club, and I scoured the novella for references to food and built the menu around that.

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I think, however, that this is one of the very rare times that I felt like the book was too short. Not too short in that it ended abruptly, but too short in the way a piano accordion is short when compressed and there’s a lot that’s folded away out of sight. The story ranges from the twins’ birth to their adulthood, but it skips along so quickly that it did feel a little hard to get invested in the characters. Yang clearly has a lot in mind for their world the Tensorate, and I think that there was enough to this book that they could go back and beef it up with more characterisation and worldbuilding.

I would also like to say something about pronouns. I’ve reviewed a couple of books that use gender-neutral pronouns like “Ancillary Justice” and “The Left Hand of Darkness“. In the former, Leckie uses she to refer to everyone, and in the latter le Guin uses he. Yang uses they, which I have seen used and used myself online and in my personal life. However, there were a couple of moments where the meaning wasn’t immediately clear from context whether Yang was referring to one twin in a gender-neutral singular, or whether Yang was referring to both twins with a plural. The English language is, unfortunately, very clunky when it comes to pronouns. I’m not sure what the solution is, but I’m almost wondering, especially in a book set in a world inspired by cultures in Asia, whether or not it might have been better to just abandon English pronouns altogether and pick a pronoun from a language that already has gender neutral pronoun. Indonesian, for example, uses the pronoun dia for everyone regardless of gender.

Anyway, this was an interesting and creative story that I felt could have been easily expanded into a full novel. If you’re looking for fantasy that isn’t a rehash of Tolkein, this is a good place to start and I’m keen to read more of Yang’s work.

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Filed under Book Reviews, eBooks, Fantasy, Novella, Uncategorized

The Fish Girl

This book was shortlisted for the 2018 Stella Prize and when I got a couple of book vouchers for my birthday last month, I knew that I wanted to spend one on this. I spent some years growing up in Indonesia, and studied the region for years at university, and I was so excited to read this story.

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“The Fish Girl” by Mirandi Riwoe is a historical fiction novella based on a short story called “The Four Dutchmen” by W. Somerset Maugham. Riwoe’s story conjures a backstory for the character who is never named, but referred to as ‘the Malay trollope’. Riwoe imagines a young Indonesian girl who is hired by an Indo man to work in the kitchen of a Dutch merchant’s house. Mina is from a tiny fishing village and is very young and very naive. However, she soon settles into the routine of preparing and serving food for the master and begins to grow more confident. As time goes on, Mina is noticed by one of the master’s Dutch sailor friends as well as Ajat, a young man from her village. Despite her newfound confidence, Mina’s inexperience is taken advantage of and these men are ultimately her undoing.

This was an excellent novella. Riwoe drew on her own family knowledge as well as thorough knowledge to bring this story to life. Considering how undercooked a character she is in Maugham’s short story, this novella gives Mina a name and demands empathy from the reader when there was none originally. This book feels like a snapshot into both Indonesian culture and Dutch colonisation and it conveys so much in so little. I also loved Riwoe’s writing. I loved how she used spice and smell to bring an extra dimension to her story, and I adored her use of imagery. The similes she used were just exceptional, and completely believable as comparisons that Mina herself would use to make sense of her new life and new experiences.

I only have one criticism for this book, and it’s going to sound like a strange one, but I felt like the novella was too short. The pacing throughout the majority of the book was so perfect, but once Mina steps on the ship everything felt like it was at warp-speed. Riwoe covers all the events of “The Four Dutchmen” in only 14 pages. With all the care and detail and exactness that had been taken with the majority of the book, this part felt rushed and the situation deteriorated so quickly it was hard as a reader to keep up.

This is an excellent book and a stand-out example of the power of historical fiction to tell stories that were ignored or minimised at the time. I’m really looking forward to see more of Riwoe’s work and I am so glad that I picked this as one of my birthday books.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Historical Fiction, Novella