Category Archives: Novella

Flyaway

Modern fairy tale novella inspired by rural Australia

It has been a bit of a topsy turvy year, and I’ve noticed that one thing that hasn’t been as regular lately as in years gone past is book clubs. However, after the second half of last year grinding to a halt due to new and emerging COVID-19 variants, my fantasy book club finally managed to meet to discuss a book in February.

Image is of “Flyaway” by Kathleen Jennings. The eBook cover is a black heart against a cream background with a tangle of vines growing out of the arteries. There are red fruits and black crows.

“Flyaway” by Kathleen Jennings is a modern fairy tale novella set in rural district in Australia called Inglewell. There are several plotlines interwoven together with interludes of different background stories and tales about the region, but the main story is about a young woman called Bettina who lives with her mother in a town called Runagate. Bettina’s mother is very concerned about keeping up appearances, and Bettina does as she is told: looking after the garden, dressing appropriately and avoiding undesirable neighbours. However, when a young man called Gary accuses her of being a coward, and she receives a mysterious note, Bettina decides to disobey her mother and try to find her missing brothers and learn what happened to their father.

For a short book, this is a surprisingly complex and intricate story with many layers. Jennings is a writer of considerable subtlety, and many seemingly innocuous events or characters become incredibly significant later on in the story. I really loved some of the little side stories, and my favourites were Linda’s Story: Turncoat and Gwenda’s Story: The School in the Wilderness. They really added to the overall plot while giving the reader interesting background information, and while getting the balance right can be challenging, I think Jennings struck a good balance. Jennings also did something that I haven’t seen many white fantasy authors in Australia do: she did an acknowledgement of country in the acknowledgements section of the book and recommended some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors that readers may also wish to read. I think settlers writing fantasy based in Australia will always be a bit fraught, but acknowledging traditional stories and knowledge in some way seems like a really good step.

However, there were points at which where I thought the stories did get a little tangled. We spent a long time at book club discussing this book not because of how much we liked it or the themes that it engaged, but because we all found it challenging to determine exactly what happened in the book. I felt like the two scenes that were the most obfuscating were when ‘Jack’ goes to help Uncle Davy retrieve some bottles, and the final showdown at the end. I have gone back several times to puzzle out what happened and while I think that Jennings should be commended for her cleverness, you don’t want to be so clever as to be confusing.

A short book with surprising depth and enjoyable worldbuilding; Inglewell definitely leaves the reader with a lingering sense of unease.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, eBooks, Fantasy, Novella

The Thirty-nine Steps

Classic wartime spy thriller novel

This was my last (and 90th) book of 2021, and also my final book in my Short Stack Reading Challenge. Given that this was another book I picked up from the Lifeline Book Fair, and given that this fantastic charity unfortunately had to cancel their event very recently, it is a great reminder that you can support them by donating directly or visiting their permanent shop at the Fyshwick Markets.

Image is of “The Thirty-nine Steps” by John Buchan. The paperback book is placed behind a pink tweed cap, sunglasses and a pocketwatch. The cover is of two men in an old fashioned automobile wearing hats, gloves and goggles driving through wild countryside.

“The Thirty-nine Steps” by John Buchan is a spy thriller novella about a man called Richard Hannay who finds himself accidentally embroiled in a matter of national security. A healthy and energetic man in his mid-30s, when Hannay returns to England after extensive time in Africa, he meets a nervous man in a neighbouring unit and agrees to help him. However, when he finds the man’s corpse in his flat shortly afterwards, he realises that not only is his own life in danger but the lives of the entire country.

This is a quirky, fast-paced novella with all the hallmarks of any over-the-top James Bond film. The book is jammed packed full of disguises, explosions, aeroplanes and general spy craft shenanigans. One of the quaint things about this book is that everyone Hannay comes across immediately jumps to his aid. The majority of the characters are young men who are desperate for a little slice of adventure, and open their homes to a wild stranger without a second thought. There was also a light dash of political commentary thrown in for good measure.

Like any spy novel, this one was sufficiently ridiculous and built on the premise that members of a particular nation are inherently nefarious. The story skipped from scene to scene without much direction or respite, and at times the sheer amount of action and constant stream of new characters did impact the readability and the investment I had in the story.

A quick, action-packed novella that surely inspired the genre.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Mystery/Thriller, 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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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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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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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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