Category Archives: Book Reviews

A Century of Friendship

Children’s book about the ethics and etiquette of friendship

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

A Century of Friendship

“A Century of Friendship” by Littlebeanseeds is a children’s chapter book about Helen and her friends Mark, Shelly and Yasmin who, while exploring on a school camp, discover a secret in a rundown cottage. While the children navigate their own relationships with one-another, they soon discover that the secret has a particular significance for Helen. At the end of each chapter, the author invites the reader to think about notes on friendship, and answer questions for self-reflection about friendship, what makes a good friend, how to be a good friend and how to resolve disputes.

This is a simple yet effective story aimed at pre-teens that explores some of the more subtle issues and nuances around friendship. It is quite a unique book because it balances low fantasy against self-help – two genres that I honestly do not think I have ever seen combined before. I think that inviting children to consciously think about their relationships and what kind of behaviour they expect from themselves and others is a worthwhile thing to do.

I think probably the biggest difficulty for young readers might be the balance between the time spent enjoying the story and the time spent thinking about the questions and having the immersion interrupted. I wonder perhaps if this kind of book might be suited to being read to a class by a teacher, and then inviting the children to participate in a discussion as a group, rather than reading it alone.

Nevertheless, a very original type of book with an overwhelmingly positive message and a cute story as a backdrop.

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Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

Scottish novel about routine, denial and coping when it all crumbles

Content warning: trauma, childhood trauma, mental illness, substance abuse

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of Harry Hartog.

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“Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine” by Gail Honeyman is an eponymous novel about Eleanor, a 29 year old woman who lives her life completely by routine. Every week she works in her administrative job, reads the newspaper, completes the crossword, listens to public broadcasting, watches television and drinks two bottles of vodka over the weekend. Eleanor has no friends, no family and no social interaction aside from unsolicited marketing calls and jokes at her expense by colleagues. Eleanor tells herself that everything is completely fine, but when she develops a crush on a musician, and inadvertently opens herself to the possibility of change, she may not be ready for everything else that comes flooding in.

This is an extremely readable book. In a style not dissimilar to Graeme Simsion, Honeyman has a real knack for dramatic irony. I’m always very impressed with authors that manage to carry this off, because let’s be honest – it’s always a smug feeling when you feel smarter (or in this case more socially adept) than the character you are reading about. Eleanor’s bumbling is particularly endearing, but I think that Honeyman importantly gets the balance right by allowing for enough character development and conflict so that the story is not just a series of cringeworthy exchanges. I also really enjoyed how she took really mundane, everyday things and made them new with Eleanor’s unique perspective.

A criticism I have made about many, many, many books I have read is the use of trauma, especially childhood trauma, as a plot device – but I’m going to make it in a slightly different way for this book. I feel like a lot of novels use the idea of repressed memories as a means for exploring difficult issues such as childhood trauma. Now, I’m not going to pretend that I’m a psychologist and give a commentary on the controversy around the idea of repressed memories. However, I do want to note that for an unacceptably high number of people, trauma is something they have to live with everyday. There are already far too many barriers to people disclosing traumatic events as it is, let alone the phenomena of repressed memories, and I think that I’d like to see authors explore some of those issues instead.

However, unlike another book I read, I did really appreciate that Honeyman emphasised the importance of counselling and social support in recovery, and I felt that she did a really good job of depicting Eleanor in crisis.

A well-written, enjoyable read that emphasises the importance of human connection.

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No Friend But the Mountains

Memoir of an asylum seeker in indefinite detention

I borrowed a copy of this book from a colleague. We had a bit of an office book club, and this was one our master list of books to discuss. This book garnered a significant amount of attention after publication for many reasons, but there were two that really stuck with me. First was that this book was written text message by text message over WhatsApp and then painstakingly translated. It is an enormous amount of work to write a book with the luxury of a laptop, but to type one out on a mobile phone is nothing short of remarkable. Second was that the author won two extremely prestigious awards in Australia, but due to being detained on Manus Island, was unable to accept the awards in person. Needless to say, this was a book I very much wanted to read.

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“No Friend But the Mountains” by Behrouz Boochani and translated by Omid Tofighian is a literary memoir about Boochani’s experiences as an asylum seeker in detention centre on Manus Island. The book begins by detailing harrowing attempts by Boochani and other asylum seekers to travel to Australia by boat, and the impact of failed attempts on the safety and morale of passengers. Eventually, after another dangerous attempt, Boochani’s boat is intercepted by Australian authorities and he is transported to Christmas Island before being transferred to Manus Island. Once there, it becomes clear that this is not likely to be a temporary stay. As time stretches on and the prisoners endure competition for access to food and facilities, tension from the guards and local Papuans and ultimately violence, Boochani begins to try to understand the logic behind the centre.

As we enter our 7th year of offshore detention policy, this is a critically important book. I’m going to break the fourth wall for a moment here and say that this is a very difficult review for me to write. Our media and political discourse has been dominated by polarised opinions about how best to manage the phenomenon of asylum seekers who attempt to travel to Australia by boat from Indonesia, and I have and continue to have a lot to say on the topic. However, I think that I need to set that aside for the purposes of this review and focus instead on Boochani’s book. The primary reason for this, aside from it being the subject of this review, is that I feel that largely the voices of people who are in offshore detention are excluded from discussion about the policies that directly impact them.

The translator, Tofighian, spends a long time before the book begins outlining some of the history of Iranian literature and the theories that Boochani has developed to try to understand the mechanism of offshore detention and the way the centre itself is run. This was invaluable later in the book to help understand Boochani’s unique style of prose intermingled with poetry and the broader implications of what is described as “Manus Prison Theory” and the “Kyriarchal system“. Boochani argues that the prison is deliberately run to cause conflict among the prisoners and between the prisoners and guards, and the availability of food, toilets, showers and any form of entertainment is deliberately limited to cause stress and hopelessness.

Boochani’s intellectualism oozes from the pages, and emphasises the self-awareness of people in offshore detention. Boochani wryly acknowledges that the difference between him being taken to Manus Island and him being assessed on mainland Australia was nothing more than a matter of days. Boochani styles himself as largely an observer of the prison dynamics, however he is ultimately never able to forget his status as a detainee and is never able to completely isolate himself from the pain his fellow detainees feel. In fact, this heightened and overwhelming sense of empathy between his efforts to rationalise what is happening is what really makes this book. The interludes of poetry, although I would hardly consider myself an authority on poetry, is where Boochani does what I feel that Australia has largely failed to do: highlight the humanity of the people on Manus Island.

I think that the main thing I struggle with about this book was a criticism I often level at memoir. In this case, it was Boochani’s decision not to explain in detail his personal circumstances that led him to flee Iran, and his decision not to explain the thought-process and mechanics of paying someone to take him to Australia by boat. I completely understand that there may be sensitivities around divulging this information, not just for Boochani’s safety but for people who may have assisted him. However, I did feel that given the strength of the rest of the book in building empathy and understanding, this was somewhat of a wasted opportunity. I won’t descend into a lecture about the legal status of refugees in the countries between Iran and Australia or the availability of rights and resettlement in Indonesia, but I felt that a by being a bit more frank about these issues Boochani’s book may have addressed some of the most frequent criticisms leveled at asylum seekers.

Nevertheless, this is a necessary book that brings a much-needed perspective to an issue that my country has been fighting over for years. Boochani has a strong, haunting voice and I think that this is a book that not only should be read by as many people as possible, but one that has and will continue to leave a mark on Australian literary history.

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Sweet Bitter Cane

Italian-Australian family saga

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

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“Sweet Bitter Cane” by G S Johnson is a family saga about a young woman called Amelia who, after a wedding with a stand-in for the groom in Italy, moves to Queensland to meet her new husband Italo and support him in growing sugarcane. Although young, Amelia is smart and resilient and soon overcomes her language barriers and finds her place managing the financial side of the farm. However, haunted by a connection she has with her neighbour’s son Fergus and increasingly isolated by her social and political choices, when the war breaks out and Italians are targeted, the secrets and nationalist pride Amelia harboured to keep herself safe suddenly threaten to destroy everything her family has built.

This is an epic story that traces the life of a young woman on the cusp of adulthood who leaves everything she knows behind to start a new life in a country that largely doesn’t welcome her. Johnson does an admirable job of setting the geographic and political scene of a seemingly hostile new life and has a particular flair for character development. Amelia hardens as the story progresses, and it’s unusual (and refreshing!) to see such an evolution of a character while still retaining the essence of who she is. Johnson isn’t afraid to explore Amelia’s mistakes to their full consequences and her flaws and poor choices juxtaposed against her successes make her all the more relatable. The internment of Italians during WWII is another forgotten pocket of Australian history, and Johnson written a nuanced account of something that truly happened to people living here.

For the most part, I was impressed at how Johnson told Amelia’s story but one thing that I was perplexed about throughout the book was the appeal of Fergus. While Amelia’s character remained interesting and engaging throughout the novel, I wasn’t always on board with her relationships and how she managed them, and most particularly so the connection she had with Fergus. Although for the most part the pacing of the novel was good, I did feel at times that some of the writing was a little too descriptive and could have been condensed a little more.

Regardless, this is an interesting and important story about the experience of women during a period of Australian history rarely discussed.

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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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Sabrina

Graphic novel about the aftermath of a terrible crime

Content warning: gendered violence, mental illness

Shortly after starting at a new job, I managed to rope in some colleagues into starting a work book club with me. To kick off the first meeting, we put together a list of books including some from the 2018 Man Booker Prize longlist. This book is the first graphic novel to ever be longlisted for arguably the most prestigious prize for English language fiction, and as a long-standing fan of graphic novels, I had to check it out.

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“Sabrina” by Nick Drnaso is a graphic novel about a young woman called Sabrina who goes missing and is later found brutally murdered, and the ripple effect this crime has on the people in her life. The story follows Sabrina’s boyfriend Teddy, Teddy’s childhood friend and recent divorcee Calvin and Sabrina’s sister Sandra. Both Teddy and Sandra struggle to make sense of what has happened to Sabrina, with Teddy becoming a recluse in Calvin’s empty house and Sandra no longer finding meaning in her everyday routine. Caring for Teddy fills up the time left by Calvin’s absent family, but with Teddy largely uncommunicative and staying in his room in his underwear occasionally eating the takeout Calvin buys, his house is still extremely lonely. Meanwhile, after Sabrina’s body is found and footage is leaked of her murder, conspiracy theorists begin to target Teddy, Sandra and Calvin with accusations that they are crisis actors and that Sabrina’s death was actually a false flag operation.

Graphic novels, especially when written and illustrated by the same person, are unique in that not only is the author communicating to you through their writing, but they also communicate via their art. Drnaso is very minimalist in both his writing and illustration style and the pared back conversation and sparse scenes are very effective at conveying the everyday and each of the characters’ searches for a new normal. He has a real talent for capturing the mundane and I do think that this is a really astute work on suburban America and the interplay between work, relationships, friendships and social media. The focus of this book is undoubtedly conspiracy theories, and the impact that they have on the families and friends of victims of tragic events. Drsnaso excels at building a gradual sense of unease and paranoia, especially for Calvin, as the impact of media reporting, invasive messages from conspiracy theorists and caring for Teddy begins to affect his work and personal life.

I agree that there are a lot of strengths in this graphic novel, but I must admit I am a bit incredulous that this graphic novel is the first one to be longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Was it good? Yes, it was fine. Was it the best graphic novel ever written? Not by a long shot. I think one of my biggest issues with this book was that despite Sabrina being the eponymous character, and the victim of an appalling case of gender violence, Sabrina’s story is the backdrop to Calvin’s, Teddy’s and, to a lesser extent, Sandra’s stories. As someone with a close friend who went missing and was later found dead, the focus of this book made me deeply uncomfortable.

I understand how losing your girlfriend in such circumstances could lead some to depression, and I understand that caring for someone with mental illness can be challenging, but I really don’t think this book went anywhere close to deep enough on the impact of Sabrina’s death on her family, especially Sandra. Considering the vast majority of this book is men talking to other men, I don’t think that there was really ever enough analysis on why Sabrina was murdered. At one point Sabrina’s sister calls Teddy and berates him for his lack of action, including primarily not coming to Sabrina’s funeral, and I kind of see where she’s coming from. I understand that Drnaso made changes through the editing process to make Sandra’s story more prominent, but she probably gets about a tenth of the airtime Calvin and Teddy get.

I think I really just feel that if you’re going to write a book about American conspiracy theory culture following tragic events, I think that you should at least do the tragic event itself justice. Sabrina didn’t have a voice in life or in death, and I just feel that given the horrendous statistics globally, but also in the USA, on women who are subjected to violence by men, I would have liked Drnaso to have taken a bit of a stronger stand in helping to empower the women affected by this kind of violence – even if it was to show how valued they were in life and how missed they are in death.

Look there is plenty more I could say about this book about themes of gratitude, relationship breakdown and workplace culture, but I might leave it there for now. Anyway, I am nevertheless glad to see that graphic novels are finally starting to be taken seriously in mainstream literature. I think that Drnaso has produced a chilling piece on the impact of conspiracy theories, but if you’re tempted to give graphic novels ago, there are plenty of other excellent award-winning ones that you might like to try as well.

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The Kingdom of Copper

Middle Eastern-inspired adult fantasy novel

Warning: this review contains spoilers for the previous book “The City of Brass”

You may recall that I reviewed the first book in this series last year and I absolutely waxed lyrical about it. I was absolutely desperate to read the next book, and when it came out a few months ago my friend very kindly picked up a beautiful hardcover and gave it to me when I saw him over the summer.

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“The Kingdom of Copper” by S. A. Chakraborty is the second book in “The Daevabad Trilogy” and picks up approximately five years after the events of the previous book. After marrying Prince Muntadhir, Nahri’s freedom has been significantly curtailed. Only allowed in the Palace and the infirmary, and with no plans to have a child any time soon, Nahri is starting to chafe at the bit. However when she discovers an abandoned Nahid hospital, she starts a new scheme: to rebuild some of her ancestor’s lost legacy. Exiled by his father from Daevabad for treason, Ali soon finds himself in Am Gezira, his ancestral lands. Although starting to gain control of his strange new marid powers and settling into his new home, Ali is soon called back to his home. Hoping to make a swift exit to avoid his father and brother and return to his warriors and work rejuvenating the desert landscape, it soon becomes clear that Ali is not going anywhere until Navasatem: a once in a lifetime celebration.

It’s always a tough publication schedule to produce a book in a year, but Chakraborty has absolutely delivered. I really appreciated the time interval between this and the previous book. Chakraborty didn’t waste time on empty years, she just summarised the highlights and went for it. In the last book, I think one of the things I struggled with a little was the worldbuilding and the complexity of the different races and terms. However in this book, a bit more of the story is told outside the city of Daevabad and some of the things that were confusing start to make a bit more sense. I really enjoyed the character development and the difference you can see that five years has made to the characters. Still not quite the legendary healer her mother was, Nahri has become a lot more competent and Ali, previously hot-headed and righteous, has become far more strategic. The writing is excellent, and I was thoroughly immersed the whole way through.

This book is quite dense, and there is a lot going on plot-wise. Where the first book in the series felt like it was indelibly marked on my mind, I felt like there were parts of this book that slipped through my fingers a little. I think that although overall it was an excellent story, and certainly much better than your average second book, but I’m not sure it had as many fiery scenes that left the same long-lasting impression as the first book.

Anyway, I think this is my favourite adult fantasy series out right now and I absolutely cannot wait for the third book.

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