Category Archives: Book Reviews

To Hold Up the Sky

Collection of science fiction short stories

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher, and I was really excited to read it. I have read the first book in this author’s trilogy previously, and have been meaning to read more of his work, so this is the perfect interlude.

“To Hold Up the Sky” by Cixin Liu and translated by multiple translators is a collection of science fiction stories set primarily in China. There are 11 stories in the collection set in the past, present, future, on earth and in the furthermost reaches of outer space.

Liu is a very creative writer who is contributing significantly to the genre of hard science fiction. Using quite a classic science fiction style, he explores fascinating ideas about maths, science and humanity through a Chinese lens. Science fiction is a genre dominated by Western-, and particularly American-, centric ideas and reading stories about alien encounters, time travel and the future of humanity from a non-Western perspective is unbelievably refreshing. Although all the stories contained in this collection are vastly different in subject-matter, I felt that they were all connected by the theme of trying to reconcile the macro with the micro. Liu also explores a number of real-world issues in his books such as industrialism, government surveillance and control, poverty, war and environmental issues. He writes confidently and creatively about physics and mathematical concepts, assisted significantly by his background in computer engineering.

I really enjoyed the first story The Village Teacher which was about the different a small piece of information and fortuitous timing can make to the survival of an entire race. I also enjoyed The Time Migration, a new take on the idea of remaining in stasis to re-emerge in a new era, and The Thinker which was as much about platonic love as it was about finding a pattern in the stars. However, I think Contraction was the one that really stuck with me in a brilliant yet disturbing way.

Although I enjoyed a lot of the stories, there were some that felt a little slower than others. Even though it had some interesting concepts around humans being raised as farm animals for an alien race, Cloud of Poems didn’t really capture me overall. Full-Spectrum Barrage Jamming was very heavy on military tactics, something that I find a bit hard in sci-fi, and even though it had some fascinating ideas about the impact of predicting the future on society, Mirror took a really long time to get there.

A thought-provoking collection that is a must for sci-fi fans.

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The Book of Gold Leaves

Literary novel about love and conflict in Kashmir

Content warning: war

I picked up this book at a Lifeline Book Fair some time ago, and I was so excited it was back on this weekend after a long, COVID-19 hiatus. When I selected this book from the bookshelf, there was no doubt why I had chosen it at the book fair in the first place. The cover is stunning. There is a great little story at the end of the book where the author explains that the design is actually a photograph of his great-grandfather’s own painting – a tradition passed down from father and son. The book is embossed, and the floral designs just feel lovely to touch.

Image is of “The Book of Gold Leaves” by Mirza Waheed. The paperback book is gold with embossed, stylised floral art in reds and greens on the front. The book is pictured on a wooden board with rice and curry in ceramic dishes and two paint brushes.

“The Book of Gold Leaves” by Mirza Waheed is a literary novel set in the disputed area of Kashmir. The book is about two young people: Faiz, an artist who paints papier-mâché boxes, and Roohi, a university graduate who dreams of romance and gazes out her bedroom window. When Roohi one day spots Faiz near the shrine by her home, she contrives a plan to meet him through old school connections and by navigating proper decorum. While their connection is undeniable, after Faiz witnesses several very personal instances of violence, he is compelled to leave his terrorised city to train as part of an armed militia. Divided by distance and differing religions, can their love survive?

This is a beautifully written book that juxtaposes a classic love story against the slow erosion of freedoms that comes from living in a place experiencing conflict. The gradual takeover of a local girls’ school by the military was a heartbreaking metaphor not only for the loss of rights gained in the past, but for the loss of a future. Waheed imagines an armoured vehicle called the Zaal that literally catches people in nets and disappears them, morphing into a horrifying urban legend within the already terrified community. Waheed also juxtaposes the gentle artist Faiz, who dreams of painting a masterpiece inspired by a painting of Omar Khayyám, against how easily he trains to use assault rifles and make bombs in nearby Pakistan. Faiz walks a tightrope between his obligations to the militia and his desire for a peaceful, loving life with Roohi and Waheed does an excellent job of capturing this tension.

The only additional thing I will say is that Waheed is such an evocative writer and uses so much imagery that multiple times I found myself off on a daydream tangent thinking about ideas he introduces. This is a thoughtful book that requires some time to ponder about, but which has a lot to teach a willing reader.

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The Sea

Speculative fiction novella about humanity’s connection with the ocean

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

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“The Sea” by Sophie Jupillat Posey is a speculative fiction novella about a man called Amos who wakes in the morning drenched in saltwater after disturbing dreams about the sea. Somewhat of a misanthrope, Amos spends most of his time alone. However, when he reconnects with his estranged sister and attends his nephew’s birthday party, he realises that he is not the only one in the family with this unusual connection to the ocean.

This is a story with an original premise that invites the reader to imagine a physical embodiment of the sea to explore the harm humanity is inflicting on the marine environment. Amos undergoes a considerable amount character development in this short novella evolving from someone apathetic about the world to someone passionate about a single cause. Jupillat Posey writes vividly and takes her concept to the extreme and envisions a world completely renewed.

Although Amos changes significantly towards the end of the book, he is a difficult character to empathise with. His disdain for those around him is challenging to read at times, and I did find myself wondering why he was chosen over others, including his nephew, to experience this journey.

A thought-provoking book about pressing environmental issues and isolation.

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The Lebs

Literary realism about growing up Lebanese in Sydney

Content warning: sexual assault, racism

I first heard about this book when I saw the author speak on a special literary episode of Q+A. If you didn’t catch it, I would highly recommend watching it because there is some fantastic discussion about the Australian literary scene. The author in particular spoke so passionately and eloquently that his discussion really stuck with me, and I made a mental note to read his book. It popped up recently while I was searching for my next audiobook, and I was really excited to listen.

The Lebs cover art

“The Lebs” by Michael Mohammed Ahmad and narrated by Hazem Shammas is a bildungsroman about a teenager called Bani Adam who attends a Lebanese-majority high school in Western Sydney called Punchbowl Boys. Bani Adam is a dreamy boy whose thoughtful internal voice separates him from the hypermasculine culture that surrounds him. He has a deeply romantic crush on his English teacher, and after she leaves, he begins to channel his feelings into writing. When Bani Adam has a short story published, an opportunity arises for him to develop himself as a creative. However, outside Punchbowl Boys, Bani Adam grows to realise that the main thing that society sees in him is his ethnicity.

This is an incredibly insightful book that really captures the mood of Australia in the early 2000s. Bani Adam is an incredibly complex character, and I absolutely loved the dissonance between his articulate and sensitive inner voice, and how he presents to his friends and classmates. Shammas was a fantastic narrator, and the way he captured the voice of teenage boys, written with such honesty by Ahmad, was nothing short of brilliant. As someone who was in high school in Australia in the early 2000s, the cultural references, language and even occasionally behaviour were familiar to me. However, this book is about the singular experience of a Muslim-majority all-boys public school in Western Sydney, and it was eye opening to read about an experience in Australia happening parallel to my own. Ahmad captures how Lebanese identity, Islam and masculinity are so tightly woven together not only within the microcosm of Punchbowl Boys, but by Australian mainstream media against the backdrop of anti-Arabic sentiment in the wake of September 11 and the Sydney Gang Rapes. I thought that the way Ahmad handled the complexity and nuance of racial prejudice towards the Lebanese-Muslim community, and sexist and misogynistic attitudes within the Lebanese-Muslim community, was excellent. Bani Adam is the perfect protagonist for this book because while he is not comfortable with and doesn’t share the attitudes he hears from his peers, he learns that despite his inner self, he is still seen as just a “Leb” by the broader Australian community. Even though for some people the earlier parts of the book may be more confronting, I actually found the latter half of the book much more challenging when Bani Adam, seeking to improve himself artistically among peers, finds himself made to perform a caricature of the very community he is trying to distance himself from.

I just want to make a quick note about this book in audiobook format. As I mentioned, Shammas narrated this book excellently, but I also felt that this book really lent itself to being listened to. Ahmad revisits scenes several times, in the same way that teens (and adults) rehash events trying to examine them and make sense of them from different perspectives, using slightly different language and observations each time. I felt that this narrative style was actually really great in audiobook format for someone like me who can find active listening challenging at times, by reinforcing what is happening but challenging the reader to think about the same situation slightly differently. Interestingly, a significant way through the book, there was a content warning about discussion of sexual assault. I was surprised the producers decided to put this in just prior to the particular chapter rather than at the beginning of the entire book, so if you decide to listen, don’t worry, you haven’t accidentally skipped back to the beginning of the book.

A really important and thought-provoking book that I would thoroughly recommend. I found out after reading this book that it is actually a sequel to Ahmad’s book called “The Tribe” which I haven’t yet read, and now really want to.

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The Porcelain Thief

Family memoir about lost wealth and retracing history

I can’t quite remember where I found this book, but I certainly bought it secondhand. Although I often struggle with memoir as a genre, there is a very niche subset of memoir that blends personal history with actual history like “H is for Hawk” and “The Hare with Amber Eyes“. When I picked this up, I remember being intrigued by the premise. As I draw to the end of 2020 and the Year of the Asian Reading Challenge, I thought it would be a really good time to read this book.

Image is of “The Porcelain Thief” by Huan Hsu, a hardcover edition pictured on a wooden table next to a Chinese style white and blue bowl, a ceramic spoon and a chopstick rest

“The Porcelain Thief” by Huan Hsu is a memoir about American journalist Huan who decides to finally take up his uncle’s offer to work in his Shanghai company. However, Huan’s decision is not fuelled by a desire to carry on the family legacy but rather a desire to trace his family’s history and the stories of his great-great-grandfather’s buried porcelain collection. However, once he arrives in Shanghai, things are not so straightforward. Stymied by his patchy Mandarin, close-lipped relatives, family hierarchies and a culture that, after growing up in America, is indecipherable to him, Hsu will have to take some real risks if he is ever going to find out whether the stories about the buried porcelain are true, and whether or not he has a shot at finding it himself.

This is a complex and challenging book. Through Huan, we see that navigating family history is indistinguishable from navigating family. Despite Hsu’s excellent research skills honed through his career as a journalist, this book is at heart about relationships and identity. Hsu is unflinchingly honest in his writing, especially about himself, the criticism levelled at him by his relatives, and the mistakes he makes in his quest to return to his ancestral home. Some of the most powerful parts in the book were the clashes Hsu has with local Chinese people in which American-born Hsu is certain of his cultural and moral superiority. It was interesting seeing this approach mellow as the book progresses and Hsu realises that if he wants to succeed, he will need to befriend more locals and defer to their cultural expertise. Another powerful part of the book is the rift that forms between Hsu and his very elderly grandmother over her reluctance to discuss what happened after the family fled their home, and the way it mirrors the rift that formed between his grandmother and her own grandfather, the patriarch of the family, so many years earlier. I really enjoyed reading about how his grandmother and her sisters and cousins got an education, and the generally good-natured feuds between his uncles and between himself and his own cousin.

This is a well-researched book and Hsu weaves family history with China’s history. Understandably, among the relatives and old neighbours that Hsu interviews there are significantly differing accounts of the family history, the character of his great-great-grandfather and the stories of the lost porcelain. To try to make sense of the different histories, Hsu traces each relative’s story from the source: his great-great-grandfather. While this structure had logic behind it, it made for difficult reading. It felt like Hsu was rehashing the same experiences over and over from slightly different perspectives, muddling the central narrative which I think should have been his own experience. I completely understand the desire to show off all the research that he did, but I think a book like this needs to be really carefully curated. I was hoping that everything would come together in the end, but the ending itself was a bit disappointing as well.

A fascinating, touching and at time frustrating book that I think could have benefited from a structural reshuffle.

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The Factory Witches of Lowell

Historical fantasy about industrial action in America

Content warning: slavery

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher.

“The Factory Witches of Lowell” by C. S. Malerich is a historical fantasy novella set in Massachussets, USA in the 19th century and is a fictionalised account of the Lowell Mill Girls. When management increases the rent of the women who work in textile factories without increasing their wages, the women organise themselves and agree to go on strike. With the help of Mrs Hanson, who runs one of the boardinghouses, and the guidance of ailing Hannah Pickering who has a gift for seeing, the women cast a spell to ensure they all stick to the strike until their demands are met. However, when management counter their action, the women realise they are going to have to take more drastic measures.

This is a light-hearted story that transforms a historical event into a subtle fantasy novella just one step shy of magic realism. The magic is sparse yet effective. Although dealing with serious issues including women’s rights and workers’ rights, Malerich has a humorous and gentle style that makes this book very quick and readable. Judith Whittier is a strong character and a strong leader, and I really enjoyed the banter between her and Hannah. I thought the romance in this book was done well, and was a good counterbalance to the industrial action afoot in the town. There is a point in the book where Mrs Hanson’s loyalties come into question, and I had my heart in my mouth wondering what was going to happen next.

I think that the only issue I had was that this book does at times border on an irreverent tone. The reader is thrown headlong into a very limited point in time, and I felt that the terrible working conditions of the women were downplayed somewhat, and the resolution seemed too simple, given the historical context. Malerich, I think in an effort to acknowledge that slavery was still in place during this time, refers to Hannah’s ability to see a physical embodiment of being enslaved. This was handled in an unfortunately dehumanising way, and became more about furthering Hannah’s story rather than a comment on slavery itself.

A light, enjoyable read that perhaps occasionally made too light of some things.

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Little Fires Everywhere

Realistic novel about family, secrets and trust

I first heard about this novel when it won the 2017 Goodreads Choice Award for Best Fiction. Since then, it has been adapted into a TV miniseries that was released earlier this year. I’ve been really enjoying some of Reese Witherspoon’s work adapting books to film, so I picked up an edition of this book with a tie-in cover. After Marie Kondoing my bookshelf this year, and doing the #StartOnYourShelfathon challenge, I’ve been making a big effort to chip through my to-read shelf (yes, shelf!) and it was time to read this book.

A photo of the book cover on a background that is a cropped collage of scenic and touristy photos I took when I was in the USA in 2017

“Little Fires Everywhere” by Celeste Ng is a realistic novel about a real town called Shaker Heights. The story is about two families. The Richardsons are a well-to-do family with husband, wife and four children while the Warrens consist of a single mother and her daughter. When artist Mia Warren rents a small home from Mrs Elena Richardson, she promises her daughter Pearl that they will be able to stay there for good this time. Pearl quickly befriends Moody Richardson, then his siblings Trip and Lexie. Meanwhile, youngest daughter and black sheep Izzy begins to visit Mia and assist her with her work. As the family grows more and more intertwined, journalist Elena begins to grow suspicious of Mia’s past life and starts trying to investigate.

This is a strong novel that examines a small community and the forces that shake up its apparent idyllic existence. Ng is particularly concerned with motherhood, what makes a good mother and who deserves to be a mother. This book also examines class, race and profession and the ways in which these factors impact someone’s “suitability” as a mother. At the heart of the novel is a fascinating ideological controversy in its own right that in turn drives a wedge between Mia and Elena and kickstarts Elena’s skepticism about Mia’s background. This is a very readable novel, and I really enjoyed the earlier chapters as Pearl begins to navigate friendships with Moody, Trip and Lexie.

While this book is very readable, I did find myself a little disappointed at the ending. The opening pages of the book are very compelling and hint at a significant mystery to unfold. Without giving too much away, I felt that rather than the “spark” Ng hints at throughout the novel, the ending was an underwhelming fizzle without any of the twists or big reveals that I felt had been promised earlier on.

A well-written and insightful book that I wished had a bit less contemplation and a little more punch at the end.

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Seduced into Darkness

Memoir about abuse of power by a psychiatrist

Content warning: sexual abuse, mental health, suicide attempts

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publicist.

Seduced Into Darkness, Transcending My Psychiatrist's Sexual Abuse by Carrie  Ishee | 9781948749480 | Booktopia

“Seduced into Darkness” by Carrie T. Ishee is a memoir about being sexually abused by a psychiatrist. After becoming depressed following a break up with a boyfriend while at university, normally outgoing and studious Carrie is referred to psychiatrist Dr Anthony Romano for treatment. Soon after she begins seeing him, Dr Romano begins to push the doctor-patient boundaries, asking Carrie questions about her sexuality and inviting her to “sessions” outside the practice. Before long, Dr Romano has distanced Carrie from her otherwise tight-knit family and started a sexual relationship with her with questionable consent. When Carrie finally finds the strength to cut emotional and professional ties with him, she spirals into depression again. She is finally hospitalised after two suicide attempts and it is there, under the care of other doctors, that she is finally able to confront what happened to her and find a way forward.

This is a disturbing story about the imbalance of power between doctor and patient and how that power can be abused. I initially agreed to review this book because the subject matter is of considerable professional interest to me, but it is a very compelling story in its own right. Ishee’s personal, academic and professional experience in mental health make her a very well-rounded storyteller and she sheds light on both the strengths and weaknesses of mental health support. I was really interested in the legal proceedings that arose as a result of Ishee’s experience and the disconnect between civil law outcomes and regulation of the medical profession. Even though Carrie was able to sue Dr Romano for the harm he caused her, he did not receive significant professional sanctions and was able to continue commencing relationships with other vulnerable patients.

Throughout this book, Ishee seeks to find meaning in her experiences and the strength to start a new life following her passions: art and mental health. Ishee is clearly a very spiritual person who, throughout her life, has turned to higher powers for guidance and support. Given this, I completely understand the desire to find a framework or metaphor to encapsulate the trauma she went through. However, from a narrative point of view, I’m not sure that the Greek myth of Persephone added much to Ishee’s story which was already powerful in its own right.

An impactful first-person account of the damage that can be done through inappropriate and abusive relationships with medical practitioners.

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Piranesi

Surreal novel about a world of halls and statues

Content warning: trauma, disability

I have been anticipating this book since I first heard it was coming out earlier this year. I must have read her previous book “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell” just before I started this blog, and it is honestly a fantastic example of the fantasy genre. It was also adapted into a BBC miniseries which is, unusually, just as good and I highly, highly recommend it as well. Despite her excellence as a writer, the author has unfortunately not published anything since her debut novel came out about 15 years ago due to her struggle with chronic fatigue syndrome or more accurately known as ME/CFS. This is a debilitating disease that can affect anyone, and that has an enormous impact on day-to-day life. Clarke has spoken frankly about her experiences as an author with chronic illness and how she was able to tackle a project like her second novel.

Image of “Piransi” by Susanna Clarke placed on a black and gold promotional tote bag with a similar design

In a physical sense, this book is absolutely stunning. The dust jacket is decorated with copper foil, and the hardcover underneath has a complementary but different design with each letter of the title, in the same font as the dust jacket, resting on a pillar. When I bought my copy from Harry Hartog, I was absolutely delighted to see that it came with a free tote bag which I have been using constantly, I love it so much.

Image of “Piranesi” by Susanna Clarke with art from the XU ZHEN®: ETERNITY VS EVOLUTION exhibition currently at the National Gallery of Australia in the background. I would really recommend visiting this exhibition if you want to get a sense of what Piranesi’s world is like.

“Piranesi” by Susanna Clarke is a fantasy novel about a man who lives in the House. The House is made up of many, many halls – each one leading to another. The man has one friend he calls the Other who in turn calls him Piranesi, though Piranesi is not sure if that is his real name. Piranesi spends his days observing the statues in the halls, gathering food, anticipating the ocean tides that rise and fall through the halls and writing his observations and thoughts in his carefully indexed notebooks. However, shortly after one of his biweekly meetings with the Other, the Other warns Piranesi not to speak to anyone else he might come across in the House. When a new person suddenly appears with a counter-warning, and Piranesi finds messages written in chalk, his understanding of the world is shattered. Unsure who is friend and who is foe, Piranesi must place his faith in the House and figure out the truth.

This is an exceptional novel. The pacing is absolutely perfect and Clarke expertly unfurls the story, tantalising the reader with each new piece of information. It is a surreal novel, and Clarke somehow manages to make the seemingly endless halls seem both infinite and claustrophobic. Piranesi is an extraordinarily patient, resourceful and spiritual character whose main object is survival in this peculiar world. His meticulous observation and note-taking skills allow him to predict the dangers and bounties of the House and live with just enough security to explore its halls and study its statues. Clarke is very concerned with perspective in this book, and it quickly becomes clear that Piranesi’s worldview is at odds with that of the Other and even with his past self. Through this novel, Clarke explores the limits of human adaptability and the lengthswe will go to for self-preservation. I also really liked how she handles the question of identity, what it is that makes us individuals and the extent to which memory and identity are entertwined.

Also, I cannot review this book without mentioning how thrilled and excited I was that there was a character called Angharad. I legitimately did not see how it could get any better, and then Clarke drops a character with my name.

An incredible book that I enjoyed start to finish. Clarke is one of the best fantasy authors out there and if she continues to write books of this calibre, there is no limit to how long I will wait for the next one.

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In the Realm of Ash and Sorrow

Magic realism historical fiction novel set in WWII Hiroshima

Content warning: war

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher.

“In the Realm of Ash and Sorrow” by Kenneth W. Harmon is a historical fiction novel about an American bombadier called Micah whose plane is shot down over Hiroshima, Japan during WWII. Although Micah dies, his spirit remains in Hiroshima. He becomes attached to a young Japanese woman called Kiyomi and follows her to her workplace and to her home with her in-laws and daughter. As he slowly learns about his new existence from other ghosts, he grows more and more attached to Kiyomi. With the knowledge that Hiroshima will soon be under attack, Micah must try to find a way to communicate with Kiyomi and warn her before it is too late.

Despite some very graphic scenes, this is for the most part a gentle novel about love and overcoming differences. Remaining in Japan after his death gives Micah a new perspective on the country and people he previously believed were his enemies. Harmon uses dream-like states as a way for his living and dead characters to communicate, and explores ideas about what the afterlife may be like. Kiyomi is an interesting character who is trapped by traditional family obligations, and I thought that her daughter Ai was characterised well too. I thought that the parts of the book set in Hiroshima were the strongest, and I particularly enjoyed Micah’s conversations with an American-Japanese man.

While for the most part I enjoyed the beginning of the story, there were a few elements that I found frustrating. Even death doesn’t appear to prevent Micah from following a woman around (including in the bathroom) who has made it clear that the attention is unwanted. I also think it’s important to note that most of the book is about Kiyomi and her own life and experiences, but that this is not an #OwnVoices book. While Harmon clearly did a significant amount of research for this novel, I actually would have liked to have read more about this process in an afterword. I did feel that the way he sprinkled Japanese language through the book was a little jarring. I also felt that the second half of the novel, which was much more ethereal than the first half, felt muddied and unclear. It was hard to understand how much was inspired by Japanese culture and how much was Harmon’s imagination.

An experimental novel that had some interesting ideas and research but did feel confused at times.

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