Category Archives: Book Reviews

Burnt Out

Contemporary fiction about bushfires and unexpected fame

I received a copy of this courtesy of the publisher.

Image is of “Burnt Out” by Victoria Brookman. The eBook cover is sky blue with a hand holding a match that has a woman’s face wearing sunglasses in the flame.

“Burnt Out” by Victoria Brookman is a novel about a young woman called Cali who is on the brink. She is on the brink of losing her marriage, losing her publisher, losing her cat and losing her home to bushfires. When disaster strikes, Cali’s impassioned plea to the government to take action against climate change goes viral and she finds herself offered the chance of a lifetime: a writer’s retreat at a billionaire’s pool house right on Sydney Harbour. Her patron Arlo is as handsome as he is wealthy, and with a brand new book idea, it seems as though Cali has landed on her feet. However, soon her situation begins to feel like a gilded cage and Cali begins to second-guess her creative decisions and long for for the peace and friendship she left behind in the Blue Mountains.

I obviously did not read the description of this book closely enough because when I first started reading it, I thought it was a non-fiction book about burnout, chronic work-related stress that I can definitely relate to. I was, therefore, a bit surprised to find that it was a general fiction novel with a touch of romance. I went to the Blue Mountains last year to support my husband run an ultramarathon, and the year before to stay with a friend, and I thought that Brookman wrote beautifully and convincingly about the terror of having a bushfire at your doorstep. When I went to visit in winter 2020, it was pretty shocking seeing how close the fires got to my friend’s house and the slightly monstrous sight of gumtrees furred with new leaf growth all over their trunks and branches. I felt that Brookman really captured the altitude and the culture of the Blue Mountains and the juxtaposition between the alpine region and the city of Sydney so nearby.

Image is of a burnt gumtree stump that has new growth with trees in the background furred with leaves all over their branches.

However, this book didn’t have the hot romance of “The Dangers of Truffle Hunting” with its equally unrealistic creative opportunities or or the deep contemplation of “Hare’s Fur” also set in the Blue Mountains. While there were moments in the book that were powerful, I found myself frustrated with Cali’s character. I felt that she made some ethical decisions that I was just not on board with, and her slight guilt wasn’t enough to dissuade her and there ultimately were no consequences for her actions. My favourite character in the book was Cali’s neighbour Spike, but he really got the short end of the stick in my opinion and was way too cool about it. In fact, several of the people within Cali’s orbit got the short end of the stick except for Cali’s whose main talent appeared to be ranting about climate change (without any qualifications whatsoever) after being plied with a couple of glasses of champagne.

An easy to read novel centred on the hard-hitting topic of bushfires and climate change, but that was lacking the kind of morality and characters that I was hoping for.

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Filed under Advanced Reading Copies, Australian Books, Book Reviews, eBooks, General Fiction

Devotion

Queer historical fiction about Prussian immigrants to South Australia

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

Image is of “Devotion” by Hannah Kent. The eBook cover is light grey with a dark grey, banksia-shaped shadow and white, long-stemmed plant.

“Devotion” by Hannah Kent is a historical fiction novel set initially in Prussia in 1836. Hanne, her twin brother and her parents live in an Old Lutheran community. Hanne has always struggled to fit in with the other teenaged girls and the expectations of her mother, and prefers instead to spend time in nature. However when Hanne meets Thea, the daughter of a new family who joined the community, her whole world changes and suddenly she doesn’t feel so alone. When the community flees religious persecution for the colony of South Australia, Hanne and Thea’s bond is put to the ultimate test.

Kent is a beautiful writer and this book shows off her prowess bringing the diverse and untold stories of women in history to life. I found this to be a really relatable story, and Kent expertly captured the mutual love and frustration of mother-daughter relationships and how faith is interwoven in the community’s daily life. The connection between Hanne and Thea was both gentle and electric, and watching their friendship and relationship bloom was the highlight of the book. There were some elements of magic realism and spirituality that were interesting as well, with Hanne’s affinity for listening to nature underpinning and enriching a lot of the events that unfold.

It is a little hard to review this book because something incredibly significant and life-changing happens in the middle of the book which I can’t really mention without spoiling the story. Suffice to say that while it was creatively courageous, I’m not sure it added to the overall plot and I think I might have preferred it if Kent had taken another direction.

A unique story with plenty of depth, plenty of emotion and plenty of heart.

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Filed under Advanced Reading Copies, Australian Books, Book Reviews, eBooks, Historical Fiction, Magic Realism

Noor

Africanfuturism novel about human augmentation

Content warning: war, disability, harassment

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

Image is of “Noor” by Nnedi Okorafor. The eBook cover is of a young woman with dark skin and twist braided hair tied up in a bun. She is wearing a cowrie shell choker necklace and a jewel on her forehead. She is bathed in golden light.

“Noor” by Nnedi Okorafor is an Africanfuturism science fiction novel about a young Igbo woman called AO who has a number of cybernetic augmentations to assist her due to her disabilities. AO works as a successful mechanic in Nigeria’s capital city Abuja however not everyone accepts her for who she is. When she retaliates after being harassed by a group of men in the market, she finds herself on the run. Joining forces with a young Fulani herdsman called DNA, they find themselves heading towards a perpetual sandstorm in the desert seeking refuge and answers. Between them, they discover a national conspiracy and the untapped abilities that are their only hope of stopping it.

This was a fast-paced book in a reimagined Nigera that examines pressing social issues through a science fiction lens. I really liked the way Okorafor handled the stigma surrounding disability, and the complex relationship AO has with her augmentations, where they came from and the cause of her disabilities. The book really tackles capitalism and the consequences of giving too many rights and too much power to corporations. AO is a really strong character with a streak of recklessness and a clear idea of what she wants. I thought DNA, with his softer yet still courageous personality, was a good counterpoint.

There were some rather surreal moments in the book, such as when AO and DNA met a white yogi in the middle of a sandstorm. I will be honest and say that I think there were a lot of commentaries about Nigerian society and politics that I did not have the background to fully appreciate, especially the herder-farmer conflicts. I think that Okorafor was nevertheless generous enough with her writing to help any reader understand the broad factors at play.

A multifaceted story at breakneck speed that tackles critical social issues through creative technology.

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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

Where the Crawdads Sing

Novel about social isolation and finding your place

Content warning: child neglect, family violence, sexual violence

This book had generated quite a bit of hype following its release and I had a few people recommend it to me. The audiobook met my parameters (not too long) and after making a deal with my husband last year to go running 3 times a week, I have had plenty of opportunity to listen to audiobooks. Around the time I bought this audiobook, I stumbled across this rather damning 2019 article that (in addition to containing spoilers about the book) revisits some historic claims about the author’s ex-husband and his son while working as conservationists in Africa.

Image is of “Where the Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens. The audiobook cover is of a person paddling a kayak on water between two dark trees below a big, apricot sky.

“Where the Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens and narrated by Cassandra Campbell is a historical novel about a young girl called Kya who grows up in marshlands in North Carolina in the 1950s. The novel alternates between Kya’s early life and a murder investigation nearly 20 years later. When she is 6 years old, Kya’s mother leaves her and her siblings to the care of her abusive father. One by one her siblings leave, until it is just Kya and her old man together in the shack on the edge of the marsh. For a time, the two of them begin to form a bond and her father quits drinking and takes an interest in teaching her how to fish in his boat. However, when a letter arrives that illiterate Kya is unable to read, things change for the worse and soon Kya is all alone in the marsh. As the years pass, her few interactions with the people of the nearby town Barkley Cove are cruel and exclusionary, and soon she realises that she can only rely on herself. However, when her brother’s old friend Tate strikes up a friendship with her, she is unsure whether she will be able to open her heart and trust someone again. Meanwhile, in the late 1960s, local police investigate the suspected murder of local star footballer Chase.

This is a compelling book full of the pain and loneliness of a young girl abandoned by her family, and the delicate hope she has that someone might be able to love her. Kya’s repeated rejection by her parents, her siblings, her town and her lovers is heartrending. Owens counteracts Kya’s extreme isolation with the solace she draws from the natural environment around her and the very few friendships she cultivates among the locals. I’m not sure if there is a word for nostalgia for something you’ve never experienced (if there is, please comment!) but there is something quite compelling to me reading about natural sciences in the mid-20th century. I think perhaps the romanticism of going to remote places to observe the world around you and contribute to the knowledge of humanity. Anyway, Owens certainly captures the salve the wilderness can be to the modern world. I also really enjoyed Campbell’s narration. There were elements of her style that actually reminded me of Moira Rose from the TV series “Schitt’s Creek“; something about the vowels and the clipped enunciation.

However, there were a lot of elements of this book that I found either trite or unrealistic. One of them was Kya learning to read. I think having read books like “A Fortunate Life“, and reading the far more realistic depiction of illiteracy in “Unsettled Ground“, I wasn’t quite sold on Kya taking to reading and writing so quickly being taught by Tate. Absolutely people can improve and gain literacy as teenagers and adults, but it is not the breeze that Owens makes it out to be and I cannot recommend enough the SBS TV series “Lost for Words“. I also found the murder mystery/court trial portion of the book far less engaging than Kya’s experiences growing up, and I found myself tuning out until the story jumped back in time. I also wasn’t sure about the Jumpin’ narrative arc: Kya’s friendship with the African-American owner of a petrol store (gas station for American readers). It just felt very tropey to me, and like a lot of these types of stories, Jumpin’ seemed to just be there as a plot device to solve problems for Kya in a very one-sided friendship.

A listenable story with lots of points of interest, but with some parts that were either dull, questionable or both.

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

Papio

Young adult novel about teenagers who liberate baboons

I’m a bit behind with reviews (how is it already February?!) but this was on my Short Stack Reading Challenge list. This looks like it was another find from the Canberra Lifeline Book Fair (which is on this weekend for its 50th birthday and given the circumstances really needs everyone’s support). Anyway, my friend has been telling me I really need to read this author, so I was ready to give it a try.

Image is of "Papio" by Victor Kelleher. The paperback book is poking out a backpack with some muesli bars and a pair of binoculars. The cover is of black teenage girl and white teenage boy behind a baboon baring his teeth. The girl is holding a baby baboon. In the background is African landscape with a storm and hunters.

“Papio” by Victor Kelleher is a young adult novel about David, a white Australian teenager, and Jem, an African-American teenager, who both live in Central Africa. David develops an affinity for the baboons kept at a nearby experimental research station, especially a large male called Papio and a female called Upi. When it becomes clear that the baboons are not going to leave the facility alive, David convinces Jem to help him break the baboons out and release them to the wild. However, the baboons struggle to survive in the wild and have not yet found a troop to join. When David and Jem stay longer and longer, it becomes clear that there is more at stake than Papio and Upi’s survival in the wild. Soon, all their lives are at stake.

This was an intense and realistic book that explores the limits of what it takes to survive in the wilderness. Kelleher doesn’t shy from the grittier details like hunger and illness, and the gradual acceptance of the group with a troop of baboons was one of the most interesting parts of the book. I really enjoyed the exploration of baboon behaviour. Certainly I had always had this idea that they are quite an aggressive species, but this book really showed me another side to baboons and the different ways they interact with humans and the encroachment on their habitat.

I think the part I had difficulty with was the thought processes of David and Jem. I couldn’t quite understand why Jem so easily went along with David’s plans, especially when it became clear he had concealed a lot from her. I also couldn’t quite understand how they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) see the anger they had brought upon the baboons, and that especially towards the end, their actions were leading everyone to disaster.

An interesting and morally provoking story.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Young Adult

Sula

Literary novella about friendship between two African American girls

Content warning: encouraging suicide, trauma

At the end of last year, I was deep into my Short Stack Reading Challenge and this book was in my pile. I can’t quite work out where it came from. A second-hand bookstore? The Lifeline Book Fair? Borrowed? It doesn’t have any prices on it to give any hints. I’m wondering if perhaps it just arrived in my street library one day. Anyway, I have read a few books by this author, and this one won the 1993 Novel Prize for Literature, so I was keen to check it out.

Image is of "Sula" by Toni Morrison. The paperback book is resting against perforated metal behind a charred piece of wood. The cover is white with a handful of red fabric petals and a pair of scissors.

“Sula” by Toni Morrison is a novella about two African American girls called Sula and Nel who grow up together in a poor black neighbourhood called The Bottom in Ohio, USA. Although inseparable, Sula and Nel have vastly different home lives. Sula lives with her sensual mother Hannah and magnetic grandmother Eva, with a stream of men, boarders and children coming through the house. Nel, on the other hand, has a much more straight-laced upbringing with her mother Helene who was in turn raised by her strict Catholic grandmother. The book starts in 1919 with each chapter a subsequent year, with sometimes one year passing and sometimes several, until 1965.

This is a deeply complex and at times almost surreal book with incredibly strong feminist themes. Morrison explores the intense and fraught relationships that develop between mothers and daughters, between grandmothers and granddaughters and between friends. I really liked how she tested the different types of love with betrayals, resentments and blame on both sides. Sula and Nel’s different approaches to men and relationships proves almost fatal to their friendship and it takes time and understanding before what was lost can even begin to be reconciled. The book has an interesting perspective because despite being set in America and The Bottom developing as a community in the wake of emancipation, the only mention of white America is at the very beginning of the story. Morrison provides some historical context to the segregated community and opens the novella by describing plans to turn the neighbourhood into a golf course.

I found that Eva and Shadrack were the two most fascinating characters, and despite their respective disabilities and trauma serve as the truthtellers of this story. A provocative character with lapses of indecency and his introduction of National Suicide Day which encourages rather than prevents suicide, WWI veteren Shadrack is nevertheless tolerated and accepted by The Bottom. He provides an interesting counterpoint to the main story as well as a unique lens through which to observe Sula who later becomes a similar type of outcast. Eva also appears to see right through Sula and Nel, and despite her own very idiosyncratic life and questionable decisions, passes easy on those around her. She is especially scathing of bystander apathy and those who “watch”. She proves that on the other hand, there is nothing she isn’t willing to do for herself, her home and her children – even if her ethics appear somewhat misguided.

An intricate novella with some very unique characters that still feels fresh nearly 40 years after publication.

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Desperate Spring

Novel about Algerian women navigating life in a newly liberated nation

Content warning: suicide, family violence, sexual harassment, gender inequality, miscarriage, mental illness

I picked up this book at a Lifeline Book Fair some time back. I always like to browse the world literature section because it’s an ongoing goal of mine to read books by authors all around the world. This is the first book I’ve read by an Algerian author. As I was choosing books from my shelf last year for my Short Stack Reading Challenge, this one caught my eye and into the pile it went.

Image is of "Desperate Spring" by Fettouma Touati and translated by Ros Schwartz. The paperback book is resting behind a navy and white scarf. There is a very small blue and white tajine in the foreground. The cover is of a troubled looking young woman sitting at an outside table drinking coffee in a busy urban environment.

“Desperate Spring” by Fettouma Touati and translated by Ros Schwartz is about a number of Algerian women from different generations all connected by family and marriage. In the wake of the Algerian war of liberation, the traumas of past conflict and the tensions of the present create a challenging time for young women who must navigate traditional social values and their ambitions for education and independence. Faced with the choice between pursuing education and the cost of social acceptance, or accepting a marriage proposal and sacrificing independence and in many cases physical safety, the story follows the lives of these young women and how gender inequality undermines all their decisions.

This was a fascinating and heart-breaking book about a difficult era. I really liked Touati’s use of different sisters and cousins to explore and compare the consequences of their choices. When the opportunity arises for Fatiha to pursue further education, she eagerly seizes it, ignoring the pushback from her family in an attempt to distance herself from the horror inflicted by her traumatised father. However, she finds herself adrift and alone in a society not yet ready for independent women and unable to escape the pain of her past. Her cousin Yasmina also doggedly pursues her dreams of becoming a doctor, but her more stable upbringing and concession to tradition creates space for a little more happiness than her cousin. Yasmin’s sister Fatma, after completing some education, decides to marry rather than continuing her studies but her seemingly gentle young husband proves to be as entitled and violent as many other young men. Their cousin Malika, who grew up in Europe with more social freedom but with an extremely controlling mother, struggles to find her place in the world but is bolstered by the connection she makes with her cousins back in Algeria.

An intricate and unflinching book, and although in many ways it filled me with sadness and empathy for these women in impossible situations, this was an excellent introduction to Algerian literature.

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The Midwich Cuckoos

Classic science fiction novel about alien invasion and psychic children

Content warning: abortion, forced pregnancy, self-harm

One of my favourite science fiction books is by this author, and I really like the design of this set. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to get the price tag off the front cover which has spoiled the effect somewhat. I was going through my to-read shelf back in December looking for books for my Short Stack Reading Challenge and this one looked ideal. Although I’m familiar with the premise, it has inspired plenty of adaptations and other media, I hadn’t read this one before.

Image is of "The Midwich Cuckoos" by John Wyndham. The paperback book is resting on a dark brown table next to a record player with a jewel pink record. There is a cut of bright pink tea. The cover is of a young white man with brown hair who is lying down with his head on the ground. A black and white bird sits on his ear.

“The Midwich Cuckoos” by John Wyndham is a science fiction novel about a small English village called Midwich. One day, an invisible line encircles the town and everyone within it or who crosses it falls asleep. The next day, everyone wakes up more or less unharmed, except that all the women are pregnant. When they give birth, all the children are strangely similar with light blonde hair and golden eyes. As they grow up at an accelerated rate, the people in the village start to notice some even more unusual traits. With secret government organisations taking an interest, and increasingly serious incidents happening, questions begin to be asked not just about what to do about Midwich, but what to do about humanity.

This was a really interesting book that had an understated, very British, almost bureaucratic tone. A lot of the book is made up of conversations between different people in the town, especially between a young man called Richard and a well-known local author Gordon Zellaby. Richard is charged by a secretive Colonel to keep an eye on the situation, and over the years Richard reports what he sees. This narrative style creates room for a lot of subtle exploration of social issues such as motherhood, abortion and what it means to be human. I was surprised at how well the book has held up over time, and I also liked that despite being set in the UK, the book didn’t have a Western-centric perspective and considered the Earth as a whole which many science fiction books fail to do.

Although I understand why Wyndham chose this narrative style, at times it did feel like the pace was impeded and the text was very conversation heavy. However, the slow burn does lead to an explosive ending.

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New Australian Fiction

Collection of Short Stories from Kill Your Darlings

One of the best things about being a member of Kill Your Darlings is receiving an annual copy of this short story collection. When I received my 2021 issue, I realised two things:

  1. I hadn’t read the 2020 issue yet, and
  2. these would be ideal for my December Short Stack Reading Challenge.

I like the consistency in the cover design, with variations on an optical illusion theme.

Image is of “New Australian Fiction 2020” and “New Australian Fiction 2021”. The two paperback books are resting against the trunk of a gum tree amongst grass and strips of bark. The covers are white on the bottom third, with optical illusion inspired designs on the top thirds; one with pink and blue lines in a sector-like shape, and one with light and dark blue lines in a vortex shape.

“New Australian Fiction 2020” and “New Australian Fiction 2021” are collections of short stories by Australian authors. As with my previous review of “Going Down Swinging No. 30“, I won’t go through all the stories but I’ll highlight some of my favourites. I will say though that while there were some stories I liked much better than others, I did think that the overall curation of both issues was very strong. The editors put a lot of thought into arranging these stories and they had a really nice thematic flow.

New Australian Fiction 2020

So Many Ways by Mirandi Riwoe was a slice-of-life story about diaspora, job insecurity and unlikely friendships. It wasn’t exactly enjoyable, but Madeline Watts’ story Floodwaters was an uncomfortable and all-too-relatable consideration of being stuck in a relationship and how much of a disaster it takes to leave. After the Stampede by Jack Vening was another challenging story, one of those ones where you go over it again and again because the pieces don’t quite fit until you realise that there is something very wrong with the narrator. I really liked Self-Portrait After Panic by Laura McPhee-Browne, an intimate story about art, friendship and anxiety. I also really liked the vibrancy and sex positivity of Maame Blue’s Howl. Holy Water by Jack Kirne was delightfully dark and ambiguous. Long Road: Becoming by Mykaela Saunders was a excellent story about ritual and family and trying to make a new life following incarceration.

New Australian Fiction 2021

I really liked Flash and Glow by Ben Walter, a dark intersection between tourism and pollution with subheadings of metal contaminants. The semi-autobiographical Tunnels by Bryant Apolonio was a compelling story about the legacies our parents leave us. Resource Management, another one by Mykaela Saunders, used original and creative form to show how cultural misunderstanding has played out in Aboriginal communities in the past as well as in the present. James Noonan’s story Morningside hit very close to home about living overseas while bushfires rage back in Australia. I was disturbed by yet hooked on Flaring Out by Scott Limbrick, a conceptual story about a peculiar and inexplicable phenomenon wiping out humanity one by one. I absolutely loved Takatāpui by Daley Rangi, a beautifully written, real-life, first person narrative about queer and Māori identity and everyday violence. Georgia White’s story Ceasefire brought to life the reality of when a family member does the unthinkable.

There were plenty of cutting edge, relevant pieces in this collection and I look forward to seeing the results of this upcoming year.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Short Stories