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Wanting

Historical fiction linking colonial Tasmania with Dickens’ London

Content warning: racism, colonisation

This book wasn’t my first choice and it didn’t have a particularly auspicious beginning. In my one and only attempt at a blind date with a book, at a bookstore with the punny name Hooked on Books which has long since closed in the coastal town Batemans Bay, I found myself unhappily with a book that was fourth in a series that had not read. Now, I appreciate that the point of a blind date with a book is that you get a book wrapped in brown paper and have no idea what might be inside. However, I didn’t really think it was in the spirit of the exercise to wrap a book that you needed to have read the first three in the series to appreciate. Anyway, I reluctantly asked to swap, and they reluctantly agreed, and I walked away with this book. It sat on my bookshelf half unwrapped for three years, and when I found myself with a second Flanagan book on my to-read pile, I thought it was about time I read the first.

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“Wanting” by Richard Flanagan is a historical fiction novel about the explorer Sir John Franklin and his wife Lady Jane Franklin, his stint as Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen’s Land and the cultural impact of his disappearance while on an arctic expedition. The book mostly splits between the story of Mathinna, an Aboriginal girl adopted then soon after abandoned by the Franklins, and Charles Dickens’ involvement in a play inspired by Sir Franklin’s disappearance. The two stories are connected not only by the Franklins, but by the theme of desire.

I really liked the beginning of this novel. The Protector is a fantastic character in his abhorrence and Flanagan’s sense of dramatic irony is second to none. I felt like it was a strong start and Flanagan captured the brutality, the indifference and the arbitrariness of colonisation and the devastating impact it had on the Aboriginal people of Tasmania. Flanagan is a strong writer and brings to life the terrible contrast between the increasing affluence of the white settlers, and the increasing desolation of the indigenous population.

The beginning was good, but there were so many things that irked me about this book. The juxtaposition between Dickens’ chapters and Mathinna’s chapters was jarring. I can see what Flanagan was trying to do, but I just don’t think it got there. Neither Dickens nor Franklin were compelling enough characters and I honestly eye-rolled my entire way through each of Dickens’ chapters. Mathinna was much more compelling, but I was very unhappy with the way that she was handled. Her story was told as a tragedy, and instead of giving her any agency at all, Flanagan depicts her as a victim subjected to horrific (and, in my opinion, largely unnecessary) violence.

This actually isn’t the first book I have read about the Franklins and Mathinna, and a lot of the criticisms I had about that book, I am going to echo again here. I just don’t think that the story of what happened to the original people of Tasmania needs to be bolstered by shoehorning in figures from the British literary scene of the 1800s. I wish that Flanagan had just excised the entire Dickens story and had stuck with Tasmania. The Franklins weren’t that interesting, and I wasn’t sure that cutting Franklin’s daughter Eleanor out was particularly strategic either because that was a missed opportunity for exploring the family’s interaction with Mathinna.

Anyway, I think that Mathinna’s story needs to be told and that someone, probably one of the incredible Aboriginal writers being published at the moment, needs to do it justice.

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I Do Not Come To You By Chance

Novel about Nigerian email scams

Unlike the title suggests, this book did come to me by chance. I am almost certain that I found it in my street library. As I’ve mentioned many times before, it is an ongoing goal of mine to read more diversely. Nigeria has a very long tradition of literary culture, and this is not actually my first Nigerian novel. However, it has such a unique theme that I was really taken by it when it popped up one day and I decided I’d probably better give it a read.

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“I Do Not Come To You By Chance” by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani is a novel set in Nigeria by a young university graduate called Kingsley. Known as Kings to his friends and family, he is the oldest son in his family, the opara, and with a brand new engineering degree he expects to walk into a job. However, despite his parents’ insistence that education is the key to success, the job market in Nigeria suggests otherwise. When the family faces financial ruin, Kings is forced to seek help from his wealthy but somewhat morally bankrupt uncle, the flashy Cash Daddy. Despite his parents’ condemnation of Cash Daddy’s business practices, Kings is tempted by the business of email scams.

This was a fascinating book that took something that is often nothing more than the derisive phrase “Nigerian prince scam” and uncovered the humanity behind a real phenomenon. Nwaubani compares the many different classes of Nigeria, both the different levels of wealth as well as the many different levels of poverty. She also goes into compelling detail about the mechanisms of how the 419 scams actually work and the kinds of people who attempt, succeed at and fall prey to. Nwaubani shows great skills in character development and the Kings that we meet at the beginning of the book subtly shifts into a very different Kings by the end. I also really enjoyed watching his siblings grow up and the ripple effect Kings’ decisions have on his family.

I think that although I loved the premise and that Nwaubani’s writing was very strong, the moral dilemma seemed a little drawn out. It seems strange to say this because I’m not that much of a romance fan, but I think that this book could have used a little more romantic intrigue. I completely understand that Kings’ focus is on money and his career, but I felt that he went from childish infatuation to hiring sex workers very quickly and there wasn’t much of a middle ground. Nevertheless, I think that this book could have used a little more emotional drama to balance out the moral drama.

A very interesting book that I enjoyed and look forward to leaving in my street library for someone else to read.

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Slade House

British supernatural horror novel 

I first read this author when I was 18 years old after his book “Cloud Atlas” was recommended to me by someone I was seeing at the time. I have been slowly getting to some of his other books, though his manuscript for the Future Library project is something I will probably never get to read. Anyway, I was getting to the pointy end of my 2018 reading challenge, and this book was short and sitting on my shelf so I decided it was time to read it.

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“Slade House” by David Mitchell is a horror novel set in the UK. It begins in 1979 with a teenage boy called Nathan who is dragged along by his mother to an exclusive event at a manor called Slade House. After some difficulty finding the address, and after Nathan taking some valium, they eventually find the iron door in an alleyway and make their way into the manor’s garden. Things don’t seem so bad and Nathan befriends another teen called Jonah. However, when things start becoming a little strange, Nathan finds himself unable to leave. 9 years later, a divorced police officer is investigating Slade House and disappearances that are associated with the mysterious address. 9 years later after that, a shy member of a supernatural club goes to a party at Slade House. Will the cycle continue, or will someone be able to break the circuit and see through the illusion?

This book was genuinely terrifying. I was about halfway through, in the chapter Oink Oink, and my heart was positively racing. Mitchell has a real flair for getting inside the head of a diverse cast of characters, and for conjuring empathy in his readers. Each point of view character is isolated in their own way, and Mitchell shows us that courage comes from unexpected places and to never underestimate people based on their appearance. Mitchell is also an expert in layering stories and each chapter builds on and elaborates the former, bringing the true horror of the story to the fore.

I actually don’t have much more to say about this book except that if you’re looking for a well-written and extremely unsettling horror story, look no further.

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Slade House

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Invitation to Poetry

Book of poetry about Romanian and universal life

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

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“Invitation to Poetry” by Mihai Brinas is a collection of free verse poetry. Brinas combines everyday observations with deep introspection in each of his verses.

I really liked some of the concepts in this book and I enjoyed Brinas’ take on the mundane aspects of daily life. I think my favourite poem was the sadness of books which included the lines:

i leave taking with me
the sadness of so many books unread.

I think that while I enjoyed the themes of Brinas’ poetry, I did feel like the language wasn’t always as fluid as I would have liked. A few of the poems included repeating words or particular word choices that were a little grating and I felt like a bit of a comb through would have helped smooth some of these out.

Anyway, this is an easy book of poetry to read and see the world through Brinas’ eyes.

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A Perfect Marriage

Domestic noir novel about the aftermath of an abusive relationship

Content warning: domestic violence

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

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“A Perfect Marriage” by Alison Booth is a domestic noir novel about a woman called Sally whose secret is preventing her from moving on from her dark past. Busy with her teenage daughter Charlie and her career as a geneticist, Sally decides to attend a conference in Spain. After a chance meeting on the flight over promises something more than just a professional relationship, Sally finds herself forced to confront her previous marriage and come clean with everyone she loves about how it really ended.

This is a subtle novel that delicately and sensitively explores the issue of domestic violence. A lot of stories explore the trauma of living through domestic violence, but I feel that far fewer examine the aftermath and the impact felt many years afterwards. Sally is a relatable character who really brings the truth that anyone can be a victim of domestic violence to the forefront. As a reader, you find yourself cheering for Sally and celebrating each little win.

I think the only thing that some people may have difficulty with in reading this novel is that it is a quiet book. It’s a slow burn that doesn’t have a lot of highs and lows, but rather matches the more ordinary rhythms of real life.

A very honest interpretation of a serious and sadly all too common scenario, this is a thoughtful and easy-to-read book.

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The Eye of the Sheep

Literary fiction about an ordinary yet dysfunctional family told from the perspective of a differently-abled boy. 

Content warning: disability, chronic illness, domestic violence

Last year I saw Sofie Laguna speak about her new book “The Choke”, and it was one of the most fast-paced and scintillating author talks I’ve ever been to. Although I was really interested in buying a copy of her newer book, I really wanted to get my hands on a copy of her previous novel that won the Miles Franklin Award in 2015. In the end, that was the one I bought and got signed.

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“The Eye of the Sheep” by Sofie Laguna is a literary novel told from the perspective of a neurodiverse young boy. Jimmy’s family are like other families. He has a mum, a dad and a brother. His dad works in a refinery, his mum stays home and looks after the family. However, Jimmy isn’t like other children. His mind is too quick in some ways and too slow in others, and he sees the world in a very unique way. As his family’s limited emotional and financial resources are stretched to the limit, the tension threatens to tear Jimmy’s life apart.

This is a spectacular novel that you need to throw yourself into headlong and let it cover you completely. Laguna takes the banal and makes it mesmirising. Writing a story through the eyes of Jimmy was ambitious, but Laguna does so convincingly and evocatively. I really liked how Jimmy ages through the story and finds that the world beyond his mother’s cloying arms is neither as understanding nor as undemanding.

Laguna also uses Jimmy’s observations to tackle some very difficult themes. I think one of the most challenging parts of this book is Paula, Jimmy’s mother, and the increasing toll her weight, her asthma and domestic violence takes on her. Jimmy’s naive understanding of what is happening in his family is contrasted against his brother’s increasingly verbal and violent protests against his father’s violence. Where Jimmy thinks about the things his mother could do to mitigate his father’s anger, I found myself wondering at why this family that does so much better apart tries so hard to stay together. Laguna explores the theme of fighting to breathe over and over again, throwing each family member’s sense of being trapped in stark relief.

I could go into more detail about this book but I think this is the kind of story you just have to wade into and experience for yourself. It was definitely no mistake this book won the Miles Franklin, and I am very eager to read more of Laguna’s work.

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The Black Tides of Heaven

Genderqueer non-Western fantasy by a Singaporean author

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

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

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

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

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

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

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