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A Gentleman in Moscow

Historical fiction novel set in Russia about a fallen aristocrat detained in a hotel

After recently moving house and being faced with the equal parts exciting and horrifying task of arranging my bookshelves, it has occurred to me (again) that I have too many unread books. I have committed to the Mount TBR Reading Challenge, but to be honest, it hasn’t been going especially well! With quite of lot of life stuff happening recently I’m just very far behind. However, with my bookshelf freshly organised, I decided to make a genuine start on tackling some of those piles. This book I bought some time ago after several people recommended it to me. It is a beautiful hardcover edition with gold foil which is simply radiant when the light catches it just so. Now, this book is set in historical Russia and given the invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, I did initially feel uncomfortable about the prospect of reading it. However, I looked up the the author and discovered he is American and decided to go ahead.

Image is of “A Gentleman in Mosco” by Amor Towles. The hardcover book is standing upright behind a crystal vanity set with a small vase, a small glass and a squat box on a crystal tray. The cover is black with gold foil depicting a number of small, stylised scenes including a waiter holding a tray of martinis, a woman walking two sighthounds, a bee on honeycomb, leaves and flowers, a small clock and a key. Next to the book is a bottle of Taylor’s wine with the text The Hotelier on the label and a black and gold design that matches the book.

“A Gentleman in Mosco” by Amor Towles is a historical fiction novel set in Moscow, Russia in 1922. The story is about Count Alexander Rostov, an aristocrat in his early 30s, who is being interrogated in the Kremlin. Shortly afterwards he is escorted to the hotel he is residing in, the Hotel Metropol, but instead of returning to his suite, he is moved into a tiny attic room and advised that he is not to leave the hotel. Ever. Irreverent and charming, the Count initially makes the most of things and tries to follow his typical routine: fancy meals, frequent haircuts, scintillating conversation. However, as the years pass by, holding on to the past begins to weight the Count down. If he is to survive life in the hotel, the Count realises that he must work hard to find new meaning in his life.

This was a beautifully written and elegantly structured book. Towles shows a real knack for keeping on top of the many threads woven through this story, bringing certain threads back to the forefront with exception timing. However, even stronger than this was the character development. Towles manages to capture a lifetime within a relatively short number of pages, showing the high points and the low points of a unusual life lived. I really enjoyed the relationships that the Count develops with staff and guests at the hotel over time. Rather than being static, the hotel changes over time and the people change with it. I especially liked the Triumvirate and how as the Count grows closer to his friends Andrey and Emile, they are shown to the reader in more and more close detail. It is interesting that this book was published in 2016 because I think it would have been a very relatable book to read during lockdown.

I thought it was admirable that Towles titled each chapter with a word or phrase beginning with the letter A, but the very last chapter, An Anon, I actually felt was superfluous. I had been along for the ride the entire way, almost every chapter had hit the mark, but the little coda just didn’t quite land. I think I would have preferred a little more ambiguity at the end. Also (and this is me being utterly pedantic against American English) I was a little annoyed that so much care was taken with describing dining etiquette, yet Towles used the term entrée to refer to the main course of a meal, rather than the French (and rest of the English-speaking world’s) usage to refer to starters. This could well have been an American publication choice, but it still irritated me.

Nevertheless, this is a deeply emotional and well-considered book that asks us how, when our world becomes very small, we can fill it with little yet meaningful things.

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Going Down Swinging No. 30

Anthology of short fiction, poetry, comic art, graphic novella and spoken word

Last year, I was thrilled to win a micro-microfiction contest with this journal. I was so inspired I decided to buy one of their annual anthologies. I was looking through the store on the website trying to decide which one and I could not go past this one. The cover design is so striking (by Katrina Rhodes) and I was intrigued by the two spoken word CDs included with it, the design of which matches the Fabergé egg-shaped hot air balloons on the covers. I knew that I had to pick this for my Short Stack Reading Challenge back in December.

Image is of “Going Down Swinging No. 30”. The paperback book is resting on a wooden table with a pair of vintage binoculars and a pocket watch. The cover is of a duck with a dark green head wearing a period-style lime green three piece suit, riding in a hot air balloon. Things are hanging over the side like an anchor, dried onions and a teapot. The balloon is dark green with an intricate design. The duck is floating past a city of light grey buildings with domes and spires.

“Going Down Swinging No. 30” is a special 30th anniversary anthology of short fiction, poetry, comic art, graphic novellas and two spoken word CDs. Although there is an extensive contents page at the beginning, this was a surprisingly quick read. It has a really immersive feel with a very high quality selection of works. Given the number of pieces it is going to be impossible for me to review each or even most, so I will try to highlight some of my favourites.

The Clockwork Children by Felicity Bloomfield was an absolutely chilling horror short story about wanting to fit in with other children that reminded me a bit of “Slade House” or perhaps “Coraline” by Neil Gaiman. Procession by Paddy O’Reilly was a disturbing exploration of what a society with dogs who gained some sentience might be like and the humans who decide to worship them. Rhianna Boyle’s little comic Dirty Joke was a pure and humorous story about making the most of a difficult situation and reconnecting with family. Salvatore Ciliento’s ink illustrations were a beautiful and calming interlude among the written pieces. Shit Brooches by Oslo Davis was a hilarious, punchy little comic that really resonated with me given how popular brooches seem to be over the last couple of years. I thought that Retro Ryder by Robert Caporale was a really interesting take on the trauma of losing a friend when young with a bit of ambiguity thrown in to keep it edgy. I also really liked the realism of Gutted, for Carl Solomon by Luke Johnson which had a intoxicatingly urban setting and examined the ethics of thinking about violence as compared to acting on it. Midlife by Andy Murdoch was an excellent look at intimacy, queer identity and turning 30.

It was a bit hard for me to separate each piece of spoken word on the CDs (let alone find something in my house that would play them!) but the effect of voice over music and ambient noise was very compelling and they definitely added to the overall experience of this book.

A really enjoyable collection and I am keen to get my hands on some more issues of Going Down Swinging.

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2021: A Year in Books

Another year of reading done. After doing a summary for the first time in 2020, I have decided to make it an annual thing and share my best reads, my most popular reviews and wrap-up my reading challenges for the year.

Best Reads of 2021

My favourite books this year fell into four broad genres:

  • science fiction and fantasy,
  • literary fiction,
  • popular fiction, and, surprisingly,
  • poetry.

Fantasy and Science Fiction

Image is of “She Who Became the Sun” by Shelley Parker-Chan. The paperback book is resting on a black tangzhuang-style men’s jacket with white lining. The cover is ombre yellow and orange with a dark orange Chinese dragon and black text.

There was some exceptional speculative fiction this year, and one of my favourites was Africanfuturism novella “Remote Control” by Nnedi Okorafor, an explosive story about a radioactive girl ruthless in her quest for survival. I was thrilled to read the third book in “The Daevabad Trilogy”, “The Empire of Gold” by S. A. Chakraborty which was an exceptional finale to a fantastic series. I was also really excited to start two new series with “The Bone Shard Daughter” by Andrea Stewart, with fantastic magic and an even better animal sidekick, and “She Who Became the Sun” by Shelley Parker-Chan which pushes just about every boundary, but especially the boundaries of ambition.

Literary Fiction

First training for a hike, then taking up running, I got through quite a few audiobooks this year and some were just excellent. Gothic novel “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” by Shirley Jackson had me thinking about it and the disturbing protagonist Merricat for weeks afterwards. “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas was haunting for a different way with its hyperrealistic exploration of the Black Lives Matter movement. Then, in spite of the controversy surrounding the narrator, “Call Me By Your Name” by André Aciman was the most beautifully written love letter to the male body.

Image is of “The White Tiger” by Aravind Adiga. The paperback book is sitting in front of a redbrick wall next to a crystal tumbler and a small bottle of rum. Above the objects embedded into the wall is a small gold figure of the Hindu god Ganesh. The cover is white with large stylised writing in black and red and letter Is dotted with orange tiger eyes, with an image of an orange car striped liked a tiger.

A really surprising novel was “The White Tiger” by Aravind Adiga: one of those incredibly satisfying stories about someone choosing themselves over everything else, no matter the consequences. Then the disturbing but all too realistic “Unsettled Ground” by Claire Fuller had me ruminating for days about how so-called developed societies can collectively fail people so badly.

Popular Fiction

Image is of an advance reading copy of “The Dangers of Truffle Hunting” by Sunni Overend. The paperback book is standing upright between a champagne bottle and a bowl of cake mixture on a kitchen bench. A shirtless man stands behind it with a flour handprint on him. There are cloves scattered around, a red apple cut in half and two cinnamon sticks.

It definitely wasn’t all doom and gloom though, and I really enjoyed a couple of romps. One was “The Dangers of Truffle Hunting” by Sunni Overend which honestly was the right book at the right time, and I enjoyed the fantasy combination of food, wine and romance unashamedly. I also really liked the sheer drama and chaos of “Nine Perfect Strangers” by Liane Moriarty who pushed the promises of the wellness industry to their absolute extreme.

Image is of “Nine Perfect Strangers” by Liane Moriarty. The paperback book is sitting on a blue and silver yoga mat between a Tibetan singing bowl and a small milk jar with a sprig of wattle blossom. The cover is white with 9 differently coloured stones balanced on top of one another, and has the additional text that says “Can a health retreat really change your life forever?”

Poetry

Image is of “Throat” by Ellen van Neerven. The paperback book is sitting on steps between two black skate shoes with hot pink laces and electric blue interior that match the fuchsia book cover. The cover design is of a face in blocks of colour split in two, the lips and chin at the top and the eyes, forehead and short hair at the bottom. There is a Sturt’s desert pea flower made out of red fabric in the foreground that commemorates the Frontier Wars.

I am the first to admit that I am not much of a poetry aficionado, but there were two poetry collections that really resonated with me. The first was “Throat” by Ellen van Neerven which explores the intersection between queer and Aboriginal identity. The second was “The Uncommon Feast” by Eileen Chong that combines poetry, recipes and essays in a thoughtful and delightful way.

Image is of “The Uncommon Feast: Essays, poems, and recipes” by Eileen Chong. The paperback book is resting on a light coloured timber bench below a ceramic spoon and next to a bowl of mushroom congee with sriracha sauce, picked radish and friend onion. The cover is red with a yellow typewriter with a fork, spoon and chopsticks.

Most Popular Reviews of 2021

Interestingly, of my top 10 most viewed reviews this year, only “Remote Control” was actually posted this year. Erotica continues to be, hilariously, my most popular genre with twice as many reviews making it to my top 10!

2021 Reading Challenges

I participated in 4 reading challenges this year:

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Image is of the 2021 Australian Women Writers Challenge logo, which is the silhouette of a woman wearing period clothing with stars and plants in purples and navy filling in the colour.

I was pretty surprised to have read 23 books by Australian women and non-binary authors, which is a great achievement as the Australian Women Writers Challenge is taking a new direction in 2022.

Image is of a collection of badges with different icons on them including a fox, an orc, a wizard, a monster, a robot, a knight on a horse, a dragon and a spaceship.

I had a lot of fun doing the Spells & Spaceships – 2021 SFF Badge Collection, and I was surprised that I almost got all the badges! Although it may have been a little bit of a stretch for one or two (I’m pretty sure dragons made a mention in “The Sleeper and the Spindle“) the only two that I absolutely did not get was the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off and the special badge for collecting them all.

Image is of a purple icon with a book and the words “2021 Reading Challenge” with a white bar with the word “completed” across it.

I absolutely smashed my Goodreads Reading Challenge this year. I set my annual goal of 80 books but managed to read 90 in total.

Image is of a stack of 14 pancakes with butter on top.

A significant part of why I managed to read so many books this year was my inaugural Short Stack Reading Challenge! I got through 14 short books in December which really boosted my stats. It was also really nice not having to commit to any long books during this busy time of year and just move quickly from one to the next.

So that is 2021 in books. A very happy new year to everyone who has stopped by and left comments; here’s to a great year of books and book reviews in 2022!

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(Adults Only) Whisper Grass

Short queer erotic graphic novel tie-in to roadtrip comic series

Content warning: sexual themes, drug use

After recently Marie Kondoing a significant amount of my house, and subsequently donating a LOT of books, I have had a bit more space to think about my remaining book collections including my graphic novels. I really enjoy graphic novels, and a lot of books in my collection are physical copies of a series that has become popular as a webcomic. I realised that I actually have some unfinished collections in some series, including a brilliant webcomic called “The Less than Epic Adventures of TJ and Amal“. I recently ordered the third volume in the print edition (the webcomic is free to read online), and I had a little niggle in my memory that there had been a limited edition mini-comic that the author had released. I remember not being able to get one of the limited print copies, but a quick search through my files showed that I had managed to buy an eBook copy from the publisher. It is now December, and the clock is ticking to hit my reading goal for the year, so I thought I’d finally read this little comic.

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“Whisper Grass” by E. K. Weaver is an erotic graphic novel about two young men, TJ and Amal, who are on an road trip together after meeting in a bar. Amal has to make it across the country to his sister’s graduation after coming out to his traditional family, and TJ has offered to cover costs if Amal does the driving. Amal is a med student while TJ lives a rather itinerant lifestyle, however despite their differences, the two bond during their journey together. One evening, the pair stay at a motel room and after attempts to buy some drinks are unsuccessful, share a smoke of weed together instead.

This is a fun and warm vignette where a casual evening of Amal and TJ hanging out together becomes something more intimate. Weaver is very keen on characterisation and mood, so while this is an erotic comic, the focus is still very heavily on the emotional connection between the two characters. In the author’s own words, “Sometimes people ask me why most of the sex scenes in TJ and Amal fade to black, get cut short, or are off-camera entirely. The answer is showing those encounters wouldn’t have moved the plot forward, explored the characters’ personalities, or added any substance to the story. In short, those sex scenes were unnecessary. Here’s something unnecessary.” I think that the decision to offer this as a standalone comic separate to the main series was a good decision. Although it is perhaps a little unnecessary, this comic is full of tenderness, humour and enthusiastic consent and complements the main series really well.

If you, like me, fell in love with TJ and Amal, this is a light-hearted and enjoyable edition to a fantastic webcomic series that only adds to our understanding of these two complex characters.

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Girl, Woman, Other

Contemporary novel about the diversity of black experiences in the UK

I heard about this book because it was somewhat controversially the joint winner of the 2019 Booker Prize, together with Margaret Atwood’s “The Testaments“. I read Atwood’s book first because (pre-COVID) she was touring Australia and I very luckily got some tickets to see her speak, so I wanted to make sure I read the book first. However, I have been really looking forward to reading this one and after buying it, it has been very high on my priority list.

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“Girl, Woman, Other” by Bernadine Evaristo is a novel about 12 different people who live in the UK and whose lives are interconnected, including in some ways more subtle than others. At the heart of the story is Amma, a playwright whose radical black sapphic production is opening at the Royal National Theatre in London. With The Last Amazon of Dahomey as the backdrop, we meet each of the 12 characters one by one and learn about their lives and their unique experience of being part of the African diaspora in Britain.

This is an exceptional book and I am going to go right ahead and say that it is a crime that it wasn’t awarded the Booker Prize outright. Evaristo is a phenomenal writer and this book was simply superb. The novel has a unique, flowing style reminiscent of free-verse poetry with no full stops, rigid sentences or capitalised first letters. Although Evaristo keeps up this style throughout the book, each character has a clearly distinct voice. I particularly enjoyed how well Evaristo is able to write the same events but through the vastly different lenses of her characters. All the stories were compelling, but it was Grace’s story in particular that had me in tears. I also really loved that Evaristo explores different types of black experience in earlier eras, including Britain’s role in and profit from the trans-Atlantic slave trade. There were some parts of the more contemporary stories, especially Carole’s, that reminded me quite a lot of “Swing Time” in theme, particularly in terms of place and issues of class and racism. However, this book achieves what I felt “Swing Time” did not: a sense of cohesiveness.

I don’t really have any criticism of this book at all except to note that it is fairly long, about 450 pages, and it is not the kind of book that you want to whip through. I actually recommend tackling each character’s story in a single session then putting the book down to digest before beginning the next.

An excellent book that thoroughly deserved to win the Booker Prize alone.

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Always Another Country

Memoir about belonging and growing up in exile

Quite some time ago, I was running late to an author event. It was being held at the Australian National University, but in a theatre that was quite far away from the entry to the campus. I’d raced over after work and tried to sneak quietly into the back to find…an empty theatre. I was a day early. Anyway, I returned the following evening and saw the author give an incredibly articulate and compelling talk about her life growing up in exile. Afterwards, I bought a copy of the book and had it signed, but it wasn’t until now that I managed to pick it up to read it.

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I found this old Virgin Australia ticket and couldn’t help myself

“Always Another Country” by Sisonke Msimang is a memoir about growing up outside your own homeland. The daughter of South African freedom fighters, Sisonke is born in Zambia and spends years there with her two sisters before the family moves to first to Kenya, then Canada. After a brief visit to South Africa after Nelson Mandela is freed and the end of Apartheid begins, Sisonke moves to the USA to start university. There, she makes new connections, develops her political views and falls in love – three things that have a profound effect on her life. When she returns to South Africa emotionally fragile, she reconnects with her family and begins to develop her career. However, this is the first time Sisonke has really called South Africa her home and she is faced not only with the nation’s Apartheid hangover, but with the gulf between the idealised vision for South Africa and the reality playing out.

This is an important book that provides a unique perspective on South Africa’s political transition. The child of freedom fighters but growing up outside South Africa, Msimang has the perfect balance of lived experience and objectivity to provide what reads like a very unbiased social commentary. I felt that I learned a lot about South Africa from this book, in particular the hard work that went in to dismantling Apartheid – often work that was happening outside the country’s own borders. In between reflections on how South Africa’s political situation impacted her and her family, Msimang also provides insights into how living as a third culture kid provided her with particular strengths and vulnerabilities that she had to grapple with as an adult.

I’ve mentioned a few times on this blog that memoir is a genre that I have difficulty with with. While I continue to believe that this genre is critical to ensuring that more diverse voices and stories are heard, ultimately memoir is the curated highlights (and lowlights) of a person’s life, arranged to highlight a particular issue or point of view. In this book, I felt that Msimang went into great detail about some things such as her relationship with Jason, her experiences in Canada and her friendships in the USA, but skated over some of the parts that I was much more interested in: visiting South Africa for the first time, her ongoing relationship with her South African relatives that she only met in her late teens and the day to day of living in the country post-Apartheid. While Msimang provided glimmers of these parts, I felt that these were the strongest parts of the book and really exemplified Msimang’s struggle with reconciling her birthright as a South African with her own developing values.

A necessary memoir that explores South African identity, citizenship and nationhood that I wished had a little more South Africa in it.

Image of Castor the Sloth, looking through a telescope. #StartOnYourShelfathon The Quiet Pond.

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How to be a Medieval Woman

Believed by some to be the first autobiography

Content warning: mental health, religion

This book was posted to me by an old friend who has a passion for classic literature in the Western canon. Now, because I was trying to get through my reading goal for 2019, and it was a reasonably short book, I brought it down with a few others over Christmas (yes, I am that far behind in my reviews). Now, a relatively recent by great tradition at my family’s Christmas is Dirty Santa. Basically, everyone wraps a cheap gift, you draw numbers from a hat, and in numerical order choose either to unwrap a gift or steal someone else’s unwrapped gift. Anyway, I had been very poorly prepared, so I decided I would wrap a book. Unfortunately, after a bit of confusion at home, someone kindly wrapped the book I hadn’t finished reading yet, and I had to quickly duck home and make the switch. When I returned, we played the game, and Grandma, who knew that I had been reluctant to wrap a book, had a concocted a devious ploy to make sure she chose it so she could give it to me afterwards. However, she didn’t realise that I had swapped books, so it was pretty hilarious when she unwrapped this one. Anyway, this review is dedicated to you, Grandma, and thank you for taking the photos.

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“How to be a Medieval Woman” or “The Book of Margery Kempe” by Margery Kempe is an autobiography believed to have been dictated to two separate scribes in the 1400s as Kempe was herself illiterate. The book describes Kempe’s life, and begins with her experiencing a significant crisis following the birth of her first child where she experiences depression and visions of demons and Jesus Christ. When she recovers, she starts some businesses and when they don’t succeed, grapples with sexual temptation and her desire to be a devout Christian. As the years go by, Margery grows more and more religious and continues to see visions. After convincing her husband to agree to celibacy, she undertakes a pilgrimage to Jerusalem where she visits sites of spiritual and historical significance.

How to be a Medieval Woman3

This is a strange story that has two primary interpretations: one is that Margery is a mystic, a woman who receives messages from god, and the other is that Margery had some type of mental illness. Now although I am certainly not a psychologist, but Margery appears to experience a mental health episode after she gives birth the first time, and throughout the book refers to voices and visions which could well be hallucinations. Margery also appears to have difficulty maintaining relationships, observing that people around her tend to grow to dislike her, and to have difficulty regulating her emotions, though she sees her tears as a divine sign. Regardless of the interpretation, or the general likeability of Margery, it was nevertheless very impressive that she took herself on a pilgrimage to see a part of the world that intrigued her given the times. Maybe there is a third interpretation: that she was sick of being a wife and mother and wanted to go explore the world on her own terms.

I have to say, despite it being such an unusual story, it wasn’t a particularly easy one to read. It is told in the third person, and Margery is herself referred to as “the creature”. I think the tension in reading the book – whether Margery’s experiences are legitimate religious experiences or symptoms of a mental illness – is mirrored in Margery’s own experiences. Everywhere she goes, people doubt the legitimacy of her visions and experiences in the same way the reader does. In fact, a lot of the story is taken up with Margery crying, being abandoned by companions, annoying the locals and being asked to leave or threatened with legal action. Ultimately Margery speaks convincingly enough about her faith and she is allowed to move on.

Not necessarily gripping read, and perplexing and frustrating at many points, but certainly an insightful snapshot into the life of a medieval woman.

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The Devil’s Apprentice

Young adult novel about a good boy accidentally going to hell

Content warning: religion, suicide

Note: I have made some edits to this review following a conversation with the author

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author. As it turned out, the author is Danish and I managed to read this while I was travelling in Denmark.

“The Devil’s Apprentice” by Kenneth B. Andersen and translated by K. E. Semmel is a young adult novel about a young teen called Philip who is bullied relentlessly by a classmate. Despite being thoughtful and kind, after a terrible accident, Philip finds himself in hell by mistake. It quickly appears that the Devil is ailing, and while trying to secure the perfect heir for the future of Hell, he ends up with the angelic Philip instead. However, despite Philip’s naivete and strong moral compass, he finds Hell is beginning to grow on him.

This is a book with an interesting question: can innately good kid can learn to be bad? Andersen creates a hell with two castes: demons who live and work there, and human souls who are there to be punished. Philip primarily engages with the demons of Hell, befriending them while they encourage him in his studies to become evil. I like that although Philip seemed to struggle socially on Earth, he managed to befriend a lot of people in Hell. Andersen spends a lot of time exploring friendship, and exploring what it means to be good and evil.

Now, compared to a similar book I read previously where Hell is a hotter, more crowded and more bureaucratic version of Earth where you still have to go to work and pay bills, this book’s version of Hell is more inspired by traditional Christian beliefs, and Philip regularly passes non-demon residents of Hell, known as the condemned, who are trapped in eternal torment of varying types depending on their particular sins.

One thing that was pretty confronting to me was several references to people who had committed suicide being subjected to eternal torment for “taking the easy way out”. Since discussing this issue with the author, he has clarified to me that the intention was only meant to refer to people seeking to escape the ramifications of crimes against humanity on earth. However, this is not entirely clear in the English translation, so I would recommend bearing that in mind while reading.

An interesting exploration of good and evil with universal messages about friendship, bullying, acceptance and agency.

If you are experiencing thoughts of suicide, are feeling overwhelmed or have lost someone to suicide, please contact Lifeline (13 11 14) if you are in Australia, or your local crisis service if you are in another country. 

If you wish to learn about suicide intervention, I would strongly recommend the LivingWorks ASIST course (https://www.lifeline.org.au/get-help/topics/preventing-suicide) and Mental Health First Aid training.  

 

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Kingdom Cold

Multicultural fantasy reinterpretation of King Arthur mythology

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

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“Kingdom Cold” by Brittni Chenelle is a medieval fantasy novel about Charlotte, a princess, who at 16 years old is betrothed to a prince from a far away kingdom called Vires. When she first meets Prince Young, Charlotte will do anything within her power to sabotage the engagement. However, when her kingdom is invaded and she must flee for her life, Charlotte’s life changes forever.

This is a diverse reimagination of a classic mythology that. Chenelle explores gender roles, love, differences in culture and differences in faith against the backdrop of war and violence. Charlotte is a spirited princess who starts out prissy and dependent and who, by the end of the book, develops into someone much more strong. I quite enjoyed the character of Young and felt that he was a good counterweight to the story.

I think one thing that I struggled a little with this book is the sense of place. Charlotte’s kingdom feels very small geographically, and the invasion itself small in scale. I understand that Chenelle is writing in American English, but given that the characters are broadly European, African and Asian in ethnicity, I think I would have liked to have seen a little more diversity in language as well as a better sense of distance and geography. I also struggled with the character Milly, Charlotte’s handmaid, and felt that she didn’t really get a fair shake of the stick in this story.

A story that explores themes of romance between cultures and courage in the moment, fans of Arthurian legend may find an intriguing retelling.

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Say Hello

Memoir about living with a disability and facial difference

Content warning: discrimination

I had heard about this book long before it was published because I have followed the author online for some time. When I heard she was coming to Canberra to speak about her book, I not only went along to watch but scored myself a signed copy.

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“Say Hello” by Carly Findlay is a memoir about growing up and living with a skin condition called ichthyosis. Arranged as a series of essays covering various topics, this book is a candid account living with a disability and a facial difference, but living with society’s insensitive and often cruel reactions to her appearance and barriers to accessibility.

Findlay is a clear and frank writer whose book combines her personal experience, the stories of her friends and fellow activists and her significant knowledge of disability activism. I consider her courageous not for living her life (as so many people tell her), but for discussing deeply personal issues in such a public way and for building a platform to advocate for disabled people and raise awareness about the barriers that they experience throughout both Australia and the world. Some of the most powerful chapters in this book address the often well-meaning but ill-considered comments she constantly receives from people she meets and the diverse and sometimes diverging perspectives within the disability community. However, I think my favourite chapter was the chapter on fandom. Findlay’s experiences struggling to make friends throughout school, the difference to her life that getting a job at Kmart with a supportive manager and team made, and her discussion of how friendship as a skill we must learn and practice really stuck with me.

Memoir is a genre that I believe is very important to ensuring diverse stories and perspectives are heard, that I read quite a lot of, but that ultimately I struggle with. One criticism that you may have seen me make is that I often feel like the author hasn’t given enough information or detail. However, how much to share with the reader is a question of balance, and I think Findlay may have tipped a little far towards too much detail. One thing that I hadn’t realised until I googled something I was reading in the book is that Findlay has adapted many essays she has written in the past as chapters for her book (something that I understand a lot of writers do). This means that quite a few of the chapters are overlapping, and because Findlay’s writing has improved a lot since she first started blogging, there is a bit of a range in quality. I think it also meant that this book didn’t always have a clear thread or audience, and I felt that it would have benefited from some more robust editing.

This is a very important book that highlights the impact that unsolicited comments have and the nuance and diversity within the disability activism space. Regardless of my own struggles with the genre, there is no doubt that memoir is critical to building empathy and this is a book that definitely builds empathy.

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