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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 Eye of the Sheep

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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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The Black Tides of Heaven (Kindle)

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Love and Other Inconveniences

Incredibly readable romantic poetry from Trinidad and Tobago

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

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“Love and Other Inconveniences” by Rhea Arielle is a collection of poetry that traces the life cycle of an intoxicating but doomed romance. Divided into three Acts, the book walks the reader through infatuation, heartbreak and self-love.

I started reading this book while waiting for the bus, and I was so engrossed I had finished it by the time I arrived at work. As is probably pretty apparent from this blog, I am not a huge consumer of poetry but there was something about Arielle’s incredibly unique and tactile way of writing that was very arresting. Her poems are very brief and very poignant and I love the way she handles space and time. I don’t often share quotes from books I read, but here are two that I particularly loved:

There are no locks on your future
so why do you knock at the door
Let yourself in.

When your lips
part to speak
the winds shimmer
under your voice
and carry music
to my waiting ear.

Romantic poetry is certainly not for everyone, and the themes in this book are very familiar. However, Arielle brings a freshness to a topic that most people can relate to.

This is the kind of poetry that even people who don’t normally enjoy poetry can enjoy. I liked it so much I bought a copy for my friend.

Love and Other Inconveniences

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No Country Woman

Carefully-considered memoir about race, belonging and growing up in Australia

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher, however I have been looking forward to it for a long time ever since I found out the editor of Feminartsy (a journal I write for occasionally) was working on it. I also interviewed her in the most recent episode of my book podcast Lost the Plot.

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“No Country Woman” by Zoya Patel is a memoir about growing up as a third culture kid with a Fijian-Indian background in Australia. Divided into loose thematic chapters, Patel blends personal experience and social theory to reflect on what it means to belong somewhere and the colonial and economic drivers behind generational migration.

This book is an excellent insight into what it is like to navigate two cultures. Patel has a crisp, cool writing style and patiently and piercingly walks the reader through issues such as racism, poverty and identity. She unpacks the theme of belonging in exacting detail and examines what it means to look the same, sound the same, share the same cultural identity and share the same beliefs as people in Fiji, Australia, India and Scotland.

I particularly enjoyed Patel’s words on economic inequality, and her chapter on poverty in India. I think that examination of class is often absent in other memoirs I’ve written, however Patel is forced to confront issues of privilege on a family visit to India as a child and the stark comparison between the lives of family who left and family who stayed. I was also really fascinated by Patel’s experience with language, and the complexities around language, identity and belonging. In a country where the number of people learning a second language in school is on the decline, I was interested to read about the role of language in belonging and the interrelationship with cultural identity.

I think it needs to be said that this is not a book about overcoming adversity in the same way as other women of colour like Maxine Beneba Clarke‘s horrendous high school bullying experience and Roxane Gay‘s trauma as a teenage girl. It certainly isn’t filled with the same rage and hyperbole as Clementine Ford‘s book either. Patel’s family are tight-knit, resilient and entrepreneurial, and are the backdrop rather than the focus of the book. While this book is certainly very personal in many parts, Patel has a measure of reserve that sets this book apart from other memoirs.

While sometimes it can be incredibly engaging to read something that seems entirely unfiltered, I think that Patel’s memoir serves a different purpose. Rather than being an exposé of self, it is an exposé of systems, and provides an academic lens through which to examine personal experiences. While some people connect with the ultra-personal, I think that this style of memoir is particularly effective and I think most readers would find it hard to argue with or minimise Patel’s points.

Memoir is a growing genre in Australia and is an excellent way to explore different perspectives. This book is a particularly sharp look at the realities of race and migration in Australia, but more importantly the diversity of those experiences.

No Country Woman: A memoir of not belonging

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The Rain Never Came

Post-apocalyptic Australian fiction

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

“The Rain Never Came” by Lachlan Walter is post-apocalyptic fiction set in a not-too-distant future Australia plagued by drought. Bill and Tobe are best mates who live in a derelict town that has been all but abandoned. They spend their empty days drinking at the local pub. However, when the pub’s bore runs out and they see some mysterious lights on the horizon, Bill agrees to leave town with Tobe.

Australia really lends itself to desert dystopian stories and the premise of this one was interesting. Set around Western Victoria, I enjoyed imagining the hot Victorian summers I grew up with taken to their extreme. I was intrigued by the mysterious ruling entity that decreed that everyone had to be moved to northern regions where there was still rain. This is an action-packed book and once Bill and Tobe are on the road, the action is non-stop.

There were some things that were a bit difficult about this book though. Walters writing style is very active and his characters are constantly doing things like walking, looking, smiling and laughing. Although as the story progresses, we learn a little more about Bill and Tobe’s past, what I really wanted to learn more about was the world they lived in. It wasn’t completely clear why people were being forced to leave the towns, and I would have liked to have had some more reveals about what led to this situation and what the purpose of the mass removal was.

A compelling idea, but I would have liked more world-building and character development.

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The City of Brass

Middle Eastern fantasy that I can’t stop thinking about

This was a set book for my feminist fantasy book club, and after dipping our toes into making themed food for our previous book, my friend went all out and made an absolute extravaganza.

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I was a bit slow getting started on this book because my last one took so long, so when it came to buy a copy I couldn’t find one locally at short notice. Instead, I bought a copy for my Kobo.

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“The City of Brass” by S. A. Chakraborty is a fantasy novel and the first in “The Daevabad Trilogy”. Nahri is a young woman who lives on the streets of the sprawling city of 18th century Cairo with nothing but her smarts. Surviving on a number of hustles, Nahri has a real aptitude for languages and, to a lesser extent, healing. However, when an improvised healing ritual for cash goes awry, Nahri finds herself beset by monsters and whisked away by a mysterious djinn.

I can’t stop thinking about this book. I keep getting random flashes back to different scenes weeks after I’ve read it. Often a really good book is really good in a particular way: the writing is beautiful, the characters are compelling, the plot is surprising, or the ideas are unique. However this book is good in a different way. The thing that makes this book excellent is its balance. Like a line of dominoes, as soon as you start reading they all start toppling and click, click, click – everything falls into place in the most satisfying way. Chakraborty keeps a perfect amount of tension throughout the book, and the story never grows stale. One criticism I often have of modern fantasy is that it’s often not very imaginative and draws on well-trodden tropes like elves and orcs and angels and demons. This book instead draws on Middle Eastern and African mythology and Chakraborty’s own experiences studying in Egypt and the history and culture of the region seep into the story and make it rich and convincing.

I’ve been trying to think about what I didn’t like about this book, and I’m really struggling to come up with anything at all to be honest. Probably the only thing that I found a bit hard was the complex politics of the city of Daevabad and keeping track of the different districts, factions, djinn and shafit – part human, part djinn. Adding to the complexity is the fact that the Daeva, one race of djinn, claim the name of djinn for themselves, further confusing things for the reader.

Nevertheless, this story was a great read and ended up being one of those book club books where everyone agrees it’s great and runs out of things to talk about. Luckily we were kept busy with some incredible food. If you’re looking for some very engrossing fantasy that is definitely not run-of-the-mill, look no further.

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The City of Brass

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