Category Archives: Uncategorized

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.

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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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Filed under Book Reviews, eBooks, Fantasy, Uncategorized, Young Adult

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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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.

buy the book from The Book Depository, free delivery

 

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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.

buy the book from The Book Depository, free delivery

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.

buy the book from The Book Depository, free delivery

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